History

The Guildhall: A History

(but we won't bore you)

The stories of 800 years of Bury St Edmunds heritage are woven into the very fabric of the Guildhall - the oldest continuously used civic building in Britain. Monks, monarchs, merchants and miscreants have all played their part in this fascinating tapestry of time.

The earliest written reference to the Guildhall dates back to 1279, when the Bury Chronicle records a visit to the building by Lords John of Cobham and Walter de Heliun. In addition, the street upon which it was built appears to have been known as Guildhall Street as far back as the 1290s. However, the evidence of the building itself would suggest that it was already over a century old by the time of John of Cobham and Walter de Heliun’s visit.

Recent examination of the rear of the building, where the original medieval stonework is still visible, suggests that the majority of the existing building was actually constructed in the second half of the twelfth century. It is quite likely that the building was constructed as part of the medieval ‘planned’ town that was begun in the late eleventh century.

Despite probably first being built at the expense of the wealthy Abbey of Saint Edmund, the Guildhall quickly came to be regarded as the civic centre of Bury St Edmunds. It was here that the town worthies met to discuss business, celebrate their successes and hold their feasts. However, it also soon became the focus for a centuries long dispute between the town and the Abbey. As the town grew richer the townspeople began a long struggle to gain independence for the borough. Inevitably, the Guildhall found itself in the frontline of such disputes.

As early as 1327 it is recorded that the townsfolk went as far as imprisoning the Prior and several of the monks in the Guildhall itself.

 


Despite such acts of revolt and insurrection the townsfolk did not actually achieve independence from the Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries in the early sixteenth century. However, as the town grew richer the financial ties with the Abbey were weakened and the townsfolk found themselves in a position to remodel the Guildhall at their own expense.

The most obvious construction work to the Guildhall took place in the late fifteenth century. It was at this point that the highly decorative porch was added to the front of the building and the regionally important King and Queen post roof was constructed. Although the massive decorative timbers of the roof are now invisible behind later ceilings, it is clear that they were designed to be viewed and to impress. At the same time a new range of buildings were added to the rear of the Guildhall, and a detached kitchen was constructed that allowed extensive catering to take place for Guild feasts. Remnants of all these ‘new’ buildings are still evident in the historic fabric.

With the fall of the Abbey in the sixteenth century the Guildhall became the true focus for civic life within the borough, and remained as such until the late twentieth century. It was here that the town council met, where borough funds were stored and where the principle ceremonies of the town took place. In later years, after further superficial remodelling, the Guildhall acted as an Assembly house, Court Room, town library and, most recently, a second home to the nationally acclaimed Theatre Royal.