Through 800 years of change The Oldest Continuously Used Civic Building In The Country

The Guildhall has been a hub for the community of Bury St Edmunds since the 1220s. It has played a crucial role in the town’s story, fighting for the rights of the common people and witnessing events that changed the course of British history.

The earliest written mention of the Guildhall is in 1279, when the Bury St Edmunds Chronicle recorded the arrival of two visiting Lords. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest the building is much older, possibly dating to the early 1100s or even earlier.

It was built to host the local Guildhall Merchant, a group who oversaw all the business of the town, which was then at the heart of the lucrative wool trade. As a centre of civic power, the Guildhall became a bitter rival of the powerful Abbey of St Edmund, and was a focal point for the town’s own peasants’ revolt in the 1300s – when a group of monks were held hostage within its secure walls.

The great and the good who ran the Guildhall used their wealth and influence to fight for the rights of the town’s ordinary citizens. They delivered justice in the Courtroom, turned the Tudor Kitchen into a soup kitchen in times of need, and offered the Banqueting Hall as a meeting space for the most important discussions of the day – including the fight to abolish the slave trade.

The Guildhall was also home to a group of remarkable, but unsung, local heroes, who helped change the course of the Second World War. The Royal Observer Corps (ROC) was a civil defence organisation which tracked aircraft movements above the skies of Britain. Their information was sent to RAF Fighter Command and helped to save thousands of lives. The Guildhall’s ROC Operations Room is the only surviving one of its kind in the world – a small space with an incredible story to tell.

Postcard of Guildhall Street, Bury St Edmunds, C. 1905, Keith Slater Collection

Floor Plan of the Guildhall, 1742, by

The building

The Guildhall sits on land that originally belonged to the abbey and was given, by Abbot Ording, to host the local Guild of Merchants. Initially the Guildhall was built as a long, rectangular building 38 metres long, with small thin windows, a thatched roof and doors in line with each other at the front and back of the building.

Since then, the Guildhall has undergone significant changes to form the building you see before you now.

One of the first additions to the building was the porch in the 1480s, commissioned by John Wastell. The porch houses a room above that holds a wall safe for the town. This was provided in the will of Jankyn Smyth, a prominent figure in the history of the Guildhall.

In 1768, the Guildhall was divided into the two rooms you see today, the Court Room and the banqueting hall. While many people assume that the gallery in the banqueting hall was used as a minstrel’s gallery, it is in fact simply a walkway to the room above the porch.

The next alteration occurred in 1785 when the thatched roof became a leaded one, but this didn’t last too long as the lead was stolen in 1788! Slates were then used instead.

The 1800s presented another opportunity for change when William Wilkins was offered building for a theatre, but he turned it down saying it was only fit for demolition. Luckily the building wasn’t demolished, and he went on to build the Theatre Royal.

Lastly, in 1806 the Robing room replaced the ‘green room’ and ‘wainscot room’ for the mayor and the clerks to don their robes before entering the courtroom. The council chamber was also added at this time, though it is now known for its use as the Ops Room.

The Guildhall and the Abbey

Throughout their relationship the abbey and the town were constantly at odds. This often left the Guildhall at the centre of the conflict until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s.

Increasing wealth in the wool trade during the second half of the 1100s led to growing resentment of the abbey. In the 1190s, Abbot Samson allowed the town control over all town gates (except Abbot’s Bridge) while simultaneously making the town surrender all justice to the abbey. By the 1290s the alderman’s guild was the richest and most powerful secular body in West Suffolk and presented the most problems for the abbot.

In 1274, King Edward I tried to arrest the culprits of a coin clipping case and send them to London for trial, but the abbot intervened and brought them back to Bury to face trial in the town. The Abbot stated that only he had the right to dispense with justice in Bury St Edmunds.

The Abbey Gate of St Edmunds by Thomas Hearne & William Byrne C. 1779 / 1786

An uprising in 1327 began when the town claimed that it was owed £2,000 from the abbey, this would lead to the towns peasants revolt. During this, a large mob assembled at the Guildhall and deposed the alderman and replaced him with his own brother. The relationship with the abbey during this time was so bad that 24 monks were imprisoned within the Guildhall.

In 1378, a dispute between the abbey and Candlemas Guild over who managed the upkeep of the Guildhall went to royal court, with King Richard II deciding that the guild was responsible.

Jankyn Smyth managed to somewhat calm relations between the town and the abbey, with one of his best solutions being to pay the Cope silver tax for the town. The Cope silver tax was a tax paid by the town to the abbey when there was a new abbot for new robes. As abbots tended to be elderly, this happened often.

It wasn’t all bad though, as the abbey commissioned Feoffee John Palfrey to write a religious play called ‘The Killing of the Children’ which was performed nationally.

A portrait of Jankyn Smyth, C. 1750, by Barham Rushbrooke. Situated over the mantle of the Banqueting Hall fireplace, Guildhall.

A portrait of Stephen Gardiner, 1762, by John Fougeron @The Trustees Of The British Museum

The Feoffees

This powerful group of men used their wealth and influence to look after the town and the deserving poor through justice, health and social provisions.

In the 1700s the numbers of Feoffees fluctuated badly between averaging 30 members to 4 members. The situation was worsened in 1807 when there were only two members, Mr Gobold and James Oakes, the courts therefore ruled that 20 new Feoffees must be appointed.

There are too many Feoffees and trustees to name, however a few of the more noteworthy are:

Jankyn Smyth – d.1481

Smyth is one of the most important figures at the Guildhall as he helped to keep the peace between the Town and the Abbey, by paying the Cope Silver tax, paid to the abbey every time there was a new abbot.

His death is marked by the Cake and Ale Ceremony which is still held every year.

John Wastell – c1460- c1518

Wastell commissioned the porch for the Guildhall which was completed in 1481.

He was an architect and master mason that worked on a variety of other well-known buildings such as the King’s College Chapel ceiling in Cambridge.

Stephen Gardiner – c1482- c1555

Born in Bury St Edmunds, Gardiner became King Henry VIII’s secretary and helped arrange the divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

During the 1520s, Gardiner audited Feoffees’ accounts for the Candlemas Guild.

Tomas Bright the younger

Bright was instrumental in leading the petition to gain the three charters for the town.

When just £68 of £300 needed to send the petition to the king was raised, Bright and other Feoffees covered the shortfall.

Sir John James

In May 1740 James left £1,000, which funded a variety of purposes, including in 1743, the first town surgeon.

Feeding the Hungry, 1728, by Bernard Baron @The Trustees Of The British Museum

The Great Fire of London, 1792-1823, by James Stow @The Trustees Of The British Museum

A surgeon amputating a leg, 1531, by Hans Weidtz @The Trustees Of The British Museum

Social provisions and healing

The Feoffees were responsible for looking after the deserving poor by providing them with food from the Guildhall and healthcare, as well as wool and spinning tools for employment.

The Feoffees further aided the poor by providing funding for a House of Correction, a Gaol and Workhouse at Moyses Hall. Additionally, they also used their power to put in place restrictions on items during times of hunger. Such as in 1622 with the restriction of the use of barley for making beer, so that it could be instead used for making bread. Similarly, in 1800 restrictions were placed on the use of flour for pastry and puddings on the wealthy.

The need to provide for the poor was often worsened by events such as:

  • The Black Death in 1348 and a further seven outbreaks of plague, with the worst being in 1637 when 600 people, or 10% of the population, died.
  • In 1807, the national harvest was so bad that it caused 60% of the town to receive poor relief.
  • Competition from Huguenot weavers also hit Bury St Edmunds hard, as skilled weavers either found themselves out of work or in lower paying jobs.

The great fire of 1608 caused widespread devastation in the medieval town that led to a number of reforms to ensure that it would not happen again. The newly formed corporation issued a byelaw forbidding thatched roofs within the town boundary, and the provision of fire buckets to be inspected annually in the Guildhall. In 1639 when Francis Pynner (who had lost his business in the fire) died, he bequeathed money for the piping of water to a cistern in the market place to be used in the event of a fire. The fire had destroyed so much that King James sent cartloads of timber to help with rebuilding and instructed for prayers and collections for Bury to be made in every English parish church.

Since 1575 the Feoffees had funded a town surgeon for those that couldn’t pay a doctor’s fee alongside funding a dispensary in Angel Lane. One such person who held this title was Sir Thomas Gery Cullum. The accounts of 1582 formally record a payment to a ‘female surgeon from Colchester’! This is even more impressive as when the hospital was interviewing for a doctor in the 1910s, they said that they would not let a woman hold the position. This was a profession open to women until 1700 when the Royal College of Surgeons was set up and the profession needed a university-level training instead of an apprenticeship.

Every village and town also had several women who were well versed in the use of herbs and potions for remedies. These remedies also often had a superstitious element to them that could occasionally do more harm than good. These herbs were often named after their uses, such as:

  • Comfrey or Boneset – to heal wounds and cure broken bones.
  • Clary – clear the eye of infection.
  • Feverfew – treat colds and high temperatures.

1 August 1797,
Hand-coloured etching with stipple, by Mathias Finucane © The Trustees of the British Museum

Court Room, Early 20th C, Spanton Jarman Photographic Collection

Court Room Cases

From the late 1600s, sentencing became harsher with what became known as ‘The Bloody Code’. This led to the number of capital offences increasing from 50 to 220, as theft of personal property came to be seen as a crime of the worst sort.

The cases heard at the Guildhall were all lower level crimes such as the following cases of theft, arson and bastardy.


William Snell and Private Carter of the Suffolk regiment/militia were convicted of sodomy so were imprisoned and to be pilloried on a market day. William Snell, fearing the shame of public humiliation, took arsenic.  Unfortunately, it took time to take effect. He endured the pillory and didn’t expire until he had been returned to the gaol.

Snell’s body was buried at a local crossroads with a stake driven through his heart. It was believed that the stake prevented the escape of evil, and that the crossroads confused the soul as to which direction was Heaven, as it was not deserving of life after death, having rejected this life.


Less than a year since Sarah Lloyd had been hanged for stealing from her mistress and trying to hide the crime by burning down the house, three women were brought to the Guildhall. They were accused of stealing sundry articles from their master, a Mr Benjafield. This case drew such interest that an estimated 300 people were shoehorned in the court to witness events.

Hicks and Poley were found guilty and the cook, named Rampley, was acquitted. Hicks was sentenced to seven years’ transportation and Poley, one year’s imprisonment in solitary confinement!


Elizabeth Burgess came before the court to seek poor relief. Her husband, William, had gone off to Essex and left Elizabeth and her child. During the case it was said that in 1807 she became a servant to farmer Mr Major with a salary of £2,15.

A note added by the clerk then revealed that Mr Major was the father of her child, and he had given William £20 to marry her. However he was already married, so the marriage was void and the child a bastard.


Susan Boreham, an inmate of the Thingoe Workhouse, had refused to obey the Governor who had ordered her to work at washing linen. Her refusal was because she wanted her eldest daughter to care for her illegitimate two-year-old child and not the person chosen by the Matron. She was sentenced to seven days hard labour for misbehaviour.

At the same sessions, her daughter Mary Boreham was sentenced to 28 days hard labour for an assault and breaking windows after being refused permission to look after her own illegitimate baby. Being her third conviction, accounts for the harsher sentence.


Henry Potter, aged 10, was charged with setting fire to the mayor’s building that was used as a timber store. He was sentenced to six strokes of the birch for his crime.