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Luton, Simon offree

(d. 1279)
  • Antonia Gransden

Luton, Simon of (d. 1279), abbot of Bury St Edmunds, was probably a relative of Sir Robert of Hoo, a knight of St Edmunds and holder of extensive estates including The Hyde, near Luton in Bedfordshire, from which Simon derived his name. Some time before the mid-thirteenth century Luton became a monk of St Edmunds. Having held the offices of almoner and sacrist in succession, he was elected prior in 1252: a fellow monk describes him as 'very prudent and circumspect' and well deserving this promotion (Arnold, 2.294). He was elected abbot on 14 January 1257, a fortnight after the death of Abbot Edmund of Walpole. Pope Alexander IV insisted that Luton went to Rome for confirmation of his election—the first English abbot to do so. According to the contemporary Bury chronicler the journey cost £2000. Luton received the papal blessing at Viterbo on 22 October. He arrived home before 12 January 1258, on which date Henry III granted him his temporalities.

The abbey was already involved in litigation with Richard de Clare, earl of Gloucester, who claimed the abbey's rich manor of Mildenhall. Agreement was reached only in 1259 when the earl abandoned his claim in return for the grant of a number of St Edmunds properties. Luton, at his succession, was also faced by conflict with the Friars Minor. During the abbatial vacancy they had violated the abbey's spiritual monopoly within the town, but had been expelled. The king then forcibly established the friars in the town in 1258, but in 1263 Pope Urban IV upheld the monks' appeal against this violation of their privilege. The monks gave the friars an alternative site at Babwell, outside Bury's north gate.

The barons' war and its aftermath had serious repercussions on St Edmunds. The town became the scene of disorder: rebels sheltered there and townsmen revolted against the abbey's authority. Once restored to power, Henry took retributive action against the abbey and town. He twice took the liberty of St Edmunds into his hands (in 1265 and 1266); Luton had to pay heavy fines to regain both it and royal favour. Nevertheless, Luton himself was loyal to the king. Clearly Henry trusted him: Luton was sent on an embassy to Paris in 1259, to procure ratification of the treaty of Paris on Henry's behalf; he was summoned with his knights to serve the king in 1260 and 1261 (leaders of the baronial opposition were not summoned on either occasion); and in 1267, when Henry was investing London against Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, Luton and his knights were with the royal army at Stratford Langthorne.

Throughout his abbacy Luton was dogged by indebtedness, owing to the cost of litigation, of papal and royal taxation, and of other impositions. He and the convent resorted to the common expedient of borrowing, mainly from Italian merchant bankers. The chronicler estimated that the debts amounted to 5000 marks in 1260, divided equally between abbot and convent. Even Henry was concerned at the abbey's 'intolerable burden of debt' (BL, Harley MS 645, fol. 253) and recommended specific domestic economies. To reduce his own expenditure, Luton obtained a royal licence on 19 June 1268 to live abroad until Christmas 'with a moderate household, for the relief of himself and his church' (CPR, 1266–77, 238). Presumably to save domestic expenses and raise cash, he leased some time before 1272 his commodious residence in Aldgate in London, and similarly, in 1278, his residence at Stapleford Abbots in Essex.

Despite his worldly difficulties Luton has to his credit two notable achievements. In the mid-thirteenth century the prior had founded St John's Hospital, the Domus Dei, in Bury for the temporary relief of begging, but healthy, poor, putting the almoner, who at that time was Luton himself, in charge. But the site, in Southgate Street within the town walls, was cramped and inconvenient, and Luton when abbot erected a larger building on a spacious and convenient site on the royal road just outside the town's south gate. The cost of the new Domus Dei was probably met at least in part by gifts from benefactors. Luton also had built a large and splendid lady chapel, the last major addition to the abbey church, which was paid for by his own friends and relatives. Simon of Luton died on his manor of Melford, Suffolk, on 9 April 1279, and was buried in the lady chapel, having bequeathed £100 to the convent.

His successor, John of Northwold (d. 1301), abbot of Bury St Edmunds, derived his name from the village of Northwold, near Thetford in Norfolk. He was interior guest-master when elected abbot, on 5 May 1279. He received papal confirmation in Rome and on 5 November Edward I granted him his temporalities. He arrived back at St Edmunds on 28 December: the Bury chronicler estimates that the journey to Rome had cost over 1675 marks.

The abbey's finances had suffered badly during the six months' vacancy of the abbacy. Edward had taken over not only the abbatial property (to which he was entitled) but also the convent's property—'neither prayer nor price could wring it from his grasp' (Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, 68). He allowed the convent maintenance but enjoyed the profits of its estates himself. To prevent this happening again Northwold procured, in 1281, royal confirmation of the division of property between abbot and convent, for which he paid 1000 marks.

St Edmunds continued to suffer from oppressive taxation. So severe was the assessment of the papal tenth granted by Nicholas IV to Edward in 1291 that Northwold produced detailed complaints of the over-assessment of this and the convent's properties. The abbey also suffered from Edward's quo warranto campaign, which challenged the claims of liberty holders to jurisdictional rights and consequently to profits of justice. Northwold was a leader in parliament in 1290 of the liberty holders' opposition. The parliament rolls record that 'the abbot of Fécamp, the abbot of St Edmunds and others' petitioned the king. In response Edward conceded that liberties recognized by Henry III in 1234 or earlier should be recognized in future (RotP, 1.35). A contemporary story enlarges on Northwold's part in obtaining this important concession. It relates that Northwold produced the abbey's charters of privilege and accused Edward of revoking liberties granted by his predecessors. He concluded: 'I am broken by age and exhausted by my labours to recover these privileges; I can do no more, but commit to the Supreme Judge the case between the martyred Edmund and his church, and you, my Lord King'. Northwold went sadly home, but that night Edward was so terrified by a vision of a revengeful St Edmund that next day he agreed to hear liberty holders' claims: '“St Edmund”, he said, “had raised his banner for them all”' (Arnold, 2.365).

Northwold evidently had considerable administrative ability. In 1300, when Edward was at odds with the magnates over their military obligations, Northwold commissioned a detailed survey of the knights' fees of St Edmunds. He was also a reformer. In 1280 he issued statutes in chapter to eradicate abuses in the abbey's domestic economy, and in 1294 he drastically reformed St Saviour's Hospital. The latter had been founded by Abbot Samson for the care of poor and sick men and women, but had lapsed from its original ideal. Northwold legislated to restore its charitable function, though in future women were not to be admitted and it was to include seven priests among its inmates, to celebrate mass daily.

Despite the abbey's financial difficulties Northwold was a builder. He had the choir of the abbey church rebuilt and ornamented with paintings 'by a certain of his monks, John de Wodecroft [and] a certain painter of the Lord king's' (kitchener's register, fol. 9). He built a chapel dedicated to St Botwulf, abutting the south transept, which was, however, appreciably smaller than Abbot Simon's lady chapel. He also founded the (still surviving) Chapel of the Charnel in the cemetery adjoining the abbey, where lay inhabitants of Bury were buried. Northwold had been distressed at the sight of bones, which had been disinterred to make room for new graves, left scattered about. He provided for two chaplains to celebrate masses for the dead in the chapel, and for bones to be placed in its crypt.

Northwold died on 29 October 1301 and was buried on Sunday 12 November 'before the altar' in the choir (kitchener's register, fol. 9). He bequeathed 165 marks to the convent, besides 20s. to it and 20s. to the poor on his anniversary.


J. Strachey, ed., , 6 vols. (1767–77)