DEATH Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bury St. Edmunds abbey death testaments intestacy probate investigations offences money-lending funerals Jews
Subject: A nuncupative will overruled
Original source: British Library, Harleian Ms.1005, f.147
Transcription in: Thomas Arnold, ed., Memorials of St. Edmund's Abbey, vol.1 ("Cronica, by Jocelin de Brakelonde"), Rolls Series, no.96 (1890), 293.
Original language: Latin
Location: Bury St. Edmunds
Date: 1180s


Hamon Blund, one of the wealthier men of this town, being on his deathbed, was very reluctant to make any kind of testament. Finally he did make a [nuncupative] testament dealing with the sum of three marks, in the hearing only of his brother, his wife, and a chaplain. So that, after the man's death, when the abbot was investigating the matter, he called those three before him and sternly chastised them because the brother (who was the heir) and the wife had not permitted anyone else access to the sick man, desiring to take possession of everything. The abbot issued a public statement: "I was his bishop and had the care of his soul. So that the ignorance of his priest and confessor does not turn into harm from me [failing to act], since I was absent and could not advise the sick man while he was still alive, it is important that I take action even though it is late in the day. I order that all debts owed him and all his moveable possessions, which are said to be worth two hundred marks, are to be put down in writing. One share is to be given to the heir, another to the wife, and a third to his poor relations and other poor people. As for the horse that drew the bier of the dead man and was offered to St. Edmund, I order it to be released and returned, for our church should not be polluted by the gift of someone who died intestate and who is reputed to have regularly loaned his money usuriously. By the face of God, if such a thing happens again in my time to anyone, he won't be buried in a cemetery!" At these words, the others slunk away shamefacedly.


The abbot had a number of reasons to feel outraged by the circumstances surrounding Hamon's testament. Nuncupative wills or testaments tended to be looked upon with suspicion since a dying man could be influenced by those at his bedside, or his expressed wishes disregarded and others ascribed to him. That was suspected here – or perhaps the abbot suspected collusion between a procrastinating testator and his nearest and dearest with a view to maximizing their inheritance while minimizing the share expected to be dedicated to charitable and pious uses. The complaint that Hamon's bequests amounted only to a fraction of his believed worth may possibly refer to the amount he assigned (or was claimed to have assigned) to the poor and the church, since the remainder would automatically go to his heir, with the widow being allowed a life share. The abbot blamed the chaplain for failing to ensure that Hamon was better advised in regard to his charitable obligations.

It was probably less on the grounds of the nature of the testament than those of its inadequate coverage of the testator's possessions that prompted Abbot Samson to treat Hamon's as an intestate death and to assume administration of the dead man's estate. In cases of intestacy the lord had claim to the estate, although perhaps more as trustee than owner. The abbot certainly took that view, reallocating the estate evenly among the heir, the widow, and poor relations and other poor folk – this last was the charitable share and reflects that charity begins at home. He even opted to forego the traditional but obligatory gift – frequently a horse or other animal – to the church (a payment for funeral services), although that was because of the suspicion that Hamon's wealth had been acquired through immoral means and the belief that someone who died wilfully intestate had in effect committed spiritual suicide.

The immoral means are specified in the accusation that Hamon's money was tainted because he had engaged in money-lending, a practice frowned on by the Church as unChristian. The Third Lateran Council (1179) ordered that any usurer who failed to repent – which appears to apply to Hamon – should not be given Christian burial. This may help explain the abbot's closing remark; churches or clergyman failing to obey the injunction themselves faced excommunication. Abbot Samson deported the Jewish community from Bury St. Edmunds to other towns, on the excuse that everything within the town should belong to the abbey (whereas the Jews belonged to the king), although whether this took place before or after Hamon's death cannot be said. In fact, the expulsion was more likely part of Samson's efforts to reform abbey finances, by getting rid of some of its creditors; an effort undermined by the king's justices, who ordered Jews should be allowed into town if suing for their debts in the abbot's court.



A mark was worth 13s.4d. In most cases where the term appears in documents presented in Florilegium Urbanum I have converted to old style pounds, shillings and pence.

This could be translated to say that an inquest was being held, although there was hardly a need for one since the death itself was not suspicious.

"his bishop"
The abbots strongly resisted any encroachments on their authority or jurisdiction by bishops and archbishops, turning to Rome in support of their independence.

Literally "was led before", but it seems likely that the horse would have been used to pull the litter bearing the coffin.

Today we think of usury as the loan of money in order to make an extortionate profit from the interest. For most of the Middle Ages, however, the Church saw the taking of any amount of interest on a loan as usurious. It was considered a mortal sin leading to damnation, unless the sinner repented; it is not clear from the account whether Hamon made a death-bed repentance to the chaplain/confessor, but the abbot was clearly unsatisfied with the way in which Hamon made his end. By the end of the Middle Ages the Church had come to terms with money-lending, and no longer condemned it.

Professor Butler suggested the expulsion might have been to protect the Jewish community from further attacks after 57 were massacred – one of numerous such attacks throughout England – in 1190; their transfer to other towns is then explained as putting them within access to castles that could offer protection. However, Jocelin does not even mention this massacre (which he would surely have done had it shocked him), and the expulsion seems more an expression of Christian distaste for Jews than a desire for their well-being. This distaste was perhaps particularly felt by the convent. In fact, the first matter Jocelin addresses in his chronicle is the sad state of abbey finances due partly to indebtedness to Jews.

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Created: February 29, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2004