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Historian Martyn Taylor explains how Bury St Edmunds' wealthy elite tried to make sure of their place in heaven





Upon death in medieval times it was most desirable to be buried within the church itself, to be nearer to God.

Chantry chapels enabled the better off to have prayers said for them, the clergy being paid to do this through endowments.

The oldest endowed service still in existence today, from 1481, is that of Jankyn Smyth, plain Johnnie Smith, a great benefactor of the town. A contemporary of his was John Baret, a rich clothier-cum-merchant who lived in Chequer Square.

John Baret's Pardon Tomb in St Mary's Church, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Martyn Taylor
John Baret's Pardon Tomb in St Mary's Church, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Martyn Taylor

John Baret inherited family wealth and, from his position in local guilds, was able to advance his standing in society so much so he married Elizabeth, daughter of wealthy local landowner Sir Roger Drury.

When John Baret died in 1467, he left various bequests including how he wanted his memory kept alive in St Mary’s, his parish church.

You can still see how he is remembered today – his chantry chapel ceiling with its mirrored stars looks down at him entombed in his cadaver tomb, although slightly moved from its original position.

Local historian Martyn Taylor
Local historian Martyn Taylor

Also known as a pardon tomb, a type of gisant or recumbent effigy, it was made during his lifetime, reminding him of the frailties of life.

In skeletal form, with a winding sheet around him, it was believed then, that if you gave alms to the poor, supported the church and led an unblemished life, the time you spent in purgatory while waiting to get into heaven would be minimal.

On the tomb it is written: “He that will sadly behold me with his eye may see his own morrow and learn to die.”

In modern parlance you can’t take it with you; there’s no pocket on a shroud!

The thing was though that while the body decayed inside the tomb it would give off a whiff, hence the stinking rich!

Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Going Underground Bury St Edmunds, is widely available.