Leadership Lessons from a Medieval Abbot

Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds is a good case study of leadership during times of trouble – in this case when a monastery was drowning in debt.

Jocelin of Brakelond begins his Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by explaining that the abbey was in serious trouble. Between the years 1157 and 1180 this English monastery was led by Abbot Hugo. Jocelin of Brakelond, then a young monk at Bury St Edmunds, noted that he and his fellow brothers were following the Benedictine rule and behaving in the manner of exemplary Christians. However, even a monastery does not survive on prayers alone:


It is true that discipline and the service of God, and all that pertained to the rule, flourished greatly within the cloister, but without the walls all things were mismanaged. For every man, seeing that he served a simple and ageing lord, did not that which was right, but that which was pleasing in his own eyes. The townships and all the hundreds of the abbot were given to firm; the woods were destroyed, and the houses on the manors were on the verge of ruin; from day to day all things grew worse. The abbot’s sole resource and means of relief was in borrowing money, that so it might at least be possible to maintain the dignity of his house. For eight years before his death, there was never an Easter or Michaelmas which did not see at least one or two hundred pounds added to the debt. The bonds were ever renewed, and the growing interest was converted into principal.

Jocelin of Brakelond’s chronicle is a fascinating account of the day-to-day workings of a medieval monastery. Bury St Edmunds, located northeast of London, had been operating since the year 1020 and served as the home for the relics of the Anglo-Saxon king and saint, Edmund the Martyr. It would become a popular destination for pilgrims, and over the generations would amass a large amount of wealth and property.


However, by the latter half of the twelfth century, the abbey was experiencing financial troubles, taking on debt. After the death of Hugo, the next abbot would have his hands full in keeping the monastery going. The person chosen was Samson of Tottington and he is the main figure of Jocelin’s account.  The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds offers an in-depth look into this man and his leadership, which at times was full of admiration and praise, but at others revealed tensions within the monastery.

In many ways, Abbot Samson would resemble the Chief Executive Officer of a company – indeed, he was actually running a corporation that would have been worth tens of millions of pounds in today’s money – the abbey owned dozens of farms, mills and buildings, which provided the income needed to maintain the monks. Bury St Edmunds was also a place to visit, for kings as well as commoners, and not just for its churches – the monks made sure their hunting parks were well stocked, and that guests would have the best meals and service.

Detail of a miniature of the installation of abbot Baldwin and the building of the abbey at Bury St. Edmond’s. From British Library MS Harley 2278 f.115v

Abbot Samson would be in charge of all this for nearly 30 years, starting in 1182. He had been a monk for about sixteen years at this point and had served in many jobs within the monastery. He already had allies and friends within the abbey, along with some enemies. Jocelin was a novice monk who learned under Samson and seems to have often confided in him. He once asked Samson, before he became abbot about the poor state of the monastery and why he didn’t do anything about it:

“Why do you keep silence when you see and hear such things you, who are a cloistered monk, and desire not offices, and fear God rather than man? “


Samson’s reply:

“This is the hour of darkness; this is the hour in the which flatterers triumph and are believed; their might is increased, nor can we prevail against them. These things must be endured for a while the Lord see and judge!”

Once he became abbot Samson took a very active role in managing the vast array of properties. Jocelyn would serve as his chaplain during his early years, and his account reveals much about Samson’s personality and management style. In this section, we learn about his interest in record-keeping:

By his command, a general account was drawn up for every hundred of the leets and suits, of the hidages and customary supplies of fodder, of the hens which ought to be paid to him, and of all the other customary dues, revenues, and expenses, which the tenants had always concealed to a great extent. All these things he reduced to writing, so that within four years of his election, no one could deceive him as to the resources of the abbey even to a penny’s value, whereas he had received nothing in writing from his predecessors concerning the management of the abbey, except a little schedule containing the names of the knights of St. Edmund and the names of the manors, and the rent which attached to each farm. Now he called this book of his his Calendar, in the which also were written down all the debts which he had paid. And he consulted this book almost daily, as though it were a mirror reflecting his own integrity.


One gets the impression that Samson was a somewhat harsh man, just interested in making and saving money. He earned much grumbling from his fellow monks, especially because he cut back spending on the food they ate. He could have a temper as well, lashing out against his fellow monks, including even at Jocelyn when the latter tried to reason with him.

A folio from the Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds -Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 297 p.250

But Samson was also a man under much pressure, as the abbey’s debts had piled up under his predecessor. Jocelin notes:

Now at that time, wheresoever the abbot went, there hastened to him both Jews and Christians demanding payment of the debts due to them. And they so disturbed the abbot, and caused him such anxiety, that he lost his sleep, and grew pale and thin. Then he said, “There will be no rest for my soul until I shall see an end of my indebtedness.”

At times Samson complained that he would rather have been the abbey’s librarian instead of its abbot. Another time when Jocelin asked him why he was so restless the previous night, the abbot replied, “This is no cause for surprise. You share in my wealth – in food and drink and travel and so on – but you scarcely give a thought for the things that worry me – the administration of the abbey and of my household, and the many difficult matters that I encounter in my pastoral role. These are things that cause me misery and heartache.” It is no surprise to learn that after fourteen years in this job his hair, once black and gray, had become white as snow.


Being a leader often means making hard choices, and sometimes getting rid of unproductive staff. While monks could not just be thrown out of the monastery, they could be replaced in their various roles. After removing a monk named William from the position of sacrist, he went to the other monks and showed them a bag full of documents in which that man had accumulated debts. “Take a look at the wise policies of your sacrist William,” he said. “Just see how many charters have been sealed by him without the convent’s consent, pledging silk copes, dalmatics, silver thuribles, and volumes bound in gold, all of which I have repurchased and restored for you.”

By his Samson’s estimate, the monastery has a debt of over £3052 – the equivalent of more than £1,625,000 in today’s money. It would take him 12 years to pay off all this money. During this time he also made investments, buying other properties, as well as spending money on a wide range of projects, including a hospital, a free school for poor scholars, an aqueduct to bring water to the abbey, and other benefits for the town that was growing around the monastery.

Today, little remains of the abbey but its ruins, which can be seen here in front of the catherdral at Bury St Edmunds. Photo by John Sutton / Wikimedia Commons

The abbot seemed to know something about managing people, as the following section from Jocelin illustrates:

Now in the first year of his abbacy he seemed to hate all flatterers, and especially those who were monks. But in course of time he appeared to listen to them with some willingness, and to treat them more graciously. Once a certain one of our brothers, who was skilled in this art, had bent his knees before him, and under pretence of giving him counsel, had poured the oil of flattery into his cars, while I stood at a distance and smiled. Then when the brother had gone, the abbot called me and asked me why I had been smiling, and I answered that the world was full of flatterers.

And the abbot said, “My son, I have been flattered for a long while, and therefore I cannot attend to flattery. There must be much pretence and much concealment that the peace of the monastery may be preserved. I will hear them speak, but they will not deceive me, if I can prevent it, as they deceived my predecessor, who gave such unconsidered attention to them that for along while before his death he had nothing wherewith to feed himself or his household, save that which he borrowed from creditors. And on the day of his burial there was nothing which could be distributed among the poor, save fifty shillings which were received from Richard the tenant of Palgrave, because on the same day he entered on the tenancy of Palgrave ; and this money the same Richard afterwards paid again to the officials of the king, who exacted the full rent for the royal use.” And with these words I was reassured.

Abbot Samson’s record as the leader of Bury St Edmunds certainly has its less savoury moments, including how he forced the local Jewish community to leave, and how his actions caused resentment from his fellow monks. But no one can doubt his effectiveness in the role he was elected to. One more episode from Jocelin’s chronicle:

Geoffrey Ridel, bishop of Ely, sought from the abbot a supply of wood for making some great buildings at Glemesford, and the abbot granted this request against his will, for he did not at that time dare to offend the bishop. But while the abbot was staying at Melford, a certain clerk of the bishop came and asked on behalf of his lord that they might be allowed to take the said wood at Elmswell; and he made a mistake in his speech, saying Elmswell where he should have said Elmset, the latter being the name of a certain wood at Melford. And the abbot marvelled at the message, for such wood was not to be found at Elmswell.

Then when Richard the forester of the same township had heard this, he told the abbot privately that the bishop in the preceding week had sent his carpenters as spies into the wood of Elmset, and that they had chosen the best trees in the whole wood, and marked them with their signs. At this news, the abbot saw at once that the messenger of the bishop had delivered his message wrongly, and told him that he would gladly meet the wish of the bishop.

On the morrow, after the messenger had departed, as soon as he had heard mass, the abbot went with his carpenters into the said wood, and caused all the oaks which had been already marked, and more than a hundred others, to be marked for the use of St. Edmund, and for the completion of the great tower; and he ordered that they should be cut down as rapidly as possible.

But the bishop, when he learned from the report of his messenger that the needed wood was to be taken at Elmswell, overwhelmed the messenger with much abuse, and sent him back to the abbot that he might correct the word which he had said wrongly, that is, when be said Elmswell for Elmset. But before he had come to the abbot, all the trees, which the bishop desired, and which his carpenters had marked, had been cut down. It was therefore necessary for the bishop to take other trees and in another place, if he would. But I, when I saw this, laughed and said to myself, “This is an example of a trick being trumped.”

The latest translation of Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was done by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers (Oxford University Press, 1989).

You can also read a 1907 translation of the work, which is online at the Medieval Sourcebook.

You can learn more about this topic in Daniel Gerrard’s article, “Jocelin of Brakelond and the Power of Abbot Samson,” in The Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 40:1 (2014) and in the book A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256, by Antonia Grandsen (Boydell, 2007)