Samson of Tottington

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Samson of Tottington (1135 – 1211) was an English Benedictine monk who became Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds. His life was later used by Thomas Carlyle as a leadership model in his book Past and Present.


Samson was born at Tottington, near Thetford, in 1135. After taking his M.A. in Paris, Samson returned to Norfolk and taught in the school at Bury St. Edmunds. In 1160 the monks of St. Edmunds sent him to Rome on their behalf to appeal against an agreement of the abbot and Henry II of England, and for this, on his return Abbot Hugh promptly clapped him into gaol. By 1166 Samson was a fully professed monk, and in the years following, he filled several offices - those of sub-sacrist, guestmaster, pittancer, third prior, master of novices, and master of the workmen.

Abbot Hugh died in 1180, and on the advice of Eysteinn of Nidaros, who resided in the abbey between 1181 and 1182, Samson was elected abbot of Bury St. Edmunds on 21 February 1182.[1][2] For the rest of his life, Samson worked for the abbey, for the town, and the State. He regained the right of joint election of two bailiffs for the abbey and town, "improved the monastery’s financial position by paying off debts, stamping out independent borrowing by his monks, ...increasing revenues from the abbey’s holdings,"[3] rebuilt the choir, constructed an aqueduct, and added the great bell tower at the west end of the abbey and two flanking towers. He defended the liberties of the town. He helped the townsfolk to obtain a charter and encouraged new settlers. The monks resisted Samson's concessions of market rights to the townsmen but were no match for their abbot. A hospital at Babwell and a free school for poor scholars was also the gifts of Abbot Samson to the townspeople.

He was abbot at the time of the 1190 massacre of Jews in Bury St Edmunds.[4][5][6] He also oversaw and arranged for the expulsion of all Jewish townspeople, asking in his letter to King Richard I "for written permission to expel the Jews from St Edmund’s town, because everything in the town...belonged by right to St Edmund: therefore, either the Jews should be St Edmund’s men, or he should banish them from the town".[7] These events may have been linked to local political rivalries, as Samson was trying to undermine his rival William the Sacrist, who had business links with the town's Jews.[8] Samson also seems to have promoted the cult of the alleged boy-martyr Robert of Bury at a time when the abbot of Norwich was attempting to assert authority over Bury. Norwich was the home of the rival boy-martyr William of Norwich.

Pope Lucius III made Samson a judge delegate in ecclesiastical causes; he served on the commission for settling the quarrel between Hubert Walter and the monks of Canterbury; and on the Royal Council in London, where he sat as a baron, opposing the efforts of William of Longchamp to curtail the rights of the Benedictine Order.

Samson died in 1211, having ruled his abbey for almost thirty years. Thomas Carlyle in Book 2: The Ancient Monk of Past and Present wrote an extended essay on Samson and leadership.


  1. ^ "Samson (1135-1211)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900..
  2. ^ The Catholic Encyclopedia gives 14 February.
  3. ^ Widner, Michael. "Samson's Touch and a Thin Red Line: Reading the Bodies of Saints and Jews in Bury St Edmunds." JEGP, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 111.3 (2012): 339-359. p. 340.
  4. ^ Joe Hillaby, "Jewish Colonisation in the Twelfth Century", in The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary, and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. Patricia Skinner (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2003), p. 31
  5. ^ Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978)
  6. ^ Young, Francis: "Bury's Darkest Day - 1190 Palm Sunday Massacre". Retrieved 18 March 2022.
  7. ^ Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, trans. Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 41–2
  8. ^ Bale, A. "House Devil, Town Saint", in Delany, Shiela, Chaucer and the Jews, Routledge, 2013, p.185 ff.