The advance of towns which had grown up not on the royal domain but around abbey or castle was slower and more difficult. The story of S. Edmundsbury shows how gradual was the transition from pure serfage to an imperfect freedom. Much that had been plough-land in the time of the Confessor was covered with houses under the Norman rule. The building of the great abbey-church drew its craftsmen and masons to mingle with the ploughmen and reapers of the Abbot's domain. The troubles of the time helped here as elsewhere the progress of the town; serfs, fugitives from justice or their lord, the trader, the Jew, naturally sought shelter under the strong hand of S. Edmund. But the settlers were wholly at the Abbot's mercy. Not a settler but was bound to pay his pence to the Abbot's treasury, to plough a rood of his land, to reap in his harvest-field, to fold his sheep in the Abbey folds, to help bring the annual catch of eels from the Abbey waters. Within the four crosses that bounded the Abbot's domain land and water were his; the cattle of the townsmen paid for their pasture on the common; if the fullers refused the loan of their cloth, the cellarer would refuse the use of the stream, and seize their cloths wherever he found them.
No toll might be levied from tenants of the Abbey farms, and customers had to wait before shop and stall till the buyers of the Abbot had had the pick of the market. There was little chance of redress, for if burghers complained in folk-mote, it was before the Abbot's officers that its meeting was held; if they appealed to the alderman, he was the Abbot's nominee, and received the horn, the symbol of his office, at the Abbot's hands.
Like all the greater revolutions of society, the advance from this mere serfage was a silent one; indeed its more galling instances of oppression seem to have slipped unconsciously away. Some, like the eel-fishing, were commuted for an easy rent; others, like the slavery of the fullers and the toll of flax, simply disappeared. By usage, by omission, by downright forgetfulness, here by a little struggle, there by a present to a needy abbot, the town won freedom. But progress was not always unconscious, and one incident in the history of S. Edmundsbury is remarkable, not merely as indicating the advance of law, but yet more as marking the part which a new moral sense of man's right to equal justice was to play in the general advance of the realm. Rude as the borough was, it had preserved its right of meeting in full assembly of the townsmen for government and law. Justice was administered in presence of the burgesses, and the accused acquitted or condemned by the oath of his neighbours. Without the borough bounds however the system of the Norman judicature prevailed; and the rural tenants who did suit and service at the Cellerar's court were subject to the decision of the trial by battle.
The execution of a farmer named Ketel, who was subject to this feudal jurisdiction, brought the two systems into vivid contrast. He seems to have been guiltless of the crime laid to his charge, but the duel went against him, and he was hanged just without the gates. The taunts of the townsmen woke his fellow-farmers to a sense of wrong. "Had Ketel been a dweller within the borough," said the burgesses, "he would have got his acquittal from the oaths of his neighbours, as our liberty is;" and even the monks were moved to a decision that their tenants should enjoy equal liberty and justice with the townsmen. The franchise of the town was extended to the rural possessions of the Abbey without it; the farmers "came to the toll-house, were written in the alderman's roll, and paid the town-penny".
The moral revolution which events like this indicate was backed by a religious revival which forms a marked feature in the reign of Henry the First. Pious, learned, and energetic as the bishops of William's appointment had been, they were not Englishmen. Till the reign of Henry the First no Englishman occupied an English see. In language, in manner, in sympathy, the higher clergy were completely severed from the lower priesthood and the people, and the severance went far to paralyze the constitutional influence of the Church. Anselm stood alone against Rufus, and when Anselm was gone no voice of ecclesiastical freedom broke the silence of the reign of Henry the First. But at the close of Henry's reign and throughout that of Stephen, England was stirred by the first of those great religious movements which it was afterwards to experience in the preaching of the Friars, the Lollardism of Wyclif, the Reformation, the Puritan enthusiasm, and the mission work of the Wesleys. Everywhere in town and country men banded themselves together for prayer; hermits flocked to the woods; noble and churl welcomed the austere Cistercians, a reformed outshoot of the Benedictine order, as they spread over the moors and forests of the North. A new spirit of devotion woke the slumber of the religious houses, and penetrated alike to the home of the noble Walter de l'Espec at Rievaulx, or of the trader Gilbert Beket in Cheapside. London took its full share in the revival.
The city was proud of its religion, its thirteen conventual and more than a hundred parochial churches. The new impulse changed its very aspect. In the midst of the city Bishop Richard busied himself with the vast cathedral church of S, Paul which Bishop Maurice had begun; barges came up the river with stone from Caen for the great arches that moved the popular wonder, while street and lane were being levelled to make space for its famous churchyard. Rahere, the King's minstrel, raised the Priory of S. Bartholomew beside Smithfield. Alfune built S. Giles's at Cripplegate. The old English Cnichtenagild surrendered their soke of Aldgate as a site for the new priory of Holy Trinity. The tale of this house paints admirably the temper of the citizens at the time. Its founder, Prior Norman, had built church and cloister and bought books and vestments in so liberal a fashion that at last no money remained to buy bread. The canons were at their last gasp when many of the city folk, looking into the refectory as they paced round the cloister in their usual Sunday procession, saw the tables laid but not a single loaf on them. " Here is a fine set-out," cried the citizens, "but where is the bread to come from?" The women present vowed to bring a loaf every Sunday, and there was soon bread enough and to spare for the priory and its priests.