Uncovering the past of Bury St Edmunds

Through the ruins of the old abbey church to St. Edmunds Cathedral
Through the ruins of the old abbey church to St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

Visitor Information

DSC00482Bury St Edmunds is a market town in the county of Suffolk, ca. 30 miles from Cambridge on the A14. It is also reachable from Cambridge by train, and from London Liverpool Street.

It is known for it’s ruined abbey in the center of town, and it’s cathedral St Edmundsbury.

Originally founded in Saxon times, Bury St Edmunds was known for brewing and malting, and this continues with the brewery Green King being based in the town.

There is a lovely market and shops, with plenty of places to eat and drink, including The Nutshell, which is in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s smallest pub.

History of a town and its Abbey.

Bury St. Edmunds was one of the Royal Saxon towns and was known as Beodericsworth.

The Great Gatehouse of St. Edmundsbury Abbey, dating to the 14th Century
The Great Gatehouse of St. Edmundsbury Abbey, dating to the 14th Century

In 903, it became the burial place of King Edmund. King Edmund, known as Edmund the Martyr was the King of East Anglia and was killed during a Danish invasion in 869.

Not much is known about King Edmund and his reign, with much of what we do know being written 20 years after his death. He ascended the throne at the age of 14 in 855. It was a brutal age to be King, when captured he was tortured and beheaded.

Edmund’s remains were interred in a shrine at Beodericsworth in 925 where Athelstan founded a community dedicated to him within the existing Benedictine monestary.

A town grew up around the abbey church where Edmund was interred and was renamed Bury St. Edmunds.

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The ruins of the Abbey looking through to the cathedral of St. Edmundsbury

Over the years, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was to become a popular place of pilgramage throughout the middle ages.

11th Century

In 1020, King Cnut granted a charter for a new stone church and it was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1032, with Edward the Confessor enhancing its priviledges.

By 1095 it had been rebuilt once more. The shrine of St. Edmund was built in the East End and this encouraged the endowment of the Abbey and an increased flow of pilgrims.

12th Century

The church was completed after a fire in the late 12th century and was in a cruciform plan. We know it was 505 feet long and 246 feet

A remaining pillar within the East End of the Abbey church
A remaining pillar within the East End of the Abbey church

wide and this made it one of the largest churches in England.

For comparison, Ely cathedral is 537 feet long, York Minster is 525 feet long, and it was considerably larger than the cathedral at Lichfield which is 370 feet long.

It had a spectacular west front, as seen in this depiction of the church in its prime, with a single tower above, and a second tower over the crossing.

13th century

During the reign of King John in 1214, a meeting was held at St. Edmundsbury Abbey by a group of Barons.

They swore an oath to hold King John to account to The Charter of Liberties, which was a proclamation of Henry I and a direct precursor to Magna Carta.

Plaques commemorating the Abbey's role in Magna Carta
Plaques commemorating the Abbey’s role in Magna Carta

Plaques dating from the 19th century grace the ruined columns today to mark the occasion, and show the name of each Baron present who swore the oath.

14th Century

The Abbey’s experience of unrest wasn’t limited to the enforcing of Magna Carta.

For many decades there were tensions between the Abbey and the townspeople, with riots occurring.

In 1327, some rogue monks entered a local parish church and went as far as to take some of the local people hostage.

Some of the local people were killed in the drama, and in response. the townspeople turned on the Abbey and burnt the

gates.

Remaining West End of the Abbey church and St. Edmundsbury Cathedral
Remaining West End of the Abbey church and St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

15th Century

By the 15th century, The western tower had collapsed and the abundant wealth had waned leaving the Abbey in financial difficulty.

Despite this, the deeply pious Henry VI visited at Christmas in 1433, and stayed until April, 1434.

Sadly, 1464 saw the gutting of the church by fire on 20 January and the central tower fell.

16th Century and Decline

16th - 18th century houses built into the West front of the old abbey church
16th – 18th century houses built into the West front of the old abbey church

In the reign of Henry VIII, England saw huge turmoil in it’s religion when Henry VIII with the support of his chief adviser Thomas Cromwell broke from the church of Rome.

This founded the church of England and made Henry the head of the church.

Alongside the break from Rome was the reformation which was the closing and pillaging of wealth of the monasteries and religious houses for the crown’s gain.

It was said that some of the monasteries were corrupt and dealing in superstition rather than the true teachings of the church, and this was used to justify the crown’s actions.

In 1535, Cromwell appointed two people to visit the abbey and they reported back that they couldn’t find any corruption, but that the Abbey must be concealing it (!)

They also reported that there were 62 monks in residence. This visit lead to life at the abbey continuing for a few years, with

Abbey Ruins
Abbey Ruins

the last Abbot John Reeve continuing to receive patronage from Cromwell.

However in 1538 the agents of the crown who had despoiled many a monestary arrived (Williams, Pollard, Parys, and Smyth) and they stripped the shrine of St. Edmund of all its treasure.

In 1539, the centuries of history and life came to an end at St. Edmundsbury, as it was finally surrendered to the crown by Abbot John.

Abbot John was granted an unusually large pension, but he died a couple of months later, it was said due to a broken heart. He never drew a cent of his pension,

St. Edmundsbury Abbey was one of the wealthiest abbey’s in England, with an income of ca. £2336. (ca. £720k in today’s money). After pensions were paid out, Henry was £1656 (ca. £500k) richer.

After the dissolution, the abbey became a quarry of building materials for the local people and slowly disintegrated to the ruins we see today.

Today

Beautiful Abbey Gardens
Beautiful Abbey Gardens and St. Edmundsbury cathedral

The Abbey grounds are in the care of English Heritage, and it remains an evocative place. I recommend visiting in the spring, when the flowers are at their most beautiful.

I also visited in deep winter, and it takes on a mournful feel. You can’t help but feel a sense of loss here, of the beauty of a Abbey church gone, one that was nearly the size of Ely cathedral.

The current cathedral of St. Edmundsbury is also worth a visit, it has history as the parish church of St James when it was within the abbey precincts. It was largely rebuilt in the 16th century.

Bury St. Edmunds is underrated and it’s connections to England’s past should be celebrated and remembered.

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Stunning Abbey Gardens

Please visit my flickr for all my photo’s of Bury St. Edmunds

References

Wikipedia
British-History.ac.uk
English Heritage – Bury St. Edmunds
Visit Bury St Edmunds
Magna Carta 800 – Bury St. Edmunds
St. Edmundsbury Cathedral
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