Last Photographed: Sunday 30th September 2018
The Christian history of Bury St Edmunds is thought to date back to 630AD, when Sigeberht, king of East Anglia, abdicated his throne to found a monastery and retire to a life of ecclesiastical contemplation. Bury St Edmunds is believed to be the site of this church, most probably within the precinct of the later abbey.
Early in the 10th Century, the remains of St Edmund the martyr (another Saxon king of East Anglia) were moved to Beodricsworth (later known as Bury St Edmunds) for re-internment.
In 1020AD, King Cnut granted a charter for the founding of an abbey at Beodricsworth, and the secular canons were replaced by 20 Benedictine monks, led by Uvius the first abbot. Cnut made ample provision for the new abbey, endowing it with generous rights and privileges. At this time, a new stone church was begun, which was completed and consecrated in 1032AD. It was dedicated to Christ, St Mary and St Edmund. Around this time, Beodricsworth may have developed its modern name of St. Edmundsbury, or Bury St Edmunds.
In 1065AD, a year before the Norman conquest, Abbott Baldwin became the last Saxon abbot of Beodricsworth. His tenure saw the wealth of the abbey increased and consolidated. A mint was granted to the abbey by King Edward the Confessor. In 1071AD, Baldwin visited Rome, and Pope Alexander II issued a decree preventing a bishop's see from ever being established at Bury St. Edmunds - thus protecting the abbey from the attentions of Bishop Herfast, who wished to relocate his seat from Thetford.
Abbott Baldwin encouraged craftsmen to settle in Bury St. Edmunds, growing the town into a prosperous community. Sometime during this period, the increasing wealth of the abbey encouraged Baldwin to re-imagine the church on a grander scale. In 1095AD, construction work was completed, and on the 29th April, the remains of St. Edmund were translated to their new shrine. Abbot Baldwin died in 1097AD, leaving a lasting legacy for those who followed him.
Throughout the early middle ages, the abbey continued to prosper. The church was again rebuilt during the 12th Century, confirming its status as one of the wealthiest and largest religious houses in the country. At the time, it was considered to be second only to Glastonbury as a place of pilgrimage.
In 1214, England's barons met in the abbey church and agreed upon a charter of liberties that they would present to King John. This was the document that would later become known as the Magna Carta.
The 13th Century was a prosperous time for the abbey. However, by the 14th Century, the townsfolk were coming to resent the rule of the monks. The abbey retained exclusive control over Bury St. Edmunds, and in 1327, the people rose up against this, with general rioting and looting taking place throughout the summer. Several monks were killed, buildings destroyed, and the charters and accounts of debtors torn up. Later in the same year, with the authority of the abbot reasserted, the abbey gate was built to protect against any future recurrence of violent uprising. May of the rioters had been arrested, and 19 were sentenced to death.
The "Victoria History of the County of Suffolk" (Boydell and Brewer, 1907) gives us a graphic account of the losses suffered at the hands of the rioters:
Among the particular offences specified are beating and wounding the abbey's servants and imprisoning them till they paid fines; mowing the abbey's meadows, felling the trees, and fishing the fish-ponds; preventing the holding of courts and collecting rents and tolls and other customs; cutting off the abbey's water-conduit; breaking down the fish-ponds at Babwell; throwing down the houses of the abbey in the town; carrying away the timber, and burning the abbot's manor houses at Barton, Pakenham, Rougham, 'Eldhawe,' Horningsheath, Newton, Whepstead, Westley, Risby, Ingham, Fornham, 'Redewell,' and 'Haberdon,' with their granges and corn; carrying away 100 horses, 120 oxen, 200 cows, 300 bullocks, 10,000 sheep and 300 swine, worth £6,000; and besieging the abbey with an armed force and great multitude; breaking the gates and doors and windows of the abbey; entering the conventual buildings and assaulting the servants; breaking open chests, coffers and closets and carrying off gold and silver chalices and other plate, books, vestments, and utensils, and money to the value of £1,000, as well as divers writings; imprisoning Peter de Clapton, the prior, and twelve monks in a house in the town; taking the said prior and monks to the chapter-house and forcing them to seal a document setting forth that the abbot and convent were indebted to Oliver Kemp and five other townsmen in the sum of £10,000; and imprisoning the abbot and using his seal as well as the corporate seal to documents obtained by duress, the contents of which neither he nor the monks saw or heard.
The remainder of the 14th Century provided little respite. During 1349, the town was decimated by the black death. Then in 1381, the Peasants' Revolt arrived in Bury St. Edmunds, and the abbey was attacked and the abbot killed.
By the 15th Century, the abbey was experiencing quieter times, and continued to flourish. The present church of St Mary was built, and the western tower of the abbey was rebuilt following its collapse. However, in 1465 disaster struck, and the church was destroyed by fire. Rebuilding work was finally completed in 1506, allowing the abbey three final decades of peace until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. At this time, the abbey was a prosperous institution, with 80 monks, 16 chaplains, and 111 servants living within its precinct walls. The abbot, John Reeve, was treated generously and was granted a large pension. He didn't live to collect it, and died in much reduced circumstances in a small private house at the top of Crown Street.
Today, very little remains of the abbey church. Its location central to the town made it (like many other abbeys) a convenient source of stone for local builders. Most of the ruins are now little more than piles of rubble. Surprisingly however, the precinct wall remains largely complete, and encompasses the modern park within which the ruins now reside. This is entered via the magnificent gatehouse that survives in astonishingly perfect condition. This gatehouse would once have opened onto the courtyard of the monastic precinct.
A further surprising survivor is the Norman Tower (also known as St James Gate) which served as principal gateway to the abbey church and also as bell tower for the Church of St James next to which it stands. The Church of St James was originally built by Abbot Anselm to serve as a parish church for the people of Bury St Edmunds, but was later re-purposed as St Edmundsbury Cathedral following the dissolution.
Built between 1120AD and 1140AD, The Norman Tower is one of Britain's oldest Norman buildings. Once, it would have opened facing onto the west front of the abbey church. Today, while the abbey church has gone, the tower survives without alteration or re-modelling. While it no longer serves as an abbey gatehouse, it continues to serve its second function as a bell tower for St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
The abbey grounds are a busy and vibrant place. Local people come to make use of the park, and tourists arrive frequently and often in large numbers to wander around the modest remains of the church buildings. Despite this, the size of the grounds still allows plenty of space for peaceful contemplation, and Bury St. Edmunds Abbey remains a pleasant place to visit.