Bury St Edmunds Abbey

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Bury St Edmunds Abbey


Norman Tower - geograph.org.uk - 286156.jpg
The Norman Tower beside the modern cathedral
Location: 52°14’39"N, 0°43’9"E
Main town: Bury St Edmmunds
Order: Bendictine
Dissolved: 1539
Owned by: English Heritage

The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, was once among the richest Benedictine monasteries in England, until the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

The town of Bury St Edmunds grew up around the abbey and was both financially dependent upon it and stifled by it until the dissolution: the iron hand of the abbey provoked deadly riots in the Middle Ages. The abbey was a centre of pilgrimage as the burial place of the Anglo-Saxon martyr-king Saint Edmund, killed by the Great Heathen Army of Danes in 869.

The ruins of the abbey church and most other buildings are merely rubble cores, but two very large mediæval gatehouses survive, as well as two secondary mediæval churches built within the abbey complex.

The Abbey ruins, Bury St Edmunds


View of churchyard and (L-R) Norman Tower, St James Church and SW Tower of Abbey, c. 1920

In the early 10th century, the relics of the martyred King Edmund of East Anglia were translated from Hoxne to Beodricsworth, afterwards known as St Edmundsbury.[1] The site to which the king's bones were brought had already been in religious use for nearly three centuries. To the small household of Benedictine monks who guarded the shrine the surrounding lands were granted in 1020, during the reign of Canute. Monks were introduced from St Benet's Abbey under the auspices of the Bishop of Elmham and Dunwich. Two of them became Bury's first two abbots, Ufi, prior of Holme, (d. 1044), who was consecrated abbot by the Bishop of London, and Leofstan (1044–65). After Leofstan's death, the king appointed his physician Baldwin to the abbacy (1065–97). Baldwin rebuilt the church and reinterred St Edmund's body there with great ceremony in 1095. The cult made the richly endowed abbey[2] a popular destination for pilgrimages.

The abbey church of St Edmund was built in the 11th and 12th centuries on a cruciform plan, with its head (or apse) pointed east. The shrine of St Edmund stood behind the high altar. The abbey was much enlarged and rebuilt during the 12th century. At some 505 feet long, and spanning 246 feet across its westerly transept, Bury St Edmunds abbey church was one of the largest in the country. It is now ruined, with only some rubble cores remaining.

Two separate churches however were built within the abbey precinct and these survive, having always functioned as parish churches for the town. St James's Church is now St Edmundsbury Cathedral: it was finished around 1135 but has been greatly enlarged in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. St Mary's Church was first built around 1125, and then rebuilt in the Perpendicular style between 1425-35.

Abbey Gate, rebuilt in the mid-14th century

Abbey Gate, opening onto the Great Courtyard, was the secular entrance which was used by the Abbey's servants.

The Cloisters Cross, also referred to as the "Bury St Edmunds Cross", is an unusually complex 12th-century Romanesque altar cross, carved from walrus ivory, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The sculptor is not known. Thomas Hoving, who managed the acquisition of the cross while he was Associate Curator at The Cloisters, concluded that it was carved by Master Hugo at the Abbey. There is no certain evidence to suggest that the cross was even made in Britain, however, although this is accepted by most scholars, and other places of origin such as Germany have been proposed.

In 1327, the abbey was destroyed during the Great Riot by the local people, who were angry at the power of the monastery, and it had to be rebuilt. Norman Gate dates from 1120–48 and was designed to be the gateway for the Abbey Church and it is still the belfry for the Church of St James, the present cathedral of Bury St Edmunds. This four-storey gate-hall is virtually unchanged and is entered through a single archway. Abbey Gate is an impressive 14th century stone gatehouse, designed to be the gateway for the Great Courtyard. One of the best surviving examples of its type, this two storey gate-hall is entered through a single archway which retains its portcullis. The Crankles was the name of the fishpond near the river Lark. The vineyard was first laid out in the 13th century. There were three breweries in the Abbey as each monk was entitled to eight pints a day.

The gardens

The Abbey's charters granted extensive lands and rights in Suffolk. By 1327, the Abbey owned all of West Suffolk. The Abbey held the gates of Bury St Edmunds; they held wardships of all orphans, whose income went to the Abbot until the orphan reached maturity; they pressed their rights of corvée. In the late 12th century, the Abbot Adam Samson forced the Dean Herbert to destroy the new windmill he had built without permission. Adam said: "By the face of God! I will never eat bread until that building is destroyed!"

The town of Bury St Edmunds was designed by the monks in a grid pattern. The monks charged tariffs on every economic activity, including the collecting of horse droppings in the streets. The Abbey even ran the Royal Mint. During the 13th century general prosperity blunted the resistance of burghers and peasants; in the 14th century, however, the monks encountered hostility from the local populace. Throughout 1327, the monastery suffered extensively, as several monks lost their lives in riots, and many buildings were destroyed. The townspeople attacked in January, forcing a charter of liberties on them. When the monks reneged on this they attacked again in February and May. The hated charters and debtors' accounts were seized and triumphantly torn to shreds.

A reprieve came on September 29 when Queen Isabella arrived at the Abbey with an army from Hainault. She had returned from the continent with the intention of Deposing her husband, King Edward II. She stayed at the Abbey a number of days with her son the future Edward III.

On 18 October 1327, a group of monks entered the local parish church. They threw off their habits, they were armoured underneath, and took several hostages. The people called for the hostages' release, the monks fired on them, killing some. In response, the citizens swore to fight the abbey to the death. They included a parson and 28 chaplains. They burnt the gates and captured the abbey.[3]

In 1345, a special commission found that the monks did not wear habits or live in the monastery.[4] Already faced with considerable financial strain, the abbey went further into decline during the first half of the 15th century. In 1431 the west tower of the abbey church collapsed. Two years later Henry VI moved into residence at the abbey for Christmas, and was still enjoying monastic hospitality four months later. More trouble arose in 1446 when the Duke of Gloucester died in suspicious circumstances after his arrest, and in 1465 the entire church was burnt out by an accidental fire. Largely rebuilt by 1506, the abbey of Bury St Edmunds settled into a quieter existence until dissolution in 1539.


At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 under King Henry VIII, the monks departed. The townsmen feared the withdrawal of their main economic centre, but in the even the town began to prosper. The abbey buildings in the meantime were stripped of all valuable building materials and artefacts, the abbey ruins were left as a convenient quarry for local builders.

The ruins are owned by English Heritage and managed by St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

The ruins of the abbey church

Abbey Gardens

The Abbey Gardens are owned by St. Edmundsbury Borough Council, and managed by the Council in conjunction with English Heritage. The abbey ruins lie within the park. A friends ground supports the maintenance and improvements to the gardens.[5]

The Abbey Gardens surrounding the ruins had an "Internet bench" installed in 2001, which people could use to connect laptops to the Internet. It was the first bench of its kind.[6]

See also

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Bury St Edmunds Abbey)


  1. Schoch, Richard W. (1999-06). ""We Do Nothing but Enact History": Thomas Carlyle Stages the Past". Nineteenth-Century Literature 54 (1): 27–52. doi:10.2307/2902996. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2902996. 
  2. With the manors granted by Edward the Confessor, the abbey was in possession of fully a third of Suffolk (A History of the County of Suffolk).
  3. Terry Jones, Medieval Lives, page 87
  4. Terry Jones, Medieval Lives, page 106
  5. "Official site". Abbey Gardens Friends. http://www.abbeygardensfriends-burystedmunds.com/. Retrieved 22 March 2015. 
  6. "Bad start for internet bench". BBC News Online. 9 August 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1481783.stm. Retrieved 2007-12-30.