History and Research: Bury St Edmunds Abbey

St Edmunds Abbey in Bury was one of the richest and largest Benedictine monasteries in England.

The site became home to the remains of the martyred King Edmund in 903 and the acquisition of such a notable relic made the monastery a place of pilgrimage as well as the recipient of numerous royal grants.

Post-medieval houses built into the west front, with a statue of St Edmund in the foreground

Post-medieval houses built into the west front, with a statue of St Edmund in the foreground

History

The Benedictine abbey itself was established in 1020. Edward the Confessor substantially enlarged the privileges in its charter and at the time of the Norman Conquest Bury ranked fourth among English abbeys in wealth and political importance. The Normans replaced the Saxon church on a grand scale using Barnack limestone.

The spectacular west front was completed around the turn of the 13th century under Abbot Samson, who added a great central tower and lower octagonal towers to either side. He also improved the accommodation including a new hall, the Black Hostry, to house the abbey’s many monastic visitors.

In 1214 the abbey was the site of a historic meeting between King John and his dissatisfied earls and barons, as a direct result of which the Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede the following year.

The abbey continued to thrive throughout the 13th century but relations with the townspeople were rarely cordial. Matters came to a head in 1327 in a summer of riots, though disputes rumbled on throughout the 14th century. The abbey suffered other problems too, notably damage to the west tower through collapse and later a serious fire.

Despite these setbacks Bury St Edmunds remained politically important throughout the 15th century – Henry VI came for Christmas in 1433 and stayed for four months – and when it was surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1539 it still had a considerable income. Though the abbey precinct was quickly stripped of valuable building material, the abbot’s palace survived as a house until 1720.

The remains of the abbot's garden wall

The remains of the abbot's garden wall

Description

Visitors enter the abbey precinct today, as they have since the 14th century, through the impressive Great Gate, which originally gave access to the Great Court and the abbot’s palace; the north-east corner of the abbot’s garden is marked by a hexagonal tower, now a dovecote. The Great Gate is the abbey’s best surviving feature and gives an excellent idea of the quality of the stonework elsewhere.

The precinct wall survives well in places, and still crosses the River Lark over the Abbot’s Bridge. Access to the abbey church itself was through the Norman Tower, which dates from 1120–48 (restored in Victorian times). Beyond is the once magnificent west front, into which are incorporated a range of houses built between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Enough remains of the abbey church to suggest it was an impressive structure. At over 150 metres long the church was one of only a few of its date to be built on such a large scale in this country. Construction began at the semi-circular (apsidal) east end around the high altar and shrine of St Edmund.

Below this and on the same plan was the crypt: the bases of its supporting piers and lower courses of its walls remain to show what a vast space this must have been, and the view from above is quite spectacular. Conspicuous among the standing remains are the piers of the crossing tower and the north wall and centre window of the north transept. The layout of some of the once extensive monastic buildings can still be seen to the north and east of the church.

The chapter house, north of the north transept, contains the graves of six abbots, while the monks’ cemetery and infirmary lay to the east of the church.

Sources

 

Gransden, A (ed) 1998. 'Bury St Edmunds: Medieval Art, Architecture, Archaeology and Economy', British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XX

Whittingham, A B 1992. 'Bury St Edmunds Abbey, Suffolk', London: English Heritage

Disclaimer

The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties.

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