What makes Bury St Edmunds' abbey ruins so special?

Historian and Bury St Edmunds expert Martyn Taylor

Historian and Bury St Edmunds expert Martyn Taylor - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

This year Bury St Edmunds celebrates the belated millennium of the founding of its historic abbey - established in 1020 by King Cnut.

From humble early origins, to slowly becoming one of the most powerful monasteries in the country, with links to the Magna Carta, the abbey remains have some amazing stories to tell. 

Bury St Edmunds' Abbey ruins

Bury St Edmunds' Abbey ruins - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Martyn Taylor, chairman of The Bury Society, is very excited to mark the anniversary of the creation of the abbey - with celebrations pushed back into 2022 after two years of Covid restrictions.

“It’s incredible that the Abbey has now turned 1,000 years old, and we can finally celebrate that this year. We’ve got lots of events taking place between now and November,” he says.  

Keen to share the town’s history with both locals and tourists, Martyn joined the society’s committee in 2006 and has been working with it ever since. 

“The abbey grew due to the fact that Edmund, the King of East Anglia was martyred on November 20, 869,” explains Martyn. 

Historian and Bury St Edmunds expert Martyn Taylor

Historian and Bury St Edmunds expert Martyn Taylor - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

King Edmund’s martyrdom site is now thought to have been Bradfield St Clare, and he would later end up being buried in a monastery in a settlement called Beodricesworth in 903AD. 

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“Edmund eventually became the first patron saint of England, and an enormous Benedictine abbey grew around his shrine,” explains Martyn. 

During the reign of King Cnut (who was King of England from 1016 until his death in 1035), the abbey itself slowly started to come together in 1020 - and the first part of the abbey was built: a stone rotunda church for King Edmund’s body. 

One of the first builders of the abbey was abbot Baldwin, a French monk and physician. Baldwin relocated from his native France to serve as Edward the Confessor’s doctor (who reigned over England between 1042 and 1066), and was a prior before he was appointed abbot of Bury St Edmunds in 1065. 

King Cnut, who ruled England between 1012 until his death in 1035, established Bury's Abbey in 1020

King Cnut, who ruled England between 1012 until his death in 1035, established Bury's Abbey in 1020 - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

During his time as abbot, Baldwin was instrumental in promoting the cult around the martyred Edmund. He also designed the town, laying it out in a grid pattern which is still evident to this day.  

By 1095, the abbey church was consecrated. Built in a cruciform plan, it was constructed from Barnack limestone.  

“It was 505ft long, and by the 13th century the west front was 246 feet across – the widest of any ecclesiastical building in the country,” explains Martyn. It also contained the bejewelled shrine of St Edmund, which stood behind the high altar.  

“The abbey church was the largest Romanesque church in the whole of northern Europe, and if the abbey church was still intact today, like some of the minsters up north or Westminster in London, Bury St Edmunds wouldn’t be the wonderful town it is today. Instead, it would be a sprawling, metropolitan city, and a mass of urbanisation.” 

Under abbot Samson, a central tower and lower octagonal towers were added to the abbey on both sides. He also oversaw the construction of the Black Hostry, a new hall which housed abbey visitors.  

The Abbey ruins in the Abbey Gardens

The Abbey ruins in the Abbey Gardens - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Over the next few hundred years however, the abbey would go through a series of tumultuous and historically-significant events that shaped both Bury St Edmunds and England. And one of the biggest is the role it played in the establishing of the Magna Carta. 

One of the most important documents throughout all of human history, the Magna Carta was the first to say that the king and his government were not above the law. It was effectively the first written constitution in European history, and placed limits on royal authority.  

The Magna Carta has since helped shaped British and American law for hundreds of years, and was described by Lord Denning as ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’.  

Everyone knows it was sealed in Runnymeade in 1215, but where does Bury St Edmunds come into this?  

In 1214, a group of barons met at the abbey to swear an oath, in which they urged King John to accept a ‘Charter of Liberties’. 

Just one year later, King John officially agreed this at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, and thus, the Magna Carta was born.  

Today, Bury St Edmunds is one of the five members of the Magna Carta Trust, and if you head into the Abbey Gardens, you will find a plaque on one of the ruined crossing piers. 

The stone memorial, commemorating Bury's role in the Magna Carta

The stone memorial, commemorating Bury's role in the Magna Carta - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

It reads: “Near this spot on 20th November A.D. 1214, Cardinal Langton & The Barons swore at St Edmund’s altar that they would obtain from King John the ratification of the Magna Carta.” 

For many years, it was thought both this event and date were incorrect. However, just in time for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the date was proved to be October, 1214. 

Another stone next to it is inscribed with the names of the 25 barons involved.  

“Given that, you can see why Bury St Edmunds in the pantheon in the history of this country,” says Martyn. 

Relations between the abbey and the townspeople soon grew fraught however, and in the summer of 1327, a series of riots took place which saw the Abbey Gate destroyed by local people who were unhappy with the monastery’s power.  

The stone memorial, commemorating Bury's role in the Magna Carta

The stone memorial, commemorating Bury's role in the Magna Carta - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

At the time, the town’s monks charged tariffs on every economic activity – including collecting horse droppings in the street – and the Abbey even ran its own mint for a short period.  

And just two centuries later, the Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries – a period during King Henry VIII’s reign that saw the monarch disband monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries across the country during the Reformation.  

After the dissolution, what remains of the abbey today is extensive and impressive, nonetheless. 

The ruins themselves can now be found in what is Abbey Gardens – a sprawling green space that was developed by keen horticulturalist Nathaniel Shirley Harness Hodson in the mid-19th century.  

Other significant structures on its site include the Norman Tower, and the Abbey Gate.  

Abbey Gate during spring

Abbey Gate during spring - Credit: Archant

Built between 1120 and 1148, the Norman Tower lies to the west of the abbey ruins and was the religious gateway to the abbey church. It is one of the finest Norman buildings in the country, and also one of the most complete, as it has never been altered. 

The Abbey Gate dates back to the mid-14th century (after the original was destroyed during the 1327 riots), and this two-storey gatehouse is one of the best surviving examples of late English Decorated style architecture. 

St Edmundsbury Cathedral as we know it today was built in 1503 as St James (although an original church of the same name was built in the 11th century). Some of the work was designed by mason John Wastell – who also responsible for King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. St James later became a cathedral in 1914. 

And finally, visitors to Bury St Edmunds can marvel at St Mary’s Church. Built between 1290 and 1490, it was the last structure to enter the ebbey before its dissolution under Henry VIII. It is also the resting place of Henry VIII’s youngest sister, Mary Tudor. 

To find out more about Bury St Edmunds, visit burysociety.com