Plan for Bury St Edmunds Abbey tennis courts dig in hunt for St Edmunds body

The tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: ANDY ABBOTT

The tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: ANDY ABBOTT - Credit: Archant

Forget the king under the car park, Bury St Edmunds could be about to find out if Saxon king and town namesake Saint Edmund is buried under a tennis court.

The statue of St Edmund in front of the Abbey West Front in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: ANDY ABBOTT

The statue of St Edmund in front of the Abbey West Front in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: ANDY ABBOTT - Credit: Archant

Plans to move the courts in the Abbey Gardens are being mooted by the Abbey Heritage Partnership, with archaeologists set to be allowed to look for King Edmund’s remains underneath.

The plans have the backing of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, who own the Abbey Gardens, and of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Both are part of the heritage partnership.

“It would be an incredibly important historical discovery if he was found under there,” said Robert Everitt, borough cabinet member who is a member of the partnership.

“It is something the borough want to do and the cathedral are in agreement as well, but we need to ensure we replace the courts.

“We are looking at St James Middle School courts, which are not being used [as the school is closed]. They would be ideal and would ensure people can play tennis right next to the Abbey Gardens.”

The courts sit on top of a former monks’ graveyard. St Edmund was a Saxon king who ruled in the ninth century. As a saint, his remains were kept in a shrine in Bury St Edmunds.

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At the time of the desecration of the Benedictine Abbey, during Henry VIII’s reign, the remains were lost.

Academic researcher and historian Francis Young, who was born in Bury, said: “The commissioners who dissolved the Abbey on November 4, 1539, mentioned nothing about the body, and given St Edmund’s royal status it is likely they would have quietly allowed the monks to remove the body from the shrine and relocate it.

“According to a third-hand account from 1697, St Edmund was placed in an iron chest by a few monks but sadly the account doesn’t give the location within the Abbey precincts where he was buried. On balance, however, the monks’ cemetery is the most likely location.”

If the monks did use an iron chest it would help archaeologists distinguish the monks’ graves from that of the king.

The heritage partnership is tasked with preserving and promoting the Abbey ruins, with the removal of the courts aimed at improving the experience for visitors.

This is not the first time the removal of the courts has been put forward, with the borough failing in a bid for funding in 2013.

The legend of St Edmund

Edmund was the King of the East Angles in the 9th Century. It is widely accepted that Edmund was killed by Vikings. It is thought his place of death was somewhere in Suffolk or Norfolk.

His myth tells of brave King Edmund refusing to denounce his Christianity and being killed by several arrows.

The Vikings then removed his head so Edmund could not be buried whole. However, loyal followers were able to find his head after a wolf called to them, shouting “here, here, here”.

Shortly after his death a shrine containing his remains was built in the Abbey in a town called Bedericesworth. This town later became Bury St Edmunds and the most popular and famous pilgrimage in England, visited by many kings. Saint Edmund later became the Patron Saint of England.

The Abbey was desecrated in the 16th Century, when his remains are believed to have been removed from the shrine.

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