The Abbey Church of St Edmund, Bury St Edmunds
|Deep within the soil of Suffolk, the
germ of memory sleeps. Generations forget; their history
is effaced, and they are left oblivious, aware only of
their surroundings. They no longer ask how they got here.
And then, the soil is turned, the plough cleaves the furrow, and the past is revealed. And sometimes memory sleeps on the surface; we do not even know that we have forgotten.
Between about 1530 and 1570, England underwent a cultural revolution, a process as violent and traumatic as anything that has happened in our history. In less than half a century, England went from being a complex and clumsy melange of largely self-governing Catholic communities which looked to Rome as much as they did to London, to being an insular and centralised Protestant nation where power was maintained by the sword.
The process was not complete. The pendulum continued to swing, and by the mid 17th century England had become a theocracy, with political policy based on an explosive mixture of Biblical fundamentalism and a misguided sense of destiny. At Drogheda, Cromwell's troops would dutifully slaughter the women and children of the town, safe in the knowledge that they were doing God's work. Of course, the evil they were rooting out was the very religion that their forefathers had shared, for generations.
Suffolk retains one of the most powerful testimonies to the glory of that former age, and to the violence of its destruction. And yet, for generations it was almost completely forgotten.
Standing in the scriptorium, looking south, September 2000. The towering shapes are the north face of the north transept. In front of them, the open space is the chapter house. Beyond, the tallest pillars are the crossing - they supported the vaulting.To the left, in front of the houses, lies the crypt, which was below the chancel. Jimmy steps out onto the wall of the domestic range; in front of him, the square shape was a staircase.
It is Saturday, September 9th, 2000. I am standing in the ruins of the great abbey of St Edmundsbury, writing this. I am in what was probably the scriptorium, where generations of monks copied texts borrowed from other monasteries, or came here to copy the monastery's own, building up the great libraries of the Middle Ages. They worked on the Gospels, and other books of the Bible. They copied the works of the spiritual fathers, and the classical histories.
The task was laborious, but was an act of prayer and contemplation in itself. Even making the materials became a meditation; the ink was prepared in a base of egg white and honey; the bright colours of the illustrations came from crushing precious stones.
The atoms of silicon in those stones are identical to the ones in the microchips inside the laptop I'm using. They will convert my words into a pure digital stream, which will move at the speed of light. Your computer contains more of these silicon atoms, these precious stones. They will download and reconvert my digital stream into a language that is the bastard son of the Latin in which the monks wrote, and the vulgar tongue of the townspeople beyond the walls.
|For most people, there are two big
surprises about the ruins of the Abbey. Firstly, how
extensive they are, and secondly how tamed and
domesticated they appear in the large and pleasant Abbey
Gardens, in this most pleasant of all East Anglian towns.
The outer Abbey wall, which housed and contained the
Abbey outbuildings, still survives to a greater extent,
forming the boundary of the park, and with some very nice
18th and 19th century houses built into it since.
|And the setting! At the end of the apse are municipal tennis courts, with an
incongruous bowling green tucked in beside the north
transept. A children's playground, a rose garden, a
museum (the 'St Edmundsbury Experience') all surround it.
You would be harsh to hate it, I think, because it gives
the people of the town a sense of ownership; for these
ruins are wholly accessible at all times the park is
open, and, miracle upon miracle, entrance is completely
So, how did this extraordinary building come to be here? How is it that one of the great churches of Europe was destroyed?
The story starts some 30 miles east of here, in the village of Rendlesham, near Woodbridge. Unlikely as it may seem, this was almost certainly the capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia. Today, despite being relatively suburban, and on the edge of a large former American airbase, there is still a haunting sense of the remote past, enhanced by the forests that ride the ridges of the heathland.
|And, at the last, his body was taken
slowly in procession from the Christian church at
Rendlesham, across the heathlands, until on Sutton Hoo it
was met by a huge ship which had been dragged up from the
Deben estuary below. There, he was buried in it, along
with weapons, clothes, armour, musical instruments,
jewellery, symbols of sovreignty; the signs of his
majesty and trading might.
From his cathedral at Walton, Felix directed the consecration of Minsters in the trading communities of the Kingdom. Sigebert also turned to the monastic life. He set off westwards, towards the limits of his kingdom, and at a place called Bedricsworth established a community of like-minded souls, the rest of their lives devoted to prayer and contemplation.
Which might easily have been the end of the story, of course; Bedricsworth was just one of many Christian communities of the time. Some have disappeared into oblivion, and it might have been one of these. But there are others where the germ of memory has thrived, and taken root.
They killed most of the monks, stole the produce of the farm and the furnishings of the church, and burned the monastery down. And then they left, returning to where they had come from.
It was the Vikings, of course. Over the next fifty years, the attacks of these Danish hordes increased along the entire eastern seaboard, both in number and ferocity. The Kingdom of East Anglia was wide open to their depredations. Gippeswyck was obvious game, the richest trading port in the land. The Saxons, mainly farmers, craftsmen and small traders, were powerless. What the Kingdom needed was a hero.
|The body was taken to an unknown place
called Sutton, which may have been Sutton Hoo, or possibly Sutton in the parish of Bradfield
St George, or perhaps somewhere else. Within a
generation, hagiographies were being written, Edmund's
|The cult grew. Some fifty years after
the martyrdom, the remains were translated to the Abbey
at Bedricsworth; it became a major centre of pilgrimage,
as people came from all over to seek the favours of the
martyr king, the symbol of resistance to the Danes.
Within the century, it is being called by its new name,
the name it has today, Burgh, or Bury, St Edmunds.
A few years later, came a crisis; the monastery was no longer judged a safe place for the bones to lie, either because of the Danish war, or more likely the inefficiency of the community. It was translated to London in 1010, where it lay in St Paul's churchyard. In 1013 it was returned to Bury, but only on the condition that the community was replaced with one that followed the rule of St Benedict. Secular priests had proved unreliable.
The magnitude of Edmund's cult can best be judged by the fact that at Domesday in 1086, the monastery had 300 separate holdings of land throughout the east of England. About 70 of them were in the western part of Suffolk, including Long Melford and Mildenhall, and almost the entire area to the north and east of the monastery itself, as far as the Norfolk border. The Abbey had complete legal jurisdiction over the eight Hundreds of West Suffolk, which was known as the Liberty of St Edmund, and roughly corresponded to the West Suffolk County Council area which survived until 1974.
The skeleton of a great beached whale: the Abbey church in its polite garden.
The Abbey church was rebuilt about this time, the tomb of St Edmund being erected in 1095. The body was translated into it with great ceremony, along with the bodies of St Jurmin, brother of St Etheldreda and son of King Anna of Blythburgh, and what Norman Scarfe wittily calls 'at least part of St Botolph'. It took another 100 years before the rest of the building was finished. The town around was built up, with the construction of a grid of streets and hundreds of houses. It was a medieval new town.
|The south west tower of Ely survives
(that to the north west fell in the 17th century) and we
can see the same south west tower at Bury, surviving as
part of the building overlooking the square between St
James and St Mary, housing the St Edmundsbury Experience.
We then step into the north transept. Towering columns and walls surround us; like melting icebergs, or wax. It is easy to visualise them as the remains of walls and pillars, but we need to be careful. What we are seeing are, in fact, the remains of the flint rubble cores. All that we see now would have been hidden behind sheaths of dressed stone, a tiny part of which survives, facing the base of some parts of the ruin. What we see now was never meant to be seen.
In the crypt, we see clearly the little chapels that led off the central space, and cores and some modern slabs mark the spots where columns supported the vaulting above.
This crypt was excavated after the Second World War, and in one of the chapels we see the stone base of an altar, one of only three such survivals in Suffolk - the others are at Orford castle chapel, and the Ipswich Blackfriars church. Now, children clamber and explore where once prayer was offered and Masses celebrated. On a plaque in the crossing, the meeting of the Barons on the eve of Magna Carta is commemorated.
|We have a record of the last years of
the Abbey in the work of John Lydgate, who came from the
Suffolk village of Lidgate. He records
that the Abbey gave a quarter of its income in relief to
the poor of the Liberty, and distributed food and alms at
its gates daily. The guesthouses were open to all, even
the poorest of pilgrims; St Edmund's Abbey was no longer
a centre for the wealthy.
|In 1538, the monasteries were
dissolved, their possessions were sold off, and the monks
all given pensions. Senior monks that protested too
loudly were put to death. The money from the sale of
goods accrued to the crown, and the land also.
|This corpse was in the cathedral
certainly as early as 1270, and the story that was
current by the late 16th century was that it had been
stolen from the shrine at Bury in the year 1216, during
the anarchy of the Barons' War.
More picnics. This was the domestic range; the enclosure was the kitchen.
Whoever this body was, it was offered back to the English Church in 1901, at the time of the consecration of Westminster Cathedral. Cardinal Vaughan, the leader of the English Church at the time, readily accepted the offer of renewing the shrine in his new Cathedral, and the corpse was brought by train to Dieppe, and thence to Newhaven in Sussex, where it was kept in the chapel of the Duke of Norfolk's house at Arundel, until the new shrine was ready.
At this point, things started to go awry. A correspondence in the press revealed the considerable doubts of historians and theologians that the corpse could possibly be that of St Edmund.
|After the Reformation, some great
English Abbey churches became cathedrals, but that did
not happen here. And yet, it so easily might have done.
Way back in 1070, some 500 years previously, Herfast,
Bishop of East Anglia, decided to move his See from
Thetford to Bury. It had moved about a bit already over
the previous 400 years, from Walton to North Elmham
before Thetford. But now, after the Norman Conquest, the
idea was that Cathedrals would be glorified; already,
vast edifices were being raised in Durham, London and
Ely. Bury was the obvious place for the Diocese of East
Anglia to sit.
|Five hundred years later, the Dioceses
of Norwich and Ely, into which Suffolk evenly fell, were
not large; and, in any case, they were loyal to the
crown. The same could not be said of the Abbey, where the
community was still fiercely independent of the State; as
at Walsingham, of course, where the Abbey church was
destroyed even more effectively.
|With the 19th century revival came a
new respect for the medieval past, but it was not until
the 1950s that these ruins were properly opened up to the
people of Suffolk, their true inheritance.
My son, unlike me, was born in Suffolk. He is seven, and takes these ruins as a fait accompli - his mind can't possibly reconstruct what was here before. Instead, he invents universes, oceans of possibility and imagination, as far from the world today as that which Abbot Sampson inhabited. He clambers on the ruins with other children, the north wall of the transept becoming a sea cliff, the steps into the crypt a Himalayan mountain path. As far as he is concerned, anything might have happened here.
And that's what archaeology mostly is, I suppose; it's about narrowing down the possibilities. It is about finding the cord that leads all the way back.
People wander aimlessly about these ruins - you'll never be alone here. Is this the same spiritual thirst that sends them into medieval churches? When they aren't locked, that is.
Or is it something more primal, some human need to open up a perspective on where we have come from; and thus, who we are. The Church of Felix, Fursey, Botolph and Edmund has undergone many changes in the 1300 years or so since their adventures were played out on the fields of Suffolk. Most recently, at the Second Vatican Council, it taught us about the Journey of Faith, that life is a pilgrimage towards God. And, of course, we've already come a long way.
The ruins of the Abbey Church of St Edmund may be found in the Abbey gardens, off of Angel Hill, right in the centre of Bury St Edmunds. They are open whenever the park is open - typically, daylight hours.
In writing this entry I have enjoyed reading, and made use of, the books Suffolk in the Middle Ages by Norman Scarfe, A History of Suffolk by David Dymond and Peter Northeast, and Suffolk by Miles Jebb.
Reconstruction of the Abbey of St Edmund, AD1450. The great church sits in the middle. In front of the west front of the Abbey church is the church of St James, now the Anglican Cathedral. To the right of St James is the gateway, now a belltower (the gateway that is the modern entrance to the park is out of the picture to the far left). In the bottom right hand corner is St Mary (now towerless too) and St Margaret (now gone) is on the extreme right. Of the superstructure of the Abbey church, little survives, of course; but the far tower, with the funny little spire, was above the crossing depicted several times above. Immediately to its left is the roof of the north transept. This image is not copyright of me, and I probably shouldn't be using it. It is a postcard of an oilpainting in St James, available from the Cathedral shop.