e-mail simon@suffolkchurches.co.uk

 

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.

A rubble core of one of the four great crossing pillars.

  I wander through the chapter house, and into the great north transept of the Abbey church itself. The monks in the scriptorium made the same journey, whenever the bells rang for the daily offices. I am now standing in one of the largest Romanesque churches in Europe. In my mind, I live and relive what it would have been like to be here then.

Sometimes books aren't enough, and sometimes they tell us what we'd really rather not know. Any decent local history will tell you about the glories of Bury Abbey, about its run-ins with the local people, the riots and the riches, of how it lived and died.

Now, this is all very well, but more interesting I think is the possibility of sensing what it was like to live here as an ordinary monk in, say, the 13th century. Fortunately, the daily life of Bury Abbey is one of the best documented of all lost medieval communities, and it is in a county with some of the most enthusiastic local historians. Did you know that the Suffolk Records Office is the most used in the entire country?

In the scriptorium that I have just left, a monk called Jocelin of Brakelond wrote a chronicle of this Abbey and its times; it is effectively the story of the adolescence of the county of Suffolk. A difficult time, with troubles still to come.

  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.
Two of the conventual churches, St James (now the Anglican cathedral) and St Mary, survive pretty well intact, along with a wall and charnel house of a third, St Margaret.

So do two of the gateways; one is still the main entrance to the park, and the other, considered one of the finest survivals in England, temporarily houses the Anglican cathedral bells.

But it is the ruins of the great Abbey church of St Edmund that astound. A vast, cruciform building, it was more than 500 feet long and 200 feet wide.

You could fit Suffolk's biggest parish church, St Peter and St Paul at Lavenham, into the nave and transepts four times, and still have room for Thornham Parva up in the sanctuary.

One is able to trace it almost in entirety, apart from the south aisle and west front, which have been swallowed up by later buildings.

 

Gateway, now a bell tower. St James is to the right.

 
  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 free.

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.

Redwald. The Sutton Hoo helmet, iconic of Suffolk.

  Here lived the Wuffingas, the Saxon royal family. Most prominent among them was Redwald, King from 599 to 625. A pragmatic man, he established his kingdom as one of the primary trading areas of north west Europe. In the Gipping valley, his quays, workshops and settlements coagulated into Gyppeswick, the modern Ipswich. By the 8th century, it was the largest town we know of in northern Europe.

We should not be surprised that his capital and trading port were in the south east extremity of his kingdom, any more than we should be surprised that London, England's capital today, is also in the south east.

For Redwald was a European, a federalist rather than an empire builder. For him, it was trade rather than conquest that built up his fabulous wealth. In an essential act of embracing the European sphere, Redwald became a Christian; but it was said that in his palace at Rendlesham he kept two altars, one for the Christian God he had adopted, and one for the pagan gods of his forefathers, for he was a pragmatist to the last.

 
  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.
His son, Sigebert, carried the Christian torch after his death. And now, Chritianity became a way for the Wuffingas to reinforce their sovreignty.

Sigebert invited representatives of the Church into his kingdom. From Burgundy came St Felix, a beacon of Roman orthodoxy.

From the monasteries of the north came St Fursey, steeped in Celtic spirituality. Later, from Germany, came St Botolph, architect of monasticism.

 

St Felix and St Fursey flank St Michael on a modern reredos at South Elmham St Michael.

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.

Picnic in the cloisters.

  One of these was a place called Lindisfarne, some 300 miles to the north. There, a similar community were going about their morning round of prayer and farmwork in the summer of the year 793, when a group of long, low boats were sighted on the eastern horizon.

The boats landed on the shore below the monastery, a place that is still a harbour today. The sailors climbed to the monastery, and sacked it.

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 Martyrdom of St Edmund, 869. 13th century wallpainting at Troston.

  His name was Edmund. From his headquarters at Rendlesham, he set out to drive the heathen invader from the land. A king leading his troops into battle, he became more than a figurehead. He was an icon.

And then, in 869, in a parish called Hellesdun, which was probably the modern Hoxne but may have been Bradfield St George, he was captured by Danish troops.

In front of the assembled Saxon prisoners, he was mercilessly butchered, Danish troops firing hundreds of arrows into his body at close range.

Who can separate legend from fact at such a distance? The story is that the corpse was decapitated, the head being thrown into a thicket.

Saxon soldiers dispersed in the battle slowly returned, to find the headless body of their king. They searched for three days, and eventually came upon a giant wolf, guarding the head of Edmund between its paws.

 
  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 sainthood secure.

St Edmund's head in the mouth of a wolf - Hadleigh.

 

St Edmund's head in the mouth of a wolf - Hoxne.

 
  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.

18th century house built into the west front. Dunno who the bloke is, but he's quite good for scale.

  The monastery reached the apex of its power in the late 12th century under the charismatic Abbot Samson, familiar to East Anglians as a symbol of the Greene King brewery.

By now, there were about a hundred monks and secular priests in residence, and as many again of workers and servants. Parliaments met here, monarchs arrived with their retinues. History was made.

The library became one of the intellectual centres of Europe, with more than 2,000 volumes. Visitors to the Abbey describe it in the terms one would use of a great city. It was the glory around which Suffolk gathered and spread, the pulsing heart of all power and spirituality.

Fortunately, it is still possible for us to see what the Abbey church of St Edmund was like. We can do so by travelling 30 miles to the north west, to the tiny beautiful city of Ely in Cambridgeshire.

There, we find a Cathedral of roughly the same proportion, configuration and style. Replace Ely's famous lantern tower with a spire, and the illusion is complete.

 
  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.
Here is a good place to start. Beyond and beside are modern buildings, so to explore the rest of the Abbey church ruins we must go through the gate to the north-east of St James - or, if this is locked, as it sometimes is, back out on to Angel Hill, and into the park through the Abbey gateway.

The best approach to the ruins is then found by bearing right, up past the bowling green, and into the conventual buildings beside the north transept.

These include the scriptorium and chapter house, where we will find modern graveslabs marking the site of the burials of Samson and other former Abbots.

 

The south end of the west front. The end tower was once like that at Ely Cathedral. now, this is a tourism office.

Above: The entrance gateway, now the main way in. I suspect that the person in the foreground is some sort of local character.

Right: the same gateway, but from inside.

 

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.

I stand where the shrine of St Edmund was, looking back westwards to the crossing. The woman in the garish dress stands in the crypt. The people above her are standing in the chancel arch. Either side are the transepts, and nave is beyond (as is St James church, the modern spires of which are just visible.

  As we walk into the crossing, we can turn west to look down the vast nave, the stumpy cores marking the arcades that separated off the north and south aisles.

We can imagine the triforia above them, and the roof far off beyond that. The great pillars of the crossing are the most substantial survivals, and we can see how they would have supported the vaulting.

Turning to face the east, we must imagine the high altar some 70 feet beyond, high in the sanctuary. Behind it stood the tomb of St Edmund, after Canterbury and Walsingham the greatest goal of pilgrimage in Medieval England.

Your imagination needs to be slightly keener for the chancel and the sanctuary, because the crypt beneath has been exposed, and nothing of the original floor level survives.

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.

On the 20th of January 1465, a great fire ravaged the Abbey. It destroyed all the roofs, and brought down the central tower and spire. It seems unlikely that they could have been completely replaced in the short life the Abbey had left.

Earlier in its history, the Abbey had had more than a few run-ins with the local people. The main point of contention seems to have been that the freedoms obtained in charter form by other Boroughs were not made available to those under the control of the monastery. In 1327, the townspeople rioted, and spent three days occupying and trashing the Abbey.

The Abbot seems to have pacified them with a charter of their own, but a revenge attack by monks on the congregation of one of the churches (yes, I know it is hard to believe) led to an ongoing civil war in the town that had to be put down by the Sheriff of Norfolk. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381, several prominent government figures, including the Chief Justice and the Collector of Taxes, sought refuge in the Abbey; but by now there seems to have been considerable collusion between the monks and the townsfolk, for the refugees were handed over, and publicly butchered in the market place. This created such a scandal that Bury town and Abbey were only readmitted to the King's Peace a year after everywhere else in England.

 

Stone altar in the crypt chapel of St Robert.

 
  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.

 

Above: the pigeonhouse.

Left: Jimmy reenacts the martyrdom at the gateway. Note the size of the niches, and the detail on the pedestal above his head.

 
  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.
One intriguing question is what happened to the body of Edmund at the Dissolution. Many Saints' bones were desecrated and publicly exhibited, paraded in the street before being burned, or fashioned into clumsy weapons, musical instruments or hockey sticks, in a grisly attempt to demonstrate that they held no spiritual power.

The less ideologically-driven reformers were conspiring to sell the relics abroad, reasoning that the money European churches were willing to pay for them could legitimately be counted as the wealth of the church that was to accrue to the state.

So, were the bones of St Edmund sold or desecrated? At the Dissolution, the commissioners write of the huge size of the tomb, that it was 'comberous to deface', and mention the loot sequestered from the Abbey itself, but there is no mention of the corpse of St Edmund, and nothing to reveal its whereabouts.

In an elegant and fascinating essay entitled St Edmund's Corpse: Defeat into Victory, Norman Scarfe records the presence of a skeleton in the Cathedral of St Sernin, Toulouse, labelled Corpus S Eadmundi Regis Anglie (The body of Saint Edmund, King of the English).

 

Carving from Abbey gateway, now in Moyse Hall Museum, Bury. Compare with pedestal in picture above, left.

 
  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.

The Cardinal lost his nerve, and the corpse was never translated to Westminster. And so, at Arundel it remains, a century on.

It could be Edmund, I suppose. More likely, perhaps, the bones were buried quietly at night by members of the chapter, when it became clear what the writing on the wall was saying. In which case, they lie beneath the soil of Bury to this very day.

 

Looking west, through the chapter house. The tall fragment is the north wall of the north transept. St James lies beyond.

 
  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.

Modern gravemarkers for the burials of former Abbots.

  However, such a move would have cut off the Abbey's independent direct line with Rome, and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Province of Canterbury.

The community was determined that this would not happen, and Abbot Baldwin sent representations to the Pope that ensured the survival of the Abbey's independence.

Bishop Herfast would not be allowed to glorify his position in East Anglia in the way his colleagues were doing elsewhere. His successor, Herbert de Losinga, was more determined.

But Bury was a lost cause; instead, he chose to move his See to a thriving market town in the north east of his Diocese; a smaller, more remote place than Bury, to be sure; but proximity to the Abbey of St Edmund was perhaps not such a good thing anyway - it tended to cast a rather heavy shadow.

And so it was that the great medieval cathedral of the East Anglian bishops came to be built, instead, at Norwich.

 
  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.
For two centuries after the dissolution, the Abbey effectively became a quarry for the people of Bury, who carted off its stone for other buildings.

By the end of the 17th century, what had happened here had been virtually forgotten. The Protestant Cultural Revolution in England was at its height.

It wiped the people's collective memory of their Catholic past. History was at least resurfaced, if not selectively rewritten.

But the enlightenment of the 18th century saw a rekindled passion for history, especially among those with the leisure to pursue it.

How fascinating and remote these ruins must have seemed by then! What stories the ordinary people must have told about them!

 

Stephen Dykes Bowers' 1950s chancel and transepts of St James, now the Anglican Cathedral. The rose garden commemorates the writer John Appleby; all the royalties of his lovely A Suffolk Summer were bequeathed to it, and continue to pay for its maintenance.

 
  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.

Among the honeysuckle, the last remnants of the outer and inner range of the chapterhouse doorway.

 

Modern Bury. The Abbey gateway beyond, the Abbey perimeter fence to the right - oh, and award-winning public lavatories in the foreground.

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.