Discover The Abbey of St Edmund

In Medieval times, The Abbey of St Edmund was one of the richest, largest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England and people came from all over Europe to visit the Shrine of Saint Edmund, the first Patron Saint of England.

The Abbey was one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England, visited by royalty.

Edmund, King of East Anglia, was killed by The Danes on 20 November 869, after refusing to give up his Christian faith. He was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being beheaded. 

In 903, the body of Saint Edmund, was moved to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Beodericsworth (later known as Bury St Edmunds).

In 1020, King Canute had a stone church built for Edmund's body and 13 Benedictine monks from St Benet’s at Hulme in Norfolk and 7 from Ely arrived. This was the beginning of the Abbey of St Edmund, 1000 years ago, and it became a site of great pilgrimage as people from all over Europe came to visit St Edmund’s shrine. 

A great Abbey Church would be built and then consecrated on 29 April 1095 with the bejewelled shrine of St Edmund standing behind the high altar. 

The Abbey’s history until its dissolution in 1539, is one filled with intrigue, mystery, riots and unrest but undoubtedly its most important role was in the Magna Carta story. In 1214 a band of barons met in secret in the Abbey, and here they swore an oath to force King John to agree to a Charter of Liberties. That Charter – The Magna Carta, finalised the following year helped form the basis of the United States Constitution, and the Human Rights Act.

Today, the Abbey remains are extensive and include the complete 14th century Abbeygate and Norman Tower, as well as the impressive ruins and altered west front of the immense church, St Mary’s Church and part of St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

The ruins are surrounded by the beautiful Abbey Gardens, an award-winning 14-acre park, and visited by 1.3 million people from all over the world every year.

Saint Edmund’s final resting place is a great mystery; some believe he is buried somewhere within the abbey precincts!

2020 marks the 1,000th year anniversary of the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund by King Canute. 

Did you know?

- In 1020, King Canute had a stone church built to receive the body of Saint Edmund, the Patron Saint of England, and the first abbots arrived, marking the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund 1,000 years ago!

- The shrine brought visits from Royalty and the Abbey became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England. It also attracted pilgrims from abroad as Edmund was a major saint in the Catholic Calendar. Such pilgrimages could take up to a year to complete and brought a lot of wealth to the abbey. Pilgrim badges were collected as badges of honour from where they had visited.

- Edward The Confessor granted the Abbey the power to mint its own coinage.

- The Great Abbey Church was consecrated on 29 April 1095. Its final total length was 505 feet (154 metres) and the majestic West Front 246 feet (75 metres).

- The Norman Tower, was the religious gateway into Bury St Edmunds' great abbey church, was built between 1120 and 1148 facing its great west door. It is one of the oldest Norman buildings in England and one of the most complete Norman buildings in the UK as it has never been altered.

- Abbot Baldwin was appointed in 1065 and embarked on a building programme to create the Great Abbey Church that was to last well over 100 years. He was also responsible for laying out the town in a grid pattern

- During the abbacy of Abbot Samson (1182 - 1211) Moyse’s Hall (now the town’s museum) was built and the wonderful Bury Bible by master Hugo was written. Hugo is also credited with carving the Bury St Edmunds Cross or 'The Cloisters Cross' as it s also known - an unusually complex 12th-century Romanesque altar cross, carved from walrus ivory, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

- Much is known about Abbot Samson from The Chronicle of Joscelin De Brakeland, a monk of the abbey who kept a diary towards the end of 12th Century.

- The Abbey is also known for its important role in the Magna Carta story. A group of Barons met at the Abbey in 1214 and swore an oath to compel King John to accept the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation of Henry I. This act led directly to the Great Charter or the Magna Carta, agreed at Runnymede on June 15 1215.

- When rioting broke out in 1327 the Abbey was attacked by the townspeople fed up of the oppressive taxation by the Abbey. The original Abbeygate was destroyed to be rebuilt by 1347 (the gate you see today). But the shrine of St Edmund was untouched, such was the awe and esteem Edmund was held in.

- The last great procession to enter the Abbey Church before its dissolution was the funeral cortege of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Henry VIII’s favourite sister. She was buried in the Abbey Church in 1533. She is now buried in St Mary’s Church within the abbey precinct.

- In 1902 notable academic M.R. James, best remembered as a writer of ghost stories, discovered a manuscript fragment which led him to find the location where the five abbots were buried in Chapter House.

- As one of the five richest abbeys in the country, hundreds of years of royal patronage ensured it was one of the last to be dissolved.In a short space of time the site became a builder’s yard, the limestone blocks being stripped away leaving a flint and mortar core which you see today. It is said you won’t find any abbey stone any further than six miles outside Bury St Edmunds, the distance covered by a cart and oxen there and back in a day.

1000 years since the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund will be marked with a year of celebrations in 2022. Find out more with our 'Abbey of St Edmund 1000 Guide!

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