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43 Facts About the Abbey of St Edmund

The Abbey of St Edmund was one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England - discover 43 Facts on the Abbey!

43 Facts on the Abbey of St Edmund

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1. The abbey church was the largest Romanesque church in Northern Europe

2. If Henry VIII had not had the abbey dissolved the abbey church would have become an enormous cathedral or minster and Bury St Edmunds by now would be a city probably larger than York, Durham or Lincoln.

3. Edward the Confessor visited St Edmunds shrine; the last mile barefoot

4. Henry VI visited the abbey in 1433 at Christmas staying until Easter 1434 with his large entourage, costing the abbey a fortune, feeding them!

5. At least 14 sovereigns have visited Bury St Edmunds and its abbey, the last was Queen Elizabeth II when she gave out Maundy money in 2009

6. Dame Elizabeth Frink’s fine statue of St Edmund commemorates the loss of West Suffolk as a county when it joined East Suffolk in 1974 to become Suffolk

7. During the refurbishment of the Abbey’s West Front 2005/6 a worn track in the flintwork was discovered caused by the monk’s hobnailed sandals

8. According to famous academic and ghost writer, M R James, the three niches above the portcullis, which is a Victorian replacement, may have had statues of St Edmund flanked by two Danish archers

9. The last abbot John Reeve, aka De Melford was given a huge pension on his ejection but died without collecting it some say of a broken heart

10. The abbey’s Vinefields faced North-West, usually grapevines faced South to take full advantage of the sun

11. The River Linnet was diverted to form a mill pond near to where the Abbots bridge is, the townspeople could not grind their grain in any other mill

12. In 1772 the embalmed body of Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter who led the English rear guard at the battle of Agincourt was found near the Lady Chapel. He had died at East Greenwich in 1427 and his will dictated he was to be buried by his Duchess here in St Edmunds abbey church.

13. Neither did Henry VIII brother of Mary Tudor aka Brandon, queen of France nor Charles Brandon her husband attended her funeral in 1533 when she was entombed in an alabaster tomb in the abbey church, she was moved to St Marys parish church after the dissolution of 1539

13. The last great procession to enter the abbey church through the central arch was that of Mary Tudor, Queen of France who died of the Tudor Curse, the dreaded sweating sickness in 1533

14. An officer of the abbey was known as an Obedientiary, a follower of the rules of St Benedict hence Benedictine, they all held specific roles ie the Sacrist looked after the infrastructure of the abbey but also could collect the dung from the streets

15. Another interesting role was that of the Refectorarius or Comptroller looking after the refectory (dining hall) supplying crockery, table linen, furniture, mats; also responsible for putting rushes and straw on the floor and importantly doling out cheese

16. There were Latin names for many of the officers, a version of an Almoner gave alms to the poor. The Pitancer collected small parcels of food left from the monk’s meals to give to the poor, small being the operative word hence the phrase ‘not working for a pitance’

17. After the dissolution the poor of the town had to rely on the generosity of the Guildhall Feoffees to help look after them

18. Any abbey stone taken from the abbey can be found mostly in cellars in the town although a wall outside the Farmers Club in Pump Lane is entirely of limestone ashlar blocks. Abbey stone is unlikely to be found any further than 6 miles out, a day there & back for a cart.

19. The intense heat of the 2018 summer showed via parch marks hidden walls of parts of the abbey

20. The Norman Tower was built by Anselm an Italian abbot 1120-48 and is referred to as a Campanile, a stand-alone belfry

21. In 1785 Thomas Osborn of Downham Market Bell Foundry hung ten bells in the Norman Tower the only complete set ever in any belfry at one time

22. No known images of the abbey church survive but the footprint of the ruins tells us the size of the church

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23. In 1066 with the Norman Conquest we did not need a castle to subdue the inhabitants of the town as Baldwin was the French abbot of the abbey which controlled the town

24. Baldwin laid out the ancient medieval grid still evident today thus making it possibly the oldest such in the country

25. There were thirty-three abbots during the 500 plus years of its existence, six buried in the Chapter House were disinterred on new years day 1903, five of which were re-buried in their own coffins

26. The refurbished abbots palace was demolished by Major Richardson Pack in 1720/21 though he had paid a lot of money for it

27. The abbeys Warming House was the only part of the abbey where any form of heat was allowed for the monks

28. The South Trancept of the abbey church is shorter than the North Trancept

29. In 1845 someone fell though the floor of the Charnel House a consecrated bone depository from 1300 and found themselves surrounded by thousands of bones in the crypt.

30. There were 3 large archways into the West Front, the central arch was reserved for royalty, upper members of society along with clergy. The facing left arch had pilgrims in their thousands over the centuries enter and come out of the right arch

31. A tympanum, a sculpture of Jesus Christ that was across the rounded arch of the Norman Tower was removed in 1789 to allow the passage of carts

32. There were once turrets on the Abbey Gate. Also, one on the Norman Tower as well as a clock

33. The Norman Tower/ St James Tower was the religious gateway to the abbey church, the Abbey Gate the secular or non-religious gate

34. There are small stone sculptures on the rear of the Abbey Gate including that of a cat and a pig

35. So called Stars of David on the front of the Abbey Gate have nothing to do with the Jewish faith as when this gateway was built between 1327 and 1347, they had been expelled from England 137 years. Yes religious, but they possibly relate to a Double Trinity

36. Facing Churchgate Street on the Norman Tower, at the top of a stone column there are small stone sculptures of a male lion, lioness and cub between them. Born supposedly dead it was believed in medieval times that the breath of the parents brought the cub to life.

37. Once thought incorrect that 25 Barons met on November 20th 1214 not only to celebrate Edmunds martyrdom day but secretly to compel King John to agree to Magna Carta it has been now proved they did but in October of 1214

38. Not only was Edmund venerated here but also his religious relics such as his nail parings, shirt and sword.

39. Others were: relating to St Lawrence, the coals he was roasted on, pieces of the Holy Cross plus Thomas A Becket ‘s penknife

40. There was a stone dovecote in the abbey, their flesh and eggs were very important

41. The Crankles or fishponds, twisting waterways were also very important for the monks diet as they were not supposed to eat flesh!

42. Monks drank large amounts of weak beer as its brewing process killed harmful bacteria

43. Is Edmund really buried under the monk’s cemetery, tennis courts, theories abound that he could be in an iron bound chest?

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 1000 Guide!

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