34 Abbeygate St, Bury Saint Edmunds IP33 1LW, UK

About The Abbey Ruins

In 903 the remains of Saint Edmund, the martyred King of the East Angles, were moved to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Bedricesworth (which because St Edmundsbury and now Bury St Edmunds) where the site had already been in religious use for nearly three centuries.

In 1020, surrounding lands were granted to the small household of Benedictine monks who became custodians of St Edmund’s shrine, during the reign of King Canute. This was the beginning of the Abbey of St Edmund and it became a site of great pilgrimage as people from all over Europe came to visit St Edmund’s resting place.

Abbott Baldwin

In 1081, Abbott Baldwin embarked on a building programme that was to last well over 100 years, culminating in a Romanesque Abbey church. He was also responsible for laying out the town in 1065, which is considered the oldest purposefully laid out town in the country, the medieval grid is still evident today. The monks charged tariffs on every economic activity, including the collecting of horse droppings in the streets. The Abbey even ran the Royal Mint.

The great Abbey church was consecrated on 29 April 1095 and the shrine of St Edmund stood behind the high altar. The Abbey church’s final length was 505 feet (154 metres) with the majestic West Front 246 feet (75 metres). At over 150 metres long the church was one of only a few of its date to be built on such a large scale in this country. 

The Abbey and The Magna Carta

Near the ruins of the Abbey of St Edmunds, nestled in the Abbey Gardens, is ‘Our Liberty’, a lasting memorial to Bury St Edmunds’ link to the Magna Carta. 

The Magna Carta is widely recognised as one of the most important documents in the world and Bury St Edmunds played a very crucial role in its creation.

A group of Barons met in St Edmund’s Abbey in 1214 and swore an oath to compel King John to accept the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation of Henry I. The most likely date for this meeting is November 20, 2014 because that was St Edmund’s Day. This act led directly to the Great Charter or the Magna Carta, agreed at Runnymede on June 15 1215.

The people of Bury St Edmunds have celebrated this link for hundreds of years with the town’s motto ‘Shrine of the King, Cradle of the Law’, which refers to our historic links with King Edmund (the first patron saint of England) and the Barons’ meeting which led to the creation of the Magna Carta.

Riots, Disputes, Fire and Destruction

The abbey continued to thrive throughout the 13th century but relations with the townspeople were rarely cordial. Matters came to a head in 1327 in a summer of riots, though disputes rumbled on throughout the 14th century. The abbey suffered other problems too, notably damage to the west tower through collapse and later a serious fire.

Despite these setbacks Bury St Edmunds remained politically important throughout the 15th century. In 1539, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII. It was sold on by the Crown, the Abbott’s Palace survived as a house until 1720 but the abbey precinct became a quarry for building material for the townsfolk and the shrine of St Edmund was stripped and broken. The whereabouts of St Edmund’s body remains a mystery.

In 1831, after 300 years of neglect, the grounds (owned by the Marquis of Bristol) were laid out as a botanic garden created by Nathaniel Hodson and became the Abbey Gardens you see today.

The Abbey Gate

Visitors enter the abbey complex today through the impressive Great Gate complete with its portcullis. The original gateway, entrance to the great courtyard of the monastery, was destroyed in 1327 during the Great Riot by the local people, who were angry at the power of the monastery.  The Abbey Gate you can see today with its west side arrow slits was built in the 14th Century.

Norman Tower

The Norman Tower, was the principal gateway into Bury St Edmunds' great abbey church, and 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. It still serves as the bell tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, formerly St James’ Church.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

A church has stood on the site of the cathedral since at least 1065, when St Denis's Church was built within the complex of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. 

In the early 12th century the Abbot Anselm had wanted to make a pilgrimage along the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela. He was unsuccessful and instead rebuilt St Denis's and dedicated the new church to Saint James, which served as the parish church for the townspeople.

The church was largely rebuilt, starting in 1503, in the Perpendicular style by John Wastell, a master mason who also worked on King's College, Cambridge.

St James’ Church became St Edmundsbury Cathedral in 1914.

St Mary’s Church

St Mary's Church was built between 1290 and 1490 as part of the abbey complex for the townspeople. However, there is nothing visible in the present structure that survives from the Norman church. 

It is thought to be the largest parish church in England, and is the final resting place of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk and Henry VIII's favourite sister (after whom Henry's ship the Mary Rose was named).

Entry to the Abbey Gardens and the Abbey Ruins is free.   

Garden opening times: Opens Monday to Saturday 7.30am, Sunday 9am Closing times vary depending on daylight hours, they are seasonal and exact changeover dates may change. The closing times for the gates are given as a guide: November to February 4.30pm, March to May and October 6pm and 7.30pm to 8pm from June to September.

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