Saturday, 26 October 2013

Bury St Edmunds - A Tale Of Two Churches

Lets start with what we know about St Edmund. Virtually nothing. There are no contemporary accounts of his life. Everything we know about him was made up years after his death. 

He was born, it's said, in about 841 AD, the son of King Aethelweard, about whom we know even less. At the age of 14 Edmund succeeded his father as King of East Anglia. In 869 AD Britain was invaded by the Great Heathen Army of the Danes. Edmund refused to renounce Christianity and was put to death on the orders of one Ivar the Boneless. 

What you really want to know now - what I really want to know too - is how Ivar got his nickname. He was known to have been a berserker, a group of warriors who got themselves into a trance with the aid of hallucinogens, before they went into battle. But no one knows for sure why he was described as "boneless", though you can be sure that there's been plenty of speculation!

Just to make sure that Edmund learned his lesson he was beaten, shot full of arrows and then beheaded. The head was thrown into the forest but his followers found the head with help from a wolf that could talk. Not only that but it spoke Latin! "Hic, hic, hic!" it cried. ("Here, here, here!")

Despite his unhappy end and unlikely story he became a cult figure after his death and pilgrimages were made to his visit his shrine. By the tenth century a household of Benedictine monks had been founded and a church built on the site by King Canute, no less. By the medieval period St Edmund was widely regarded as being the patron saint of England. The abbey, as it now was, became the most important, and the richest, pilgrimage site in the country. A huge abbey church was built. A model shows how grand it was... 

....but gives no idea of its size. The county's largest parish church, the huge wool church at Lavenham (which you can see here), would have fitted in four times over with room to spare. Now little remains.

By the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539 the monks owned much of Suffolk and had become very wealthy indeed. But, during the two hundred years before that, the monks had become corrupt and extremely unpopular. Monks were killed and buildings were damaged  in riots by the townspeople. In 1327 the Abbey Gate was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

The Abbey Gate led into a huge courtyard surrounded by grand buildings. Today it survives as Abbey Gardens, a well-maintained public space.

You can wander among the flowers or explore the ruins at your leisure, and all without charge. 

These huge rubble cores are impressive, though nearly all the best building stone has been plundered for later building work. Just tantalising glimpses remain to give some idea of its former grandeur. If you look high up on that tower of rubble you'll see a small remnant of finished stone giving the suggestion of the base of an arch. No need to strain your eyes; I'll help you out...

But behind the ruin you can't help but notice a soaring church tower...

But that church tower is not all it seems as we shall discover. There's been a church on the site since at least 1065 - but not this one. It was started in 1503 but much altered in the Victorian era.

There's a rather elaborate font designed by George Gilbert Scott in 1870, though the cover and the decoration was added later.

In 1914 the church became a cathedral for the new diocese of Ipswich and St Edmundsbury. (Don't ask me why Bury St Edmunds suddenly becomes St Edmundsbury.)  It was decided that cathedral status demanded more building; transepts, a tower, that sort of thing. From 1943 to 1988 Simon Dykes Bower was the architect. He was a controversial figure in that he championed the Gothic revival, which had become deeply unfashionable since its heyday in the Victorian era. However it allowed continuity of style with earlier work.

But the tower, yes the one we saw earlier from the ruins, was not built until this century (between 2000 and 2005. There's some wonderful decorating - painting and gold leaf - which, being brand spanking new, is rather bright and colourful. 

The organ's a bit special too...

So we CAN still build these things! All it takes is time and money.

I'm going to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the Cathedral refectory (which won't take much money at all), then I'm going outside to take another look at that tower.

Take care.


  1. The history is deep, the gardens are light - I enjoyed the gardens and the entry to them - so nicely maintained and colourful. I like the photo of the tuins resting on velvety-green lawn, and the church spires in the background; that's a beauty! The tower is amazing, it is an awesome feeling to stand inside of something like this - looking up to the goldleaf decorations, you have to wonder quite how they scales those heights, and got back down for their smoko ... and back up again! Imagine waking up of a morning knowing you're to be balancing on a plank so high, with your hands over your head and flimsy gold-leaf papers in one hand and a brush in the other. You'd deserve a smoko! Well I bet that cup of tea and slice of cake was really enjoyed; well done John, great post.

  2. So we can still build things like this! Amazing. It's beautiful even if the paint is a bit gaudy. That will probably fade with time, though. What a beautiful place, and a strange history. I read about St. Edmund and once again was struck by how cruel people were--and, in truth, still are in certain places and circumstances. Excellent post.

  3. Great post John- the Latin speaking wolf really made me laugh. I love Bury, it's an interesting place and the Abbey Gardens are lovely. The church is impressive inside too, last time I was there a rehearsal for a concert was going on - wish I could have gone to the actual performance.

  4. It makes me wonder a thousand years from now how much to the story of St. Edmund will be added or lost. "In the year 2000 it is said gold leaf was used in the decoration of the tower but they may be just legend."

  5. A fascinating story about a celebrated but unknown king. I have read the name Bury St. Edmunds many times but had no idea what it was derived from. The new tower and its interior decoration are spectacular.

  6. Everything is spectacular: the "modern" interior, the garden and even the ruins. The painting and gold leaf must have cost a fortune in this day and age.

  7. The gardens are lovely - all that yellow and dark red. The ruins in pic. 9 look like great stony sculptures in rough contrast to the spanking new polished tower. I find pic.13 a bit difficult -the centre seems rather flash, and the blue ceiling tiles(?) remind me of a bathroom. But they did do a wonderful job of matching the architecture of the tower to the rest of the building, and it is encouraging to see that there are still skilled craftsmen who can do astounding work. I wonder, though, how much of the intent for building the tower was for the "glory of God" and how much is simply to get more tourist dollars. I guess that's what most churches are today - tourist attractions.

  8. Many thanks for all your comments. Yes, the colours do seem a bit gaudy but I believe there was always much more colour in our churches in the past; certainly the wall paintings that survive, faded though they are, give that impression. The ceiling is actually made from carved and shaped wood, oak I believe. If we equate medieval pilgrims with modern tourists then the old churches were much more successful as tourist (or pilgrim) attractions than any modern church; the monks grew fabulously rich, and corrupt, as a result of the money that the pilgrims brought in.

  9. I have read that many of the classic Greek temples that we think of as pristine white were painted in bold colors too.

    Lots of work goes into the history posts--it takes a while for me to read and digest them.


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