Steeped in history dating back to the Bronze Age, the west Suffolk market town, Bury St Edmunds benefits from an advanced cultural scene and a sense of civic pride, with nearly every major roundabout heading into the town itself.
Bury St Edmunds
Bury St Edmunds took its name from a former King of East Anglia, who, after refusing to give up his Christian faith in 869 to invading Danes, was tied to a tree, shot full of arrows and finally beheaded. At first Edmund’s head went missing but was then was discovered with a wolf and reunited with his body. The two parts miraculously reattached and a new saint was born.
In 903 the remains of Saint Edmund, the original the Patron Saint of England, were moved to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Beodericsworth (later known as Bury St Edmunds) where the site had already been in religious use for nearly three centuries.
St Edmund’s body was moved to London in 1010 for safe keeping when The Danes were again marauding through East Anglia but three years later his body was returned to Bedricesworth.
In 1020, King Canute had a stone church built for Edmund’s body and the first abbots arrived. 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 shrine.
St Edmund remains the heavenly protector of wolves, torture victims and perhaps more contemporarily, pandemics. In 2020, the Abbey of St Edmunds celebrated its 1,000th birthday.
Culturally, Bury is home to the nation’s sole surviving Regency theatre, the Theatre Royal, as well as a state-of-the-art arts centre, The Apex, and Moyse’s Hall Museum with its remarkable artefacts, including real-life wands.
The town’s self-titled annual festival takes place in May and features a 10-day programme of music, dance, drama, film and literature.
Bury also hosts an annual Sci-Fi festival every October, which features screen props and replicas, original artwork and much more from the likes of Star Wars, Doctor Who, Marvel and DC.
In 1081, Abbot 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 had the power to mint its own coinage.
The great Abbey church was consecrated in 1095 and the bejewelled 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.
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 may also be responsible for carving the Bury St Edmunds Cross – an unusually complex 12th-century Romanesque altar cross, carved from walrus ivory, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A replica is on display in St Edmundsbury Cathedral Treasury.
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 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 at the 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, 1214 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 which helped form the basis of the United States Constitution, and the Human Rights Act.
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 Abbot’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 today.
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 Abbey Gate complete with its portcullis. The original gateway, entrance to the great courtyard of the monastery, was destroyed in 1327 during the riots 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.
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.
Places to Visit In Bury St Edmunds
Greene King Brewery
The Brewery have two tours available:
The Walk, Talk and Tasting Tour – Join us as we walk through Greene King’s history discovering our oldest buildings and finding out what they have been used for throughout time. Our knowledgeable guides will tell you everything you need to know about Greene King.
The Brewery Tour – climb over 100 stairs to the roof of our brewery and see how we make our beer. Back in our café you will be able to enjoy a tutored tasting of our beers brewed here in Bury St Edmunds and Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar. Find out how we make our beers and what goes in to them to give that distinctive taste. We also have a delicious new beer-based condiment range to taste, made by our friends at Scarlett & Mustard with Greene King and Belhaven Beer.
Whether you’re a history lover or simply want a picnic in a park, the Abbey Gardens provides a beautiful backdrop in which to enjoy.
Seasonal opening times
Summer – 1 April to 31 August, Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 8pm, Sundays and bank holidays 9am to 8pm.
Mid-season – September and March, Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 6pm, Sundays and bank holidays 9am to 6pm.
Winter – 1 October to the last day in February, Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 5pm, Sundays and bank holidays 9am to 5pm.
St Edmundsbury Cathedral
- The elegant NAVE of the church was built by John Wastell in 1503. Guided tours of the Cathedral are available May to September
- The SUSANNA WINDOW tells the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Apocrypha. This is the oldest glass in the Cathedral, dated at around 1480.
- The LEGO® model We are recreating St Edmundsbury Cathedral out of 200,000 LEGO® bricks. We are one of only four cathedrals in the country to be doing a LEGO® Cathedral project
- The MILLENNIUM TOWER is a striking lantern tower, built of Barnack limestone, flint and lime mortar. It is the crowning glory of St Edmundsbury Cathedral and was completed in 2005. The tower is 160ft high and there are 202 steps to the top which gives you amazing views from the highest public access point in the town.
- The Lady Chapel This chapel is set aside for quiet prayer and reflection. Pilgrims come daily to light candles and leave their prayers here.
- The Quire and Altar Housing the Bishop’s Throne (Cathedra) makes this church the Cathedral of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
- The Chapels dedicated to St Edmund and the Transfiguration Works of art include the Frink Crucifixion and the Sybil Andrews tapestry of the Martyrdom of St Edmund.
The Theatre Royal
Built in 1819, this Grade 1 listed playhouse is the only surviving example of a Regency theatre in the UK. It is the only theatre open to the public in the National Trust’s portfolio of properties. Fully restored to it’s Georgian splendour, the intimate auditorium and exquisite decorative scheme will provide visitors with an unforgettable and unique theatrical experience. Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds presents a vibrant, year-round programme of drama, music, dance and stand up comedy.
West Stow Country Park and Anglo Saxon Village
West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village – one of the UK’s great archaeological sites – is a stunning recreation of the Anglo-Saxon settlement that occupied the site between 450-650 AD. There is lots to see and do at West Stow throughout the year. Wander through the village and imagine what life would have been like for the Anglo-Saxons who lived here. Visit the Museum to see hundreds of fascinating finds excavated from beneath your feet. Dress up as an Anglo-Saxon, become an archaeologist in our Mini-Dig and don’t forget to meet the pigs and chickens! After visiting the Village, make sure you explore the historic landscape of our 125 acre Country Park. A large area of the park has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as it is home to a variety of rare Breckland species. We run lots of exciting events from battle re-enactments to bushcraft.
Award winning live music & entertainment venue in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. From classical to jazz, folk to pop/rock, comedy, family entertainment & more! The Apex also hosts a stunning art gallery with frequently changing exhibitions.
If you enjoyed reading this article, take a look at other Villages and Towns of Suffolk here.