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If a trip to Bury St Edmunds is on your radar then you’ll want to be visiting the Abbey as well. The ruins have an immense history and they celebrate 1000 years from the founding of the abbey which is quite incredible. Read on to find out more, why it’s so important and what you can see when visiting Bury St Edmunds Abbey.
History of the Abbey
1020 was the year that the land around what we know now as Bury St Edmunds was dedicated to the Benedictine Monks to preserve and protect the shrine of St Edmund the Martyr. The King at the time in England was Canute – yes him of the famed holding back the sea legend!
To go back a little earlier, St Edmund was King of East Anglia (the area of England that Bury St Edmunds and the region of Suffolk is in) in the mid 800s AD. Not much is known about him except that when the Danes invaded England at the time he would not give up his faith to Christ and was killed by them.
After he was buried and in the years following a cult grew around Edmund and the tales of his martyrdom.
Once the shrine was in Bury St Edmunds it was a very popular pilgrimage site and the abbey eventually grew to be one of the biggest in the country. The town grew rich around the pilgrim tourism and the Church held almost all the lands in West Suffolk.
Magna Carta at Bury St Edmunds
In 1214, Barons met at the Abbey of St Edmund in secret to persuade the King at the time, King John to sign what would later become known as the Magna Carta. They possibly met on St Edmunds day and you can see the spot where this is remembered in the grounds of the abbey along with the names of the Barons involved.
Some people think that the Magna Carta was signed in Bury St Edmunds, but it wasn’t – it was agreed at Runnymede, near Windsor. Bury St Edmunds did play a big part in the history of it though and it is rightly proud of the links to this historic time.
When Henry VIII changed the religious landscape of the country in 1539 and dissolved the monasteries this abbey was not spared. It was already in a declining state of repair and this, of course, sealed its fate. Although the two impressive gates were spared from the destruction, much of the abbey was to be gone.
What can you see now?
With the dissolution of the monasteries in Tudor times the once great Abbey was to be no more. Many people looted the building for stone – there was rather a lot of it – and used it in local buildings in the area.
What that does mean is that there is only a tiny fraction of the building left, a skeleton of what used to be there.
Rather than hide away the Abbey for just fee paying tourists, the whole area is open for people to come and look at it, enjoy it and live with it which is a really nice thing I think. I spent last year going around some Abbeys in Scotland and there was a really different feel to this one. I think it was because people were walking around on their way home from school, kids were playing in the gardens and people like me were contemplating the history of the site.
The Abbey gardens hold the ruins and you can spend a wonderful bit of time exploring the many areas of it. Do take your time if you can. I’d love to go back in warmer weather! There are some lovely gardens that will look stunning in bloom!
There are many information boards in the grounds that will give you a sense of what the abbey actually looked like and what you’re seeing. They are really nicely presented and not at all faded which can be a problem with open areas like this. Take each one in and you’ll actually do a full walk around the site – check where it tells you to go next.
The most impressive parts of the Abbey are the gates which date from a little later. The Abbey Gate and the Norman gate are great examples of medieval architecture.
The ruins are just that, ruins. It’s a shame there isn’t more left but it is what it is. Make sure you find the information panels to really get a feel for what you are looking at. I loved seeing the extent of the how the Abbey would have looked in its heyday – it’s quite impressive!
I’m grateful that so much of the abbey does remain and that the council is protecting what is there for visitors because it’s certainly a unique and stunning place!
Visiting Bury St Edmunds Abbey in 2020
2020 is a big year for the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds because it marks 1000 years since the land was given to the Benedictine Monks in order for them to protect the shrine of King Edmund.
1000 years is a big anniversary and there are not many sites in the UK that can boast such a timeline (well, except from all our ancient sites I guess! Here are my guides to English and Scottish ancient sites if you are interested in old British history).
The town is putting on a great deal of events for the year 2020 so if the town is on your radar then I highly recommend a visit this year to join in the celebrations. Most of it will take place in the warmer summer months and school holidays.
I’m not going to list everything here, because they may change, but rest assured it will be a great year. Tours, concerts, exhibitions and a new heritage trail are amongst what’s on offer.
See an updated list of events at the Bury St Edmunds and Beyond site here.
Opening hours and admission
The Abbey Gardens are free to explore with no admission charges.
Opening times vary through the seasons but generally they open at 7.30 am (9 am on Sunday) and close around dusk. Check the signs at the gates which will tell you the exact closing time.