In order to have any understanding of the magnificence of the Benedictine Abbey that once dominated Bury St Edmunds and the surrounding area, one requires a good imagination and a first class tutor. As individuals we did allow our imaginations full rein on Saturday 21st May at our first post pandemic Field Day, but the scholarship was provided by Dr Richard Hoggett who led our morning session and breathed life into the meagre remains of this once great site.
Dr. Hoggett is a freelance heritage consultant with a deep knowledge and understanding of archaeology who assisted with the production of a report into the significance of the Abbey in time for its millennial anniversary in 2020. There may not be a great deal to see but it is extraordinary how the story came to life with his skilful guidance.
There may have been an Anglo Saxon monastery on the site but it was in 1020 the foundations of the Benedictine Abbey were laid and from the remains it is obvious that Pilgrimage to this site to visit the Shrine of Edmund was anticipated, it was in fact to become one of the foremost destinations for Pilgrims in Europe. Nearly every medieval King made the pilgrimage, Parliament met there, and it is claimed that here the Barons met on their way to Runnymede with Magna Carta.
All that remains to show the quality of the building is the Norman Tower which is faced with dressed stone and gives a hint of just how large and magnificent would have been the Abbey Church. Construction on that building started in 1080 and developed into one of the largest churches in western Christendom. The whole site was huge but it has been broken up over the intervening centuries so it is difficult to really appreciate its extent and the size and quality of the many buildings that existed.
The Abbey was home to about 80 monks whose daily needs were well provided for but it was the Abbot who lived in a manner which befitted a haughty prelate who owned most of West Suffolk, and bowed to no authority on earth except that of the Pope and perhaps the King with whom all abbots maintained close ties. Indeed Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister was buried in the Abbey and was removed to St Mary’s at the time of the Dissolution.
Being both arrogant and greedy did not endear the Abbot and his team to the local population indeed their authority was so tyrannical that there were at least 3 major riots when the Abbey precincts were breached and buildings damaged and it is Dr Hoggett’s contention that after the Dissolution the destruction of the Abbey was so comprehensive because it was carried out by a resentful populous delighted to be relieved of an overbearing lord. It is worth noting that the gateways into the Abbey Precincts were constructed as military defences complete with arrow slits!
As more than one person said to me “I shall never be able to walk through these ruins without remembering those turbulent times”. And of course the enigma of Edmund remains. I hope he is somewhere within the precincts of the Abbey resting in peace.
In the afternoon we walked the short distance to a magnificent building which requires no imagination to appreciate its extraordinary beauty, for there is St Mary’s where Mary Tudor rests and medieval angels adorn the hammer beam roof of the nave and guard this sacred space as they have done for at least 500 years.
Our guide for the afternoon was a long standing and valued supporter of the Trust, a noted local historian and church expert, Clive Paine ably assisted by his wife Christine.
Although St Mary’s was within the Abbey precincts it was financed by local people, not the Abbey although, the priest, appointed by the Abbot would have been responsible for the repair of the Chancel. The church we see now evolved from about 1140 to the Mid C15th and was gradually embellished, stripped at the Reformation, and restored thereafter to its current beauty.
There is much to see and appreciate in this glorious building, but it was the details of the roofs which we had come to see. Of course, one cannot appreciate the detail from the floor and even with binoculars it is difficult to see everything but Clive had done the hard work for us and we were to benefit from his research.
In the nave it is a C15th single hammer beam with 11 pairs of life sized angels. The first pair formed a Canopy of Honour over the Rood. The remaining 10 pairs show a procession of honour of the Assumption as would have been seen on 15th August each year.
We were able to appreciate the detail as Clive had pictures and thanks to the antics of an enthusiastic cleaner with some chimney brushes trying to dust the roof, one Angel lost a hand as it fell to the floor. This is now housed in a display case so one can appreciate the detailed workmanship which, after all, the craftsmen thought no-one would ever view at close quarters! Added to all this magnificent work there are over 400 carvings on the roof including saints, prophets, and angels. Birkin Haward described them as “…..one of the most extensive and finest collection of 15th century woodcarvings in England”.
Then we moved to the Chancel with its wagon roof: brightly coloured and glorious. Amongst other beautiful decorations there are 198 carved and coloured bosses. Some of these are symmetrical and carvings include angels, bishops, a fox, three rabbits, owls, dogs, dragons, fish, humans, leaves and flowers: an amazing array. The roof was restored in 1880 and 1968.
In the Sanctuary is the grave of Mary Tudor with its slightly unusual marble kerb on two sides added in 1904 when King Edward VII decided it did not look regal enough.
Finally we looked at the Chantry Chapel, of John Baret, a major benefactor of the church and who died in 1467. He left precise instructions as to how his chantry was to be decorated most especially a roof by Henry Peyntour which has six decorated panels. Where the lozenge patterns intersect is a gold star at the centre of which is a small concave piece of glass which appear to twinkle like the stars in heaven.
Part of the original decoration included tongues of fire made from lead. Over the centuries these had deteriorated and were finally removed and their place taken by paint. Some of the tongues are lodged with the V and A and Clive was able to show us two of the original flames. The workmanship viewed at close quarters was quite moving. The roof was restored in 1968 by John Kursk and is deservedly considered to be one of the outstanding features of the church.
We ran out of time well before we had examined all the treasures of this lovely church. If you are in Bury and have some time to spare do go to St Mary’s you will not be disappointed and Clive’s excellent Guide Book will make sure you miss nothing.
We had an enthralling and exhausting day and had seen and heard much to make us think. We look forward to seeing you all at the Study Day in March next year.
Diana Hunt, Trustee