Friday, 20 January 2012

The Ruins of the Abbey of St Edmund

Wall of Abbot's Garden and Dovecote

The Abbey of St Edmund was not a just building but almost a town in itself.  The ruins lie sprawling over a massive area and you can see the remains of not only the church but also of the infirmary, dormitories, cloisters and priory.  It is obvious that the abbey was quite magnificent and it is heartbreaking that it fell victim to Henry VIII’s notorious Suppression of the Monasteries in 1539.

In the photo above, you can see the remains of the garden wall of the abbot’s garden (left) and the dovecote (or pigeon house).  The abbot lived apart from the other monks in his own palace but the abbot’s palace is now completely demolished. 

It was a grey, cold and cloudy day on the day we visited, so do click on the photos to see more detail.

The buildings above were located on the edges of the complex, between the abbot’s palace and the church.  I think they may have been the monks' dormitories.

Northern Transept of Bury St Edmunds Abbey

The Abbey of St Edmund was built on a cruciform plan in the early 1100s.  In the photo above, you can see the north transept of the abbey with the St Edmundsbury Cathedral peeking out to the west.

The Apse of Abbey of St Edmunds

This is the east-facing apse of the abbey where the shrine of St Edmund was located behind the high altar. 

Do click on the photo below to see the 19th century historical marker. It looks like these plaques were installed in 1842 and I find it interesting that the ruins would been as inspiring to visitors 170 years ago as they are today.

Observance of Magna Carta Bury St Edmunds Abbey

In 1214, it was at the altar of the Abbey of St Edmund that 25 barons swore to obtain the ratification of the Magna Carta from King John.

North Transept of Abbey of St Edmunds

This is the north transept of the abbey taken from inside the church.

Priors Garden Walls at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

This is all that remains of the walls of the prior’s garden.

The Chapter House at the Abbey of St Edmunds

The chapter house is one of the more exciting parts of the ruins for it is where the remains of several of the Abbey’s abbots are located.  A manuscript discovered at the end of the 19th century revealed that eighteen of the abbots were buried in the chapter house and the coffins and remains of five of the abbots were revealed to the public in 1903. 

The Graves of the Abbots Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Thankfully, the coffins were closed again and today, you can see the five graves.  In the photo above, I have featured the grave of the abbot Samson who lived from 1182 to 1211.

Old and New St Edmunds Abbey

One of the strangest aspects of the ruins is that houses have been built right against them.  I think this reveals the selective nature of the decline of the abbey and it is strange that it was allowed to fall into such a state of ruin while the houses and  St Edmundsbury Cathedral remain.

During Henry VIII’s reign, the cathedral was known as St James’s Church and it was located within the precinct of the abbey.  It was first built in the 12th century but was largely rebuilt in 1503.  At the time of the Suppression of the Monasteries, St James's Church was a parish church, which I believe is linked to its survival. It is now a Church of England cathedral.

Houses built against ruins at St Edmunds Abbey

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29 comments

  1. Pity that such a place was so completly destroyed!

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  2. Thanks for sharing this. So interesting!

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  3. You don't actually say so in the piece but I presume this is Bury St Edmunds which is named after the Saxon King Edmund the Martyr who was killed by the Danes in c. 869 AD. As he was a christian king killed by what history refers to as "The Great Heathen Army" he was commemorated as a christian martyr.

    It isn't a religious point but it is amazing the extent of the cultural vandalism which took place under Henry VIII and how a great and irreplaceable part of the patrimony of England was destroyed. You stand in St Edmunds, Fountains Abbey,Whitby Abbey etc; and you realise whole communities were destroyed along with stained glass, manuscripts, silverware and much more. A great medieval town like Coventry was set back hundreds of years and remained a shell of its former self until the Industrial Revolution. An extraordinarily destructive time in England and your photos bring out the sense of pathos which pervades these sites.

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  4. @ Ola: I agree! It would have been incredible to see it still standing.

    @ Cass: Thank you - and thank you for sharing it!

    @ David: You are right. i do talk about that in one of my next posts (which I diligently pre-arranged over the weekend!). You and I both have an interest in war crimes and genocide in the 20th century so perhaps you'll understand when I say that I struggle not to look at this through 20th century eyes. Henry VIII murdered, pillaged and destroyed entire communities of people!

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  5. It kind of looks like some of them were just artisticly put there on purpose. But it's the other way around - the newer buildings were built around the old stuff :) Amazing!

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  6. Stunning and intriguing photos Emm..another brilliant post!

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  7. 'Our 'Enry' has a lot to answer for.

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  8. Living in the "new" world as I do, it's always just amazing to me that there are artifacts still extant (even as ruins) that date back SO far...fascinating stuff. I'm surprised everyone in England isn't an amateur historian; I sure would be!

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  9. That's very interesting that the new houses were built right against the ruins of the old ones. I wonder if they secretly used some of the old stones as building blocks for the new houses?

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  10. Isn't it remarkable to think how this would have been one of the centres of local life a few centuries ago. Seeing it in ruins now, empty, it's ... well,....just strange....
    Must revisit it, it's ages since I have been. When I was there last time someone had cut one fo the hedges in the shape of a face - it was quite inconspicuous, but absolutely weird.

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  11. i love ruins and your photos and commentary are wonderful. I love the mystery of neglected places and always wonder what the story behind them. thanks for sharing the beauty Emm.

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  12. I am always glad the ruins are kept in place and not torn down to build other modern structures. It is a nice way to connect to the past. Abbot Samson died so young.

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  13. Wow. This is one of the reasons I want to make it back to England. (Of course the DaVinci Code has something to do with that too.)

    So this is a Catholic Church?

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  14. Always loved ruins of abbeys, churches, etc.
    Great pics... bad weather.

    By the way... there's even a clip on youtube of Peter Gabriel joining Johnny Clegg in a performance of Asimbonanga.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-4C9_0c59g

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  15. hi emm, love learning so many interesting things and places though your great photos.

    those ruins are wonderful as are your pictures!

    xx betty

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  16. @ Ivanhoe: I know what you mean! It is as if the cathedral has a neat feature in its back garden!

    @ Victoria: Thank you! I enjoyed visiting there!

    @ John: He certainly does!!

    @ Kathy: well, I know exactly what you mean and I notice it most when people tease me for giving history lessons in my posts! It fascinates me that I am now so interested in this period of history (I was researching the reformation and restoration last week) when it was exactly at this point that I went off history at school. It is crazy.

    @ Giselle: That is a good question! I am not sure if they used them in these houses but they certainly used the stone in the building of stately homes for Henry's favoured subjects. Hall Place in Kent was bult using stone fro the nearby Lesnes Abbey.

    @ Jenny: ooooh, a topiary figure in the hedge? It is rather tragic, as you say, as this was a great drawing point for pilgrims from all corners.

    @ Life Ramblings: Thank you and it is a pleasure! I agree - unwrapping the mysteries of neglected places is a real treat, whether we do it in person or through blogs.

    @ AVCr8teur: Well, that is what fascinates me about the church ruins in the UK. I never appreciated that they had deliberately been destroyed, as opposed to falling into ruin and disrepair like many of the castle. But if they were destroyed, then perhaps they simply didn't have the capacity to remove the remains like we do today??

    @ Ash: Thank you!

    @ Sixmats: Heh. I think it would certainly be why I missed England if I were to leave. Yes, it was Catholic, home to Benedictine monks.

    @ Dominic: I am actually going to try go on some courses to learn to overcome the weather conditions somewhat. I can't always complain about the weather when it is such a permanent feature in the UK!

    I don't think I would have survived seeing that performance of Johnny Clegg and Peter Gabriel. I would have fainted at the very least.

    @ Betty: Thank you!

    @ Jen: At the Abbey of St Edmunds in Bury St Edmunds. I featured the Abbey Gate and Norman Tower previously.

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  17. What a shame old Henry couldn't control his urges and stick with his first wife, such a tragic waste.

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  18. I either didn't realise that it was at the altar of the Abbey of St Edmund that 25 barons swore to obtain the ratification of the Magna Carta from King John. So already by 1214 the Abbey of St Edmund must have been hugely important for the royal family and their noblemen.

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  19. I love exploring ruins and reading about the history, but this is one I've missed so far. There doesn't seem much left of what would've once been a magnificent building. I bet some of the stone was pillaged to build other local buildings.

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  20. The Abbey looks like a great place to explore. I don't think I have ever seen a historic ruin like this before with modern houses built so close.

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  21. Wow - it's just amazing how old everything is! Great photos of the place!

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  22. Lovely - I like the pictures of the ruins that look like fingers pointing accusations at the sky :)

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  23. I'm always impressed with how much you get about. I find it so difficult to get out of London with all that is on in the city.

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  24. Ahh, I LOVE stuff like this!!

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  25. I mention here the effect dissolution had on Coventry, my father was bombed out of here in 1940.

    http://daithaic.blogspot.com/2010/11/moonlight-sonata_14.html

    The 16th century dissolution of the monasteries at the hands of King Henry VIII had every bit as devastating an effect on Coventry as Adolf Hitler's reign of terror in the mid 20th century. Thinly disguised as a method of reducing the enormous power that the church, and in particular the monasteries, held across the land, Henry slowly began to dissolve the age old institutions. The real reason that appears to prevail, however, was greed. From 1536 the huge monastic institutions in Coventry were seized, firstly the Whitefriars and Greyfriars then in 1538 the large Benedictine Priory. The city went into decline with the population reducing from 7,000 to 3,000 as with the loss of the monasteries Coventry also lost the many craft based industries and went into a deep slumber until the Georgian era when it prospered as a centre of weaving and clock making.

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  26. @ Ryan: 100% agreed

    @ Hels: yes, it was and people made pilgrimages to the abbey, in deference to St Edmund. It was a tragic loss.

    @ John: It was definitely pillaged. Bury St Edmunds is a lovely town - I'd definitely recommend visiting.

    @ William: yeah, that was weird!

    @ Carol: Thank you!!

    @ Mr Brightside: heh, yeah, they look like broken, angry shards, don't they?

    @ Mo: I don't get about that much - I just take a long time to blog about it!

    @ Brooke: Me too!! Glad you enjoyed it.

    @ David: Thanks for the link.

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  27. Fabulous pictures. I'm always amazed when we travel and see ruins and other historic artifacts that remains so many years later. I don't think anything we build today will past the test of time and be standing for someone to admire or think about.

    Enjoying some blog walking this morning and hope you'll swing by for a visit, the welcome mats always out.

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