Abbey Celebrates 1000th Anniversary in 2020 with Year of Celebrations

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In 2020, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk will celebrate the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund by King Canute 1000 years ago.

A year of celebrations is being coordinated by the Abbey 1000 Group, alongside the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership, with a programme of events from November 2019 leading up to the weekend of St Edmund’s Day on 20 November 2020.

The first Patron Saint of England and King of East Anglia, Saint Edmund was enshrined in the Abbey consequently lending his name to the town, which was built around it. The shrine brought visits from across the UK and abroad including Royalty as the Abbey became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England.

Family picnic at Abbey of St Edmunds ruins (credit Rebecca Austin)
The Abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Edmund’s bejewelled shrine was plundered but Edmund’s body was missing. His whereabouts are still a mystery to this day but it is thought he is buried somewhere in the Abbey’s grounds.

The Abbey is also known for its important role in the Magna Carta story. 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. This act led directly to the Great Charter or Magna Carta, agreed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. 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 the historic links with King Edmund (the first patron saint of England) and the Barons’ meeting.

Today, the Abbey remains are extensive and include the complete 14th century Great Gate and Norman Tower, as well as the impressive ruins and altered west front of the immense church, St Mary’s Church and parts of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. They are surrounded by the beautiful Abbey Gardens, an award-winning 14-acre park, and visited by 1.3million people from all over the world every year.

Year of celebrations

A highlight during the anniversary year will be the gathering on 23 and 24 May and procession of 100 Benedictine monks and nuns, plus 400 others, from communities across Britain and possibly from abroad for the first time in 500 years since the dissolution of the monasteries. They will be joined by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Other special events include a pilgrimage from St Benet’s Abbey in Norfolk and Ely in Cambridgeshire and an exhibition of seven manuscripts from the Abbey Scriptorium, being reunited in their place of origin for the first time since 1539.

Composer John Rutter will be writing a special Millennium anthem for the Abbey of St Edmund and the 73rd Aldeburgh Festival will open at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on 12 June, as part of the 1,000th anniversary celebrations. This will mark the first ever opening night performance at the Cathedral, as well as the first time that Aldeburgh Festival has opened outside of the Suffolk coastal area in over 50 years.

Community projects include a mosaic at the arc shopping centre with contributions from the public and a monthly changing sculpture on display in the crypt within the Abbey ruins, where the shrine of St Edmund would have stood. The Bury St Edmunds Festival in May will also be staging concerts to mark the anniversary.

Local companies, schools and community groups are being challenged to stage their own events to raise ‘£1,000 for 1000’ with proceeds being donated to the anniversary year’s charities. These are St Nicholas Hospice Care, St Elizabeth Hospice and EACH (East Anglian Children’s Hospices).

New branding has been specially developed for the anniversary year. The gold and white squares depict the crypt where St Edmund’s shrine was in the abbey ruins, the most important part of the abbey. The gold crown and purple colouring pay tribute to the Abbey’s royal connections as Saint Edmund was King of East Anglia. A fly through video of the Abbey of St Edmund ruins showing how the great Abbey Church and the Shrine of St Edmund would have looked during its heyday is being produced using cutting edge CGI as part of the marketing for the celebratory year.

For more information on the anniversary and celebrations visit www.abbeyofstedmund1000.co.uk and for more information about where to stay and things to see and do in Bury St Edmunds and the surrounding area visit www.burystedmundsandbeyond.co.uk

Did you know?

  1. St Edmund’s shrine brought visits from Royalty and the Abbey became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England. It also attracted pilgrims from abroad as Edmund was a major saint in the Catholic Calendar.
  2. Edward The Confessor granted the Abbey the power to mint its own coinage.
  3. The Norman Tower, was the religious gateway into Bury St Edmunds' great abbey church, 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.
  4. 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 City.
  5. The Abbey is also known for its important role in the Magna Carta story. 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. This act led directly to the Great Charter or the Magna Carta, agreed at Runnymede on June 15 1215.
  6. When rioting broke out in 1327 the Abbey was attacked by the townspeople fed up of the oppressive taxation by the Abbey. The original Abbeygate was destroyed to be rebuilt by 1347 (the gate you see today). But the shrine of St Edmund was untouched, such was the awe and esteem Edmund was held in.
  7. In 1433 Henry VI moved into residence at the abbey for Christmas – he stayed for 4 months!
  8. The last great procession to enter the Abbey Church before its dissolution was the funeral cortege of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Henry VIII’s favourite sister. She was buried in the Abbey Church in 1533. She is now buried in St Mary’s Church within the abbey precinct.
  9. In 1902 notable academic M.R. James, best remembered as a writer of ghost stories, discovered a manuscript fragment which led him to find the location where the five abbots were buried in Chapter House.
  10. In his book Edmund – In Search of England’s Lost King, Historian Dr Francis Young explores the theory that St Edmund’s remains still lie within the abbey ruins today. In 2013 he came across a document that was previously unknown, from a monk that said Edmund’s body was placed in an iron chest. In his book Dr Young explains his theory that St Edmund may be buried in the monks’ cemetery which lies beneath the tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens and consecrated ground.
  11. Where St Edmund is buried in Bury St Edmunds may be a mystery but you will find wonderful nods to him across Bury St Edmunds in art, architecture, horticulture and more.