Bury St Edmunds came as a surprise. I visited mainly because I was in the area, exploring the medieval painted churches. But I soon learnt that this unassuming Suffolk town was once the capital of East Anglia, and that much of the historic city survives. I found plenty to see and do during a day in Bury St Edmunds.
Bury St Edmunds, Historic Capital Of East Anglia
The first abbey in Bury St Edmunds (then known as Beodricsworth) was built by the Saxons in around 633 CE. It rose to prominence in 903 when the remains of St Edmund were brought here. Edmund was the king of East Anglia, who was martyred by Danish invaders after he refused to give up his Christian faith. For many centuries he was the patron saint of England (interestingly, in the current time, he is also the patron saint of pandemics).
A new abbey was built to house Edmund’s body. This became a place of pilgrimage, and a town grew up around it. It subsequently became a wealthy centre of the wool trade and an important market town. This led to Bury St Edmunds being regarded as the capital of East Anglia, supplanting the nearby town of Thetford.
Today the abbey complex and the old town are the main tourist sights of Bury St Edmunds.
Abbey Ruins And St Edmundsbury Cathedral
The “new” abbey was founded by King Canute in 1020 and became one of the richest Benedictine monasteries in England. It was dissolved in 1539 during the Reformation of Henry VIII, and the buildings fell into ruin.
The monastery church (now known as St Edmundsbury Cathedral) was mostly rebuilt in the 16th century. Today it is surrounded by the substantial remains of the abbey. These include the 14th century Great Gate and the Norman Tower. Houses have been built into the west front, and the remains of the 13th century Charnel House are nearby.
Behind the Cathedral are the Abbey Gardens, an extensive area of parkland built around the abbey ruins. These riverside gardens incorporate a historic herb garden, aviary, rose garden and many other recreational facilities.
The Medieval Grid
As you leave the Cathedral precinct via the Abbey Gate you come to the old town of Bury St Edmunds. The grid system of roads was designed by the monks of the abbey in the 11th century, and the street layout remains substantially the same today. It is now a mixture of shopping streets and side roads with small but in-demand houses. The area is known as The Medieval Grid, a term that is particularly favoured by local estate agents!
The Medieval Grid boasts an eclectic mix of architecture from different periods. The most important historic building is Moyse’s Hall, a 12th century house later used as a prison and now a museum. Look out, too, for the Guildhall, dating back to at least 1279 and the oldest civic building in Britain, and for the ornate 19th century Corn Exchange (now a Wetherspoons pub). Or just enjoy wandering the streets, with their pubs, restaurants and independent shops.
What Else To See And Do In Bury St Edmunds
If you have more time in the city you could also visit St Mary’s Church. Close to the Cathedral, this was originally a part of the abbey complex. It is one of the largest parish churches in the country and the burial place of Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII.
Literature buffs will note the blue plaque on the outside of The Angel Hotel. Charles Dickens stayed here on a number of occasions and featured the hotel in The Pickwick Papers. Another Dickens link: the recent film The Personal History of David Copperfield was partly filmed in Bury St Edmunds. And there are other literary connections, including William Shakespeare, who placed a scene in Henry VI, Part II in the Abbey.
Another popular activity is to take a tour of the Green King Brewery. I haven’t done this myself, but it seems to get good reviews from those who have tried it. And, even if you don’t visit the brewery, you will find a wide choice of places to eat and drink, including several historic pubs. One of the oldest is the One Bull, close to the Abbey and around 600 years old. And the 19th century Nutshell claims to be the smallest pub in Britain, with drinking space for 10-15 people at a time!