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Abbey of St Edmunds celebrates 1,000 years of history

Celebrations to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Abbey of St Edmund, in Bury St Edmunds, will get fully underway this spring after being delayed for over a year by the Covid pandemic.

Fr David Bagstaff from St Edmund’s said: “These events are a testament to King Edmund, who led his people with wisdom and showed his Christian devotion by learning the Psalter and refusing to renounce his faith. His martyrdom is an enduring reminder to us of the need to strive to preserve the legacy we have inherited. It is important to maintain respect for the Abbey which served our town for 500 years and to take it into the future. Those who visit for Abbey 1000 will be assured of a warm welcome as we share our treasures.”

A packed programme, supported by Heritage Lottery funding, will take place to recreate events of the past, entertain and look to the future. Pilgrimages will feature, the first setting out from Ely on April 4 arriving the following day in Bury St Edmunds, and the second starting at Hulme on May 9 and arriving at St Edmundsbury Cathedral five days later when ecumenical Vespers will be celebrated. Details can be found here.  

A travelling exhibition will visit education establishments to explain the heritage of the Abbey and encourage young people to visit the Abbey grounds. The Town Guides have written a suite of Abbey-specific tours which explain in detail such topics as the life of a monk; the turbulent times; the relationship between the town and Abbey; what has happened since dissolution. More information is available here.

Between 2 May and 9 June there will be an exhibition of Abbey manuscripts loaned by Pembroke College; these were last at the Abbey 500 years ago. On a monthly basis there will be a sculpture within the Crypt of the Abbey ruins, the first seeing the return in April of a 7’ tall monk made of steel.

Over the weekend of 14-15 May St Edmundsbury Cathedral is staging ‘Abiding Wisdom – the Gift of Benedict today’ which will explore the wisdom of Benedict for 21st-century life, including how we should live now following the pandemic. There will be a mix of workshops and keynote addresses by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Canon Jutta Brueck, Dean of the With Community. Tickets can be obtained here.  

On Sunday morning Bishop Alan Hopes and Bishop Martin Seeley will celebrate at a Mass and an Anglican Eucharist in St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Following worship and fellowship there will be a procession from the Cathedral into the Abbey ruins to which Catholic and Anglican Benedictine communities, lay Benedictines and others have been invited.

During the year other activities will occur for all ages, the final details of which can be found here. These will include a Bio Blitz; a heritage town trail; the M R James lecture on the Abbey delivered by Robert Lloyd Parry; a concert by the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, and various events for schools and young people.

The finale will be a lighting spectacular between 17 and 20 November with images being projected on to historic buildings and a trail through the Abbey Gardens.

The Abbey of St Edmund was founded in 1020 in Beodericsworth, which was later to become the town of Bury St Edmunds.  A small rotunda chapel was built on the instructions of King Cnut. It was ministered to by Benedictine monks drawn from Ely and Hulme and in 1081 it developed to be one of the three biggest Abbey Churches in Europe. It was significant in housing the shrine of St Edmund, which brought pilgrims from across the nations. Despite the dissolution in 1539, the ruined Abbey remains an attraction.

Pictured above are Abbey ruins in Bury St Edmunds (image: John Saunders) and, below, the Cathedral and Norman tower today (image: Giselle Whiteaker).