Today is the official launch of the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership, a new collaborative initiative between St Edmundsbury Cathedral and St Edmundsbury Borough Council to ensure the better interpretation of the ruins of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The intention of the Partnership is to bring together all groups and individuals with an interest in the preservation of this historic site, including English Heritage, all levels of local government, the Bury Society, and local faith groups. As a historian of the Abbey, I was invited to join the Partnership in order to assist with historical interpretation of the site, as well as to liaise with Bury’s Catholic community to ensure their views are heard.
The site of the Abbey ruins was privately owned for centuries by the Hervey family, Marquesses of Bristol, who are Hereditary Stewards of the Liberty of St Edmund. In 1912 the Bury Corporation leased the so-called ‘Botanical Gardens’ from the Marquess and opened them to the public, but did not purchase the site from the Hervey family until 1953. The Bury Corporation managed the ruins on behalf of the Ministry of Works (later English Heritage), although parts of the precinct are in the hands of the Church of England – namely, the Cathedral of St James and St Mary’s Church. The Norman Tower, although owned and managed by English Heritage, remains the belfry of the Cathedral. The site of the Abbey is thus a complex one in terms of ownership and management.
Public interpretation of the ruins began in 1847, when a large stone plaque was fixed to the northeast pier of the crossing of the Abbey Church to commemorate the oath sworn by the barons on the high altar in 1214 to compel King John to sign Magna Carta. In 1903, following the discovery of the tombs of abbots in the Chapter House, ledger slabs bearing the names of the abbots were laid on the site. The small metal plaques identifying different sites within the ruins probably date from the Council’s acquisition of the site in the 1950s. It was not until the 1990s that a concerted effort was made to interpret the ruins meaningfully to the public, and an Abbey Visitor Centre was opened in Samson’s Tower in the Abbey’s West Front. Moulded plastic models of the medieval Abbey precincts were placed behind Samson’s Tower and close to the Eastgate entrance of the Abbey Gardens to aid interpretation, and metal ‘lectern’ boards were placed in key locations around the ruins.
Sadly, the Abbey Visitor Centre was forced to close in the early 2000s and, although the metal lectern boards remain, there is no other public interpretation of this immensely important historic site. In comparison with other ruined abbeys owned by English Heritage, such as Glastonbury, Fountains and Rievaulx, Bury Abbey is extremely difficult for the visitor to understand and interpret. One challenge that Bury faces is that the site of the ruins is a major and established leisure area for the town and a public park, meaning that only a proportion of visitors actually come to look at the ruins. The aim of the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership is to draw on best practice from around the country to ensure that people visiting the ruins will be able to picture the Abbey and realise its significance. This is especially important because the year 2020 will mark the millennium of the traditional foundation date of the Benedictine Abbey in the reign of Canute.
The Partnership met today, and after the meeting the Partners were some of the first people to climb the tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, which gives magnificent views over the ruins of the Abbey Church. The scale of the Abbey is best appreciated from the air, so the opening of the tower tours is an important step towards making the Abbey better understood. However, the Partnership has ambitious plans to transform the present site of the Abbey ruins which will be unveiled in due course.