Here in St Edmundsbury cathedral, a bunch of clerics and local bigwigs are preparing for a most unusual anniversary. Throughout 2020 the inhabitants of this historic market town will be celebrating the 1,000th birthday of a building that ceased to exist nearly 500 years ago.
The Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was founded by King Canute in 1020 to house the body of King Edmund, England’s original patron saint. Traditionally said to have been born in 841 and crowned King of East Anglia in 855, Edmund was captured in 869 by the Danes, who told him he could be their puppet king if he renounced Christianity. He refused, so the Danes tied him to a tree, shot arrows at him and chopped his head off. When his head was reunited with his mutilated body (with the help of a talking wolf) he became a saint. Monks carted his uncorrupted corpse around for 150 years, until Canute built this abbey. A popular place of pilgrimage, it became one of the biggest and wealthiest monasteries in Christendom, and Bury St Edmunds became a boom town — all thanks to that talking wolf.
After Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1539, you might think the town would have dwindled into insignificance. But, remarkably, in subsequent centuries it went from strength to strength. Its medieval buildings were supplemented by several Georgian ones, including the lovely Theatre Royal, saved in the 1920s by the Greene King brewery across the road, which used it to store beer barrels before handing it over to the National Trust. (And if you fancy a beer, why not sink a pint or two at The Nutshell, opposite the old Corn Exchange? At 15 feet by seven, it’s reputedly Britain’s smallest pub.)
The thing I really like about Bury is that, despite its heritage, it’s still a working town, not a twee theme park. There are plenty of independent shops — including a groovy vinyl record store — and a bustling outdoor market. Its old trades, meanwhile, are preserved in its street names: Skinner Street, Hatter Street, Looms Lane.
Many of Bury’s oldest structures have had multiple uses. The medieval Guildhall played a leading role in the Battle of Britain — don’t miss the old operations room in the attic. Moyse’s Hall (also medieval) was a workhouse, a police station and a gaol before it became a museum. Current exhibitions include May The Toys Be With You, a delightful display of Star Wars action figures. The permanent collection includes an exquisite array of 17th-century paintings by the first lady of British portraiture, Mary Beale.
I spent the night at The Angel. An old coaching inn beside the ruined abbey, it’s been a lively rendezvous for centuries. Dickens stayed here when he was a jobbing journalist (it features in The Pickwick Papers). He returned as a renowned author to give readings at the nearby Athenaeum.
So what became of St Edmund’s body? Well, there’s always been a rumour that he’s still buried somewhere in the abbey grounds, and now there are plans to do preliminary excavations, starting with some dilapidated tennis courts, under which lots of monks lie buried. After all, if they can locate Richard III beneath a Leicester car park, why not King Edmund beneath a Suffolk tennis court? And in the meantime, the least we can do is restore him to his rightful role as England’s patron saint.