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Bury St Edmunds

Domestic houses colonise Bury's massive west front

Domestic houses colonise Bury's massive west front

Christ plays peek-a-boo in the Nottyngham porch, St Mary, Bury St Edmunds
Christ plays peek-a-boo in the Nottyngham porch, St Mary, Bury St Edmunds

History turns places inside out. By the time of the Conquest, this was, with nearby Ely, one of the most rich and powerful institutions of any kind in the country; also like Ely — and, indeed, Glastonbury and Durham — it dominated a great swathe of land which it both owned and provided a kind of spiritual protection to. For this was the seat of no ordinary cult: beheaded kings are not obvious saints, at least to those with a simplistic idea of medieval religion; and the Dane-martyred Edmund of the East Angles was a kind of spiritual patron for the entire region, a ongoing marker into the high medieval era of its special identity, just as Cuthbert was up in former Northumbria. The not-very-Christian king’s crowned head, sitting between the legs of a protecting wolf (as if in a mid-packhunt game of ‘fetch’), is the striking image that graces perhaps hundreds of bench ends, corbels and screens in this part of the world.

Also like its peers, Bury got heavily embroiled with the powers of bishops. After some turmoil at both places, ancient Anglo-Saxon saint-holder Ely abbey got cathedralised, while ancient anglo-saxon Durham minster got monks; Bury (and much later Glastonbury), in turn fought off nearby grasping bishops, of Bath and Thetford respectively: if they’d not been sucessful, we might today have no fallback Wells or Norwich cathedrals. But Bury and Glastonbury cathedrals might be with us still.

In 1066 Bury already had a French abbot; yet by the 1080s Baldwin was up there with the best of them, carving up the pre-existing town and building an imperial-scaled church on top of the very heart of the previous town centre. As per Norwich and Peterborough, it’s quite clear that the enclosure for the new building simply cut in two the previous town’s main street and marketplace.

What replaced it was unusual in various ways. The gridiron plan was nothing new: there are towns like it in England (Ludlow) and Normandy. What impresses is its relationship with the church. A central political-religious axis folds the town in half — literally, as it seems to occupy a shallow east-west valley running down to the river Lark. From the chord of the apse through the abbey gate and down Churchgate Street is a single straight line, with the saint’s shrine on the axis like an anchor to the place’s power. The other streets fold off this axis, a stepped and ordered rorschach grid, a trigram of politico/spiritual order.  Two pre-existing chuches had to be moved to make this possible: St Mary’s and St James’s thus both straddle the abbey precinct and the town, the latter associated with a second gate that was also the main route of lay access to the abbey. A new town market as set up, in the NW corner of the grid, far from the church: this survives.

This is how Bury was for the ensuing five hundred-or-so years: a collossal romanesque church, like Norwich and Ely and Peterbrough (and many smaller houses in this neck of the woods) patched-but-preserved church in the eloquent and muscular East Anglian version of the style, speaking truth to its own power. Two large new chapels added off the transepts in the later C13, one a lost link in the chain of great Dec East Anglian lady chapels. New towers. And an extraordinary west front, the widest in England, with three massive central arches, collossal polygonal towers off a western transept, a stone skyscraper of a western tower: Ely + Lincoln squared. The swaggery C12 tower beyond, fulcrum in the axis that runs shrine – high altar – church – western tower – western gate – Churchgate St: to its E, the closed world of the monastery; to its W, the open one of the town. St James’s gate, meanwhile, was damaged in a riot of 1327 (Shades of Norwich’s Ethelberga gate) and swiftly rebuilt as an enormous keep-like block draped rather unconvingly with elegant chivalrous Dec inventiveness. The rebuilding was so swift, so security conscious, that its preceding gate stood next door intact until the job was done, and the resulting strcture, today’s main entrance to the ‘Abbey Gardens’, has been off-centre in the C11 grid even since.

But the layman’s voice in this town was as ever at its most vociferous in the decades before the Reformation. Both St James’s and St Mary’s were completely rebuilt, the latter still one of East Anglia’s better late Perp town churches (which is saying something): roofs, intriguing Nottyngham porch (inventive vault, special access to parish graveyard?), first-rate inscribed cadaver and adjacent bright celure, studded with star-like glass beads; two grand tombs of the (very) late 1530s. There’s also a guildhall, already with a stone door in the C13, presumably belonging to the most influential of many town guilds.

The dissolution of the institution that defined this place was of course the next great reinvention. Here, unlike Glastonbury and Walsingham (for example) the spiritual and physical gap at the core of the town has not enabled recolonisation by ‘new’ spiritualities; instead it is a polite municipal garden, studded by ancient  rotten teeth of towering flint, to which soundchecks by Lulu and Shakin’ Stevens block my access. The town has sunk into regionally-important market-town status, its twin foci of power ironically reflecting patterns first defined in its previous makeover in the late C11.

For the market place, put here when the abbey squashed the preceding centre, remains today the commercial core of a bustling town, looked over by the strikingly upmarket C12 Moyses Hall. As a result of this refocusing of the town around commerce, Bury’s psychological centre has moved off-grid, and the great power-axis that is designed to be at its heart, like a great battery of power for the Liberty of St Edmund, is barely noticed, a polite series of pleasant, quiet brick terraces, an isolated gate that hides a battered west front that hides a public park: disconnected, defused. Even more arse-over-tit, in 1914 the bishops finally ‘took’ Bury, colonising St James’s church in the process. Edmundsbury cathedral is thus Bury’s other main attraction, off centre to but also a creation of the core grid: both this church and the market are where they are because of the post-Conquest dislocation of their predecessors. The cathedral is an odd place, with a C15/16 parish church core that has been stripped of all content, doubled in size to make it cathedral-like, even with a cloister, and its central tower only recently completed; everything here has the open polite vacancy of much modern Anglicanism.

So here is another town violently recast by the Normans, who must have been amazed to find themselves at once so suddenly enriched and placed in a land in which the levers of power actually worked, with another remarkable plan that has been sundered and dislocated by Dissolution, leaving a pleasant market town with a large park where once Edmund, and his head, and his wolf, glowered protectively over the labourers and lords of Suffolk.

Stone valve on the access of power: the abbey gate and Churchgate St

Stone valve on the access of power: the abbey gate and Churchgate St

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