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English Church Architecture -



BURY ST. EDMUNDS CATHEDRAL (TL 856 641)    (April 2004, revised March 2008)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)

1: History 

(The ruins of the abbey church today, looking south-southeast from the angle between the choir and the N. transept, which is the most conspicuous part still standing.)

The early settlement of Bury St. Edmunds, known as Bedericesworth, was first mentioned in the annals of ecclesiastical history by Bede, who recorded that Sigeberht, king of the East Angles, established a small monastery here in 633.  Further unwitting help was given by the last king of this semi-independent territory, Edmund, when he was martyred by the Danes in 869, probably at Bradfield St. Clare.  A few decades later he was already regarded as a saint and legends were growing up about him.  These ensured that when his body was transferred here about the year 900, the fame of the monastic foundation would grow correspondingly, and when in 945 another King Edmund, now of Wessex and England, gave the monks a substantial holding of land, so it also began to acquire the material wealth to support its increasing ambitions.  Nor did these suffer more than a temporary set-back when it became necessary to move St. Edmund's body to London in 1010, in response to the threat of renewed Danish invasions, for within a few years it was back again, this time with the Danish king, Cnut (who was convinced that his father's sudden death was due to angering the saint), both as guarantor of the abbey's security and its principal benefactor.  Cnut ordered a round church of stone to be built to house the saint's remains.  This was consecrated in 1032 and it is from about this time that the name Bury St. Edmunds gradually began to replace the town's old name.  


During the reign of Edward the Confessor, the privileges of the abbey were further enhanced, and in the year before Edward died, a Frenchman named Baldwin was appointed abbot, a position he continued to hold after the Conquest and for more than three decades until his own death in 1097.   Clearly an energetic man with a grand vision, it was Baldwin who began the complete rebuilding of the abbey church and who also encouraged the development of the town, laying out the grid pattern of the main streets which, like Ludlow in Shropshire, still show the evidence of this Norman planning today.   After 1097 there was probably a period of quiescence but in 1121, Anselm was appointed abbot and he at once not only revived the building programme at the abbey but also worked up the plans on an even grander scale.  As a result, by the time Anselm died in 1148,  the now complete abbey church was huge - 505 feet (154 metres) long, and with a W. front 246 feet (75 metres) wide, wider than any other English mediaeval church.  Its precincts, surrounded by a wall with a tall gate tower (shown left), included two parish churches that might have appeared large themselves had they not been so completely dwarfed by comparison, one immediately west of the gate tower, dedicated to St. James, and one in the southeast corner, dedicated to St. Mary, both of which were to be subject to the usual modification and rebuilding throughout the ensuing centuries.  In addition, around 1350, a second great gate (shown right) - this time without a tower - was inserted in the abbey walls to the west of St. James's.


The monastic life then continued here for almost two further centuries, until dissolution finally came in 1539, after a short period during which it appears that Henry VIII - perhaps for once realizing the enormity of the destruction he was about to wreak - did briefly contemplate establishing a new see at Bury St. Edmunds, leaving the abbey church intact as its cathedral, a decision that would certainly have been justified as the diocese of East Anglia (based round the cathedral at Norwich) was enormous and unwieldy.  Perhaps predictably, however, greed for land and riches won the day, for the abbey came down nonetheless, notwithstanding its size and magnificence, leaving the parish church of St. James as the town's principal ecclesiastical building (albeit not necessarily its most important from an architectural point of view).  It is this building that must be considered now, for when Bury St. Edmunds did finally gain a cathedral, this church was its kernel.


Little is known of the Norman church of St. James but it is reputed to have been 200 feet (61 m.) long and 71 feet (22 m.) wide.  Its chancel was reconstructed c. 1400 and rebuilding of the rest appears to have begun in 1503 under the direction of John Wastell (fl. 1485 - d. 1515), a master mason of the first rank who lived in Bury and was also responsible for the nave and aisles at Lavenham, St. Mary's,  Saffron Walden (Essex) and Great St. Mary's, Cambridge, as well as for the last and arguably most substantial phase of work at King's College Chapel.  As at Lavenham, Wastell's commission at Bury appears also to have been limited to the nave and aisles, for the church bells were hung in the detached but adjacent Norman gate tower which, like Wastell's work, still survives.  St. Jamesís, however, was erected only very slowly, for it is known that the lead was left on the abbey church nave roof until 1551 in order that the parishioners could hold services there while their own church was unusable.  After it was finally completed, St. James's seems to have stood more or less unchanged until 1865, when the chancel was rebuilt for a second time, on this occasion in accordance with the plans of Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), who also designed a new nave roof and altered the gable over the W. front to fit it.


Probably this last condition would still be that of the church today except that in 1914 it was at last decided that Suffolk should form an independent diocese, for which St. James's church at Bury St. Edmunds would act as the new cathedral.  A similar thing also happened at the same time to St. Mary's church in Chelmsford, following the simultaneous creation of the new diocese of Essex, but whereas in Chelmsford an eastward extension of the chancel and the construction of certain rooms to the north was thought to be all that the building's new status required, in Suffolk much more ambitious plans were laid.  Work eventually began in 1960 under the direction of Stephen Dykes Bower (1908-94), who had been given the exceptional commission for the second half of the twentieth century of the complete redesigning of the E. end of a new cathedral, while still more extraordinary was the fact that he chose to do so in the Gothic style, scotching once and for all the claims of Liverpool Cathedral (designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, son of George, in 1902, but only finished in 1978) to be the last church built in this style in England, for the cathedral at Bury St. Edmunds was still under construction when this visit was made in 2004.  


Dykes Bower designed a central crossing tower with high but shallow transepts (seen left, photographed from the east, and below right, from the southwest), a choir with flanking chapels, and a northwest porch with library above and cloister to the east, with the latter intended as a way of linking the various administrative buildings that would be needed, including the projected "cathedral centre", planned to run slightly east of north from the N. chapel and to provide vestries, a conference centre, a refectory, a treasury and a song-school.  Of this grand scheme, by 1970 the choir, S. chapel, S. transept, northwest porch and first six bays of the cloister, were all complete, as were the N. chapel and transept apart from their N. walls, which were erected on a temporary basis only. A second phase in the 1980s saw the cathedral centre constructed and joined to the N. chapel, leaving the rest of the cloister, the tower, and the expected permanent N. wall of the N. transept unbuilt, a state in which things might have remained, especially in respect of the tower, but for the fact that in 1994 Dykes Bower died, leaving in his will the princely sum of £2.7 million towards the cost of completing the project, with the stipulation that the money should go to Westminster Abbey if this were not done. Surprisingly at a time of Anglican retrenchment, this was a challenge to which the provost and his colleagues resolved to rise, and fortuitously, opportunity also presented itself in the form of the Millennium Commission, to which an application for a grant was submitted while, simultaneously, an appeal was sent out to the parishes of the diocese, most of whom responded generously in spite of the problems they were experiencing maintaining their own churches. Indeed, such was  the  result that a total of £10.5 million was raised,  sufficient to finish all aspects of the projected work, including the vault beneath the crossing that had previously been deemed an unavoidable sacrifice.  At this stage Dykes Bower's designs for the tower were amended by Hugh Mathew, who dispensed with a spire and took as his inspiration instead perhaps the greatest of all Wastell's work - the central tower at Canterbury, known as Bell Harry.  The majority of the new structure is faced with Barnack stone (albeit obtained from a reopened quarry at Ketton in Rutland), applied over a brick core and held together with a traditional lime mortar mix, the formula for which had first to be re-invented.  Other parts of the new building feature flint flushwork. Thus this was also a major project in the revival of mediaeval construction techniques as well as in building in an historical architectural style and so it was probably inevitable that it would arouse the ire of those modernists with a passion for bare steel and concrete, flat roofs, and vast panes of tinted glass. Those who do not want a cathedral to be a "machine for worshipping in", on the other hand, will take a very different view. This is obviously not a building representative of its age, but it is an exceptional piece of revivalist architecture  that both fits harmoniously in its historic setting and adds grace and dignity to the town.

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