The Abbey of St Edmund: A Millennium of History in West Suffolk

15th April 2024

Lottery funds for St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

A joint project between St Edmundsbury Cathedral, West Suffolk Council and English Heritage – is off the starting blocks after being awarded an initial support grant of £730k from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The Abbey of St Edmund: A Millennium of History in West Suffolk

This means the group can now progress with their plans to apply for a full Heritage Fund grant for the £6.7m needed for the project which aims to conserve and protect the ruins, build a visitor centre, west cloister, and network of footpaths and use digital technology for interpretation for all ages and interests.

Running alongside there will be a huge range of learning and volunteering activities built around events, programmes and exhibitions and the project will link up with other heritage attractions nearby and further afield, giving communities and visitors more opportunities to access the rich heritage of West Suffolk.

The Abbey of St Edmund is very important to the local community – 29 local organisations have come together to form the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership, to care about and promote the ruins. The Abbey site currently enjoys over one million visits each year as people walk through the town’s free-to-enter public gardens, where the ruins are situated.

Commenting on the award, Joe Hawes, Dean of St Edmundsbury, said

“We’re delighted that we’ve received this support thanks to National Lottery players. This project captures what is so special about heritage in Bury St Edmunds. The community has such a strong sense of pride in the Abbey site. It has been a central feature of the town’s identity for a thousand years and this project will ensure that will continue well into this century and beyond. 

“St Edmundsbury Cathedral, West Suffolk Council and English Heritage are working together to deliver this transformative project which will benefit those who are already engaged with the Abbey site, and those who are yet to discover the Abbey and be captivated by its place in our culture, history and heritage.”

Eilish McGuinness, Chief Executive of The National Lottery Heritage Fund said

“The Abbey of St Edmund holds a thousand years of history within its ruins and surrounding gardens, inspiring and connecting generations of people to its unique heritage as a place of worship and medieval pilgrimage, dating back to the Magna Carta.

“I am delighted that our grant award of £730,000 will enable development of the project and continued collaboration between a range of community and conservation organisations, whose focus is to ensure that this heritage treasure can be valued, cared for and sustained for everyone, now and in the future.

“As the largest funder for the UK’s heritage, we believe in the power of heritage to ignite imagination, offer joy, and to build pride in a place by connecting people to the past. The Abbey of St Edmund is a fantastic example.”

The Abbey of Saint Edmund and the story behind the project

Edmund, the last king of the East Angles, was defeated by the Danes in the winter of 869 and, according to tradition, was executed for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. The story tells that, as his followers searched for him, they heard a voice shouting “here, here, here” and found his head guarded by a wolf.

When the head was put back with the body it miraculously reattached.

This legendary account of his martyrdom and subsequent miraculous events involving his physical remains led to his canonisation, and very quickly established the national cult of ‘St Edmund’.

By the early tenth century his physical remains had been transferred to an existing religious community in what was to become the modern-day Bury St Edmunds. It was here, in 1020, under the patronage of King Cnut, that the Benedictine Abbey was founded and named for Saint Edmund.

His shrine turned it into an international centre of pilgrimage, contributing to the growth and prosperity of abbey and town. The cathedral stands within the Abbey grounds.