A year-long events programme marks 1000th anniversary of Abbey of St Edmund
Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk will be celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund by King Canute with a programme of events throughout 2020 leading up to the weekend of St Edmund’s Day on 20 November.
The first Patron Saint of England, Edmund was crowned King of East Anglia at Bures in Essex on Christmas Day 855. He was canonised as a saint in 890.
A great battle took place when the King’s Army faced The Danes at Thetford in Norfolk; Edmund fled but was ‘found’ by the Danes. Refusing to give up his Christian faith, he was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being beheaded on 20 November 869, now marked as St Edmunds Day. The Danes believed that once a head was severed a person would not go onto a higher plain.
The King’s followers discovered his body but no head. They heard a cry of ‘hic, hic, hic’ from a thicket (Latin for here, here, here) and they investigated to find a wolf guarding the head. The head was put to the body and the first miracle of the future saint occurred when body and head fused.
St Edmund was enshrined in the Abbey bringing visits from across the UK and abroad including Royalty as it became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England. The Abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Edmund’s bejewelled shrine was plundered but his body was missing and his whereabouts are still a great mystery to this day. A theory is that his remains were placed in an iron chest and may be buried in the monks’ cemetery, which lies beneath the tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens, which is consecrated ground.
Today, the extensive Abbey remains include the complete 14th century Great Gate and Norman Tower, as well as the impressive ruins and altered west front of the immense church, St Mary’s Church and parts of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. They are surrounded by the award-winning, 14-acre Abbey Gardens and visited by some 1.3 million people from across the world each year.
Year of celebrations
Cultural, musical, religious and civic functions will highlight the 1000 years since the Abbey’s foundation. The Abbey 1000 Group, working closely alongside the Cathedral and the Heritage Partnership, is planning a wide range of events from musical concerts to religious pageants culminating in a spectacular light show on St Edmund’s Day Weekend.
For the first time in 500 years since the dissolution of the monasteries, there will be a procession and gathering on 23 and 24 May of 100 Benedictine monks and nuns, plus 400 others, from communities across Britain and possibly overseas. They will be joined by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Other highlights include a pilgrimage from St Benet’s Abbey in Norfolk and Ely in Cambridgeshire and an exhibition of seven manuscripts from the Abbey Scriptorium, being reunited in their place of origin for the first time since 1539.
A special Millennium anthem is being written by composer John Rutter for the Abbey, while the opening event for the 73rd Aldeburgh Festival will be held at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on 12 June. This will be the first time the Festival has opened outside of the Suffolk coastal area in over 50 years.
Community projects include a mosaic at the arc shopping centre with contributions from the public and a monthly changing sculpture in the crypt within the Abbey remains, where St Edmund’s shrine would have stood. The Bury St Edmunds Festival, which runs from 15 to 24 May, will also be staging concerts to mark the anniversary.
Local companies, schools and community groups are being challenged to stage their own events to raise ‘£1,000 for 1000’ with proceeds being donated to the anniversary year’s charities. These are St Nicholas Hospice Care, St Elizabeth Hospice and EACH (East Anglian Children’s Hospices).