Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Bury St Edmunds p3

Finally I re-visited the Abbey gardens which, as I remember from my school days, contains the remarkable remains of the abbey including the Charnel House, built to store the bones exhumed from the Great Churchyard to make way for new burials in the 13th century. The ruins are extensive and fascinating.

NORMAN GATE. Built under Abbot Anselm, i.e. between 1120 and 1148, as a gate to the church. It later served as a campanile for St James’s Church. A splendid piece of proudly decorated architecture of its date. The face to the town (W) is more ornate than the others. Big gateway, not vaulted inside. Heavy block capitals of the columns. The inner order on the W side has sculpture. Big roll mouldings. The arch projects like a porch and has a gable with fish-scale decoration. To the l. and r. are niches with billet decoration. Above these are short buttresses with intersected arches and pyramid roofs. On the first floor are two small two-light windows in much taller blank arches. The blank fields are decorated with a kind of vertical folding motif. The second and third stages are taken together by giant shafts with arches. Under these are three times two-light blank arches and above them three windows. On the fourth stage there are again giant shafts and arches. But this time the lower motif is roundels (cf. Norwich Cathedral) and the upper motif windows. Apart from the rich decoration on the lower stages of the W side, all four sides are essentially the same. Up to the C19 the Gate had its original battlements. It must thus have been one of the earliest embattled buildings in England.*

GREAT GATE. Begun after the riots of 1327 and before 1346. Completed after 1353. Strong, and yet as exquisitely decorated as only that moment in medieval English architecture could do. A very broad, embattled structure. Broad segmental arch leading from the town into a first part of the passage. There is then an inner gate and a longer second chamber. The side walls of these two passages have blank arches on a large scale with the boldest flowing tracery. Both parts were vaulted with ribs and tiercerons. The transverse arches did not differ in section or gauge from the ribs. Now back to the facade. Above the segmental arch are three niches and the whole is crowned by a big ogee gable with foiled circles l. and r. Big buttresses flank this centre. They have ogee-headed and steeply gabled niches in three tiers, two for the ground floor so far described, the third corresponding to a centre composition of five tall blank niches of which the centre one is wider and taller and has a crocketed gable. It is again flanked by circles, but inscribed into them are six-pointed stars. To the abbey side the ground floor has a shafted doorway, the shafts with leaf capitals, the arch with a double quadrant moulding; the first floor has a large transomed three-light window with at the top a figure of a four-petalled flower. This upper room has a fireplace.

ABBEY CHURCH. The surviving remains belong chiefly to the W front, where at the time of writing they are built into dwelling houses, and to the crossing and N transept (e.g. stair-turret in the N wall). On the E side of the W front indications of the system of the nave, on the E side of the crossing indications of the system of the chancel.

CLOISTER. Of the buildings around the cloister something can be recognized of the Parlour at the s end of the W range (one fragment of wall), the Refectory along the N side (where three bare walls stand to sill height), and the Chapter House, etc., on the E side, N of the N transept. N of the Chapter House and night stairs remains of a concave apsidal entrance to the Treasury, whose N wall is bent S to give access to the Warming Room. In the apse, bases of four small columns, two each side, on continuous plinths.

REMAINS EAST AND SOUTH of Church or Cloister. The buildings E of the E range are inarticulate. S of them and S of the church there is little to discover. A gable in a garden seems to have belonged to the Sacrist’s Quarters. A wall here runs N—S (through a private garden) towards the precinct S wall (see below). The CHARNEL HOUSE, with its triangular E end, is represented by walls of flint with arches and C18 iron gates and railings, NE of St Mary’s. E of the S turn of Schoolhall Street there is a stretch of the Norman precinct wall of c. 1130,  continued by a short bit of C13 walling. This ends at the river Linnet, but is continued E of the river Lark by the S wall of the big abbey vineyard (C14 gateway at its W end).

REMAINS NORTH of Church and Cloister. N of the Refectory the SE angle of GREAT COURT. N of the angle remains of the QUEEN’S CHAMBER with angle stair-turret. SE of this,in a detached position, one wall of the ABBOT’S CHAPEL, and to the S the REREDORTER with a N wall with detached buttresses. W of the S E angle of Great Court referred to is a fragment of the N wall of the LARDER. Further W, buried under a bank, are foundations which include a fireplace and W of it a porch. Further W what was probably the Sub-Cellarer’s Gate, which had a chapel above it. Then the buttressed S wall of Great Court, against which on the S, towards St James, stood the Hall of Pleas. Here a keeled string-course and fiat buttresses of c. 1200 and added buttresses of after 1327. S and N of Great Gate stretches of WALL, that to the N of the C12, heightened after the riot of 1327. Remains also of the buttressed N wall, S of Mustow Street. The surviving lancets (now blocked) date the walls to the early C13. From the NE angle of Great Court the Abbot’s House ran N-S, and a C14 part of its buttressed W wall remains. A fine buttressed outer wall starts by clasping buttresses of the late C12 and carries on to the E and to the Abbot’s Bridge across which it continues S towards the abbey vineyard (see above). Between that stretch of wall and the Abbot’s House a polygonal DOVECOTE. To the W of the dovecote fragments of a wing of rooms flanking the garden. The ABBOT’S BRIDGE consists of the bridge proper (visible from the W), which dates from the late C12, and the wall carried across it with three added C14 breakwaters, chamfered ribs in the arches, and exterior buttresses and flying buttresses.

* Mr Wolton’s observation.

Gate tower (1)

Norman tower (2)

Abbey gardens (7)

But the chief heritage of Bury St Edmunds from the historic past is in two gateways, magnificent survivals from Norman and medieval England, one leading into the ruins of one of the richest monasteries in East Anglia, the other housing the bells that summon the town to the cathedral church. There cannot be many towns with two great monuments like these, and if Bury had nothing more to see these towers would bring a multitude of pilgrims through its streets.

The medieval gateway of the abbey, leading us from the square called Angel Hill into the gardens laid out where the old monks used to walk, stands about 60 feet high, richly decorated with heads and small carvings, canopied niches and traceried panels, and with slender clustered shafts running up; it is all 14th century work. One of the shields on the walls has the arms of Edward the Confessor, and there is a carving showing a bull worried by dogs. The grooves for the portcullis are still visible.

Through this massive gateway we come into a few of the historic acres of England. Here it was that they laid King Edmund, killed by an arrow under a tree at Hoxne because he would not forswear his faith. Here the barons swore at Edmund’s altar that the king should do their will, sowing the seeds of Magna Carta. Here was buried the conqueror’s daughter Constance, and here they found the stone coffin of Abbot Samson, the man who opened Edmund’s coffin and saw the saint as he was.

There has been much excavation, and we may see the walls of the crypt of the abbot’s palace 700 years old, with part of a turret called the Dove House. Under the mounds are the walls of kitchens and dormitories, and there is an old buttressed wall by the river to protect the monks from floods. Two arches built into houses are all that is left of the mighty church which stood in these grounds, the third church built for St Edmund’s body. It was over 500 feet long, built about the year 1095, and it was in this place that the barons met; their 25 names are on tablets and on a pier is this inscription:

Near this spot, on the 20th of November 1215, Cardinal Langton and the Barons swore at St Edmund’s altar that they would obtain from King John the ratification of Magna Carta.

This great place was old when the massive gateway was raised, but close by it stands a gateway which saw the monastery in the days of its glory. It has now become the bell tower of St James’s Church, Bury’s Cathedral, and has been called one of the purest specimens of Norman architecture in England. Its walls are nearly six feet thick and 86 feet high, and its rich Norman work was done with axes. It has three tiers of arcades, small doorways in buttresses, and a square hooded doorway which was the porter’s gate. In the days of its greatness it was the gateway of the abbey churchyard; now it houses the ten bells of St James’s. We can go to the top and see all Bury, or we can go through the gateway into the ruins and gravestones, walking among houses probably built of materials from the abbey.


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