Based on the remains a conjectural plan and model of the abbey at the height of its
wealth in the 12th Century have been created. They show an impressive complex of
the main abbey church, two further churches (St Mary’s dating from the mid 12th Century
and St James’ Church dating from the early 16th Century), a chapel (St Margaret’s
dating from the Century) all encircled by the precinct walls and vineyard beyond
which was first laid out in the 13th Century.
Two gatehouses gave access to the Abbey: the Great or Abbey Gatehouse and the Norman
Tower. The Great Gatehouse was the secular entrance which is one of the best surviving
examples of its type. Dating from the 14th Century it is an impressive two storey
stone structure with a single arch which retains its portcullis.
Norman Gate dates from the early 12th Century and was designed to be the entrance
to the Abbey church. It is a four storey building with a single arch which is virtually
unchanged in 700 years. It is used today as the belfry to St James’ Church.
As you walk around today the remains of the Medieval Benedictine abbey hint at what
was once a truly imposing structure which was amongst the four or five greatest in
the land when it was built during the 11th and 12th Centuries. Measuring 505 feet
by 246 feet across its west transept the church was 50 feet longer than Norwich and
71 feet wider than Lincoln. Built on a cruciform plan with three bays and a central
tower the central pillars of the nave which would have supported the vaulted ceiling
are clearly visible.
Amongst the stone remains a human connection with the past is found in the monk’s
cemetery where the graves of five abbbots lay.
Today the Medieval abbey remains are owned by English Heritage and managed by St
Edmundsbury Borough Council. Along with the gardens located in the Great Court,
the remains are accessible to all as a place of recreation. How many of them are
aware of their history and importance in the town will remain unknown.
As with many of these sorts of events it is difficult to full y appreciate the scale,
history and archaeology of a site in a single visit. But it does provide an initial
‘taster’ which you can follow up with a return visit if desired.
Sources of information
The internet has proved to be an invaluable source of research. Sources consulted