The weekend of 14th and 15th May witnessed a historic return of Benedictine monks to the site of the Abbey of St Edmund, Bury St Edmunds, whose millennium is being celebrated by the town in 2022. Monks of the English Benedictine Congregation from Douai Abbey and Ampleforth Abbey were joined by the Bishop of East Anglia, Alan Hopes, as well as Anglican Benedictine monks and nuns and the Anglican clergy of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, which hosted the ecumenical celebration of monastic life.
While the shrine of St Edmund was established as a pilgrimage destination in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds from the end of the 9th century, it was not until the reign of King Canute that the secular priests who cared for the shrine were replaced by Benedictine monks and St Edmunds became an abbey – an event that, according to tradition, occurred in the year 1020 when a new community was formed by monks from Ely and St Benet’s Abbey, Holme. Accordingly, celebrations were planned for 2020, but delayed until this year owing to the pandemic.
During the Middle Ages St Edmunds Abbey developed into one of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful religious houses in England, with its abbot playing a key role in compelling King John to ratify Magna Carta, while Bury’s best-known abbot is probably the fiery Samson of Tottington, who has been made famous by the vivid chronicler of his abbacy, Jocelin de Brakelond. The Abbey also produced the 15th-century monk-poet John Lydgate. But in spite of its cultural achievements, the Abbey was unpopular with the townsfolk of Bury St Edmunds, who regularly rebelled and attacked the Abbey. Bury’s last abbot surrendered the house to Henry VIII’s commissioners in November 1539 and the abbey church and conventual buildings quickly fell into ruins. However, the Abbey’s precinct wall survived along with the splendid Abbey Gate and Norman Tower, as well as the parish churches of St James and St Mary, while houses were built into the abbey church’s vast and crumbling west front. The much-extended St James’ church has been the Anglican St Edmundsbury Cathedral in 1914.
The weekend’s celebrations included a study day on Benedictine spirituality and a Catholic Mass celebrated in St Edmundsbury Cathedral by Bishop Alan Hopes which was probably the first time Mass had been celebrated in the church since the Reformation. After an ecumenical service of Vespers, the monks and other guests processed into the Abbey precinct and into the excavated crypt of the Norman abbey church, which lay underneath the shrine of St Edmund. The Abbot Emeritus of Douai, Geoffrey Scott, played a key role in the weekend’s celebrations, owing to the historic links between his community and St Edmunds Abbey. Founded in Paris in 1615 (and later moving to Douai), the Benedictine community of St Edmund was assigned the ‘right and title’ of St Edmunds Abbey by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation in 1621. At the time, this meant that in the event of a restoration of the Catholic faith in England, the monks of the community would have taken possession of the medieval Abbey as its legal successor. King James II even offered the monks the chance to take up possession in 1685, but they renounced their right the following year. Nevertheless, Douai Abbey remains the symbolic successor of the medieval St Edmunds Abbey.
The millennium celebrations in Bury St Edmunds continue, but the return of monks to the Abbey site represented a high point of the year and a welcome acknowledgement of the living reality of monasticism and Benedictine spirituality at a site that is all too easily perceived by tourists and visitors as a ruin of a vanished form of life.
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