Discovering the lost stones of Bury St Edmunds

Photograph of king head carved in the stone

Featured image: Head of a king in the herb garden © Ron Baxter

Built in the 11th century, the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds was one of the most influential in medieval Europe until its suppression in 1539. The extensive remains still survive today. Since 2005, the Abbey’s stonework has been a focus of research as part of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture project. Ron Baxter, Research Director and our guest writer this week, tells us more.

The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture is a project that was set up as long ago as 1988 to record all the Romanesque sculpture in the British Isles with photography and text reports. Since then, and with the advent of digital photography and the World Wide Web, we have become a major research resource with more than 60% of the nation’s Romanesque sites recorded and freely available online.

Our first work in Bury was the recording of the Norman Gate in 2005. We took 100 photographs and wrote a CRSBI description – you can see the result online here.

Photograph of the Norman Gate
The Norman Gate of Bury St Edmunds Abbey © Ron Baxter

Last year the Corpus became involved in the English Heritage reconstruction project at the abbey church, our brief being to investigate carved stones wherever they might be with the idea of providing some insights into the sculptural decoration. There is very little sculpture on site in the ruins of the east end- only a few carved bases remain of the surface ashlar but they are well carved and consistent.

Photograph of the carved column base in situ
A carved column base in situ in the Abbey ruins © Ron Baxter

At the west end we have some material in situ, and other carved stones re-used in the walls and gardens of the West Front houses: the inevitable chevron voussoirs, sections of spiral shafts, pieces of stringcourse and a very nice foliage capital. All of this material was reported in our report on the Abbey church.

Photograph of carved foliage stonework
Foliage capital reused in the West Front © Ron Baxter

The Abbey Gardens still has some carved stones scattered about, especially in the area of the Remembrance Garden and the Pilgrims’ Herb Garden, including a fine Head of a King set above the Cathedral Gate in the Herb Garden, probably carved by the same sculptor as a head in Moyses Hall.

Photograph of king head carved in the stone
Head of a king in the herb garden © Ron Baxter

Of course the place to see the finest of the abbey sculpture is Moyses Hall museum. A lot of this material came to the museum as gifts from the 3rd Marquis of Bristol, Frederick William John Hervey (1834-1907), then owner of the Abbey Gardens, which is to say that he probably found it on the site. Other stones were reused as building material on the West Front, while a large figure of the Evangelist symbol for St Matthew, an angel with a book, was found during building work at the West Suffolk Hospital in 1952. It was removed to the British Museum and eventually came to Moyses Hall later that year. A counter-suggestion that it should be erected at the entrance to the hospital was rejected on the grounds that it might have a depressing effect on the patients.

Photograph of angel carved in the stonework
Angel with a book, now at Moyses Hall © Ron Baxter

Between 1957 and 1964 there was a Ministry of Works excavation at the east end of the Abbey church, at the end of which the excavated stones were simply boxed up, unsorted, and taken to the Suffolk Museums Service store at West Stow. They have now been transferred to the English Heritage Collections store at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire.

Photograph of warehouse with storage boxes on shelves
Stones from Bury Abbey in storage © Ron Baxter

Not all of the material was Romanesque, or even sculpture, and many of the fragments could not be confidently assigned to any date. A few Romanesque stones were found, with capitals, bases and spiral shafts similar to those at Moyses Hall, on the abbey site, and in the West Front houses. Some of the material belonged to later phases of the abbey’s history: fragments of clunch beautifully carved with foliage may be from a late-twelfth century screen or an altar that stood in one of the chapels at the east end.

One thing leads to another, and when we talked to the unfailingly helpful and enthusiastic residents of the West Front houses we were led to other places around the town where abbey stones could be seen. Some were in private gardens, others on public view, and those we have traced so far can all be seen on our website here. As our work continues, we hope and believe that it will lead to a clearer picture of this great abbey church, and of the way that sculpture was used to enrich it.

The author would like to thank Steven Brindle of English Heritage, Alex McWhirter and his staff at Moyses Hall, Dickon Whitewood at Wrest Park, the indefatigable Martyn Taylor and so many residents of Bury who have helped in tracing the stones and freely allowed access to them.

Find Out More:

Find out more about the The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture.

For further information about the Abbey read our blog from rise to ruins.

You can also visit English Heritage for more details.

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