St Edmundsbury: A church becomes a cathedral

The memory of King Edmund, killed in 869, still burns bright in the much restored and skilfully extended St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk.

Walking through the cloisters and looking up at the new vaulted tower of the Church of St James gives a rare insight on how parts of the church probably would have looked when building work began in 1503. Today, after 16 years building and restoration work, the church, which is now the Cathedral Church of the Anglican Diocese of St Edmundsbury, is a triumph and technical marriage of a 500-year-old building with modern additions.

St James was built as a place of worship for the pilgrims who flocked to the great Abbey of St Edmund – King Edmund was killed in 869, and carried to the Suffolk town over 30 years later so his relics could be laid to rest in the abbey, the fourth largest Benedictine abbey in Europe. Sadly there is no record of what happened to his holy relics.

Over the centuries the church had a new chancery, porch, cloisters and a new roof, and then in 1914 it was consecrated a cathedral, despite the fact that its tower hadn’t been completed and it was in need of extensive restoration work.

This triggered an appeal in 1998 to complete the cathedral, the work being completed in 2011.
From outside, and looking up at the Gothic style lantern tower, it is clear to see where today’s masons have copied the original work exactly in Barnack limestone, flint and lime mortar. The work is superb, as is the colourful high vault inside, which was finished in 2010.

The original cloisters were also enlarged to link the Discovery centre with the main church. Here the stone is creamy white, cut crisp to blend in with the original structure. The tranquil covered walkway is complete with new heavy oak doors and the outside guttering is fashioned in heavy lead to match the original period.

So once again the pilgrim church continues to fulfil its purpose to this day, attracting many thousands of pilgrims and visitors who want to remember King Edmund.

The new fan vaulted roof was made off site out of European oak, and reconstructed in the cathedral. The stunning painting and gilding is by Hare and Humphreys, who specialise in historic painting, and all the work was overseen by local restoration company, F.A Valiant.

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Mel Russ