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Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor reveals some hidden secrets of the town’s Norman Tower





The Norman Tower in Bury St Edmunds, built in 1120-1148 during the abbacy of an Italian Abbot Anselm, may well be described as a campanile, a stand-alone bell tower much favoured by Italian architecture, but was known in antiquity as St James’ Tower, the religious gateway to the great Abbey of St Edmund.

Approximately 5,000 tons of Oolitic Ashlar limestone from Barnack on the Northamptonshire border was used for this 80ft high, 36ft square tower which has walls up to 6ft thick.

The medieval masons who built this splendid structure had a sense of humour though, as on the right-hand capital of an arch facing Churchgate Street there are two lions, though not instantly recognisable, and between the lioness and the maned lion is a cub. It is being brought to life by the male’s breath because it was thought in medieval beastiaries (a collection of descriptions or representations of real or imaginary animals) that lion cubs were born lifeless! Incidentally, the current floor level within the Norman Tower itself is the original floor level.

The Norman Tower, in Bury St Edmunds , built 1120-1148
The Norman Tower, in Bury St Edmunds , built 1120-1148

In 1533, the last great procession to go through the tower’s archway with all due pomp and solemnity saw the funeral cortege of Mary, Queen of France, Henry VIII’s sister on its way into a splendid alabaster tomb in the Abbey Church.

In 1785 Thomas Osborn, of the Downham Market Bell Foundry, hung 10 bells in the tower, the only full set of bells ever hung at one time, while three more have been added in recent years to what is now the cathedral belfry.

Alterations and additions have taken place over the years - a sculptured membrane called a tympanum across the top of the arch had to be removed in 1789 to allow the passage of carts, a cupola on the roof and a clock alas no more.

The lion figures carved into the masonry - the male lion supposedly breathing life into a cub
The lion figures carved into the masonry - the male lion supposedly breathing life into a cub

The ravages of time though were starting to show in the 18th century, and a gothic revival architect with impeccable credentials, Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, was eventually employed to facilitate its restoration. His specification of 1842, along with 18 drawings (alas no longer with us) to assess and restore the calamitous condition of the 700-year-old tower were accepted, as well as designs for a savings bank adjacent.

The choice of builder was inspirational, Thomas Farrow from Diss, his tender of £2,300 for the work agreed and a subscription fund launched. However, a shortfall of £900 meant St James Parish had to take up the slack. Farrow also had to pay for the contracts to be drawn up and to ensure his work was completed to an acceptable standard, he also had to deposit two huge sureties of £500 each.

Dragon water spouts were added to remove rainwater from the roof.
Dragon water spouts were added to remove rainwater from the roof.

With the removal of cottages in Crown Street abutting St James’, another major problem Farrow had to address was the ingress of water caused by rainwater lying in the upper regions. It was solved with the addition of water spouts in the shape of dragons to remove water from the roof.

The work was satisfactorily completed by 1846. Sadly, Cottingham died the following year.

Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton
Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton

— Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.