Home   Bury St Edmunds   News   Article

Subscribe Now

With St Edmund’s Day looming, Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor explains how the town was once a place of pilgrimage

The early Catholic Church encouraged people to go on a pilgrimage so that through their suffering and work their sins would be forgiven.

Those who could make the arduous journey to the Holy Land did so and this is how Offa, King of East Anglia, met Edmund pronouncing him his heir, Offa dying on his return.

Praying at St Edmund's shrine
Praying at St Edmund's shrine

King Edmund, martyred on November 20, 869, would become the first patron saint of England.

The following is the first stanza of a poem supposedly written by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618, the year he was executed.

The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage.

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

A sculpture relating to pilgrimage is on the Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund here in Bury St Edmunds.

The sculpture for St James on the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds
The sculpture for St James on the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds

It shows a staff, a satchel for carrying accoutrements and scallop shells, the symbol of St James the Apostle who is thought to have been washed up covered in scallop shells on the Atlantic coast, 22 miles from Santiago De Compestella in north-west Spain. It was here in a magnificent cathedral to house his body that became a pilgrimage site.

Our cathedral, created in 1914, was so named because Abbot Anselm, of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, built a new church on the site of an existing church originally dedicated to St Denis. It is said, in an apocryphal story, that he named the new church St James, as he wanted to go on pilgrimage to the resting place of St James but was persuaded not to go by his congregation.

Here in Bury, the shrine of St Edmund attracted thousands upon thousands of pilgrims over the 500-plus years of its existence, whilst Our Lady of Walsingham was another important East Anglian pilgrimage destination.

With the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170, this too would become a destination for pilgrims after he was canonised.

But with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar-General, on behalf of Henry VIII, all pilgrim sites would go.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

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