The Abbey owned many manors and other properties in Suffolk and beyond, several of which have Lydgate associations. In particular, the abbey had close relations with the wool-town of Long Melford, where the abbot had a country house and deer park, and in the church the ceiling and walls of the Clopton Chantry were decorated by monks of Bury with lines from two Lydgate poems. The abbot also had a town house in London, called Buries Markes, where Lydgate almost certainly stayed when he had to be in London in attendance on the court.
Relations between the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds and the town which grew up around it, and was entirely dependent upon it, were sometimes good, sometimes strained. As the population grew, the abbey itself planned and laid out a townsite under Abbot Baldwin in the late eleventh century. The new town was walled, with five gates, each gate supplied with a chapel and a hostel for pilgrims. (This wall and the town gates were demolished in the eighteenth century.) The various periods of conflict between town and abbey may be illustrated by reference to the "war" of 1327, when the burgesses sought "independence" from the abbey, and townsfolk and monks met in armed combat: the abbey itself came under attack and some buildings were sacked and burned; indeed, the abbot himself was kidnapped and held for ransom in the form of a charter of privileges for the town; a charter quickly granted and, once the abbot was safe, as quickly rescinded. A true peace accord was finally reached in 1331, and all lawsuits on both sides were dropped; the Great Gate, which still stands as the main entrance to the abbey precincts, was built partly out of the proceeds of fines exacted upon the townsfolk after peace was re-established. In the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the abbey was again plundered and the prior murdered.
In 1465, the abbey was gutted by fire (a contemporary description of the fire is included in Arnold's Memorials 3: 283), and a major program of repair and rebuilding was finally completed in 1538. Within a year of completion, however, the abbey was dissolved. The last abbot was John Reeve, who, on 4 Nov. 1539, surrendered the abbey to the agents of Henry VIII. The surrender document was signed by the abbot, the prior and forty-two monks.
Shortly before the Abbey was dissolved, in 1534, John Leland described it thus in his notes towards a book on English antiquities:
The sun doth not shine upon a town more beautifully situated . . . upon a monastery more famed for its endowments, size and splendour. One would think one were looking upon a whole town, so many gates are there, some of brass, so many towers, and a church unsurpassed by any other, adjoined by three more in the finest style, all situated within the precincts of the monastery. Through it winds a small stream, spanned by a bridge with twin arches. (English trans.--by Ann Keep?--in Schirmer, p. 10; Schirmer also gives the original Latin text in a footnote.)The abbey was sold by the crown to a John Eyer, and then passed to Thomas Badby, and, with the exception of the abbot's palace, was stripped of valuables and then quarried for building materials. The abbot's palace survived as a private residence until 1720 (Whittingham 11; also the Victoria County History of Bury 66-67).
The abbey precincts and ruins--apart from two churches still in use--are now a park under control of English Heritage. [You may wish to view a plan of the abbey grounds: 36K.] Of the three parish churches which stood on the perimeter of the abbey, two remain: St. James, much expanded in modern times, has been since 1914 the Cathedral of Bury St. Edmunds; the Norman Tower, built in the twelfth century as a second gateway into the abbey precincts, acts as a belfry for the Cathedral although it is not physically attached. The Church of St. Mary's stands in the southwest corner of the abbey precincts; it has an impressive interior, including a number of interesting late medieval tombs. Of the massive abbey church, at one time comparable in size to Durham Cathedral (Schirmer 11), all that remains are some columns in the nave, transept, choir and apse, as well as part of the west front, stripped of its facing stone, and preserved as part of the front wall of a row of houses built after the dissolution.
Descriptions of the abbey buildings and their present ruined state can be found in the Introduction to vol. 1 of Arnold's Memorials, in the Victoria County History article on Bury, and in Whittingham.
Some of the remains of the Abbey church.