Norfolk was always a place of cultural exchange. From human settlers, right down to pottery styles, Norfolk’s archaeological history shows us ideas were moving between Britain and mainland Europe. It’s a similar story on a national level. Norfolk and its environs have always influenced the rest of Britain. A notable example which relates to our sites is the St Benet’s Abbey pilgrimage.

St Benet’s Abbey was constructed around the eleventh century, and in 1019 King Cnut granted them several nearby manors and their land. It was quite possibly due to Cnut’s generosity that so many monks of St Benet’s participated in the site he founded a year later. This was St Edmundsbury Cathedral, in the present-day town of Bury St Edmunds. The cathedral was constructed to house the remains of the nineth century saint Edmund the Martyr. A convoy of thirteen monks walked fifty miles from St Benet’s Abbey to the new site, representing nearly half of the former’s members. They brought art, books, and furniture with them to furnish the new cathedral, and assisted in construction efforts. The generosity was even more notable by the fact that all of these came from the much smaller abbey they had come from.

This donation was a remarkable act of charity, especially since at this point, St Benet’s Abbey was only an earth and timber church, with no religious relics of its own. But then much of this was by design, due to the doctrine laid out in The Rule of St Benedict. This text required all Benedictine monks to swear three vows: obedience, chastity, and above all poverty. The last vow required a total renunciation of worldly possessions. Donating them to a much larger and more spiritually significant site, such as St Edmund’s, would have been an effective way of doing this. The Rule also mandated that Benedictine monks be sworn to silence for most of the time, so as to dedicate themselves to worship. Monks weren’t even allowed to talk over supper. This gave them a reputation for studiousness, and often made them go-to figures for manual work, such as with the cathedral.

The Abbey at Bury St Edmunds c1500

Their journey began the annual pilgrimage from St Benet’s to St Edmundsbury, one which still continues to this day.  This year’s pilgrims will coincide their pilgrimage with the millennium anniversary of St Edmundsbury. These celebrations had to be postponed for the last two years due to successive lockdowns, but the fact they are continuing nonetheless is a testament to the durability of St Edmundsbury, St Benet’s Abbey, and what they still mean for many people. Our world currently seems to be constantly on the throes of upheaveal. We are plagued by economic, political, and environmental uncertainty. In the midst of all this, the persistence of the St Benet’s pilgrimage is a small relief, a reminder of the endurance of our traditions.