This is St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds and until the Reformation it was known as the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It is a large parish church and has the second longest nave of any parish church in England. It was originally part of a monastic complex, the medieval Abbey of St Edmund.
The Abbey was once one of the richest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England. From 903 AD it held the relics of the martyred Anglo-Saxon king St Edmund and pilgrims visited the shrine from across Europe.
With the arrival of the Reformation the Abbey was surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1539. Since then over the centuries the valuable building materials of the Abbey have been removed for reuse elsewhere. Interestingly, St Mary’s survived and today we see the largest West Window installed in a parish church in England. It is measures 35ft 6in by 8ft 6in.
On a sunny day the interior of the church is patterned with rainbow-like light from the large south facing windows. It is a pity that all the medieval stained glass is long gone, but there’s still some fine, high-quality Victorian stained glass filling the windows. The West Window is a particularly elegant creation, and was designed and made by the London firm Heaton, Butler & Bayne. The window was installed in 1859 having been paid for by local landowners as a thanksgiving for the bumper harvest of 1854.
And what is that positioned directly beneath the centre of the window ?
Yes, you might have recognised it. It is the coat of arms for the British Royal family. And, you don’t get to erect those on any old building even a fine church unless . . . there is a state or royal connection. And, here in the parish church of a Suffolk town it is a royal connection in the form of the tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France.
Mary Tudor was the favourite sister of King Henry VIII and for political alliances in 1514 was married to the much older King Louis XII of France. Louis died in 1515 at 52 years old leaving Mary a widow at 17 years old. Letters between Mary and Henry indicate she had agreed to marry Louis only on condition that if she survived him, she should marry whom she liked. Six weeks later in Paris she secretly married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had been sent to France by Henry to escort Mary back to England.
In Tudor times to marry a royal princess without the permission of the king was treason and Charles Brandon could have been executed. However, thanks to the eloquent and effective negotiating skills of another Suffolk man, Thomas Wolsey, the King was persuaded to fine the couple £24,000 instead.
Mary Tudor was the Duchess of Suffolk until her death at Westhorpe Hall, Suffolk, on 25 June 1533 at the age of 37. She is now buried in the corner of the sanctuary of St Mary’s Church.
It is obviously strange to see a Duchess of that period, let alone a Royal Tudor princess, buried in such a plain fashion. Of course, originally as King Henry’s sister and the Dowager, Queen of France she was buried in state in the crypt of the magnificent Abbey Church on 21 July 1533. Then five years later at the time of the Dissolution her body was the only one permitted to be removed and reburied in the nearby parish church of St Mary’s.
It is unclear whether there was a funerary monument erected at the time of her reinterment but a couple of centuries later, in 1758, a tablet was laid above her remains.
Fast forward just under another 150 years and at the suggestion of Edward VII, who visited the church in 1904, a marble kerb was placed to surround the grave tablet and prevent the clergy walking over Mary’s tomb. I agree with and leave the last word to one of the church’s Vergers who at some point remarked on the ‘ugliness of the kerb’.