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Norman Gate, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

(52°14′37″N, 0°43′1″E)
Bury St Edmunds
TL 856 641
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Suffolk
now Suffolk
  • Ron Baxter
25 August 2005

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Feature Sets

The Norman Gate, or Norman Tower, was the W entrance to the precinct, facing the W front of the abbey church at a distance of some 75 yards. It was built in Barnack stone by Abbot Anselm (1121-48) and is an elaborate and imposing reminder of a great abbey that is mostly lost to us today. It stands four storeys high, and originally had a battlemented parapet, seen in the engraving made by Mackenzie, Thompson and Sands for Britton's Architectural Antiquities, but this was replaced by the present utilitarian parapet in Cottingham's restoration of 1842-46. Since the 18thc it has served as the bell-tower for the adjoining cathedral church of St James, and it houses a peal of 10 bells dated 1785.

The W face, towards the town, is the most elaborate, with a gabled entrance arch with four orders of shafts, and originally a tympanum that was removed in 1789 to allow carts to pass through. This is flanked by 3-storey buttresses in the form of turrets with pyramid roofs, decorated with blind arcading and grotesque corbels. The E face has a plainer entrance arch with no gable or pseudo turrets, and only 2 orders of shafts, but the upper levels on both of these main faces are similarly articulated with windows an blind arcading. The interior of the ground storey has no vault. The side faces of the tower are very plain on their ground storeys, where buttresses mark the original position of the precinct wall towards the W of each face, but their upper levels are similar to the two main faces.


The gatehouse and St James's church (now the cathedral) alongside were built in the abbacy of Anselm of St Saba (1121-48), nephew of Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Although the Norman Tower is precisely dated to Anselm's abbacy, the date range is rather wider than a style estimate would provide. Interestingly the elaborate effects of the tower are largely achieved by architectural rather than sculptural means: arcading, moulding and diapering are the predominant forms. When stone carving does appear, therefore, it focusses the attention more than usually. All the capitals except two, for example, are plain cushions, and these two are strategically placed at the entrance from the town to the abbey, seeming to warn of spiitual danger. The monstrous corbels of the W turrets reinforce the idea of this gateway as liminal; between the sinful external world and the purity enclosed within the precinct. The curious dragon's head set high on the S face of the tower appears 12thc in origin, but is neither described nor illustrated in Cottingham (1843) and Britton (1835), suggesting that it was not in this position prior to Cottingham's restoration. It is worryingly similar to corbels at Kilpeck, Herefordshire.

Otherwise, comparisons have been made with the crossing tower of Norwich cathedral for the combination of arcading and roundels or blind oculi.


J. Bettley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Suffolk: West, New Haven and London 2015, 128.

J. Britton, The Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, III, London (1835), 84-87.

L. N. Cottingham, 'Report on the Present State of the Norman Tower', The Surveyor, Engineer and Architect, XXV, 3 (1842), 22-23, XXXVI, 4 (1843), 57.

Historic England Listed Building 466456

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. E. Radcliffe 1975, 138.

Suffolk Historic Environment Record BSE 174

Victoria County History: Suffolk II (1975), 56-72.