When, in the early tenth century, the relics of the martyred king, St. Edmund, were translated from Hoxne to Beodricsworth, afterwards known as Bury St. Edmunds, the site had already been in religious use for nearly three centuries. To the small household of Benedictine monks who guarded the shrine the surrounding lands were granted in 1020, during the reign of Canute, monks were introduced from St. Benet's Abbey under the auspices of the Bishop of Elmham and Dunwich. Two of them became Bury's first two abbots, Ufi, prior of Holme, (d. 1044), who was consecrated abbot by the Bishop of London, and Leofstan (1044-65). After Leofstan's death, the king appointed his physician Baldwin to the abbacy (1065-97). Baldwin rebuilt the church, and reinterred St Edmund's body there with great ceremony in 1095. The cult made the richly endowed abbey a popular destination for pilgrimages.
The Abbey of St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds was built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of a cruciform plan, with its head (or apse) pointed east. The shrine of St Edmund stood behind the high altar. The abbey was much enlarged and rebuilt during the twelfth century. At some 505 feet long, and spanning 246 ft across its westerly transept, Bury St Edmunds abbey church was one of the largest in the country. St James's Church, now St Edmundsbury Cathedral, was finished around 1135. St Mary's Church was first built around 1125, and then rebuilt in the Perpendicular style between 1425-35. Abbey Gate, opening onto the Great Courtyard, was the secular entrance which was used by the Abbey's servants. In 1327, it was destroyed during the Great Riot by the local people, who were angry at the power of the monastery, and it had to be rebuilt. Norman Gate dates from 1120-48 and was designed to be the gateway for the Abbey Church and it is still the belfry for the Church of St James, the present cathedral of Bury St Edmunds. This four-storey gate-hall is virtually unchanged and is entered through a single archway. Great Gate is an impressive 14th century stone gatehouse, designed to be the gateway for the Great Courtyard. One of the best surviving examples of its type, this two storey gate-hall is entered through a single archway which retains its portcullis. The Crankles was the name of the fishpond near the river Lark. The vineyard was first laid out in the 1200s. There were three breweries in the Abbey as each monk was entitled to eight pints a day.
The Abbey's charters granted extensive lands and rights in Suffolk. The Abbey held the gates of Bury St Edmunds; they held wardships of all orphans, whose income went to the Abbot until the orphan reached maturity; they pressed their rights of corvée. During the 13th century general prosperity blunted the resistance of burghers and peasants; in the 14th century, however, the monks encountered hostility from the local populace. Throughout the summer of 1327, the monastery suffered extensively, as several monks lost their lives in riots, and many buildings were destroyed. The hated charters and debtors' accounts were seized and triumphantly torn to shreds. Already faced with considerable financial strain, the abbey went further into decline during the first half of the 15th century. In 1431 the west tower of the abbey church collapsed. Two years later Henry VI moved into residence at the abbey for Christmas, and was still enjoying monastic hospitality four months later. More trouble arose in 1446 when the Duke of Gloucester died in suspicious circumstances after his arrest, and in 1465 the entire church was burnt out by an accidental fire. Largely rebuilt by 1506, the abbey of Bury St Edmunds settled into a quieter existence until dissolution in 1539. Subsequently stripped of all valuable building materials and artefacts, the abbey ruins were left as a convenient quarry for local builders.
The ruins are owned by English Heritage and managed by St Edmundsbury Borough Council.