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St Denis – the Bury St Edmunds Connection

St Denis – the Bury St Edmunds Connection

Should you have wandered down Honey Hill recently, you may have noticed the name plate of St Denys on a front door, passed by, and probably not given it another thought. But who was he?

Little is known of his life; although it is believed that he was born in Rome, died in Paris and was, alas, martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius in 251 or Valerian in 258. St. Denis is also spelled Denys, although in Latin Dionysius. His feast day is October 9 (Eastern church, October 3) and he was allegedly first bishop of Paris, a martyr and a patron saint of France.

A legend recorded in the 9th century recounts that Denis was beheaded on Montmartre (Hill of the Martyr) and that his decapitated corpse carried his head to the area north-east of Paris where he dropped it. On that very spot was founded the Benedictine abbey of St. Denis, still existing as the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis. The saint is often portrayed in art as a decapitated (though evidently living and walking) figure.

We now come forward to the year 1065 and the abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Abbot Leofstan had died and Baldwin was appointed to the post of Abbot. Baldwin was a French monk actually from St Denis and at one time  or another, physician to both Edward the Confessor and William I, and thus truly influential on both sides of the English Channel before and after the Norman Conquest. Baldwin was so impressed by St Edmund’s power that he had decided to stay and thus became the third Abbot at Bury. Indeed he built a church, St Denys, which today would lie under the footprint of the Cathedral of St James and St Edmund. St Denis and St Edmund both lost their heads, which is an interesting link twixt the two legends.

Mike Dean, Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides