Storyteller to recreate key lecture on Abbey of St Edmund

Robert Lloyd Parry as M R James, whose pivotal lecture on the Abbey of St Edmund is being recreated 

Robert Lloyd Parry as M R James, whose pivotal lecture on the Abbey of St Edmund is being recreated - Credit: Shelagh Bidwell

A 90th-anniversary recreation of a pivotal lecture on the Abbey of Saint Edmund will take place in May as part of the millennium celebrations.

A dramatic recreation of M R James' lecture on the abbey in Bury St Edmunds is to be performed at the town's Athenaeum, the very same venue where the original lecture was first given some 90 years ago on April 21, 1932.

As part of the Abbey 1000 celebrations, Robert Lloyd Parry, a performance storyteller of M R James’ ghost stories, will give a dramatised reading of the lecture on Thursday, May 26, organised by the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership.

The Abbey Gardens ruins in Bury St Edmunds.

The Abbey Gardens ruins in Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Archant

Although best known for his ghost stories, M R James work as a medievalist scholar remains highly respected.

Brought up near Bury St Edmunds, researching the Abbey of St Edmund was a lifelong passion.

He became the leading expert on its medieval manuscripts and the history and layout of its great abbey church. His 1895 two-part volume on the church and manuscripts was the single most important piece of research by an individual since the dissolution of the monasteries.

During this research M R James discovered reference in an abbey register in Douai to the burial places of several of the abbots. This led in 1902-3 to excavations in the chapter house revealing the graves of six abbots, five of which can still be seen today.

He also became involved in a heated public debate about the authenticity of the ‘St Edmund relics’, the alleged remains of St Edmund held in Toulouse. He doubted their authenticity, and his view was confirmed by scientific research nearly a century later.

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Four years before his death, on 21 April 1932, he gave his public lecture 'On the Abbey Church at Bury' at the Athenaeum, summarising his lifetime’s research in an imaginary tour of the abbey church in its heyday.

Handwritten notes for the lecture were found in Cambridge University Library by historian Dr Richard Hoggett in 2018, while preparing the Abbey Heritage Assessment.

He transcribed and published them in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History in 2020. The lecture will be introduced by Dr Hoggett.

Bury St Edmunds is home to the Abbey Gardens

Abbey 1000 celebrations are happening in Bury St Edmunds this year. Pictured is St Edmundsbury Cathedral - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Looking forward to presenting M R James lecture, Robert Lloyd Parry said: "I first came to M R James through performing his peerless ghost stories, but over the years I've become increasingly interested in his scholarly work, and I'm delighted to have a chance to portray this less well known side of his life. 

"To be able to deliver the lecture in the same venue as James did himself adds to the thrill." 

The 90-minute reading of 'M R James on The Abbey Church at Bury' on May 26 will begin at 7pm.  

Tickets priced at  £10 adults and £8 students/under-18s can be purchased online or call 01284 758000.  

The evening is generously supported by the Bury Society. 

Details of all the events planned for Abbey 1000 can be found here.