Monday, 23 May 2011

Edmund the Martyr

St Edmund the Martyr (Old English: ēad, "prosperity", "riches"; and mund, "protector"; Latin: Eadmund)[1] (died 20 November 869 or 870) was a king of East Anglia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom which today includes the English counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.[note 1] Contemporary evidence for King Edmund's existence is largely confined to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and his coinage. In the late 10th century, Abbo of Fleury was commissioned to write a life of the saint and became Edmund's earliest biographer. Written in 985, the work was translated into Old English by Ælfric of Eynsham. According to Abbo, Edmund was captured and tortured by the Danish Great Heathen Army and died the death of a Christian martyr.
Edmund is venerated as a saint and a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. It is said that his body was ultimately interred at Beadoriceworth (modern Bury St Edmunds), where pilgrims were encouraged to visit his shrine. By the 12th century, the church had been enlarged. His popularity with the Anglo-Norman nobility helped justify their claims of continuity with pre-Norman traditions: a banner of his arms was carried at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.


Hunstanton is located in Kingdom of the East Angles
Places in 9th century East Anglia associated with Edmund the Martyr
Edmund was a king of East Anglia,[2] of whom almost nothing is known. The earliest authority for him is Abbo of Fleury, who wrote Passio Santi Eadmundi for the monks of Ramsay in the 980s. Abbo stated that Edmund came "ex antiquorum Saxonum nobili prosapia oriundus".[3] This has confused later translators into thinking that he was of continental Old Saxon origin, but according to the historian Steven Plunkett, Edmund was East Anglian, a country settled by Saxons.[4]
Edmund's fictitious continental origins were later expanded into legends which spoke of his parentage, his birth at Nuremberg, his adoption by Offa of Mercia, his nomination as successor to the king and his landing at Hunstanton on the North Norfolk coast to claim his kingdom.[5]
De Infantia Sancti Edmundi, a fictitious 12th century hagiography of Edmund's early life by Geoffrey of Wells, represented him as the youngest son of 'Alcmund', a Saxon king of Germanic descent. 'Alcmund' is a semi-historical figure who may never have existed.[6] Other accounts state that his father was the king he succeeded, Æthelweard of East Anglia, who died in 854, apparently when Edmund was a boy of fourteen.[7]


Edmund was said to have been crowned by St Humbert (Bishop Humbert of Elmham) on 25 December 855[5] at a location known as Burna (probably Bures St. Mary in Suffolk) which at that time functioned as the royal capital. Later versions of his life recorded that he was a model king who treated all his subjects with equal justice and who was unbending to flatterers. It was also written that he withdrew for a year to his royal tower at Hunstanton and learned the whole Psalter, so that he could recite it from memory.[6]


"(Edmund) was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles".
Edmund the Martyr is killed by the Danes.
In the year 869,[note 2] the Danes who had wintered at York, marched through Mercia into East Anglia and took up their quarters at Thetford. Edmund engaged them fiercely in battle, but the Danes under their leaders Ubbe Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless had the victory, killed King Edmund, and remained in possession of the battlefield.[8][9] The conquerors may have simply killed the king in battle, or shortly after. The more popular version of the story, which makes Edmund die as a martyr to Danish arrows when he had refused to renounce Christ or hold his kingdom as a vassal from heathen overlords, dates from comparatively soon after the event.[2] It is not known which account is correct.
According to Abbo of Fleury, Edmund's earliest biographer, the story came to Abbo by way of St Dunstan, who heard it from the lips of Edmund's own sword-bearer.[10] Given accepted birth and death days, this is just chronologically possible.[2] In Abbo of Fleury's alternative version of events, Edmund refused to meet the Danes in battle himself, preferring to die a martyr's death, with conscious parallels to the Passion of Christ:
King Edmund stood within his hall of the mindful Healer with Hinguar (Ivar), who then came, and discarded his weapons. He willed to imitate Christ's example, which forbade Peter to fight against the fierce Jews with weapons. Lo! to the dishonorable man Edmund then submitted and was scoffed at and beaten by cudgels. Thus the heathens led the faithful king to a tree firmly rooted in Earth, tightened him thereto with sturdy bonds, and again scourged him for a long time with straps. He always called between the blows with belief in truth to Christ the Saviour.
A page from the Anglo—Saxon Chronicle
The heathens then became brutally angry because of his beliefs, because he called Christ to himself to help. They shot then with missiles, as if to amuse themselves, until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was. Then Hinguar, the dishonorable Viking, saw that the noble king did not desire to renounce Christ, and with resolute faith always called to him; Hinguar then commanded to behead the king and the heathens thus did. While this was happening, Edmund called to Christ still. Then the heathens dragged the holy man to slaughter, and with a stroke struck the head from him. His soul set forth, blessed, to Christ.[10]
The traditional date of his death, quoted by most reference works, is 870.[11] However recent research has led to the claim that he actually died in 869,[12] and this date is now accepted as fact in most new histories.[2]
This uncertainty arose because the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dated the start of the year from September, so an event that took place in November 869 according to the modern calendar would be considered by them to take place in 870.[8] The Great Heathen Army conquered the Kingdom of Northumbria in 866. They then invaded Wessex, the English kingdom whose history from that time is best documented, in December 870.[13] The uncertainty raises the question of whether they did so within a few weeks of killing Edmund, or whether they spent a year pillaging and consolidating their position in East Anglia.
One possible location for the battle is at Hoxne near Eye in Suffolk, some 20 miles east of Thetford.[7]
Local legend has is that, after being routed in battle against the Danes, King Edmund of East Anglia hid under the Goldbrook bridge. The reflection of his golden spurs glinting in the water revealed his hiding place to a newly wed couple. They gave away his position to the Danes who promptly captured Edmund and demanded he renounce his faith. He refused and was tied to a nearby oak tree. After whipping him, the Danes shot spears at him until he was entirely covered with their missiles - like the bristles of a hedgehog. Even then he would not forsake Christ and so was beheaded and the head was thrown into the woods.[14]
Another candidate is in Dernford, Cambridgeshire,[15] while Bradfield St Clare, near Bury St Edmunds is also a possible site for the martyrdom.[16]


St Edmund the Martyr crowned by angels
The king's body was ultimately interred at Beadoriceworth, the modern Bury St Edmunds. The shrine of Edmund soon became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England and the reputation of the saint became universal.[2][17] The date of his canonisation is unknown, although Archdeacon Hermann's Life of Edmund, written in the late 11th century, seems to state that it happened in the reign of Athelstan (924–939). Edmund's popularity among the English nobility was lasting. It is known that his banner was borne in the Irish expedition of the Anglo-Normans and also when Caerlaverock Castle was taken in 1300. A banner with Edmund's crest was also carried at the Battle of Agincourt.[18][19]
Churches dedicated to his memory are found all over England, including Christopher Wren's St Edmund the King and Martyr in London. There are also a number of colleges named after St Edmund. His shrine at Bury St Edmunds was destroyed in 1539, during the English Reformation.
Martyrdom of St Edmund by Brian Whelan
A painting, The Martyrdom of St Edmund by Brian Whelan hangs in the Lady Chapel of St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. He is commemorated with a statue niche 195 on the west front of Salisbury Cathedral. His feast day in the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican traditions is 20 November. [7]


Edmund in The Little Lives of the Saints, illustrated by Charles Robinson in 1904.
Abbo of Fleury's vita[10] continues the narration of Edmund's decapitation without a break. His severed head was thrown into the wood. Day and night as Edmund's followers went seeking, calling out "Where are you, friend?" the head would answer, "Here, here, here," until at last, "a great wonder", they found Edmund's head in the possession of a grey wolf, clasped between its paws. "They were astonished at the wolf's guardianship".[note 3] The wolf, sent by God to protect the head from the animals of the forest, was starving but did not eat the head for all the days it was lost. After recovering the head, the villagers marched back to the kingdom, praising God and the wolf that served him. The wolf walked beside them as if tame all the way to the town, after which it turned around and vanished into the forest.[10] This story is told also in the South English Legendary, a collection of saints' lives in Middle English, compiled in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[20]
After giving the head and body a speedy burial, the kingdom rebuilt itself for several years before finally erecting a church worthy of Edmund's burial.[2] Legend told that upon exhumation of the body, a miracle was discovered. All the arrow wounds upon Edmund's corpse were healed and his head reattached to his body. The only evidence of his previous decapitation was a thin, red line around his neck. Despite being buried for many years in a flimsy coffin, his skin was soft and fresh as if he were merely sleeping the entire time.[10] These details induced the writers of the British Museum's account of the bog body called Lindow Man[21] to suggest that the body of St Edmund recovered in the fens "was in fact a prehistoric bog body, and that in trying to find their murdered king, his people had recovered the remains of a sacred king of the old religion still bearing the marks of his ritual strangulation."[22]
A coin commemorating St Edmund. These coins appear to have been common in later times.
A statue of St. Edmund the Martyr on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK.


Edmund is seen as the patron saint of numerous groups of people, places, kings and other causes, including:


Until the middle of the 19th century, an old tree stood in Hoxne Park and it was believed that it was the tree on which Edmund had been martyred. In 1849, the old tree fell down and was chopped up. According to the story, in the heart of the tree an arrow head was found. Pieces of the tree were kept and one of them was used to form part of the altar of a church which was dedicated to Edmund.[5]


In Percy Dearmer's The Little Lives of the Saints, we are told of Edmund's posthumous revenge on the Danes:
...the last heathen Danish king, Sweyen (the father of Canute), tried to destroy (Bury St Edmunds). He laid siege to it, and demanded all the treasure of the church, else he threatened to destroy the church and kill all the clergy; and this he said with many taunting words about the saint who lay buried there. But as he was sitting on his war–horse, waiting to attack the town, he saw in the sky St Edmund coming towards him, a crown on his head and a long bright lance in his hand. 'Help, friends!' he cried. 'Edmund is coming to kill me!' Then he fell down, and died in convulsions.[5]
Sweyn's son, King Canute, converted to Christianity and rebuilt the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. In 1020, he made a pilgrimage there and offered his own crown upon the shrine as atonement for the sins of his forefathers.[5]

Edmund in fiction

In Bernard Cornwell's book The Last Kingdom, Edmund talks himself into martyrdom when he tries to persuade the Vikings, led by Ivar the Boneless, to be baptised. Ivar invokes the powers of Thor and Wodan, but Edmund and his bishops try to convince the Danes of the greatness of God by citing the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The Danes then amuse themselves by recreating Sebastian's death, shooting arrows against Edmund, to see if a miracle would happen and God would protect the king from their arrows.
An account of Edmund shortly before his death and his martyrdom appears in The Namesake, a juvenile historical novel by C. Walter Hodges.

Campaign to restore Edmund as the patron saint of England

In 2006, a group that included BBC Radio Suffolk and the East Anglian Daily Times saw the failure of their campaign to get St Edmund named as the patron saint of England. Edward III replaced Edmund as a national saint by associating Saint George with the Order of the Garter.[24] The Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley had taken up the cause and helped deliver a large petition to the government in London. BBC Radio Suffolk also called for a change of the English flag from the Cross of St George (Argent, a cross Gules or a red cross on a white field) to the new Flag of Suffolk.[25] This consists of three gold crowns on a field of blue (Azure, three crowns Or).[18] This is a heraldic banner introduced during the Norman period.[26] Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected the request, however their attempt was successful on another level:
St Edmund (was) named patron saint of Suffolk...the high point of a successful campaign which was launched by Breakfast show presenter Mark Murphy and producer Emily Fellows in the autumn of 2006. St Edmund was originally the English patron saint but was ousted by St George.[27]
King of the East Angles
The Wilton Diptych(Edmund detail).jpg
Detail from the Wilton Diptych
Reign 25 December 855 – 20 November 869 or 870
Died killed in battle 869 or 870
Place of death historical: Hoxne, Suffolk; possible: Dernford, Cambridgeshire.
Buried Bury St Edmunds
Predecessor Æthelweard of East Anglia
Successor Oswald and/or
Aethelred II of East Anglia
Religious beliefs Christian
Saint Edmund the Martyr
Honored in Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion
Major shrine Bury St Edmunds, destroyed
Feast 20 November
Attributes crowned and robed as a king; holding a scepter, orb, arrow, or a sword
Patronage various kings, pandemics, torture victims, and wolves, the Roman Catholic diocese of East Anglia, the English county of Suffolk, Douai Abbey, Toulouse

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