The history of the legend of Saint Edmund
One hundred and fifty years before the Norman Conquest the remains of St Edmund were moved from their first resting place close to the site of the martyrdom to Baedericesworth on the River Lark.
Less than 50 years after the removal of the remains to the new location the later King Edmund made a major grant of land in 945 to the monastery, securing the whole area of the later town within the boundary known as The Banleuca. Bury St Edmunds, as it later became known, was on the way to becoming one of the most wealthy and influential Abbeys in England.
But what of the Saint from whom it has taken its name? Edmund, King of the East Angles, is known only from two near contemporary sources: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle written by a monk between 877 - 899 and the remarkable memorial coinage, issued in around 890 and which continued for some 20 years. Beyond this date the well known details of the martyrdom of King Edmund, and the miracles attributed to him, come from sources increasingly distant from the date of his death, making it difficult to disentangle fact from enthusiasm.
The 'Kingdom' of East Anglia had its origins in the 5th century migrations of Angles and Saxons from North Germany and Denmark. Their settlements and culture are uniquely illustrated by the excavations and reconstructions of the early Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, some seven miles to the west of Bury St Edmunds.
By the early 7th century towns began to be established, particularly Ipswich, signalling the dramatic changes taking place with continental trade, political and regal development and the introduction of Christianity. East Anglia, that is Suffolk, Norfolk and most of Cambridgeshire, was an established kingdom based on the Royal House of the Wuffings. Their most notable King, Redwald, was buried in astonishing splendour at Sutton Hoo in 625. After the death of Redwald, who had been recognised as the 'High King of England', the fortunes of the kingdom fluctuated, with increasing pressures from and eventual domination of the Midland Kingdom of Mercia by 793 and Northumbria by 821.
By the 9th century the East Anglian kings were eclipsed by their more powerful neighbours to a point where most are hardly known. The bald statement about Edmund's death in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the year 869 may have passed unnoticed if it were not for the remarkable reputation for miracles which rapidly accrued to his remains.
The development of the story of St Edmund is laid out below. It shows not only the year of the event (AD) but also how long each event was in distance of years from the time of the death of King Edmund.
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There are many accounts of miracles associated with the Saint and of the incorrupt nature of the body until at least 1198 when it was examined after a disastrous fire.
Even if the later and more colourful details are stripped away as accumulations around the core there remain three key sources which relate to the story:
We do not know the sources used by Herman in 1095 but his addition of a 'Sutton' as the first burial place has aroused much discussion. The site of the martyrdom as reported by Abbo was at a place called Haegelisdun. Hoxne was claimed to be the site in 1101 but 'Hoxne' cannot be derived from Haegelisdun. It is suggested that there were political reasons for the Bishop of East Anglia to make the claim at the time to counter the growing influence of Bury Abbey, which was outside his jurisdiction. 'Hellesdon' (near Norwich) can be derived from 'Haegelisdun' has also been suggested but has no other supporting evidence. 'Sutton' has been equated with Sutton Hoo but there is no other evidence than the name.
In Bradfield St Clare some six miles south of Bury there is an old field name, 'Hellesdon'. This is not too much to go on, but there are other suggestive associations. To the north, there is a group of 'Kingshall' place names, and to the South a 'Sutton' Hall. This grouping of place names, so close to Bury itself, and not far from the winter head quarters of the Danish army at Thetford, is surely worthy of serious consideration.
The influence of St Edmund, the martyred king of East Anglia, survived the times of Danish domination and the Norman Conquest to become the focal point for the development of one of the greatest abbeys of England, whose abbey church was the largest in Europe, larger even than Norwich, built about the same time.
The reconstructions and interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow examine the very foundations on which the culture, wealth and influence of later Saxon England were built and find echoes in the ruins of the once great abbey of St Edmund.