Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Early Life of St Edmund and his Connections with Hunstanton

By Cllr John Smith

Lydgate was an accomplished schola

Over the centuries much has been written about the life and times of St. Edmund.  Unfortunately hard facts are not easily available, partly because many records and ancient manuscripts were lost during the various Viking invasions and their destruction of monastries and religious institutions, and partly because it can be difficult to distinquish between historical truths and mythology that has developed over the millennia.

Even his place of birth and how he arrived in East Anglia are still matters of discussion.

Some claim he was born around AD 841, in a place believed to be Norbury near Croydon in Surrey.  In this version his family came from the Western part of Kent.  His father was Ealhere who was married to Eadith, the daughter of Eegnerht, and ancient King.   Eadith was sister to Athelstan who was King of East Anglia, there are good but complicated reasons to suppose that Athelstan and Offa are one and the same person.  This is important as there are similarities in the two most popular theories as to how Edmund became King of East Anglia.  The 'Norbury' version states that Athelstan on starting out of a Pilgrimmage to Palestine visited his brother-in-law Ealhere who was at that time King of Kent.  On meeting Ealhere's son Edmund, he was so impressed with him, and not having a son of his own, he left instructions that Edmund should be his successor.  Athelstan did not survive his pilgrimmage and hence Edmund was appointed King of East Anglia.

The second more traditional and accepted version of this story gives Edmund a documented Saxon background.  The Emperor Charlmagne had conquered and converted the Saxons in the 8th century.  His court was a refuge for English Princes escaping from Heathen Persecution.  When East Anglia was siezed by the pagan Mercians, two cousins fled to Charlmagne's court.  One was Offa the future King of East Anglia, and the second was Alcmund who was to be father of St Edmund, whom Charlmagne sent to govern his new conquest of Saxony while he was still a youth.  This is not the Saxony of today, but comprised the area which lies between the River Ems and the Elbe, and stretched from Cologne Northwards.  It's connection with the early English Kingdoms is a documented fact of history.  Interchanges between the Old Saxon families and their relations in East Anglia was not uncommon and many Saxons sent their sons to be educated in East Anglia.

Alcmund was married to Siwara and they had four children, three sons and a daughter.  Their second son was Edmund and he was raised as a noble.  At an early age he learnt how to read, a rare skill in those days.  He had also been instructed in Latin, and as part of his education he began to learn the Psalms of David by heart.  A task he completed after his arrival in East Anglia.

With the help of Charlemagne, Offa returned to East Anglia and together with the local lords they defeated the Mercians.  Offa's reign was not easy; there were constant threats from the defeated Mercians, and towards the end of his reign a more formidable enemy arrived in the form of a party of Danish Vikings who in AD 838 entered his Kingdom from the Lincolnshire Fens.  Although this attack was repulsed Offa feared for his Kingdom as the invasions of the feared Norsemen became more frequent especially in the South of England.  Offa was by this time, being older and without an heir, prayed for help in choosing his successor.  On a sudden inspiration he decided to make a pilgrimmage  to Jerusalem.  The safest route to the Holy Land was through Emperor Charlemagne's dominions and he chose a route taking him through Old Saxony.  This gave him the opportunity of visiting his cousin Alcmund at Northemberg.  He set sail with a large retinue of knights and servants, and having informed Alcmund of his intension to visit him, his fleet was given a royal welcome when he arrived at the court of Alcmund.

Alcmund had appointed many pages from the Saxon nobility to wait on his guests, among them were his two sons Edmund and Adalbert.  Offa was particularly impressed with Edmund in who he found a boy with an education and discretion far beyond that could be expected in a person so young.  King Offa was also aware that Edmund was descended from the royal line of the Uffings and was therefore eligible to succeed him as King of East Anglia.  His decision was made and before he continued on him pilgrimmage he called the court together and publicly embraced Edmund and presented him with his coronation ring as a token of his affection and also as a sign that Edmund was the appointed heir to his Kingdom.

King Offa survived the perils of the long journey to the Holy Land and returned via Constantinople, where the true cross was situated, but on the journey he became seriously ill, and having reached the celebrated monastery and church in the Dardanelles dedicated to St George, he realised he was dying.  Before recieving the last sacrament he reminded his knights of his wishes regarding Edmund and gave them his signet ring to take to Alcmund as the sign that Edmund should claim his Kingdom.

The knights duly returned to Alcmund's court at Northemberg and presented Offa's signet ring and his last wishes, reminding them that he had appointed Edmund as his heir.  Acmund was sad at the potential loss of his son but was determined that Edmund should have all essentials for him to succeed in his new Kingdom.  A sufficiently powerful force was assigned to the Young Prince, to support his claim to the Kingdom.  To the retinue Alcmund appointed counsellors and members of the Saxon elite to help Edmund in his task.  Together with priests and clerics to advise Edmund in all matters of the Holy doctrine, and as many household attendants as befitted his rank.

At last the fleet was assembled and set sail.  His arrival in East Anglia at Hunstanton is well documented in the 'Life of St Edmund, King and Martyr' written by John Lydgate around 1430.  Lydgate had been appointed by Abbot Curteys of the Abbey of St Edmundsbury to document Edmund's lift in the form of an illustrated poem as a gift to King Henry VI who was making a pilgrimmage to Edmund's shrine in 1433.

Edmund's arrival in Hunstanton - Window in St Edmund's Church by Sir Ninian Comper adapted from Lydgate

Lydgate was an accomplished scholarand no doubt had access to the archives of the abbey. He gives details of Edmund's arrival at Hunstanton, which in the absence of other written evidence has to be accepted as being as close to the truth as is probable.  Lydgate gives a vivid description of the voyage.  He states that the voyage was neither long nor dangerous.  The Saxons were accomplished seamen and they were fully acquainted with the shoals, sandbanks and other perils of what we now know as the Wash and the North Sea. [It is almost certain that they knew about the landmark of Hunstanton Cliffs.]

The wind and weather was favourable, and in the Autumn of 855 the fleet arrived at the North-East point of the Norfolk Coast, where a cliff sixty feet high and a mile in length juts out into the sea.  (It is a logical theory that Hunstanton was in fact chosen as a landing point as it was the home of a Saxon community (in the grounds of Hunstanton Hall) and with the other Saxon Communities further round the nearby coast it would have been considered as a safe region for a fleet to arrive.  There is also the important point that it is relatively close to North Elmham (near Dereham) which was one of the two great East Anglian Bishoprics, the other being Dunwich in Suffolk)  Legend says that in fact Edmund was met on the beach at Hunstanton by the Bishop Humbert of North Elmham.  The Bishop was a very important friend and advisor to Edmund and helped him to establish his claim to the throne.  He anointed him at his coronation and was also slain by the Danes at the same time as Edmund's martydom.

The Lydgat manuscript is also very important as there are three pictures associated with Edmund's arrival.  The first is St Edmund's arrival at the place which for centuries has been known as St Edmund's point.  The second depicts the scene where Edmund knelt to pray and series of springs with sweet and crystal water gushed forth.

These springs are still present in Waterworks Road.  Some of the Springs still flow at the site of the Old Hunstanton Waterworks which is now a private dwelling.  For a considerable time water was pumped from the waterworks to the water tower, now demolished at the top of Lincoln Street, and to the tower at the top of Redgate Hill which supplied Heacham.  How many residents and visitors realised that they drank and bathed in Holy Water?

Lincoln Street Water Tower 1955
Hunstanton Waterworks and Pumping Station 1920
These springs are an important part of the early history of Hunstanton and in another early manuscript about Edmund's life, Gaufridus (also known as Geoffrey of Wells) writes, "These springs, to this our own day (12th Century) excite the admiration of the beholder, flowing as they do with a continuous sweet and cheering murmer to the sea.  Many sick wash in these fountains and are restored to their former health and pilgrims carry the healing water to remote parts for the infirm and others to drink"  It was reported (with annoying brevity) that in 1864 at St Edmund's Wells at Hunstanton a miraculous cure rewarded the faith of a young girl who bathed there.

The third of the Lydgate pictures depicts the building of a Royal Tower at the site of Edmund's arrival.  Confusingly, the tower was called Maidenburie, which is also an ancient name of King's Lynn.  (Some writers think that this reference to 'Maidenbore' is evidence that Edmund landed at King's Lynn, where there was an ancient chapel dedicated to St Edmund and where miracles took place) However, Gaufridus and Lydgate leave no doubt that Hunstanton is the correct site.

It is recorded that this tower was later turned into a chapel by the faithful.  This chapel is very important to the claim that here was the arrival point of Edmund.   Before the time of the Norman Conquest the manors of Hunstanton and Holme belonged to the Abbey at Bury St Edmund's.  Although very little is known about the origins of the Chapel and its purpose, legend states that it was built at the instructions from the abbey and it is highly probable that it was intended as a resting place for those pilgrims visiting the nearby Holy Springs.

The chapel was briefly mentioned in the "Antiquary" magazine of 1913, "A shapeless mass of masonry pierced with a large hole, presumably once a door way, and surrounded with large thorns was all that could be seen of what was reputed to be the Chapel of St Edmund." However, in 1915 a group of local archaeologists obtained the permission from Hamon le Strange to excavate the site.  The subsequent excavations revealed the lower walls of a building, oblong in shape with external measurements about 78x24 feet with two doors, one in the SW corner and another in the opposite corner.

The remains of the walls which were some 2 or 3 feet in height were mainly composed of chalk, flints and a few boulders and on the internal surfaces some plaster was found.  At the West End of the building two curious little square enclosures were found, perhaps the remains of a Baptistry, but more probably they were added as animal enclosures as that part of the cliff top had been for many years a sheep run, An iron ring was also found that could have been used as a halter.

Blackened masses of rubbish and a lump of lead which possibly fell from the roof pointed to the possibility that the building may have been damaged by fire at some point in its history.   Some worked stone fragments of Barnack origin were found.  One of the bases of the arch of the southern door was found in situ and was thought to be of Norman origin as were other stones found with hatched dressings.  Other finds included portions of glazed floor tiles of uncertain date but probably from the 15th or 16th century.  Fragments of painted and other glass were also found, and a quantity of Collyweston slates.

There is little other documentary evidence concerning the chapel.  A church without land is mentioned in the Doomsday Book among the holding of  John, nephew of Weleran.  The chapel is also mentioned in the will of Sir Roger le Strange, dated October 7th 1505 in which he requests "I bequeath to reparations of the Chapell of Seynt Edmund in Hunstanton ten markes to be paid in twoo years next after my decease so that mym armes and my wiffs be sett in the window of the said Chapell".

Following the First World War the site was laid out as a garden by Rev. Tomms and Hunstanton residents as a memorial to his two sons and the many other townspeople killed in the Great War.  The archway was largely constructed  at this time and the use of red bricks and tiles in its construction caused some controversy at the time.

Another excavation was carried out in 1923 which largely supported findings of the 1915 survey.  In addition two flint flakes from Neolithic times were found and also a bill hook of a type that existed from Saxon times.

Much of the chapel came to a rather sad end as many of the stones were carted away and used as the hardcore to make the road to the lighthouse and further damage was caused by the servicemen serving on the cliff during the Second World War.

St Edmund's Chapel - 1920's - Laid out by the Rev. Thomas

St Edmund's Chapel - early 1930's

No comments:

Post a Comment