Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Story of St Edmund and the Wolf - Fact or Myth

By John Smith

Although there are no direct connections with this story and Hunstanton, there are in St Edmund's Church, Hunstanton several reminders of the story.  There is a small wall sculpture at the entrance of the Baptistry at the West End of the Church.  There is another depiction of the Wolf built into the stonework on the door outside the choir vestry, both of which were placed at the time of building the Church.  Newer arrivals include 4 wolfs heads as part of the design of the stained glass windows depicting the life of St Edmund.

St Edmund's Church - Hunstanton - Baptistry - Wolf guarding the head of St. Edmund from the birds of the forest.
St Edmund's Church - Hunstanton - Wolf in stonework in entrance to the choir vestry.
St Edmund's Church - Hunstanton - Wolves heads in stained glass windows. 

There are wolves in other churches, mainly carved pew ends, a carved wolf and head on a roof beam and two splendit carvings on the Bishop's Chair in St Edmundsbury Cathedral.  The ancient Bury St Edmunds Coat-of-Arms proudly incorporates the wolf.

Hadleigh - Essex - Carved pew end

Hoxne - Suffolk - Carved pew end with wolf decapitated at the time of the reformation
Greanstead - Essex - The wooden church where the body of Edmund rested on its journey to London to evade the Vikings
St Edmundsbury Cathedral - carving on the Bishop's Chair
St Edmundsbury Cathedral Tapestry

Bury St Edmunds Coat of Arms Granted 1606
After the terrible martyrdom and the ultimate beheading of St Edmund on November 20th 870, by the Danish Vikings at Heglesdune (believed to be at Hoxne) the Danes tried to ruin any chance the Christians had of giving Edmund a Christian burial.  The pagan invaders threw the bleeding decapitated bodies of St Edmund and Bishop Humbert into their camp refuse as prey for the crows or prowling wolves.  They kept St Edmund's head, so they could take further revenge on the king who constantly had called out the name of Christ.  They tossed the sacred head of their conquered enemey from one to another with savage delight.  At last tired of the game they threw it outside the camp.  There it remained until at the suggestion of the wretched Bern who had betrayed Edmund to the Danes, they took the head and carried it into the depths of the forest and hid it amongst the tangled briars and undergrowth.  By good fortune this act was observed by one ot the local Christians.

Hoxne - stump of the reputed oak tree to which Edmund was tied at his martyrdom
Hoxne - Cross on the site of the oak tree

After the martyrdom of Edmund the Danes met with no further opposition from Edmund's troops.  Hinguar and Ubba the Danish leaders broke up their camp at Heglesdune and moved their forces to their winter quarters at Thetford.

Over a month after the death of Edmund on December 30th 870, Edmund's supporters dared to venture back to the scene of the slaughter.  They quickly found the headless body which miraculously had not been touched by the animals and birds of the forest.  But nowhere could they find Edmund's head.  Guided by the witness they found the correct part of the forest but they still could not find the head.  Night was falling and suddenly in the gloom they heard St Edmund's voice crying out "Here! Here! Here!" recovering from the shock of hearing the King's voice they hurried to the spot and a strange sight awaited them.  In the shadows of the trees a huge great wolf crouched motionless and between its great paws rested the king's head, totally unharmed.   As they ran upto the spot the wolf got up and quietly retreated into the forest.

Legend, Myth or Miracle?

There is a historical twist to the story.  In a letter from a vicar at Hoxne around 1890, he describes when digging in some foundations in Bury St Edmunds, a small stone chest was found.  Inside the chest was a collection of strange bones, obviously not human, but as it was thought at the time of a large dog.  The bones were sent to experts in London, who despite not knowing anything of the circumstances, pronounced them to be the bones of a wolf.

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