Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Historical Heroes & Heroines: Part Four, Edmund the Martyr

It’s high time we revisited this series, and what better subject than Edmund the Martyr, also known as St Edmund, ruler of East Anglia from 855 to 869 AD, posthumously of my home town Bury St Edmunds, on today, St Edmund’s Day!

In rather a defeatist tone, Wikipedia tells us that ‘Almost nothing is known of Edmund’. But what we do know of him, or can surmise of him, is quite fascinating.

There remains no contemporaneous material on Edmund following its destruction by the Vikings, so common knowledge of the man and martyr is naturally a mix of truth and myth, making his story all the more enticing.

What we lack in detail about his life, we make up for in his death. It’s a weird mix of fact and fiction, with a bizarre reference to a well-educated wolf, which I think you will enjoy!

The first reference in history to Edmund sits in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 870, put together 20 years after his death in 869, and referring to that dreadful incident. (His inclusion in the Chronicle, and the existence of coinage dedicated to him dating from 885 to 915 AD confirm that Edmund was indeed a real person, not one of those made-up saints with no basis in reality.) He met his end at the hand of the Danes, supposedly in Hoxne, Mid Suffolk (although several other sites in East Anglia have been suggested), after he refused to renounce Christ; he was whipped, pelted with arrows (which were said to make him bristle like a hedgehog) and beheaded. (I love the names attributed to those dastardly Danes—“Ubbe Ragnarsson” and “Ivar the Boneless” aka “Hubba” and “Ingwar”.) Legend has it that his head was thrown into the woods and only recovered by his followers when a wolf called out in Latin, ‘Here, here, here!’ and there they found him nursing the severed head. The wolf allowed Edmund’s men to take the head, and they buried it nearby. When some years later they went to recover the body, they found that it was intact, with head attached, as if he had died a peaceful death. The surreal image of the wolf calling out in Latin is just wonderful—did he utter the words in a proper Suffolk accent, I wonder?
The slaying of St Edmund

By the way, chip away a little at its surface and you’ll find Hoxne has a rich seam of history bubbling away underneath. You know the Hoxnian Interglacial (the major interglacial period 375,000 to 425,000 years ago)? Named after Hoxne. The Hoxne Hoard? The biggest haul of Roman treasure ever found in the UK. Earliest recognition that hand axes were made by humans, not by meterorites? Discovered in Hoxne. It may be a little close to Norfolk for some, but Edmund’s tenaciousness has emboldened me and I can sense a research trip coming on…

Anyway, back to our hero’s story. Edmund’s remains were eventually transferred to the nearby town of Beodericsworth in 903, at the pre-existing monastery. This act elevated the town to a super power of its time. Miracles were said to occur at his shrine (a would-be thief got stuck to the shrine when trying to steal precious stones by kissing it as if he were a pilgrim; Edmund appeared beyond the grave to kill a Danish invader, with the miracle being recounted by a dying mute man miles away), and it soon became a centre of pilgrimage. In 925 the town’s name was changed to St Edmund’s Bury (“Bury” referring to “fortress” or “city”—no reference to the fact that Edmund was buried there) to reflect its connection with Edmund, and later Bury St Edmunds.

Edmund was fast becoming an icon for all things patriotic—his banner was brandished in battle, including the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the feverish cult that sprang up around him culminated in him being named as the patron saint of England.

His connection with the abbey of Bury St Edmunds meant that it grew from a small community of Benedictine monks at the time of his burial to one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England, beautifying and glorifying the town in the process. At its height of powers during the early fourteenth century, the abbey owned all of West Suffolk and kept a firm grip on the townsfolk, even charging tariffs on the collection of horse droppings in the street. No wonder that in 1327 the people revolted! After attack and counter-attack, they invaded the abbey, marking the beginning of its end notwithstanding a few episodes of restoration and revival along the way. Finally, the abbey, and Edmund’s shrine, were destroyed in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Sadly a recent campaign to have Edmund restored as the original saint of England, ousting St George, have failed, but he is recognised as the patron saint of good ol’ Suffolk.
The Abbey Ruins, Bury St Edmunds

The history of Edmund the Martyr and Bury St Edmunds the Town are intertwined: one cannot exist without the other. For that reason alone, I nominate Edmund as our fourth historical hero. We have him to thank for elevating our town—then and now—to an über-community. The glories that you can enjoy on a trip to our magnificent town include the Abbey Gate, the Abbey Gardens (spooky ruins providing a perfect setting for your picnic), the Norman Tower and Gothic Revival cathedral, the Theatre Royal—a Regency gem, the Nutshell, the smallest pub in Britain, not one but TWO Gregg’s outlets (can any other town of similar size make a similar boast?), the sugar beet factory, its sugar cloud a beacon to homecoming Bury folk—what the Angel of the North is to the Geordies…really, I am inviting you to come and see for yourself for I cannot do justice here on my blog!

It thrills me to think that I sit writing in the very heart of Edmund territory, a little patch of Suffolk that is now mine but was once ruled by this king and martyr and once part of the lands of the abbey so closely connected with his story. His dedication to his beliefs is inspirational, his story a curious one, and inspiration for tonight’s dreams of talking wolves, boneless warriors, sugar clouds and all those lovely caramel doughnuts from Gregg’s…

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Pray, Love, Remember...

For many, these past few days have been a time for reflection and remembrance. The uniforms, the military music, and of course, the iconic poppy, have all featured as symbols to remind us of those who sacrificed their lives for others.

It was the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae that renewed the adoption of the poppy as a tribute to soldiers who had died in conflict. Red poppies had been associated with the war dead since the Napoleonic Wars when a contemporary writer noticed how they grew on the graves of soldiers. Disruption to the soil in Flanders meant that the lime content increased, providing the perfect environment for the poppy to grow. 

A wreath of poppies was resting against the modest war memorial in our local churchyard this morning as I took a look round. Gloomy in the mist today, the place was illuminated more by the ochre leaves strewn across the ground than by the sun, an anaemic disc. Aside from the main memorial, a separate headstone dedicated to a young soldier lost in the Great War declared: ‘He fought and endured’.  It illustrated how it’s impossible to extricate one’s own loss from this communal grief.  And however you have lost loved ones, it’s hard to escape the poignancy of this time of year, joyful red conflicting against the milky sky.
The poppy is not the only flower to symbolise remembrance throughout history. One of the earliest examples is the bed of flowers on which a mother and her two children were buried in the Sahara 8,000 years ago.  Poppies, cornflowers and mandrake feature on the walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs while here in the UK, meadowsweet flowers and pollen are often found in Bronze Age graves.
In literature, Arviragus, the shepherd in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline pledges to bring specific flowers to adorn Imogen’s grave: ‘The pale primrose, that flower most like thy face; the bluebell, like thy clear veins; and the leaf of eglantine [sweet briar], which is not sweeter than was thy breath; all these will I strew over thee’.

And, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember,’ goes the famous quote by Ophelia in Hamlet as she alludes to her father’s—or even forewarns of her own—death.  In days gone by it was common practice to place rosemary on the dead, though the herb has also throughout history featured in bridal wreaths, so its symbolism could equally be joyful! And in a more recent twist, scientific studies of aromatherapy have confirmed that rosemary stimulates memory…so it’s officially an appropriate symbol for remembrance!
The Victorians, of course, elevated flower symbolism to an art form, and every emotion had its own specific flower to represent it—a neat way to express oneself under the strict etiquette of the age. Used most commonly to symbolise aspects of romantic love, the remembrance of a lost or unfulfilled love, for example, could be expressed in a bouquet of gardenias (secret love), pink carnations (remembrance), honeysuckle (devoted affection) and pink roses (desire).

For me the rose is a symbol of remembrance for my mother, most especially the delicate Cécile Brünner that she propagated in the gardens of every house we lived in. It’s obvious, I suppose: their delicacy and sweetness take the edge off grief and transport you to happier times.  Now I’m rose-mad…I faithfully promised my husband that I would redecorate our bedroom to suit his more alpha-male constitution…but here I am, surrounded by blowsy pink and red rose printed fabric, but, of course, he’s kind enough not to complain. And for my father, it has to be his army cap, still well-preserved after its issue nearly 70-odd years on. Although his episode in the Royal Artillery was relatively brief (during the Second World War), I believe his experiences at El Alamein and elsewhere shaped the rest of his life. Old soldiers never die…


Of course we don’t need symbols to remember…remembrance surely is as natural and spontaneous a process as the beating of our hearts or the inflating of our lungs, and the sum of our memories describes ourselves and our souls. But a symbol validates, comforts and brings something tangible to our memories, whether it’s as universal as the red poppy or as personal as an item of clothing, a special flower, a trinket, a talisman.
Or, put simply in the words of J. M. Barrie: ‘God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Autumn, A Second Spring

‘Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower,’ said the great French writer Albert Camus. A time for rejoicing, then, and to have a quick peek at the seasonal treats in this season’s Vintage Script.

The Hand in the Dark
Katy Darby

Once again, Katy enthrals us with her controlled and beautiful prose, enveloping the reader in an atmosphere of menace, suspense and hope. This is one to read with the lights down low and the ivy tapping at the window…
Interview with Tracy Borman
Emma Louise Oram

Lucky me—I got to interview historian and author Tracy who has an incomparable talent for bringing historical figures such as Elizabeth I, Matilda of Flanders and Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II, to life. My chat with Tracy revealed some fascinating insights into these women’s lives, and equally revealing details of the life of Tracy, who swears by British Library cakes as an aid to research...

In Which A Storm Rages
Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey expertly describes the appointment of the new schoolmaster, Mr Ellis, to Prospect Hill. A sedate and unassuming man, Mr Ellis’s arrival is to the backdrop of an autumn storm, the consequences of which will change his life forevermore. Dark, unexpected and surprisingly uplifting.
The Affair of the Necklace
Michael Montagu

The biggest piece of bling of its time, the necklace in question was a massive 2,840 carats, bedecked with innumerable diamonds, tassels and festoons, and was created as a gift from Louis XV to his mistress. Michael describes how the item helped to bring a country to its knees—it’s a story of deceit and subterfuge played out by the sort of curious characters we know Michael is an expert on!
India Rubber
Lucy Ribchester

In her first published short story (the first of many to come, I’m sure!), Lucy tells the tale of the armed bodyguard squad of suffragettes, a little-known phenomenon. Her descriptions are beautifully-observed: ‘After Mrs Fenton had finished her heated speech she got up to show us a few Ju-Jitsu moves…Her skirt kept getting in the way, and she has arthritic hands which didn’t help when she wanted to demonstrate a hold’. Bravo, Lucy!
What’s in a Name?
Edward Clark

Edward never fails to enchant us with his unique style and his precise, delicate prose. Here he goes on an odyssey to find the meaning behind an intriguing Newmarket placename. Jump on for the ride!
It's autumn in my garden!

Moma Ida Mae’s Shoes
Jacquese Armstrong

Jacquese’s story evokes the tense atmosphere of the 1950s Deep South. Her characters are beautifully drawn and her description striking—‘…Miss Daisy would tell her stories that made her hair stand on end and made her angrier than a disturbed hornet’s nest’. It’s an honour to include Jacquese’s story, which speaks for so many, not just Moma Ida Mae.
Paris, A City of Everlasting Delights
Hugh Oram
Forget Paris in the Spring—think Paris in the Autumn and allow Hugh to take you on a tour of some of his favourite—and little-known—places to visit. Cafés, art, life and death—it’s all here—and you can trust Hugh, who says he knows the Paris street map better than that of his home town Dublin, to reveal the quirkiest and most surprising spots.
The Whisky-Spinners of Haslingden Grane
Autumn Barlow

Not only has Autumn the perfect name for the season, she perfectly evokes the bleak and windswept West Pennine Hills where the “whisky-spinners” dwelt in times gone by. The subterfuge involved in concealing the illegal distillation was astonishing—elaborate pipes, metal waistcoats and special saddles! The way Autumn describes the hills makes you believe that the whisky-spinners are still there amongst the piles of stones and deserted farms…
Ration Books and Victory Gardens
Lynn Kennison
Lynn, our second American contributor this season, was inspired by her grandmother’s recollections of the Second World War in Florida—blocking out the light to outfox enemy ships in the Atlantic, the ration books and the victory gardens. The voice of Lynn’s story is warm and authentic, and her details delightful. You can smell the aroma of gravy and fresh biscuits as Nana settles down in front of the stove and recounts her memories!
The Lesson of History
Jennifer Foster
‘This is not an historical story, but a story about the importance of history,’ says Jennifer as she paints a charming picture of an 11-year-old boy on a trip to London with his monument-mad mum. Yes, at first her enthusiastic commentary is embarrassing, but by the end of the tale, mother and son have been united by the lesson of history.
The autumn edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.