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…


  1. Excellent, Emma, I knew nothing about Edmund before your article. Pretty powerful stuff, and what about that Latin-spouting wolf, eh? I bet, though, that he only knew the Latin for, 'Hey, I've found a head' and just got lucky. Or he could have been shouting the phrase out randomly for years - fortunately this time he wasn't ignored for crying wolf.

  2. Thanks, the wolf is hilarious! You must come to Bury St Edmunds some time...and we can FINALLY meet up!