November 20 marks the Feast Day of St Edmund, King and Martyr, one of our Diocesan Patrons.
Perhaps not so familiar now, except in the East Anglia he once reigned over, he was – until the Crusaders came back with their new Patron (a Turkish soldier quickly rebranded as ‘St George’) – once Patron Saint of England.
At the invitation of the House of Uffa, in danger of extinction following the murder of King Ethelbert, Edmund came from Germany and landed at Hunstanton in Norfolk to rule the Kingdom of the East Angles: his coronation took place at Bures, near Sudbury, on Christmas Day 855 AD in a chapel that still stands today. He was a mere 14 years old.
The main reason for Edmund’s election was for him to spearhead a resistance against the Danish piracy that plagued the eastern coast of England: the many village names of Scandinavian origin in Norfolk and Suffolk testify to the success of these raids. After gains in the north of the country, the Danes finally launched a huge attack on East Anglia in 869, intent on taking the kingdom and disposing of Edmund.
At this, Edmund in his palace at Reedham, near Great Yarmouth, rapidly moved inland to Thetford where there was a battle. He and some of his men escaped, but this is where the story becomes confused. The traditional version has them going south, with Edmund finally being captured at Hoxne in the Waveney valley.
More modern scholarship points to them going north, to a place then called Haglisden – the modern Hellesdon near Norwich. There was a final battle there in the marshes between the River Wensum and Drayton Low Road.
Edmund was captured and executed by being tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Legend has it that he died with the name of Jesus on his lips and this so incensed the Danes that they cut his head off and threw it into a thicket.
Later, when Edmund’s followers were searching for the head it is said to have cried out “Here! Here!” and was found between the paws of a wolf. This might seem far-fetched unless it is considered that the ‘wolf’ was possibly Edmund’s own wolfhound, guarding his master’s head and barking for attention.
What happened after this is well documented, and Edmund’s body was taken to Boedericsworth – the modern Bury St Edmunds – and enshrined in the Abbey there. However, his relics, having been kept in London between 1009 and 1013 to be safe from continued Danish raids, had disappeared from Bury by 1200 and are now believed to be in France, at the Basilica of St Sernin in Toulouse.
There is an active movement to have St Edmund restored as Patron Saint of England, especially from his old kingdom, but recent appeals have sadly not found favour with HM Government.
Pictured above is a stained glass window showing St Edmund’s martyrdom, at Greenstead-Juxta-Ongar Church, Essex. The church’s remarkable wooden nave in which St Edmund’s body rested on its return to Bury in 1013 still stands today. Picture by Nick Walmsley.