Cate Gunn posted a piece about St Edmund on the Medieval Religion discussion group today which I thought might interest my readers. I have slightly adapted it:
Edmund was born about 840/841 and elected king of East Anglia aged 14. It is believed he was crowned on the hillside at Bures, overlooking the beautiful Stour valley . He was renowned for his piety in his personal life, and desire for justice. He led the defence of his Christian realm against the Danish chiefs Hinguar and Hubba; Hinguar laid his land waste and killed the people ‘men, women and innocent children’ (according to the account from Alefric’s Lives of Saints translated by Anne Dineen); Edmund refused to defile his hands with Hinguar’s blood but ‘mindful of his Saviour’ he discarded his weapons and imitated Christ’s example. In order to save his people, he submitted to the invaders; he was ‘bound and humiliated and beaten with sticks. Soon the King was taken to a tree rooted in the ground and tied and was beaten there with whips for a long time; and he always, between the beatings, called with true faith to Christ the Saviour. Then, because of his faith, the heathens became made angry, for he called on Christ to help. They shot him then with arrows, as in sport, until he was all covered with arrows like a hedgehog’s bristles, as Sebastian was.’ Finally his head was chopped off. Other sources suggest that he may have had the ‘Blood Eagle’ carved on his back. This martyrdom is supposed to have occurred on 20th November 869/70, maybe at Hoxne in Suffolk.
When his men went later to recover his body, they couldn’t find his head; eventually it was found guarded by a wolf, who surrendered it and followed the procession to the grave in Heglesdune wood. Years later the body was removed to Beodricksworth [variously spelt] where a church was built, later to become the great abbey of Bury St Edmunds. When Edmund’s coffin was opened the body was found to be incorrupt and the head reattached to the body, with only a thin red mark round the neck.
Edmund’s shrine was guarded by the Benedictine Ailwin, but when, around the year 1010 there was fresh trouble, the body was moved to London for safety, where it rested in St Gregory’s church. At this time, the martyr’s fame increased; when peace returned Ailwin wanted to take the body back to Suffolk, but Alphun, Bishop of London, planned to retain it and take it instead to St Paul’s. Edmund, however, seemed to have other ideas, and the coffin became too heavy to move until Alphun relented and Ailwin was able to leave London with the body in procession. All along the route people turned out to offer respect to the martyr, and were rewarded with miracles of healing.
Edmund’s body was returned in 1013, and last year a pilgrimage followed the route from London to Bury St Edmunds to celebrate the 1000th anniversary.
Edmund’s cult is discussed in the essays in St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint, ed. by Anthony Bale, published York Medieval Press/Boydell & Brewer 2009.
Modern statue of St Edmund by Dame Elizabeth Frink outside the west front of the abbey