Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

St Edmund

Today is the feast of St Edmund King and Martyr.

Edmund (d. 869 or 870). was a king of the East Angles slain in battle against invading Danes. He has very brief notices in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (under 870) and in Asser's Vita Alfredi (cap. 33). His veneration as a saint is first documented from coinage of the later ninth and early tenth centuries. Abbo of Fleury's late tenth-centuryPassio of Edmund. (BHL 2392) presents him as a willing victim for his people who sacrifices himself to certain torture and death in order to prevent further bloodshed. Abbo further relates the miraculous Inventio of Edmund's head by Christians who already had his body - the head was found being guarded by a wolf - and his later translation to a splendid church at the royal vill of Beadericesworth which in consequence became known as Bury St Edmunds, with one of the greatest of English Benedictine houses.

In the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York  MS M.736 is a richly illustrated, earlier twelfth-century (ca. 1125-35) miscellany of texts related to Edmund, probably compiled at or for the abbey which held his relics. The catalogue description of the manuscript can be read here. The images can be seen here.

To search the catalogue for descriptions start at http://corsair.themorgan.org/ and click on "Search the catalog". In the next screen enter in the box marked "Find This", limit this search to "Medieval Images only", and click on "Search".

The above paragraphs are adapted and extended from John Dillon's post for today on the Medieval Religion discussion group site.

The Wikipedia entry on St Edmund can be read here.

St Edmund's extensive cult meant that he was a frequent patron of churches and a subject for artists, notably in East Anglia.
The second article on this page is a review of a book on the subject and auseful introduction in itself. Here are two examples in stained glass:


Saxlingham Nethergate, St Mary, Norfolk

Mid-13th century panel showing the Martyrdom of St Edmund. It may have come from the other church in the village, Saxlingham Thorpe, the parishioners of which were told in 1688 to give up their church and come and worship in this church. Here Edmund offers up to heaven the arrows of his martyrdom.

Photo by Gordon Plumb


Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk

Margaret Peyton, St Edmund with Abbot Richard Hengham 1474-79 kneeling at his feet between Margaret and Thomas Peyton.
Photo by Gordon Plumb

Detail from the Wilton Diptych.

The classic depiction of St Edmund as a royal saint for a royal patron, King Richard II

I think it is to be regretted that St Edmund does not appear in the National Calendar for the Catholic Church in England - perhaps that is something the Anglican Patrimony can help to change. Until the fifteenth century he was a national saint, and after St Edward the Confessor the great royal exemplar. The abbey was a frequent host to medieval monarchs.

There is an account of the abbey itself from Wikipedia here , and the Victoria County History account of the monastery can be read here.

There is a tour of the present remains of the great church, once one of the largest in medieval England, here. It concludes with this reconstruction of the abbey on the eve of the dissolution. In some respects it is, I suspect, a little fanciful, but it does give some idea of the scale of the abbey.


In many ways it would have resembled the surviving cathedrals at Ely, Norwich and Peterborough. The later medeval form of the apse may have been similar to what one still sees at Norwich. The great west front is related to those of Ely, Lincoln and Peterborough, and possibly also the remains at Kelso. The basic design of a western tower flanked by octagonal chapels is repeated in the nineteenth century Upper Basilica at Lourdes - though I know of no link between the two to explain the design reappearing sebveral centuries later in another country .

The church had a great number of treasures. One which appears to survive is an ivory altar cross in the Cloisters Museum in New York. The story of its acquisition and identification is discussed in Thomas Hoving's rather awful King of the Confessors; the Wikipedia article about the cross offers auseful critique of Hoving's work and can be read here. It is a tragedy the cross was not saved for the British Museum in 1963 rather than going abroad. That is also true of the Pierpont Morgan manuscript I linked to above - that went in the 1920s.

Writing of tragedy, the abbey was surrendered in 1539 - the last abbot is said to have died shortly afterwards of a broken heart. There was the possibility of utilising it as the cathedral for anew diocese for Suffolk, but that nevwe happened. the body of Henry VIII's sister Mary, sometime, and briefly, Queen of France, and later Duchess of Suffolk, who had been buried in the abbey in 1533 was removed to St Mary's church and the abbey church destroyed - yet another of the catastrophic artistic and cultural casualties of the English "reformation"

The cathedral of the modern Anglican diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, established in 1914, has been created by extending the late medieval church of St James completed in 1503 immediatedly to the north west of the abbey church. The result, ins in my opinion on eof the best pieces if twentieth century church building. It was designed by Stephen Dykes Bower, whose scholarly gothic-revival style was not always appreciated. When I saw it I was most impressed. Since then, using the bequest made by Dykes-Bower himself, the central tower has been completed to his design and funded in as a Millenium project. It was completed in 2005.



Photos from Flickr by Cliff Vale and M. Taza

When I stayed with my mother in Bury St Edmunds, which we both thought a particularly attractive and stylish as well as historic town, in 1973 we agreed how much we liked the new work in the cathedral, but she said I would doubtless have wanted to rebuild the abbey church. True.

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