St Edmund: warrior, saint and sacrifice
In 869 Edmund, last in a line of native East Anglian kings, was killed by invading Danes. According to legend he was tied to a tree and scourged, shot with arrows and speared with javelins until he was covered with missiles ‘like the bristles of a hedgehog.’ He was then decapitated, his head thrown into a bramble bush and his body abandoned.
Later, both body and head were recovered. When placed together, they miraculously became whole again. The remains were stowed in a small wooden church close to the place of Edmund’s death.
Numerous supernatural events were attributed to Edmund’s body which, according to those who witnessed it, was immune to decay. Within twenty years of his death King Alfred declared him patron saint of England. His cult, at first a grass-roots movement, grew to dizzy heights once the body was moved to the monastery at Bury St Edmunds. Edmund’s shrine became a focal point for wondrous happenings, particularly in relation to miracles of fertility and protection (his acts of revenge from beyond the grave on those who threatened the people of East Anglia are extraordinary.) Edmund’s cult also rapidly gained popularity amongst the very Vikings who slaughtered him. 2,000 coins were minted in his memory bearing the inscription ‘sce eadmund rex’ (O St Edmund the King!) An indication of where Vikings settled lies in the naming of the parish church; it would often be dedicated to St Edmund.
Edmund’s shrine was all gold and marble, adorned with relics from other saints, and perpetually lit by four candles. It was one of England’s most sacred sites, and certainly its most popular pilgrimage destination for a time. Royalty venerated the saint and attended his shrine on a number of occasions and, in turn, bequeathed land and indulgences to the abbey. At its peak, it was one of the most powerful monastic houses in Britain. A centre of artistic splendour and culture, the abbey entertained kings, housed parliaments and acquired an impressive library.
The church was somewhat wary of the cult of saint-kings however. Edmund’s martyrdom was not officially recognized until 250 years after his death. There were good reasons for caution, as Anglo-Saxon kings were channels for magical forces that guaranteed prosperity and good fortune for the people. Edmund was a vital expression of this mysterious bond between god, king and land. Much more can be found in the book ‘Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom.’ Inside you’ll find topics covering:
- Edmund’s lineage and life, and the events leading up to his death
- The argument for sacral kingship in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian cultures
- Edmund’s early cult and theories about why it evolved along certain trajectories
- The early history of Bury St Edmunds and why its town plan is directly linked to Edmund
- How and why Edmund’s sovereignty-in-death was embedded in the wider landscape
- The evolution of the East Anglian church and the waxing and waning of folk beliefs