This is a contentious topic; many scholars deny the existence of any tradition of sacral kingship in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian cultures. But there is plenty of evidence to the contrary and recently the tide has turned in its favour. The core argument of my book is that Edmund’s myth can be best understood, in fact, really only fully makes sense, when viewed through the prism of sacral kingship.
So what is, or was, a sacral king? Here’s a very general definition: a sacral king is one who is marked off from his fellow men by an aura of specialness which has its origins in more or less direct associations with the supernatural.
A culture in which sacral kingship exists defines kingship, at least in part, as follows: the king is believed to be of divine descent; he is the source of supernatural powers, including luck and good fortune; he is ritually married to a symbolic bride (the earth) who personifies the wellbeing of his kingdom; he is ritually-slaughtered in order to grant fertility to his realm. Many of these ideas have a pre-Christian origin, but some existed well into post-conversion eras; Charlemagne could be defined as a ‘sacral king’. Indeed, some concepts of sacral kingship are universal and transcend history; examples can be found in latter-day figureheads such as Haille Selassie and Emperor Hirohito.
In 98AD Tacitus described Germanic tribes as possessing either war leaders or sacral leaders. King Rædwald – one of Edmund’s precedents – was likely perceived as a sacral king; mound one at Sutton Hoo (in which he was interred) included items such as the sceptre, helmet and axe-head. Combined, they suggest an understanding of the rules of proper kingship, plus participation in cult rituals where the regent assumed the identity of a god, performing sacrifices at ceremonial feasts.
Roughly contemporary with Edmund, the Icelandic poem Ynglingatal describes how Scandinavian kings were descended from the god Freyr and the giantess Gerðr, their union itself a form of hieros gamos, a symbolic act of fertility. Later still, the skaldic poem Sigurðardrápa associates the Jarl Hákon Sigurðarson with prosperity and the flourishing of nature. These sagas also contain examples of ritual king-slaying, motivated by the king’s association with the fertility of the land.
The nominal leader of the Great Heathen Army that invaded East Anglia during Edmund’s reign was called Hinguar or Ingvar (also known as Ivarr the Boneless.) Interestingly, he may have been a disciple of the god Freyr, who was traditionally associated with sacral kingship, prosperity and fecundity (Hinguar or Ingvar means Freyr’s warrior or Freyr’s defender.) If true, then Edmund’s death could have been an example of ritual king-slaying, a sacrifice to Freyr as part of some kind of fertility rite.
Whether Edmund was perceived as a sacral king in his lifetime is unknown, although he did possess certain qualities that set him apart from the rest of society (his virginity, for example.) My thesis is that ideas about sacral kingship were deliberately appropriated by his followers for very practical reasons. In so doing, Edmund became more powerful in death than in life; in death, he came to embody a myth of sacral kingship.