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The history of the legend of Saint Edmund
One hundred and fifty years before the Norman Conquest the remains of St Edmund were moved from their first resting place close to the site of the martyrdom to Baedericesworth on the River Lark.
Less than 50 years after the removal of the remains to the new location the later King Edmund made a major grant of land in 945 to the monastery, securing the whole area of the later town within the boundary known as The Banleuca. Bury St Edmunds, as it later became known, was on the way to becoming one of the most wealthy and influential Abbeys in England.
But what of the Saint from whom it has taken its name? Edmund, King of the East Angles, is known only from two near contemporary sources: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle written by a monk between 877 - 899 and the remarkable memorial coinage, issued in around 890 and which continued for some 20 years. Beyond this date the well known details of the martyrdom of King Edmund, and the miracles attributed to him, come from sources increasingly distant from the date of his death, making it difficult to disentangle fact from enthusiasm.
The 'Kingdom' of East Anglia had its origins in the 5th century migrations of Angles and Saxons from North Germany and Denmark. Their settlements and culture are uniquely illustrated by the excavations and reconstructions of the early Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, some seven miles to the west of Bury St Edmunds.
By the early 7th century towns began to be established, particularly Ipswich, signalling the dramatic changes taking place with continental trade, political and regal development and the introduction of Christianity. East Anglia, that is Suffolk, Norfolk and most of Cambridgeshire, was an established kingdom based on the Royal House of the Wuffings. Their most notable King, Redwald, was buried in astonishing splendour at Sutton Hoo in 625. After the death of Redwald, who had been recognised as the 'High King of England', the fortunes of the kingdom fluctuated, with increasing pressures from and eventual domination of the Midland Kingdom of Mercia by 793 and Northumbria by 821.
By the 9th century the East Anglian kings were eclipsed by their more powerful neighbours to a point where most are hardly known. The bald statement about Edmund's death in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the year 869 may have passed unnoticed if it were not for the remarkable reputation for miracles which rapidly accrued to his remains.
The development of the story of St Edmund is laid out below. It shows not only the year of the event (AD) but also how long each event was in distance of years from the time of the death of King Edmund.
| History of St Edmund |
|Years from |
|AD ||Event |
|- c.239 years ||c.630 ||King Sigeberht founds a monastery at Bedericesworth. So far, the archaeological evidence suggests this to have been a small settlement, much smaller than the area enclosed by the later monastery. |
|- 14 years ||855/6 ||Edmund crowned at Bures according to the Annals of St Neots, an early 11th century record. |
|- 4 years ||865/866 ||The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a document begun by monks in Wessex within twenty years of Edmunds' death says, |
"And this same year came a great host to England and took winter quarters in East Anglia, and there were provided with horses, and they made peace with them."
|Death of Edmund ||869 ||Anglo Saxon Chronicle: (Version A, written between 877 - 899) |
"In this year the (Danish) host rode across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters in Thetford and the same year King Edmund fought against them and the Danes had the victory, and they slew the King and overran the entire kingdom."
Version 'B', copied at Peterborough 1103, adds
"and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came."
|The Danelaw: ||- ||The Danish invasions were followed by settlement and control over a large area of north and eastern England extending from the north-west (Lancashire) to London. This roughly coincided with the line of Watling Street and lasted for about 100 years, following the start of the reconquest of the Danelaw in 899 by Edward the Elder, following the successes of Alfred in West Mercia and Wessex. |
|+ 20 years ||890 ||The St Edmunds memorial coinage, current in East Anglia during the Danish rule, is a unique indication of the extraordinary reputation of Edmund, already recognised as a Saint. |
|+ 23 years ||893 ||Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' suggests Edmund was killed in battle, but not clearly enough to deny a martyrdom after his defeat. |
|+ 27 years ||c.906 ||Saint Edmund's remains moved to Bedericesworth, implying an earlier burial elsewhere. (See the year 985). |
|+ 74 years ||945 ||King Edmund (not our Saint) grants a large area of land to the monastery - known as the Banleuca. This is a significant indication of the status of the shrine and the growing importance of the monastery. |
|+ 116 years ||985 ||Abbo of Fleury, who wrote his "Life of St Edmund" at Ramsey Abbey (near St Ives, Cambridgeshire), adds most of the details of the story. Although written over a hundred years after the event, his sources are clearly stated, and, although unusual, must be regarded with respect. |
In a letter to Archbishop Dunstan, Abbo says he heard the Archbishop relate the story and that he said he heard it as a young man from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund's armour bearer at the time of his death. It is likely therefore, that the basics of the story are correct. The account recorded by Abbo is this:
Two Danish leaders, Hinguar and Habba, came to Northumbria, which they overran. Hinguar proceeded to the east with a fleet and surprised a city which they sacked ...
Eventually Edmund was taken prisoner, whipped and tied to a tree and shot with arrows 'until he bristled with them like a hedgehog or thistle'. He was then beheaded and the head thrown into bramble thickets in Hegelisdun Wood. The date was given as November 20th which remains St Edmunds' Feast Day today. The survivors searched for the head and found it guarded by a wolf and calling 'here, here, here'.
The king was buried in a small chapel built for the purpose where the body remained for many years before being moved to Bedericsworth.
|+ 118 years ||987 ||A copy of the story made by Aelfric adds that the martyrdom took place when King Alfred was 21. |
|+ 122 years ||991 ||Following further Danish raids in the late 10th century, a regular series of payments (Danegeld), as a kind of tax, was levied to buy off the Danes, beginning in 991 with £10,000 of silver to Olaf. It continued after the establishment of Danish rule. |
|+ 141 years ||1010 ||East Anglia was attacked by the Danes and Ipswich sacked, and so between 1010 and 1014 the Saint's body was taken to London for safety, and then returned. |
|+ 145 years ||1014 ||Sweyn Forkbeard (Cnut's father) was dramatically struck dead while threatening the sack of the town of St Edmunds or the payment of a heavy ransom. |
|+ 147 years ||1016 ||In 1016 Cnut (Canute) became King of all England and in 1017 raised a "Danegeld" of £82,500 which included £10,500 from London. The portions for other regions are not known. |
|+ 151 years ||1020 ||King Cnut established Benedictine monks at Bury. |
|+ 163 years ||1032 ||A new round church of stone was consecrated at Bury, situated to the north of the chancel of the later Norman Abbey Church. |
|+ 173 years ||1042 ||Danish rule ended in 1042 when the English king Edward the Confessor succeeded to the throne. |
|+ 196 years ||1065 ||Abbot Baldwin was appointed and begins a new church and by 1097 St Edmund was moved into the completed east end. |
|+ 226 years ||1095 ||Herman of Bury: in his book on the "Miracles of St Edmund" he located the site of the first burial at a place called Sutton close to the site of the martyrdom (his original version was in 1071). |
|+ 232 years ||1101 ||The claim of Hoxne to be the site of martyrdom was first noted in the foundation charter of Norwich Priory. |
|+ 281 years ||1148-56 ||Geoffrey of Wells added details of St Edmund's parentage and early life. |
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There are many accounts of miracles associated with the Saint and of the incorrupt nature of the body until at least 1198 when it was examined after a disastrous fire.
Even if the later and more colourful details are stripped away as accumulations around the core there remain three key sources which relate to the story:
- the bald statement in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which pinpoints the date of the death of an otherwise unrecorded King of East Anglia;
- the memorial coinage issued only twenty years later and current within the Danelaw which solidly attests the veneration already attached to the martyred king;and
- the account of Abbo, writing at Ramsey Abbey, recording the events related by the Kings's armour bearer to Archbishop Dunstan.
We do not know the sources used by Herman in 1095 but his addition of a 'Sutton' as the first burial place has aroused much discussion. The site of the martyrdom as reported by Abbo was at a place called Haegelisdun. Hoxne was claimed to be the site in 1101 but 'Hoxne' cannot be derived from Haegelisdun. It is suggested that there were political reasons for the Bishop of East Anglia to make the claim at the time to counter the growing influence of Bury Abbey, which was outside his jurisdiction.
'Hellesdon' (near Norwich) can be derived from 'Haegelisdun' has also been suggested but has no other supporting evidence. 'Sutton' has been equated with Sutton Hoo but there is no other evidence than the name.
In Bradfield St Clare some six miles south of Bury there is an old field name, 'Hellesdon'. This is not too much to go on, but there are other suggestive associations. To the north, there is a group of 'Kingshall' place names, and to the South a 'Sutton' Hall. This grouping of place names, so close to Bury itself, and not far from the winter head quarters of the Danish army at Thetford, is surely worthy of serious consideration.
The influence of St Edmund, the martyred king of East Anglia, survived the times of Danish domination and the Norman Conquest to become the focal point for the development of one of the greatest abbeys of England, whose abbey church was the largest in Europe, larger even than Norwich, built about the same time.
The reconstructions and interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow examine the very foundations on which the culture, wealth and influence of later Saxon England were built and find echoes in the ruins of the once great abbey of St Edmund.