St Edmund: England’s once (and future?) patron saint

St Edmund

Until I visited Bury St Edmunds, I had no idea that St Edmund, King of East Anglia and Christian martyr, was England’s original patron saint. The first written reference to Edmund comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year [869] the raiding [Danish] army took up winter quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danes had the victory, and killed the king and conquered all the land.

Less than twenty-five years after this battle, in 893, Asser, the Bishop of Sherborne, wrote his biography of Alfred the Great, The Life of King Alfred. His coverage of Edmund was equally brief:

Edmund, king of the East Angles, fought fiercely against the army, but alas! the heathens triumphed beyond measure, and he and a great part of his men were killed.

But a parallel story had sprung up during those two decades between Edmund’s death and Asser’s biography. This other story was first recorded in Passio sancti Eadmundi, a book written in 985–7 by Abbo of Fleury, i.e. at least six years before Asser’s account.

Abbo was a French monk who spent a couple of years in England. During this sojourn, Abbo met Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan told him he had once met a man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour-bearer on the fatal day. But according to this old man, there was no battle. Rather than spill the blood of his Christian army, Edmund chose the martyr’s path. He threw down his weapons and refused to fight.

The Danes tied him to a tree, whipped him mercilessly, and taunted him about his faith. After Edmund had refused to renounce the Saviour Christ, they shot him full of arrows, ‘until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog’. Finally, they beheaded him. They left his body tied to the tree and threw his head into a nearby wood.

Edmund and the Wolf
Edmund and the Wolf

Some time later, when the Danes had left the scene, Edmund’s retinue went in to the wood to search for the missing head so it could be buried with the body. One of them called out, ‘Where are you?’, and got the reply, ‘Here, here, here’. A wolf was guarding the head, when they found it. The wolf followed them to the place where they reunited the head with the body and buried the king. A chapel was built over the grave and soon became a shrine to Edmund and a place where miraculous healing occurred.

It’s an open question whether Abbo’s book marks the start of the Edmund cult, or whether he was documenting an existing cult. That he brings cites Dunstan as a corroborator, and that the book was commissioned by the monks of Ramsey Abbey, indicates the latter.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey ruins
Bury St Edmunds Abbey ruins (site of Edmund’s shrine in the centre ground)

In 924, Edmund’s body was translated to what is now Bury St Edmunds, and a new monastic foundation managed the shrine. By the eleventh century, the shrine was the most important pilgrimage site in England.

On 20 November, St Edmund’s Day, in 1214, a group of barons gathered here to discuss the Charter of Liberties, which became known as Magna Carta. They swore an oath on the shrine that they would compel King John to accept this document. That they chose this meeting place demonstrates the shrine’s significance in the culture of the time.

Bury St Edmunds Magna Carta
Magna Carta monument, Bury St Edmunds

St Edmund’s survived for another three centuries, until it was destroyed in 1539, another casualty of the English Reformation. The abbey was dissolved in the same year.

How and when did Edmund cease to be our patron saint? His cult was already on the wane by the time of the Norman Conquest, and there seems to have been a period when he and Edward the Confessor were co-patron saints of England. But it was Edward III who promoted Saint George to the role. George was the embodiment of military valour and knightly chivalry, and so much in keeping with ideals of the times and of Edward himself. St Edmund, who chose martyrdom rather than take up arms against the enemy, was no model for a martial king.

In recent years, there have been several campaigns to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint, one of them launched with the support of the local Greene King brewery. But dislodging St George will be tough, so embedded is he within our culture and literature. That said, perhaps Edmund the pacifist is more in tune with the temper of the times than St George the warrior.