St Edmund, Martyred King of East Anglia
The background of Edmund is somewhat questionable. He is purported to have been born in or around 841 in Nurenberg. It may possibly have been sometime before that. He died (was martyred) in the hands of the Viking Army in November 869. His origins are curious in that he was sought from Saxony where he had been brought up, and was elected to become king following a period of some desperation to find a leader. It is suggested that he was of high-born Saxon blood with princely connections to the old East Anglian family dynasty.
The situation leading to the call for Edmund to accept the throne of East Anglia begins with King Offa of Mercia, in his lust to increase his Mercian empire by uniting with East Anglia. Offa had arranged the death of King Aethelbert of East Anglia in 793/4. Offa then died in 796 and East Anglia, a hitherto well-run kingdom fell into chaos over the next 50 years or so.
Historically, the kingdom of East Anglia had been an independent kingdom of Angles ruled by the house of Wuffingas, descending from their founder Wuffa in the 6th century. The dynasty had then fallen to the Mercians whose loss of Offa in 796 then passed to his son Ecgfrith who died after a reign of only 141 days. His successor Coenwulf was immediately involved in a revolt in Kent which had previously been under Offa’s control. He had also lost control of East Anglia in 823 to King Eadwald who may have been of the ancient bloodline. The Mercians regained East Anglia in 829 when it then passed to Aethelstan who ruled until 839/40 when East Anglia was ruled by Aethelweard until 853/4.
Little is known of Aethelweard’s reign. It seems that his death was followed by an urgent need to find a suitable king to rule the old East Anglian kingdom. There was a desperation for a leader to put up resistance against the increasing Danish piracy which had depopulated the eastern coasts. Edmund was princely suited and was acquainted with Prince Alfred of Wessex the future King Alfred the Great. They fought alongside each other against the Great Viking Army.
Edmund, whose youth is said to have been spent in Saxony, landed near Hunstanton, and was crowned at Bures. It is said that his coronation took place on Christmas Day 855. He spent the next years as a resistance leader in several minor skirmishes culminating in the Battle of Thetford. He was caught by the Vikings and tortured to death at Hellesdon, near Norwich. He is purported to have been tied to a tree and targeted by arrows. Edmund was then beheaded, and the head thrown into a hedge. A folk myth suggests the head was guarded by a wolf and it was undamaged when it was later found. His relics became globally famous for visiting pilgrims.
Edmund’s body was initially interred at Sutton then later translated to a shrine in an elaborate wooden church at Beodericsworth renamed the Borough of St Edmund (Bury St Edmunds). In 1010 Edmunds body was translated to London for safety from a Danish invasion. King Cnut had the relics translated back to Bury St Edmunds and consecrated, as a Saint in 1032, and in 1095 he had erected a large stone Abbey built to house the world-famous shrine.
St Edmund became the patron of the English until 1350 when St George replaced him. Later, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the body of St Edmund was removed, and the relics were separated. Partly to a shrine in a chapel at St Sernin in Toulouse and another to a private chapel in Arundel Castle. The relics were said to include a piece of the holy cross with other valuable ornaments.
The background leading to the sainthood of King Edmund, and the Heathen Army of the Danes.
In 865 brothers Alfdene, Hingwar and Ubba, the sons of Lodebrok the Danish leader, along with other chieftains and an army of about 20,000 men, landed in the Broads of East Anglia. The Danes stole horses which they trained for warfare. In 866, having trained their cavalry and stolen the harvest they moved up and conquered Northumbria. York then fell and kings Osbert and Aelle were both slain. The Danes then turned to Mercia. They captured Nottingham. It was then that Burrhed of Mercia appealed to his brother-in-law Ethelred of Wessex, whose large army included his younger brother Alfred and to Edmund of East Anglia. On 10 August 868, Burrhed signed a Charter in favour of Crowland Abbey at the instigation of Edmund with Alfred as witness,
The Danes returned to their establishment at York, remaining there for the year. They reappeared in 869, Edmund appointed Ulfketel as a General. The great Heathen Army set up at Thetford. A pitched battle then ensued, followed by men in ships and cavalry by land. The Danes sacked the land and attacked the islands by ship. Edmund survived the onslaught and gained possession of the battlefield. It would appear that Edmund then retired to Hellesdon, and another battle wiped out Edmund’s army. Edmund was caught and martyred on 20 November.
King Edmund refused the demands of the Danes and paid with his life, chained, beaten, and killed by arrows. Edmund was beheaded but it seems that Hingwar, intending to mount it on a staff for exhibition, had a change of mind and through it into a hedge. The English recovered the head and body and placed them in a coffin and built a makeshift chapel at Sutton by Hellesdon. A shrine remained there for some years. It is suggested that Edmund was Alfred’s inspiration, Coins were minted in Edmund’s honour upon his accession in 871.
Within a decade Hingwar’s successor, Guthrum was beaten into submission by Alfred and became a Christian by the pact of Chippenham in 878. Guthrum was the baptised to become Aethelstan II, King of the Daneland. The relics of Edmund were eventually taken to an enormous wooden church, wonderfully constructed at Beodericsworth. Many pilgrimages came to the shrine of St Edmund. When King Sweyn arrived in January 1014, he did not plunder Beodericsworth and is reputed to have had a vision of Edmund that cause him a delirium from which he died. His son Cnut had a church constructed and founded a great abbey in recognition of St Edmund.
From earliest times East Anglia was a sophisticated and well-established kingdom. Offa set his sights to annex East Anglia to his Mercian Empire.
It can be seen clearly, by remains at Rendelsham nearby Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, that there once stood an enormous royal hall of more than 1,400 years ago. Finds in that area include fine dress jewellery and elaborately crafted personal items. The results of excavations at Rendlesham indicate the overseas trading, great power, and wealth of East Anglian kings.
Pre Christianity, they worshipped at a great temple recently exposed and currently being investigated. It was in c 630 that a Christian named Sigeberht became king of East Anglia. After becoming king he asked Felix, a clerk from Bergundy to come and administer to his people. Felix, as bishop, is said to have established a seat at Dommoc.
Ragnar Lodbrok (Lothbrok or Lodebrok) the Danish king who led a Viking invasion of East Anglia in 865 was captured and put to death by Aella of Northumbria. His three sons, Alfdene (or Halfdan) Hingwar, (Ivor the Boneless) and Ubba (or Hubba) according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, led the invasion of East Anglia to wreak avengement for Ragnar’s death. For which they believed that Edmund had been in some way responsible.
Beodericsworth subsequently became known as Bury St Edmunds and in 1020 King Cnut had a stone church built. This became the great Abbey of St Edmund a site of pilgrimage from all over Europe. For centuries, the gold and silver Shrine of Edmund was visited by the various kings of England who gave generously to the Abbey.