Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
EDMUND OF EAST ANGLIA
Part 1 - The Basic Mythology:
Patron saint of East Anglia.
First patron saint of England.
All of these epithets can be applied to Edmund (or Eadmund), but for someone whose holy memory and cult of worship grew to enormous proportions in the early Middle Ages, very little is known of him.
All that we know for sure is that he came to the throne of East Anglia some time before 865 AD, fought against the invading Danes, was killed by them in the winter of 869, and within 20 years, was being hailed as a saint.
But it didn't take long for miracles, stories and legends to gather about his memory, and many of these have made their mark on the landscape of East Anglia, from Hunstanton in the north-west of Norfolk, to Hollesley on Suffolk's south-east coast.
A conglomeration of all the basic myths about Edmund, many of which are still told today, would probably run something like this:
Once, East Anglia was ruled by a good and wise king named Offa. But the Christian Offa was childless, and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to offer prayers in the hope of being blessed with a son and heir. On his journey across Europe, he stayed for a while with his kinsman Alcmund, a prince of Old Saxony, and was much impressed by the nobility and piety of Alcmund's 12 year old son, Edmund.
On the return trip almost a year later Offa fell ill, and seeing that he was about to die, commanded his council to recognise Edmund as his true successor. This they did, and with his father's consent, called upon Edmund to take up the throne. The young lad and the late king's nobles set sail for the eastern shores of East Anglia, but the strong winds of a storm blew them off course, sweeping them around the coast and finally beaching them on the sands at 'Maidenbury', now known as Hunstanton.
After a year spent in secluded contemplation and religious devotion, Edmund - by then still only 14 years old - was crowned by Bishop Humbert on Christmas Day, at a place now called Bures St. Mary in Suffolk, some say after having been elected king by consent of the populace.
For a decade, Edmund grew in virtue and stature among his adopted people, being widely loved for his wisdom, strength and Christian kindliness.
Then a prince of the Danes named Lothbroc or Lodbrog, out sailing alone off the coast of Denmark, was swept across the North Sea by a storm. His small craft was blown along the river Yare till it reached Reedham, where Edmund had his royal seat at that time. Although Lothbroc was well received into the court, Edmund's chief huntsman, Bern, became jealous of the favour and honour the Dane was enjoying, and murdered him one day in some woods, when they were out hunting alone.
The crime being later discovered, Bern was punished by being set adrift in Lothbroc's own boat, which by chance was eventually washed up in the Dane's own kingdom. Bern blamed the murder on Edmund, at which Lothbroc's sons, Hinguar and Hubba, vowed to take their vengeance on the king.
The heathen and barbaric Danes landed with their armies first in the north, and while Hubba wrought destruction across Northumbria, Hinguar came to East Anglia, secretly entering a city, slaughtering all its people, and burning it to the ground. Other battles and sieges followed, including one where Edmund escaped his enemies by using a ford known only to him.
Finally Hubba came with another army to join his brother Hinguar, and they met the king in battle somewhere near Thetford, the Danes winning the day. Edmund fled 20 miles east to his royal town of 'Haegelisdun', now known as Hoxne in Suffolk, with his foes following.
Some say that Edmund threw down his weapons, vowing to stay true to his people and his faith, and he was seized in his own hall. Many say that he hid beneath a bridge, but was betrayed by a newly-married couple who saw the golden glint of his spurs reflected by moonlight in the water, and gave him up to the Danes.
They called on him to yield up his treasures and his kingdom, to reject Christ, and to bow down before them, but Edmund refused to submit, saying that he alone must die for his people and his God. Dragging him out to a field, they beat him and scourged him with whips, then tied him to a tree and fired dozens of arrows into him.
Even then the young king defied them, calling upon God for help, so they struck off his head and threw it into deep brambles in a nearby wood, leaving his body where it had fallen. After the heathens had departed, to begin their terrible rule of the land, Edmund's folk came out of hiding, and found the mutilated corpse of their lord still bound to the tree - but where was the saintly head?
Although they searched by day and night for weeks, nothing could be found until a voice came out of the wood, calling "Here, here, here!" Following the voice, they found that it was coming from the lips of the severed head itself, which was being cradled between the paws of a huge grey wolf.
The people gently retrieved the head and took it back to the town, the wolf walking tamely behind until it was sure that all was safe, then disappearing back into the forest. Behind them, a miraculous freshwater spring broke through the soil where the beloved head had lain.
With huge sorrow and reverence the head was placed back upon its shoulders, the body of the king buried in a grave, and a simple wooden chapel hastily erected over the spot.
Over the years miraculous healings occurred at the little chapel, including a pillar of light emerging from the grave that restored sight to a blind man. As peace returned to the land pilgrims began to make their way there, and Edmund's fame and saintliness spread.
In time, the martyred king's body was transferred to a new and grander church built for it some miles away at 'Beodricesworth', the town that would later become Bury St. Edmunds. But when the grave was opened, not only was Edmund's body found to be incorrupt, but all the wounds on his body had healed, and all that was left to show where his head had been severed was a thin red crease on the neck.
More miracles followed over the centuries at the new shrine, and as his fame spread, so did princes, kings and a host of other pilgrims come to the abbey that was built around him, to give him honour and pray for his blessing. Although his exact place of burial is now unknown, it's said that Edmund's body still lies somewhere under the abbey ruins, even now whole and incorrupt, and a treasure buried with him.
The next section looks at how this mythology came into being, through the writings of Saxon and medieval scribes.