Hidden East Anglia:

Landscape Legends of Eastern England

 

 

 

 

 

 

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EDMUND OF EAST ANGLIA

Part 2 - The Chronology of Legend:

865 AD: 

We know from contemporary coinage that by this time, Edmund is ruler of East Anglia, having followed a king named Ăthelweard. This means that he is the one responsible for placating the 'Great Heathen Army' of the Danes with a gift of horses when they arrive late in this year, as told in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle': "...and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed, and the inhabitants made peace with them". 

But four years later the Danes are back, and after a triumphant slaughter in Northumbria, and an unsatisfactory peace at Nottingham, this time either they or Edmund decide that things aren't going to go the same way again:

869 AD: 

"In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land".

That entry in the 'Chronicle' was written just before 890, which is at about the same time that commemorative coins begin to be issued, and for another 20 years, inscribed 'Sc Eadmund rex', showing that Edmund is already being recognised as a saint, well within the lifetimes of those who have known him.

893 AD:

Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' is believed by most scholars to have been written in about this year, again within living memory of Edmund. According to the Welsh monk, "Edmund the most glorious king of the East-Angles" begins his reign on Christmas Day in 854, when he is only 14 years old. But it isn't until exactly one year later that Edmund is consecrated as king by Bishop Humbert, "in the royal town called Burva, in which at that time was the royal seat".

 

Asser relies heavily on the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' for many of his facts, and so follows the line that Edmund dies in battle. Although the death of a Christian king in combat with 'the heathens' was in itself enough to claim sainthood, it's another 90 years before the notion of a solitary martyrdom for Edmund is written down:

 

985-7 AD:

Between these dates the monk Abbo of Fleury writes his 'Passio Sancti Eadmundi', which is where the meat of the mythology begins. Abbo dedicates the work to Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, from whom he heard the story himself when Dunstan was an old man. The archbishop had heard it in his youth from a very old man who had claimed to be Edmund's own armour-bearer at the time of his death, and thus an eye-witness to the events.

 

Although about 116 years have passed, it's possible for two memories to cover such a period, and most scholars seem to accept the tale as truthful, if embroidered in the telling and retelling.

 

In the 'Passio', Edmund is said to be of 'ancient Saxon' stock, which others later take to mean that he comes from Old Saxony in Germany - but Abbo would surely have highlighted the fact if a foreigner was taking the East Anglian throne.

 

For the first time names are given to the main Danish protagonists: Inguar and Hubba (known from other sources as Ivar and Ubbi). After they conquer Northumbria, Hubba stays behind while Inguar takes a fleet east round the coast, then lands "by stealth" at a city in East Anglia and burns it to the ground, killing all its inhabitants. 

 

Slaughtering other men round about to deplete Edmund's forces, Inguar then tortures a few to reveal the king's whereabouts: "Eadmund, it happened, was at that time staying at some distance from the city, in a township which in the native language is called HŠgelisdun, from which also the neighbouring forest is called by the same name".

 

Now we're told the famous tale, of how Edmund rejects Inguar's terms, is seized in his hall, beaten, lashed to a tree, shot full of arrows, and beheaded even as he cries out to Christ. "And so, on the 20th November, as an offering to God of sweetest saviour, Eadmund, after he had been tried in the fire of suffering, rose with the palm of victory and the crown of righteousness, to enter as king and martyr the assembly of the court of heaven". 

 

The story of the wolf and the speaking head follows, the bringing together of the head and the body, and the building nearby of a rough chapel over the grave. Abbo adds that the body is found to be whole and incorrupt many years later, when it is translated to "a church of immense size" newly constructed for it at 'Bedrices-gueord' (Bury St. Edmunds), where many miracles are attributed to the saintliness of the young martyr - who, according to the chronology, is 28 when he dies.

 

Although the basic story of the martyrdom is usually felt to be truthful, there are contradictions between Abbo's account and the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' (such as the omission of any battle), which some later scribes have used as an opportunity to create further snippets of the mythology. The late Professor Dorothy Whitelock felt that Abbo may have melded the events of 865 and 869 into one narrative, so the burning of a city may well belong to the earlier incursion by the Danes. And the absence of a specific final battle may simply have been because Edmund's armour-bearer was only asked about the martyrdom itself.

 

Late 11th century:

Soon after 1095, Hermann of Bury's 'Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi' says that Edmund is first buried at a place called 'Suthtuna' (Sutton), close to the site of his death. He also relates that Edmund's body is moved to Bury during the reign of Ăthelstan (924-39), while later scholarship has pinned it down to around 903-905.

 

1101:

The foundation charter of Norwich Priory grants to that establishment the church at Hoxne, along with a chapel of St. Edmund in the same place, "ubi idem martyr interfectus est": "where the same martyr was killed". Thus the identification 'HŠgelisdun' = Hoxne comes about for the first time. Although some historians believe the claim to be invented, to give the Priory greater status through association, it does at least show that the Hoxne tradition has been around for over 900 years.

 

Early 12th century:

The 'Annals of St. Neots' are written, probably at Bury, and introduce the idea that Hinguar and Hubba are the sons of a Dane called Lodebroch.

 

c.1133:

From the '═slendingabˇk' by Ari the Wise: "═varr, Ragnarsson Lo­brˇkar, lÚt drepa Eadmund inn Helga Englakonung" - "Ivarr, son of Ragnar Lo­brˇk, ordered to be killed Edmund the saint, King of the Angles".

 

1135-40:

Geoffrey of Gaimar is one of those 'later scribes' mentioned above who uses the gaps and inconsistencies in Abbo's work to add to the Edmund legends. In his 'L'Estoire des Engleis', he recounts a battle lost by Edmund (not recorded by Abbo), after which the king flees to a castle and is besieged. As he emerges secretly, he is recognised and held until Ywar (Hinguar) and Ube (Hubba) arrive, and is then martyred.

 

1148-56:

The 'De Infantia Sancti Eadmundi' of Geoffrey of Wells says that it is King Offa of East Anglia who chooses Edmund to succeed him, that he comes from Old Saxony, and lands at 'Maydenebure' (Hunstanton) where 12 springs burst from the ground as he kneels to pray. The major problem here is that there has never been a 'King Offa of East Anglia!'

 

Geoffrey tells how Edmund founds a royal dwelling at Hunstanton, then spends a year in seclusion at Attleborough in Norfolk, learning the Psalter by heart.

 

The 'De Infantia' now brings in the powerful Dane Lodebrok who, hearing of the fame of Edmund, taunts his three pirate sons to achieve as much. These sons are named as Hinguar, Ubba and Wern (a mistake for Bern, or Beorn), who then invade East Anglia and kill Edmund, the tale following Abbo's version.

 

c.1180:

The metrical biography 'La Vie Seint Edmund le Rei' by Denis Piramus states that Edmund was elected king at Caistor (St. Edmund) in Norfolk (the year before his coronation), and gives the name of Orford in Suffolk as the town that was destroyed by Hinguar.

 

Early 13th century:

The chronicle of Roger of Wendover helps to shape the mythology further by introducing the story of Lothbroc coming to Reedham in Norfolk, being killed by Bern (here Edmund's huntsman, not one of Lothbroc's three sons), then Hinguar and Hubba killing Edmund in vengeance. The king meets the Danes in battle "not far from the town of Thetford", and after they have fought to a bloody standstill, he takes the remainder of his forces "to the royal vill of HŠilesdune". This place, he says, "is now called Hoxen by the natives". Although he then gives Abbo's account of the martyrdom, Roger says it was Bern who caused the king's head to be thrown into the wood.

 

c.1220:

A St. Albans text incorporated into a chronicle usually attributed to John of Wallingford is the first to give Edmund's father a name - Alcmund - but this is a complete mix-up with the father of King Egbert of Wessex. Nevertheless, the name sticks.

 

c.1370-80:

A collection of material on St. Edmund is included in a manual for the instruction of novice monks, in a manuscript (MS 240) currently held in the Bodleian Library, probably compiled by the Bury monk Henry Kirkstede. In it, Edmund is again from Old Saxony, but is said to have been born in Nuremberg (which isn't in Saxony!)

 

In a variation of Geoffrey of Gaimar's tale of Edmund taking refuge in one of his castles, here the king is betrayed by an old blind man, a mason who had helped to build the castle. In this, the Danes bribe the mason to show them a weak spot in the defences, allowing them to enter, after which Edmund manages to escape.

 

In this manuscript it is also noted that, to escape the Danes, Edmund crosses a river at a hidden ford called 'Dernford', and is thus able to rejoin his main army and fall upon and rout his enemies. Although this is no more than a fragment, mixed in with many other later apocryphal tales about the saint, at least one researcher thinks it may represent a much older tradition, set at a real (though unknown) location. It may be either the origin of, or a variation upon, a similar escape at 'Bernford', the earliest written record of which I've found (so far) dates from 1790.

~ ~ 

 

Now, the basic mythology is in place. The next section is another chronology, this time looking at the few historical facts we actually know, both of Edmund's life, and what happened to his body after death.

Part 1 - The Basic Mythology

Part 3 - History As We Know It

Part 4 - The Landscape of St. Edmund

Part 5 - The Last Mystery: Where Did Edmund Die?