Happy St Edmund’s Day!
Bury St Edmunds is an historic market, cathedral town in Suffolk, England. It takes its name from King Edmund, the original patron saint of England and King of East Anglia.
Who was Saint Edmund?
St Edmund, also known as Edmund the Martyr or Edmund of East Anglia and (Edward the Confessor one of the last Anglo-Saxon Kings of England) were regarded as England’s patron saints until they were replaced by Saint George.
Brought up as a Christian, he fought against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army) until AD 869 when his forces were defeated and Edmund was captured by the Vikings.
Brave King Edmund was killed by The Danes on 20th November 869, after refusing to give up his Christian faith. He was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being beheaded.
Even after he was replaced by Saint George as patron saint of England, the long-standing cult of Saint Edmund continues.
Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to the Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law’.
Churches dedicated to his memory are to be found all over England, including St Edmund the King and Martyr’s Church in London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren during the 1670s. Edmund’s martyrdom features on several medieval wall-paintings to be found in churches across England.
A coinage commemorating Edmund was minted from around the time East Anglia was absorbed by the kingdom of Wessex and a popular cult emerged.
A vast oak tree was said to have been the tree to which Edmund was tied. It reportedly collapsed suddenly one night in 1843 and examination determined that it was over a thousand years old! Several iron points were discovered embedded in its trunk suggesting that the claim for the tree may have some credibility. Several years later, in 1849, a monument to the martyred King was erected at the spot where the oak stood boldly decorated with the saintly monarch’s arms.
Hoxne’s village sign includes both Saint Edmund’s arms and a representation of the tree to which he was tied.
A beautiful depiction of the arms, in stained glass is found in a window at the church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, located in the village.
Saint Edmund’s arms are also found etched on a boulder beside St. Stephen’s Chapel in Bures St. Mary, where, it is believed Edmund was crowned King of the East Angles on Christmas Day AD 855.
The martyred King is also found in the cathedral, presenting his arms.
These are just a few examples of the way Edmund is honoured in Suffolk. There are dozens more.
In AD 903 the remains of St Edmund, were moved to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Beodericsworth (later known as Bury St Edmunds) where the site had already been in religious use for nearly three centuries.
St Edmund’s body was moved to London in AD 1010 for safe keeping when The Danes were again marauding through East Anglia but three years later his body was returned to Beodericsworth.
In AD 1020, King Canute had a stone church built for Edmund’s body and the first abbots arrived. This was the beginning of the Abbey of St Edmund and it became a site of great pilgrimage as people came to visit St Edmund’s shrine.
When the great Abbey Church was built in AD 1095 St Edmund’s body was moved there in a silver and gold shrine. The shrine became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage locations in England. For centuries the shrine was visited by various kings of England, many of whom gave generously to the abbey that became increasingly wealthy as the cult of St Edmund grew.
The last time that Edmund’s body was verified was in AD 1198 after a fire set the shrine alight.
Where is Saint Edmund?
The Abbey was desecrated during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in AD 1539 and Edmund’s remains are believed to have been removed from the shrine.
The commissioners who dissolved the Abbey in 1539, mentioned nothing about the body, and given St Edmund’s royal status it is likely they would have quietly allowed the monks to remove the body from the shrine and relocate it. The whereabouts of St Edmund remains a mystery today.
Saint Edmund has not been forgotten.
While St George is the patron saint of England, many English people increasingly regard St Edmund as patron saint of the English.
Over a decade ago Suffolk County Council officially adopted St Edmund as its patron saint. Various celebrations in the form of dinners, walks and talks are organised every year on 20th November to tell his story. Furthermore, several items and commodities have been named in his honour, including a train, a chapel, statues and monuments, two different beers, a locally produced sausage and a flag that’s now being flown in many locations.
An attempt was made in 2006 to have St Edmund reinstated as patron saint of England. A petition was handed into Parliament but it was rejected by the government.
In 2013 another campaign was launched to reinstate St Edmund as patron saint. This was the ‘St Edmund for England’ e-petition, backed by the Bury St Edmunds based brewery, Greene King.
There is plenty more we could write about Edmund, but for now we will leave it here.
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