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Myth / St. Edmund of East Anglia

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Manuscript illumination from c. 1130

St. Edmund "the Martyr" was king of East Anglia when it was conquered by pagan Danes in 869 AD, an event which meant the end for the independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. The king did not survive the invasion. The history books say nothing about the way he died, except that the Danes killed him in or after a lost battle. The story that entered the public consciousness, however, comes from Passio Sancti Eadmundi ("The Martyrdom of St. Edmund"), a hagiographic account written more than hundred years after Edmund's death. This tradition holds that the king was captured alive by the victors, who, on the orders of their leader, a certain Ingwar, tortured him by tying him to a tree, flogged him, riddled him with arrows, and finally beheaded him.

Whatever the truth, the notion that Edmund had died as a martyr of Christianity, and thus was to be looked on as a saint, arose soon after his demise. By the early 10th century his remains were moved from their first place of burial to a more stately shrine at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, which became one of England's most popular places of pilgrimage. There is no proof that the "riddled with arrows" tale existed before the 980s, when The Martyrdom of St. Edmund was written.

As a saint, Edmund's patronages include kings and pandemic diseases; his feast day (supposedly the date of his martyrdom) is November the 20th.

St. Edmund was one of the most popular saints of medieval England, especially during the Anglo-Saxon period; this may have to do with the fact that the saintly king who had died fighting the Danes (and conveniently left no heir) nicely complemented the other national hero, King Alfred of Wessex, whose struggle against the Vikings served to legitimize the claim of the Wessex kings to be kings of all England.

The fact that he died in 869 is almost the only thing that is known about Edmund from a historical perspective. The disparity of Edmund's saintly reputation and the scarcity of historical records about him acted as a powerful incentive for hagiographic writers to flesh out his legend. Various expansions made over the centuries concern Edmund's saintly virtues, his fame as a warrior, his life before the Danish invasion, and the backstory of the wicked Danes and their fateful invasion of England. The principal hagiographical texts about Saint Edmund are:

  • The Martyrdom of St. Edmund, written in the 980s by French monk Abbo of Fleury, is the core of St. Edmund's legend.
  • Miracles of St. Edmund by Archdeacon Herman of Bury (c. 1095): a list of miracles allegedly worked by St. Edmund after his death.
  • The Childhood of St. Edmund by Geoffrey of Wells (c. 1150), a prequel to the Martyrdom which fills in the blank spaces of Edmund's childhood and youth. Also first introduces Ingwar's father Lothbroc.
  • The chronicle Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover tells a new story about Lothbroc which completely replaced Geoffrey's in the tradition. Here, Lothbroc is a Danish castaway who becomes a friend of Edmund but is murdered by an English traitor, causing Ingwar and his brothers to invade England to seek revenge.
  • Lives of St. Edmund and Fremund by John Lydgate (c. 1435), a Middle English metric work by a native of Bury St. Edmunds which integrates all the legendary lore about St. Edmund that was floating around at the time.


  • Grim Up North: Abbo suggests the Danish invasion is the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38), according to which the end of the world will be preceded by a great army from "the North" attacking the worshippers of God. He also affirms that all the "races of the north" are cruel and barbaric, so as to be incapable of feeling compassion by nature, and that the Danes are instigated to their raids by Satan himself who apparently resides in the North.
    [T]hey came hardened with the stiff frost of their own wickedness from that roof of the world where he had fixed his abode who in his mad ambition sought to make himself equal to the Most High. In fine it is proverbial, according to the prediction of the prophet, that from the north comes all that is evil, as those have had too good cause to know, who through the spite of fortune and the fall of the die have experienced the barbarity of the races of the north.
  • Human Pincushion: The Danes tie Edmund to a tree and riddle him with arrows. This scene is also frequently depicted in images of St. Edmund. In the words of Abbo of Fleury:
    They shot then with missiles, as if to amuse themselves, until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The Martyrdom of St. Edmund describes how right after landing their fleet in East Anglia, the Danes seize a town by surprise, set it to fire, and kill and rape the inhabitants. The massacre is ordered by Ingwar "from sheer love of cruelty".
    Boys, and men old and young, whom [Ingwar] encountered in the streets of the city were killed; and he paid no respect to the chastity of wife or maid. Husband and wife lay dead or dying together on their thresholds; the babe snatched from its mother's breast was, in order to multiply the cries of grief, slaughtered before her eyes.
  • Revealing Reflection: According to the local folklore of Hoxne, Suffolk, the town was the place where Edmund was captured and tortured to death. Supposedly the king hid under a bridge later called the Goldbrook Bridge while the Danes were searching the town, when a newly-wed couple who crossed the bridge saw the reflection of Edmund's golden spurs glinting in the water below, and promptly revealed him to the Danes. On the basis of this legend, local tradition considers it unlucky for wedding parties to cross Goldbrook Bridge.