Inspiring stories

St Edmund: England’s first patron saint

Wolf howling at the moon

This is the last official post by the Spirit of East Anglia as we have taken the decision to disband the community due to commitments elsewhere. We will continue to post new content on an ad hoc basis as we feel moved to do so though, so do not despair…..

By Cath Everett, content editor for the Spirit of East Anglia community.

While George of dragon-slaying fame may happen to be the patron saint of England today, it certainly has not always been the case. In fact, up until the Middle Ages, a local East Anglian lad in the shape of St Edmund, otherwise known as Edmund the Martyr, actually got there first.

Although little is really known about Edmund due to the sacking of East Anglia by the Vikings, which meant that no contemporary documents survived, he is thought to have been born on Christmas Day in 841 and acceded to the East Anglian throne in about 856.

A Christian from birth, he fought alongside King Alfred the Great against the so-called ‘Great Heathen Army’ of Viking invaders until 869/70 when his forces were defeated. But, so the legend goes, on being captured by the Danes, Edmund refused their demands to share power or renounce his faith.

As a result, they bound him to a tree, shot him through with arrows and chopped off his head. His severed poll was thrown into a nearby forest but as a group of his followers went looking for it, calling “Where are, friend?” as they went, the answer came “Here, here, here.”

When at last it was discovered, Edmund’s noggin was clasped firmly between a talking wolf’s protective paws. As the band took their gruesome find and started walking home with it, the wolf accompanied them for a distance before disappearing back into the trees.

Although it is unclear where this martyrdom took place, a potential site is believed to be Hoxne in Suffolk. Dernford in Cambridgeshire is another possibility as is Maldon in Essex and Bradfield St Clare near Bury St Edmunds.

What is certain though is that in 902, Edmund’s remains were moved to Bredricsworth (Bury St Edmunds) where King Athelstan founded a religious community to take care of his shrine, which over time became a place of national pilgrimage.

King Canute, who is famed for allegedly trying to hold back the tides, built a stone abbey to house this shrine in 1020 and it soon became one of the most famous and wealthy pilgrimage sites in England, being patronised by kings.

Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Waxing and waning

Edmund’s cult flourished. He was considered the embodiment of divinely-ordained rule, rightful sovereignty and of the binding ties between kingship, the land and society.

Such was his influence, in fact, that on St Edmund’s Day on 20 November 1214, rebel English barons held a secret meeting there before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, a precursor to the Magna Carta, which was signed a year later. The event is even memorialised in the Bury’s town motto: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law’.

But Edmund’s standing began to fall when, during the Third Crusade in 1199, King Richard I visited St George’s tomb in Lydda, now Lod in Israel, on the eve of the battle. The next day, he won a major victory and so adopted St George as a good luck charm, personal patron and protector of his army.

Although St Edmund’s White Dragon banner was still carried into battle by the English army, by the time of Edward I’s reign, which began in the 1270s, his standard had been joined by St George’s. To make matters worse, in 1348, Edward III founded a new order of chivalry called the Knights of the Garter and made St George its main man, declaring him Patron Saint of England at the same time.

Adding insult to injury, Edmund’s shrine was then unceremoniously destroyed in 1539 during Henry VIII’s Reformation. His remains were taken off for safekeeping to France where they remained until 1911, before being moved to the chapel in Arundel Castle in West Sussex where they still remain to this day.

But despite being knocked off his perch, Edmund still has a goodly number of causes to represent. He is patron saint of wolves, kings and East Anglia. He is also patron saint of pandemics and torture victims – and, should you pray to him, he will allegedly offer you protection from the plague, a gift perhaps a little less useful today than it was a few centuries back but nonetheless important.

Moreover, it seems that Edmund has not been entirely forgotten. In 2006, a local group that included BBC Radio Suffolk, the Bury St Edmunds-based brewery Green King and the East Anglian Daily Times newspaper launched a campaign to reinstate him to his former glory.

A second attempt in 2013 took the line that England should have a “unique” patron saint rather than one shared by 17 other countries, and a bank holiday was proposed in his honour. And while it may all have been to no avail, at least Edmund got to take up his new position as patron saint of Suffolk County Council out of it. Which is something.

Cath Everett

Cath Everett is content editor for the Spirit of East Anglia community.

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