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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Inspiring stories

About us

Eagle at sunrise

East Anglia is a mysterious kind of place in some ways. For starters, it’s a big, spread out, mainly rural, often atmospheric, region that can be slow and difficult to navigate in parts – although it does have a number of big towns such as Cambridge, Norwich and Peterborough within its borders.

And then there are the disputes as to which counties it actually covers, or not as the case may be. If you’re playing it by the book, you’re looking purely at the Kingdom of the East Angles, which was formed in 520 and made up of the North People (Norfolk) and the South People (Suffolk). The Angles themselves, however, were originally from northern Germany – Angeln in Schleswig-Holstein to be precise, the clue, of course, being in the name.

Over time, however, the Kingdom expanded into Cambridgeshire and is sometimes even said to include Essex, even though its name actually means ‘East Saxons’, which refers to a different German tribe that ran their own separate gaff. But an area between the Wash and just south of Colchester has been commonly known as East Anglia since the 6thcentury apparently – and so who are we to argue.

But despite the watery pleasures of the North Norfolk coast and Broads, and the cultural yet picturesque highlights of Constable Country and Aldeburgh, there seems much about the region that is hidden.

Again, despite its ancient burial mounds, woodhenge and churches, the region tends to hide its spiritual light under a bushel. While there are lots of healers, lightworkers and groups of an esoteric bent, they often take a bit of finding and are in no way as overt as in areas such as Glastonbury or the Great Stones Way.

Spirit of place

But in keeping with the concept of ‘Spirit of Place’, maybe there’s a reason for this secrecy that has passed down along the threads of time. As a friend of mine once put it, in an area where more witches were killed than in any other region in England, perhaps there’s an inherent reluctance for people to put their head above the parapet.

Because East Anglia was the stomping ground of the notorious ‘Witchfinder General’ and was synonymous with witch hunts. At a time when Puritanism was at its peak and the 1603 Witchcraft Act was still in force, local parishes paid Matthew Hopkins to find and try witches, who were all too often single, older women working as healers, herbalists and midwives – or who simply ended up as scapegoats.

In 1645, Bury St Edmunds, in fact, had the dubious honour of hosting the single biggest witch trial in England, at which 18 people were hanged. So while Hopkins made his money, the wise women and innocents perished.

But the time for hiding is now over. In an age where many people are searching for meaning and to understand what spirituality – which includes physical, mental and emotional health – means to them, we at the Spirit of East Anglia are creating a community of healers and wise men and women to help you on your path.

Not only will we provide a register of respected practitioners from across the region, but our aim is to become the go-to site for local people to discover all things spiritual – in the broadest possible sense. We also intend to hold a networking group for practitioners across the region each quarter.

Our founding members are:

Cath Everett, editor and journalist

Helen Preston, counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique and reiki practitioner

Anita Ramsden, kinesiology and reiki practitioner

Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation practitioner, who also focuses on children’s wellbeing.

We look forward to getting to know you over the weeks, months and years ahead as you learn to know yourself, and the mysterious world around you, better too.