Today is the feast of St Edmund, King of East Anglia, who was killed by an invading Viking army in 869. I've posted about St Edmund quite a bit over the years I've been writing this blog, not only because the Vikings in England are my particular interest, but because Edmund is today one of the most popular of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially beloved in his former kingdom. (And therefore much depicted in modern church art
). I wrote about the later medieval developments in Edmund's legend here
, but today I want to post some of the Old English Life of Edmund
written at the end of the tenth century by the homilist Ælfric. I've posted an extract from this text at least once before, but I'll do so again because - well, why not. This was one of the first pieces of Old English I ever learned, as a first-year undergraduate, so it has a special place in my heart.
It's a translation of a Latin Passio
of Edmund by Abbo of Fleury
, and Ælfric begins by explaining the chain of sources which led to the composition of his Life
Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ fram sancte Benedictes stowe on Æþelredes cynincges dæge to Dunstane ærcebisceope, þrim gearum ær he forðferde, and se munuc hatte Abbo. Þa wurdon hi æt spræce oþþæt Dunstan rehte be sancte Eadmunde, swa swa Eadmundes swurdbora hit rehte Æþelstane cynincge þa þa Dunstan iung man wæs, and se swurdbora wæs forealdod man. Þa gesette se munuc ealle þa gereccednysse on anre bec, and eft ða þa seo boc com to us binnan feawum gearum þa awende we hit on englisc, swa swa hit heræfter stent.
'A very learned monk came from the south across the sea from St Benedict's monastery [i.e. Fleury], in the days of King Æthelred, to Archbishop Dunstan, three years before he died; and the monk was called Abbo. They talked together until Dunstan told the story of St Edmund, just as Edmund's sword-bearer told it to King Æthelstan in the days when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer was a very old man. Then the monk set down all the story in a book, and afterwards when the book came to us a few years later we turned it into English, as follows hereafter.'
This is an impeccable chain of authorities: learned Abbo, saintly Dunstan, the glorious King Æthelstan, and an eyewitness. The chain covers about 130 years between Edmund's death and Ælfric translating the Life
: Edmund was killed in 869, Æthelstan ruled between 924-39, and Dunstan died in 988. The East Anglian royal line was wiped out by Edmund's death, and by the time of Æthelstan the kings of Wessex, now kings of all England, had in a sense adopted the martyred East Anglian king as one of their forebears. So we can imagine the old sword-bearer telling his story at Æthelstan's court, and young Dunstan listening ('with tears in his eyes', Abbo says) in between all his music, metalwork, manuscript-correcting, and devil-fighting. (This was presumably before Dunstan was driven out of Æthelstan's court by accusations of black magic
...) If there weren't already enough reasons to admire multi-talented Dunstan, his role in preserving Edmund's story gives him a claim to the gratitude of all fans of Anglo-Saxon saints.
Ælfric produced his Lives of Saints
in the late 990s. Between Dunstan telling the story to Abbo in 985, and Ælfric translating Abbo's Passio
some ten years later, Edmund's death had suddenly become all too topical. The Vikings were back, more organised and effective than ever. In the last years of Dunstan's life, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
records Viking raids along the south coast of England for the first time in decades, and it was later believed that Dunstan in his last days knew this was the beginning of worse to come - that he prophetically foresaw all the disasters which would befall England through the course of the eleventh century. If Dunstan was telling stories from his youth about St Edmund in 985, this might be why. And by the late 990s things had only grown worse: one might argue (I would, in fact) that at the same time as Ælfric was writing his Life of Edmund
a poet somewhere in Edmund's old kingdom was busy writing The Battle of Maldon
, a poem which similarly tells of an East Anglian nobleman slain by a Viking army, and which in a different way finds heroism in a catastrophic defeat.
Edmund, Ely Cathedral
The whole Life
can be found online in Old English
and in Modern English
, but here are some extracts. (I've added punctuation, and the translation is mine. Abbo's original can be found here
.) It's particularly worth seeing the Old English alongside the translation because this text is written in Ælfric's distinctive style of alliterative, rhythmical prose, which can produce some beautiful effects - as exemplified by a line like 'Eadmund se eadiga, Eastengla cynincg', the first line of the Life
proper. Here the alliteration also plays on the first element of the saint's name (ead
Eadmund se eadiga, Eastengla cynincg, wæs snotor and wurðfull and wurðode symble mid æþelum þeawum þone ælmihtigan god. He wæs eadmod and geþungen and swa anræde þurhwunode þæt he nolde abugan to bysmorfullum leahtrum ne on naþre healfe he ne ahylde his þeawas ac wæs symble gemyndig þære soþan lare: 'þu eart to heafodmen geset? ne ahefe þu ðe, ac beo betwux mannum swa swa an man of him.' He wæs cystig wædlum and wydewum swa swa fæder and mid welwillendnysse gewissode his folc symble to rihtwisnysse and þam reþum styrde and gesæliglice leofode on soþan geleafan.
'Edmund the blessed, King of the East Angles, was wise and honourable, and always honoured Almighty God in noble conduct [þeawas
]. He was humble and virtuous and endured so resolutely that he would never submit to shameful vices, nor on either side deviate from his virtuous practices, but was always mindful of the true teaching: 'Have you been appointed as ruler? Do not exalt yourself, but be among men as if you are one of them.' [Ecclesiasticus 32.1] He was generous to the poor and like a father to widows, and with benevolence always guided his people to righteousness, and restrained the violent, and blessedly lived in the true faith.'
Bury St Edmunds
Hit gelamp ða æt nextan þæt þa deniscan leode ferdon mid sciphere hergiende and sleande wide geond land, swa swa heora gewuna is. On þam flotan wæron þa fyrmestan heafodmen Hinguar and Hubba, geanlæhte þurh deofol, and hi on norðhymbralande gelendon mid æscum and aweston þæt land þa leoda ofslogon. Þa gewende Hinguar east mid his scipum and Hubba belaf on norðhymbralande gewunnenum sige mid wælhreownysse. Hinguar þa becom to east englum rowende on þam geare þe ælfred æðelincg an and twentig geare wæs, se þe west-sexena cynincg siþþan wearð mære. And se foresæda Hinguar færlice swa swa wulf on lande bestalcode and þa leode sloh weras and wif and þa ungewittigan cild, and to bysmore tucode þa bilewitan cristenan.
He sende ða sona syððan to þam cyninge beotlic ærende þæt he abugan sceolde to his manrædene gif he rohte his feores. Se ærendraca com þa to Eadmunde cynincge and Hinguares ærende him ardlice abead. "Hinguar ure cyning, cene and sigefæst on sæ and on lande, hæfð fela þeoda gewyld and com nu mid fyrde færlice her to lande þæt he her wintersetl mid his werode hæbbe. Nu het he þe dælan þine digelan goldhordas and þinra yldrena gestreon ardlice wið hine and þu beo his underkyning, gif ðu cucu beon wylt, for ðan þe ðu næfst þa mihte þæt þu mage him wiðstandan.
'It happened in the end that the Danish people came with a ship-army, harrying and killing throughout the country, as is their habit. [!] The foremost leaders of the fleet were Inguar and Ubbe [i.e. Ivar the Boneless
and his brother, sons of the legendary Danish king Ragnar Lothbrok
], united through the devil, and they landed in Northumbria with their ships and laid waste the land and slew the people. Then Inguar turned east with his ships, and Ubbe remained in Northumbria, having won the victory with cruelty. Then Inguar came rowing to East Anglia in the year that Alfred the prince was twenty-one years old, who was later to be the glorious king of the West Saxons [that's Alfred the Great, of course]. And this Inguar suddenly stalked the land like a wolf, and slew the people, men and women and innocent children, and too shamefully harassed blameless Christians.
Soon afterwards he sent a boasting message to the king, saying that he should submit to enter his service if he valued his life. The messenger came to King Edmund and quickly told him Inguar's message. "Inguar our king, brave and victorious on sea and on land, rules many peoples, and is now swiftly coming with an army here to this land, so that he can take winter-quarters here with his company. Now he commands you to quickly share your concealed gold-hoards and your ancestors' treasure with him, and you must become his under-king, if you want to live, because you don't have the power to withstand him."'
Before answering the messenger, Edmund consults with a bishop, who advises him to submit. Edmund says he would rather fight and die in battle than do that, but the bishop reminds him that he does not have the forces to fight, because so many of his people have been killed. His only options are to submit or to die.
Þa cwæð Eadmund cyning, swa swa he ful cene wæs, "þæs ic gewilnige and gewisce mid mode, þæt ic ana ne belife æfter minum leofum þegnum þe on heora bedde wurdon, mid bearnum and wifum, færlice ofslægene fram þysum flotmannum. Næs me næfre gewunelic þæt ic worhte fleames, ac ic wolde swiðor sweltan gif ic þorfte for minum agenum earde, and se ælmihtiga God wat þæt ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum æfre, ne fram his soþan lufe, swelte ic, lybbe ic."
'Then King Edmund said, in his great courage, "This I desire and wish in my mind, that I may not survive alone after my dear thegns who have been suddenly slain in their beds, with their children and wives, by these seamen. It was never my custom to flee; I would rather die, if I must, for my own land, and Almighty God knows that I will never turn away from his service, or from his true love, whether I live or die."'
Edmund's death (St Mary's, Bury St Edmunds)
He sends a message back to Inguar saying that he will not submit unless the Danish king converts to Christianity. Inguar orders Edmund to be captured, bound and killed. The Danes descend on Edmund as he stands within his hall, and he does not resist them.
Hwæt þe arleasan þa Eadmund gebundon and gebysmrodon huxlice and beoton mid saglum, and swa syððan læddon þone geleaffullan cyning to anum eorðfæstum treowe and tigdon hine þærto mid heardum bendum, and hine eft swuncgon langlice mid swipum, and he symble clypode betwux þam swinglum mid soðan geleafan to hælende Criste, and þa hæþenan þa for his geleafan wurdon wodlice yrre for þan þe he clypode Crist him to fultume. Hi scuton þa mid gafelucum swilce him to gamenes to oð þæt he eall wæs besæt mid heora scotungum swilce igles byrsta, swa swa Sebastianus wæs. Þa geseah Hingwar se arlease flotman þæt se æþela cyning nolde Criste wiðsacan, ac mid anrædum geleafan hine æfre clypode, het hine þa beheafdian, and þa hæðenan swa dydon. Betwux þam þe he clypode to Criste þagit þa tugon þa hæþenan þone halgan to slæge and mid anum swencge slogon him of þæt heafod, and his sawl siþode gesælig to Criste.
Þær wæs sum man gehende, gehealdan þurh God behyd þam hæþenum, þe þis gehyrde eall and hit eft sæde swa swa we hit secgað her. Hwæt ða se flothere ferde eft to scipe and behyddon þæt heafod þæs halgan Eadmundes on þam þiccum bremelum þæt hit bebyrged ne wurde.
'Then the wicked ones bound Edmund and shamefully mocked him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards led the faithful king to a tree fixed in the earth and tied him to it with hard bonds. They scourged him for a long time with whips, and he constantly cried out between the strokes with true faith to the Saviour Christ, and the heathen were madly enraged by his faith because he cried to Christ to help him. They shot at him with missiles as if for their amusement, until he was entirely covered with their shots like the spines of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was. When Inguar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with steadfast faith constantly called upon him, he ordered him to be beheaded, and the heathens did this. While he was still calling upon Christ, the heathens dragged the holy one away to slay him, and with one stroke cut off his head; and his soul travelled in blessedness to Christ.
There was a certain man nearby, kept hidden by God from the heathens, who heard all this and afterwards told it just as we say here. So then the sailors went back to their ships and hid the head of holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it could not be buried.'
When the Danes are gone, people come to look for Edmund's body, and search the woods to find his concealed head:
Wæs eac micel wundor, þæt an wulf wearð asend þurh Godes wissunge to bewerigenne þæt heafod wið þa oþre deor ofer dæg and niht. Hi eodon þa secende and symle clypigende swa swa hit gewunelice is þam ðe on wuda gað oft, "Hwær eart þu nu, gefera?" and him andwyrde þæt heafod, "Her, her, her!" and swa gelome clypode andswarigende him eallum swa oft swa heora ænig clypode oþþæt hi ealle becomen þurh ða clypunga him to. Þa læg se græga wulf þe bewiste þæt heafod. And mid his twam fotum hæfde þæt heafod beclypped grædig and hungrig and for Gode ne dorste þæs heafdes abyrian, and heold hit wið deor. Þa wurdon hi ofwundrode þæs wulfes hyrdrædenne and þæt halige heafod ham feredon mid him, þancigende þam ælmihtigan ealra his wundra, ac se wulf folgode forð mid þam heafde oþþæt hí to tune comon swylce he tam wære and gewende eft siþþan to wuda ongean. Þa landleoda þa siþþan ledon þæt heafod to þam halgan bodige and bebyrigdon hine swa swa hí selost mihton on swylcere hrædinge and cyrcan arærdan sona him onuppon.
'Then there was a great wonder, that a wolf was send by the guidance of God to protect the head against other wild beasts by day and night. They went seeking and constantly crying out, as is common for those going through the woods, "Where are you now, friend?" And the head answered them, "Here, here, here!" And so it repeatedly called, anwering them as often as any of them cried out, until they all came to it because of its calling. There lay the grey wolf which had guarded the head, and it had the head clasped between its two feet - greedy and hungry, and yet for God's sake it dared not eat the head, but protected it against wild beasts. They marvelled at the guardianship of the wolf and carried the holy head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all his marvels, but the wolf followed with the head until they reached the town, just as if he were tame, and then went back again to the woods. Then the people of that region laid the head with the holy body, and buried him as best they could in such haste, and soon built a church over him.'
Some time later, after peace has been restored, it is decided to build a better church for the saint. His body is inspected:
þa wæs micel wundor þæt he wæs eall swa gehal swylce he cucu wære mid clænum lichaman and his swura wæs gehalod þe ær wæs forslagen and wæs swylce an seolcen þræd embe his swuran ræd, mannum to sweotelunge hu he ofslagen wæs. Eac swilce þe wunda þe þa wælhreowan hæþenan mid gelomum scotungum on his lice macodon wæron gehælede þurh þone heofonlican God and he liþ swa ansund oþ þisne andwerdan dæg, andbidigende æristes and þæs ecan wuldres.
'There was a great wonder, that he was as whole as if he were alive, with an intact body, and his neck was healed which had previously been cut; it was as if there were a red silken thread about his neck, to show men how he had been killed. And the wounds which the cruel heathen had made in his body with many shots were healed by heavenly God, and he lies thus uncorrupted until this present day, awaiting the resurrection and eternal glory.'
Ælfric then recounts some miracles which took place after Edmund's death, and concludes by saying "Nis Angelcynn bedæled drihtnes halgena" - 'the English are not deprived of the saints of God' - and he lists a few other examples as well as Edmund. This is, of course, characteristic Anglo-Saxon understatement - what he means is that the English have plenty
of saints of their own.
These are the ruins of the abbey church at Bury St Edmunds, which was founded in the eleventh century, some thirty-five years after the writing of Ælfric's Life
. According to Bury St Edmunds tradition the abbey was founded by Cnut; after he became king of England Cnut was an enthusiastic patron of St Edmund's cult - one way for a Danish king of England to reconcile his dual roles as successor to the kings of Wessex and heir to the conquests of the Danish kings (including Ivar the Boneless). Later legend said that St Edmund was responsible for the death of Cnut's father Svein Forkbeard
in 1013, getting some revenge on the Danes from beyond the grave.
Bury St Edmunds soon became one of the leading religious houses in England, a prominence it retained throughout the medieval period, and the church which now lies in ruins was once in size and splendour the equal of any cathedral in the country. So in case the death of St Edmund was making you think ill of the Vikings today, it's salutary to remember it was a Viking king who helped to build this monastery, which for hundreds of years fostered physicians
, and key moments in constitutional history
, as well as many hidden lives of pilgrimage and prayer. Next time you feel like using 'medieval' as a pejorative, consider that a Viking king founded this place - and in 1539 a Tudor king tore it down.
I visited Bury St Edmunds last summer, and, knowing that its abbey had been destroyed, had not really been expecting to find it very interesting. But it's an absolutely lovely town - the extensive abbey ruins are now a public park, where children were climbing over the graves of Abbot Samson and his fellows, and the size of the ruins has to be seen to be believed. There are some more substantial medieval relics, such as a Norman tower:
But this would once have been dwarfed by the towers around it. When I was there the tower contained the friendliest group of bell-ringers you could ever hope to meet; I think they must have been the guardian spirits of the place, they were so overwhelmingly welcoming.
The present-day cathedral is tiny compared to what the abbey church would have been (it only became a cathedral in 1914, and was previously a parish church on the edge of the abbey precincts) but is a rather wonderful mixture of the medieval and the brand-new:
This tower was built in 2005!
Since Bury St Edmunds was once a great centre of manuscript production, it was lovely to see some tapestries in the cathedral based on manuscripts made at the abbey:
These are based on images from the fifteenth-century BL Harley 2278
and the twelfth-century 'Bury Bible'
, respectively. More former monastic churches should do things like this - when manuscripts have been swallowed up into institutional libraries, it's all too easy to forget where they originally came from.
The cathedral also houses this new statue
of Edmund, which has become my favourite modern depiction of the saint. It shows him as a young king, proud and defiant in his bonds.