A-Z of Saints: Edmund

Edmund the Martyr (c840-870) was a king of East Anglia, succeeding to the throne when he was still a teenager as successor to Offa. It is likely that he was descended from the previous kings of the region, but one tradition asserts that he was of Saxon origin and had been born in Nuremberg. This story also tells that he landed at Hunstanton in 855 to claim the kingdom.

Little is known of the main years of his life, other than a reputation for being a good ruler, unswayed by flattery, and apparently withdrew for a year to a tower at Hunstanton to learn the whole Psalter by heart. His first biographer, Abbo of Fleury (945-1004) – who supposedly heard of Edmund’s life through St Dunstan, who in turn had met Edmund’s own standard-bearer – described Edmund as ‘wise and worthy’, ‘humble and virtuous’. It is only in the year of his death, 870, that we hear more.

In that year the Danes, led by Ubba (or Hubba) and Ivar the Boneless (or Hinguar, boneless or otherwise) invaded East Anglia via Mercia, having wintered at York, and set up camp in Thetford. Edmund’s army fought them valiantly, but were unable to repulse them and the Danes summoned a much larger armer to join their ranks and Edmund was captured on his way to Framlingham having refused to agree to the Danes’ terms (he had also disbanded his troops to avoid a massacre), which included him becoming their vassal. Abbo writes that Edmund sent a message to Ivar: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen war-leader, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.’

His captors chained him and demanded that he renounce his Christian faith, which he refused to do. He was then beaten, tied to a tree somewhere near Hoxne and whipped, but continued to assert his faith and call upon Jesus. The Danes then fired arrows at him ‘until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog’, but he continued to pray nonetheless, and he was finally beheaded.

When the Danes had departed from the woods where this took place, the local people found their king’s body, but not the head. The legend, as told by Abbo, runs that they searched the woods crying ‘Where are you now, friend?’ and the head answered ‘Here, here, here’. The remains were interred at Beadoriceworth, which later became the abbey settlement of Bury St Edmunds, famed for its shrine of ‘St Edmundsbury’.

Edmund’s memorial day is 20 November, the date of his martyrdom, and he is the patron of kings, wolves (a wolf was said to have guarded his severed head), torture victims and plague epidemics; he is represented by an arrow and sword, or a wolf. Little is left of his shrine now, as it was ruined in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but in mediaeval times the abbey was one of the most powerful in England.

Edmund’s own significance to England’s early history is marked by his presence in the Wilton Diptych (in the National Gallery), the altarpiece which depicts Richard II being presented to the Virgin and child by three saints, St John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor, and St Edmund the Martyr, holding an arrow.

Some other notable ‘E’ saints

  • St Edmund Campion (1540-1581) was a bookseller’s son who fled Elizabeth I’s England to become a Jesuit. He later returned to England and distributed pamphlets promoting Catholicism, for which he was arrested and hanged at Tyburn. His memorial day is 1 December; he was canonised in 1970.
  • St Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) became king of England in 1042, and was noted for his generosity and piety. He built Westminster Abbey, and was believed to be able to heal scrofula. His memorial is 13 October and he is patron of difficult marriages!