Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King by Francis Young - review by Thomas Shippey

Thomas Shippey

Move Over, St George

Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King


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Recovering and identifying the bones of dead kings has been much in the news recently. Richard III’s skeleton was famously rediscovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012, while in 2014 fragments of a skull found buried in front of the high altar at Hyde Abbey were identified as probably belonging to Alfred the Great, or possibly his son Edward the Elder. There have been countervailing let-downs: recent excavations have shown that the bones under the grandiose marble tomb of the Viking Rollo, founder of Normandy, in Rouen Cathedral cannot possibly be his, whatever the inscription says.

Nevertheless, Francis Young thinks it should be possible to retrieve the body of St Edmund, and argues furthermore that it is time for St Edmund to make a comeback and be recognised as the true, and native, patron saint of England, rather than the interloper St George, just when England needs a new and firmer identity.

The basic facts about St Edmund are not in doubt, though there are few of them. He was crowned king of East Anglia on Christmas Day 855. Ten years later a large Viking army landed in East Anglia, made a deal with Edmund involving the supply of horses, and marched on to conquer the Northumbrian kingdom. Four years afterwards the Vikings returned to East Anglia, and this time, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was composed within living memory of the event, Edmund marched out to fight them, lost and was killed.

But did he die in the actual battle? Almost 120 years later a different story was written down by a French monk, Abbo of Fleury. What Abbo reported was that when he visited Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the mid-980s, Dunstan told him what he had heard many years before as a young man at the court of King Athelstan. There, a very old man who had been Edmund’s armiger (swordbearer) on the fatal day told Athelstan and Dunstan what had really happened. The Vikings, led by the notorious Ivarr the Boneless, had offered to spare Edmund’s life if he would act as their puppet king. Edmund, though advised to submit by his bishop, replied that he would do so only if the Vikings converted to Christianity. They refused, took him alive and tortured him to death, eventually beheading him and throwing the head into a thicket at a place called, in Anglo-Saxon, Hægelisdun – which Young identifies as Hellesdon Ley in Suffolk, only six miles from Bury St Edmunds.

The dates of transmission, at least, are perfectly credible. Edmund’s death was, early on, dated to 20 November 869. If his swordbearer was twenty or so then, he could have been, say, eighty at Athelstan’s court in the late 920s, and if Dunstan heard it then as a young man, he could have passed it on in the late 980s as a very old man to Abbo. Not much else in Abbo’s story, however, looks very reliable. He reports, for instance, that Edmund’s head was eventually discovered by searchers who heard it calling, ‘Here, here, here,’ and found it guarded between the paws of an enormous wolf. Edmund accordingly became not just a king doing his duty, but the subject of a miracle and a martyr for the faith.

Abbo propelled Edmund to star status among English saints. His sainthood was recognised across Europe and reinforced by many stories, including the tale that he angrily struck down the Danish king Swein Forkbeard in 1014, along with other desecrators of his shrine. Medieval English kings readily adopted him as a patron, while after the Reformation English Catholics singled him out for special veneration.

But where is his body? It certainly lay (eventually) in a shrine at the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, but it is not there now. Strangely enough, Toulouse claimed to possess his bones and had a story to back it up. The relics were ceremoniously returned to England in 1901 and taken to Arundel, where they remain. The ghost story writer M R James, however, cast doubt on the tale at the time. On inspection in 1998, these relics turned out to contain bones of twelve individuals, male and female.

It looked as though Edmund had gone for good, but Young has unearthed another account, written down in about 1710, and once again consisting of the testimony of an old man, born in about 1617, who had been told by his great-grandfather what really happened. To save it from Henry VIII’s commissioners at the Reformation, when many relics were destroyed, the body was taken from its shrine at Bury, put in an iron chest and reburied – almost certainly, Young thinks, in the old monastic cemetery now under the municipal tennis courts. These are scheduled for redevelopment.

An iron chest should be easy to locate. But does it matter? Young thinks that Edmund actually created English identity, later kings deliberately adopting his title of rex anglorum, or ‘king of the English’ (that is, the East Angles), even if they were Saxons, like King Alfred and his descendants. This seems unlikely. One of the odd things about the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ is that while the inhabitants of Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex and Essex seem to have regarded themselves as Saxons politically, they regarded themselves linguistically, and possibly ethnically, as Angles. Their language is always called englisc, never seaxisc. What this means we can’t tell, but Alfred’s tendentious and politically convenient claim to be king of all Angelcynn (Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia included) was more likely based on this feeling of identity than on conscription of the Edmund legend alone.

Be that as it may, Edmund is in any case important for us, Young feels, first because he rapidly became a symbol of ethnic integration, venerated even by the descendants of his Danish killers, who settled in East Anglia and soon called themselves English, and second because England today is in dire need of some symbol of identity other than its football team and the cross of St George, so much disliked by its politicians. Young, in brief, thinks that ‘Britishness’ has failed and that the United Kingdom isn’t united. St Edmund would be a good role model for England: heroic, but in defence rather than in aggression, integrating rather than divisive, and accepted for centuries across Europe as ‘the symbolic bearer of Englishness’. There are many stories clustered round his name, which are well retold by Young. We just need the focus of a body.

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