saint edmund: england's original patron saint

St. Edmund was the patron saint of England until Edward III (1312-1377) replaced Edmund by associating Saint George with the Order ofthe Garter. Edward III believed that England should have a fearless champion as its patron saint and not a king defeated in battle.

The Hoxne Legend
Local legend has it that, after being routed in battle against the Danes, King Edmund of East Anglia hid under the Goldbrook Bridge. The reflection of his golden spurs glinting in the water revealed his hiding place to a newly wed couple crossing the bridge. The couple informed the Danes who promptly captured Edmund and demanded he renounce his faith. He refused and was tied to a nearby oak tree. After whipping him, the Danes shot spears at him until he was entirely covered with their missiles - like the bristles of a hedgehog. Even then he would not forsake Christ and so was beheaded and the head was thrown into the woods.

Edmund's followers had no problem finding his body but his head was missing. Searching for his remains, they heard a cry of "here, here, here" and traced the voice to a wolf who was protecting Edmund's severed head. The wolf allowed the followers to take the head and Edmund's followers buried him nearby and built a wooden chapel over the spot.

Many years later, after the Danes raiding had settled down, they recovered Edmund and found his body was as sound as if he were alive, including a completely healed neck.

Hoxne Village Hall Plaque

Edmund's body was moved several times before finally coming to rest at what is now Bury St Edmund's. As well as the miraculous reinstatement of his body, a number of other miracles are associated with Edmund.

In Hoxne a great oak tree stood for 1,000 years until it fell in 1848. The tree's trunk was over 20 feet in circumference. When the tree was cut up, it is said that an old arrow head was found deep within the tree, five feet from the base. Today a stone cross marks the spot where the tree stood with an inscription "St Edmund the Martyr AD 870. Oak tree fell August 1848 by its own weight".

St Edmund's hall, built as a reading room in 1880 by Sir Edward Kerrison, has a plaque (as shown on the left) on the outside which depicts the scene which took place when Edmund was discovered under Goldbrook bridge by the wedding party.

The Facts
The location of where the first patron saint of England was martyred is obviously historically very important. Whilst, local legend has Edmund martyred at Hoxne, is there any truth to this claim? The biggest issue is that after Edmund's death, the Danes, from an ecclesiastical perspective, destroyed East Anglia by burning churches and manuscripts and introducing pagan religion. Therefore, there is only a handful of historical references to Edmund that have survived.

Historical Sources

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c.890)

This Anglo Saxon Chronicle is the oldest historical record of Edmund's death. However, the Chronicle it is very short on detail and it is not clear whether Edmund died in battle or was slain afterward. It simply says "This year the army rode over Mercia into East-Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And in the winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king; whereupon they overran all that land, and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came". Note that the chronicle puts Edmund's death as 870, however, modern day research has placed his death in 869.

That said, the whole Chronicle is just a very brief overview of Anglo Saxon history. The entry for Edmund is no shorter than most of the dates therein.

Life of King Alfred (893)
Just 24 years after Edmund's death, Asser, Bishop of Sherborne, in his work Life of King Alfred wrote "In the same year [869], Edmund, King of the East Angles, fought fiercely against that army [of Danes]. But alas, he was killed there with a large number of his men, and the Danes rejoiced triumphantly; the enemies were masters of the battlefield, and they subjected that entire province to their authority."

Passio Sancti Edmundi Regis et Martyris (985)

The historical source referred to most often in relation to Edmund's death is Abbo Fleury's (Abbo Floriacensis) "Passio Sancti Edmundi Regis et Martyris" (The Passion of Saint Eadmund, King and Martyr). Abbo's passio was widely read throughout Europe and some manuscripts survive. He was a monk of the Benedictine monastery of Fleury sur Loire (the modern Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, near Orléans, France). In 985, following an unsuccessful attempt to become Abbot at Fleury's, he sought refuge as a teacher at Ramsey Abbey [10 miles south east of Peterborough].

Abbo's Passio was written in Latin in 985, and translated into Anglo-Saxon by Ælfric (990-1020). The story was based on the testimony of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan (just three years before Dunstan died in 988). Archbishop Dunstan told Abbo that, as a young man, he had heard the story told to King Aethelstan by Edmund's armour-bearer when the latter was an aged man. Therefore, when Abbo committed this story to "paper", it was 116 years after the death of Edmund. It should also be noted that Dunstan was a good story teller: "his prowess in dealing with the devil was legendary".

According to Abbo/Dunstan's version of events, Edmund died at Hægelisdun 'like Christ before the governor Pilate' (quasi Christus ante Pilatum). So, where was Hægelisdun? No one knows for sure. As Dr. Keith Briggs points out in his article "Was Hægelisdun in Essex?", in etymological terms Hægelisdun could not have evolved into Hoxne.

Abbo mentions that there was a "neighbouring forest". Hoxne Wood was one of the few large woods left in Suffolk at this time following the deforestation of Suffolk in more ancient times. Indeed the forest in later years was known as Hoxne Park and was a stocked with game for the Bishop of East Anglia.

The other candidates are Hellesdon (in Norfolk), Bradfield St Clare, Hollesley and more recently Halesdun (Maldon). From a linguistic perspective Hægelisdun could have evolved into either Hellesdon or Halesdun.

Abbo wrote his account "third-hand" some 116 years after Edmund's death. It is a good yarn full of religious overtones and morals. We have published all three versions (the original Latin version, a complete translation and a translation of Ælfric's version) for you to judge. When Abbo returned to Fleury in autumn 987, with the story of Edmund's martyrdom under his belt, he was appointed Abbot of Fleury's

Will of Theodredus, Bishop of London and Hoxne
We know from the will of Theodredus, Bishop of London (c.942 to 951) that he was Bishop of both London and Hoxne and at the time of his will the Hoxne church was dedicated to St Ethelbert not St Edmund. St Ethelbert was another martyred king of East Anglia who was beheaded on 794 on the order of King Offa of Mercia.

Norwich Priory Charter (c.1101)
In c.1101 Bishop Herbert de Losinga established a charter for the Norwich cathedral priory and Hoxne church was given to the priory as part of its endowment. In the charter, Hoxne is referred to as "Hoxne with the chapel of St Edmund, where the martyr was killed".

So, sometime between 950's and 1101, Hoxne church was both rededicated from St Ethelbert to St Edmund and that the episcopal demesne passed from London to Norwich. You will recall from Abbo's story that Edmund's body remained buried until after the Danes raiding had settled down.This would mean that if Edmund's body was buried near Hoxne, it would not have been uncovered for many years. It would not be unreasonable to believe that the Church at Hoxne was rededicated to St. Edmund after his "healed" body was exhumed.

Was Bishop Herbert's willingness to accept Hoxne as the place of Edmund's death based on fact, folklore or political expediency? It has been argued by some that Herbert used the story of Edmund's death at Hoxne to further the political ambitions of his see and to counter the growing influence of the see at Bury St Edmunds. However, as Edmund was by this time widely accepted as a Saint and his story known throughout Europe, we can only assume that Herbert must have had some sort of legitimate reason to assert that Hoxne was the place where the martyr was killed.

By the 14th Century it was widely accepted within East Anglia (even at Bury St Edmunds) that Edmund was martyred and first buried at Hoxne. Research has uncovered the fact that there were once actually two medieval chapels dedicated to Edmund at Hoxne. One, at Cross Street, possibly to commemorate the place of his death. The other was in a wood less than a mile away, in an area then known as 'Sowood' or 'Sutwode'. Bungalow Farm now stands on the approximate site.

In conclusion, it is impossible to say conclusively whether Edmund was martyred and originally buried at Hoxne. On the one hand we have Abbot Fleury's account, written 116 years after the death of Edmund, which pinpoints the battle at Hægelisdun - clearly not Hoxne. On the other hand we have a rich tradition within the church and the area itself which clearly suggests Edmund did die at Hoxne.

Alister Leith