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How King Edmund Became The Patron Saint of England

I must begin this evening by thanking James Sheen for arranging this event to celebrate the eve of St Edmund’s Day, as well as expressing what an honour it is for me to speak here in Moyse’s Hall. You may or may not know that I won a Blue Peter badge in 1992 for my letter nominating Moyse’s Hall as the best museum in the country. In fact, I was a rather strange child and instead of wanting to be an astronaut or a train driver I was always set on becoming a museum curator, mainly inspired by my many visits here. What I didn’t realise at the time, of course, is that curators have to do a lot of paperwork and don’t really spend all their time admiring the collection and explaining it to visitors, so in retrospect I am quite glad I ended up as a historian instead.


Most of us are accustomed by now, especially if we live in Bury, to hearing that St Edmund, king and martyr was once the patron saint of England. Many people would like to see him recognised as the patron saint once again. But what does it mean when we say that Edmund was once England’s patron saint? What is a patron saint anyway? How did Edmund lose that exalted status? And could he regain it? These are the questions that I am hoping to answer tonight. I am not going to speak about the legend of St Edmund – I am presuming that most people here have a basic knowledge of that story – nor am I going to speak about Edmund’s local significance. Instead, I want to look beyond the local to Edmund’s national and even international significance.


Let’s begin by considering the idea of patron saints. There seems to be a popular misconception that a country can have only one patron saint, in the same way it has one flag. In fact, most countries that claim a patron saint have more than one. In France, for example, St Denis, St Louis and St Joan of Arc are all considered national patrons. This is because the idea of the state in its modern form did not exist in the Middle Ages, when most countries acquired their patron saints. Some patron saints acquired their status as national patrons by being the patrons of royal dynasties or even individual monarchs; others acquired their status because they were popular with ordinary people; still others were supposed to have played a special role in defeating an enemy, such as St Michael in Portugal.


Medieval England was no different, and multiple saints were considered patron saints of England at one time or another. This is why it is historically inaccurate to talk about St George ‘replacing’ or ‘usurping’ Edmund as England’s patron saint when the Order of the Garter was founded in 1348. The foundation of the Order of the Garter is, in fact, a good case study of the complexity of saintly patronage in the medieval period, because although the badge of the Order bore the Cross of St George – as it does to this day – the first seal of the Order (which was arguably more important from a legal point of view, as the embodiment of the Order’s authority) bore the coat of arms of St Edmund.


Several saints were considered patrons of England at one time or another. They included St Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine of Canterbury to convert the English to Christianity; St Edward the Confessor, who was the only king of England to be canonised and was adopted as the patron of the Plantagenet dynasty; and St Thomas Becket, the martyred twelfth-century archbishop of Canterbury who was the most widely recognised English saint throughout medieval Europe. St George was a relative latecomer compared to all of these.


It is St Edmund, however, who stands out among all the saints who achieved national significance in England, because he was the first. Indeed, Edmund’s rise to prominence coincided with the development of the idea of England itself, and I will argue in my forthcoming book on Edmund that the saint was a key component in the idea of England. So how did a relatively minor regional king acquire national importance? In the first place, we must recognise that the historical Edmund was not an especially important figure in ninth-century England, a nation still divided into several Anglo-Saxon sub-kingdoms. The most important kingdoms were Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria; East Anglia was still emerging from a century of subjection to Mercia. However, although he was politically insignificant, Edmund was the only king among all the rulers of Anglo-Saxon England who dared to style himself Rex Anglorum, ‘King of the English’. This was because the Latin title Rex Anglorum had a double meaning – it could mean ‘King of the Angles’ (and Edmund was King of the East Angles) or, more grandly, ‘King of the English’.


This was more than just a linguistic coincidence. The Wuffing dynasty to whom Edmund belonged had had pretensions to imperial rule ever since the reign of King Raedwald in the seventh century, the only East Anglian ruler to attain the status of high king over all the other Anglo-Saxon rulers. Raedwald’s successors repeatedly evoked the symbolism of imperial Rome and, uniquely among the Anglo-Saxon royal houses, claimed descent from ‘Caesar’. From the point of view of a trader arriving at the great mercantile port of Gipeswic (modern-day Ipswich) and seeing Edmund’s title Rex Anglorum on a silver penny of King Edmund, Edmund might as well have ruled the whole nation – even if a united England was just a dream when Edmund inherited the East Anglian throne in around 855.


Ironically, it was the devastating Viking invasion of 865 – the same invasion that would lead to Edmund’s death – that also resulted in the creation of a united England. The story is a familiar one. One by one, the English kingdoms fell before the Vikings, who established their capital in the old Northumbrian city of York, but there was one English king who refused to give up. Alfred, the king of Wessex, fought a guerilla campaign against the Viking leader Guthrum in the marshes of the Somerset Levels, finally inflicting a devastating defeat on the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandune. Alfred made a treaty with the Vikings, insisting that Guthrum and his followers accept Christianity in exchange for ruling half of England, the Danelaw, differentiated from the king of Wessex’s territory by a roughly diagonal line running northwest to southeast across England. But over the following century, Alfred’s descendants began to press the Vikings and reconquer England, claiming their victories not in the name of Wessex alone but as kings of the Anglo-Saxons. Alfred’s grandson Aethelstan was the first king to claim the title last held by Edmund, Rex Anglorum, ‘King of the English’ .


We might conclude that Edmund and Aethelstan’s use of the same Latin title was nothing more than a coincidence, were it not for the fact that Aethelstan’s father chose to name another of his sons Edmund. Edmund of Wessex would succeed Aethelstan as king in 939, and in case we thought it was a coincidence that Edmund shared a name with the martyred East Anglian king, Edmund of Wessex lost no time in showing exceptional generosity of patronage to the shrine of St Edmund at Beodricsworth, granting it control of an area around the town known as the Banleuca.


The shrine of St Edmund was one of the weirdest religious phenomena of Anglo-Saxon England. The Viking invasion of the 860s led to the destruction of virtually every major church and religious house in eastern and northern England. Most cathedrals and monasteries lay in ruins and were not re-founded for a century. But the shrine of St Edmund actually came into being during this dark period. Abbo of Fleury tells us that a simple wooden chapel was built on the site of Edmund’s martyrdom and became famous for miracles. If the martyrdom took place in Bradfield St Clare, as has been plausibly suggested, then the golden aestel discovered in neighbouring Drinkstone in 2014, which has been christened the Edmund Jewel, could be interpreted as an early votive offering at Edmund’s earliest shrine. The early cult of St Edmund has sometimes been attributed to the power of Edmund as a figure of symbolic English opposition to Viking rule, but this explanation doesn’t really explain what happened. Because all the evidence suggests that the biggest supporters of the early cult of St Edmund were the Vikings themselves.


To us in the twenty-first century this makes no sense at all. Why would the Vikings have encouraged devotion to a man that they themselves killed as a defeated enemy? But the medieval mind didn’t work this way. The Vikings accepted Christianity shortly after Alfred’s treaty with Guthrum, but they had no saints of their own. They gravitated, therefore, towards a saint with whom they had some connection – even if that connection was the fact that they killed him. The Vikings may have considered Edmund’s death on the instructions of Ivarr the Boneless an honourable one. Whatever the explanation, within thirty years of Edmund’s death the Viking rulers of East Anglia started issuing coins praising Edmund, with the inscription ‘O saint Edmund the king’. Not only this, but devotion to St Edmund quickly spread to Scandinavia and even to Iceland, where Edmund featured in the Norse sagas. In the thirteenth century there was even a statue of Edmund close to what is now Iceland’s second-largest city, Akureyri.


The Vikings honoured Edmund as an honourable opponent who died his death at the hands of one of their heroes, but the kings of Wessex and their descendants may have honoured Edmund because they wrongly believed that they were related to Edmund. Edmund’s earliest biographer, Abbo of Fleury, made a mistake when he described Edmund as descended from the ‘Saxons’, when in reality the Wuffings were Angles. In the eleventh century, Edward the Confessor insisted on calling Edmund his ‘kinsman’, presumably because he accepted Abbo’s error as fact. So the House of Wessex, which ruled England until the Norman Conquest, may have adopted Edmund as its patron under false pretences.


Perhaps even weirder than the adoption of St Edmund by the Vikings was the Norman attitude towards the saint. The Normans were not renowned for their respect for English culture, expropriating almost every English landlord and expelling most of the English bishops and abbots after the Conquest. Yet as far as Bury St Edmunds was concerned, the Norman Conquest might as well not have happened. There was no invasion and no expropriation, and the abbot remained securely in possession. This was in part a historical accident, because the abbot of Bury St Edmunds at the time, Baldwin, was the only Frenchman in a senior clerical position in England. Baldwin was William the Conqueror’s personal physician, as he had been to Edward the Confessor before him. However, William not only spared Bury St Edmunds but also patronised the abbey, and even aided in the spread of the cult of St Edmund, funding an altar to St Edmund at the abbey of St Denis in France. Why? Again, the answer probably lies in medieval psychology. Just like the Romans, who believed it was necessary to make sacrifices to a nation’s gods before invading, so the Normans believed it was necessary to get a powerful English saint on side. And there was no saint more English than Edmund.


Abbot Baldwin took advantage of Edmund’s new-found popularity by distributing ‘contact relics’ of the saint around Europe. Because Edmund’s body was supposedly incorrupt, it was impossible to distribute parts of his body as relics. Instead, contact relics were supposedly pieces of cloth stained with Edmund’s blood, taken from a chest in which the original clothes of St Edmund had been stored by Baldwin’s predecessor Abbot Leofstan. Leofstan had opened the shrine and put new clothes on the saint’s body some time in the 1040s. Baldwin left a contact relic at Lucca in Italy while he was on a journey to Rome, and the spread of the cult to sites in France including Toulouse, Bard-le-Regulier, Dijon, and the abbeys of Rebaix, Saint-Maur and Fecamp. Indeed, the earliest surviving complete liturgy for St Edmund’s Day was written not for Bury St Edmunds but for Rebaix in France.


William the Conqueror’s support for St Edmund secured the abbey’s independence and turned it into a site of expected royal pilgrimage. No king could afford to ignore St Edmund, since the abbey’s chroniclers made it quite clear that anyone who did so would suffer horribly. The crucial story was that of King Swein of Denmark, who was allegedly stabbed in bed by an apparition of St Edmund in 1016 after promising to tax Bury St Edmunds. Later medieval kings lived in fear of the same fate. Even Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, once woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming he suffered the same fate as Swein – this was during a dispute with the abbot of Bury St Edmunds. The next morning Edward granted the abbot everything he wanted. Indeed, Edmund’s military feats after his death greatly exceeded his military success in life. Edmund was credited with helping English armies defeat the Welsh and the Scots, while the English in Ireland were so attached to St Edmund that the saint’s imaginary coat of arms were adopted as the emblem of the King of England’s Lordship of Ireland. Ireland’s largest abbey, at Athassel in County Tipperary, was dedicated to St Edmund, while English Crusaders dedicated a church to St Edmund as far away as Damietta in Egypt.


It was also in this period, in 1097, that a senior French cleric, Lambert of Angers, declared Edmund to be the patron of all England. It is important that this assertion came from a foreigner; national patronage was as much about the saint perceived to be most important in a country by outsiders as it was about the saint’s internal popularity within a country. Edmund became the patron saint of England not by some royal decree or political process but because he was generally recognised in the British Isles and in Europe as the symbolic embodiment of Englishness.


The medieval St Edmund was, in many ways, quite similar to St George. He was a famous martyr appeared in visions and dreams, usually armed and dressed in armour, and inflicted punishment and defeat on his enemies. He was a military saint who was adopted by Crusaders. Indeed, I would argue that the eventual decline of St Edmund can largely be attributed to the fact that he was a bit too similar to St George, who had the advantage of being an international saint. It is not so much that St George ‘replaced’ Edmund – Edmund began to fade away as he looked more and more like St George. But, to be clear, this process of fading away took a long time and was certainly not complete in 1348.


The thirteenth century saw a significant revival of the cult of St Edmund, with Henry III naming one of his sons, Edmund Crouchback, after the saint. This revival can be traced ultimately to the clout of Abbot Samson, who died in 1211, and his successor Hugh of Northwold, who probably arranged the meeting of the barons that ensured King John would ratify Magna Carta. Hugh also strong-armed John into recognising his election as abbot. Edmund became a popular royal name (although it never quite displaced Edward and Henry in the top spots). Every English king from William the Conqueror to Henry VII made a pilgrimage to St Edmund’s shrine, usually shortly after his accession, in an effort to demonstrate legitimacy as the true king of England.


Perhaps the most famous appearance of St Edmund in medieval English royal imagery is in the Wilton diptych, a private altarpiece commissioned by Richard II in the 1390s. Richard appears kneeling to the Virgin Mary and angels with his personal patron, St John the Baptist; behind him are the national patrons, St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund. However, St Edmund was more usually referenced heraldically by his invented coat of arms. It was commonplace in the Middle Ages to ascribe imagined coats of arms to historical figures who existed before the age of heraldry, and Edmund was assigned three gold crowns on a blue field. The earliest appearance of this coat of arms is in the seal of the Norroy King of Arms in 1276, but over the course of the next century the arms were also adopted to represent English rule over Ireland, as a reference to Edmund.


It is even possible that the coat of arms of Sweden, first adopted by King Magnus Ladulas in the 1270s and still the official emblem of Sweden, were an indirect reference to Edmund. Magnus wanted to allude to the martyrdom of his predecessor King Erik, who was also killed by Danes, by using Edmund’s arms. It is also worth noting that the ancient royal family of Sweden, the Wylfings, bore the same surname as Edmund’s East Anglian royal dynasty, which may well have been of Scandinavian origin to begin with. Another well-known coat of arms that was almost certainly derived from Edmund’s is that of the University of Oxford, which features three gold crowns on a blue field in addition to an open book. This was an attempt by the medieval university to assert its supposed Anglo-Saxon origins by using a coat of arms associated with England’s most important Anglo-Saxon saint.


St Edmund’s arms would have been displayed on most royal occasions in medieval England, usually in conjunction with other coats of arms. This reconstruction of St Edward’s Throne from the Tower of London shows that it was originally adorned with the arms of St Edward the Confessor, England (derived from the personal arms of the Dukes of Normandy) and St Edmund. Similarly, this restored fireplace in the Tower features the arms of England, St Edward, Edward I’s Queen, Eleanor of Castile, and St Edmund. From the fourteenth century onwards the arms of St George were often added to the mix; the arms of St Edmund were displayed alongside the arms of England, St Edward and St George to welcome Henry V back to London after his victory at Agincourt in 1415. At his coronation in 1377 Richard II wore a pair of red slippers that had supposedly belonged to St Edmund, although they were so old that they fell off and the young king was forced to commission a new pair to donate to Westminster Abbey. It is clear that the red slippers Richard is wearing in his coronation portrait are meant to be the same slipper St Edmund is wearing in the Wilton Diptych.


But the greatest royal tribute to St Edmund was his inclusion in the crown of England itself. When Henry VIII commissioned a new crown in the 1520s he included little figures under each of the four fleurs de lys that surmounted the crown: the Virgin and Child, St Edward, St George and St Edmund. The original crown was melted down under Oliver Cromwell but this reconstruction was made in 2012 based on detailed depictions from the reign of Charles I. But why did the English monarchy feel the need to repeatedly use the image and coat of arms of St Edmund? I suspect the answer lies in the Plantagenet dynasty’s lingering anxiety about its own Englishness. England’s monarchs were still speaking French at court until the thirteenth century, yet they had to rule over the English people and therefore needed a way to project their Englishness. St Edmund was a significantly more powerful figure than Edward the Confessor because he was a martyr. Edward may have been enshrined at Westminster, at the heart of government, but Edmund belonged to an earlier and purer stratum of Englishness. In theory Edmund the martyr was the ultimate Englishman, untainted by Viking or Norman influence, although the reality was that the Vikings and Normans did as much as anyone to construct the medieval image of Edmund.


During Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536–40, the shrine of St Edward in Westminster Abbey was the only one left untouched. St Edmund’s shrine was stripped and destroyed just like every other saint’s. How was it, then, that by the time of the Reformation St Edward was still considered important but St Edmund was not? How had St Edmund fallen from his position as a great national saint? In the first place, it is worth noting that Henry VIII was the first and only English king since the Norman Conquest not to make a pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds. He did not even attend his own sister’s funeral at the Abbey in 1533. This may indicate that Henry was not interested in Edmund; it is more likely, however, that it was the result of Henry’s increasingly London-centric approach to government. Tudor government centralisation brought an end to the medieval tradition of holding parliaments in key locations around the country, including at Bury. Furthermore, by the time of the Reformation religious fashions had moved on from incorrupt Anglo-Saxon royal saints. Pilgrims at Bury were down compared to the enormous popularity of Walsingham, which featured a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. Finally, as I have already mentioned, as Edmund receded into the mists of time many people may have considered that he was a bit too similar to St George for two separate patron saints to be required.


Even if the Reformation had not happened, it is possible that Edmund’s stock would have declined. However, the fact that Bury was a Benedictine abbey sealed Edmund’s fate. His cult was associated by the reformers with superstition and ridiculous stories such as a head that miraculously re-joined to its body. Edmund was routinely mocked in the propaganda of the English Reformation. However, the memory of Edmund as a national saint was kept alive on the Continent by English Catholics in exile. For them, Edmund was one of the most important of all English saints because he was a martyr – at a time when many Catholic priests returning to England were suffering martyrdom themselves. Edmund represented the perfect Catholic king, the antithesis of the hated Queen Elizabeth. So it is that we find many representations of St Edmund in chapels associated with the exiled English Catholic community in France, Spain and Italy. A successor monastery to Bury St Edmunds was founded in Paris in 1615 by English Benedictine monks, which survives to this day at Woolhampton near Reading and is known as Douai Abbey.


In England itself, it would be fair to say that Edmund was almost forgotten until the end of the nineteenth century. Even in 1869 and 1870, the millennium of Edmund’s martyrdom, no-one celebrated in Bury apart from the Catholics. In Southwold, however, a popular historian named Agnes Strickland was persuaded to write an account of St Edmund’s life that became very popular and stimulated renewed interest in Edmund’s story. The East Anglian Society created a flag for the region in 1904 featuring the arms of St Edmund, and the first outdoor pageant of the life of St Edmund took place in the Abbey Gardens in 1907.


Since the turn of the Millennium we have seen campaigns, petitions and furious online activity in support of Edmund as England’s patron saint. So far, however, campaigning has been centred on Bury St Edmunds. Even in other parts of Suffolk, many people remain ignorant of Edmund. St Edmund will never regain the status of a national patron saint if he is only known in one town, however great the enthusiasm for Edmund. Furthermore, supporters of Edmund as a patron saint often talk about replacing St George with St Edmund. This is both unrealistic and inappropriate. A country can easily have more than one patron saint, as England did in the Middle Ages, and St George is simply too rooted in the national consciousness over too many centuries to be removed. For Edmund to regain his status as a national saint, something would have to happen to catapult him to the national headlines. Something like the discovery of his remains under his abbey. Is that ever likely to happen? I advise you to read my book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King to find out!

Why Are We Celebrating St Edmunds Day