Today we are supposed to venerate the usurper St. George as our patron Saint and celebrate the fact of our Englishness. I care not for the former and I do the latter in my heart every day of the year. As for the Levantine Dragon Slayer, he was no doubt a worthy fellow, but St. Edmund is a truer and better role model.
St. George had no real connection with England as such until the time of the crusades. Though he was undoubtedly venerated here, he was better known as an object of such veneration in the area of the eastern Orthodox Church. Crusaders from England and from the thirteenth century onwards St. George was accorded ever greater importance until, in due course, he became recognized as the patron Saint of England. We share him with Georgia, Genoa, the Hellenic Armed Forces, Beirut, Malta, North Ossetia, Aragon and the Freemasons.
He supplanted an altogether more appropriate character in that office. In 869 the King of East Anglia, Edmund, was martyred by an invading Danish army. Captured by the invaders, he was ordered to renounce his Christian faith and to become heathen Danes’ vassal. Almost certainly knowing what the consequences would be, he flatly rebuffed his enemies’ demands. Repeating the name of Christ with his heart and his lips, he told them: ‘Living or dead, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ’. He was tied to a tree, tortured by being shot through with arrows, and then beheaded.
from the Wilton Tryptych
Of him the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:
“In this year the (Danish) host rode across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters in Thetford and the same year King Edmund fought against them and the Danes had the victory, and they slew the King and overran the entire kingdom and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came.”
Writing a letter to Archbishop Dunstan more than a hundred years later, Abbo of Fleury, a monk at the great Abbey of Ramsey in Huntingdonshire, gave further details of Edmund. Abbo says he heard the Archbishop relate the story and that he said he heard it as a young man from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. It is likely therefore, that the basics of the story are correct:
In the days of king Æthelred a very learned monk came over the sea from the monastery of Saint Benedict in the south to Archbishop Dunstan, three years before he died; and the monk was called Abbo. They talked together until Dunstan told him about saint Edmund, even as Edmund’s sword-bearer had told the story to king Æthelstan when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer a very old man. The monk put this whole story into a book, and a few years afterwards, when the book had come to us, we turned it into English just as it stands hereafter. Two years later this monk Abbo went home to his monastery and was almost immediately appointed abbot in that same monastery.
Edmund the blessed, king of the East Angles, was wise and honourable and by his excellent conduct ever glorified Almighty God. He was humble and devout, and continued so steadfast that he would not yield to shameful sins, nor in any direction did he bend aside his practices, but was always mindful of true doctrine. If you are made a chief man, do not exalt yourself, but be among men as one of them. He was bountiful to the poor and like a father to widows, and with benignity guided his people ever to righteousness, and controlled the violent, and lived happily in the true faith.
Then at length it happened that the Danish people came with a fleet, harrying and slaying widely over the land, as their custom is. In that fleet were their chief men, Hingwar and Hubba, associated by the devil, and they landed in Northumbria with their ships and wasted the land and slew the people. Then Hingwar turned eastward with his ships, and Hubba was left in Northumbria, having won the victory by cruel means. Then Hingwar came rowing to East Anglia in the year when Alfred the ætheling was one and twenty years old, he who afterward became the renowned king of the West-Saxons. And the aforesaid Hingwar suddenly, like a wolf, stalked over the land and slew the people–men, women and innocent children–and shamefully tormented innocent Christians. Then soon afterward he sent to the king a threatening message that he must bow down to do him homage, if he cared for his life.
So the messenger came to King Edmund and speedily announced to him Hingwar’s message: “Hingwar our king, keen and victorious by sea and by land, has rule over many peoples, and has now landed here suddenly with an army, intending to take up his winter-quarters here with his host. Now he commands you to divide your secret treasures and your ancestors’ wealth quickly with him, and you shall be his under-king, if you desire to live, because you do not have the power to withstand him.”
King Edmund called a bishop, the one who was nearest to him at the time, and consulted with him how he should answer the savage Hingwar. The bishop feared for this terrible misfortune and for the king’s life, and said that it seemed best to him that he should submit to that which Hingwar had demanded of him.
Then the king kept silence and looked at the ground, and at length said to him in kingly fashion: “Behold, oh bishop, the poor people of this land are brought to shame, and I would rather fall in battle so that my people can continued to possess their land.”
And the bishop said, “Alas, dear king, your people lie slain, and you do not have sufficient forces with which you can fight, and these seamen will come and bind you alive unless you save your life by means of flight, or thus save yourself by yielding to him.”
Then said Edmund the king, brave as he was: “This I desire and wish in my mind, that I should not be left alone after my dear thanes, who have been suddenly slain in their beds by these seamen, with their children and their wives. It has never been my custom to take to flight, but I would rather die, if I must, for my own land; and almighty God knows that I will never turn aside from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I die or live.”
After these words he turned to the messenger whom Hingwar had sent to him, and said to him undismayed: “Verily you would now be worthy of death, but I will not defile my clean hands with your foul blood, because I follow Christ, who has given us an example, and I will happily be slain by you, if God has so ordained. Depart now very quickly, and say to your cruel lord that Edmund the king will never bow in life to Hingwar the heathen leader, unless he will first bow, in this land, to Jesus Christ with faith.”
Then the messenger went quickly away and met on the way the bloodthirsty Hingwar hurrying to Edmund with his whole army, and told that wicked man how he had been answered. Hingwar then arrogantly commanded his troops that they should, all of them, take the king alone, who had despised his command, and instantly bind him.
When Hingwar came, Edmund the king stood within his hall, mindful of the Savior, and threw away his weapons, desiring to imitate the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to fight with weapons against the bloodthirsty Jews. Then those wicked men bound Edmund and shamefully insulted him and beat him with clubs, and afterward they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree and tied him to it with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and among the blows he was always calling with true faith on Jesus Christ.
Then the heathen were madly angry because of his faith, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement, until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was. When Hingwar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not deny Christ, but with steadfast faith ever called upon Him, he commanded men to behead him, and the heathen did so. For while he was yet calling upon Christ, the heathen drew away the saint to slay him, and struck off his head with a single blow, and his soul departed joyfully to Christ. There was a certain man at hand, whom God was hiding from the heathen, who heard all this and told it afterward just as we tell it here.
Then the seamen went again to ship, and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it could not be buried. Then after a while, after they were gone away, the country-folk, who were still left there, came to where their lord’s body lay without his head, and were very sore at heart because of his murder, and chiefly because they had not the head with the body.
Then the spectator who had previously beheld it said that the seamen had taken the head with them, and it seemed to him (as was actually the case) that they had hidden the head in the wood somewhere about.
Then they all went searching together in the wood, looking everywhere among the thorns and brambles for the head. There was also a great wonder, that a wolf was sent, by God’s direction, to guard the head against the other animals by day and night. They went on searching and calling out continually, as those who go through woods often do: “Where are you now, friend?” And the head answered them, “Here, here, here!” And so it called out repeatedly, answering them as often as any of them called to it, until they all came to it by means of those cries. There lay the gray wolf who had been guarding the head, and with his two feet had embraced it, greedy and hungry, and yet for fear of God had not dared to eat it, but had kept it safe against other animals.
They were astonished at the wolf’s guardianship and carried the holy head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all His wonders; but the wolf followed forth with the head until they came to the town, as if he were tame, and then turned back again into the wood. Then the country-people laid the head by the holy body, and buried him as well as they could in such haste, and soon built a church over him.
Then, after many years, when the harrying had ceased and peace was restored to the oppressed people, they came together and built a church worthily in honour of the saint, because miracles had frequently been done at his burial-place, even at the bede-house where he was buried. They desired to carry the holy body with popular honour and to lay it within the church. Then there was a great wonder, that he was all as whole as if he were alive, with clean body, and his neck was healed which before had been cut through, and there was as it were a silken thread about his neck, all red, as if to show men how he had been slain. Also the wounds, which the bloodthirsty heathen had made in his body with their repeated shots, were healed by the heavenly God; and so he lies uncorrupt until this present day, awaiting the resurrection and the eternal glory. His body shows us, which lies undecayed, that he lived without fornication here in this world, and by a pure life passed to Christ.
The site of the martyrdom was said to be Hegelisdun Wood. The date was given as November 20th which remains St Edmunds’ Feast Day today. The king was buried in a small chapel built for the purpose where the body remained for many years before being moved to Bedericsworth.
Bedericsworth later became Bury St. Edmund’s and there is a reasonable proposition that Haegelisdun may have been at Bradfield St. Clare, some six miles from Bury.
What finer example could a King give to his people? And is he not far more meaningful to us today than St. George whose nexus to England is, frankly, tenuous?
I commend the late King to you.