Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edmund (841-870)

EDMUND or EADMUND (841–870), king of the East Angles, martyr, and saint, was born in Saxony in the city of Nüremberg in 841, being the son of King Alkmund and Queen Scivare. About 854 Offa, king of the East Angles, on his way to the Holy Land sojourned a while with Alkmund, and on that occasion adopted Eadmund as his heir. On the journey back from the holy sepulchre next year Offa died at Port St. George, having previously sent his ring to Eadmund. Alkmund fitted out a suitable expedition for his son. Eadmund then ‘sailed and landed in East England, at a place called Maydenboure, where … he made devout prayer to God … and not far from thence built a royal tower called Hunstantone. There he held his household one year, and then removed to Athelbrough, where he remained one whole year, and learned his Psalter in the Saxon tongue, which book was preserved in the revestrie of the monastery of St. Edmundsbury till the church was suppressed in the reign of King Henry VIII, as I have been credibly informed’ (Stow).

Eadmund began his reign on 25 Dec. 855, and was crowned and anointed king of East Anglia (at Burva? Walcott) by Humbert, bishop of Hulme, the following Christmas day, being then fifteen years old (Galfridus de FontibusDe pueritia Sancti Edmondi).

About this time the incursions of the Danes became more formidable and persistent. In 854 they wintered in the island of Sheppey (Freeman, Norman Conquest). Eadmund and Burhred [q. v.] thereupon agreed to the famous grant made by their overlord Ethelwulf [q. v.] of the tithe of the profits of all lands to the church. There is a tradition that the famous Danish pirate, Ragnar Lodbrog, was driven by a storm upon the Norfolk coast, and, landing at Reedham, was conducted to the court of King Eadmund, and that there while out hunting he was, in the absence of the king, murdered by Eadmund's huntsman, Berne. It is more probable that he was slain by Ælla, king of Northumbria [q. v.], and that it was to avenge his death that the great invasion of the Danes occurred in 866 (Walcott, East Coast of England). This invasion was headed by eight kings and twenty earls. The northmen first attacked Northumbria and then sailed to East Anglia. As to what followed there are great discrepancies in the accounts of the older annalists. According to some, at the time of the invasion Eadmund was quietly residing at a village near Heglisdune (i.e. the hill of eagles, afterwards called Hoxne or Hoxon), and making no preparations for active defence; but his earl, Ulf Ketul, meeting the Danes in battle at Thetford, was beaten with dreadful slaughter. Other accounts represent Eadmund as having fought this battle in person, and add that after a terrible day's struggle the fortune of war was undecided, but that the sight of the fearful carnage of his people induced the king to surrender himself to his foes in the hope that the sacrifice of his own life might save his subjects.

At any rate after this battle Hingwar sent an envoy to Eadmund with a haughty command to divide with him his treasures, renounce his religion, and reign as his vassal. On receiving this message the king held counsel with one of his bishops, who advised compliance. A dialogue ensued, which is recorded by Abbo Floriacensis in a book addressed to Dunstan, in which the whole story is said to have been told ‘by an old soldier of Edmund's, on his oath, to the illustrious Ethelstan.’ Eadmund thought that his death might save his people. The bishops urged flight. The king steadily refused, and calling in the Danish envoy refused to deny Christ, and defied his foes. Eadmund was seized without making resistance. He was bound in chains and severely beaten. Then he was dragged to a tree, tied naked to its trunk, and scourged with whips, then riddled with arrows, and finally beheaded. And thus he died, ‘kyng, martyr, and virgyne’ (as the historian says), for there is no record of his leaving wife or child, on 20 Nov. 870. He was the last king of the East Angles.

Upon the departure of the Danes the body was found, and being taken to Hoxne was there buried in the earth in a wooden chapel. A legend says that the head was found guarded by a wolf, who joined quietly in the procession till the head was joined to the body. The remains were left at Hoxne for thirty-three years, and then miracles began to be attributed to the martyred king. A large church having been built by Sigebert, a former king of East Anglia, at Bury (formerly Beodericsworth), the remains were deposited there in a splendid shrine, enriched with jewels and precious ornaments, where they remained until the incursion of the Danish king, Sweyn, when Ailwin, the bishop, fearing outrage to the saint, sent his body to London. It remained there three years, when it was carried back to Bury. A manuscript cited by Dugdale in his ‘Monasticon’ and entitled ‘Registrum Cœnobii S. Edmondi,’ informs us that on its return to Bury ‘his body was lodged at Aungre, where a wooden chapel remains as a memorial to this day. This same wooden chapel is supposed to form the nave of Greenstead Church, Essex. Sweyn died a painful death, after seeing a vision of St. Eadmund coming against him in full armour and piercing him through with his spear. Cnut, his son, rebuilt the minster of St. Eadmund, replaced its secular canons by a Benedictine abbot and monks from Hulme and Ely, and the body of Eadmund having been placed in it, in 1020 Cnut made a pilgrimage to the famous church and offered his crown upon the shrine to atone for his father's sacrilege.

It is not certain at what date Eadmund was canonised, but for several centuries his name was highly venerated, and his name is retained in our present calendar.

A number of miracles attributed to St. Eadmund by mediæval writers may be read in ‘Veterum Scriptorum et Monumentorum, &c. Collectio,’ tom. vi., by Martène and Durand, Paris, 1729, and in Caseneuve's ‘Histoire de la Vie et des Miracles de S. Edmond,’ Toulouse, 1644.

The tree at which tradition declared Eadmund to have been slain stood in the park at Hoxne until 1849, when it fell. In the course of its breaking up an arrow-head was found embedded in the trunk. A clergyman who had a church which was dedicated to St. Eadmund begged a piece of the tree, and it now forms part of his communion-table. Another portion is in the possession of Lady Bateman of Oakley Hall.

[Saxon Chronicle; Holinshed's and Grafton's Chronicles; Speed's Great Britain; Lingard's History of England; Sharon Turner's Anglo-Saxons; Freeman's Old English History; local traditions.]

W. B.