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FEATURES / Edmund the Martyr

It’s time for a ninth-century Christian ruler who gave his life for the faith to be restored to his rightful place as national patron saint / By MARGARET HEBBLETHWAITE

The lost king of England

ST GEORGE’S DAY is coming up on Tuesday, 23 April. Does anybody care? Those that do, and mark the day with Morris dancing or the St George’s Cross, are celebrating pride in being English, rather than pride in the saint. After all, there is the embarrassing fact that Paul VI removed George from the calendar of saints in 1969, because his story is so legendary. John Paul II was untroubled by such niceties, and put him back again.

The only thing most of us can remember about this patron saint of England is that he killed a dragon. Do dragons exist? Then there is the point that he was not an Englishman, but a Roman soldier of Cappadocian Greek descent, in other words a Turk. That is, if he ever existed at all. He was much invoked during the Crusades, a part of Christian history that is now out of fashion. Nor is he unique to England, for Venice, Genoa, Ethiopia, Catalonia, Aragon, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Lithuania, Portugal and Russia have also claimed him as their patron saint.

So George is not the ideal patron for England. Fortunately the country has an alternative patron saint, who preceded him in the role and was honoured alongside George for centuries on end: King Edmund the Martyr. He is someone who, I confess, I had never heard of until this Lent, when I decided to go to Bury St Edmunds in my Big Lent Walk for Cafod, but now I am enthused with his story. This East Anglian Edmund (c.855-869), Rex Anglorum as he called himself, was gradually overshadowed by George, who provided a patron saint who represented victory in battle. Edmund, by contrast, had been defeated and killed by the enemy.

But just as there had never been a legal process to declare either of them England’s patron, so there is no need for a process to restore Edmund, despite a group from Suffolk having travelled to 10 Downing Street in 2006 with a petition for just that. Tony Blair sent a reply that “the government is not planning to change the patron saint of England from St George to St Edmund”. But we do not need to demote George; we can just allow him to fade gradually from view, as Edmund did in the past.

The context for Edmund’s martyrdom is found in the repeated invasions of Vikings from Denmark, which had begun in 793 with the destruction and looting of Lindisfarne and other Northumbrian monasteries and towns, sending shock waves through the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Then they moved south, and the oldest source about Edmund,

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tells us that in 869 the Great Heathen Army “went across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters at Thetford, and the same winter St Edmund fought against them and the Danes won the victory, they slew the king and took over the entire kingdom and destroyed all its monasteries”.

AN AMAZING tradition built up of Edmund’s sanctity. To understand it we turn to the first account of his martyrdom, written one century later, in about AD 985, by Abbo of Fleury, a monk of a French Benedictine abbey and a scholar. He was entrusted with the story by the then aged St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, who wept as he told it; he had himself received the story when he was a young man, from a then elderly and decrepit man, who in his youth had been the armourbearer of King Edmund, and an eye witness to the terror of the martyrdom. When Abbo finished his account, he sent it back to Dunstan for checking, so we can assume that his record was faithful, and we can also assume that the armour-bearer was telling the truth, as he took an oath to that effect. So despite the lapse of a century, there is a clear chain of transmission and reliable witnesses. Of course no one will take the lengthy dialogues as verbatim reports, but there is no reason to doubt their overall import.

According to Abbo’s Passio Sancti Ead mundi, Edmund came from a line of kings and was a handsome youth endowed with every virtue: tranquillity, eloquence, modesty,

PHOTO: ALAMY/ARTGEN

St Edmund the Martyr King of England depicted by Luc-Olivier Merson in 1871

kindness, generosity, gentleness, simplicity and wisdom. As king he was strict with wrongdoers, scrupulous in administering justice, caring with the needy and a humble servant of his people. Hagiography this may be, but had Edmund not been a very fine king, it is unlikely that his reputation for sanctity would have taken such a firm hold. When the Viking commander Inguar invaded East Anglia, reports Abbo – burning towns, murdering citizens in their beds, raping women, slaughtering babies in the sight of their mothers and taking particular care to kill any man of fighting age – he sent a message to Edmund, demanding that he hand over his inherited wealth and become his vassal king. Edmund groaned and consulted his bishop, who urged him repeatedly to submit, to minimise the damage, as there was no possibility of resisting the Viking onslaught. But Edmund insisted he did not wish to survive his loyal subjects, and said “I will of my own free will surrender myself.” Through baptism, confirmation and his kingly anointing he had committed himself to Christ, he said, and he would not bow to any yoke but that of the service of God. He sent the messenger back to tell Inguar: “Edmund, the Christian king, will not submit to a heathen chief, unless you first become a convert to our religion.”

Inguar arrived and took Edmund prisoner, mocked him, beat him, tied him to a tree and

4 | THE TABLET | 20 APRIL 2024

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