Today, November 20th, is the feast of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, the patron saint of the parish where I serve on a regular basis. Edmund is not a saint many Americans are familiar with, although many have heard the name Bury Saint Edmund, his final resting place in East Anglia, roughly midway to the east between Cambridge and the North Sea. This was the area of Edmund’s kingdom these many years ago, back in the 9th century AD.
Edmund was born into a Christian Saxon family in 841 AD, and became king of the East Angles before 865 AD. Thus he was a rather young man when he became king of East Anglia. The Vikings from Denmark and Norway had been raiding England for many years, but in 869–870 AD, they mounted a major invasion known as the Great Army said to include as many as 20,000 men at arms. It was in meeting this invasion that Edmund met his martyrdom. Entirely reliable accounts of the death of Edmund are not available, but what follows below is a translated excerpt from a Abbo of Fleury, a monk who recorded what he was told some years after the fact in a life of St. Edmund. He gives the date of the death as 870; other sources say 869, so there is a degree of uncertainty even about that. But here is what Abbo has to tell us:
Abbo of Fleury: The Martyrdom of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, 870
Abbo of Fleury’s Life of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia before 870, here comes from the Anglo-Saxon version as it appears in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, 9th edn. (Oxford Univ Press: Oxford, 1961), pp. 81-87, trans. K. Cutler.
[Preface to the Anglo-Saxon version by Aelfric of Eynsham]
In King Aethelred’s day a certain very learned monk named Abbo came over the sea from the south, from St. Benedict’s resting-place to Archbishop Dunstan, three years before Dunstan died. During their conversation Dunstan related the story of St. Edmund, just as Edmund’s sword-bearer related it to King Aethelstan when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer was an aged man. Abbo recorded the entire story in a single book, and when the book came to us [i.e., Aelfric], we translated it into English, just as it stands now. The monk Abbo returned home to his monastery within two years, and was soon elevated to abbot of that same monastery.
Edmund the Blessed, King of East Anglia, was wise and worthy, and exalted among the noble servants of the almighty God. He was humble and virtuous and remained so resolute that he would not turn to shameful vices, nor would he bend his morality in any way, but was ever-mindful of the true teaching: “If you are installed as a ruler, don’t puff yourself up, but be among men just like one of them.” He was charitable to poor folks and widows, just like a father, and with benevolence he guided his people always towards righteousness, and restrained the cruel, and lived happily in the true faith.
Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom. In the fleet were the foremost chieftans Ivar and Ubbi, united through the devil. They landed warships in Northumbria, and wasted that country and slew the people. Then Ivar went [south-]east with his ships and Halfdan remained in Northumbria gaining victory with slaughter. Ivar came rowing to East Anglia in the year in which prince Alfred–he who afterwards became the famous West Saxon king–was 21. The aforementioned Ivar suddenly invaded the country, just like a wolf, and slew the people, men and women and innocent children, and ignominiously harassed innocent Christians. Soon afterward he sent to king Edmund a threatening message, that Edmund should submit to his allegiance, if he cared for his life. The messenger came to king Edmund and boldly announced Ivar’s message: “Ivar, our king, bold and victorious on sea and on land, has dominion over many peoples, and has now come to this country with his army to take up winter-quarters with his men. He commands that you share your hidden gold-hordes and your ancestral possessions with him straightaway, and that you become his vassal-king, if you want to stay alive, since you now don’t have the forces that you can resist him.”
Then king Edmund summoned a certain bishop with whom he was most intimate, and deliberated with him how he should answer the fierce Ivar. The bishop was afraid because of this emergency, and he feared for the king’s life, and counselled him that he thought that Edmund should submit to what Ivar asked of him. Then the king became silent, and looked at the ground, and then said to him at last : “Alas bishop, the poor people of this country are already shamefully afflicted. I would rather die fighting so that my people might continue to possess their native land.” The bishop said: “Alas beloved king, thy people lie slain. You do not have the troops that you may fight, and the pirates come and kidnap the living. Save your life by flight, or save yourself by submitting to him.” Then said king Edmund, since he was completely brave: “This I heartily wish and desire, that I not be the only survivor after my beloved thegns are slain in their beds with their children and wives by these pirates. It was never my way to flee. I would rather die for my country if I need to. Almighty God knows that I will not ever turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.”
After these words he turned to the messenger who Ivar had sent him, and, undaunted, said to him: “In truth you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood, because I follow Christ who so instructed us by his example; and I happily will be slain by you if God so ordain it. Go now quickly and tell your fierce lord: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen war-leader, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.'” Then the messenger went quickly on his way, and met along the road the cruel Ivar with all his army hastening toward Edmund, and told the impious one how he had been answered. Ivar then arrogantly ordered that the pirates should all look at once for the king who scorned his command, and sieze him immediately.
King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons. Lo! the impious one then bound Edmund and insulted him ignominiously, and beat him with rods, and afterwards led the devout king to a firm living tree, and tied him there with strong bonds, and beat him with whips. In between the whip lashes, Edmund called out with true belief in the Saviour Christ. Because of his belief, because he called to Christ to aid him, the heathens became furiously angry. They then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog (just like St. Sebastian was). When Ivar the impious pirate saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with resolute faith called after Him, he ordered Edmund beheaded, and the heathens did so. While Edmund still called out to Christ, the heathen dragged the holy man to his death, and with one stroke struck off his head, and his soul journeyed happily to Christ. There was a man near at hand, kept hidden by God, who heard all this, and told of it afterward, just as we have told it here.
Then the pirates returned to their ships and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it could not be buried with the rest of his body. After a time, after the pirates had departed, the local people, those who were left, came there where the remains of their lord’s body without a head was. They were very sad in heart because of his killing, and especially because they didn’t have the head for his body. Then the witness who saw the earlier events said that the pirates had the head with them, and that it seemed to him, as it was in truth, that they hid the head in the woods somewhere.
They all went together then to the woods, looking everywhere through the bushes and brambles to see if they could find that head anywhere. It was also a great miracle that a wolf was sent, through the guidance of God, to protect that head both day and night from the other animals. The people went searching and also calling out, just as the custom is among those who often go into the wood: “Where are you now, friend?” And the head answered them: “Here, here, here,” and called out the answer to them as often as any of them called out, until they came to it as a result of the calling. There lay the grey wolf who watched over that head, and had the head clasped between his two paws. The wolf was greedy and hungry, but because of God he dared not eat the head, but protected it against animals. The people were astonished at the wolf’s guardianship and carried home with them the holy head, thanking almighty God for all His miracles. The wolf followed along with the head as if he was tame, until they came to the settlement, and then the wolf turned back to the woods.
The local people then laid the head with the holy body and buried it as best they could in such a hurry, and soon erected a marker over him. After many years, when the harrying ceased and peace was granted to the afflicted people, they joined together and erected a church worthy of the saint at the marker where he was buried, because miracles happened frequently at his grave. They planned to carry the holy body with public honor and lay it in the church. Then there was a great miracle: Edmund was as sound as when he was alive, with a clean body, and his neck, which previously was severed, was healed. It was as if a red silken thread around his neck showed men how he was slain. Also the wounds which the cruel heathens made with frequent spear-shots to his body were healed by the heavenly God. And Edmund lies thus uncorrupted down to the present day, awaiting resurrection and the eternal glory. His body, which lies undecayed, tells us that he lived without fornication in this world, and with a clean life journeyed to Christ.
This is Father D again. The story did not end there. The body of Edmund was moved several times and eventually lost completely, so that he was denied the peaceful rest that he had so truly earned. Even so, he will not be denied his eternal reward at the end of time when his witness to the faith of Christ under the most personally trying times possible will certainly not be forgotten at the Last Judgment.
As a king, his witness was particularly important because it set the direction for faith throughout his kingdom. If the king abandoned the Christian faith, then the people would do so in a flash. As long as the king held true to the Christian faith, the people would follow him, which made his witness uniquely important.
Further, the witness of any martyr is always of extreme importance. It speaks to us fact that faith speaks to the ultimate things, not the things of this life at all. So often we are not ready to address those things on a day-by-day basis, but then when we encounter a martyr we are drawn up short to realize that here is a person who has brought us face to face with the matters of ultimate concern. The fact that Edmund was both the king, the leader of his nation, and also willing to die for his faith, meant that the faith would be firmly embedded in the people even long after Edmund was gone.
This clear the meaning of the saying that it is the blood of the martyrs that builds the Church.
O Lord, we thank thee for leaders in our world who have such a clear vision of the Christian faith as Edmund and the strength and commitment to act as he did. We pray for more leaders of this sort in our own time, and that we may each as individuals have a similar faith. Through thy Son, Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour. Amen.