In 2013 a mini campaign began in Suffolk to remake a largely forgotten English King its Patron Saint. As St. George’s Day is coming up (the Patron Saint of England -as well as other nations), I thought it would be worth providing a brief history of our other patron Saints.
Firstly, a clarification of the term. Patron Saint is a term used traditionally by the Catholic and Orthodox Christian world to name a person who lived (and has been subsequently beatified, made into a Saint by the Church) and is now an intermediary between those they represent and God. A patron Saint can be of a nation, place/city and groups of people, such as children or metal workers. They basically represent a guiding spirit for a collective group of people. It is an interesting tradition which builds on the earlier Celtic one of revering genius loci, or spirit of place as found in many parts of Britain.
The earliest patron saint of England was St Edmund the Martyr. He was King of East Anglia in the mid-9th Century and fought the infamous Viking Ivar the Boneless (there’s a name) for control of East Anglia. This region of Britain has a history of fighting invaders (this was Boudicca’s stamping ground, for example) and other Kings who fought here include Edward the Martyr. The town Bury St Edmunds in the English county of Suffolk is named after him.
Edmund’s history and parentage are fuzzy. The Vikings so decimated this area, that few accounts of his life and his parentage exist of have been handed down. This is unusual for the time as the monasteries were meticulous record keepers.
The official story of Edmund is as follows; when faced with Ivar the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army, Edmund refused to fight and renounce his Christian faith. He threw all his weapons out of the Great Hall and called upon Jesus to save him as he was following his example by refusing to fight. Ivar took Edmund into the woods, tied him to a tree and had his archers shoot him through with arrows. Then they decapitated him.
As the Vikings leave the woods, Edmunds men come to retrieve his body many hours later. As they approach they call out ‘where are you friend?’ and the head replies ‘here, here, here’. They follow the voice and find Edmund’s severed head nestling between the paws of a wolf who has been guarding it from damage from any other animals. The body was then taken to Bury St. Edmunds and later a great abbey was built around his tomb, due to the start of a cult around his reign and martyrdom. It is an important chapter of our history as Ivar’s victory commenced a period of history known as the Danelaw, where the Eastern half of England was under Danish rule and paid taxes to them for approximately two hundred years.
As a druid, and student of our ancient history and myths, the account of Edmund’s death activates my druidar. Bury St. Edmunds was originally called Beadoriceweorth, which roughly translates as ‘Prayer place of high ranking soldiers’ to me that Bury was already an ancient burial site for high ranking noblemen, as why travel that far to bury him? Unless he was going to an already established site, specifically for that purpose. He was given the equivalent of a state funeral, which suggests to me that he attempted to fight of Ivar and his men, not to become a pacifist martyr.
The severance of his head is also interesting as it is a recurring motif in many famous European tales. Many researchers have pointed out the similarities between the deaths of Saint Sebastian and Saint Denis, but there is also a great parallel with Celtic mythology. In the ancient Mabinogion, Bran the Blessed, the legendary Raven King of Britain has his head removed after the battle with Matholwich in the tale Branwen, daughter of Llyr. Other famous European stories that feature a severed head motif include; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and St. Denis. The Celts saw the head as the seat of the soul, of divine power. To remove the head of a King or Queen signifies an attempt to steal sovereignty of the land (which they represent). However, in many of these tales the head often ends up re-attached to the body in some way, or survives in some form. In the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, Bran’s head (which is severed after the battle with Matholwich) ends up touring Britain, carried by a small but loyal group of other survivors of the battle. After a number of years has passed, Bran’s head dies (this part of the story also employs another magical motif). His head is then buried, as per Bran’s instruction, under the White Mound (the site of the Tower of London), facing south so that Bran can always protect Britain from invaders. To this day, ravens (Bran is welsh for raven) reside there (the legend states that if ever the ravens leave the Tower of London the monarchy (sovereignty) will perish)
The inclusion of the wolf is also important in the story of Edmund. The wolf guards the head (sovereignty). However, it is not obvious what it means here as Edmunds killers were Vikings and therefore heathens (for want of a better phrase) and in Norse mythology there is a strong link between Odin and wolves. It may simply suggest that the sovereignty of the land as represented by Edmund was (and is) protected by strong and powerful forces, for although the Vikings often swept through Britain during the so-called Dark Ages, they never actually held it permanently, even though the Danelaw lasted for two hundred years.
It is difficult to know if Edmund died fighting for his Kingdom or if he did effectively surrender as told by the Christian centric Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle stresses that Edmund died because he refused to recant his faith to the invading heathens, but moreover, it states that he refused to fight as he wished to follow the example of Christ and turn the other cheek. It would not be a surprise if Dark Ages monks did use this story to further their own political agenda and take the truth of Edmund’s story of a King resisting invasion to pious martyr who refuses to fight. Neither would it be a surprise if the Martyr spin was to excuse the fact that Edmund lost the battle and effectively ushered in the Danelaw period. The point is we shall never know the truth of this first patron saint of England, even down to his very existence itself. Indeed, his remains, after a protracted stint in France, were due to be moved to Westminster Abbey at the turn of the 20th Century. They never arrived though, due to doubts about their validity, and to this day remain at Arundel Castle in West Sussex, under the care of the Duke of Norfolk.
The importance of Edmund is in the tale itself, and what he represents. Was he a martyr who effectively gave away his Kingdom or was he a brave but ultimately unsuccessful resistance fighter? The use of standard European motifs such as head severing, a type of spirit animal (the wolf) and the high class burial all denote an important King, or invention of one for some reason. These tales are important for defining our national character and outlook. It is important to remember them.
Edmund was replaced as patron saint of England by St. George in the 14th Century by Edward III, a very interesting King who I’ll write a post on shortly. I know in my previous post I said I would post about the Molmutine Laws next, and I will, but I thought writing about St. Edmund’s story was timely given the date. After that, I’ll write about some other Patron Saints of Britain.
Happy St. George’s Day!