The Afterlife of St Edmund: Hagiography, Cults, Multimedia and Tourism
Saints are unique as individuals, as they often are far more important in death than in life. For historians this is because of the varied and dynamic forms in which the veneration of a saint can arise, such as in the form of hagiography or a cult, and also because it is usually difficult to say anything accurate about their life outside of their accumulated tradition. This point is also true for those historically worshipping a saint, as after their passing away they become semi-divine figures with an ability to intervene in worldly affairs. However, we also find because of this their legacy is especially susceptible to constant evolution, adapting to different contexts and uses. There are few better examples of this than St Edmund of East Anglia.
The Early Narrative Texts
St Edmund ruled East Anglia in the ninth century during a period of large-scale Viking activity in England, often referred to as the Great Heathen Army. However, beyond this, it is almost impossible to say anything definitive about him. He only receives passing mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s biography of King Alfred of Wessex, which state that Edmund was killed while the Danes were wintering in Thetford, Norfolk. Despite this his legacy has persisted across centuries in a number of ways; through the Medieval equivalent of multimedia promotion and up to the modern day, through the tourism strategy of Bury St Edmunds. Emma Cownie describes this process aptly when she describes Edmund as ‘a fluid symbol with a chameleon-like capacity for periodic reappraisal and renewal in many media and new languages’. This article aims to survey these constant fluctuations in the tradition of St Edmund, due to attempts to use it ideologically, revealing that he was much more important in death than in life.
The main narrative text from which most interpretations of Edmund arise is the Passio Sancti Eadmundi. This piece of hagiography (a writing about a Saint’s life) is the first religious text about the martyrdom of Edmund and was written by Abbo of Fleury at the request of the monks of Ramsey Abbey in 986. There is evidence of veneration towards Edmund before this, for example coins minted in the late tenth and ninth centuries, found in the Danelaw and East Anglia bear his name. However, the Passio marks the first extensive piece of textual evidence for a literary and ideological reworking of the Edmund tradition.
Abbo’s Passio is full of a number of standard tropes that are usual for hagiography. Abbo writes ‘it is beyond my abilities to describe; indeed I could not in suitable language set forth even the least of his merits’. This sort of praise is not unusual, however it acts largely as a set-up for the theme most prominent in the text, which is the use of Edmund as a device through which the virtues of Christianity are juxtaposed with the vices of the Danes and their lack of belief.
This is achieved by making Edmund Christ-like and the Danish leader, Inguar, appear as diabolical as possible. This starts with the geographic descriptions found in the early parts of the text. While East Anglia is described as prosperous and a refuge for hermits, such as the Danes are found ‘in great numbers in Scythia, near the Hyberborean Mountains’ they ‘are destined, as we read, more than all other races to follow Antichrist’. In this ethnographic description, other factors such as the geography or ethnicity of the Danes is notably made secondary to their apparent religious characteristics.
This theme is also found when Inguar arrives in East Anglia after sailing from Northumbria and immediately sends a messenger to Edmund demanding surrender. The King of East Anglia refuses, stating ‘Son of the Devil, well do you imitate your father’ but ‘you will not find me lacking the armour of Christian principles’. Therefore, Edmund’s piety is contrasted with Inguar’s effective imitation of Satan. The portrayal of Edmund continues to be opposed to Inguar. Following this conversation, the Danes immediately take Edmund prisoner and we see an account of his death mirroring the Biblical tradition concerning the Passion of Christ. He is made to stand before Inguar ‘like Christ before the governor Pilate’ and ‘in chains he was mocked in many ways’ before being tied to a tree. The Danes then fire numerous arrows into the body of St Edmund, drawing a connection to the tradition regarding St Sebastian- an early Roman martyr.
While the martyrdom of Edmund initially appears in conflict with Abbo’s argument for Christian virtues, this can be quickly resolved. Inguar’s victory is only earthly, search parties immediately begin to search for the deceased King and they soon hear a voice. Edmund’s decapitated head begins to exclaim ‘Here! Here! Here!’, a wolf laying by the head allows the searchers to find it. By performing a miracle immediately, Edmund emerges triumphant, showing the more permanent nature of his Christ-like victory in contrast to the temporary victory of the Satan-like Inguar. This is emphasised further by numerous posthumous miracles performed by Edmund towards the end of the text. Abbo of Fleury’s Passio therefore acts as literary argument through which Edmund and the Danes stand in for their respective figures in a rhetorical argument extolling the virtues of Christianity.
Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi is therefore a highly problematic text; it forms the narrative basis from which much of the later tradition of Edmund descends. However, it is clear that the Passio itself was an ideological reworking of the death of Edmund. Therefore, while it may not add much detail about the actual death of Edmund, the Passio does provide an insight into how a martyrdom can be transformed into literary and rhetorical argument. Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1010) soon carried out an abridgement of this text in English and while it is a third of the size of Abbo’s Passio, Carl Phelpstead has shown how in Aelfric’s text the theme of portraying Edmund as close to Christ continued. It would take until the development of a cult around Bury St Edmunds to see the first significant shift in the use of Edmund ideologically.
The Cult at Bury St Edmunds and the Use of Multimedia
In 906 the relics of Edmund were translated to the town of Bury St Edmunds and in 1020 an abbey was built by King Cnut on his tomb. These acts marked the beginning of the popularisation of St Edmund and the development of a cult surrounding him. However, this appeal did not reach its apex until the tenure of Abbot Baldwin (1065-1098). Baldwin, the first French abbot at Bury St Edmunds, sought to appeal to the laity by using a number of multimedia techniques and this would continue under his successor Samson.
One technique used to appeal to the laity was to use visual aids. A painting near the shrine for Edmund depicted the Danish King Swein, who was reportedly struck by lightning after threatening to destroy Bury unless it payed a ransom. Therefore, an image was used of an apparent posthumous miracle in order to reinforce the perception of Edmund’s power, also emphasising to visitors he had the ability to defend the abbey if necessary. Other visual techniques included the displaying of relics to the public and the use of a board detailing the legend of St Edmund, which further helped to make the saint more accessible.
Sound was another format through which the legacy of St Edmund could be promoted. This could simply through preaching. However, Henry Parkes has particularly highlighted the role of liturgy in the construction of the cult, as ‘liturgy was the force which united religious communities in daily prayer and scriptural recitation.’ For example, on Edmund’s feast day, their chant included ‘O invincible martyr’ and ‘O Edmund, unconquerable witness’. Sound was therefore not only a way through which the cult could be promoted, but it also provided a means of participation for visitors. Two eleventh-century manuscripts reveal to us the extent of the use of sound. They contain further hymns for Edmund including ‘Laus et corona’ and ‘Eadmundus martyr’. The cult at Bury St Edmunds used both visual and aural aids in order to appeal to the laity and therefore adapted to appeal to new and sometimes illiterate audiences.
However, with this popularisation of the cult, it is possible to see a shift ideologically in the way Edmund’s legacy was used. This is shown by looking at the collection of miracles known as the De miraculis sancti Eadmundi (1100). Composed by an archdeacon, Herman, the collection is a chronological account of Edmund’s posthumous interventions from his death in 886 until 1096. Most of the miracles found in this collection are from a local perspective, showing how Edmund actively intervened on behalf of East Anglia. This can be seen in the aforementioned instance of King Swein being struck down by lightening. However, we can also see it later on outside of Herman’s original collection. For example, in 1341 a person called John de Beaumont was killed in a tournament soon after suggesting that the confiscation of jewels and gold at the shrine would be of use in the Hundred Years’ War. Likewise, in 1374 a record tells us that an infant named Alice who was presumed dead, was saved when her parents made a vow to Edmund and bent a penny over her. These instances all have one thing in common – they emphasise the ability of Edmund to protect his abbey and his people. This regionalist ideology perpetuated by the abbey did not contradict their programme of popularising veneration of Edmund, as only by showing that the saint had a wide following could they claim he held such vast powers to intervene on the behalf of the abbey and East Anglia.
John Lydgate and the Poetry of Saints
St Edmund also received a transformation through John Lydgate, one of the most prolific poets of the fifteenth century. His account of Edmund was mostly affected by the visit of the young Henry VI to the abbey in Bury St Edmunds in 1433-34 and he had good reason to try and appease him. The king’s father, Henry V, had held a negative stance to the Benedictine monks at Bury, as he had tried to enforce a stricter interpretation of the Benedictine Rule throughout England. As part of the abbey’s attempt to rebuild relations with the monarchy, the young Henry VI was admitted into its confraternity- meaning he held the same rights as its monks. Therefore, the abbey commissioning John Lydgate to write an account of St Edmund was part of this programme of reconciliation.
Unexpectedly, Lydgate went beyond his original commission creating not only a narrative of Edmund, but also a counterpart one of St Fremund. The latter was a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon martyr and saint, possibly fictional, who Lydgate says was the nephew of Edmund. Jennifer Sisk suggests this was to celebrate the different virtues of these two figures, allowing Henry VI to identify the best parts of both saints.
The first part describes the characteristics of Edmund. Notably, he is crowned in Saxony mirroring Henry VI’s coronation as King of France. Later on, and in contrast to Abbo’s Passio, Edmund engages the Danes in battle for a day at Thetford, however he develops a guilty conscience. Lydgate uses this opportunity to present a list of reasons why it is wrong to engage in warfare, for example that killing pagans is uncharitable as it commits them to eternal damnation by preventing from having the opportunity to convert in the future. This results in Edmund’s martyrdom, however Lydgate’s portrayal of it is more nuanced than earlier accounts. Edmund’s death, while showing his commitment to God, is also shown to be futile for the inhabitants of East Anglia as they continue to suffer under the Danes in his absence.
By contrast, Fremund is shown to be much more concerned with the extension of the Christian faith, he even converts his parents. Furthermore, he is shown as someone who wishes to protect his kingdom from the Danes, unlike Edmund. In battle, he slaughters 40,000 Danes and does not develop a conscience like Edmund, stating that the successful engagement was a miracle. Therefore, John Lydgate’s commission is unique in that in tries to parallel the narrative of Edmund with that of another saint Fremund. This aids the ideology of the text, to repair relationships between the abbey at Bury St Edmunds and the crown, by presenting a model of kingship for the young Henry VI that is both flexible and instructional.
A Cult for the Modern Age?
While Lydgate’s commission for Henry VI shows how the narrative of Edmund’s martyrdom could be adapted to political circumstances, its current use in the twenty first century also shows how it can be adjusted to contemporary society. The tourism strategy of Bury St Edmunds still heavily relies on Edmund as part of its promotions to visitors. However, instead of being a religious icon, he is now secularised and made inclusive for modern tastes.
This ideological shift can be seen in the gardens of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, which is now one of the largest open spaces in the town. This area contains the ruins of the former abbey which was desecrated during the sixteenth century, however instead of being closed off or directed by monks, any visitors are free to walk among them during the day. An information board is also present to recount the legend of Edmund, but this written account is more accessible for the public and families, in contrast to earlier ones. The legend of St Edmund has also been sanitised for these audiences, for example the excessive violence and suffering found in the earlier narratives have been reduced to an acceptable level. The rest of the town also contains a number of other references to the saint, including, a roundabout to the north of the town centre which contains a statue depicting Edmund and the arrows that were apparently used to slay him, meanwhile in the Great Churchyard beside St Edmundsbury Cathedral there stands a statue of a youthful Edmund guarded by a wolf.
While trying to promote Bury St Edmunds to visitors is certainly a part of these sites, it is also possible to identify another reason for their existence. As shown throughout this article, Bury St Edmunds has always had a close connection of with its titular saint. With the creation of the Medieval cult, the saint began to form a part of local identity as the abbey promoted the idea he intervened on behalf of locals. The modern promotional strategy of Bury St Edmunds is therefore a continuation of this expression of regional identity, however it has adapted its form and ideology in order to be harmonious with modern society.
This survey of the ways in which the ‘afterlife’ of St Edmund was altered to fit different contexts and ideologies can help us understand that deceased historical figures often have a bigger ‘life’ in death. The little we know about the actual Edmund is far outweighed in significance by the tradition that developed after his death. Therefore, St Edmund can help to serve as a reminder that it is often difficult to separate a historical figure from the subsequent tradition, both popular and historiographic, that has developed around them.
Written by Liam Greenacre (Medieval Editor)
Abbo of Fleury, Passio Sancti Eadmundi accessed at http://torrencia.org/edmund/lattrans.html. Accessed 18/0/2018.
Aelfric, The Passion of St Edmund: King Martyr accessed at http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/aelfric/edmund.html 18/0/2018
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