Riddled with spears, clinging to his faith, King Edmund of East Anglia was beheaded on 20 November 869 at the orders of Ivar Ragnarsson ‘the Boneless.’ Or at least that is what the tenth-century Passio Sancti Edmundi, Regis et Martyris of Abbo of Fleury would have us believe (note that I am using the Old English redaction of the text by Ælfric of Eynsham as my source). Unfortunately, as great as story as this is, it is just that, as story. The martyrdom of Edmund is an excellent example of late Anglo-Saxon hagiography and, particularly, of the cults of Anglo-Saxon Royal saints I have written about previously (Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, Edward the Martyr). Yet there is something different about Edmund – Æthelberht, Kenelm, and Edward were all young kings, killed in their youth and innocence as a result of political machinations and their naivety. Though they do not suffer what is traditionally considered a martyr’s death – death in defence of their Christian faith – they are accorded a martyr’s death by virtue of their innocence. This ambiguity does not exist in Ælfric’s account of Edmund’s death. Edmund, according to Ælfric, tells Ivar’s messenger, who was sent to demand the capitulation of the East Anglian king: I will not defile my clean hands in your foul blood, because I follow Christ who sets us such an example; and I will happily be killed by you, if God ordains it so. Edmund intended to die a martyr’s death at the hands of the heathen vikings, and so he did.
That is, according to Ælfric. Writing a century after events. With an active cult already established around the king’s remains. You see, what Ælfric was doing was creating a narrative to match the cult and the traditions that had grown up around it, not record history. Our most contemporary account of the event comes from a rather bland entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
In this year  the raiding army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took up winter quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danes had the victory, and killed the king and conquered all the land.
By this account it does not appear that Edmund meekly accepted martyrdom at the hands of the heathen invaders, but rather that he gathered his armies and fought for his land. This makes sense. Ælfric’s account does not. Even were Edmund determined to a pacifist approach to the viking threat approaching his kingdom, Ælfric’s account implies that this then extends to all of Edmund’s thegns, that they were passively butchered in their beds, allowing the viking force to penetrate into the heart of the kingdom, leaving the king to his fate. It is hard to accept either that the entire body East Anglian thegns were caught unawares by the vikings, or accepted defeat with no attempt at resistance; the Chronicle account of a military defeat seems likely. The vikings conquered the East Anglia on the field of battle and, as part of this event, Edmund died. Perhaps he was indeed executed, but not before he and what armies he could gather in winter sought to defend the kingdom.
A king defeated in battle possibly does not sound the likeliest candidates for sainthood. Yet, though in detail his hagiography is suspect, the broad elements for a martyr’s death do exist – Edmund was a Christian king, defeated by a pagan war-leader. What the cult did, and what Ælfric in turn does in the Passio, is take the religious aspect to the narrative and make that the impetus of the story. In reality, this battle was a conflict of territorial conquest, military might, and practical politics, but it was remembered as a religious conflict. By writing of Edmund’s calm acceptance of fate, his unwillingness to take up arms, and his willingness to die for his faith, the Passio simply takes the standard tropes of martyrdom in hagiographical literature, and applies them to his death. Temporal defeat becomes spiritual victory.
Interestingly, had Edmund won, it seems unlikely he would have progressed to sainthood. Piety and military victory. Two attributes that make an Anglo-Saxon king’s legacy. But not a mix of virtues that make a saint. Let’s look at some examples:
Offa of Mercia (r. 757 – 796) established St. Alban’s Abbey, created an archbishopric at Lichfield, was known to the pope, and defeated both the Welsh and the West Saxons in battle creating a broad Mercian hegemony. While Offa’s is something of a mixed legacy, especially considering that most of our extant sources come from the quills of West Saxon scribes, his power is not doubted, and he is well remembered in the records of St. Albans.
Alfred of Wessex (r. 871 – 899) revived clerical learning, recruited learned foreign churchmen, made vernacular religious texts available, and turned the tide of viking invasion with his victory at Edington. Alfred does not have a mixed legacy, see the aforementioned West Saxon scribes. Alfred’s biography, penned by the Bishop Asser, and the Wessex oriented Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were commissioned by Alfred and ergo present him in the best light. It was a masterful bit of propaganda that resonates to this day – our main sources for the life of Alfred were vetted by Alfred himself.
Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons (r. 924 – 939) gifted relics and/or lands to Malmesbury Abbey, to the Church of St. Peter in York, to the Church of St. John in Beverley, to the Church of St. Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street (and so on), and defeated a coalition of Scottish, Brythonic, and Scandinavian forces at Brunanburh, cementing his political hegemony. Æthelstan has a sparse legacy, but generally positive. Certainly contemporary records marvel at his victory, and the later traditions of religious institutions such as Malmesbury (in particular) – oh, and tradition has it that he established a community dedicated to Edmund within the Benedictine community at Bury St Edmunds (then known as Beadoriceworth).
What little we know about Edmund outside of his hagiographies relies on the brief entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and some numismatic evidence. The nice thing about this is that we know he existed (unlike S. Kenelm). We also know that he lost to the viking armies plaguing England in the late ninth century. We do not know if he was a benefactor of the church. As such, though he was evidently a warrior-king, as fits the societal norms of ninth-century England, he does not fit the mould of the pious, victorious warrior-king represented by Offa, Alfred and Æthelstan. Just as he did not fit the mould of the innocent martyr represented by Æthelberht, Kenlem and Edward. Edmund sits between the two traditions – a warrior and a royal martyr. So let’s finally look at exactly how this warrior-martyr met his fate in the Passio.
King Edmund stood in his hall, mindful of the Saviour, and discarded his weapons: he wanted to imitate Christ’s example when he forbade Peter to struggle with weapons against the bloodthirsty Jews. Indeed then, the dishonourable men bound Edmund and mocked him shamefully and beat him with staffs. Then afterwards they led the faithful king to a sturdy tree and tied him to it with from chains, and again beat him with whips for a long time; and Edmund continually called out with true faith in Christ the Saviour between the blows; and then the heathens became insanely angry because of his faith, because he called out to Christ to support him. Then they shot at him with [spears], too, as if it were a game to them, until he was entirely covered with their missiles just like the bristles of a hedgehog, as Sebastian was. When [Ivar], the cruel viking, saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but continually called out with resolute faith, he ordered him to be beheaded, and the heathens did just that. While he called out to Christ even then, the heathens took the holy man to kill him and with one blow they struck off his head, and his happy soul journeyed to Christ.
It’s fair to say that Ælfric (and Abbo) is laying it on a bit thick. As I unpack this, I want you to bear two things in mind. Firstly, this is, by modern standards, almost entirely authorial invention. Secondly, each image within the account is a standard trope that has parallels either within hagiography, or within biblical narrative. Now, this is a clear martyr’s death. Edmund is calling to Christ throughout the ordeal, through the beating, through the whipping, through the hedgehogging, and even once he is beheaded his soul continues in happiness to Christ. Yet proclaiming faith in Christ is not enough to gain martyrdom, and it is critical that his death blow comes as a result of the fact that the heathens became insanely angry because of his faith. It is that Edmund proclaims his faith despite the death it will bring him that makes him a martyr. Yet, from the perspective of hagiographical narrative, a simple death is similarly rare. The greater the saint’s suffering the greater the glory that is bestowed, and Ælfric builds from mocking, to beating, to whipping, to the spearing, to beheading.
I am going to isolate the elements of that progression to look at how Ælfric builds Edmund as the idealised king and martyr. Firstly, the mocking, beating and whipping have clear parallels in Christ’s passion – after his sentence is passed by Pilate Christ is beaten, mocked, whipped and spat on by soldiers. After all, Edmund does cite that his has Christ’s example before him. Just as Christ was brutalised by the pagan Roman soldiers, so too was Edmund brutalised by the pagan viking soldiers. Ælfric has set Edmund alongside the highest of royal martyrs.
Secondly, the spears. There is an interesting cultural aspect to this part of the martyrdom. While we should not doubt that the execution here is a direct borrowing from accounts of S. Sebastian’s death, it is of note that Sebastian was executed with arrows, while Edmund was executed by spears (gafeluc). There is a strong tradition in medieval Scandinavian literature of disdain for the bow-and-arrow. The social expectation of the warrior culture represented by viking raiders is that death should be meted out in direct conflict, not from a safe distance. While it is not implausible that this party of vikings had bows on hand for hunting purposes, that they were so well equipped with the weapon as to form an impromptu firing squad would be unlikely, as would be the very use of this method of execution in the light of their cultural milieu. It is a clever adaptation of the trope by Ælfric. It’s just rather a shame that he undermines it by explicitly noting the parallels to Sebastian’s martyrdom.
Lastly, the beheading. This is a trope as old as Christianity and its first martyr – John the Baptist. S. Kenelm was also beheaded, as was S. Æthelberht – it is not an unusual way for a martyr to meet their end. And like Kenelm and Æthelberht before him, Edmund does not let the loss of his head get in the way of an active afterlife, and the posthumous miracles begin immediately. But we won’t get into that today.
So what can we conclude from this? Firstly, that Edmund himself likely died as a result of a battle with the vikings and that the famous narrative of the Passio is hagiographical invention designed to support the cult of a king who was, perhaps, rather unlikely to have become a saint. It borrows heavily from the standard tropes of saints’ lives narratives to provide Edmund’s sainthood with a suitable origin-story. Yet this does not mean the Passio has no cultural value. That Edmund’s cult did thrive so soon after his death implies that, for the people of ninth- and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, the viking invasions seemed not only to threaten social and political autonomy, but their religious beliefs. Edmund represented a heroic, if futile, stand against the military might of the invaders, but a potent spiritual sacrifice. As such, as the viking threat subsided, it was not only men like Alfred who had turned back the physical threat of invasion that were feted. It was clear that God had granted the Anglo-Saxons reprieve from the depredations, and it was in the apparent sacrifice of men like Edmund the Anglo-Saxon saw the explanation for such blessings.
- Feature image: Martyrdom of S. Edmund, BL Royal MS 2 B VI f. 10 r. Note the depiction of arrows as associated with S. Sebastian’s martyrdom, despite Ælfric’s assertion that spears were used.
- Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe9 (No. 1, 2000): 53 – 83.
- Susan J. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, Canbridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
- Elaine Treharne, ed., Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450: An Anthology, third edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.
- Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
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