Folklore Friday: The story of St Edmund

The life of a saint is called a hagiography, and they are wonderful tapestries made up of myth, fairytale, hearsay and politics, with a thin gold thread of truth running through the middle. If you try to pick at the thread to pull it out and study it, the whole thing just unravels and falls apart: so it’s better to take in the story, and every now and then, the gold thread shines through the tapestry. But then, this goes for all folktales; so what better way to launch ‘Folklore Fridays’ on St Edmund’s day than to tell the tale of St Edmund?

The story begins, as so many good folktales do, with a king and a queen who lacked only one thing: a child. King Offa was praying for a son and heir when he heard God calling him to go to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Taking this to mean that he would receive a miraculous cure there, he set off at once, stopping only to visit friends in Saxony on the way. He enjoyed their company, and meeting their bright, talented twelve-year-old son for the first time, but he wanted to hurry to his destination. In Jerusalem he prayed at many holy sites before returning home and going in great hope to his doctors. Sadly, instead of a miraculous cure, they told him that his disease had progressed and would now surely kill him.

King Offa realised that his pilgrimage had been God’s way of giving him a son after all: not by birth, but by adoption. He sent a message to his friends in Saxony and they sent their son, Edmund, to be crowned King of Anglia on Christmas day, by which time he was 14 years old.

Edmund was a well-loved king who ruled with great wisdom and piety for one so young. His kingdom was so peaceful that he was able to spend a whole year just learning the entire psalter off by heart. One passage from Ecclesiasticus stood out to him, and he took it as his motto: ‘Have they made you a prince? Be not lifted up: be among them as one of them.’ He took this very seriously, regularly appearing to hear pleas, give alms and care for the poorest in his kingdom. So when a Danish prince was washed ashore from a shipwreck, Edmund was ready to extend the same welcome and generosity, even making Prince Lothbroc a part of his court.

This made the other courtiers jealous. One in particular, a chief huntsman named Bern, thought it was unacceptable to give this potentially untrustworthy foreigner a place of high rank. One day, Bern took Lothbroc out hunting and murdered him in the forest.

Edmund was heartbroken and furious in equal measure. To show the huntsman what Lothbroc’s experience must have been like, he ordered that Bern should be placed in a boat with neither oars nor provisions and set adrift to be at the mercy of the sea and of strangers.

Bern managed to wash up on just the shore that Lothbroc had left, where he met Lothbroc’s brothers, Hubba and Hinguar, who wanted to know what had become of Lothbroc. To save himself, Bern confessed that their brother had been murdered – but named Edmund as the murderer.

At that point, most of Denmark got into boats and rowed across to Anglia with their teeth gnashing. The Viking invasion was huge and catastrophic. Edmund was in grave danger, but remembering to ‘be among them as one of them’, he chose to fight with his people instead of hiding or escaping.

Once, besieged in Framlingham castle, Edmund came up with a clever ruse. Both armies, inside and outside the castle, were starving. Edmund took his last ox and his last bale of wheat, fed the latter to the former, and sent the poor creature out of the gate. The ravenous Danes fell on it and tore it apart, but discovering wheat still in its stomach, they decided that the Angles must have much more food to spare than they did, so they packed up and left.

Small battles were won like this, but Edmund was losing the war. Hubba and Hinguar worked out where he was, and cornered him – where exactly is highly contentious, but the version I’ll tell you is that it was in Hoxne. Edmund hid underneath Goldbrook bridge, and when Hubba and Hinguar ran over the top, he thought he was safe. Unfortunately, a newlywed couple was standing on the bridge, staring romantically into the water below.

‘What a beautiful night, my love! See how the moon glints gold on the water!’

Hearing this, Hubba turned and came back to the bridge to witness the golden gleam of the moon on Edmund’s spurs. As they dragged him out from under the bridge, Edmund lost his cool momentarily and cursed any newlywed couple to cross the bridge from then on. There are still some that won’t risk it.

Hubba and Hinguar dragged King Edmund into the woods and tied him to a tree. Regaining his composure, he remembered his motto once again.

‘Do not make my people suffer any more. Kill me now, but only if I die in the place of all of them so that the war ceases. Jesus, help me to die for my people like you did!’

His mention of Jesus, and acceptance of his death as an honourable martyrdom, enraged the pagan brothers. Shouting at him to renounce his faith, they shot Edmund with every single arrow in their quivers. Then, as he still refused and continued to pray, they beheaded him and threw the head into the woods.

Later on, Edmund’s followers came to find and bury his body. They found his body easily enough – it was still tied to the tree – but what about the head? In their grief, they called out ‘Where are you, our friend and king?’ And an eerie, howling voice replied, ‘Here! Here! Here!’

They followed the noise for about a mile, and there they found Headmund (as my daughter insists on calling him at this point in the story) being guarded by a wolf. The creature sat, a paw on either side of the king’s head, howling with a very human voice: ‘Here! Here! Here!’

That is, of course, not the end of Edmund’s hagiography. Hagiographies tend to be like icebergs, with the saint’s life being the tip and the events after their death making up the most important part. But it’s a good place to stop. Perhaps I can cover part two on the next Folklore Friday?

2 thoughts on “Folklore Friday: The story of St Edmund

  1. Lovely tale Amy. Look forward to Part Two. You once told me, I think, that Bury St Edmunds is not actually the burial place of St Edmund? It’s Bury – St Edmund’s?

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    1. Bury means city, so yes, Bury St Edmund’s means the city of St Edmund, rather than the place where St Edmund is buried. But he MIGHT be buried there (see part 2 when it comes…!)

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