St Edmund's Day - King, Martyr and Saint
The past often feels very close to the surface here in Bury St Edmunds. An historic market town in the middle of rural Suffolk, the lines and scars of its colourful history are very visible on the town’s skin, as it were. The ruins of its once-great abbey (one of the largest in Europe when it was built) lie scatted and crumbling in the ancient Abbey Gardens, the market from which the town grew is still here every Wednesday and Saturday, and our roads are named after the medieval gates that once passed through them.
Yet the town’s most visible sign of its medieval heritage is obvious even without visiting: its name. Bury St Edmunds (from St Edmund’s Bury, now St Edmundsbury) is named after Edmund, King of the East Angles and the original patron saint of England.
This Monday, 20 November, marks St Edmund’s Day, a day of celebration in Bury St Edmunds, and throughout the Christian world.
Who was Edmund?
Very little is known about Edmund’s early life, though it is generally agreed that he was born in 841, and was crowned King of the East Angles (from which East Anglia takes its name) in around 855, possibly on Christmas Day.
The most written-about aspect of Edmund’s life has been his martyrdom at the hands of the ‘Great Heathen Army’, a series of raids by Scandinavian invaders (Vikings) that took place between 865 and 878. When King Edmund was defeated in battle around 869, he was apparently given a choice between renouncing his Christian faith and death: Edmund chose martyrdom, and was tied to a tree, shot with arrows, and then decapitated.
The legend of Edmund, which developed after his death, tells how his head was thrown into a wood, and was guarded by a wolf until Edmund’s followers were able to find it and reunite it with his body.
This legend is still part of the fabric of Bury St Edmunds: many of the images – arrows, a crown, a wolf – can be seen on anything from the town’s buildings and monuments, to roundabouts and sports club logos. Statues of – or about – St Edmund can be found throughout the town, and the legend has inspired art and craft throughout the centuries.
St Edmund continues to have an enduring appeal today, and there are continued efforts to have him reinstated as our country’s patron saint. St George, a saint from the eastern Mediterranean, was a Roman soldier, and therefore often on the side of the aggressor. St Edmund, by comparison, was known for his pacifism, his loyalty and his steadfastness; these are messages that seem more important today than ever.
We mark St Edmunds Day in our own quiet way. We listen to old recording of a Choral Evensong for the Feast of St Edmund – recorded at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in 1994 – eat something somewhat extravagant (it is a feast, after all) and raise a small toast to Edmund, King, Martyr and Saint.