In the 1500s Shakespear wrote in Henry V, “Cry God for Harry, for England and St George”, but 200 years before the bard England had a different patron saint, St Edmund. He has a remarkable story involving vikings, wolves and sticky buns!
St Edmund was the king of the East Angles in the late 800s, 700 years before Shakespear. He was king of a territory which was frequently raided by the dreaded viking hoards, who raped and pillaged when and where-ever they could. England had been a Christian country for 300 years and was a centre for monastries. However, the vikings liked nothing better but to set foot on blighty and to raid these sites stealing plunder and setting them alight.
As in every story there’s a villian, and in this story there’s two of them. According to Ælfric (fl. 990-1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk, they were Hingwar and Hubba, both associated by the devil and the leaders of a viking fleet. Wherever they landed they wasted the land and slew the people….. “Hingwar, like a wolf stalked over the land and slew the english people; men, women and innocent children and he shamefully tormented innocent Christians”.
He ruled in peace until 869, when his peace was shattered by a huge invasion by the Danish Vikings who had camped at Thetford. Led by Hingwar and Habba, this army occupied the whole of the North and East of England from Northumbria down. King Edmund’s army was fearful of facing this enormous barbarian army. Hingwar sent message to King Edmund, “bow down to me and do me homage rather than your God, if you care for your life”. Hingwar threatened Edmund, that if he didn’t surrender his wealth and his peoples to him, they would all be slain.
Edmund sought counsel with his bishop, who tried to convince him that surrendering would be best. But Edmund concluded, “This I desire and wish in my mind, that I should not be left alone after my dear thanes, who have been suddenly slain in their beds by these seamen, with their children and their wives. It has never been my custom to take to flight, but I would rather die, if I must, for my own land; and almighty God knows that I will never turn aside from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I die or live.”
After these words he turned to Hingwar’s messenger, “Say to your cruel lord that Edmund the king will never bow in life to Hingwar the heathen leader, unless he will first bow, in this land, to Jesus Christ with faith”. Hingwar came in anger, but King Edmund stood in his hall and threw away his weapons – imitating Christ. He was bound, insulted and beaten with clubs and scourged while tied to a tree.
It was said that all the time he was praising Jesus Christ which made the heathens madly angry and they threw javelins at him for amusement until he was covered like a porcupine’s bristles. When Hingwar saw that Edmund would not deny Christ, he lost interest in the amusement and commanded his men to behead him – which his men duly did with a single blow. Then the Vikings as a final attack and to deny King Edmund a full burial hid his head in thick brambles.
Once the vikings had left, Edmunds people came to where his decapitated body lay and they set about searching for his head, looking everywhere among the thorns and brambles which took them a number of days. The story goes on that they were assisted by a wolf, who was found guarding Edmund’s head from the other animals by day and night. When the search party got close, mournfully calling out, “Where are you now, friend?”, they heard a response, “Hic, hic, hic”. This is old english means, “Here, here, here!”. They found amongst the thickets the gray wolf with his two feet embracing the head, greedy and hungry but keeping it safe from the other animals.
In their astonishment, they carried the head to unite with his body and the wolf followed them until they reached the town. The king’s head was united with his body and buried.
After many years, when peace was restored to the the East Anglian people, Edmund was declared a Saint and his tomb a place of healings and miracles. In his honour they built a bigger church, a cathedral, but they had to exhume his body to move to new burial site. During this process they opened his casket and they stood in wonder, his body was clean and all his wounds were healed and his neck was re-united with his head – just with a silken thread about the neck to remind men of how he had been killed.
The date of St Edmund’s canonization is not known for certain although one account has it that it occurred in the reign of Athelstan between 924 and 939 AD. The shrine at his burial site became a huge draw for pilgrims. Churches dedicated to St Edmund exist throughout England and his feast day, November 20, has been widely celebrated over the intervening centuries. In Southwold in Suffolk, since ancient times they remember the saint by sticking sticky buns to the town’s schoolchildren. The bun is a symbolic reminder of the miraculous head beingt reunited with the body of the Saint. This tradition died out after the Second War but was revived in 1988 and continues to this day.