A few days before our visit to Bury Saint Edmund’s, a book turned up on our shelves that none of the family remembered: ‘Edmund, in search of England’s lost king’, by Francis Young.* It was a good preparation for our time there and made it more memorable. Young is both enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but he can tell us little for certain about the life of Saint Edmund. It is for his martyr’s death that he is remembered.
The Danes’ Great Heathen Army ravaged much of Eastern England for a second time in 869, capturing and assassinating King Edmund of East Anglia. Edmund’s armourer was an eyewitness to his binding to a tree and execution as an archery target, before being decapitated and his head tossed into the brambles, where a wolf cared for it till the search party arrived.
It seems that Danes as well as Anglo-Saxons recognised his sanctity, and indeed he was celebrated across England to Wessex, and beyond the North Sea to the rest of Europe. King Canute, Danish King of all England after he had had King Ethelred executed, established the great Abbey at Bury Saint Edmund’s, no doubt from very mixed motives. Future Kings patronised the Abbey, publicly deriving authority from their alliance with Edmund.
However all that came to an end when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 597. The fate of the Saint’s body is not known, despite searches in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Francis Young has his own theory of where they might have been hidden before the King’s representatives arrived.
Francis Young brings to life not only Edmund, but a host of characters, Danish, English and French; scholars, churchmen and royalty. He throws light on the evolution of English society over seven centuries before the dissolution and in the time since then. He argues that England needs its former patron saint now more than ever, with the reason for the United Kingdom under question post Brexit, and a new relationship with our continental neighbours yet to be established.
Read this book if you are a potential pilgrim to Bury, or else interested in almost forgotten English history. Young’s deep scholarship is presented in clear, flowing English. If you read it for the history, you may well find yourself looking up train times to Bury. You will not be disappointed when you go on pilgrimage.
*Edmund, in search of England’s lost king’, by Francis Young, London, I.B. Tauris, 2018.