Since we pass through this world
merely as pilgrims
let us keep our sights fixed on the end of the road,
where our real home lies.
Let us strive to please God
who is everywhere present,
so that we can happily pass along the road
to the home of our heavenly Father.
At the end of a pilgrimage to Saint Edmundsbury is this processional cross. Around the base of the cross are the arrows with which King Edmund was martyred, The cross itself shines as the sun, drawing our eyes up to the crown of thorns – or is it a star? – that calls us to the end of the road that leads us past this little, earthly, devotional pilgrimage to that which Columban evokes: the road to the home of our heavenly Father.
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.
Sometimes a pause in our pilgrims’ or tourists’ way can be enlightening; sometimes a photograph yields a more than passing thought when looked at anew in the armchair. Here is a processional Cross in Saint Edmundsbury Cathedral which we did not follow in procession; however, a closer, leisurely look tells a story.
The arrows that killed Edmund, King of the English, surround the Cross on which Jesus, the King of the Jews, the King of Glory, was killed. The Cross itself seems alive, aflame, reminding us that Jesus made the one sacrifice on Calvary, burning away sin, leading us to heaven.
Edmund’s arrows are subordinate to the Cross. This does not belittle his martyr’s sacrifice, but puts it into the context of Saint Paul’s bold assertion in Colossians 1:24: in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
The Church itself is represented by the diocesan coat of arms, including the triple crown of Edmund’s kingdom of East Anglia. This Cross is not just a decorative object but also a statement of faith at both a local and universal level.
Edmund was the young King of East Anglia, the area in Eastern England that juts into the North Sea. It was then a watery landscape, with creeks and inlets and very few human settlements of any size. Edmund was killed by invading Viking pirates in November 869 and, like Olav, was immediately honoured as a martyr. When his followers recovered his body it was riddled with arrow wounds and the head was nowhere to be found until someone heard a voice calling from the brambles, where they found a wolf guarding the King’s head between its paws.
Edmund’s grave became a place of pilgrimage, encouraged by the Danish King of England, and also of Denmark and Norway, Canute (r 1018-1035). He himself was an invader, responsible for the deaths of King Ethelred the Unready and many warriors as well as Saint Olav in Norway. A repentant Canute established Edmund’s shrine in the Benedictine Abbey of Bury Saint Edmund’s 900 years ago in 1022. It was further enhanced after 1066 by the Norman kings, themselves Viking invaders, responsible for the deaths of King Harold, many warriors and countless civilians. See here an account of some of the ecumenical Millennial celebrations in May. Events continue during 2022: www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/abbey-1000
The Benedictine Abbey of Saint Edmund, patronised by English monarchs for centuries, was destroyed during the Reformation, though considerable ruins remain. The bones of King Edmund are reported to have been sealed in an iron chest and hidden, underground or under water. So far no archaeological survey has turned them up, but within the precincts of the former Abbey the pilgrim church of Saint James was chosen as the Cathedral for the Anglican diocese serving Suffolk: Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
We did not get as far as the Catholic church of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr, but it is old for an English Catholic church, dating from 1791 for the present building, although the original, hidden chapel still stands hidden behind the presbytery, as it had to be in 1760, thirty years before Penal Laws against Catholics were abolished. It must have been a brave community that came together to worship illegally.
Pilgrimage was a popular devotion in England before the Reformation, that tornado which changed the face of Canterbury and many other towns, including Bury Saint Edmund’s in Suffolk. People would travel, often with some hardship, to celebrate a saint at his or her home, to pray at the shrine, and to buy a souvenir to show to family and friends. Earlier this year we brought home some Saint Edmund’s Russet apples from Saint Edmundsbury Market as our pilgrimage souvenir.
After our visit to Norway yesterday, join us in a virtual pilgrimage to Bury, beginning, as is right, with a passage from the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephiruseek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne, … Thanne longen folk to go on on pilgrimages.
When in April the sweet showers fall That pierce March’s drought to the root and all And bathed every vein in liquor that has power To generate therein and sire the flower; When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath, Filled again, in every holt and heath, The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run, … Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims set out to Canterbury in April, probably just after Easter but Mrs T and I left that city just after Christmas, travelling to Bury Saint Edmund’s.
Getting around England is so much easier today than in Chaucer’s time: a train to London, a short walk, and onto another. That said, we arrived out of season, as the restrictions on travel and gatherings were easing. We found ourselves warmly welcomed in another pilgrimage city. The Cathedral’s choirs were just finding their voices again. It was good to be there, but we did not see everything we had in mind. Another time, maybe?
One blessing of a short time away is to shake off the daily routines that keep us from spending time with each other. Even if you can only manage a walk for a few hours with your spouse or friends, create the opportunity and enjoy your time together. By the time you read this it will be summer holidays: plan now for quality time at half-term or Christmas!
Tomorrow we will look at the story of Saint Edmund, king and martyr, which turned the little town into a major pilgrims’ destination.