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Saint Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia

Saint Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia

Feast: 20 November /3 December

The Latin Life of Saint Edmund (his name means “blessed protection”) was composed by St Abbo of Fleury in c.986. The Life of Abbo was several years later translated into old English by the learned Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham.

St Edmund, King of the East Angles (841-869), was wise and honourable, he always glorified God by his way of life. He was humble, devout and lived in true Christian faith, refusing to commit shameful sins and rejecting heresies. Benevolent in all his deeds, he was generous to the poor and like a father to widows, guiding his people to righteousness and restraining the violent. He was crowned and anointed in Bures, Suffolk, on the Nativity day, 855 and ruled peacefully for ten years.

However, in 865 a fleet of Danes invaded, pillaging and killing all over the country. Their leaders were Ingvar and Ubba. Their ships landed in the kingdom of Northumbria, devastated the country and killed the people. While Ubba stayed in Northumbria, Ingvar sent his ships eastwards. He rowed into East Anglia.

Ingvar marched swiftly through the land, slaughtering people, men, women and innocent children, tormenting defenseless Christians. He sent the King a threatening message, saying that he must bow down to him in homage if he cared for his life. The messenger went to King Edmund and announced Ingvar's message.

King Edmund, who was very brave, said to the messenger: “I would gladly be killed by you for my people, if God so ordained. Go and tell your lord that King Edmund will never bow down to Ingvar, the leader of the heathen, unless Ingvar first bows down in faith to Jesus Christ as his true God".

When Ingvar and his soldiers arrived, King Edmund was standing in his hall, thinking of the Saviour. He threw down his weapons, wishing to imitate the example of Christ Who refused to defend Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. The wicked men bound Edmund, insulted him and beat him with clubs. Then they tied  the faithful King to a tree. They whipped him for long time. Edmund continually called on Jesus Christ with true faith. The pagans were furious because of his faith with which he called on Christ to help him. They shot arrows at him until he was all covered with them.

When Ingvar saw the noble King refusing to deny Christ, he ordered him to be beheaded, which the pirates instantly did. They untied Edmund, who was calling to Christ, and struck his head off. His soul departed joyfully to Christ on 20 November, 869. The pirates returned to their ships, hiding St Edmund's head in the thick brambles, so it could not be properly buried.

After they had left, the country-folk who were still alive started to return to where their lord's body lay. Their hearts were much grieved. The faithful supposed that the wicked men  had hidden the head in the nearby woods.

And they all went looking in the forest, searching for his head among the brambles. Then a great miracle happened. By Divine Providence a wolf was sent to protect the head from other animals day and night. The people went on searching, calling out: “Where are you now, friend?” And the head answered them: “Here, here!” And finally they all found it. There lay the wolf guarding the head, holding the head between its paws. (Since that time painters have depicted on icons this scene). Remarkably, the oak tree to which St Edmund had been tied by Danes stood until 1848, and, when it fell, heads of two Danish arrows were found imbedded into it – thus the account of martyrdom of St Edmund was confirmed.

The country-people laid the head by the holy body and buried it as best they could. Soon they built a chapel over it. Time passed. Later, when the pillaging had stopped and peace was restored, the believers  met and, since many miracles had happened in the chapel where Edmund had been buried, they built a larger church worthy of the martyr.

Next it was  decided to raise the holy body from the grave and place it inside the church for veneration. A great miracle happened. The body was absolutely intact, as if the King were alive, with a clean body and the neck, which had been cut through, was whole. The wounds which the heathen had inflicted on his body with their arrows had also been healed by  the grace of God. So the people in the area and many other regions faithfully venerated the saint and were cured from many diseases.

        Veneration for St Edmund grew and spread all over England and many other European countries. He became a symbol of national unity. Not only did the death of the martyr save his people, but it also converted the Danes themselves to Christ – many of them were baptized and even minted commemorative coins of St Edmund. Soon the holy king was venerated as Patron-Saint of all England. Since c.1343  he has been  considered to be the second Patron-Saint of the country, after Greatmartyr  George the Victory-Bearer. For many centuries the holy relics of St Edmund were kept in the huge monastery in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. This important abbey was like a Lavra. In 1217 the relics were stolen by French soldiers and taken to Toulouse (where great many miracles were reported near his shrine) and returned to England only in 1901. Now they are kept in the private chapel of the Duke of Norfolk in Arundel in Sussex and are not accessible for veneration. Pilgrimages associated with St Edmund are held to this day: to Bury St Edmunds - to the ruins of the great Abbey of St Edmund, the St James’ Anglican Cathedral (a former abbey church) and the Roman Catholic church which preserves a small portion of his relics; to the village of Hoxne in Suffolk - the site of his martyrdom - where the ancient Church of Sts Peter and Paul and the memorial cross to St Edmund at the scene of his martyrdom stand; to the hamlet of Greensted-juxta-Ongar  in Essex, where to this day stands the Church of St Andrew, claiming to be the oldest surviving wooden church  in the world (dating to 9th-10th centuries) - the relics of the king lay there in 1013. Over 60 churches across England are dedicated to St Edmund today.

(c) Dmitry Lapa

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