Edmund the Martyr

Edmund the Martyr (circa 840November 20, 870) was a King of East Anglia. He succeeded to the East Anglian throne in 855, while still a boy.

According to Abbo of Fleury, followed by Florence of Worcester, he came "ex antiquorum Saxonum prosapia," which apparently means that he was of foreign origin and that he belonged to the Old Saxons of the continent. This very doubtful tradition expanded later into a fuller legend which spoke of his Old Saxon parentage, his birth at Nuremberg, his nomination as successor to Offa, king of East Anglia, and his landing at Hunstanton to claim his kingdom. His coronation took place in the next year at "Burna" (probably Bures St Mary, Suffolk), which then functioned as the royal capital.

Of the life of St Edmund during the next fourteen years we know nothing. In the year 870 the Danes, who had wintered at York, marched through Mercia into East Anglia and took up their quarters at Thetford. According to the Life of King Alfred (written by Bishop Asser in c.895) Edmund engaged them fiercely in battle, but the Danes under their leaders Ubba and Ivar the Boneless had the victory, killed King Edmund, and remained in possession of the battlefield. In Abbo of Fleury's (945-1004) alternative and later version of events Edmund refused to meet them in battle himself, preferring to die a martyrs death:

"When Hingwar (Ivar) came, Edmund the king stood within his hall, mindfull of the Saviour, and threw away his weapons, desiring to imitate Christ, who forbade Peter to fight with weapons against the...Jews. Then those wicked men bound Edmund and shamefully insulted him and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree and tied him to it with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and among the blows he was always calling the true faith of Jesus Christ. Then the heathen were madly angry because of his faith, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement, until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles, even as Sebastian was. When Hingwar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not deny Christ, but with steadfast faith ever called upon Him, he commanded men to behead him, and the heathen did so. For while he was yet calling upon Christ, the heathen drew away the saint to slay him, and struck off his head with a single blow, and his soul departed joyfully to Christ. There was a certain man at hand, whom God was hiding from the heathen, who heard all this and told it afterward just as we tell it here."

We do not know which account is true as to whether the conquerors slew the king on the actual field of battle or in a later martyrdom episode, but the widely current version of the story, which makes him fall a martyr to Danish arrows when he had refused to renounce his faith or hold his kingdom as a vassal from heathen overlords, may very probably have some basis in truth. The story dates from very early times, and according to Abbo of Fleury (945-1004), St Edmund's earliest biographer, it came to him (Abbo) via Dunstan, who heard it from the lips of Edmund's own standard-bearer. This is chronologically just possible, but that is all.

The battle took place at Hoxne, some 20 miles south-east of Thetford, and the king's body was ultimately interred at Beadoriceworth, the modern Bury St Edmunds. The shrine of Edmund soon became one of the most famous in England and the reputation of the saint became Europe-wide. The date of his canonization is unknown, but churches dedicated to his memory are found all over England.

See Asser's Life of Alfred, ed. W.H. Stevenson; Annals of St Neots; Saxon Chronicle; Memorials of St Edmund's Abbey (Rolls Series), including the Passio Sancti Edmundi of Abbo of Fleury; and the Corolla Sancti Eadmundi, edited by Lord Francis Hervey (1907).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

A realistic and possible account of Edmund's martyrdom is given in Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction novel, The Last Kingdom.


  • Edmund of East Anglia, a website presented by The Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies and Manuscript Research, The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University.
  • La Passiun de Seint Edmund. Ed. by Judith Grant. (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1978) ISBN 090547404X
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