In my last post on this subject I said that I might return to the St Edmund coinage of East Anglia. This I will now do, only I will introduce two other Viking coins bearing the names of saints, the St Peter coinage of York, and the St Martin coinage of Lincoln. At first glance these three saints seem very different but in fact they have a striking similarity that is highly relevant to the Viking people.
First I will examine the St Edmund coins. King Edmund was the king of East Anglia from about 845 until his death at the hands of the Viking invaders in AD 869. The first we hear of him as a saint is on the coins produced by the Vikings in East Anglia in the last years of the ninth century. The coins were not produced by the very same individuals who had killed him but by the next generation, even perhaps by their sons. The important thing to realise about St Edmund is the extremely warlike reputation that he had. Since the hagiographers began to paint him as a holy man going meekly to his death we have to a great extent lost this view of St Edmund, but to the ordinary men and women of the middle ages he was above all a warrior. It was only to the churchmen that he was the man who laid aside his arms, but they wrote all the books, so our view is slanted.
Let me give you two illustrations of this warlike reputation; the first from the late middle ages. It is from the poem written in Middle English by the East Anglian poet John Lydgate. He invokes St Edmund to come to the aid of the English soldiers in the Battle of Agincourt. Now I want you to turn to another great battle of 1066, not Hastings but Stamford Bridge. It was the last attempt of the Vikings to impose themselves on the Anglo-Saxons. It was the Anglo-Saxons’ last victory, shortly before the great defeat by William the Conqueror. The interesting thing is that this great battle was celebrated by medieval chapel at Stamford Bridge, on the bridge itself. And who was the chapel dedicated to? That great warrior St Edmund.
There were no swords on the St Edmund coins; there didn’t need to be. Everybody who heard his name would immediately associate it with battle. When, centuries later Jocelin of Brakelond records the opening of St Edmund’s tomb he notes two interesting features. The casket of the saint is unmistakably of a Viking form; and prominent above it is sword. Jocelin assumes it is the sword of St Michael but I am not so sure. Could it not be a representation of the warrior-saint’s very own sword? Especially as the coffin he lies in is one of the similarly warlike Vikings.
I have ranged over the whole of the middle ages in establishing the violent reputation of East Anglia’s prime saint. I will now return to the other two saints of the Viking coins. First I will deal with St Peter, and it is not hard to associate a sword with him; many St Peter coins include a representation of a sword. It is of course the sword he drew to defend Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. The fact the Jesus rebuked Peter for using it is conveniently forgotten. St Martin, like St Edmund does not have a weapon on his coins, but the fact that he began his career as a Roman legionary was well known. Saints with a warlike past are rather rare but the Vikings hit on three with unerring aim. To this I would add the apparently innocuous coin which says mirabillia fecit on its face- innocuous until you read on it the psalm, as I outlined in my last post on Viking coins. And then there are the coins which just carry pictures of weapons. A truly warlike people.
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