This is chapter one, GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY, LEGEND, of my book on the historical geography of St Edmund.
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Here are some historians’ opinions of my recent writings on St Edmund:
“Your paper seems to me a brilliant one…Your argument, if I may say so, is completely convincing.” Henry Mayr-Harting, Emeritus Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Oxford University.
“I read with great interest your article…your account is full of St Edmund lore I was unaware of.” Professor Oliver Rackham, Cambridge University.
GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY, LEGEND
Saint Edmund’s name is generally connected with the county of Suffolk. Bury St Edmunds, the site of his shrine until the Reformation, is the main town of West Suffolk which is itself the district once known as the Liberty of St Edmund. It is an area rich in associations with the saint, but one thing that we may say with complete certainty is that he was not killed at Bury St Edmunds. His body was removed there some 50 years after his death. He was killed elsewhere. In recent years St Edmund was recognised as the Patron Saint of Suffolk. (What campaigners had really wanted was the restoration of him as the Patron Saint of England, but that is another story.) He is not thought of in relation to Norfolk, but this cannot always have been the case. There were at least 25 medieval churches or chapels dedicated to his name in Norfolk, while there is barely a quarter of that number in Suffolk. At some point in the middle ages St Edmund was definitely a Norfolk saint.
This is the story of St Edmund’s martyrdom as told by the geography of East Anglia. We must take due notice of the written history, but where the documents are contradictory, obscure or silent we will turn to the maps of Norfolk and Suffolk to seek clues. We will be looking at church dedications, ancient trackways, a standing stone and place-names. River systems will particularly interest us. We will even consider traditional legends of the landscape. These topographical details individually would not constitute firm evidence, but taken together a fascinating picture begins to emerge.
The death of King Edmund at the hands of the Vikings came at the moment in history when they were changing their war aims. When they first attacked East Anglia three or four years earlier, they had been content just to take things like horses and treasure. In 869 they had more ambitious plans. This date comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that great work of history of the English people, first written down in Old English within a generation of Edmund’s death. At the time the New Year was taken to be September, and because Edmund’s death occurred in November they wrote the date as 870. By modern chronology it was still the previous year. Nearly all the events related in this book took place in the autumn of 869. Here is what the Chronicle says about the Vikings and East Anglia’s king:
The raiding-army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory, and killed the king…
Perhaps you can see why many people think that Edmund was killed at Thetford or nearby. The Chronicler does not say it in so many words, but he gives us the clear impression that this was where it happened.
We have a very different account of Edmund’s death in a book written over one hundred years later. It deals not with the death of a king, but the passion (or martyrdom) of a saint. It is a long and detailed story, not a brief statement of facts. And it has a completely different version of the arrival of the Danes. Where the Chronicle says they rode across Lincolnshire from York, the Passion of St Edmund has the Vikings who killed Edmund coming from York by sea.
We know quite a lot about the person who wrote the Passion of St Edmund. He was a monk from the Loire valley in what is now France. He had been invited to England to be Abbot of Ramsey, and it was while he was living there that he was asked to write about St Edmund. He had heard the story of Edmund’s death from the Archbishop of Canterbury (St Dunstan), who had heard it directly from an old man who had been an eye witness to the events. The name of the monk was Abbo.
These are the two written sources that we shall rely on. A lot of other stories were written about St Edmund in later centuries, and although they may contain a grain of truth here and there, they are for the most part complete fabrications. These two sources I am going to use provide us with quite enough problems of truth and interpretation on their own. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is normally a reliable document, largely devoid of the supernatural accounts of events that were so popular in the middle ages. Abbo’s Passion is by contrast full of miracle stories that nobody would take seriously today. It seems as if the Chronicle has the better claim to represent the truth, being not only written much closer in time to the Danish attack on East Anglia, but also as a work of genuine history, not a saint’s tale full of preposterous happenings.
The only trouble with this approach is that wherever we can check the facts (not the miracle stories) in Abbo with the geographical record it is Abbo, not the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which appears to be telling the truth. I am not suggesting that the Chronicler is deliberately lying about events, but that the story he is telling us is partial and gives a wrong impression by being so brief. I fully accept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle when it says that Danes rode across Lincolnshire to Thetford. What I also believe however is something the Chronicler leaves out – that the Danes who killed Edmund came by longship, not on horseback.
Suppose that the Danish fleet had travelled down the English coast, burning villages along the shores and rivers as they went. (Several medieval writers say they burnt churches wherever they went.) They would first have approached Emneth along the Well Stream (the courses of the rivers have been much altered by drainage). They would next have come to Lynn (now Kings Lynn). If they pushed their way down the river Great Ouse they would have passed Downham Market. Just to the south the river Wissey would have given them access to Foulden. Bearing in mind their colleagues on horseback who were established at Thetford perhaps they would have made their way there along the Little Ouse. Continuing their way around the coast they would pass Hunstanton and the Burnhams on the North Norfolk coast. Caister is to the north of the mouth of the Yare – Yarmouth did not then exist – and into Suffolk is Kessingland (just south of Lowestoft). Also in Suffolk by the sea lies Southwold and beside a wide river estuary lies Bromeswell (by Woodbridge).
That completes your first nautical cruise round the rivers and coasts of East Anglia, but the names I have given you have not been picked at random. Each place I have mentioned had a St Edmund church except the site of the Danes’ winter quarters (Thetford) and that had two. There are a dozen churches (so far), which I suggest were built to replace churches destroyed by the Danes and dedicated in celebration of the miraculous doings of the East Anglian’s dead king. (What that miracle consisted of will be dealt with in due course.) This explanation may not account for every St Edmund church, but surely it would be an incredible coincidence if they all had some other explanation. Moreover, we have by no means finished with the extraordinary distribution of East Anglia’s St Edmund churches; indeed we have by no means reached the most interesting part.
Before returning to St Edmund’s churches however, I wish to examine some legends of battles against the Danes. These legends have been kept alive by word of mouth for many hundreds of years before eventually being written down. It would seem that they are just picturesque stories with no basis in fact, were it not for a strange identity in the minor place-names involved. Nor is it just any names we are talking about, but ones beginning with the ominous and emotive syllable; Blood. These places each have a legend attached; some mention St Edmund, but they all mention the Saxons and their enemies the Danes. Thus we have Bloody Field on the river Deben at Martlesham. Bloodmoor Hills may be found at Carlton Colville near Lowestoft, and Blood Hill in Somerton in the district known as Flegg. Note how all these places also lie near the coast where we have already suggested Danish raiders were at work. Bloody Field is near the church dedicated to St Edmund at Bromeswell. Carlton Colville is near the church at Kessingland and Somerton is not far from West Caister, the site of another (now ruinous) St Edmund church.
Example of the watery nature of many St Edmund sites in Norfolk
Nor are legends connected with the word Blood the only ones we should consider. There are two more legends that concern battles, from places that include the almost equally emotive word Dane. Thus have Danes Field (Glemsford Suffolk) and Danes Croft (Stowmarket), while at Barnby near Kessingland there is the legend of Edmund fording the river Waveney to avoid the Danes. We do not have to believe any of these legends. They do not have the undoubted historical certainty that the St Edmund churches unequivocally do. Although we cannot know the churches’ dates, we suspect it was 9th century.
I will now return as promised to those St Edmund churches of Norfolk. Caister church has already been mentioned, and Fritton church is in Suffolk, but both belong to the next dozen dedications to be considered. At first glance these two churches together with those at Thurne, Acle, Southwood, South Buringham, Markshall, Caistor, Norwich, Costessey, Taverham and Lyng (a medieval nunnery chapel dedicated to St Edmund) might appear to have nothing in common. However, just as Lynn, Downham Market, Foulden, Snarehill and Thetford are all linked by rivers flowing out to the sea in the Wash, so these
East Norfolk villages are all linked by rivers flowing out to the sea at Great Yarmouth. Apart from these Broadland churches bearing his name there are other references to St Edmund. For example the road now called Bullockshed Lane in Rockland St Mary on the Yare was in ancient times known as St Edmund’s Way. This is more than just another river system however. It is a river system leading to the place where Abbo says that Edmund was murdered. This place was Hellesdon. In the next chapter we will continue this story of St Edmund’s fate as told by Abbo, and confirmed by the maps.
MEDIEVAL DEDICATIONS TO ST EDMUND IN EAST ANGLIA
- DOWNHAM MARKET
- NORTH LYNN (Lost to the sea in the 17th.)
- BURNHAM WESTGATE (Abandoned c14th.)
- EGMERE (Abandoned by 1602.)
- SWANTON NOVERS
- LYNG (NUNNERY CHAPEL)
- NORWICH (FISHERGATE)
- PRIOR’S CHAPEL, NORWICH CATHEDRAL CLOSE [Abandoned C.16th?)
- SACKITE FRIARY (Abandoned c13th.)
- MARKSHALL (In ruins by 1695.)
- SOUTH BURLINGHAM
- SOUTHWOOD (Abandoned 1818.)
- THETFORD (Abandoned c15th.)
- SNAREHILL (Abandoned c16th.)
- HOXNE (c12th CHAPEL?)
- BURY ST EDMUNDS MONASTERY [C.10th]: BENEDICTINE ABBEY [C.11th].
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THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA