In the year 869 the king of East Anglia was killed by the invading Danes. We have this on good authority; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. That invaluable source for pre-Norman Conquest history tells us this much. Over the years layer upon layer of legend has been added to this basic story. I wish to strip away all this myth and return to the earliest accounts of Edmund’s end. Besides the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the other early source is the hagiography of Saint Edmund written by a monk about a hundred years after Edmund’s death. This is a much more detailed account than occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but it is also much more suspect. The manuscript was called the Passion of St Edmund and it was written in Latin by a monk called Abbo. Many of his assertions are clearly ridiculous, such as the story that the King’s severed head called out to his men as it lay on the ground. We must decide if anything the monk says can be believed. Why don’t we look at the topography of East Anglia to see if it can tell us anything which might confirm the truth of any part of Abbo’s tale? Let us start with his statement that Edmund was killed in Hellesdon, a settlement just west of Norwich. Surely such a momentous event as the death of a king and, more to the point, the creation of a major new saint would have left some mark on the landscape, however slight? Some field name perhaps, or an ancient church dedication. Unfortunately in Hellesdon itself, now a suburb of Norwich, there is no clue as to where St Edmund might have been killed.
Just over the parish boundary into the next village of Drayton however is a field called Bloodsdale. There are other fields in East Anglia with similar sounding names, called Blood-something. There are Bloody Field and Bloodmoor Hill in Suffolk, and Blood Hill in Norfolk. These places each have an ancient legend attached to them that a fierce battle took place there between Edmund and the Danes. In Drayton Bloodsdale also has a legend concerning a battle between the Saxons and the Danes, only there is no remaining reference to Edmund. But considering the closeness to Hellesdon we should not ignore the possibility that this was the place where Edmund was killed. Remember also that parish boundaries were not created until a hundred years later, and so settlement names were much more fluid before then. This part of Drayton could well have been called Hellesdon in 869.
This small piece of evidence alone would not be very convincing. After all, the village isn’t Helledon, in spite of my special pleading, and there is no reference to Edmund himself in the legend that goes with the field name. But if we cast our eyes a little wider, onto the map of Norfolk, the position is very different. Along the river Wensum three of the closest churches to Helledon are all dedicated to St Edmund. The Ordnance Survey maps that mark the positions of churches do not give the saints’ names that belong them, so we must do a little research. You can see the profusion of St Edmund churches along the rivers of East Norfolk in the map at the end of this post. This a huge number considering there are only about half a dozen St Edmund churches in the whole of Suffolk, and that is the second most of any county; yet within a short radius from Hellesdon there were six dedications to the saint in early medieval times. Twice that number existed in East Norfolk, and in the whole of the county there were over 24. Surely this tells us that Abbo was right in placing Edmund’s death in Hellesdon? Abbo had the truth on his side in this respect at least.
The fact that nearly all these churches were within yards of the water’s edge also seems to be telling us something. Abbo, besides informing us that the death of Edmund occurred in Helledon, tells us that the Danes who killed him arrived by boat. Abbo also tells us that in order to protect their boats the Danes never ventured far from the water. They had obviously gone up the rivers Yare and Wensum to Hellesdon. In this Abbo’s account varies from that in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which tells us the Danes arrived in East Anglia from Yorkshire on horseback; but although some Danes certainly came by land, those who killed the King were plainly seamen. Perhaps these places that preserve St Edmund’s name in church dedications were the sites of further bloodshed perpetrated by the Danes as the travelled up the river in their longships? Maybe, when the Danes had left the area, the Anglo-Saxon survivors raised these churches to St Edmund in defiance of their pagan enemies.
For those who wish to read more about St Edmund I have written a short booklet, St Edmund’s Norfolk. This is available on ebay, or alternatively for those who do not require a physical book I can send a pdf file of the work to anyone who lets me have their email address. Just mention St Edmund’s Norfolk in you message. If you search my blog you will find other pieces on St Edmund and the end of the East Anglian kingdom. This map shows the rivers between Hellesdon and the sea. The number of St Edmund churches on these waterways is remarkable.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA