Essex is not really a part of East Anglia, although at times in has been treated as such. This is not a recent development; as long ago as 880 AD Guthrum the Dane included Essex in his kingdom of East Anglia. The peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes that established this realm was an uneasy one at best; the English were unhappy that the Danes could call any part of England their own, and the Danes were on the look out to increase their territory. It was the Anglo-Saxons who eventually won out, and the first of the counties to be reabsorbed into English rule was Essex. Thus the county has had only one brief period when it was unequivocally part of East Anglia, but that does not mean it has not many similarities with the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk to the north. After those two counties Essex has more churches dedicated to St Edmund than any other. But do not forget Nottinghamshire, which is equally well endowed with St Edmund churches; why Nottinghamshire? I will suggest the answer in due course.
East Mersea Many of the churches dedicated to St Edmund around the counties of southern and eastern England can be identified and dated from known battles with the Danes. As the patron saint of the Anglo-Saxons it appears that he was invoked as protector of his people, and the local church was named or renamed in his honour. It makes sense therefore to begin our examination of the St Edmund dedications of Essex with one such church.
Mersea Island lies between the estuary of the river Colne and Salcombe Creek. In 895 AD the Danish army had just been on a raiding expedition across England before returning to the east coast. They then took to their boats and under their leader Hasten settled on Mersea Island. By then most of Essex had been retaken by the Anglo-Saxons and the status of the Danes on Mersea Island appears to have been that of an occupying power, rather than troops among friends as they would have been further north. Certainly some earthworks near the church are said to represent the remains of Danish fortifications.
We are fortunate to have the account of this Viking raid in the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and I have no hesitation in dating the church to this year. Although the church is not mentioned, one version of the Chronicle even mentions Saint Edmund for the only time within a few lines of recording this Danish raid. He had been mentioned once before at the time of his death, but that time he was referred to as king Edmund. There may have been a church in East Mersea before 895 but that was the year in which it gained its current name. The oldest part of the structure now dates from the late middle ages, but the name has survived from the year 895.
Abbess Roding About the history of Abbess Roding I must be more tentative. Just over one hundred years after the Danish attack on Mersea Island Sweyn, king of Denmark, landed in East Anglia (probably at Caistor by Norwich) and proceeded to devastate the country. The monks of Bury St Edmund’s were worried that the body of the saint would be taken and desecrated by the invaders. Although they were by this time nominally Christians the God-fearing residents were deeply suspicious of them. Rather than take any risks they decided to take the coffin to London for safe keeping.
I cannot produce any evidence that the route taken by the anxious procession took them through Abbess Roding. Yet if you draw a line from Bury St Edmunds to London it passes very near near Abbess Roding. It would probably have taken three days travel from St Edmund’ s Abbey to London. The second night could have been spent in the Rodings. What better memorial of the journey than to name the local church after its famou’s though temporary resident? There is a tradition that St Edmund’s body was kept overnight at St Andrew’s wooden church at Greensted-juxta-Ongar, just 6 miles south, on its return journey to Bury.
As I say, this can never be more than a theory. Another theory concerns the church in Tendring. This most northerly peninsular along the Essex coast is deeply penetrated by creeks and river inlets, just the sort of place that raiding Danes would seek out in their Viking longships. This could be another place once raided by the Danes.
Ingatestone This settlement gets its name from the glacial deposit stones found un the town, in an area where stone is normally absent. One of these stones stands near the church of St Edmund in Ingatestone. This is very reminiscent of St Edmund’s Stone, a similar glacial rock near the ruined chapel of St Edmund at Lyng in Norfolk. It is possible that both these stones possessed great numinous significance in the distant past made St Edmund (the national saint and saviour and thus one of the most important mystical figures) an obvious choice for naming this church.
Finally a promised you my thoughts on why there were so many St Edmund churches in Nottinghamshire. A couple of years before turning their attention to East Anglia the Danish fleet sailed down the river Trent to Nottingham, destroying churches on the way.
All the St Edmund churches in Nottinghamshire lie alongside the Trent and other local rivers. Although king Edmund was still very much alive at the time, by the time the local Mercians came to rebuild these churches he had been killed by the Danes in circumstances that immediately marked him out as the nation’s saint. Surely these churches were some of the ones the Danes destroyed, named after the man who stood up to the invader?
Anybody who wishes to read more about St Edmund should send for my booklet St Edmund’s Norfolk. This short booklet of about 20 pages should interest anyone with a curiosity about Anglo-Saxon history. It is available as a download by email me at the address below; ITS FREE. Alternatively you may have a hard copy,this is available on Ebay, where the price is donated to Themelthorpe church.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EASTERN ENGLAND