The village of Lyng lies on the river Wensum in central Norfolk. It may seem a rather insignificant place just off the A1067 road to Fakenham, but in my opinion it has a very important place in history.
You will all have heard of St Edmund, king of East Anglia in the 9th century, and you will know of Bury St Edmunds where the saint was interred some years after his death. You might think that this Suffolk town had the most ancient institutions connected with this saint, but you would be wrong. That honour belongs to the small Norfolk village of Lyng.
Until the Reformation, when nearly all the guilds in the country were abolished, it possessed a guild dedicated to St Edmund. A guild had a religious setting, but was essentially a confraternity of merchants in a town or village, established to restrict business to its members. St Edmund’s saint’s day is the 20th November, and from time immemorial until the late nineteenth century Lyng had an annual fair on that day. It had a nunnery and chapel dedicated to St Edmund, the ruins of which still stand abandoned and unloved in a field near the river, and some people might suggest that this was the reason for these institutions. They are obviously all connected, and I am sure (for a reason I shall reveal in due course) that the chapel came first, but this still does not tell us why there was chapel here at all. Nor does it tell us why St Edmund was regarded as important enough to merit both a guild and a fair in Lyng. There are other places around the county which had abbeys and priories, but they did not, as far as we are aware, have guilds or fairs dedicated to the saint concerned.
There are more of these facts to come, but we must turn to old maps of the village to find them. I have told you before how important Ordnance Survey maps can be to the local historian, but here we must turn to other more obscure maps. In 1939 a sketch map of the area near the chapel appeared in the local paper the Eastern Daily Press. In it a large glacial erratic stone, a few hundred yards from the ecclesiastical ruin, is named St Edmund’s Stone. In a more ancient document, a tithe map of the village prodded a century before, the wood on the steep hill looking down on the stone is called King’s Grove. In the circumstances I think it highly likely that the king in question is a reference to King Edmund.
Whatever can have produced all these connections to St Edmund in Lyng? To answer this conundrum I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described. In it he places the attack by the invading Danes that led to the king’s martyrdom a few miles downstream on the river Wensum at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historians. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk. If they had they might know about Lyng too.
The monk goes on to say that the king was buried a few miles away, and a humbled chapel was erected over his tomb. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at a place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and nobody knows where.
Royal Saints and Martyrs were quite common in Anglo-Saxon times, and their earthly remains were always looked after by nuns. In Edmund’s case the only guardian of his body we are told of by the French monk was a woman, Olwen by name. Even when the Domesday Book was written in 1086 there were many nuns looking after St Edmund at Bury, although by then, under the Normans, monks had been introduced as well.
You may have already guessed what I am about to say; that St Edmund was first buried at Lyng. So many facts seem to fit this scenario. It is only a fe miles from Hellesdon where he is said to have lost his life. It is on the same river and rivers were then the principal form of transport. The humble chapel still exists, though obviously not in its original form. It is remarkable that anything remains after more than 1000 years, but we are incredibly fortunate that it does -just. Remember too that it was the chapel of a nunnery, and nuns looked after the dead king. The Stone that stands near the chapel was called the St Edmund Stone, and King’s Grove would have stood over his body. St Edmund’s Guild and St Edmund’s Fair served to keep his memory alive after his body was removed, but eventually the villagers forgot their connection with East Anglia’s famous king. Only these hint of past glory remained, awaiting rediscovery in the 21st century.
I could write at much greater length on the history of Lyng and its connections with the saint; I could tell you of the many miracles that were said to have been done there by Saint Edmund in the middle ages. More will certainly be discovered, if not by me then by others. But I have given you enough to think about for now.
For those interested in learning more about this subject I have written a short book, St Edmund’s Norfolk, which is available on Ebay. Alternatively a pdf copy is available by emailing me.