As told by the monk Ælfric
Click here to hear the story of St Edmund in Old English as told by the monk Ælfric. Hear how close this comes to Modern English. Whole phrases are spoken exactly as they would be today. You will hear the Old English words spoken, but the Modern English text appears on-screen.
Ælfric wrote the story of St Edmund’s death just over a hundred years after it happened. He was the first to write this event down in English, although the French monk Abbo wrote the story in Latin shortly before. Ælfric acknowledged his debt to Abbo but there are several facts in the English story that do not appear in the Latin version, so it is obvious that Ælfric had other sources available to him; in other words his story was not just a slavish copy of Abbo.
It is sometimes said that we know hardly anything about St Edmund. If that means we are ignorant of the life of the king before he was killed, that may well be true, but about his death and the subsequent elevation of his memory to sainthood we are well-informed. There are those who say that the whole account of his death as recored by Ælfric and Abbo was fabricated, and bears no relation to the truth, but certain topographical features of East Anglia suggest that it is in part at least true. These connections have only recently been recognised, and so they could not have been tampered with long ago to colour the story of the saint. Anyone who wishes to learn more about the geographical context to this history of this period in England should read my booklet (details below).
I now wish to tell you about the parts of Ælfric’s story that are unique to him and do not appear in Abbo’s story. The first significant departure from the account of the French monk comes early on; according to Abbo the Vikings came straight to East Anglia from Denmark, but Ælfric records that the Danes came there from Yorkshire (then part of the kingdom of Northumbria). In this he was correct, as we learn from the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However there are also significant discrepancies between the Chronicle and Ælfric’s account. The ASC may have been Ælfric’s source for the Danes earlier depredations in York, but in other ways he departs from its account. The method their travel was horseback according to the Chronicle, while Ælfric makes it very clear they came by sea.
A further point made by Ælfric is that, as soon as they had killed the king, the Danes returned to their ships. This fact does not come from Abbo who just says the Danes left to pursue their activities elsewhere. Abbo mentions their ships, but only on their arrival, not upon their departure. The story of their leaving by boat is unique to Ælfric. The importance of this statement is that it rules out anywhere not near a waterway as the place for Edmund’s death. Both Hoxne and Thetford (two suggested sites for his martyrdom) are served by rivers, although both are a fair distance upstream and might have been too shallow for the Danish longships to navigate. The recently popular Bradfield St Clare near Bury St Edmunds is nowhere near a navigable waterway.
However, among the suggested sites for Edmund’s death the village of Helledon in Norfolk is on the other hand on a river that was quite deep enough and was also wide enough for Danish boats (see my picture below). The voyage upstream was not impeded by watermills in 869. Moreover it has the major topographical advantage of being close to the field known as Bloodsdale with its traditional association with Danish bloodshed. Finally Hellesdon is the place where Abbo stated that Edmund was killed; it all seems so obvious to me (and a few others) that I do not know why there is any doubt about the matter.
Yet only this summer (July 2015) Bradfield St Clare was wheeled out again as the place where Edmund was killed, in an article in the Eastern Daily Press. This article concerned a hoard of Edmund pennies found near Wymondham in Norfolk. The journalist suggested these coins might have been buried by a local Anglo-Saxon who was killed in the conflagration that also claimed the life of Edmund the king. The hoard was never reclaimed. I have no objection to this hypothesis, in fact I share his views; but when he goes on to claim this gives weight to a Suffolk village as the place of Edmund’s martyrdom I part company with him. Wymonham is only ten miles from Hellesdon, while it is 40 miles from Bradfield St Clare. By distance alone this would suggest Hellesdon is the more likely site.
If you do download this please circulate it as widely as possible; I am always pleased to think my ideas are getting an audience. I also have a popular Powerpoint lecture on St Edmund’s Norfolk which I would be pleased to deliver anywhere in East Anglia. Further afield is a possibly; just email me to discuss this if you have a venue in mind.
I have written several blogs on Edmund and related subjects which you may access by clicking the titles below:
St Edmund’s Norfolk, Viking Coins, St Edmund and the Wolf, Viking Names?, Caistor St Edmund, Whissonsett, The End of the Kingdom of EA, St Endmund King and Martyr, Caistor (3), Markshall Church, The Vikings, South Creake, Lyng.