Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in 871. He was immediately thrown into the continuing war with the Danes; they were fresh from their victory over the King of East Anglia, which had involved the death of Edmund. Previously the Danes had successfully defeated the Northumbrians at York, so they appeared invincible. King Edmund had been killed by the invading Danes eighteen months before Alfred came to the throne, when his brother was killed in battle with the Danes.
There is no written record of any Anglo-Saxon kings who might have succeeded Edmund in East Anglia, and for many centuries it was assumed that none did, but the names of two kings are now known from the discovery of coins that they issued. The names of these two East Anglian rulers were Oswald and Æthelred. For simplicity’s sake I will restrict my comments to King Æthelred, and from his coinage we can state a few basic facts. One coin from his reign bears the name of the moneyer (i.e. coin-issuer) Sigered, who had also acted in the same capacity for Edmund. The design is also identical with the coinage that had been issued by Edmund. The coins issued a few years later by the Danes were very different; from this information we can assert that there was continuity between the reigns of Edmund and Æthelred, and the change to Danish rule came after 880.
We know that these coins circulated outside East Anglia, as one example was found in Kent, which by then was part of Wessex. This means that it is impossible that the Wessex court was unaware of the King Æthelred’s existence; in spite of this, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (that work of Wessex propaganda) gives the clear impression that Edmund was the last English king of East Anglia, although (perhaps significantly) they did not explicitly say so. Were the authors of the Chronicle trying to hide something? And if so what?
Knowledge was something that Alfred prized above almost everything else. He was an avid collector of travellers’ tales, and we have the details of what he heard about the far north of Norway, and of Ireland too. If he was that interested in distant lands, how could he not have known the king of an adjacent realm like East Anglia? Surely the Wessex court was not only very interested in what was happening there, but they would also have been very well informed. If the writers of the Chronicle were unforthcoming about the king, it was not because of a lack of knowledge. Why was the Wessex establishment so keen to give the impression to posterity that East Anglia had already fallen under Danish rule in 869, with the death of Edmund?
Between the departure of the Danish army from East Anglia late in the year 870, and the return of this army as settlers in 880, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has nothing to say about what was happening in East Anglia. However, we can be certain that its future was high up on the list of concerns discussed at Wednore, after Alfred’s victory over the Danish army. Alfred had emerged from his low point in hiding at Athelney with a radical solution to the problem posed by the Danes in Wessex. After his defeat of Guthrum’s army Alfred was able to put his plan into effect. Despite his victory, he knew that the best way to protect Wessex from future Danish attacks was to give them somewhere else; if they were occupied in setting up another kingdom, they would have less time to bother Alfred. Northumbria they had already taken over, and Alfred had plans to annex the kingdom of Mercia; that left the kingdom of East Anglia as the place to give Guthrum, and he was duly dispatched thither in 880.
For an English king to impose a Danish monarch on an Anglo-Saxon nation was certainly a betrayal, but if it protected Wessex then Alfred could live with that. What he could not contemplate was to impose a heathen king on a Christian people. That is why it was so important for him to have Guthrum baptised, and anointed as a Christian king. This was achieved in 878, but then there was a long delay.
In 878 -880, with the decision to establish the Danes in East Anglia, we have now reached a period of inactivity on the part of Guthrum and his army. Between his baptism and his eventual arrival in East Anglia there was a period of about 18 months. This posed a problem of provisioning; as the Danish army could no longer forage for itself as predators on the people of Wessex they would have to be provided with food. That difficulty however paled into insignificance compared to that task of keeping so many fit young warriors idle for so long. Eventually they became too much for the people of Wessex to deal with, and they were moved across the border to Cirencester in Mercia. This was not a wholly satisfactory solution, for the advantage of putting a reasonable distance between them and the kingdom of Wessex was offset by the difficulty of supervising and controlling them. The question that must be asked is ‘why were these hungry and impatient Danes not sent straight to East Anglia’? The answer must lie in East Anglia itself.
It is sometimes stated that in 880 Guthrum returned to East Anglia, but this implies he had been there before. However, it is clear from reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he had never before been to East Anglia. He had not arrived in England until after the Danes had left the despoiled lands of Norfolk and Suffolk for Wessex. The nearest he had got to East Anglia was in 874, which year he spent in Cambridge. This has never been a part of the province of East Anglia, and in any case he was only in Cambridge to muster his troops for a renewed assault on Wessex; all his attention was directed west, not east.
When Alfred was arranging the future of East Anglia with Guthrum in 878, they were dealing with a kingdom that neither leader had any legitimate claim to. Even if King Æthelred of East Anglia was (against all the evidence) a Danish puppet king, he owed his allegiance to the dynasty of Ragnar Lothbrok, members of which family had led the earlier invasion of East Anglia which had led to the death of King Edmund. Æthelred could not have been the puppet of Guthrum under any circumstances; if he had been a puppet, Æthelred’s strings would have been pulled from York, the city Ragnar’s sons had retired to after 870. Guthrum was not a part of this family, and the fact that he could walk into East Anglia suggests to me that York had no influence over East Anglia after 870.
The other party to the arrangement, Alfred, had no authority over East Anglia either. His own view of himself as protector of all Anglo-Saxons would not have been shared by the people of East Anglia, who he was engaged in delivering to the mercies of a foreign king. We may imagine that once Æthelred got wind of the fate that Alfred and Guthrum had cooked up for him frantic representations were made, not only to the West Saxon court but also to anybody else who would listen. We may also imagine that some important people in Wessex itself must have had some serious misgivings about Alfred’s intentions.
The fact that not a word of all this appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not surprising. Like the silence of the Chronicle on the existence of King Æthelred, the propagandists of Wessex were keen to leave the impression to posterity that nothing stood between Alfred and the smooth implementation of his plan. The long delay gives the lie to this story. We cannot know how this situation was eventually resolved, but it is cannot have been done in a pleasant manner.
There is some evidence that Alfred himself had some conscience about the fate that he was wishing on his fellow Englishmen in Norfolk and Suffolk. For all Guthrum’s apparent conversion to Christianity and his Anglo-Saxon baptismal name of Athelstan, Guthrum had not really changed, and Alfred was aware of this. His new religion was politically expedient, not the result of a heart-felt change in belief. No bishops were allowed to promulgate the faith in the east throughout the period of Danish rule. Guthrum proved to be as oppressive as everyone had feared. What evidence do we have have for this? The violent and unjust nature of Danish rule can be found in the treaty between Alfred and the Danes known as Guthrum’s Peace. This also demonstrates how Alfred continued to feel responsible for the conditions under which Guthrum’s English subjects lived.
This treaty, which is likely to date from 886, has five articles. Numbers two and three both deal with murder in East Anglia; article two begins “If a man be slain we esteem all equally dear, English and Danish.” This is a strong hint of two things; one is that inter-ethnic violence was rife. If murder were a rare occurrence there would have been no need to refer to it in the treaty. Secondly, if when it did occur, Danish and English perpetrators were treated equally, there would have been no need for such a clause either. We can therefore be sure that native East Anglians found themselves second class citizens in their own land, as a direct result of Alfred’s intervention. Alfred’s concern for these victims of discrimination has been attributed to his view of himself as the king of all Englishmen. Although it is is certainly true that he saw himself in his way, there is more to it than that. His responsibility was more direct and personal, and reveals perhaps that he felt a sense of guilt for his treatment of the East Anglians. Surely I am not alone seeing Alfred’s queasy conscience at work here?
It is doubtful if Guthrum took these treaty obligations any more seriously than the other oaths he had taken and then reneged upon when it suited him. Alfred certainly wished to improve the conditions under which East Anglians lived, but his ability to do anything about them was severely limited. Ultimately he intended to extend his kingdom into East Anglia, a policy objective which was only accomplished some twenty years after his death. For the time being, and for the remainder of his lifetime, all that Alfred could do was to demonstrate his good intentions by such things as the treaty with Guthrum.
As ruled over by Guthrum East Anglia was more extensive than it had been as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom; it reached into most of Essex and Cambridgeshire, and into part of Lincolnshire too. Essex was the first part of this kingdom to be lost, becoming part of Alfred’s Wessex before Guthrum’s death in 890. North Norfolk finally fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 917.
This examination of the last period of East Anglia’s existence as an independent kingdom reveals how intimately involved it was with Alfred the Great, despite his having no direct power over the land. He established its last dynasty of Danish rulers, and then plotted to depose them and establish his own rule. He even tried to influence their laws in treaty negotiations with the Danish king. You might think Alfred’s story is all about Wessex; but East Anglia was an abiding concern throughout his life.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The history of the coinage of Viking East Anglia is important for a number of reasons. Although coinage had a long history in the Anglo- Saxon context, as far as the Danes who arrived in East Anglia as settlers in 880 are concerned coins were a novel means of exchange. Some metallic method of payment was a necessary part the Vikings’ trading activities, but it was in the form of bullion, or more specifically hack-silver. Pieces of precious metal were exchanged at a set value, and the bullion was weighed and marked to establish its worth. Although this system worked, it was an inefficient and time-consuming procedure compared to the use of coins.
The Danes had never used coins before Guthrum became King of East Anglia in 880. Previously when through pillage the Danes had come across the coins of other nations they used them as hack-silver. Thus. when they produced a coinage in about the year 885, the East Anglian Danes were embarking on an experiment that was new to them. The first coins to be issued in the Eastern Danelaw were copies of the coins of Alfred the Great. In many cases the inscriptions on the coins are blundered; that is having spelling and other mistakes (for example some letters could be reversed). As the legends on the coins represented not only a foreign language for the Danes (i.e. Latin) but also they were written in what was to them an entirely new alphabet; they had previously used runes. A degree of illiteracy was therefore inevitable; although unsurprisingly the Danes used continental moneyers to issue the coins on their behalf. The production of the dies used may have been done by the Danes themselves. The setting up of mints to produce large numbers of coins was in itself a major undertaking, though the local Anglo-Saxons would have had over a century’s experience to call upon, and were undoubtedly used to assist.
At first glance these copies of Alfredian Anglo-Saxon coins might appear to be English, but there is a reliable way to distinguish them from Danish coins. Alfred the Great had reformed his coinage during the early part of his reign by increasing the weight. The Danes did not copy him in this respect, and the Danish coins were all produced to the earlier lighter weight as employed by the Anglo-Saxons before the Alfredian reforms.
I must stress the importance of East Anglia in this new departure for the Vikings. The colleagues of Guthrum who had conquered York in 865 and established the Danish kingdom of Northumbria do not appear to have introduced coinage until the very last years of the ninth century. Guthrum by contrast seems to have brought out his first coins soon after setting up his kingdom in East Anglia. He was only king for ten years, dying in 890 (local tradition places this in Hadleigh in Suffolk), but he produced a succession of coin issues, including a few under his own name, not merely imitations of Alfred’s coinage. The name he used was Æthelstan, the name he had received from Alfred when he was baptised prior to receiving the kingdom of East Anglia. The area known as the Five Boroughs (Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester and Derby) was also involved in the use of this new currency and there were Danish mints in (among other places) Lincoln and Stamford. Meanwhile the continental Danes were still using hack-silver.
These East Anglian coins are of the greatest historical value, providing a great deal of evidence from a period of history in Norfolk and Suffolk that is completely devoid of written documents. Unfortunately the downside of this information is the difficulty in interpretation. Nonetheless some things we can say with a degree of certainty. The names of the mints occur on some of these coins, including the name NORDVICO which can only be Norwich. This is the first known reference to this town, which only rose to prominence after the Danes came to power in the East.
Our information on these historic coins comes largely from hoards, not necessarily found in East Anglia itself. Since the increasing use of metal detectors the number of single finds has also grown. We can only tell so much from the location of these hoards; the circumstances of their deposition can only be guessed at, and both their preservation from earlier looting and their ultimate discovery are matters of chance. The date of the hoard is much easier to ascertain, for the coins fortunately can be dated. Without doubt the largest hoard from this period is the Cuerdale hoard, discovered on the bank of the river Ribble near Preston. It included over 8,000 items including ingots and jewellery. This was found in 1840 and has long been dispersed; most of the coins in the hoard can still be traced however. The date of deposition of this hoard is probably between 905 and 910, but it includes several earlier coins which fit into the picture which I am endeavouring to paint. Despite its discovery in Lancashire, the area from which the greatest number of coins came was East Anglia.
I have not mentioned the coins of the kings Æthelred and Oswald. Although these are sometimes treated as the very earliest of the Danish issues, they were produced by Anglo-Saxon kings. Although these kings reigned after the death of King Edmund at the hands of the Vikings, they obviously belong to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. These two kings of East Anglia are not mentioned in any surviving documents from the period and are notably absent from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They are only known through the small number of coins that have been identified as belonging to their reigns. All except one were found in East Anglia. In date these two kings fit into that period from the death of Edmund to the arrival of Guthrum (the ten years 869-879). The design of the coins of Æthelred in particular was identical to those coins produced in the reign of Edmund. Even the name of the moneyer that appears on one of the coins of Æthelred’s reign, Sigered, also appears on some of the later examples of Edmund’s coins. These kings were Anglo-Saxons and the coins they issued were entirely English, not Danish. There is an example of Æthelred’s coinage in Norwich Castle Museum, although last time I enquired it was not on display.
- Blackburn, Viking Coins and Currency in the British Isles (London, 2011).
- E. Blunt, The Anglo-Saxon Coinage and the Historian (Medival Archaeolgy, 1960).
- Dolley, Viking Coins of the Danelaw and of Dublin (London, 1965).
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
CURRENT FROM CIRCA AD 895 – 917
These coins are the first indication we have that Edmund was regarded as a saint. They circulated throughout the northern and eastern part of England for the first two decades of the 10th century. The puzzle about this is that celebration of the saint is that the Danes who introduced this very successful coinage were the children or relatives of the same Vikings who had murdered the king.
A large hoard of St Edmund pennies was dug up in Cuerdale in 1840 by a gang of workmen who were repairing the river bank. Cuerdale is on a bend of the River Ribble near Preston in Lancashire, so you see how widely known the coins were. This hoard of silver, which numbered over 8,000 items (including jewelry and ingots), included 1,8oo St Edmund coins, almost none of them with identical markings on the reverse side. The deposition of the hoard is thought to date from about the year 905, by which time they had been minted for ten years. They continued in production for another decade. It is remarkable that no Danes, either in this country or on the continent, produced any coins until the East Anglians began minting them a few years before the introduction of the Edmund Memorial Coinage. Prior to this the Danes used so-called hack silver as a means of exchange, i.e. any silver jewelry, coinage or plate marked with “hacks” or marks to indicate its weight. Coins were obviously a much more convenient way of paying for goods.
The coinage was the first indication that the late king Edmund was regarded as a holy man in East Anglia, but in official circles in Wessex he was not regarded as a saint. Both Bishop Asser (who wrote the Life of Alfred in 893) and the compilers of the Winchester Chronicle, (the first known copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) although they refer to the death of Edmund, it was as the king of East Anglia. If word of his new status had reached them they did share the belief in him.There was no Papal Canonization of saints until this was introduced by Urban II at the end of the eleventh century, so it was normal for the reputation of a saintly character to spread from area to area.
What was not normal was the administration of the church in East Anglia at the time. When the Edmund Memorial Coinage appeared there were no bishops to regulate religious life. The two bishops who had managed the ecclesiastical affairs of the kingdom were both eliminated at the time of St Edmund’s martyrdom. Although the Dane who took over the East Anglian kingdom ten years later had been baptised by then, he did not bother to institute any new bishop. The church in East Anglia was effectively leaderless for 50 years, and even when a bishop was reintroduced when the Danes were defeated, he operated from London at first.
Why did the Danes make such a big deal of having a saint on their coins? It was an unusual step to take. Unfortunately they did not tell us why, and we have to make our own minds up. I like to think that as Edmund had died fighting a force of foreign invaders, the new king of East Anglia promoted him as a saint against his current enemies, the army of the Anglo-Saxons. The English king who defeated the Danes at the end of the second decade of the tenth century, took no time to replace the coinage with his own. If the king had any respect for the saint, he had none for the coinage. Perhaps this was because it had represented the saint of an independent East Anglia, which he was intent on eradicating.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Most EAST ANGLIAN saints can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. St Audrey or St Etheldreda (d.679) was Abbess of Ely, and the tombstone of her steward may still be seen there in the South Aisle of the Cathedral. She was a princess, and many of these early saints were members of the royal family. St Ethelbert was another royal, king of East Anglia, who was martyred in Hereford. He was there wooing his bride to be. The cathedral there is dedicated to SS Mary and Ethelbert.
St Guthlac was not of royal blood, but he was of noble birth. He cannot be called East Anglian as he came from Lincolnshire and lived in Mercia, but as there was cell established in his name at Swaffham I will include him. We know rather more of his life than we do of St Botulph; we can say that he too was not of royal blood, although he was a very popular saint in the middle ages. There are St Botulph churches as far apart as London and Boston in Lincolnshire, but his abbey was on the river Alde in Suffolk.
St Walstan was reputedly a royal scion, but his time was long after the East Anglian royal family had died out, so it is hard to reconcile this claim with the story of his life. He was born either in Blythburgh in Suffolk or Bawburgh in Norfolk. The similarity of the names of the two villages suggests a degree of confusion, but indications of his cult can be traced to both places. His shrine was certainly established in Bawburgh, where he was buried, and where St Walstan’s Well is again a place of pilgrimage.
The most famous East Anglian saint was undoubtedly another king, shot with arrows while tied to a tree by the Danish invaders. There are many churches dedicated to his name, especially in Norfolk. St Edmund‘s shine at Bury St Edmunds was one of the major pilgrimage destinations of pre-Reformation England, but Walsingham in Norfolk must rate as slightly more important in this respect. However, as Walsingham related to a vision of the Virgin Mary, not to a local saint, it should cannot feature in this lit of local saints.
All these saints were venerated in the Anglo-Saxon period, and the coming of the Norman kings spelled the end of local saints. This had more to do with the introduction of Papal Canonization by Pope Urban II (1089-99), which largely removed the possibility of the creation of saints on a purely local level. An exception is one Norwich based saint from this latter period. Her name is Mother Julian; she lived in the 14th century, but her reputation as a Divine did not become established until at least three hundred years later. Her writings were not widely known during her lifetime, and so far as they were read at all they seemed heretical to the orthodoxy of the time. In Norfolk she was known and respected as a spiritual guide among the populace. Canonization in the official sense has never been bestowed on her by the Roman Catholic church, although she is accepted as a saint with her official saint’s day.
Although the Reformation produced a fresh crop of martyrs on both sides, the Puritans did not go in for the creation of new saints. This is not true of the Catholic martyrs, and I will end this list of local saints with St Robert Southwell. He was born at Horsham St Faiths, an adjacent parish to Taverham where St Walstan had worked as a farm labourer. It is only a few miles from where I am writing this – now the site of Norwich International Airport! He was executed under Queen Elizabeth I (to whom he nevertheless professed his allegiance). Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, he was saved from the full horrors of that dreadful death by a bystander, who tugged at his feet while the noose was around his neck. Only his lifeless body remained to be disembowelled. This was in the year 1595.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORIES OF THE SAINTS
ARCHAEOLOGY is a popular pastime among non-specialists; almost anyone can pick up a trowel and scratch away in the dirt. Historical research, even for amateurs, requires a slightly more intellectual approach. I must make an exception of family history, which fascinates huge numbers of people. It is a very narrow kind of learning; the knowledge of the names and dates of your ancestors is better than a complete disregard of the past, but this kind of history has none of the wider interest that you find with archaeology.
What are the basic differences between the two disciplines? For one thing ,when you begin a dig you can never be quite sure what period any finds will belong to, so archaeologists tend not be so so restricted in their timescale as historians. The differences go much wider than that though. Each examines the past, and both must be aware of the other’s researches, but whereas the historian will go first to the written record, the archaeologist relies on the artefacts that the past has left behind. This reliance on finds in itself skews the nature of archaeological research; except in very rare circumstances, most of the relics of the past that lie in the ground soon rot and disappear. Clothing and foodstuffs leave scant evidence, and the little that can be gleaned about such things needs scientific skills. This is why the discovery of a bronze age settlement at Flag Fen near Peterborough caused such a stir; in the oxygen-free mud of the Fens even the threads that were being woven over 3000 years ago could still be plainly seen. Normally it is only the stonewares and metal goods that are preserved; only the flint head of a neolithic axe is left, and its wooden haft disappeared millennia ago.
In all but exceptional circumstances archaeology is anonymous. The names of the people who tilled the soil or fired the kilns that we speculate over hundreds of years later are unknowable. In extremely rare cases, such as the discovery of the body of Richard III in Leicester, the name is crucially important, but in the vast majority the names of the long vanished people who left their evidence behind are not only unknown but irrelevant.
This is all very different from history; here we are much more interested in individuals. As far as those who produced the evidence go the historian is mainly concerned with the literate, and even the subject matter tends to centre on the more significant occurrences in the past. The archaeologist will have a great time examining the contents of a rubbish tip – something that will hardly concern the historian.
Archaeological research may extend almost up to the present day; the archaeology of the Second World War is now a valid subject, although there are many people still living who can remember a time before the war broke out. History moves on too, and whole volumes are being written about periods I remember well – perhaps by historians who were but babes in arms when the events occurred. When I was a student I used to marvel how the older tutors could remember events that had become the stuff of history.
For me there is no contest as to which I prefer, history or archaeology. History wins hands down; but there is third kind of study which falls between history and archaeology, and that I love even more. This is a recent development, and hasn’t even got an accepted name yet. I call it historical geography; it is a study that combines historical resources with the evidence contained within the landscape. Unlike the archaeologist, the historical geographer does not have to get his hands dirty; and the documents he refers to are as likely to be maps as old chronicles.
If I may give you an example of the kind of research I mean, I have over the last 10 or 20 years traced what I am sure was the last journey undertaken by Edmund, king of East Anglia, in the year 869. This journey memorably led to his death at the hands of the invading Vikings. The history of this event is impossibly obscure to the conventional historian, and is quite beyond the scope of archaeologists. Yet, from the hints given in written documents, together with an intelligent awareness of physical features, navigable rivers, ancient churches and old field names, it is possible to pinpoint the place of Edmund’s death down to a few hundred yards; so at least I believe.
Interesting though this is, the location of St Edmund’s death is a relatively insignificant part history. This geographical approach reveals much more; it shows for example how the later spread of the cult of the saint was directly linked to continuing attacks by the Viking Army. This true not just in East Anglia, but across England. Although Wales and Scotland were equally at risk of attack by Vikings, the influence of this most English of saints did not extend beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. There is too much to explain in this post, but those who are interested may read the blogs referred to below, or apply to for a pdf of my booklet St Edmund’s Norfolk. I will supply it free to anyone who requests it via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), although if you wish to make a contribution to charity that would be great. For those who wish to obtain a physical copy it is still available on ebay.
The blog posts may be reached by clicking the following titles: 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 Edmund King and Martyr, Caistor (3), Markshall Church, The Vikings, South Creake, Lyng.
As I said, my book is also available on ebay for anyone who would prefer a hard copy. It costs 99p plus postage.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The natural reaction to the name at the head of this article is KING WHO? King Æthelred of East Anglia is indeed an obscure person, and I would be very surprised if you had ever heard of him. ÆTHELRED the UNREADY you might have heard of, but he was King of England a hundred years after the kingdom of East Anglia had been absorbed. The ÆTHELRED of East Anglia I am taking about appears in no historical documents; he is only known from the inscriptions on a handful of coins that have been found by archaeologists.
The best known king of East Anglia is King Edmund, and he is the only one most people will have heard of. The king (probably) commemorated in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Redwald, runs him a distant second, but apart from those two kings the rulers of East Anglia are a pretty obscure bunch, and Æthelred is one the most obscure. He was the king who came immediately after Edmund. Until recently it was believed universally that Edmund was the last Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia, being followed by a victorious Dane. However it now seems that there were not one but two locally born kings in Norfolk and Suffolk before the Danish king Guthrum came to power after 878. Besides Æthelred the other king was called Oswald, and his existence too is only known from his coinage.
Very little is known about this period in the history of our part of the world; not that much is known about East Anglia at all before the Norman Conquest. The decade following the death of king Edmund is particularly dark. For all of our knowledge we have to rely on archaeology and particularly on numismatics. To those experts with a deep knowledge of coins those produced by Oswald and Æthelred suggest that they might have been rival kings. The significant differences between the coins of the two monarchs may point in this direction. Especially significant in this regard is the fact that the mint that produced Oswald’s coins concealed its identity – perhaps to avoid reprisals from his rival?
My reason for this suggestion also arises from the confused conditions of the time, which favoured the creation of competing factions. It is generally agreed that king Edmund was still unmarried at the time of his death, and therefore had no son as his obvious heir. Moreover, the Danish army which was camped at Thetford at the time of Edmund’s death was busy laying waste the land, which would also have led to extreme political instability. In other words it was not a time when you could expect a smooth transition to a new king.
It had been usual for historians to assume that upon killing Edmund a Danish king took overall sovereignty of East Anglia, but who would this Dane have been? The natural choice would be Ivar the boneless, the king who was not only the pre-eminent Dane at the time, but also the leader responsible for the death of Edmund. But having killed the king, Ivar seems to have taken no more interest in East Anglia. He left almost immediately and returned to York. This was probably because his modus operandi required a recognised under-king to govern on his behalf and grant him tribute. With Edmund dead there was no one to fill his place; the land almost certainly descended into anarchy, at least for a time.
Almost our only historical source for East Anglia in this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and although it states that the Danes ‘laid waste to the country’ it nowhere says they made peace with the Danes. This is significant, as the Chronicle records that both the Northumbrians and Mercians made peace treaties following their defeat at Ivar’s hands. I suggest that following Edmund’s death East Anglia became ungovernable, and that the Danes found no one to negotiate a peace treaty with. Ivar himself went north, and the Danish Army turned their attentions to the south – to Wessex. East Anglia appears to have descended into chaos.
Was there eventually a move to re-establish the monarchy in East Anglia among the natives? There was certainly enough of a functioning government left to produce at least one mint, which could issue a small number of coins; so the position was not utterly desperate. Numismatic experts have suggested the coinage of Oswald in particular has features that suggest the moneyer was unsure how fully he should stand behind the coinage he was issuing. It is this which leads me to suggest that OSWALD was a rival to ÆTHELRED; on the other hand he may just have been Æthelred’s successor. There was a greater similarity between Æthelred’s coinage and that of Edmund than is the case with Oswald, and this would suggest that he was closer both in time and in royal connections with Edmund.
The period of the kingship of these last Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia was brought to an end not by a Dane as you might expect, but by king Alfred. In the Peace of Wedmore he gave the kingdom to the Danish leader Guthrum; never mind that it was not his to give, and that there was already an English ruler in place. No wonder the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that great piece of propaganda produced at Alfred’s behest, does not mention either Æthelred or Oswald. In the eyes of Wessex the Treaty of Wedmore was a triumph; it must have looked very different in East Anglia.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia, Rebecca Pinner, (Woodbridge) 2015.
There have been too many studies of the saint that merely repeat the same old legends as if they were incontrovertible facts, so it is refreshing to have a real academic study of the cult of St Edmund. I must make it clear that Dr Pinner is a lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, and she is therefore at her best when examining the literature of the St Edmund hagiographies. Much of this body of work originated in Bury St Edmunds, and it is to this that she devotes most of her attention. Some accounts of the saint originated from outside East Anglia (including the first, from which all that followed drew their basic story) and these cannot be ignored.
Her study of the iconography of Edmund only occupies a small section of the book, but it covers a wide range of styles and locations. Because the remaining items of stained glass, pew ends and paintings of the saint (to mention but three media) represent late medieval church decoration, they show how popular the saint was in the East until the Reformation. Many more examples would undoubtedly have remained, had not the Puritan iconoclasts been particularly active in East Anglia in the 17th century. As the author points out, much of this art was connected with the Liberty of St Edmund (West Suffolk), but it is notable how much is to be found in Norfolk.
Rebecca Pinner’s examination of the cult in East Anglia from a literary angle provides a firm overview. Her treatment of the geographical context of the cult leaves something to be desired however. The map of East Anglia which precedes the introduction to her work leaves out many of the medieval East Anglian churches dedicated to St Edmund. Neither Thurne in Norfolk or Aldeburgh in Suffolk are included, and nor is there any mention of the church at Southwood on the river Yare. These are not ruins; they are still functioning as places of worship. She makes no claim for completeness in her mapping (such a thing would be impossible), but the church at Aldeburgh is the parish church of an important town. Several vanished or ruined churches of St Edmund she omits with more reason.
I was disappointed that what I regard as the single most important book on the death of Edmund, and on his slayer Ivarr the boneless, is not mentioned at all in Dr Pinner’s book. Although the death of Edmund necessarily preceded the establishing of the cult, one may hardly ignore this seminal moment. Alfred Smyth’s work¹, which he produced as his PhD thesis, is both assiduously detailed and highly readable. Other more recent works do not appear in her book; neither the important researches of Mark Blackburn² on Viking coins and the St Edmund Memorial Coinage nor Alan Frantzen’s³ interesting observations on the cult around Bury St Edmunds is included. I am slightly surprised that no members of the UEA History Faculty, who helped her with her research, were able to point Dr Pinner in the direction of these up-to-date works. Instead she refers to one obsolete paper nearly 50 years old. There is little enough modern academic writing on the subject of St Edmund, and I would have expected this relevant material to have got a mention in her bibliography.
Although she mentions Oswen as among the early guardian of Edmund’s tomb in Bury St Edmunds, she does not examine the fascinating part played by women in his early cult. The body of Edward the Martyr (another Anglo-Saxon Royal Martyr) was entrusted into the care of the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, and women played a similarly significant part at the beginning of the cult of Edmund. The Abbey at Lyng was the establishment of nuns dedicated to St Edmund, and in Domesday it is recorded that there were still many nuns accompanying the monks at Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Obviously nuns played a significant role in the early cult; with the current popularity of feminist history I feel that this omission represents a missed opportunity.
By all means read Dr Pinner’s book; although I have mentioned matters where I would have handled the history of the cult rather differently, it contains much of value. At nearly £60 for quite a slim volume it is by no means cheap; but you could always try a library.
¹Alfred Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles 850 – 880, OUP, 1977
² Mark Blackburn, Numismatic Journal, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2011
³ Frantzen, A. J., Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War, USA, 2004
THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
North Elmham was a place of great importance in Anglo-Saxon East Anglia. At a time when there were few towns in what was a rural economy, this was one place in Norfolk where we can be sure that people gathered from miles around. North Elmham was never a town; it was not enough of a trading centre for that, but it had great ceremonial significance. It was here that the county’s cathedral stood. Before 870 it shared that honour with Dumnoc in Suffolk, but in that year the Danes destroyed both the kingdom’s cathedrals. When the bishopric was eventually restored North Elmham gained extra importance as the only cathedral for the whole of East Anglia.
After the conversion of the Wuffinga kings of East Anglia to Christianity early in the seventh century, the cathedrals of Norfolk and Suffolk became the centres of worship in the kingdom. There were few churches in the countryside to begin with, so the importance of the cathedral was even greater than it later became. There is no agreement as to where the cathedral in Suffolk was located, although Walton Castle near Felixstowe has a good claim to have been the site. Alternatively the cathedral may have been at Dunwich, but both places have long been swallowed up by the sea. In Norfolk the cathedral was definitely at North Elmham.
We may imagine a succession of East Anglian kings making their pilgrimage to North Elmham in the centre of Norfolk, to pray for good harvests, protection from their enemies or the good of their souls. Access to North Elmham was relatively good; it lies on the main Roman road which ran from east to west across the county, and the road from Dereham to Holt ran past the West End of the cathedral. It also had water access from the east along the river Wensum. It was centrally positioned so that all of Norfolk was accessible. This communication network in the middle of Norfolk had already made North Elmham a place of great religious significance in pagan times. Spong Hill in North Elmham was a huge burial site which must have seen funeral processions of high caste individuals coming from across much of Norfolk. Most of the burials were cremations, but there were over 50 inhumations, many of these being marked by barrows. The site is the largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery ever to have been discovered. It also contained the earliest Anglo-Saxon example of the artistic representation of a human figure, on a cremation pot lid – not quite large enough to be termed a sculpture.
After the death of King Edmund in 869 the cathedral lost it royal status, when the kingdom of East Anglia was absorbed into the fledgling kingdom of England. The Danish invasion and occupation of East Anglia that had led to the death of King Edmund resulted in a period of desolation around North Elmham cathedral. In spite of the nominal conversion of the Danish king Guthrum to Christianity, there was much heathen practice among the new rulers of the kingdom. We can tell this from some of the place-names and artefacts that they left behind. There was no bishop of East Anglia from 869 until several years after the defeat of the Danes in 917. The bishop of London took control of the East Anglian church until the cathedral was re-established at North Elmham around the middle of the tenth century. It remained the cathedral of East Anglia until after the Norman conquest, when it was briefly removed the Thetford and then to Norwich.
The ruins of the bishop of Norwich’s late 11th century chapel are to be seen to the north of the present church. I was at North Elmham that the bishop maintained his country retreat. The chapel was built on the site of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral. This would originally have been a wooden building, and may have remained as such until the cathedral was moved to Thetford. The ruins of the chapel which remain are of stone. They represent a building of substantial proportions, demonstrating that the importance of North Elmham remained even after the cathedral was moved.
After the rise of Norwich as both county town of Norfolk and the cathedral city of East Anglia, North Elmham went into a long, slow decline. The bishop eventually abandoned his residence there for more convenient places in Thorpe St Andrew and Whitlingham. To to the east the Roman road fell into disuse, and beyond Bawdeswell it is only to be traced here and there along farm tracks. The Wensum ceased to be used as a communications highway when many water mills were built across the river, thus stopping water traffic from progressing upstream beyond Norwich.
This loss of connection with the rest of the world was reversed by the arrival of the railway in 1849. This made it among the earliest places in Norfolk to get a railway line, and besides passenger trains it was a centre for grain and milk traffic. Passenger trains were withdrawn in 1964, but goods trains were still using the large grain warehouse two decades later. Although no trains currently run to the village station, it is proposed that the MNR will restore the Heritage Line to North Elmham by 2017. At the north end of the village County School Station was opened in 1886 to serve the public school of the same name that had been established ten years earlier, in the the adjacent parish of Bintree. This school for the sons of farmers closed in 1895 and the buildings were taken over by Watts Naval School. This was to prepare the orphaned Dr Barnardo’s boys for life in the Royal Navy. It closed in 1953 and the buildings were demolished. The line from North Elmham Station to County School has been lifted, but the long-term aim is to restore this section of line as well.
I first went to look round the Saxon cathedral over forty years ago with my father. At the time occasional trains still rumbled through North Elmham and County School Stations to Great Ryburgh, where they served the large maltings there. Although I already had a history degree, my knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon past was rudimentary; it is much better now. North Elmham is not many miles from where I now live, and during the summer months my wife and I sometimes go to the North Elmham village fête. The local musicians hold regular concerts in the church, and these too I have attended. I take visitors with an interest in history to the village to see the remains on the site of the cathedral, and some of them even buy me a drink at the Kings Head.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
AND ITS EAST ANGLIAN CONNECTIONS
I must begin with Horatio Nelson, the most famous seaman that Norfolk has produced, and the most notable British Admiral of all time. His victory at Trafalgar established Britain’s hegemony at sea that enabled the creation of the greatest empire the world is ever likely to see. He was not only a Norfolkman, but he was proud of the county of his birth. This mutual regard was returned in spades by the people of Norfolk. There was a substantial Naval presence in Norfolk at Yarmouth two hundred years ago. The Naval Hospital building still exists, now converted into housing. There has been no permanent Naval base in Norfolk since the last war, and even then it was only a base for drifters and trawlers converted to minesweepers. There is now not even a Coastguard Station in East Anglia (Yarmouth’s was the last to close) but that is another story.
The local connections with the RN are therefore indirect for most of the past century. The oil painting of HMS Campbell, picked up from a secondhand shop in Cromer, represents a destroyer which spent the active part of its career in home waters. Finished just after the end of the First World War, she was laid-up for most of the inter-war period. For most of the Second War she was based at Harwich, then a major centre for destroyers, which Yarmouth never was.
HMS Sparham, the subject of another blog, only sneaks in on account of her name which was taken from the village between Norwich and Fakenham. The minesweeper only remained a Royal Navy vessel for just over a month, before being sold to the French. This Ham class of vessel was built in the latter part of the 1950s. Before the use of fibre-glass this type of vessel was built of wood to minimize the risk of detonating magnetic mines.
HMS Bulwark was the name of a warship which came to a tragic end within the first six months of the Great War. The Battleship was moored in the Medway with her full complement of crew when she was completely destroyed by an explosion, almost certainly as a result of her stocks of cordite being stored too close to the boilers. Among those lost (virtually everyone aboard) was one of my grandmother’s nephews, aged just 16.
The ports of East Anglia in Yarmouth and Lowestoft came under bombardment from the sea in the First World War, but the most famous Naval engagement off East Anglia took place much longer ago. In the seventeenth century, during the reign of Charles II, the Dutch and British were at war. The origins of the conflict lay in the imperial ambitions of both countries. Although the British Empire eventually eclipsed the Dutch Empire, at the time the outcome was by no means certain. The First Anglo-Dutch War was conducted under Oliver Cromwell, but the return of the king did nothing to alter the foreign policy of the country in this respect. The engagement took place on the 28th of May 1672 and is known as the Battle of Sole Bay.
The English Fleet under James, Duke of York (the King’s brother) and their allies the French were surprised by the smaller Dutch contingent off the coast near Southwold. The wind at first favoured the Dutch and when it changed direction the Dutch withdrew. The outcome was inconclusive though bloody, but the Dutch obtained their main objective, to prevent the English and French from blockading the Dutch ports.
Going much further into history, there was an engagement between Alfred the Great’s navy and the Vikings off Shotley in 885. This is on the mouth of the Stour between Suffolk and Essex. This was part of the on-going conflict between the two sides which eventually led to the defeat of the Vikings and the creation of the single kingdom of England. This battle is remembered in the name Bloody Point. The English Navy, the Senior Service (older than the Army), is said by some to have originated with the fleet established by Alfred the Great.
As an island nation, the Navy should be the principal plank of the defence of Britain. With the growth of air power we should be well equipped with aircraft carriers; currently we have none in service. I cannot help thinking that the government has let us down in this crucial aspect of military policy; for if we are vulnerable to attack from the sea, what is the use of any other policy? The huge Welfare budget may produce a comfortable life for the disadvantaged, but there is always the risk that it can be extinguished by unfriendly foreign powers. There appears to be no immanent danger, but who can tell the future?
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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.