It’s a 9th century tale involving Vikings, their beheading of a famous English king, and upheaval that led to the burial and reburial of the king’s remains in an unknown spot. And the story is still playing out today as the remains of King Edmund, patron saint of England, are being sought in the town of Bury St. Edmunds.
The Saxon king ruled the East Angles during a time when the British Isles were under attack from the Scandinavian marauders. The Vikings shot Edmund full of arrows somewhere in Suffolk or Norfolk, the stories say, when he refused to renounce Christianity. After killing him, the Vikings decapitated Edmund’s body to desecrate it.
St Edmund was shot full of arrows (CC by SA 3.0)
The search has some currency because a few years back the remains of King Richard III were found and given a better burial.
Edmund at one time was at least as famous as Richard. His place of rest became a pilgrimage site for kings and citizens alike.
Now historians believe it’s possible Edmund’s remains were reburied under the place where a tennis court now sits. Archaeologists are seeking permission to dig there.
The St. Edmundsbury Borough Council has indicated it may approve the excavations. The council owns the Abbey Gardens and tennis courts near the grounds of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral.
Edmund’s remains had been in a Benedictine abbey, but they were lost when the abbey was wrecked during the religious upheaval under King Henry VIII. It’s believed the body may have been moved to the Abbey Gardens, perhaps underneath what are now the tennis courts. Under there is also a monks’ graveyard.
But the king’s burial may stand out from the monks’ because it’s said he was reburied in an iron coffin. Presumably the monks did not have such a distinction for their burials.
Historian Francis Young told The Telegraph a commission dissolved the Benedictine abbey in 1539. Records indicate the commissioners did not mention the body of the king. But Young said it’s likely they allowed the monks to quietly remove it and rebury it elsewhere because Edmund was king.
The ruins of the Abbey of St. Edmund with the more recent cathedral in the background. (Creative Commons/Bob Jones photo)
Mr. Young said:
“According to a third-hand account from 1697, St. Edmund was placed in an iron chest by a few monks but sadly the account does not give the location within the Abbey precincts where he was buried. On balance, however, the monks' cemetery is the most likely location.”
The councilor in charge of the project, Robert Everitt, told The Telegraph:
“It would be an incredibly important historical discovery if he was found under there. It is something the borough want to do and the cathedral are in agreement as well, but we need to ensure we replace the courts. We are looking at St James Middle School courts, which are not being used [as the school is closed]. They would be ideal and would ensure people can play tennis right next to the Abbey Gardens.”
After killing him, the Vikings decapitated Edmund’s body to desecrate it. But the myth tells of a wolf that called out to the king’s followers saying “here, here, here,” leading them to the head and allowing them to bury the body with it.
Not long after Edmund died, people built a shrine for his body in the abbey of the town then known as Bedericesworth. That name later changed to Bury St. Edmunds. Edmund was so famous that the town became the most popular pilgrimage site in England. Many kings visited. Eventually St. Edmunds became patron saint.
Top image: Image from ‘Vikings’, a medieval drama series airing on The History Channel. By Mark Miller