England’s lost patron saint

The world of patron saints is a murky one. Job descriptions are hazy, the hiring process is opaque, job security’s nonexistent, and conflicts of interest are so much a part of the system that it’ll take a revolution to get rid of them. Take England’s patron saint, George–or St. George as he prefers to be known. As well as being the patron saint of England, he’s also the patron saint of  Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia (which is named after him), Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia. And Genoa. England more or less rented him from Genoa.

You can read about St. George, rent, and Genoa here

But as happens so often on this cloudy island, the story isn’t that simple, because England had an earlier patron saint, Edmund.

Edmund started his career as the king of East Anglia at a time when England didn’t exist yet. The space it now fills was occupied by a collection of small and usually warring kingdoms. If you’re used to kingdoms being the size of–oh, let’s randomly choose England as an example, then you can think of him as a kinglet, but he wouldn’t have appreciated the description. He was a king, thanks, and we can all just take that seriously.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion (or possibly one of a few thousand flowers in Britain that look like dandelions but aren’t), doing its bit to help its species take over the world.

Edmund was born in 841 C.E. (in old-school reckoning, that’s 841 A.D.) and became king in 856 when he would’ve been–oh, good lord–all of fifteen. He was a Christian and fought with King Alfred of Wessex against the non-Christian Vikings and Norse–or as the Historic UK website puts it, “against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army).”

Thanks, guys. I appreciate an even-handed approach to history.

What am I complaining about? They were invaders–I can’t argue that, although the Angles themselves had invaded Celtic land not long before. It’s the “pagan” and “heathen” that make me want to tip the sentence into the recycling bin. Both are Christian words meaning, give or take a shred of exaggeration on my part, ignorant savages who don’t share our religion and who we don’t have to think of as fully human.

Even my description of them as non-Christian uses Christian as the default setting, which is both biased and historically inaccurate, but I’m not sure what else to call them and I’ve already spent two paragraphs on it, so let’s leave the word where it is. I’m not sure what else would work.

Before we turn to another source for balance, I just have to quote the interfering pop-up box that appears on Historic UK’s website, inviting the world at large to “get to know us a little better by following our occasionally entertaining musings on Facebook.”

Thanks, guys, but I’ll pass. Back when I worked as an editor, I read enough letters introducing unsolicited articles to know that when someone tells you their writing is amusing, it isn’t. If anyone had said it was occasionally amusing, I’d have slit my wrists. The people whose work is genuinely funny? They write something funny. Then they get out of the way.

But back to our search for balance: A Wikipedia entry says that very little is known about Edmund’s life, because the Vikings devastated his kingdom and few records survived. His date of birth is guesswork, and so is the identity of his father, who may have been an East Anglian king and may have been a Germanic one.

So take your pick on any of the detail, because chroniclers of his life wrote with a free hand and a fair bit of imagination. Some have him born on December 25. Others have him crowned on December 25. Both were happy coincidences, no doubt. He was, of course, a model king in all possible ways, except for the minor problem of him having been defeated by the Vikings. 

His ally King Alfred was, presumably, also defeated, but the focus is on Ed, who was captured and told he’d have to renounce his religion and share power with the Vikings. When he refused, he was killed. Which is why he’s also called Edmund the Martyr.

As the story was told some hundred years later, he was beaten and tied to a tree and shot full of arrows and then (just to make sure) beheaded, but his head was reunited with his body with the help of a talking wolf, who called out to Edmund’s followers, saying, “Hic, hic, hic,” which is Latin for here, here, here.

Why did the wolf speak Latin, not whatever the Angles called their language? (A brief interruption: We call their language Old English, but they wouldn’t have called it that any more than the Vikings would’ve called themselves heathens and pagans. It’s not loaded, like heathen and pagan, just a bit later-day hindsighted. End of interruption and back to our question, which was why the wolf spoke Latin.)

Because Latin was the language of the church and this was a Christian wolf.

Or else it was a wolf with hiccups.

I can’t confirm this, but I seem to remember that being buried whole was important in the Christian belief system of the time: On Judgment Day, Christians would rise from their graves and be physically resurrected. Being resurrected headless could be awkward.

Tradition holds that Edmund was killed by Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba (or Ubbe; you can take your pick here too; this was long before anyone fussed over spelling).

No, I did not invent Ivar the Boneless. I wish I had the kind of mind that could. Ivar the Boneless was a real person, a Viking (or Norse, or Danish–I’m not sure how different those were at the time) warrior who led the invading army that Christian chroniclers called the Great Heathen Army. He was reported to be tall enough to dwarf his contemporaries and to be both powerful and ruthless.

Why was he called the boneless? There’s lots of speculation about this and no agreement. Contemporary theories run the spectrum from great flexibility to impotence.

In the 1980s, Martin and Birthe Biddle discovered the skeleton of a Viking warrior who they believe was Ivar the Boneless. This was in Repton and the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok does say that Ivar was buried in England, so it’s not out of the question. If the Biddles are right, it would lead us to believe that Ivar the Boneless did have bones.

A seventeenth-century excavation of the same site claims to have discovered the body of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. Or, depending on which source you like, the Biddles found the skeleton of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. I’m a little skeptical that nine-foot-tall humans ever lumbered across the earth, but at five foot not very much, what do I know about being very tall? I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig the hole big enough to bury him in.

Are you getting the sense yet that some of the sources we’re working with here are less than entirely reliable?

Let’s leave Ivar’s body in peace and talk about Edmund’s, which was not left in peace. What was left of it after a few hundred years (and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they got the right set of bones) was moved in 902 and reburied in, handily, Bury St. Edmunds, which was then known as Bedricsworth. King Athelstan founded a religious community on the site, which became a popular pilgrimage destination. English kings patronized the abbey, the cult of St. Edmund grew, and everyone involved became wealthy.

Or some did, anyway, the abbey among them.

Bury St. Edmunds is named after Edmund but, to my disappointment, the bury part of the name doesn’t come from him having been buried there. It comes from the same root word as burg, by way of the Angles, who were a Germanic tribe before they became a British one, and who brought their language with them, as people do. It means city, fortress, castle, that kind of thing.

I haven’t found a date for when Ed became England’s patron saint. In fact, I can’t find an exact date for when England became England, so let’s dance away from that and hope no one notices. What I can tell you is that his cult continued after the Normans conquered England in 1066, adding a bit of weight to my belief that when you conquer a place, in one way or another it also conquers you. As that reputable site Historic UK tells the tale, “Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting here before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St. Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law.’ ”

When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, Edmund’s remains–and by then there couldn’t have been much left–were moved to France.

Or possibly not. The BBC says simply that they disappeared. It also says that one version of Edmund’s death has him hiding under a bridge when the Vikings found him. Which sort of lacks glory. The other sites don’t mention it.

Then in 1199, Richard I got bored with Edmund. He visited a shrine to St. George during the Third Crusade, went on to win a battle, and adopted George as his patron saint, renting his banner from Genoa.

Genoa got consulted about this. George and Edmund did not. Saints don’t get any say about who adopts them. They just get stuck with these annoying little beings, always wheedling: Can I have a victory, or rain, or sun, or a trip to the movies? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. And just when it looks like the saints have gotten their humans settled down to watch the show, they start whining for candy, popcorn, ice cream, fizzy drinks. It’s endless.

And after all that, the humans abandon their original saint and dedicate themselves to some new one who just happens to sashay past at the right time, loaded down with goodies. What ungrateful wretches humans are.

And what does the ex-patron saint do? I’m no religious scholar, but If I believed in saints, patron or otherwise, I’d think long and hard before I worked up the nerve to abandon one. 

In 2006, a petition asked the government to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint. (England’s government and the Anglican Church are still intertwined, so that would be a governmental decision.) The campaign failed and in 2013 another campaign asked for the same thing. You’ll understand how deeply religious the impulse was when I tell you that the second campaign was backed by a brewery based in Bury St. Edmund.

It also failed, but Edmund did become the patron saint of the Suffolk County Council.

How are the mighty fallen. I’m not sure who I’m quoting–or misquoting–there, but it’s somebody famous. When in doubt, claim it was Shakespeare.

48 thoughts on “England’s lost patron saint

  1. Oh Ellen, if only my history teacher at school had even a tenth of your style I would have shown some interest instead of seeing it as the boring and copious reference-text copying exercise he actually made it.

    On another note, I guess they weren’t patrons in the sense they were regulars at The Olde English Inn with a pint of ale and a packet of pork scratchings?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Well, we don’t actually know what patron saints did in their off hours. Or, for that matter, if hours work the same way for them as they do for us. Maybe they could patronize a country and a pub at the same time.

      And a county council. Or city council. Or whatever it was.

      My history teachers weren’t much better than yours. I was lucky, though, that my parents had a collection of fascinating books that didn’t advertise that they were history but were.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I should imagine that when we crash out of Europe Jacob Rees Mogg and his cohorts will revive the petition to have George deported back to Cappadocia and Edmund re-instated. Nigel Farage will hire a bus and there’ll be a campaign dissing George and big-upping (Fraggle dictionary) Edmund, followed by a referendum. We can only hope people vote according to their consciences.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating stuff! Recent seasons of The History Channel’s series, “The Vikings” feature Ivar and Edmund and the King of Wessex. I had no idea that Edmund grew (or rather, died) into sainthood, or that Ivar was aka The Boneless. In this series had a birth defect that left him without the use of his legs. They’ve painted him as a cruel and conniving man, but given that his people wanted him left out for the beasts to devour, one can hardly blame him. He’s one viewers love to hate.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Low, how the mighty have fallen” is part of a verse from the Old Testament. I can’t remember which book or who had fallen or why, but whoever wrote the passage seemed happy about it. The Bible is full of people not acting properly and getting punished for it.

    I never much liked the name Edmund. There were two in my school when I was growing up. Didn’t like either of them. Soured me on the name. Apologies go all the Edmunds out there who might be likable people.

    Enjoyed your post. Tidbits like that are hard to find. I used a geaneology site and read about my ancestors that lived long ago. You can read fascinating completely useless facts.

    The boneless. What a label to have in your life. Some of those kinlets had unflattering labels. Ethelred the Unready is my favorite. Can’t remember what he was unready for. A battle
    Maybe which he lost because he was not ready.

    I will stop now. Have a good week’

    Liked by 1 person

    • According to the 19-second research I just did, “the unready” meant badly advised. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. He spent his kingship fighting Vikings. I should do a post someday about the labels the variouis kings had to haul around. I remember some comic making a passing reference to the Virgin Queen Serena the Spotless. It sounded convincing enough to stick in my mind and to convince me that making up labels for monarchs is a worthwhile passtime.

      I don’t think I’ve ever known an Edmund. It’s very Anglo-Saxon, pre-Norman sounding.


  5. “Ivar the Boneless did have bones” made me laugh out loud, which few things do, and I had to provide a precise of your blog post to my kids who didn’t understand why I was laughing. I only had vague knowledge of St Edmund lurking in the dusty recesses of my memory but I’d forgotten the wolf bit. How on earth did I forget that?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well if they are going to call us heathens at least they called us Great Heathens!
    If Ivar The Boneless is anything like his character on Vikings, I want him to die this season. lol Taking history lessons from you is fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re the third person who’s mentioned the series. I’m going to have to search it out just so I can keep up. In the meantime, if you’re nine feet tall, you get to demand that people call you a great heathen.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Funny you should mention Edmund. My friends and I were betting on the latest royal baby’s name–and I chose Edmund (lost that one, obviously). But had no idea of the history behind the name! Thanks for a good story.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Edmund was even more unfortunate, as he shared patron saint status with Edward the Confessor. It wasn’t until the late 14th century, I think, that St George took over. He was Richard I’s personal saint, in that many medieval people (especially kings) chose a particular saint for their devotion. Edward III also chose St George and inaugurated the Order of the Garter on St George’s day. He celebrated St George’s day with jousts and feasts. This had a bit more influence on the English than the devotion of absentee-king, Richard I.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. With a capital P, Pagan is a term of positive pride, even if that’s not the way Alfred or Edmund would have said it.

    Eight-foot giants are rare enough to earn money posing with tourists. I can believe that Goliath and a handful of other nine-footers have existed…also that measurements may have been less precise back then, so some people reported to be nine or ten feet tall were only eight.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had to read the Chanson of Roland once, for I can’t remember what reason, and the only thing that stayed with me from it was that when they started counting by the thousands of warriors it was a poetic way of saying “lots.” So nine feet tall? Why not.

      I understand that some people have reclaimed the term pagan–capitalized or lower case–but the origin of the word is still that it was a dismissive way of talking about people Christians considered ignorant of the obvious truths of their religion.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Well, “your” old king Harold Bluetooth is known by nearly everyone today because….the BLUETOOTH DEVICE for MP3players, phones, etc. was named after him ! But wherever I read that didn’t explain why.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s a wonderful recreation of Viking York (in, predictably enough, York) that has a shoe that once belonged to Harald Bluetooth. How they know is anyone’s guess. But the name stuck with me. Before I was introduced to Ivar the Boneless, I thought it was a memorable name. Now it seems pretty pale.

      Maybe the next electronic gizmo should be named after Ivar.


  11. Heathens (in ye olden days) were simply folk who lived outside the settlements, on the heath lands. Could have been any reason, like being itinerants, but most likely still unswayed by the religious fashion of the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. We aren’t on the list, but my grandmother from Syria claimed St.George as her patron saint. She and her husband were among a small group of immagrants in western Pennsylvania that built St. George Orthodox Church in their small town.

    As you say, it ain’t up to the saints. Enjoy having Edmund as your patron. At least George is hard to abbreviate. St. Ed, St. Eddie – opps, no offence to Fast Eddie – are all possible. Send me a tee shirt 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fast Eddie is no saint and as far as I can tell has no aspirations in that direction. I know the mice and voles aren’t going to nominate him. As for me, I manage well enough without a patron saint, which is lucky since in the religion I subscribe to–Jewish atheism–they’re in short supply.

      I’ll probably spend the rest of the day looking for a way to abbreviate George, and cursing you for planting the thought in my undefended brain. Have you ever notice that when a name’s long, people shorten it, but when a names short, people lengthen it? How does St. Georgie sound?

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: England’s lost patron saint — Notes from the U.K. | Historytalker

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