Tag Archives: St Edmund

A Mess of Saints – the battle to be England’s patron saint.

So who should be patron saint of England? St George? St George is fine. And very popular: many countries around the world have adopted him as their patron saint, just as England did. But I wanted to use St George’s Day as the springboard to bring back England’s neglected first patron saint: Edmund. Edmund was made patron saint of a newly united England, and remained so, alongside the later Edward the Confessor, until Edward III officially made St George our saint in the mid 14th century. For over ten years there has been a drive to reinstate St Edmund, and it’s a fun idea. It’s all too easy, though, to see the drive to reinstate the (possibly) local English-born Edmund over the Palestinian/Turkish/Greek George as an exercise in jingoism – out with the foreigner, bring back the native born son! So we need to tread carefully. St George has wide appeal and everyone knows about the dragon killing and the princess rescuing (though that’s a bit non-PC in my book!) though fewer I suspect know about the story of his martyrdom at the unwilling hands of Diocletian, who knew him, respected him and had been a friend of his father.

Of course, George does have a claim to Englishness. There are those who say that he was born in Coventry – and died there too – but this derives the legend of the seven champions, recorded in England as The Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom by Richard Johnson in 1596. This wacky series of tales about some of the most popular saints in Britain at the time (including all our patron saints: Patrick, Andrew, David and George, as well as those of Spain, France and Portugal, James, Denis and Anthony of Padua) are romances in which the hero-saints win fair maidens, fight enchantments and the enemies of Christendom. They were very popular and bear very little reference at all to the lives of the saints themselves: St Andrew, for example, delivered six women who had lived for seven years as swans and all of the saints were put into an enchanted sleep in the Black Castle. These tales inhabit the worlds created by Sir Thomas Malory and the other, earlier Romance writers – it’s easy to see why they were so popular. Be warmed, though! They are super racist and sexist… A product of their time.

What about Edward the Confessor? His reign was free from war, so he was called the ‘Peacemaker’. He was canonised in 1161, and was regarded as a patron saint to England until, again, St George was brought to the fore. Whether Edward was truly worthy of his title is a matter for debate, especially as after he died in 1066 a furious battle for England began between the claimants to the throne resulting in the Norman Conquest, the results of which, I might argue we still feel today… His canonisation may owe more to the ambitions of the clergy of Westminster Abbey than to any actual holiness! However, a legend says that when he was in the last year of his life he gave a ring to a beggar who had pleaded to him in the name of St John the Evangelist, and subsequently St John assisted two English knights lost in the Holy Land because of what Edward had done and instructed them to go back and tell Edward that in six months he would be waiting to escort Edward through the pearly gates. He was also supposed to heal the sick within his own lifetime, starting the tradition in England of kings having the healing touch. For information, his saint’s day is 13 October – easy to remember, as it’s the day before the Battle of Hastings…

Unbeknownst to me, apparently we had a third patron saint as well: St Gregory the Great. Gregory is honoured because he sent the first mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons: he’s the one who made the witty comment about some Anglo-Saxon slaves he saw in a market in Rome. Finding their appearance unusual: ‘fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair,’ he enquired after them. It was explained that they were pagans from the island of Britain. Gregory was disappointed that ‘such bright-faced folk are still in the grasp of the author of darkness’ and asked the name of their race. The slaver replied: ‘They are called Angles.’ Gregory came back with the retort ‘Non Angli sed angeli,’ – not Angles but angels. He then continued punning on discovering that they were from the province of Diera (which then stretched from the Humber to the Tees), saying that ‘they shall indeed be rescued de ira (from wrath) and called to mercy of Christ.’ On hearing that their king was Aelle, he then punned on that, saying that it was right that their land echoed with the word to praise God, Alleluia…(1) What a wit! He acted immediately to beg the then pope to send a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons, but only achieved this when he himself became pope. He has the saint’s day 3 September.

And then St Edmund the Martyr, our East Anglian saint. During his lifetime – or just after – there is one mention of him by name from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as it describes ‘a great heathen force’ arriving in 866 when Edmund is referred to as making a peace with them in East Anglia, though not by name, through to 870: ‘The force went over Mercia to East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford. In that year, St Edmund the king fought against them and the Danes took the victory, killed the king, and overcame all the land.’(2) From this the familiar legend grew of the death of Ragnar, the revenge of Ivar, Edmund’s devoted Christianity, the wolf’s head and so forth. You can find the whole tale, taken from many sources around Suffolk, in my Suffolk Folk Tales. Within 20 years of Edmund’s death a memorial coinage was being issued, already marking him as a saint, and in Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in 893, more biographical detail is given of his coronation and death. He is said to have been an inspiration to Alfred as he too fought against the Danes a few years later in the late 870s. His saint’s day is 20 November.

I’ll be blogging more on St Edmund, and the Vikings in his story: Ragnar Hairy Breeches and Ivar the Boneless, as well as the various revenges of the saint on various unholy royals and council planners (and his nicer catalogue of saving children!) but today I wanted to put to you: who should be England’s saint? Well, why should we have to choose? Why not have the lot? Many countries have multiple saints – according to Wikipedia, France has seven, Germany has nine, and India and Japan have four and two respectively! So – shall we go back to having lots? Four saints? And maybe – can we have four bank holidays too?


1. Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Books, London, 1990), pp. 103-4
2. Savage, Anne (trans.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (CLB Publishing Ltd., Godalming, 1995), p. 92



Vikings in Suffolk – part 1: who do they think they are?


I know, it’s been ages since my last post – a legacy of mad hecticness in my other life as a museum curator that has lasted from June last year until now! But, celebrating the 1st anniversary of the publication of the book (well, nearly), off we go again! And back, eventually, to Hadleigh, from where the first photo comes, and where I went to school as a child, living as I did a few miles away in Lower Layham.

I visited the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum this week, and although the exhibition itself wasn’t all that exciting, it did set me thinking about how we think about Anglo Saxons and Vikings. A slightly depressing 20 years ago this autumn I started an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100 at York, so you can see that I am a bit keen on this period, and have been for a very long time… Feeling old! But it was a treat to go back to those roots when looking at the Viking material in the exhibition, so I’ll be posting a few blogs about this topic over the next week or so.

There are two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales that directly involve Vikings: King Edmund and The Legend of the Holy Well. In both stories I hope I have painted an ambiguous picture of the Northmen. Certainly characters like Ivar the Boneless and his brothers Hubba and Halfdan are vicious and bent on revenge, but they have come to avenge the great wrong they believe Edmund has done to their father Ragnar Lothbrok. But in fact, in the story, Edmund welcomed and befriended the lost Viking, and their shared culture allows Ragnar to slip into life at Edmund’s East Anglian court with ease. In the Holy Well story things are more complex. The early 19th century poem on which this story is based is itself based on a real battle at Nacton, near Ipswich, in the year 1010 between Ulfketel the Earl of East Anglia, and Thorkill the Tall, a Swedish Jomsviking. This was at the time at Sweyn Forkbeard was making a play for the English throne – on which more in the next blog! – but the names of the protagonists give it away. Thorkill was from Scandinavia, but Ulfketel is a Scandinavian name. Was he a Viking too? And, by the 11th century, after a century of intermarrying among the nobility – and likely below as well! – could you tell who was who, even if you wanted to?

Viking settlement in East Anglia begins after Edmund’s death in 869, in theory. But in fact it was another Englishman – the West Saxon King Alfred – who starts it in earnest. After subjugating Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and Mercia (877-9) Wessex was the next prize on the Great Heathen Army’s list, but, so the story goes, Alfred the Great rose up and defeated the Dane, Guthram at the Battle of Edington in 878 and Guthram, defeated, became a Christian. Triumph to the Saxons! And if you’d like to read that story, then check out my other Folk Tales collection, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Triumph to the English? Well, yes and no, as my (Scottish) Grandad would say.

What happened to Guthram after that? It’s a Suffolk story, after all. Guthram, by becoming a Christian with the nice new English name Athelstan, was now Alfred’s ally. They divided up their joint spoils between them, Guthram taking East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. Guthram seems to have taken his oaths seriously (this time!) and lived and ruled in the region, dying in 890 and being buried in what was presumably a royal vill, Hadleigh. Interesting aside – the Hadleigh Historical Society say in their timeline that Guthram killed Edmund. If true, it would an ironic full circle, given how much Alfred admired Edmund…

In the Vikings exhibition there is one really shocking thing (well, apart from some of the way the exhibition is designed, but that’s another story!). By the longship there is an assemblage of skeletons, heads separated from bodies, clearly hacked about – one hand has been cut through as the man was resisting even as his head was cut off. Here we are in a Viking exhibition. Clearly this is an atrocity by Vikings against the innocent English, isn’t it? Well, no. This was war. These men’s DNA has been traced back to Scandinavia. They are Vikings. Raiders? Warriors attacking from the Danelaw during wars between Alfred’s son Edmund the Elder and the Vikings over Mercian land? We can’t know. But it illustrates that there wasn’t a hair between the English and the Vikings – both were warrior cultures, keen to defend their own self-interest.

I’ll be blogging next time about the remarkable woman who wrote the poem that inspired the Legend of the Holy Well, and also Ulfketel and Thorkill, and about Sweyn Forkbeard and Edmund’s revenge, hopefully providing a small window into a time that must have been unsettling and difficult for the ordinary folk who lived in East Anglia – whether English or Viking.

Images: © Kirsty Hartsiotis

1. St Edmund’s head held by the wolf – a bench-end in St Mary’s

2. St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh: Guthram was buried in an earlier church probably on this site


Concerning dragons

You wouldn’t expect East Anglia to be the ideal place for dragons, and indeed there are few tales in Suffolk, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire. In Essex, though, there are many tales – but this isn’t the place to discuss such creatures. If you do want to find out more, my History Press colleague Jan William’s book Essex Folk Tales has all their secrets. It seems as if the dragons have all been vanquished now, just like all the other large predators that compete with humans, but both Norfolk and Suffolk did once have dragons. Norfolk’s dragon lived in Ludham in the Norfolk Broads, but doesn’t seem to have troubled the Suffolk black. She spent her time on the county’s southern border – no doubt because of the proximity of all those Essex foes!

The story detailed in Suffolk Folk Tales brings together two fifteenth century accounts. The first comes from 1405, when Henry IV was on the throne. England was still reeling from the deposition of Richard II – and his subsequent death in prison. Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh prince – and probably very familiar with dragons – rose up against the new king in 1400; and the Percy rebellion in the north was rumbling on. But these events didn’t affect the prosperous wool towns of Suffolk as much as a dragon arriving in their territory…

This first account comes from the Chronica Monasterii S. Albani – another example of a tale preserved by medieval monks. But this account isn’t as cut and dried as Ralph de Coggeshall. There is a bit of a mystery as to who wrote what – and when. Most people think the dragon was recorded by John de Trokelowe. It’s likely that Trokelowe was a scribe for another monk, William Rishanger. Trokelowe is a figure of some controversy as he took part in a rebellion against his mother house, St Albans, when living in the monastery’s dependent priory in Tynemouth (not very close to St Albans…) and he and the other monks were hauled back to St Albans as prisoners. Things must have been very tense in the monastery at that time, and it’s the time that’s the problem. This rebellion happened in the last years of the 13th century. Trokelowe was already a grown man – he couldn’t possibly have been writing more than a century later.

What about Rishanger? He was a chronicler at St Albans, but we know he was born around 1250. Still writing aged 150? Probably not, unless there’s a tale about St Albans that we don’t know! The Rishanger/Trokelowe chronicle was continued by Henri de Blaneforde, but he too is too early to be the writer. It seems likely that the chronicle that deals with Henry IV and Richard II was written by William Wyntershylle, another monk at the abbey described at the time as a ‘man of great learning’ by his peers. Who knows what went through his mind as he recorded the account of the dragon in far off Suffolk? Maybe he himself was a Suffolk man – or maybe this tale was the talk of the country!

This description gives us the first indications of the dragon’s appearance: ‘vast in body with crested head, teeth like a saw and tail extending to an enormous length.’ It identifies a key witness, the lord of Smallbridge Hall, Sir Richard de Waldegrave, the first of that name to live at the hall. He was 70 in 1405, and it’s possible that he, or a member of his family, span this tale to the monks at St Albans. But Sir Richard wouldn’t be there for the second sighting of the Suffolk black as he died in 1410.

The second account comes from another monastic source, and is found in the library of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. It records, in brief, a battle between a black dragon and a reddish spotted dragon over ‘Sharpfight Meadow’, one, probably the black, coming from ‘Kydyndon Hill’ and the other from ‘Blacdon Hill’ in Essex. These are now known as Shalford Meadows, Kedington Hill and Ballingdon Hill – but some sources say that Kedington is really named Killingdown after the dragon fight. In the monk’s tale, the red Essex dragon gains the victory, which I must say offended my Suffolk pride, so I decided to reinterpret what had happened and put a different spin on it.

I visited all the sights of these tales, and the folk tales that embellish them – a good accounting is given on the Bures St Mary website. We – my husband, my mother and I – fortified by a coffee from a farm shop nearby set out one day last July to brave the site of the black’s lair on Kedington Hill. It was one of the few hot days of last year’s miserable summer, and the fields were cracked and scorched looking. In one, there was a fine view down to the Stour, and my Mum discovered the secret of the Suffolk dragons – underground lairs. After all, what else could have caused that cracking and scorching, after all the rain we’d had, except a dragon?

We then discovered the ancient looking willows amidst rampant nettles above the housing estates on Ballingdon Hill, and made our way up onto the hill and out into similarly dry looking fields – was this the lair of the Essex beast? Then down to Henny Street to look at Shalford Meadows, with a picturesque Stour hung over by weeping willows, and equipped with friendly cattle that my husband took a shine to. So far so normal.

We went on to Bures, parked the car, and headed up St Edmund’s Hill towards the chapel that sits on the site of a more ancient church where the young king was crowned by Bishop Hunberht. We went with the villager’s assertion that the ‘Clappits’ described in the 1405 tale was indeed the Claypits Avenue, and climbed the hill from there, discovering on the way some friendly pigs. Would these creatures be so relaxed if a dragon still lurked nearby?

At the church, we admired the unexpected tombs of the Earls of Oxford now resting there after their journey from Earls Colne Priory in Essex. And then, when we emerged from the chapel we discovered that the Suffolk black had at last come home. For there, drawn carefully onto the hillside opposite, was a perfect dragon.


This dragon we discovered from a press cutting in the church, had been made by a local farmer – and distant descendent of Sir Richard de Waldegrave, Geoffrey Probert.
Long live the Suffolk black!