King Alfred and the Cult of St Edmund
On February 3rd 1014, witnesses watched as a miracle took place in the town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. They were joined by an imposing but unwelcome visitor: the new king, Swein Forkbeard the Dane, had arrived fresh from conquering England to pillage both the wealthy shrine of St Edmund and the property of his new East Anglian subjects. But before he could begin, a vision of Edmund appeared and began gently to scold the king about his oppression of the English people. A more pious man than Swein might have found the intervention of a long-dead saint disconcerting, but he remained unflustered. Monastic chroniclers refrained from recording the exact nature of his reply to Edmund, but it was clearly not the kind of response that fell easily on the ears of a holy vision. Edmund was furious. The saint stormed up to Swein, raised his arm and struck him a blow of such force that the king was dead within moments.
Although this story was probably first told by the shrine-keepers at Bury as a way of advertising the powers of their saint, there is something nicely ironic about St Edmund despatching a Viking ruler. Edmund himself had been king of East Anglia from about 855, and, according to legend, was killed when he refused to serve the pagan leader of a band of invading Danes in 869. Accounts of his martyrdom vary, but the most popular is still that which claims he was thrashed, tied to a tree, shot full of arrows and eventually decapitated. His remains seem to have been lost for a while before turning up in time for translation to a new church built in Beodriceworth (probably an earlier name for Bury) at a later, unknown, date. Around a century later, when Swein paid his visit – and Edmund was able to exact revenge for his earlier treatment at Viking hands – the East Anglian king’s fame had grown to such an extent that Bury was one of the richest monasteries in the land.
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