Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling!
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something, they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Written by Mark Forsyth. Courtesy of The Guardian Newspaper. Mark is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
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Stories from Medieval times have shaped our understanding of this classic Christmas figure.
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century. He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation.
The Naughty List: St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Fast travelling: Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
St Nicholas had a history of teleporting about on his own — often showing up in the nick of time when people ask for his help. As the patron saint of sailors, he often did this out at sea. In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home. Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer: None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying. The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears: A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So, with Santa Claus once again coming your way, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. See the following ‘Source’ link.
‘Saxon’ – ‘King’ – ‘Martyr’ – ‘Patron saint of East Anglia’ – ‘First patron saint of England’. All of these epithets can be applied to Edmund (or Eadmund), but for someone whose holy memory and cult of worship grew to enormous proportions in the early Middle Ages, very little is known of him. All that we know for sure is that he came to the throne of East Anglia some time before 865 AD, fought against the invading Danes, was killed by them in the winter of 869, and within 20 years, was being hailed as a saint. But it didn’t take long for miracles, stories and legends to gather about his memory, and many of these have made their mark on the landscape of East Anglia, from Hunstanton in the north-west of Norfolk, to Hollesley on Suffolk’s south-east coast. A conglomeration of all the basic myths about Edmund, many of which are still told today, would probably run something like this:
Once, East Anglia was ruled by a good and wise king named Offa. But the Christian Offa was childless, and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to offer prayers in the hope of being blessed with a son and heir. On his journey across Europe, he stayed for a while with his kinsman Alcmund, a prince of Old Saxony, and was much impressed by the nobility and piety of Alcmund’s 12-year-old son, Edmund. On the return trip almost a year later Offa fell ill, and seeing that he was about to die, commanded his council to recognise Edmund as his true successor. This they did, and with his father’s consent, called upon Edmund to take up the throne. The young lad and the late king’s nobles set sail for the eastern shores of East Anglia, but the strong winds of a storm blew them off course, sweeping them around the coast and finally beaching them on the sands at ‘Maidenbury’, now known as Hunstanton.
After a year spent in secluded contemplation and religious devotion, Edmund – by then still only 14 years old – was crowned by Bishop Humbert on Christmas Day, at a place now called Bures St. Mary in Suffolk, some say after having been elected king by consent of the populace. For a decade, Edmund grew in virtue and stature among his adopted people, being widely loved for his wisdom, strength and Christian kindliness. Then a prince of the Danes named Lothbroc or Lodbrog, out sailing alone off the coast of Denmark, was swept across the North Sea by a storm. His small craft was blown along the river Yare till it reached Reedham, where Edmund had his royal seat at that time. Although Lothbroc was well received into the court, Edmund’s chief huntsman, Bern, became jealous of the favour and honour the Dane was enjoying, and murdered him one day in some woods, when they were out hunting alone. The crime being later discovered, Bern was punished by being set adrift in Lothbroc’s own boat, which by chance was eventually washed up in the Dane’s own kingdom. Bern blamed the murder on Edmund, at which Lothbroc’s sons, Hinguar and Hubba, vowed to take their vengeance on the king.
The heathen and barbaric Danes landed with their armies first in the north, and while Hubba wrought destruction across Northumbria, Hinguar came to East Anglia, secretly entering a city, slaughtering all its people, and burning it to the ground. Other battles and sieges followed, including one where Edmund escaped his enemies by using a ford known only to him. Then Hubba came with another army to join his brother Hinguar, and they met the king in battle somewhere near Thetford, the Danes winning the day. Edmund fled 20 miles east to his royal town of ‘Haegelisdun’, now known as Hoxne in Suffolk, with his foes following. Some say that Edmund threw down his weapons, vowing to stay true to his people and his faith, and he was seized in his own hall. Many say that he hid beneath a bridge, but was betrayed by a newly-married couple who saw the golden glint of his spurs reflected by moonlight in the water, and gave him up to the Danes. They called on him to yield up his treasures and his kingdom, to reject Christ, and to bow down before them, but Edmund refused to submit, saying that he alone must die for his people and his God. Dragging him out to a field, they beat him and scourged him with whips, then tied him to a tree and fired dozens of arrows into him.
Even then the young king defied them, calling upon God for help, so they struck off his head and threw it into deep brambles in a nearby wood, leaving his body where it had fallen. After the heathens had departed, to begin their terrible rule of the land, Edmund’s folk came out of hiding, and found the mutilated corpse of their lord still bound to the tree – but where was the saintly head? Although they searched by day and night for weeks, nothing could be found until a voice came out of the wood, calling “Here, here, here!” Following the voice, they found that it was coming from the lips of the severed head itself, which was being cradled between the paws of a huge grey wolf. The people gently retrieved the head and took it back to the town, the wolf walking tamely behind until it was sure that all was safe, then disappearing back into the forest. Behind them, a miraculous freshwater spring broke through the soil where the beloved head had lain. With huge sorrow and reverence the head was placed back upon its shoulders, the body of the king buried in a grave, and a simple wooden chapel hastily erected over the spot.
Over the years miraculous healings occurred at the little chapel, including a pillar of light emerging from the grave that restored sight to a blind man. As peace returned to the land pilgrims began to make their way there, and Edmund’s fame and saintliness spread. In time, the martyred king’s body was transferred to a new and grander church built for it some miles away at ‘Beodricesworth’, the town that would later become Bury St. Edmunds. But when the grave was opened, not only was Edmund’s body found to be incorrupt, but all the wounds on his body had healed, and all that was left to show where his head had been severed was a thin red crease on the neck.
More miracles followed over the centuries at the new shrine, and as his fame spread, so did princes, kings and a host of other pilgrims come to the abbey that was built around him, to give him honour and pray for his blessing. Although his exact place of burial is now unknown, it’s said that Edmund’s body still lies somewhere under the abbey ruins, even now whole and incorrupt, and a treasure buried with him.
The next section looks at how this mythology came into being, through the writings of Saxon and medieval scribes.
Part 2 – The Chronology of Legend:
865 AD: We know from contemporary coinage that by this time, Edmund is ruler of East Anglia, having followed a king named Æthelweard. This means that he is the one responsible for placating the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes with a gift of horses when they arrive late in this year, as told in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’:
“…and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed, and the inhabitants made peace with them”.
But four years later the Danes are back, and after a triumphant slaughter in Northumbria, and an unsatisfactory peace at Nottingham, this time either they or Edmund decide that things aren’t going to go the same way again:
869 AD: “In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.
That entry in the ‘Chronicle’ was written just before 890, which is at about the same time that commemorative coins begin to be issued, and for another 20 years, inscribed ‘Sc Eadmund rex’, showing that Edmund is already being recognised as a saint, well within the lifetimes of those who have known him.
893 AD: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ is believed by most scholars to have been written in about this year, again within living memory of Edmund. According to the Welsh monk, “Edmund the most glorious king of the East-Angles” begins his reign on Christmas Day in 854, when he is only 14 years old. But it isn’t until exactly one year later that Edmund is consecrated as king by Bishop Humbert, “in the royal town called Burva, in which at that time was the royal seat”. Asser relies heavily on the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for many of his facts, and so follows the line that Edmund dies in battle. Although the death of a Christian king in combat with ‘the heathens’ was in itself enough to claim sainthood, it’s another 90 years before the notion of a solitary martyrdom for Edmund is written down.
985-7 AD: Between these dates the monk Abbo of Fleury writes his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, which is where the meat of the mythology begins. Abbo dedicates the work to Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, from whom he heard the story himself when Dunstan was an old man. The archbishop had heard it in his youth from a very old man who had claimed to be Edmund’s own armour-bearer at the time of his death, and thus an eye-witness to the events. Here, about 116 years had passed, and it is possible for two memories to cover such a period; most scholars seem to have accepted that this tale as truthful – if embroidered in the telling and retelling! In the ‘Passio’, Edmund is said to be of ‘ancient Saxon’ stock, which others later take to mean that he comes from Old Saxony in Germany – but Abbo would surely have highlighted the fact if a foreigner was taking the East Anglian throne’.
For the first time names are given to the main Danish protagonists: Inguar and Hubba (known from other sources as Ivar and Ubbi). After they conquer Northumbria, Hubba stays behind while Inguar takes a fleet east round the coast, then lands “by stealth” at a city in East Anglia and burns it to the ground, killing all its inhabitants. Slaughtering other men round about to deplete Edmund’s forces, Inguar then tortures a few to reveal the king’s whereabouts:
“Eadmund, it happened, was at that time staying at some distance from the city, in a township which in the native language is called Hægelisdun, from which also the neighbouring forest is called by the same name”.
Now we are told about the famous tale of how Edmund rejects Inguar’s terms, is seized in his hall, beaten, lashed to a tree, shot full of arrows, and beheaded even as he cries out to Christ.
“And so, on the 20th November, as an offering to God of sweetest saviour, Eadmund, after he had been tried in the fire of suffering, rose with the palm of victory and the crown of righteousness, to enter as king and martyr the assembly of the court of heaven”.
The story of the wolf and the speaking head follows, the bringing together of the head and the body, and the building nearby of a rough chapel over the grave. Abbo adds that the body is found to be whole and incorrupt many years later, when it is translated to “a church of immense size” newly constructed for it at ‘Bedrices-gueord’ (Bury St. Edmunds), where many miracles are attributed to the saintliness of the young martyr – who, according to the chronology, is 28 when he dies.
Although the basic story of the martyrdom is usually felt to be truthful, there are contradictions between Abbo’s account and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (such as the omission of any battle), which some later scribes have used as an opportunity to create further snippets of the mythology. The late Professor Dorothy Whitelock felt that Abbo may have melded the events of 865 and 869 into one narrative, so the burning of a city may well belong to the earlier incursion by the Danes. And the absence of a specific final battle may simply have been because Edmund’s armour-bearer was only asked about the martyrdom itself.
Late 11th century: Soon after 1095, Hermann of Bury’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ says that Edmund is first buried at a place called ‘Suthtuna’ (Sutton), close to the site of his death. He also relates that Edmund’s body is moved to Bury during the reign of Æthelstan (924-39), while later scholarship has pinned it down to around 903-905.
1101: The foundation charter of Norwich Priory grants to that establishment the church at Hoxne, along with a chapel of St. Edmund in the same place, “ubi idem martyr interfectus est”: “where the same martyr was killed”. Thus the identification ‘Hægelisdun’ = Hoxne comes about for the first time. Although some historians believe the claim to be invented, to give the Priory greater status through association, it does at least show that the Hoxne tradition has been around for over 900 years.
Early 12th century: The ‘Annals of St. Neots’ are written, probably at Bury, and introduce the idea that Hinguar and Hubba are the sons of a Dane called Lodebroch.
c.1133: From the ‘Íslendingabók’ by Ari the Wise: “Ívarr, Ragnarsson Loðbrókar, lét drepa Eadmund inn Helga Englakonung” – “Ivarr, son of Ragnar Loðbrók, ordered to be killed Edmund the saint, King of the Angles”.
1135-40: Geoffrey of Gaimar is one of those ‘later scribes’ mentioned above who uses the gaps and inconsistencies in Abbo’s work to add to the Edmund legends. In his ‘L’Estoire des Engleis’, he recounts a battle lost by Edmund (not recorded by Abbo), after which the king flees to a castle and is besieged. As he emerges secretly, he is recognised and held until Ywar (Hinguar) and Ube (Hubba) arrive, and is then martyred.
1148-56: The ‘De Infantia Sancti Eadmundi’ of Geoffrey of Wells says that it is King Offa of East Anglia who chooses Edmund to succeed him, that he comes from Old Saxony, and lands at ‘Maydenebure’ (Hunstanton) where 12 springs burst from the ground as he kneels to pray. The major problem here is that there has never been a ‘King Offa of East Anglia!’ Geoffrey tells how Edmund founded a royal dwelling at Hunstanton, then spends a year in seclusion at Attleborough in Norfolk, learning the Psalter by heart. The ‘De Infantia’ now brings in the powerful Dane Lodebrok who, hearing of the fame of Edmund, taunts his three pirate sons to achieve as much. These sons are named as Hinguar, Ubba and Wern (a mistake for Bern, or Beorn), who then invade East Anglia and kill Edmund, the tale following Abbo’s version.
c.1180: The metrical biography ‘La Vie Seint Edmund le Rei’ by Denis Piramus states that Edmund was elected king at Caistor St. Edmund in Norfolk (the year before his coronation), and gives the name of Orford in Suffolk as the town that was destroyed by Hinguar.
Early 13th century: The chronicle of Roger of Wendover helps to shape the mythology further by introducing the story of Lothbroc coming to Reedham in Norfolk, being killed by Bern (here Edmund’s huntsman, not one of Lothbroc’s three sons), then Hinguar and Hubba killing Edmund in vengeance. The king meets the Danes in battle “not far from the town of Thetford”, and after they have fought to a bloody standstill, he takes the remainder of his forces “to the royal vill of Hæilesdune”. This place, he says, “is now called Hoxen by the natives”. Although he then gives Abbo’s account of the martyrdom, Roger says it was Bern who caused the king’s head to be thrown into the wood.
c.1220: A St. Albans text incorporated into a chronicle usually attributed to John of Wallingford is the first to give Edmund’s father a name – Alcmund – but this is a complete mix-up with the father of King Egbert of Wessex. Nevertheless, the name sticks.
c.1370-80: A collection of material on St. Edmund is included in a manual for the instruction of novice monks, in a manuscript (MS 240) currently held in the Bodleian Library, probably compiled by the Bury monk Henry Kirkstede. In it, Edmund is again from Old Saxony, but is said to have been born in Nuremberg (which isn’t in Saxony!) In a variation of Geoffrey of Gaimar’s tale of Edmund taking refuge in one of his castles, here the king is betrayed by an old blind man, a mason who had helped to build the castle. In this, the Danes bribe the mason to show them a weak spot in the defences, allowing them to enter, after which Edmund manages to escape.
In this manuscript it is also noted that, to escape the Danes, Edmund crosses a river at a hidden ford called ‘Dernford’, and is thus able to rejoin his main army and fall upon and rout his enemies. Although this is no more than a fragment, mixed in with many other later apocryphal tales about the saint, at least one researcher thinks it may represent a much older tradition, set at a real (though unknown) location. It may be either the origin of, or a variation upon, a similar escape at ‘Bernford’, the earliest written record of which I have found (so far) dates from 1790. Now, the basic mythology is in place. The next section is another chronology, this time looking at the few historical facts we actually know, both of Edmund’s life, and what happened to his body after death.
Part 3 – History As We Know It:
841 AD: Edmund is born. The Danes make their first raid into East Anglia. Æthelweard is king at this time. 854 AD: Edmund succeeds to the throne of East Anglia on Christmas Day. 855 AD: Edmund is consecrated as king, again on Christmas Day, at ‘Burva’. 865 AD: A ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes arrives in England by ship, sets up its winter camp somewhere in East Anglia, and is bought off with a gift of horses. It’s quite possible that various battles occur before peace is brokered. 866-868 AD: The Danes leave for Northumbria, capture York, campaign in Mercia, force Nottingham to sue for peace, then go back to York for the winter. 869AD: The Danes ride back across Mercia to East Anglia, where they winter at Thetford. King Edmund fights with them, perhaps more than once at unknown locations, dies at ‘Hægelisdun’ on November 20th, and is buried there or nearby. The Danes take over East Anglia. c.903-5 AD: Edmund’s body is translated to a church at ‘Beodricesworth’ (Bury St. Edmunds). c.956 AD: Bishop Theodred of London inspects Edmund’s body and confirms it is still incorrupt. 1010: A Danish force lands at Ipswich. For safety, Edmund’s body is taken to London and kept there for three years. 1013: On its journey back from London, the body travels through Stapleford, where the local lord is allegedly cured by a miracle. 1014: King Sweyn Forkbeard threatens to sack Bury unless a ransom is paid, but dies suddenly, supposedly struck down by a vision of St. Edmund. 1020: King Cnut orders a new stone church to be built at Bury, to be staffed by monks, which begins Bury’s rise to power as one of England’s most important abbeys. 1060: Abbot Leofstan of Bury pulls at Edmund’s head to see if it really is still attached to the body, but suffers a stroke and loses the use of his hands. 1095: Edmund’s body is translated into the new church, and is confirmed as still being incorrupt. 1101: The church and chapel at Hoxne are granted to Norwich Priory, as being the place where Edmund was killed i.e. ‘Hægelisdun’. 1198: Edmund’s body is moved into a new and grander shrine at Bury. A golden angel is described as being upon the coffin, and Abbot Samson touches the incorrupt body. 1217: After the French are called in to help fight against King John, and instead try to take the country, they claim to have taken Edmund’s body and other relics to Toulouse. 1465: The abbey church and shrine at Bury are badly damaged by fire. 1538: At the Dissolution of the monasteries, the King’s Commissioners take from the abbey large amounts of gold, silver and valuables, but find the shrine “very cumbrous to deface”. There is no mention of the saint’s body or relics. 1901: Relics from Toulouse are returned to England and lodged at Arundel, where they still lie. Scholars reject them as the genuine remains of Edmund.
The next section looks at Edmund’s presence in the legendary landscape of East Anglia.
Part 4 – The Landscape of St. Edmund:
As Edmund almost certainly did not come from Old Saxony, and he is very unlikely to have arrived by ship in 854 at Hunstanton. Some have said that the legend may have come about because of the existence of an old chapel dedicated to the saint there. But the chapel (TF675419), which now consists of no more than a short section of wall complete with archway, is said to have been built in 1272, while the first record of the legend originates with Geoffrey of Wells more than 100 years earlier. The actual site of his landing, ‘Maydenebure’ or ‘Maidenbury’, is unknown, but is usually believed to have been either at what is now St. Edmund’s Point, very near to the chapel, or less likely, Gore Point, a little further round the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea.
Although the healing springs that burst from the ground where the king-to-be knelt to pray are supposed to have been twelve in number, not all records agree. As White’s ‘History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk’ says in 1845: “A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”. Where these springs (or well) used to be is uncertain. But the sweetness of their water was supposed to have given rise to the town’s name: the ‘Honey-Stone Town’. ‘Honeystone’, however, is the local name for the native rich brown carstone that makes up much of the area’s remarkable ‘striped’ cliffs. The real origin of the name of the town is far more prosaic: the ‘tún’ or village of a Saxon called Húnstán. Local legend will have none of it though. It says that Edmund not only built a royal dwelling there, but he founded the town itself. The town sign proudly shows the crowned king standing tall, and behind him the wolf that guarded his sacred head after death (though some reckon it’s not a wolf at all, but Black Shuck himself, East Anglia’s own phantom hound!)
Although Geoffrey of Wells reported that, after landing here, Edmund spent a year in contemplation at Attleborough, about 40 miles away, other tales say that it was at Hunstanton itself that he spent a year in a tower (or, in a minor local variation, in the chapel, which some believed Edmund himself built). Still others, probably misreading the place-name, claim the honour for Aldeburgh in Suffolk.
Attleborough crops up again as the place where Edmund was supposedly acclaimed or elected king after his arrival, a mythical event that only occurs in the medieval tales. With little historical accuracy, White’s ‘Directory’ for 1854 tells us that, in Saxon times, the town was “the seat of Offa and Edmund”, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank“. In fact this embanked earthwork, which may indeed be Saxon in date (though probably very early), is named Bunn’s Bank, and fragments of it run for about two miles around the edges of Attleborough, Old Buckenham and Besthorpe parishes. Local people, who are proud of the alleged association with Edmund and have named several areas of Attleborough after him, are convinced that the king had the bank built as a defence against the invading Danes.
Another place claimed for the site of Edmund’s mythical election as king is Caistor St. Edmund, just south of Norwich. Specifically, the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, which was built just after the failed Boudiccan revolt in 70 AD, as a way of controlling the local Iceni population. Some like to say that this was another of Edmund’s royal seats (a ‘palace’ according to Edmund Gillingwater) – but while the Saxons would have been attracted by the 20 foot high flint and brick-faced wall that was built around the settlement at the end of the 2nd century, the stone would have been robbed out soon after the Romans left, and there’s little sign of habitation after 500 AD. The suffix of the village (and thus the dedication of the church) can be explained by the fact that both manor and church were granted to Bury St. Edmunds abbey by Edward the Confessor.
Quite why Reedham on the river Yare, at the southern end of the Norfolk Broads, was chosen by Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century to be another of Edmund’s royal seats, I cannot imagine. This is the place where Ragnar Lothbroc supposedly made land after being blown across the North Sea, and where he was murdered by Edmund’s huntsman, Bern. The antiquaries of the 19th century used to think that Reedham was once a ‘Roman station’, and that on this tongue of land above the river there used to stand a ‘pharos’ or Roman lighthouse – but it was all wishful thinking, not born out by the archaeology.
As well as Hunstanton, Bures, Attleborough, Caistor and Reedham supposedly being royal ‘vills’, some tales tell that Edmund’s main seat was at Rendlesham, not far from Woodbridge in Suffolk. Certainly there was once a royal house here, that belonged to the early Saxon kings of East Anglia known as the Wuffingas. The dynasty reached the height of its power in the time of Rædwald, who died in about 625 AD, and who may well be the king commemorated in the famous ship burial among the mounds of the royal cemetery at nearby Sutton Hoo. But the Wuffingas died out with King Ælfwald in about 749, and there’s no evidence that Rendlesham was occupied by royalty then, let alone 100 years later in Edmund’s day.
The Coronation Chapel: As far back as 893 AD we’re told by Asser that Edmund was consecrated as king at ‘Burva’, the royal seat at that time (which incidentally contradicts the assertion above that Attleborough was the fictional Offa’s seat). No one actually knows for sure where this place was, but by long tradition – possibly dating back to the 12th century – ‘Burva’ has been identified with the village of Bures St. Mary, on the river Stour south of Sudbury in Suffolk, which appears in Domesday Book as ‘Bura’. An old hilltop chapel above the village is locally believed to be the site of Edmund’s coronation, while there is a ‘St. Edmund’s Hill’ a mile or so to the north.
Defences: Both history and legend are silent on the activities of Edmund after his coronation. But with the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia, his name starts being attached to more localities throughout the region.
Running across Newmarket Heath, and in part forming the boundary between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is the Devil’s Dyke. Possibly of Romano-British or early Saxon date, this huge bank and ditch can be traced for 7½ miles from Wood Ditton to Reach. Although some tales say it was built by giants, the main legend says that one day the Devil arrived, uninvited of course, at a wedding being held in the church at Reach. As the unwelcome guest was being chased away, his fiery tail dug an enormous groove in the earth, and the dyke was formed. But this is a late piece of local folklore. In Norman times it was known as ‘Reach Dyke’, then in the Middle Ages, the ‘Great Ditch’ (Miceldic), or ‘St. Edmund’sDyke’. Although it gained the latter name because it marked the limit of jurisdiction of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds, many believed that Edmund himself ordered the earthwork to be built as a defence against the Danes, and gave it the name ‘Holy Edmund’s Fortifications’.
Castles & Battles: There was a time in antiquarian studies when just about every ditch, earthwork and ancient burial mound in Norfolk and Suffolk, irrespective of its actual date, was supposed to mark the place where Saxon fought Dane. Plenty of them are recorded on this site, such as Drayton, Lyng, Warham, Glemsford and Nacton. Even the 15th century monk John Lydgate, biographer of Edmund, said of his own Suffolk origins that he was:
“Born in a village which is called Lydgate
By olde time a famous castel towne
In Danes time it was beate downe
Time when S. Edmund martir made and King
Was slain at Oxne, record of writing”.
Orford on the Suffolk coast is claimed by Denis Piramus in about 1180 to be the town destroyed by Hinguar, arriving to avenge his father Ragnar’s death. Indeed, one local legend has the Danes making a landing at Orford, fighting with Edmund, then pursuing the king to Staverton Park near Butley, where a savage battle ensued. But some later tales have claimed that it was actually Norwich, now Norfolk’s capital city, that was burned to the ground. (This may be a confusion with the historical burning of Norwich by King Sweyn Forkbeard in 1004).
An early medieval story tells how Edmund, fleeing from the Danes after a battle, sought refuge in one of his castles, and was there besieged, only to be betrayed by an old blind mason. Local traditions have identified this castle with both Old Buckenham (near Attleborough in Norfolk) and Framlingham in east Suffolk, from which Edmund then escapes and flees to Hoxne, where he is caught and slain. The Normans erected a castle at Buckenham, from which the stone was taken in the 12th century to build a priory. Only a fragment remains of this near the manor house. But the castle was raised within an existing rectangular earthwork that looks more Roman than anything, but could well be early Saxon in date. At Framlingham on the other hand, much remains of the magnificent keepless but curtain-walled castle built by Roger Bigod in about 1200. This was on the site of an earlier Bigod castle that Henry II had demolished in 1174 – but local tradition (with little authority) says that there was a fortification on the site as far back as the late 6th century, supposedly built by King Rædwald himself.
On the southern edge of Thetford can be found the remains of the 12th century Benedictine Nunnery of St. George. Before that, legend says it was a priory of canons, founded in the reign of King Cnut (1014-35) in memory of those who fell nearby in a great battle between Edmund and the Danes. This may or may not be the same battle – the king’s last – as that recorded for Rushford, where the Seven Hills mounds mark the graves of the slain on Snarehill, just outside Thetford.
Also of interest here is a passage that I found in Allan Jobson’s 1971 book ‘Suffolk Villages’. Speaking of Columbine Hall at Stowupland, the moated enclosure of which was popularly “thought to date from Danish times”, he tells of an ‘old illustration’ found there, showing “the head of St. Edmund, set on a rayed background”. Upon this illustration was an inscription, which read: “Head of St. Edmund. Formerly in the Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds. Beheaded by the Danish invaders Juga and Hubla at Eyberdun, now Hoxne in 870 A.D. at a great battle below Columbyne Hall in the valley of the Gipping”. I don’t know the age or provenance of this illustration, nor whether it still exists – but it’s certainly very odd. The implication seems to be that ‘Eyberdun’ is some weird transliteration of ‘Hægelisdun’, though how it reached that stage, I can’t imagine. When the inscription says that Edmund was beheaded at Hoxne, “at a great battle…”, I’m pretty sure that’s an error for “after a great battle…” otherwise it makes no sense. Hoxne is nowhere near the Gipping valley.
A legendary battle at Lyng in Norfolk is supposed to have been fought between Edmund and the Danes, with Edmund retreating to Castle Acre. At this spot is the ‘Great Stone’ which bleeds when pricked; the blood is that from the battle.
A battle that Edmund is supposed to have won is said to have occurred somewhere between Barnby and Carlton Colville, a little west of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and a long way outside the areas normally associated with the king. Gillingwater (below) says that it was the battle at ‘Bloodmere-field’, now Bloodmoor Hill at nearby Gisleham, but this is nowadays said to have been between the Angles and the Romano-British, several centuries earlier. There is actually no evidence that a battle took place there in any era.
The Hidden Ford: At Barnby there is also the Suffolk legend that Edmund escaped his foes, then defeated them at ‘Bloodmere-field’ by using a secret ford unknown to them. The earliest reference to this tradition that I can find comes from Edmund Gillingwater’s 1790 book, ‘An Historical Account of the Ancient Town of Lowestoft’. Here he localises the spot to “a ford (which was called Berneford, from Berno), and now called Barnby…” The idea was that the ford was named after Edmund’s huntsman, Bern, who had betrayed him and caused the Danes to invade (and who was probably invented as a result of a misidentification with Lothbroc’s son Bern/Beorn). Incidentally, Lothingland, the district in which Lowestoft stands, was once thought to have been named after Lothbroc himself. This tiny village of Barnby on the river Waveney actually derives its name from ‘Biarni’s homestead’, and is one of the few major Scandinavian place-names in Suffolk. It definitely doesn’t owe its origin to any mythical or historical ‘Bern’ or ‘Beorn’.
However, in Part 2 (above) I mentioned that a minor 14th century tale had Edmund surprising and defeating his enemies by using a ford called ‘Dernford‘. ‘Dern’ is an Old English word meaning ‘hidden’, so the implication is that this site is a ‘hidden ford’, either known to few people, or hidden topographically. It’s tempting to suggest two possibilities here: (1) that someone who didn’t know the word’s meaning, or who misheard it, may instead have given rise to the Barnby legend as a way of explaining the otherwise mysterious name of ‘Dernford’; or (2) that the ‘Bernford’ name came first, with its direct link to the Lothbroc legend. The fact that it was ‘hidden’ may have caused someone to record it as a ‘derne ford’, and interpret it as an actual place-name. My own guess is that the first possibility is the more likely of the two. Exactly which battle was won here may well never be known. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ only says that Edmund fought the Danes – which could refer to a single decisive conflict, or to a series of encounters, including the period when the Danes first wintered in East Anglia in 865, before peace was bought with a gift of horses.
Some years ago, an archaeologist speculated that Dernford, a Saxon manor and mill in the parish of Sawston just outside Cambridge, was the very spot where Edmund fought this battle. But in fact, there were at least four more ‘Dernford’s in East Anglia (actually all in Suffolk), and far closer to the accepted orbit of Edmund than Cambridge. One was in the parish of Foxhall, about 4½ miles from Sutton Hoo, where Domesday Book says was once a manor called ‘Derneford’ (later Darnford), presumably at a crossing of the Mill River. Another is 10 miles to the north-east of Sutton Hoo, where Dernford Hall sits beside the river Alde, in the little village of Sweffling. The third is about 5½ miles south-east of Stowmarket in Suffolk, where ‘Derneford’ recorded in Domesday Book later became Darnford, possibly referring to a ‘hidden’ crossing of the river Gipping. The fourth I’m grateful to Keith Briggs for bringing to my attention, located in the parish of Cookley, south-west of Halesworth.
The Place of Death: Speculation on the actual site of Edmund’s final battle, his martyrdom and first resting place will be held until the last chapter of this investigation. Tradition, however, has several suggestions.
Hoxne, of course, is the favourite, its claim to being ‘Hægelisdun’ dating back to at least 1101. With its chapel, healing spring, bridge and memorial of the tree on which Edmund died, this little village has become a focus for traditions of East Anglia’s own saint and martyr. With ‘Hægelisdun’ becoming ‘Hailesdune’ in later texts, someone created the notion that Edmund was slain at ‘The Hail’ at Southwold. This unlikely location is supposed to be a small hill on the seabed that once displayed the remains of a chapel to the saint. As with much of the coast hereabouts, the shoreline was once considerably further out than now.
Old Newton north of Stowmarket – specifically, a field called ‘The Pits’ – is another candidate in folklore for the site of Edmund’s martyrdom, cropping up again in Part 5 in conjunction with other local legends. More recently I’ve learned that Wissett near Halesworth also has a local tale of Edmund being captured and slain at a spot known as King’s Danger. Along with the lore that Edmund’s reign centered around Rendlesham goes a localised belief that – contrary to all historical and archaeological evidence – the king lies buried under one of the unexcavated mounds at Sutton Hoo.
The Burial Gate: If Edmund was really martyred at Hoxne, and if his body was really translated from there to ‘Beodricesworth’ in about 903 AD, then the procession would have travelled along the approximate route of what is now the A143 to Bury. Of all the villages the cortege would have passed through or close to, a memory of the event only seems to have been retained in one place. The name of the parish, Burgate (south-west of Diss), is derived in popular imagination from the ‘burial gate’, a spot where the body of the saint lay for one night on its journey to the new shrine at Bury St. Edmunds. But this is just a piece of poor etymology of course, as the name really means ‘the gate of a burg, or fortified place’, probably referring to the nearby Iron Age earthworks.
Shrine of the Saint: And so we come to Edmund’s (probable) final resting place – ‘Beodricesworth’, where King Sigeberht established a small monastery in about 633 AD, which had become ‘Sancte Eadmundes Byrig’ 400 years later, and is now Suffolk’s second town, Bury St. Edmunds. Exactly what became of the saint’s shrine after the Dissolution, we don’t know; and the remains of the abbey nowadays are not very extensive, and quite frankly rather dull. But in its day it was a powerful focus of pilgrimage, and the abbey second only to Glastonbury in wealth and influence.
The treasure still waiting to be found with his mortal remains has already been noted, as have some of the miracles associated with the king. But in the Middle Ages, even the invocation of his name was sometimes enough to produce miraculous results. An 8 year old boy from Cockfield apparently cut himself very badly with a knife, but when a prayer to Edmund was offered, the bleeding stopped instantly. A young labourer broke his neck in a fall, but recovered with the saint’s help. And when a boy drowned in a moat at Great Whelnetham, he came back to life when Edmund’s name was invoked.
In common with many other saints, not only Edmund’s body was preserved at his shrine. The parings of his nails and locks of his hair, plus his shirt, banner and sword were kept there. Although they were probably destroyed at the Dissolution (or perhaps in the fire of 1465), some like to say that, along with the king’s body, they still exist somewhere. And there is supposedly an ‘ancient prophecy’ that, before the end of the world, all the relics of St. Edmund will be returned to Bury.
Part 5 – The Last Mystery: Where Did Edmund Die?
According to History as we know it, the only fact we have concerning the death of King Edmund is that in 869, the Danes were wintering at Thetford, Edmund fought them, and was slain. So says the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ in about 890. End of story! However, 95 years later Abbo of Fleury tells us that Edmund was martyred at a township called ‘Hægelisdun’, with a nearby forest or wood of the same name, which was “at some distance” from the unidentified city that Inguar had burned. Although told at third-hand, this information supposedly comes from an eye-witness, and is generally accepted by scholars. But, where was ‘Hægelisdun’?
Hægelisdun – The Candidates:
Hoxne: For centuries Hoxne (pronounced ‘Hoxon’) was the only contender, and the inhabitants still think it so. The identification with the site of Edmund’s martyrdom in the Norwich Priory charter of 1101 may have been for ecclesiastical or political purposes, or it may have been confirming an existing local tradition. We may never know. But it’s telling that, although a chapel of St. Ethelbert is noted at Hoxne in Bishop Theodred’s will of 950, there’s no mention at all of Edmund.
Certainly, by that date, only 80 years after Edmund’s death, Hoxne was considered the ‘see’ or bishopric for Suffolk, and Theodred had his episcopal seat there. Research has uncovered the fact that there were once actually two medieval chapels dedicated to Edmund at Hoxne. One, at Cross Street, was to commemorate the place of his death, while the other was in a wood less than a mile away, in an area then known as ‘Sowood’ or ‘Sutwode’. Bungalow Farm now stands on the approximate site. In about 1100 that existing chapel of St. Ethelbert was rededicated to Edmund, and in about 1226 a small priory in his honour was established next to the chapel. But while these may be interesting facts, and may point to a tradition of religious importance attaching to the village, they are a long way from proving Hoxne to have been ‘Hægelisdun’.
The local tales of the healing spring and the Goldbrook Bridge are medieval or later additions to the mythos. The association of a particular tree at Hoxne with the tale of St. Edmund may be even more recent. When the oak fell in 1848, and people started claiming it to be the very tree to which the king was bound, a local man made it plain to the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ that he’d known the area for over 50 years, and no tree in Hoxne had ever been popularly connected with St. Edmund’s legend. Indeed, he said at the time that this particular tree was in fact known as Belmore’s Oak.
Despite this, the association was confirmed in many minds when John Smythies, a correspondent of the ‘Bury Post’, visited the fallen tree, and discovered embedded in its wood “a piece of curved iron, possibly an arrowhead”. A later writer said that it was actually a flint arrowhead (not very Danish!), while others claimed there were several. In truth there was only one, which for many years after could be seen displayed in the museum at Bury St. Edmunds. However, x-ray examination in more recent times has shown this rusty lump to be either a piece of fence wire, or a bent nail.
What about Abbo’s mention of “the neighbouring forest [which] is called by the same name [as ‘Hægelisdun’]”? Woodland in medieval Suffolk was actually quite sparse, most having been cleared in prehistoric times. But Hoxne Wood, though damaged by replanting, is indeed a remnant of this old forestation. The main objection to Hoxne being ‘Hægelisdun’ is the name. Hoxne had already been recorded as ‘Hoxne’ in the ‘Cartularium Saxonicum’ in 950 – more than 30 years before Abbo even wrote his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’. But Abbo of course was merely passing on a name that originated with Edmund’s armour-bearer perhaps 60 years earlier. So could ‘Hoxne’ have developed from ‘Hægelisdun’ between 869 and 950?
Although it is unique (and uncertain) in etymological terms, the best estimate for the meaning of ‘Hoxne’ is a derivation from the O.E. ‘hóhsinu’ meaning ‘heel-sinew’, from the resemblance of the land to the hough or hock of a horse (the northern part of the village stands on a spur or ridge above the rivers Dove and Waveney). We can safely ignore the 19th century antiquaries who theorised that ‘Hægelisdun’ meant ‘hill of eagles’. ‘Hægel’ is a Saxon personal name known from other locations such as Hailsham, Hayling and Hazeleigh (see also below under Maldon), and ‘Hægelisdun’ quite clearly means the ‘dún’ or hill of Hægel. Even without the written record, there’s no way that ‘Hoxne’ could be derived from ‘Hægelisdun’.
Actually, it’s surprising that 18th and 19th century antiquaries didn’t latch on to the town of Harleston as a possibility, as it’s only 5 miles from Hoxne, on the Norfolk side of the river Waveney. But the early forms of the name show that it derives from ‘Heroluestuna’ – the homestead of Herewulf. No ‘Hægelisdun’ here.
Hellesdon: Now a north-west suburb of Norwich, Hellesdon (pronounced ‘Hellsdun’) has long been the favourite of place-name experts and historians for the site of ‘Hægelisdun’. It appears in Domesday Book as ‘Hailesduna’, which is exactly the form one would have expected ‘Hægelisdun’ to have evolved into. Even in the mythology, by the time of Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century, the site of the martyrdom was being written as ‘Hæilesdune’. But once again, there are no traditional or cultic associations with St. Edmund. And quite frankly, we don’t know the origin of the name ‘Hellesden’. It could be named after a person or the actual Norfolk village for all we know, or it could be a corruption of something else entirely. Recent research by Dr. Keith Briggs has certainly shown that the identification with ‘Hægelisdun’ is far from a certainty. (See also under Maldon below.)
But the name is the only thing Hellesdon has going for it. There are no chapels, no legends, no traditions of association with Edmund, and no records of old woodland in the area. About a mile away, further up the valley of the river Wensum, is Bloods Dale at Drayton, where Dane is said to have fought Saxon – but no hint of a connection with the king’s last battle or death. Nevertheless, it has been theorised by Joseph Mason in his ‘St. Edmund’s Norfolk’ of 2012 that Edmund was indeed slain at Bloods Dale, then buried in what is now King’s Grove at Lyng.
Bradfield St. Clare: About 5 miles south-east of Bury St. Edmunds is the scattered parish of Bradfield St. Clare. Just south of Pitcher’s Green within the parish has been found, on the 1840 Tithe Map, the medieval field name of ‘Hellesden Ley’, which is the new favourite location of ‘Hægelisdun’. Its position, close to Bury and only about 15 miles from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, are in its favour, as are several ‘Kingshall’ place-names a couple of miles to the north at Rougham (where Bury owned a ‘Kingshalle’ manor before the Conquest). It has also been suggested that the presence of a building called ‘Bradfield Hall’ within the former Bury Abbey, and that the abbey cellarer paid rent for some small parcels of land in St. Clare, denote a close historical connection. Also, within the parish are several areas of lost or existing medieval woodland, including Bradfield Woods and Monkspark Wood.
Hollesley: Situated near the coast of Suffolk south-east of Woodbridge, Hollesley (pronounced ‘Hoseley’) is nowadays mostly known for being the location of a Young Offenders Institution. The earliest written form of the name is ‘Holeslea’, probably meaning the wood or clearing of someone named Hól or Hóla – and is clearly not a candidate for ‘Hægelisdun’. But because of its position within a few miles of Orford, Rendlesham and Sutton Hoo, that hasn’t stopped the locals from claiming it as the place where Edmund met his end.
Some have tried to strengthen the claim for the area by pointing to Domesday Book where is mentioned a small manor called ‘Halgestou’. At the time of Domesday it was held by the mother of the founder of Eye priory, Robert Malet, and was later variously known as ‘Haleghestowe’ and ‘Holstow’. Although the exact spot is unknown, W. G. Arnott in 1946 believed that it was on the east side of Shottisham, close to Hollesley. Personally, I wonder if it couldn’t be that spot now marked as ‘Holy Stile’, a meeting of roads and tracks roughly halfway between the two villages. It wouldn’t take much for local usage to corrupt ‘Holstow’ into ‘Holy Stile’.
The argument requires that Abbo wrote the name wrongly in the first place, transposing two of the consonants. Thus, instead of ‘Hægelisdun’, he should have written ‘Hæligesdun’, which would then (they say) mean ‘holy place’. But the linguistic twisting doesn’t stop there. One researcher wrote “No place-name expert would argue about Hæligesdun being spelled Halgestou, allowing for the lapse of time and change of circumstance (dun or stou both mean place)”. Well actually they would, and they don’t. One thing there’s no argument about is the existence of ancient woodland in the area, with Staverton Park and the Thicks just to the north, near Butley.
Maldon: More recently, another contender for ‘Hægelisdun’ has been compellingly put forward by Dr. Keith Briggs. He points to the place-name ‘Halesdunam’ which appears in Domesday Book at Hazeleigh, near Maldon in Essex. Disregarding the Latinization gives us the name ‘Halesdun’, appearing after 1272 as ‘Hailisduna’. The location may refer to a hill near Hazeleigh or, it has been suggested, to the hill that named Maldon itself: ‘mæl-dún’ or ‘hill with a monument/cross’. Dr. Briggs posits that the cross may have actually been a monument to the martyrdom of Edmund, but memory of its significance was later lost or suppressed. Edmund may have been here, far from his home territory, to aid an Essex ally in their defence against the Danes.
The name Hazeleigh itself translates as ‘Hægel’s wood’, but otherwise the location and lack of surviving traditions or other connections to Edmund for me mitigate against Maldon being the actual site of ‘Hægelisdun’. Nevertheless etymologically, ‘Halesdunam’ is as valid as Hellesdon, and probably more so than ‘Hellesden Ley’ at Bradfield. (See: ‘Was Hægelisdun in Essex?’ by Keith Briggs, in ‘Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History’, Vol. XLII, part 3, 2011, pp.277-291.) But there’s a second facet to this investigation, introduced by Hermann of Bury just after 1095. While ‘Hægelisdun’ is, according to Abbo, where Edmund died, Hermann (probably a mistake for an archdeacon named Bertrann) tells us that Edmund was first buried “in a little village named ‘Suthtuna’, close to the scene of his martyrdom…”
Suthtuna: The tales in Hermann’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ come partly from “an old book” and partly from “the tradition of our elders”. Hermann would certainly have known of Abbo’s ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, but doesn’t mention ‘Hægelisdun’ at all. The conclusion nevertheless is that the two places were quite close together.
‘Suthtuna’ comes from O.E. ‘Súþ-tún’, meaning southern homestead or village, and has resulted in the very common English place-name ‘Sutton’. But in East Anglia, this has survived in only one village-name in Norfolk, and one in Suffolk. The Norfolk instance is an out-of-the-way little hamlet next to Stalham in the Broads, and can almost certainly be discounted.
The Suffolk one is a different matter, and is the only one that appears in Domesday Book actually written as ‘Suthtuna’. This is the large (and mostly empty) parish of Sutton near Woodbridge, within which stands the Saxon royal cemetery at Sutton Hoo, and which takes us back to the whole Rendlesham/Hollesley/‘Halgestou’
At 34 miles as the crow flies from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, this seems an unlikely place for Edmund to have been buried. And despite the Saxon connections, the absence of a convincing ‘Hægelisdun’ still leaves this an improbable location for the action of the legend.
The existence of a place called Sutton Hall in Bradfield St. Clare parish has been introduced as further proof that this is the true burial place of Edmund. It can be found about ¾ of a mile south of the field once called ‘Hellesden Ley’, and stands next to a medieval moated enclosure. Here also the cellarer of Bury Abbey paid rent for some land.
At Hoxne, we have the traditions, but no actual ‘Hægelisdun’. Neither do we have a Sutton – but there was something quite close, and which could possibly have evolved from ‘Suthtuna’. According to the Wills of the Archdeaconry of Suffolk, dating from the mid-15th century, there was once a hamlet called ‘Suddon’ within the parish, and still exists as the area now called South Green.
Further away from Hoxne, 7 miles south in the parish of Kenton, is the manor of Suddon Hall, but of this I can find no further information. It’s just under 2 miles from Bloody Field at Debenham, where the name of Edmund has been ‘tacked on’ to a legendary Saxon vs. Dane battlefield.
So far we’ve considered possible locations for Edmund’s martyrdom and burial – but what about the site of his final battle with the Danes? Historically, we have absolutely nothing to go on.
Consider the words of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for 869 AD:
“In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.
It is unlikely that Edmund would have launched an attack directly at the Danes entrenched behind the Iron Age and Saxon defences at Thetford itself. Some have suggested that the king attacked them before they even reached Thetford, but to my mind that sequence of events cannot be gained from the ‘Chronicle’.
The most enduring local legend is that at Rushford, where the final conflict allegedly took place on the slopes of Snarehill just outside Thetford, to the south-east. It’s possible that Edmund somehow drew the Danish forces out from behind their defenses to this range of low hills – but the tale probably came about because of the existence of many burial mounds spread along the ridge which are, however, bell barrows of the Bronze Age. Whether he fought them once or several times, any of the battles, including the last, could have been many miles from Thetford.
The Mystery Remains:
So, there are several clusters of possibility, but no definitive answer. To summarise:
HOXNE: 900 years of tradition and religious association, plus medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’, and only a possible ‘Sutton’. HELLESDON: A fairly convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, but that’s all. BRADFIELD ST. CLARE: A definite ‘Sutton’, a possible ‘Hægelisdun’, a couple of other suggestive place-names and medieval woodland, but no traditional associations. HOLLESLEY area: Here is a positive ‘Sutton’, and the remains of ancient woodland, but a highly dubious ‘Hægelisdun’, an association with Saxon kings that is too early, an unlikely location, and a weak (and probably recent) tradition of Edmund. OLD NEWTON area: An Edmund legend and other relevant traditions, medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’ or ‘Sutton’. WISSETT: A very minor Edmund tradition, with no other evidence. MALDON: A convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, an ancient wood of similar name, and a plausible historical reason for Edmund to be here, but no ‘Sutton’, and no surviving traditions.
I suspect that, among historians, Bradfield St. Clare and perhaps Hellesdon will continue to be the favoured locations for the events of St. Edmund’s death and burial. I doubt however that anything will shake the belief of Hoxne residents that their village is the one true site. Maybe someday, someone trawling through medieval manuscripts or charters, wills or maps, will come across another ‘Hægelisdun’, with a ‘Suthtuna’ nearby, and make the connection. But there would still be the question of tradition. Such a series of events would, I think, have left an indelible mark of legend on the landscape. If not Hoxne, Hollesley, or Old Newton, then where? The mystery of Edmund – king, martyr, and saint of East Anglia – remains!
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There is something quite eerie about ravens, and there is something equally eerie about church ruins; seeing both together can, for the more imaginative, be quite chilling. None more so than when approaching the old church ruins of St Felix at Babingley, on the royal estate in Norfolk.
Babingley is a small hamlet which includes an abandoned village which adjoins the St Felix church ruin, standing as it does some 6 miles north of Kings Lynn and surrounded by fields and marsh, near the junction of the B1439 and the A149. Silence still manages to pervade the place and ivy masters its walls if not cut back. The added presence of jackdaws whirling above and swapping places between the church tower and nearby trees makes for drama. Make no mistake, this is the type of isolated spot that rides the surrounding fields well, particularly on bright winter days before the annual ploughing is spring carpeted and lambing begins. Best to witness the place when there is a chill in the air – for it has history and a legend!
Babingley has long claimed itself as the landing place of St Felix of Burgundy, in AD 631, who came to convert the East Angles to Christianity. It is said that he was invited by the Wuffings (or Wuffingas or Uffingas), the royal East Anglian family,. Others, like Wikipedia, is more specific by stating that Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy, first to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia‘s kingdom. He travelled by sea and on arrival via Babingley, Sigeberht gave him a See at Dommoc . According to Bede, Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom “where boys could be taught letters”. Felix of Burgundy was also known as Felix of Dunwich. He became a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles.
“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.
Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!
A Clerk of Oxford further states :”Working with the aid of the ill-fated King Sigeberht, he [Felix] established churches, a school, and an episcopal See at a place called Dommoc (perhaps to be identified with the town of Dunwich, which has since disappeared almost entirely into the sea). Felix had help from the newly-founded church of Canterbury, and was consecrated as bishop by Honorius, the last surviving member of the Gregorian mission to England………Bede, in etymological mood, tells us (in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15)”:
“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis)”.
Felix was Bishop for seventeen years, until his death on 8 March 647/8. His relics were preserved at Soham [ Soham Abbey], but the shrine and community there were destroyed in the ninth century by a Viking raid. In the eleventh century Cnut gave permission for the monks of Ramsey Abbey to take possession of Felix’s relics…… There’s a memorable story in Ramsey’s own chronicle, the Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, which claims that when the Ramsey monks were sailing home with Felix’s relics through the Fens they were pursued by the monks of Ely, also in a boat, eager to have the precious relics themselves. A miraculous fog descended, in which the Ely monks lost their way, and our Ramsey heroes were able to escape with the relics. Rivalry between Ramsey and Ely, two great Fenland monasteries, is a regular feature of their medieval history, and since Soham is closer to Ely than it is to Ramsey you can see why the Ely monks might feel a little aggrieved! It’s a great story (though generically typical), but even the Ramsey chronicler who records it expresses doubts about its veracity – with engaging frankness, he says ‘the reader is not required to believe the story, provided that he feels it to be certain that every part of the relics of St Felix were translated to the Church of Ramsey, and honourably deposited there’. As indeed there’s no reason to doubt.”
So, maybe Felix did come to Babingley, but why arrive at the extremity of East Anglia and about as far as you can be from the former royal capital at Rendlesham and Dommoc, on the other side of the modern Walton; surely, Dunwich would have been a better bet? On second thoughts, we best leave this latter question behind; for if Babingley was never the place where St Felix set foot on his arrival in Norfolk then Babingley would never have had its legend – thus so:
Babingley has, like many Norfolk villages, a timber ‘village signpost’; this one was carved by Mark Goldsworthy and it depicts the curious tale of the ‘brave Bishop Beaver of Babingley’. The signpost stands amongst rhododendrons in a nearby wood clearing.
Like all charming legends, this one says that when St Felix arrived at the Wash, he headed for the River Babingley which was, at this time, still navigable. As he sailed up the river, looking for a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and St Felix’s ship floundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers existed in East Anglia at the time; and thanks to these creatures, everyone on the boat was saved from drowning and taken to safety – at Babingley. In gratitude, the Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in thanks for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East. This act is remembered on the Babingley village signpost which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.
The ruined church of which we speak was a rebuilt 14th-century edition, dedicated to St Felix and was used for worship until the early 19th century. It sits, surrounded by the trees which house those ravens, in a field some 200 metres north of the River Babingley and is now part of the nearby royal Sandringham. The ruin today comes with its 15th century south porch addition, built in the main of grey Sandringham stone and carstone with limestone dressings. The church once consisted of a nave, north and south aisles with two-bay arcade, chancel, and west tower and has undergone a number of alterations. The north aisle was demolished and its arcade blocked; the chancel arch bricked up and a Decorated Gothic window from the south side of the chancel re-set in the brickwork. Its ruined state goes back a long way – in a 1602 survey the chancel was described as ‘decaying’ and by 1752, ‘dilapidated’.
In 1845, William Whites’ History, Gazetter and Directory stated that “the tower and nave are in tolerable repair, but the chancel is in ruins” According to Pevsner, repairs were attempted four years later in 1849 but the introduction of the mission church just off the main road in 1880 was the final nail in the old St Felix’s coffin as it had its roof removed. As a ‘sop’ to its once proud place, the church yard continued to be used into the 20th century. Now, bar for the 15th century porch, the church is completely open to the skies, covered in ivy and teased by those ravens. However, it can take pride in the fact that, since March 1951, it is now Grade I listed!
FOOTNOTE: You can now spread your wings and, with the aid of the video below, take a birdseye view of the old St Felix Church at Babingley, and those ravens – if you can spot them far below!