Living, as we are, in the post-Victorian period, our notion of Christmas has inevitably been informed by Charles Dickens and his peers, who solidified the modern version of Christmas as a time of generous gift-giving, charity, and copious food and drink. But, as the presence of ghosts in many of Dickens’s Christmas stories indicates, the modern idea of Christmas is also a time for reflection on the past. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I naturally think back to the early medieval period, and recently asked myself, how did they celebrate Christmas? Christmas is, after all, an Anglo-Saxon word – Cristesmæsse, a word first recorded in 1038 – and so would there be any resemblance to Christmas in 2016? The surprising results of my investigation are presented below.
The precise date of Christ’s birth was decided as 25th December by Pope Julius I in the fourth century, long before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England. The original Germanic invaders – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – were not Christian, but were still engaged in celebrations on the 25th December. According to Bede, writing in the eighth century:
‘They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. (De temporum ratione)’.
This was the festival known as Yule, still celebrated by Neo-Pagans across the world, and remembered indirectly by those indulging in a Yule Log this Christmas. Whilst details of the festival – like almost all aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism – are murky, we can still pick out a few details from Bede’s account of the celebration.
The festival has some association with fertility and, as Bede implies with characteristic moral reticence, possibly involved ceremonial copulation. We can see here a link between Yule and Christmas: the pagans were celebrating birth, just as Jesus’s birth from Mary, a mortal woman, is celebrated by Christians on the same day. This common aspect to Yule and Christmas is important to observe: a mandate of the early Roman church, converting the pagans of Europe, was to pursue a policy of continuity, to ease the change from one religion to another amongst the recent converts. As such, deciding on 25th December as the date of Christ’s birth was a tactical ploy by the Roman Church.
The need for evolution rather than revolution in the conversion of pagans was specifically mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great in his instructions to the missionaries he sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons in 597. Speaking of the recycling of pagan religious sites, he explained: ‘we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God’. As well as in the implicit association of Yule and Christmas, we can see this process of adoption in the many ancient churches built on the sites of pagan shrines and incorporating the Yew tree, a sacred object to the pagans.
So, with the date of Christmas decided, and old festivals rebranded (though, of course, with less sex), what did the post-597 Anglo-Saxons do at Christmas? The first thing to note is that Christmas did not have the same importance in the church calendar as it does today. Far more important to the Anglo-Saxon Church was the festival of Easter, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Christmas gradually grew in importance from the time of Charlemagne, the great Frankish king, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800 at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Nevertheless, there were established Christmas traditions by this time, which were continued through the Anglo-Saxon period. The fullest account of Anglo-Saxon Christmas is given by Egbert of York (d. 766), a contemporary of Bede: ‘the English people have been accustomed to practise fasts, vigils, prayers, and the giving of alms both to monasteries and to the common people, for the full twelve days before Christmas’.
Whilst the requirement for fasting couldn’t be further from the more secular 21st century Christmas traditions of ceaseless gluttony, we can see the rudiments of later festive customs. Firstly, the more overt religious significance of the date – ‘vigils [and] prayers’ – is in part reflected in the modern day, when many people’s sole (begrudging) visit to church occurs on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself. Perhaps most interesting in this early iteration of the Christmas period is Egbert’s mention of alms-giving, in which we can see the predecessor of modern Christmas presents, a tradition probably started in imitation of the Three Wise Men bringing the infant Christ Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Alms were charitable relief given to the poor, without expectation of payment. Although we are now more indiscriminate in our festive gift-giving, and rarely take socio-economics into the equation, this is the start of the tradition of Christmas presents. We can link, also, the traditional festive fundraising of organisations such as the Salvation Army to Egbert’s discussion of charitable acts at Christmas.
The final Saxon Christmas tradition we can reconstruct is the Christmas holiday. Alfred the Great was greatly influenced by the Frankish Court – his stepmother, Judith, was great-granddaughter of Charlemagne – and seems to have shared their view of the importance of Christmas as a festival. In one of Alfred’s laws, holiday was strictly to be taken by all but those engaged in the most important of occupations from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night. It has been suggested that Alfred’s rigorous observance of his own law left him vulnerable to his Viking adversaries, who defeated him in battle on 6th January, 878: the day after Twelfth Night. Based on what we have already discussed, we can assume this was not because of overindulgence in food and drink. Christmas Day and Boxing Day are still bank holidays today, and schoolchildren around the country enjoy a similar length of break at Christmas to Alfred’s Saxon subjects.
So, Christmas for the Anglo-Saxons was a mixed-bag. Although most were given almost a fortnight off work, they were expected to fast for the period, and only poorer members of society would be given any presents. Nevertheless, in a time when economic hardship was the norm, and most people had to work painfully long hours in the fields, the Christmas holiday would be a time for celebration, and it is no wonder people were in a charitable mood. It is easy to see how the traditions of charity, rest and gift-giving developed into the unrestrained indulgence of today. Gesælige Cristesmæsse!
‘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!
In 2018 the following article by Ben Johnson, appeared in the Historic – UK Website. Readers of this Blog, who might have missed the article or do not wish to click on the originator’s link above, can read it for themselves here. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the original article, and for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from an interesting article. Read on:
Wessex, also known as the Kingdom of the West Saxons, was a large and influential Anglo-Saxon kingdom from 519 to 927AD. From its humble beginnings through to the most powerful kingdom in the land, we trace its history from Cerdic, the founder of Wessex, through to his distant descendants Alfred the Great and Æthelstan who were responsible for defeating invading Viking hordes and uniting Anglo-Saxon England under a single banner.
Cerdic c. 520 to c. 540:
As with many of the early Anglo-Saxon kings, little is known about Cerdic other than that written in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. According to the Chronicles, Cerdic left Saxony (in modern day north-west Germany) in 495 and arrived shortly afterwards on the Hampshire coast with five ships. Over the next two decades, Cerdic engaged the local Britons in a protracted conflict and only took the title of ‘King of Wessex’ after his victory at the Battle of Cerdic’s Ford (Cerdicesleag) in 519, some 24 years after arriving on these shores.
Of course, it is worth remembering that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written around 350 years after Cerdic’s supposed reign and therefore its accuracy should not be taken as verbatim. For example, ‘Cerdic’ is actually a native Briton name and some believe that during the last days of the Romans, Cerdic’s family were entrusted with a large estate to protect, a title known as an ‘ealdorman’. When Cerdic came to power he was then thought to have taken a rather aggressive approach towards the other ealdormans in the region, and as a consequence started to accumulate more and more lands, eventually creating the Kingdom of Wessex.
Cynric c.540 to 560: Described as both the son and grandson of Cerdic, Cynric spent much of his early years in power trying to expand the Kingdom of Wessex westwards into Wiltshire. Unfortunately he came up against fierce resistance from the native Britons and spent most of his reign attempting to consolidate the lands that he already held. He did manage some small gains however, namely at the battle of Sarum in 552 and at Beranbury (now known as Barbury Castle near Swindon) in 556. Cynric died in 560 and was succeeded by his son Ceawlin.
Ceawlin 560 to either 571 or c. 591: By the time iof Ceawlin’s reign, most of southern England would have been under Anglo-Saxon control. This was reinforced by the Battle of Wibbandun in 568 which was the first major conflict between two invading forces (namely the Saxons of Wessex and the Jutes of Kent). Later conflicts saw Ceawlin focus his attention back to the native Britons to the west, and in 571 he took Aylesbury and Limbury, whilst by 577 he had taken Gloucester and Bath and had reached the Severn Estuary. It is around this time that the eastern portion of Wansdyke was built (a large defensive earthwork between Wiltshire and Bristol), and many historians believe that it was Ceawlin who ordered its construction.
The end of Ceawlin’s reign is shrouded in mystery and the details are unclear. What is known is that in 584 a large battle took place against the local Britons in Stoke Lyne, Oxfordshire. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes:
This year Ceawlin … fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Fretherne … And Ceawlin took many towns, as well as immense booty and wealth. He then retreated to his own people.
It is strange that Ceawlin would win such an important battle and then simply retreat back towards the south. Instead, what is now thought to have happened is that the Ceawlin actually lost this battle and in turn lost his overlordship of the native Britons. This then led to a period of unrest in and around the Kingdom of Wessex, leading to an eventual uprising against Ceawlin in 591 or 592 (this uprising was thought to have been led by Ceawlin’s own nephew, Ceol!). This uprising would later be known as the Battle of Woden’s Burg.
Ceol 591 – 597: After deposing his uncle at the Battle of Woden’s Burg, Ceol ruled Wessex for the next five years. During this time there are no records of any major battles or conflicts, and little else is known about him except that he had a son called Cynegils.
Ceolwulf 597 – 611: After Ceol’s death in 597, the throne of Wessex went to his brother Ceolwulf. This was because Ceol’s son, Cynegils, was too young to rule at the time. Little is known about Ceolwulf , and the only reference to him in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is that ‘he constantly fought and conquered, either with the Angles, or the Welsh, or the Picts, or the Scots.’
Cynegils (and his son Cwichelm) 611 – 643:
After Ceolwulf’s death in 611, the throne of Wessex fell to Ceol’s son Cynegils (pictured to the right) who was previously too young to inherit the throne. Cynegils’ long reign started with a great victory over the Welsh in 614, but the fortunes of Wessex were soon to take a turn for the worse.
Concerned about the rise of Northumbria in the north, Cynegils ceded the northern half of his kingdom to his son, Cwichelm, effectively creating a buffer state in the process. Cynegils also forged a temporary alliance with the Kingdom of Mercia who were equally concerned about the growing power of the Northumbrians, and this alliance was sealed by the marriage of Cynegils’ youngest son to the sister of King Penda of Mercia.
In 626, the hot-headed Cwichelm launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt on King Edwin of Northumbria. Rather annoyed by this, Edwin subsequently sent his army to confront Wessex and both sides clashed at the Battle of Win & Lose Hill in the Derbyshire Peak District. With the Mercians at their side, Wessex had a far larger army than the Northumbrians but were nevertheless defeated due to poor tactics. For example, Northumbria had dug into Win Hill and when the Wessex forces started moving forward, they were met by a barrage of boulders that had been rolled from above.
This was a humiliating defeat for both Cynegils and Cwichelm, and they subsequently retreated back within their own borders. The following years saw the Mercians take advantage of the weakened Wessex by taking the towns of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester. To stop a further Mercian advance, it is thought that the western portion of Wansdyke was built by Cynegils during this time.
The final blow came in 628 when Mercia and Wessex clashed at the Battle of Cirencester. The Mercians were overwhelmingly victorious and took control of the Severn Valley and parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. As a result Wessex was now considered a second rate kingdom, although a truce was made with Northumbria in 635 which helped it to at least maintain its own borders.
Cynegils eventually died in 643 and his mortuary chest can still be seen in Winchester Cathedral today.
Cenwalh 643 – 645: King Penda of Mercia 645- 648: Cenwalh 648 – 673:
Cenwalh was Cynegils youngest son and had previously been married off to King Penda of Mercia’s (pictured to the right) sister in order to seal an alliance between the two kingdoms. However, upon succeeding to the throne in 643, Cenwalh decided to discard his wife and remarry a local woman called Seaxburh, much to the annoyance of King Penda.
‘…for he put away the sister of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom he had married, and took another wife; whereupon a war ensuing, he was by him expelled his kingdom…’
As a result, Mercia declared war on Wessex, drove Cenwalh into exile for three years, and took control of his lands. In essence, Wessex had become a puppet state of Mercia. Whilst in exile in East Anglia, Cenwalh converted to Christianity and when he finally managed to reclaim the throne of Wessex in 648, he commissioned the first ever Winchester Cathedral. Little else is known about the remainder of Cenwalh’s reign as most written texts covering this time period are focused around Mercian history.
Seaxburh 673 – 674: Seaburgh, wife of Cenwalh, succeeded to the throne after the death of her husband in 673 and was the first and only queen to ever rule over Wessex. However it is now thought that Seaxburh acted more as a figurehead for a united Wessex, and that any real and executive power was held by the various sub-kings of the land.
Æscwine 674 – c. 676: Upon the death of Seaxburh in 674, the throne of Wessex fell to her son, Æscwine. Although the sub-kings of Wessex still held the real power during this time, Æscwine nevertheless rallied his kingdom in defence again the Mercians at the Battle of Bedwyn in 675. This was an overwhelming victory for the Wessex army.
Centwine c. 676 to c. 685: Centwine, uncle of Æscwine, took the throne in 676 although very little is known about his reign. It is thought that he was a pagan in his early years (whereas his predecessors had been predominantly Christian), although he did convert sometime in the 680s. He is also said to have won ‘three great battles’ including one against the rebellious Britons, although once again most of the power in Wessex during this time was held by the sub-kings. It is widely believed that Centwine abdicated the throne in c. 685 to become a monk.
Cædwalla 659 – 688: Thought to be a distant descendant of Cerdic, and almost certainly hailing from a house of nobility, to say that Cædwalla had an eventful life would be an understatement! In his youth he was driven out of Wessex (perhaps by Cenwalh in an effort to expel troublesome sub-royal families) and by the time he was 26 he had gathered enough support to begin invading Sussex and building his own kingdom. During this time he also obtained the throne of Wessex, although it is not known how this feat was accomplished.
During his time as King of Wessex he suppressed the authority of the sub-kings in an effort to consolidate his own power, and then went on to conquer the kingdoms of Sussex and Kent, as well as the Isle of Wight where he is said to have committed acts of genocide and forced the local population to renounce their Christian faith.
In 688 Cædwalla turned to Christianity and subsequently abdicated after being wounded during a campaign in the Isle of Wight. He spent his last few weeks alive in Rome where he was also baptised. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes:
‘[Cædwalla] went to Rome, and received baptism at the hands of Sergius the pope, who gave him the name of Peter; but in the course of seven nights afterwards, on the twelfth day before the calends of May, he died in his crisom-cloths, and wasburied in the church of St. Peter.’
Ine 689 – c. 728: After the abdication of Cædwalla in 688, it is widely believed that Wessex descended into a period of internal strife and infighting between the various sub-kings. After several months a nobleman called Ine emerged victorious and secured the crown for himself, beginning 37 years of uninterrupted reign.
Ine inherited an extremely powerful kingdom stretching from the Severn Estuary through to the shorelines of Kent, although the eastern portions of the kingdom were notoriously rebellious and Ine struggled to maintain control of them. Instead, Ine turned his attention to the native Britons in Cornwall and Devon and managed to gain a large amount of territory to the west.
Ine is also known for his widescale reforms of Wessex which included an increased focus on trade, introducing coinage throughout the kingdom, as well as issuing a set of laws in 694. These laws covered a wide range of topics from damage caused by straying cattle to the rights of those convicted of murder, and are seen as an important milestone in the development of English society.
Interestingly, these laws also referred to the two types of people that lived in Wessex at the time. The Anglo-Saxons were known as the Englisc and lived mainly in the eastern portions of the kingdom, whilst the newly annexed territories in Devon were mainly populated by the native Britons.
Towards the end of his reign Ine became week and feeble and decided to abdicate in 728 in order to retire to Rome (at this time it was thought that a trip to Rome would aid one’s ascension to heaven).
Æthelheard c. 726 – 740: Thought to have been the brother-in-law of Ine, Æthelheard’s claim to the throne was contested by another nobleman called Oswald. The struggle for power lasted for around a year, and although Æthelheard eventually prevailed this was only through assistance from neighbouring Mercia.
For the next fourteen years, Æthelheard struggled to maintain his northern borders against the Mercians and lost a considerable amount of territory in the process. He also battled continuously against the growing hegemony of this northern neighbour, who after supporting him to the throne demanded that Wessex fall under their control.
Cuthred 740 – 756: Æthelheard was succeeded by his brother, Cuthred, who inherited the throne at the height of Mercian dominance. At this time, Wessex was seen as a puppet state of Mercia and for the first twelve years of Cuthred’s reign he helped them in numerous battles against the Welsh. However, by 752 Cuthred was tired of Mercian overlordship and went to battle to regain independence for Wessex. To the surprise of everyone he won!
‘This year, the twelfth of his reign, Cuthred, king of the West-Saxons, fought at Burford with Ethelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.’
Sigeberht 756 – 757: Poor old Sigeberht! After succeeding Cuthred (thought to have been his cousin), he ruled for only a year before being stripped of the throne by a council of nobles for ‘unrighteous deeds’. Perhaps out of sympathy he was then given sub-king status over Hampshire, but after deciding to murder one of his own advisors he was subsequently exiled to the Forest of Andred and then killed in a revenge attack.
Cynewulf 757 – 786: Supported to the throne by Æthelbald of Mercia, Cynewulf may well have spent his first few months in power acting as a sub-king for the Mercians. However, when Æthelbald was assassinated later that year, Cynewulf saw an opportunity to assert an independent Wessex and even managed to expand his territory into the southern counties of Mercia.
Cynewulf was able to hold many of these Mercian territories until 779, when at the Battle of Bensington he was defeated by King Offa and forced to retreat back to his own lands. Cynewulf was eventually murdered in 786 by a nobleman that he had exiled many years earlier.
Beorhtric 786 – 802: Beorhtric, thought to have been a distant descendant of Cerdic (the founder of Wessex), had a rather eventful time as King. He succeeded to the throne with the backing of King Offa of Mercia, who no doubt saw his ascendancy as an opportunity to influence West Saxon politics. Beorhtric also married one of King Offa’s daughters, a lady called Eadburh, probably to gain further support from his more powerful neighbour to the north.
If legend is to believed, Beorhtric died through accidental poisoning by none other than his wife, Eadburh. After being exiled to Germany for her crime, she was subsequently ‘hit on’ by Charlemagne with a rather peculiar chat up line. Apparently Charlemagne entered her chambers with his son and asked “Which do you prefer, me or my son, as a husband?”. Eadburh replied that due to his younger age she would prefer his son, to which Charlamagne famously said “Had you chosen me, you would have had both of us. But, since you chose him, you shall have neither.”
After this rather embarrassing affair, Eadburh decided to turn to nunnery and planned to live the rest of her life in a German convent. However, soon after taking her vows she was found having sex with another Saxon man and was duly expelled. Eadburh spent the rest of her days begging on the streets of a Pavia in northern Italy.
Egbert 802 – 839:
One of the most famous of all the West Saxon kings, Egbert was actually exiled by his predecessor Beorhtric sometime in the 780s. Upon his death however, Egbert returned to Wessex, took the throne and reigned for the next 37 years.
Strangely, the first 20 or so years of his kingship are not very well documented although it is thought that he spent most of this time trying to keep Wessex independent from Mercia. This struggle for independence came to a head in 825 when the two sides met at the Battle of Ellandun near modern day Swindon.
Surprisingly, Egbert’s forces were victorious and the Mercians (led by Beornwulf) were forced to retreat back to the north. Riding high from his victory, Egbert sent his army south-east to annex Surrey, Sussex, Essex and Kent, all of which were under either direct or indirect Mercian control at the time. In the space of a year, the balance of power in Anglo-Saxon England had completely shifted and by 826 Wessex was seen as the most powerful kingdom in the country.
Egbert’s dominance of southern England continued for the next four years, with another major victory against Mercia in 829 which allowed him to completely annex the territory and claim all of southern Britain up to the River Humber. Egbert also was able to receive the submission of the Kingdom of Northumbria at the end of 829, leading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to call him ‘Ruler of Britain’ (although a more accurate title would have been ‘Ruler of England’ as both Wales and Scotland were still fiercely independent!).
Only one year after annexing Mercia for himself, the exiled King Wiglaf organised a revolt and drove the army of Wessex back into their own territory. However, the Mercians never reclaimed their lost territories of Kent, Sussex and Surrey and Wessex was still to be considered the most powerful kingdom in southern England.
When Egbert died in 839 he was succeeded by his only son, Æthelwulf.
Æthelwulf, 839 – 858:
Æthelwulf was already the king of Kent before his ascension to the throne of Wessex, a title awarded to him by his father in 825. Keeping to this family tradition, when Egbert died in 839 Æthelwulf subsequently handed Kent to his own son, Æthelstan, to rule it on his behalf.
Not much is known about Æthelwulf’s reign except that he an extremely religious man, prone to the occasional gaffe, and rather unambitious, although he did fairly well at keeping the invading Vikings at bay (namely at Carhampton and Ockley in Surrey, the latter of which was said to have been ‘ the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made’.) Æthelwulf was also said to have been rather fond of his wife, Osburh, and together they bore six children (five sons and a daughter).
In 853 Æthelwulf sent his youngest son, Alfred (later to become King Alfred the Great) to Rome on a pilgrimage. However after the death of his wife in 855, Æthelwulf decided to join him in Italy and on his return the following year met his second wife, a 12 year old girl called Judith, a French princess.
Quite to his surprise, when Æthelwulf finally returned to British shores in 856 he found that his oldest surviving son, Æthelbald, had stolen the kingdom from him! Although Æthelwulf had more than enough support of the sub-kings to reclaim the throne, his Christian charity led him to cede the western half of Wessex to Æthelbald in an attempt to keep the kingdom from breaking out into civil war.
When Æthelwulf died in 858 the throne of Wessex unsurprisingly fell to Æthelbald.
Æthelbald 858 – 860: Little is known about Æthelbald’s short reign except that he married his father’s widow, Judith, who at the time was only 14! Æthelbald died ages 27 at Sherborne in Dorset from an unknown ailment or disease.
Æthelberht 860 – 865: Æthelberht, brother of Æthelbald and third eldest son of Æthelwulf, succeeded to the throne of Wessex after his brother died without having fathered any children. His first order of business was to integrate the Kingdom of Kent into Wessex, whereas previously it had been merely a satellite state.
Æthelberht is said to have presided over a time of relative peace, with the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms too preoccupied with Viking invasions to worry about domestic rivalries. Wessex was not immune from these Viking incursions either, and during his reign Æthelberht saw off the Danish invaders from a failed storming of Winchester as well as repeated incursions to the eastern coast of Kent.
Like his brother before him, Æthelberht died childless and the throne was passed to his brother, Æthelred.
Æthelred 865 – 871:
Æthelred’s six years as King of Wessex began with a great Viking army storming the east of England. This ‘Great Heathen Army’ quickly overran the independent Kingdom of East Anglia and had soon defeated the mighty Kingdom of Northumbria. With the Vikings turning their sights southwards, Burgred King of Mercia appealed to Æthelred for assistance and he subsequently sent an army to meet the Vikings near Nottingham. Unfortunately this was to be a wasted trip as the Vikings never showed up, and Burgred was instead forced to ‘buy off’ the Danish horde to avoid them invading his lands.
With Northumbria and East Anglia now under Viking control, by the winter of 870 the Great Heathen Army turned their sights on Wessex. January, February and March of 871 saw Wessex engage the Vikings on four separate occasions, winning just one of them.
Alfred the Great 871 – 899: The only English monarch to have ever been bestowed the title of ‘Great’, Alfred is widely acknowledged as one of the most important leaders in English history.
Before King Æthelred died in 871, he signed an agreement with Alfred (his younger brother) which stated that when he died the throne would not pass to his eldest son. Instead, due the increasing Viking threat from the north, the throne would pass to Alfred who was a much more experienced and mature military leader.
The first of King Alfred’s battles against the Danes was in May 871 in Wilton, Wiltshire. This was to be a catastrophic defeat for Wessex, and as a consequence Alfred was forced to make peace with (or more likely buy off) the Vikings in order to prevent them from taking control of the Kingdom.
For the next five years there was to be an uneasy peace between Wessex and the Danish, with the Viking horde setting up base in Mercian London and focusing their attention on other parts of England. This peace remained in place until a new Danish leader, Guthrum, came to power in 876 and launched a surprise attack on Wareham in Dorset. For the next year and a half, the Danish tried unsuccessfully to take Wessex, but in January 878 their fortunes were to change as a surprise attack on Chippenham pushed Alfred and the Wessex army back into a small corner of the Somerset Levels.
Defeated, short on troops and with morale at an all time low, Alfred and his remaining forces hid from the enemy forces in a small town in the marshes called Athelney. From here, Alfred started sending out messengers and scouts to rally local militia from Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire and Dorset.
By May 878 Alfred had gathered enough reinforcements to launch a counter offensive against the Danes, and on the 10th May (give or take a few days!) he defeated them at the Battle of Edington. Riding high from victory, Alfred continued with his army northwards to Chippenham and defeated the Danish stronghold by starving them into submission. As part of the terms for surrender, Alfred demanded that Wulfred convert to Christianity and two weeks later the baptism took place at a town called Wedmore in Somerset. This surrender is consequently known as ‘The Peace of Wedmore’.
The Peace of Wedmore led to a period of relative peace in England, with the south and west of England being ceded to the Anglo-Saxons and the north and east to the Danish (creating a kingdom known as Danelaw). However, this was to be an uneasy peace and Alfred was determined not to risk his kingdon again. He subsequently embarked on a modernisation of his military, focused around a ‘Burgal system’. This policy was to ensure that no place in Anglo-Saxon England would be more than 20 miles from a fortified town, allowing reinforcements to flow easily throughout the kingdom. Alfred also ordered the construction of a new, larger and much improved navy to counter Danish seapower.
Alfred also embarked on a series of academic reforms, and recruited the most prestigious scholars from the British Isles to set up a court school for noble-born children as well as ‘intellectually promising boys of lesser birth’. He also made literacy a requirement for anyone in government, as well as ordering the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to be written.
When King Guthrum died in 890, a power-vacuum opened up in Danelaw and a set of fueding sub-kings started fighting over power. This was to mark the beginning of another six years of Danish attacks on the Anglo-Saxons, although with Alfred’s newly improved defenses these attacks were almost entirely repelled. Things came to a head in 897, when after a series of failed raiding attempts the Danish army effectively disbanded, with some retiring to Danelaw and some retreating back to mainland Europe.
Alfred died a few years later in 899 having secured the future of Anglo-Saxon England.
Edward the Elder 899 – 924:
In 899 the throne of Wessex fell to Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, although this was disputed by one of Edward’s cousins called Æthelwold. Determined to expel Edward from power, Æthelwold sought the help of the Danes to the east and by 902 his army (along with Viking help) had attacked Mercia and had reached the Wiltshire borders. In retaliation Edward successfully attacked the Danish kingdom of East Anglia but then, on ordering his troops back to Wessex, some of them refused and continued northwards (probably for more loot!). This culminated in the Battle of the Holme, where the East Anglian Danes met the stragglers of the Wessex army and subsequently defeated them. However, the Danes also suffered some heavy losses during the battle and both the king of East Anglia and Æthelwold, pretender to the Wessex throne, lost their lives.
After the Battle of the Holme, Edward the Elder spent the rest of his years in almost constant clashes with the Danes to the north and east. With the help of the Mercian army (who had long been under the indirect control of Wessex), Edward was even able to defeat the Danish in East Anglia, leaving them with only the kingdom of Northumbria. On the death of Edward’s sister, Æthelflæd of Mercia in 918, Edward also brought the Kingdom of Mercia under the direct control of Wessex and from this point on, Wessex was the only kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of his reign in 924, Edward had almost completely removed any threat of Viking invasion, and even the Scots, Danes and Welsh all referred to him as ‘Father and lord’
‘This year Edward was chosen for father and for lord
by the king of the Scots, and by the Scots, and King Reginald,
and by all the North-humbrians, and also the king of the
Strath-clyde Britons, and by all the Strath-clyde Britons.’
Ælfweard July – August 924: Reigning only for around 4 weeks and probably never crowned, all we know about Ælfweard is a single sentence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:
This year died King Edward at Farndon in Mercia; and
Ælfweard his son died very soon after this, in Oxford. Their
bodies lie at Winchester.
Æthelstan August 924 – 27th October 939: Æthelstan, the first ever King of England, took the Wessex throne in 924 after his elder brother’s death. However, although he was very popular in Mercia, Æthelstan was less well liked in Wessex as he had been raised and schooled outside of the kingdom. This meant that for the first year of his reign he had to rally the support of the sub-kings of Wessex, including one particularly vocal opposition leader called Alfred. Although he succeed in doing this, it meant that he was not crowned until the 4th September 925. Interesting, the coronation was held in Kingston upon Thames on the historic border between Mercia and Wessex.
By the time of his coronation in 925 the Anglo-Saxons had retaken much of England leaving only southern Northumbria (centered around the capital of York) in the hands of the Danish. This small corner of the old Danelaw had a truce with the Anglo-Saxons which prevented them from going to war with each other, but when the Danish king Sihtric died in 927, Æthelstan saw an opportunity to take this final vestige of Danish territory.
The campaign was swift, and within a few months Æthelstan had taken control of York and received the submission of the Danish. He then called for a gathering of kings from throughout Britain, including those from Wales and Scotland, to accept his overlordship and acknowledge him as King of England. Wary of the power that a united England would have, the Welsh and Scottish agreed under the proviso that fixed borders should be put in place between the lands.
For the next seven years there was relative peace throughout Britain until in 934 Æthelstan decided to invade Scotland. There is still a great deal of uncertainly over why he decided to do this, but what is known is that Æthelstan was supported by the Kings of Wales and that his invading army reached as far as Orkney. It is thought that the campaign was relatively successful, and that as a consequence both King Constantine of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde accepted Æthelstan’s overlordship.
This overlordship lasted for two years until in 937 when both Owain and Constantine, along with the Danish king Guthfrith of Dublin, marched against Æthelstan’s army in an attempt to invade England. This was to be one of the greatest battles in British history: The Battle of Brunanburh (follow the link for our full article about the battle).
By the time of Æthelstan’s death in 939 he had defeated the Vikings, united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England under a single banner, and had repeatedly forced both the Welsh and Scottish kings to accept his overlordship of Britain. Æthelstan was therefore the last king of Wessex and the first king of England.
In the superstores of the Norwich Museum Service they have objects related to Norfolk that cover a huge period of time, but predominantly they house a social history collection related to Norwich. The objects they have help to tell the history of Norwich and its people, it is a history, lasting at least 1600 years. I wondered if I could condense 1600 years into a single blog? I have tried and the answer is No! I will instead attempt to fit as much as possible into two blogs, so here is the history of Norwich Part 1…… Here, I am going to focus on 10 key events or periods that were crucial in shaping the city we know and love today. I will take the time to highlight objects from our stored collection in the superstore and across the museum service as a whole that relate to each period.
The Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons represents the very start of the history of Norwich. During the Roman period Norwich was likely to have been little more than a cross roads, situated in the Tombland area of the city, with at most a farm and a few houses. The major Roman settlement was called Venta Icenorum and was situated a few miles to the South of modern day Norwich. Saxon incursions into East Anglia and their eventual dominance over the Romans in the early 5th century AD, led to the first settlers in what we now know of as Norwich.
One of the ‘Star’ objects – A Saxon Pot, excavated from Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk.
It was an ideal place to build a settlement; the river afforded the settlers easy access to the sea as well as the ability to secure food from fishing. The soil was of a good quality for agriculture and there was a ready supply of good timber. It is important to remember that Norwich did not start as one settlement, in this period it was 5 or 6 villages that eventually merged into one. The name of one of these villages was Norwic which became the name of the city that developed.
The Norman Conquest
The Norman Conquest of 1066 had drastic implications for the country as a whole; this can be seen in Norwich where it certainly left its mark. Any visitor to the city cannot fail to notice the Cathedral which at 315ft is the highest building in the city, nor can they fail to spot the Castle sitting atop its mound, still dominating the city skyline over 1000 years after it was built.
The building of the Cathedral was the initiative of the first Bishop of Norwich Herbert Losinga, who came to Norwich from a monastery in Normandy. It was probably built over a previous Anglo-Saxon settlement and Roman road. Work commenced in 1096, but was incomplete at the time of Losinga’s death and his successor Bishop Everard oversaw the completion of the work.
The present spire is the Cathedral’s fourth the first was destroyed in riots in 1272, the second in a storm in 1361 and the third by lightening in 1463.
The Castle would originally have been built of earth and wood, the stone building dates from the late 11th century or early 12th century and is one of the largest Norman keeps in England.
The Normans used massive amounts of peat for fuel, this was dug from various locations in Norfolk. The removal of this peat created large craters in the ground (the Cathedral took 320,000 tons a year!) this coupled with a rise in sea levels led to the formation of the Norfolk Broads.
The Construction of the City Walls
Work begun on the city walls in 1297, but it was not until 1343 that construction was complete. The walls were 3ft thick and 20ft high with battlements, in front of the walls was a bank and a ditch. The ditch was 25ft deep and 60ft wide and offered further protection. The walls acted as an important part of the cities defence, it was beyond the capabilities of the authorities to maintain law and order everywhere, but within the city walls their power could be exercised more easily.
Taxes, levies and tolls were due to be paid for many different reasons, and so the city walls served another important function as they restricted the movement of goods and people allowing the authorities to ensure they gathered the correct taxes and tolls. The city walls survive in various places in Norwich:
Towards the end of Riverside Road and across the Wensum sits Cow Tower, this played a pivotal role in the defence of the city, (it was partly destroyed during Kett’s rebellion.) Another ruined tower and section of wall is visible further along Barrack Street, then at the end of Magdalen Street and opposite the Artichoke pub there is small section of wall remaining.
Over 800 years after their construction the city is still defined by its walls. If you mention that something is within the city walls to a local, they will instantly know the geographic area you mean. Despite the wall only surviving in fragments and not being a continuous structure it still persists as an invisible demarcation of what is in the city centre and what is outside.
The history of mankind is a history of rebellion, from the peasant’s revolt, to the French Revolution and even recent events like the springs in the Middle East have seen people who believe they are being oppressed revolt against their oppressors. Perhaps the biggest such occurrence to ever hit Norwich was Kett’s rebellion. It started in the summer of 1549, as a minor disturbance in nearby Wymondham, but spiralled into a sequence of events that led to a national crisis for King Edward VI.
Peasants begun pulling down fencing around enclosed fields (the process of enclosure involved taking away common land and physically enclosing it for exclusive use by the landowner). One local landowner (John Flowerdew) alarmed at what was happening and fearful for his own land bribed them to attack his rival Robert Kett’s fences. This backfired drastically as Kett joined the protestors, helping them rip down his own fences before leading them to attack Flowerdew’s. Kett then marched the growing army of men (10,000) to Norwich, where they were refused entry. So they camped on Mousehold Heath for 7 weeks.
Kett and his advisors produced a document entitled ‘29 articles of complaint, concerning economic matters’. It included one particularly revolutionary statement asking that ‘We pray that all bonded men may be made free’. Although serfdom had been largely in decline in England since the Peasants Revolt, the final serfs were not freed until 1574.
Despite being offered a pardon in exchange for dispersing Kett’s men raided the city, imprisoning the mayor and 5 other leading citizens. The government responded by sending 1,400 men and a battle was fought at Bishopgate in the full glare of the Cathedral on the 1st August. The government troops were forced out of the city and for that day at least Kett was victorious. At this point many of the cities nobles fled to London with the retreating army, leaving Kett in total control of the city.
Clearly the government could not let this situation persist, so they sent a huge force of 12,000 troops and before August was over the rebels had been forced out of the city. From Mousehold Heath Kett’s men attacked the city from the top of what is now Gas Hill, partially destroying Cow Tower. Finally a further retreat to Dussindale saw them defeated by the government troops.
300 men were executed and Kett himself was captured in Swannington 25 miles to the north of Norwich. Both Robert Kett and his brother William were sent to face trial in London, where they were kept in the Tower of London. The trial was a formality and they were both found guilty. Robert Kett was hanged from Norwich castle with his body left hanging for months as a message to would be revolters. His brother William Kett suffered a similar fate being hanged from Wymondham Abbey and left for all to see.
For hundreds of years Robert Kett was portrayed and remembered as a traitor, but during the 19th century his reputation received a reprieve and people begun to increasingly think of him as a folk hero rather than a traitor. This is the reputation Kett retains today, a hero who stood up for the common people of Norfolk against the oppression of the ruling elites.
To find out more about Kett’s Rebellion, why not visit his home town of Wymondham when in town? Visit Wymondham abbey where Robert’s brother William was hung (the Kett family coat of arms is displayed inside) and visit Wymondham Heritage Museum for displays relating to Kett’s rebellion.
In 1565 the areas that are modern day Holland and Belgium were a colony under the control of the Spanish. Spain was a Catholic country which conflicted with the largely Protestant local population, the result was religious persecution inflicted by the Spanish on the locals.
This meant many were keen to flee religious persecution. Coincidently at the same time the city of Norwich was facing economic difficulties and was receptive to the idea of Dutch weavers migrating, as it would strengthen Norwich’s textile industry and because new skills and techniques could be passed onto the local populace.
In 1565 the city initially allowed 30 households of refugees to migrate to Norwich. Many more followed and by 1579 there were 6,000 of them, the cities population was only 16,000 so they represented over one third of the total population.
The Strangers were allowed to live in Norwich with relatively few restrictions placed upon them, however in 1570 members of the gentry led by John Throgmorton staged a failed rebellion against the migrants failing to attract sufficient popular support. For his part in the rebellion, Throgmorton was hanged, drawn and quartered. A few years previously (1567) the then mayor, Thomas Whall had placed some restrictions on the strangers claiming that they were taking away local jobs.
Most of the new migrants were weavers; this is where their influence is best seen. The expertise and innovations they brought over was pivotal in helping Norwich become famous for its textile industry. By the middle of the 18th century the quality of products produced were unrivalled anywhere in the world. The strength of Norwich textiles carried on until the Industrial Revolution when other cities with a greater access to cheap labour overtook Norwich, but the city diversified and continued to be a significant textile producer. It was only in the 1970s that textiles finally stopped being produced in the city.
If you are interested in the history of Norwich’s textile industry and the influence of the Strangers then why not pay the City a visit and go to Norwich’s Bridewell Museum where there are some excellent displays charting the its history. Norwich has such a rich and fascinating history so please see Part 2!!
It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish.
Mostly these tales have been linked to political and religious intrigues and double-crossings; many of which were simply part and parcel of powerful establishments. One example relating to St Benets is when, in an attempt to transform the Abbey into a pilgrimage centre to rival Walsingham and Bromholm, the monks there invented the cult of St Margaret of Holm who, according to a medieval chronicler, was strangled nearby in Little Wood at Hoveton St John in 1170. This barbarous act recalls to mind the crucifixion of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144 (see separate Blog), which was within living memory of those monks at St Benets!
St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.
The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today. However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away from the following Tale – an apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets. Just Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is still believed to be haunted!
This tale is known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Ethelwold (some say Essric?), the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. They say that it is possible to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn, on All Hallows Eve, or winter on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain Ludham marshman who perished one night near the ruined gatehouse of St Benets.
Apparantly, according to William Dutt’s ‘Highways and Byways in East Anglia’ (1901) – this marshman was on his way home from his bullocks. As he draws near the gatehouse and sees something in the shadows that ‘started screeching like a stuck pig’. Some years later this story was further elaborated when retold by the Stalham folklorist, W H Cooke; he call it ‘The Shrieking Monk’. It tells how this monk terrified a local wherryman one foggy night – All Hallows Eve and he rushes away to seek the safety of his wherry which is moored nearby; he slips in the early morning mud and falls into the Bure and is drowned!
Following in the tradition of gilding each ghost story in its re-telling; here, we again go back to those Norman times and to the moment when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. This version of the story again surrounds William’s difficulty and the monk Ethelwold who falls to temptation , opens the Abbey gates to the Normans – but subsequently is executed. Imagine now the Abbey materialising out of thin air, along with the obligitory mist; the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution referred to took place.
We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Ethelwold, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate to be bribed.
The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified the monk as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to Ethelwold, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience would be guaranteed.
On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Ethelwold, the highly flatterable monk, stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. This monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Ethelwold, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only he would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.
Although clearly naive, Ethelwold was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing the monk that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. Ethelwold was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst he held a burdensome secret.
The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Ethelwold’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.
There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Normans in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans. The defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly; the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!
Ethelwold, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was pushed to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result. They would understand the stark message that was directed to everyone under to authority of Norman rule; all who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain would meet the same fate! The church authority may also have considered the outcome appropriate and that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was now in the process of being judged by his Maker.
This story makes you wonder! – How many of us today, would choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure in early morning mist or walk the same path past the ruined Abbey, and concern themselves with apparitions? – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to be misty? How many out on the 25th May would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill……! One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!
Sources: Dutt, W., Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901
Cooke, W.H., The Shrieking Monk, 1911
Tolhurst, P., This Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018
Photos: Wikipedia, Google, Spinney Abbey.