St Edmund the Martyr
Though from the
time of King Egbert, in 802, the Kings of the West-Saxons were monarchs of all England, yet several
kings reigned in certain parts after that time, in some measure subordinate to them. One Offa was
King of the East-Angles, who, being desirous to end his days in penance and devotion to Rome,
resigned his crown to St. Edmund, at that time only fifteen years of age, but a most virtuous
prince, and descended from the old English-Saxon kings of this isle. The saint was placed on the
throne of his ancestors, as Lydgate, Abbo, and others express themselves, and was crowned by
Humbert, Bishop of Elman, on Christmas Day, in 855, at Burum, a royal villa on the Stour, now called
Bures, or Buers. Though very young, he was by his piety, goodness, humility, and all other virtues,
the model of good princes.
He was a declared enemy of flatterers and informers, and
would see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears, to avoid being surprised into a wrong
judgment, or imposed upon by the passions or ill designs of others. The peace and happiness of his
people were his whole concern, which he endeavoured to establish by an impartial administration of
justice and religious regulations in his dominions. He was the father of his subjects, particularly
of the poor, the protector of widows and orphans, and the support of the weak. Religion and piety
were the most distinguishing part of his character. Monks and devout persons used to know the
psalter without book, that they might recite the psalms at work, in travelling, and on every other
occasion. To get it by heart St. Edmund lived in retirement a whole year in his royal tower at
Hunstanton (which he had built for a country solitude), which place is now a village in Norfolk. The
book which the saint used for that purpose was religiously kept at St. Edmundsbury till the
dissolution of abbeys.
The holy king had reigned fifteen years when the Danes
infested his dominions. Hinguar and Hubba, two brothers, the most barbarous of all the Danish
plunderers landing in England, wintered among the East-Angles; then, having made a truce with that
nation, they in summer sailed to the north, and landing at the mouth of the Tweed, plundered with
fire and sword Northumberland, and afterwards Mercia, directing their march through Lincolnshire,
Northamptonshire, and Cambridgeshire. Out of a lust of rage and cruelty, and the most implacable
aversion to the Christian name, they everywhere destroyed the churches and monasteries; and, as it
were in barbarous sport, massacred all priests and religious persons whom they met with. In the
great monastery of Coldingham, beyond Berwick, the nuns, fearing not death but insults which might
be offered to their chastity, at the instigation of St. Ebba, the holy abbess, cut off their noses
and upper lips, that appearing to the barbarians frightful spectacles of horror, they might preserve
their virtue from danger; the infidels accordingly were disconcerted at such a sight, and spared
their virtue, but put them all to the sword.
In their march, amongst other
monasteries, those of Bardney, Crowland, Peterborough, Ely, and Huntingdon were levelled with the
ground, and the religious inhabitants murdered. In the Cathedral of Peterborough is shown a monument
(removed thither from a place without the building) called Monks'-Stone, on which are the effigies
of an abbot and several monks. It stood over the pit in which fourscore monks of this house were
interred, whom Hinguar and Hubba massacred in 870. The barbarians, reeking with blood, poured down
upon St. Edmund's dominions, burning Thetford, the first town they met with, and laying waste all
before them. The people, relying upon the faith of treaties, thought themselves secure, and were
However, the good king raised what forces he could, met the
infidels, or at least a part of their army near Thetford, and discomfited them. But seeing them soon
after reinforced with fresh numbers, against which his small body was not able to make any stand,
and being unwilling to sacrifice the lives of his soldiers in vain, and grieving for the eternal
loss of the souls of his enemies, who would be slain in a fruitless engagement, he disbanded his
troops and retired himself towards his castle of Framlingham, in Suffolk. The barbarian had sent him
proposals which were inconsistent both with religion and with the justice which he owed to his
These the saint rejected, being resolved rather to die a victim of his
faith and duty to God, than to do anything against his conscience and religion. In his flight he was
over taken and surrounded by infidels at Oxon, upon the Waveney: he concealed himself for some short
time, but, being discovered, was bound with heavy chains and conducted to the general's tent. Terms
were again offered him equally prejudicial to religion and to his people, which the holy Icing
refused to confirm, declaring that religion was dearer to him than his life, which he would never
purchase by offending God. Hinguar, exasperated at this answer, in his barbarous rage caused him to
be cruelly beaten with cudgels, then to be tied to a tree and torn a long time together with whips.
All this he bore with invincible meekness and patience, never ceasing to call
upon the name of Jesus. The infidels were the more exasperated, and as he stood bound to the tree,
they made him a mark wantonly to shoot at, till his body was covered with arrows like a porcupine.
Hinguar at length, in order to put an end to the butchery, commanded his head to be struck off. Thus
the saint finished his martyrdom on the 20th of November, in 870, the fifteenth of his reign, and
twenty-ninth of his age; the circumstances of which St. Dunstan learned from one who was
armour-bearer to the saint and an eye-witness. The place was then called Henglesdun, now Hoxon, or
Hoxne; a priory of monks was afterwards built there which bore the name of the
The saint's head was carried by the infidels into a wood and thrown into a brake of bushes;
but miraculously found by a pillar of light and deposited with the body at Hoxdon. These sacred
remains were very soon after conveyed to Bedricsworth, or Kingston, since called St. Edmundsbury,
because this place was St. Edmund's own town and private patrimony; not on account of his burial,
for <Bury> in the English-Saxon language signified a court or palace. A church of timber was
erected over the place where he was interred, which was thus built according to the fashion of those
times. Trunks of large trees were sawn lengthways in the middle and reared up with one end fixed in
the ground, with the bark or rough side outermost.
These trunks being made of
an equal height and set up close to one another, and the interstices filled up with mud or mortar,
formed the four walls, upon which was raised a thatched roof. Nor can we be surprised at the
homeliness of this structure, since the same was the fabric of the royal rich abbey of Glastonbury,
the work of the most munificent and powerful West-Saxon kings, till in latter ages it was built in a
stately manner of stone. The precious remains of St. Edmund were honoured with many miracles. In
920, for fear of the barbarians under Turkil the Dane, in the reign of King Ethelred, they were
conveyed to London by Alfun, bishop of that city, and the monk Egelwin, or Ailwin, the keeper of
this sacred treasure, who never abandoned it.
After remaining three years in
the Church of St. Gregory, in London, it was translated again with honour to St. Edmundsbury in 923.
The great church of timberwork stood till King Knute, or Canutus, to make reparation for the
injuries his father Swein, or Sweno, had done to this place and to the relics of the martyr, built
and founded there, in 1020, a new most magnificent church and abbey in honour of this holy martyr.
The unparalleled piety, humility, meekness, and other virtues of St. Edmund are admirably set forth
by our historians. This incomparable prince and holy martyr was considered by succeeding English
kings as their special patron, and as an accomplished model of all royal virtues. The feast of St.
Edmund is reckoned among the holidays of precept in this kingdom by the national council of Oxford
in 1222; but is omitted in the constitutions of Archbishop Simon Islep, who retrenched certain
holidays in 1362.
No Christian can be surprised that innocence should suffer. Prosperity is often the most
grievous judgment that God exercises upon a wicked man, who by it is suffered, in punishment of his
impiety, to blind and harden himself in his evil courses, and to plunge himself deeper in iniquity.
On the other hand God, in his merciful providence, conducts second causes so that afflictions fall
to the share of those souls whose sanctification he has particularly in view. By tribulation a man
learns perfectly to die to the world and himself, a work which, without its aid, even the severest
self-denial and the most perfect obedience, leave imperfect. By tribulation we learn the perfect
exercise of humility, patience, meekness, resignation, and pure love of God; which are neither
practiced nor learned without such occasions. By a good use of tribulation a person becomes a saint
in a very short time, and at a cheap rate.
The opportunity and grace of
suffering well is a mercy in favour of chosen souls; and a mercy to which every saint, from Abel to
the last of the elect, is indebted for his crown. We meet with sufferings from ourselves, from
disappointments, from friends, and from enemies. We are on every side beset with crosses. But we
bear them with impatience and complaints. Thus we cherish our passions, and multiply sins by the
very means which are given us to crucify and overcome them.
To learn to bear crosses
well is one of the most essential and most important duties of a Christian life. To make a good use
of the little crosses which we continually meet with is the means of making the greatest progress in
all virtue, and of obtaining strength to stand our ground under great trials. St. Edmund's whole
life was a preparation for martyrdom.
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