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
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 unprepared.
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 people.
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 martyr.
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
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.