Martrydom of St Edmund.

The Strange Death and Afterlife of King Edmund Part 1: The Unfortunate Friendship With Ragnor Lodbrok that Led to Edmund’s Beheading

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Over the past decade, there have been two major public campaigns in the UK to drum up support for removing St George as the patron saint of England and replacing him with St Edmund, the man who was the country’s original heavenly patron for over four hundred years from the early 10th century. Both campaigns failed but they did serve to reignite interest in St Edmund. So who was he and what was his story?

The setting was the Saxon kingdom of the East Angles, which occupied modern-day Norfolk, Suffolk and part of the Lincolnshire Fens, in the year AD 869. On the throne was King Edmund, a young and devout Christian monarch who was only 14 years old at the time he was crowned, on Christmas Day 855.

For the previous 60 years, Viking raiders from Scandinavia had been carrying out evermore bloody hit-and-run attacks on England, but in 865, thousands of Danish and Norwegian Vikings – described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the Great Heathen Army – landed in their long-ships along the coast of Suffolk and launched an all-out invasion. History says the king’s courtiers and ealdormen (nobles) supplied the Vikings with horses, both as a bribe to deter them from looting and pillaging the local area, and also as hint and an encouragement that they should move out from East Anglia and raid other parts of the country.

Such apparently treacherous disloyalty in the face of common foes might seem shocking by modern standards, but there was no love lost between the England’s four rival Saxon kingdoms. This was particularly so in East Anglia where, over the previous two centuries, several of its kings were deposed, executed or killed in battle by rulers of the other kingdoms.

Nevertheless, the bribery stratagem seems to have worked, and for the next few years the Vikings fought their way up and down England, destroying the old dynasties and eventually creating their own separate province, known as The Danelaw, across the North and East of the country. Among the Saxon rulers overthrown was King Ella of Northumbria, who a decade earlier had executed a Viking leader by throwing him into a pit of poisonous snakes.

The Vikings of the Great Heathen Army, who had a long memory for grievances (as King Edmund would learn to his cost), took their revenge on Ella by subjecting him to the ritual of “the Blood Eagle” – a prolonged torture leading to death, involving disemboweling and evisceration.

Five years later, after ravaging the rest of the country, the Vikings were back in East Anglia, attacking the kingdom’s town and slaughtering its population. Proffered bribes did not work, there was to be no peace treaty this time. In November King Edmund’s army met the Vikings in battle near the town of Thetford. So what had changed?

A section from the Stora Hammars I stone from Gotland, Sweden. The illustration depicts a blood eagle execution.

A section from the Stora Hammars I stone from Gotland, Sweden. The illustration depicts a blood eagle execution. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Fate of Ragnar Lodbrok

Among the leaders of the Great Heathen Army were two warriors called Ivar the Boneless (also known as Hyngwar) and Ubba. They were two of the many sons of a legendary chieftain (according to the Viking sagas, he once killed a dragon) called Ragnar Lodbrok (literally Ragnar Hairy-Breeches) and they had come looking for vengeance.

Some years previously Ragnar had been sailing in a small boat, possibly on a wildfowling trip along the western coast of Denmark, when a storm had suddenly blown up and swept him far, far away from the coast and across the North Sea. Eventually he washed up on the coast of East Anglia, where he was rescued and taken to Reedham, which is where King Edmund’s royal court was based at that time.

Physicians nursed Ragnar back to health and in due course King Edmund and his mysterious foreign guest struck up a friendship, as both men loved hunting. Ragnar was soon regularly accompanying Edmund on hunting trips, much to the ire of king’s chief huntsman Bern, who became increasingly jealous of the favor the Viking was being shown.

Tragedy struck as one day, when the king was traveling elsewhere in his kingdom, Bern challenged Ragnar to a secret competition to test their respective hunting skills. Two men left Reedham that morning but only one returned. Naturally the king and his courtiers wondered what had happened to Ragnar but Bern merely shrugged his shoulders and said he hadn’t seen him all day.

Ragnar’s fate might have remained a mystery had not his hound Garm, which had accompanied the Viking on the voyage across the North Sea but had been left behind the morning of that secret hunting trip, begun acting aggressively towards Bern, snarling and snapping whenever he caught sight of him. Eventually Garm escaped and led some of King Edmund’s men to a shallow grave in a small, lonely wood a few miles from Reepham. In the grave they found the body of Ragnar, with wounds revealing that he had been stabbed to death.

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