The Strange Death and Afterlife of King Edmund Part 1: The Unfortunate Friendship With Ragnor Lodbrok that Led to Edmund’s Beheading
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. (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.
It was murder – and there was also evidence pointing to the culprit, for still gripped in Ragnar’s cold, dead fingers was a scrap of fabric he’d torn from the clothing of his assailant in a final death struggle. The fabric was identified as part of the tunic of a royal huntsman and, when Bern’s chamber was searched, the king’s men found a tunic containing a matching rip in its sleeve.
Bern was pronounced guilty by King Edmund and ordered that his punishment was to be cast adrift on an ebbing tide in the very same boat that had carried Ragnar to England. It was at this point Fate took an ironic turn, for Bern did not perish in the boat but was instead swept back across the North Sea, washing up on the very same Danish shore where Ragnar had gone missing several months previously.
Recognizing the boat as having belonged to their father, Ivar and Ubba were keen to learn from Bern what had happened to their Ragnar. Bern’s treacherous explanation was that King Edmund had ordered their father be killed and his body abandoned in a wood to deny it a proper burial.
The Martyrdom of a King
Now back to November 869 (some chronicles suggest it was the year 870) and in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Great Heathen Army “rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory and conquered all that land.”
In the aftermath of the defeat, Edmund and some of his retainers fled east but became separated about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away, near a settlement called Haegelisdun, where Edmund was captured by the Vikings who caught him hiding beneath a bridge. Legend has it Edmund was captured after a wedding party, making their way across the bridge that evening, saw the glint of the moonlight reflecting off his golden spurs and betrayed him to the Vikings. As he was dragged away, Edmund placed a curse on all bridal couples who should ever cross the fateful bridge.
Edmund’s capture at the bridge. (Author provided)
Once in the hands of Ivar, Ubba and their henchmen, Edmund was roped to an oak tree, then beaten and whipped in an attempt to torture him into renouncing his Christian faith and accepting Ivar as his king. When Edmund refused to submit, saying he was ready to die for his people and his God, the Vikings responded by shooting arrows and throwing spears at him “as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog.”
A medieval illumination depicting the death of Edmund the Martyr on 20 November 869 by the Vikings. (Public Domain)
But still Edmund didn’t die and he continued to pray to God, so the Vikings cut his head off. Mindful of Bern’s tale of Ragnar’s fate, the Vikings threw Edmund’s body into a communal rubbish pit, to deny it a proper Christian burial, and then played football with his head until the grew bored and tossed it away into a thicket of thorns and brier.
Edmund’s death occurred on the 20 November (still observed as St Edmund’s Day) and a few days later, when the Vikings had moved on, some of Edmund’s followers returned to the area. They recovered his body but at first couldn’t locate his head. However, as they searched, calling out “Where are you friend?” they heard the king’s voice calling back “Here, here, here.” They followed the source of the sound to where they found the king’s head, protected from scavengers and carrion by a giant grey wolf that cradled it between its paws. The wolf immediately yielded up the head, then followed Edmund’s men as they took the body back to a nearby village. Once it was certain the king had received a proper burial, the wolf returned to the forest and was never seen again.
Detail of a miniature of Edmund's head calling out "Here! Here! Here!" all day long until the men searching for it found it hidden in a thicket, being guarded by a wolf. (Public Domain)
There are a number of places that claim to be the location of Haegelisdun but the village Hoxne in Suffolk’s Waveney Valley is the one with the longest and firmest association, including the site of Edmund’s oak, which stood in a field just outside the village until it fell in a storm in 1848. Reports at the time describe the oak as being “ancient with a trunk over 20 feet in circumference” within which were found old, iron arrow heads.
Commemoration marking the site of Edmund’s Oak. (Author provided)
The village even has a Goldbrook Bridge, said to be the site of Edmund’s capture and which, until as recently as the 19th century, wedding parties would take a detour to avoid for fear of invoking the curse.
Goldbrook Bridge, Hoxne Village. (Author provided)
Inscription at Goldbrook Bridge. (Author provided)
As for the wolf, in 1890 a vicar found an old, stone chest in the crypt of a church near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. Inside was a collection of bones later identified as belonging to a large wolf. It is also interesting to note that King Edmund was the last member of a Saxon royal dynasty called the Wuffingas, who had ruled East Anglia since the sixth century. The family name is derived from “the Kin of the Wolf” – so perhaps Edmund’s wolf knew it was guarding the last of the line?
So that is the story and legend of the strange happenings in the life of King Edmund. But, our story does not stop with Edmund’s death and his burial within a small and hastily built wooden chapel near Hoxne. Within 25 years of his death, miracles were already being ascribed to the late king’s intervention and even the Vikings, who now ruled the area, were minting commemorative coins carrying the inscription St Edmund the King.
In Part 2 we will see how the legend of King Edmund continues way after his death.
Charles Christian is a writer, editor, blogger, award-winning tech journalist, former barrister, and Reuters correspondent. He writes about media, technology, geek stuff, the just plain weird, and anything else that intrigues him. His most recent non-fiction book is A travel guide to Yorkshire’s Weird Wolds: The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle. He was recently described as an “outstanding writer who perfectly captures the hidden worlds and forgotten corners of Britain”.