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Edmund killing Sweyn by Matthew Paris, 13th century (Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59 p. 4)

The Strange Death and Afterlife of King Edmund Part 2: Did the Martyred Saint Rise from the Grave to Kill a Viking King?

King Edmund was the man who died, indeed was martyred by the Vikings after enduring a tortuous death which ended in his beheading. He thus became St Edmund and was the England’s original heavenly patron saint for over four hundred years from the early 10th century.

Part 1 told the story of the remarkable happenings the life of King Edmund including his terrible demise. 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.

Read Part 1

Edmund’s Adventures in the Afterlife

A few years later, as the late king’s cult grew, his remains were transferred to the city of Beadoriceworth, soon renamed St Edmund’s Bury (modern day Bury St Edmunds) and the abbey built to house his shrine became a popular site of pilgrimage.

The reputation of Edmund, the king and now a saintly martyr, had received a further boost after the original grave was opened. It was said that not only was Edmund’s body found to be incorrupt (viz there was no decomposition) but all the wounds on his body had healed, his head was once more joined to his body, and all that was left to show where it had been severed was a thin red crease on the neck. (The last reported opening of Edmund’s tomb was in 1198, when the body was found to still be incorrupt. One account says a skeptical monk actually tugged the king’s hair to see if the head really was reattached to the body and was promptly slapped by the saint for his lack of faith.)

The next twist in the story comes in AD 1013 during the chaotic reign of King Ethelred, forever known in English history as Ethelred the Unready. The Saxons and Vikings were still at war and, after Ethelred had been forced into exile, Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark and Norway was also declared King of England on Christmas Day, AD 1013.

Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, England, and parts of Norway.

Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, England, and parts of Norway. ( Public Domain )

Five weeks later King Sweyn was dead. The official explanation was he died in his bed from injuries sustained after a fall from his horse. However, another version of the story says “divine vengeance put a stop to his blasphemy.”

The background was Sweyn and his Vikings were not only seizing as much Danegeld (what we’d nowadays call protection money) from his new English subjects but had also threatened to burn down the city of Bury St Edmunds and its abbey, as well as slaughter all its inhabitants, unless they paid over an additional sum of ransom money.

It was then divine intervention seemingly struck when, in the early hours of 3 February 1014, the ghost of St Edmund, mounted on a white charger, was said to have appeared in Sweyn’s bedchamber and fatally ran him through with a spear! According to the legend, although he was surrounded by his Vikings, he alone saw St Edmund coming towards him. Terrified, he began shouting “Help, fellow-warriors, help! St Edmund is coming to kill me!” But the Vikings could not see the ghost which “ran him through fiercely with a spear,” leaving Sweyn “tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death.”

The death of Sweyn Forkbeard at the end of a ghost’s spear.

The death of Sweyn Forkbeard at the end of a ghost’s spear. ( Public Domain )

You may scoff at this story but six years later in 1020, when Sweyn’s son Cnut (or Canute) was king of England, the new monarch visited the shrine of St Edmund and bestowed on it sufficient money to replace the old wooden abbey and fund the building in stone of a grand new Benedictine monastery. Perhaps Cnut was fearful of a similar haunting unless he atoned for the sins of his Viking ancestors?

(Sweyn, incidentally, was never actually crowned king of England and his reign was the second shortest of any English monarch. Lady Jane Grey, the “nine-day queen,” holds the record for the shortest rule.)

Edmund’s Traveling Body

Our story is however not yet over, for in the year 1217, during one of the many barons’ revolts and rebellions that plagued England in the Middle Ages, a group of French knights are said to have stolen Saint Edmund’s body (or at least part of it) and whisked it away to the Basilica of Saint-Sernin in the French city of Toulouse. The relics and the saint’s intercessions are credited with saving the city from the plague in the 17th century

The next development came in 1901, when the Archbishop of Westminster received some of St Edmund’s relics from Saint-Sernin that were intended for the high altar of the new Roman Catholic cathedral, then under construction at Westminster in London. On their arrival in England, the relics were housed in the Fitzalan Chapel at the Duke of Norfolk’s castle at Arundel. However, plans were stalled when the antiquarian Dr. Montague Rhodes James (better known as the ghost and supernatural horror story writer M.R. James) subsequently expressed concern about the relics’ validity. At the time of writing, 115 years later, those plans are still stalled and St Edmund’s relics remain to this day at Arundel.

Or do they? For another version of the story says the monks at Bury St Edmunds moved the saint’s still incorrupt body to prevent the French from stealing it, so whatever relics they made off with, they did not belong to Edmund.

A depiction of Edmund’s shrine. (Public Domain)

A depiction of Edmund’s shrine. (Public Domain)

Edmund’s shrine was destroyed in 1539, during King Henry VIII’s Reformation, and in November of that year the abbey was dissolved and the monks expelled, taking with them the secret of the location of the saint’s final resting place. Historians now think the body of St Edmund is still buried in the former monks’ graveyard at Bury St Edmunds, which now lies beneath the tennis courts in the town’s Abbey Gardens.

Top image: Edmund killing Sweyn by Matthew Paris, 13th century (Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59 p. 4) ( Public Domain )

By Charles Christian

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”.

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