In preparation for the rootlessness of England post Union. St Edmund is an important figure who should be retrieved from deep cultural memory.
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St Edmund the Martyr
I’ve been thinking about landscape, hyper thickness, landship, and history this week. They’re topics that seem to be popping up in my diary a lot, which means there’s a thread to pull.
A couple of episodes ago, I talked about how successive governments have tried (and failed) to constitute a British identity as a cultural project. Just as the media confuse London for Westminster. So to do people who live in England confuse it for Britain. It was this confused English idea of Britain that fuelled the idea of Brexit for example.
Given that the fractures in the bedrock of the British state are continuing to widen. The breakup and collapse of the union is now inevitable. With this as a position in mind, I’ve been thinking about English identity, specifically ~white~ identity. What (if any) sort of cultural project could be attempted to constitute a new English identity beyond racists online and the population draping themselves in St Georges flags once every 4 years?.
Today is November the 20th. The Feast day of St. Edmund the Martyr. The first and then later co-patron saint of England alongside Edward the Confessor.
St Edmund, Patron saint of torture victims, wolves and funnily enough, pandemics.
You never hear much about old Edmund these days do you?
It’s all about OG Roman St George the chad dragon slayer. A saint who grew in the cultural imagination with members of the Order of the Garter and fanatical English peasantry during the crusades. He was finally adopted by the English nobility as their patron in the early 15th Century during the Last War of Independence with Wales. Adopted to help fight the revolt that mustered under the flag of a dragon.
St George the slayer of dragons: patron saint of soldiers; archers; and armourers cuts a romantic figure in the imagination. A patron Saint that helped shape the idea of Britain and its empire from english minds.
But what about the figure of the English king? One who was captured, tortured and tied to an oak tree. Shot with arrows and speared with javelins until he was (to paraphrase the old English) covered with missiles ‘like the bristles of a hedgehog.’
St Edmund was elected King in 855 at the age of fourteen to rule Suffolk. Nothing else beyond those details are known. Either of his life or his reign. We don’t even know what year he was killed, but it’s thought to be 869.
What textual evidence we do have is from the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘ written the following year – 870.
“Here the 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 killed the king and conquered all that land’’
According to legend, after being killed on the tree, he was beheaded on the orders of Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba. His dismembered was head thrown into the forest, but found by searchers following the cries of an ethereal wolf calling out in Latin, “Hic, Hic, Hic” or “Here, Here, Here”.
Edmund’s body was originally buried in a small wooden chapel near to the site of his killing. Thirty years the Vikings of East Anglia began to venerate him. Produced coinage to commemorate his martyrdom. O St Edmund the king! read the coins inscription. In 925 his body was transferred to what is now Bury St Edmunds (funnily enough) and from then on his cult began to flourish and grow.
For centuries the shrine was visited by the various kings of England. The most famous being King Canute. Who after converting to Christianity rebuilt the abbey. In 1020, he made a pilgrimage and offered his own crown upon the shrine as atonement for the sins of his forefathers.
The modern Orthodox Cansted to St Edmund has the lines:
‘Not yielding to sharp and grievous tortures, thou hast gone to them as if they were pleasures, abiding with the Lord and singing, O glorious Edmund. Whilst fixed to the trees with arrows the sound of thy prayers to the King of heaven and earth resounded like thunder.’
Edmunds death of course has echoes of St Sebastian’s martyrdom. The early christian saint who too was tied to a tree and shot through with arrows. Though unlike our English king, survived. Sebastian was also prayed to in defence against plague. There is also the interesting symbolism of Edmund’s headlessness. Which I don’t have time to go into right now.
Edmunds shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation. Silver and gold to the value of over 5000 marks were taken from the building. Given that a mark is about 200g of silver, 200*5000 is 1000 metric tons of precious metal. Can you imagine? On the 4 November 1539 the abbot and his monks were expelled from the abbey and it was dissolved.
There are already currents in flow to revive St Edmund. In 2006, a group that included BBC Radio Suffolk and the East Anglian Daily Times ran a campaign to reinstate Edmund as patron saint of England. In 2013 another campaign began with the backing of representatives from businesses, churches, radio and local politicians.
St Edmund is an important figure who should be retrieved from deep cultural memory. In preparation for the rootlessness of England post Union.
We currently have the toxic masculinity of the chad dragon slayer, but maybe we need a literal virgin king martyred against a mighty oak.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints.
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