The Passion of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr

This fairly typical saint's life is by Ælfric (fl. 990-1020), an Anglo-Saxon monk and a prolific writer of religious literature. Ælfric translated it from a Latin life of St. Edmund by Abbo of Fleury.

The events referred to in the life took place in the year 870. A little more than two decades later, Asser, bishop of Sherborne, in his Life of King Alfred, described the death of King Edmund thus: "In the same year [870], Edmund, King of the East Angles, fought fiercely against that army [of Vikings]. But alas, he was killed there with a large number of his men, and the Vikings rejoiced triumphantly; the enemies were masters of the battlefield, and they subjected that entire province to their authority" (Alfred the Great, ed. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge [London 1983], p. 78). As you read, notice the contradictions between Asser's account and Ælfric's.

The modern reader needs to be forewarned that this text contains some anti-Semitic remarks. Even scholarly and sophisticated writers of the Middle Ages were often anti-Semitic; to edit out these remarks would have done no harm to the narrative, but it would have misrepresented Ælfric and the age in which he lived.

The text was edited and translated from the Old English by W.W. Skeat, Ælfric's Lives of Saints, Early English Text Society 76, 82, 94, 114 (London, 1881-1900), 2: 314-335. The translation presented here is based on Skeat's but has been edited for clarity.

In the days of king Æthelred a very learned monk came over the sea from the monastery of Saint Benedict in the south to Archbishop Dunstan, three years before he died; and the monk was called Abbo. They talked together until Dunstan told him about saint Edmund, even as Edmund's sword-bearer had told the story to king Æthelstan when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer a very old man. The monk put this whole story into a book, and a few years afterwards, when the book had come to us, we turned it into English just as it stands hereafter. Two years later this monk Abbo went home to his monastery and was almost immediately appointed abbot in that same monastery.

Edmund the blessed, king of the East Angles, was wise and honorable and by his excellent conduct ever glorified Almighty God. He was humble and devout, and continued so steadfast that he would not yield to shameful sins, nor in any direction did he bend aside his practices, but was always mindful of true doctrine. If you are made a chief man, do not exalt yourself, but be among men as one of them. He was bountiful to the poor and like a father to widows, and with benignity guided his people ever to righteousness, and controlled the violent, and lived happily in the true faith.

Then at length it happened that the Danish people came with a fleet, harrying and slaying widely over the land, as their custom is. In that fleet were their chief men, Hingwar and Hubba, associated by the devil, and they landed in Northumbria with their ships and wasted the land and slew the people. Then Hingwar turned eastward with his ships, and Hubba was left in Northumbria, having won the victory by cruel means. Then Hingwar came rowing to East Anglia in the year when Alfred the ætheling was one and twenty years old, he who afterward became the renowned king of the West-Saxons. And the aforesaid Hingwar suddenly, like a wolf, stalked over the land and slew the people--men, women and innocent children--and shamefully tormented innocent Christians. Then soon afterward he sent to the king a threatening message that he must bow down to do him homage, if he cared for his life.

So the messenger came to King Edmund and speedily announced to him Hingwar's message: "Hingwar our king, keen and victorious by sea and by land, has rule over many peoples, and has now landed here suddenly with an army, intending to take up his winter-quarters here with his host. Now he commands you to divide your secret treasures and your ancestors' wealth quickly with him, and you shall be his under-king, if you desire to live, because you do not have the power to withstand him."

King Edmund called a bishop, the one who was nearest to him at the time, and consulted with him how he should answer the savage Hingwar. The bishop feared for this terrible misfortune and for the king's life, and said that it seemed best to him that he should submit to that which Hingwar had demanded of him.

Then the king kept silence and looked at the ground, and at length said to him in kingly fashion: "Behold, oh bishop, the poor people of this land are brought to shame, and I would rather fall in battle so that my people can continued to possess their land."

And the bishop said, "Alas, dear king, your people lie slain, and you do not have sufficient forces with which you can fight, and these seamen will come and bind you alive unless you save your life by means of flight, or thus save yourself by yielding to him."

Then said Edmund the king, brave as he was: "This I desire and wish in my mind, that I should not be left alone after my dear thanes, who have been suddenly slain in their beds by these seamen, with their children and their wives. It has never been my custom to take to flight, but I would rather die, if I must, for my own land; and almighty God knows that I will never turn aside from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I die or live."

After these words he turned to the messenger whom Hingwar had sent to him, and said to him undismayed: "Verily you would now be worthy of death, but I will not defile my clean hands with your foul blood, because I follow Christ, who has given us an example, and I will happily be slain by you, if God has so ordained. Depart now very quickly, and say to your cruel lord that Edmund the king will never bow in life to Hingwar the heathen leader, unless he will first bow, in this land, to Jesus Christ with faith."

Then the messenger went quickly away and met on the way the bloodthirsty Hingwar hurrying to Edmund with his whole army, and told that wicked man how he had been answered. Hingwar then arrogantly commanded his troops that they should, all of them, take the king alone, who had despised his command, and instantly bind him.

When Hingwar came, Edmund the king stood within his hall, mindful of the Savior, and threw away his weapons, desiring to imitate the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to fight with weapons against the bloodthirsty Jews. Then those wicked men bound Edmund and shamefully insulted him and beat him with clubs, and afterward they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree and tied him to it with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and among the blows he was always calling with true faith on Jesus Christ.

Then the heathen were madly angry because of his faith, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement, until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine's bristles, even as Sebastian was. When Hingwar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not deny Christ, but with steadfast faith ever called upon Him, he commanded men to behead him, and the heathen did so. For while he was yet calling upon Christ, the heathen drew away the saint to slay him, and struck off his head with a single blow, and his soul departed joyfully to Christ. There was a certain man at hand, whom God was hiding from the heathen, who heard all this and told it afterward just as we tell it here.

Then the seamen went again to ship, and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it could not be buried. Then after a while, after they were gone away, the country-folk, who were still left there, came to where their lord's body lay without his head, and were very sore at heart because of his murder, and chiefly because they had not the head with the body.

Then the spectator who had previously beheld it said that the seamen had taken the head with them, and it seemed to him (as was actually the case) that they had hidden the head in the wood somewhere about.

Then they all went searching together in the wood, looking everywhere among the thorns and brambles for the head. There was also a great wonder, that a wolf was sent, by God's direction, to guard the head against the other animals by day and night. They went on searching and calling out continually, as those who go through woods often do: "Where are you now, friend?" And the head answered them, "Here, here, here!" And so it called out repeatedly, answering them as often as any of them called to it, until they all came to it by means of those cries. There lay the gray wolf who had been guarding the head, and with his two feet had embraced it, greedy and hungry, and yet for fear of God had not dared to eat it, but had kept it safe against other animals.

They were astonished at the wolf's guardianship and carried the holy head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all His wonders; but the wolf followed forth with the head until they came to the town, as if he were tame, and then turned back again into the wood. Then the country-people laid the head by the holy body, and buried him as well as they could in such haste, and soon built a church over him.

Then, after many years, when the harrying had ceased and peace was restored to the oppressed people, they came together and built a church worthily in honor of the saint, because miracles had frequently been done at his burial-place, even at the bede-house where he was buried. They desired to carry the holy body with popular honor and to lay it within the church. Then there was a great wonder, that he was all as whole as if he were alive, with clean body, and his neck was healed which before had been cut through, and there was as it were a silken thread about his neck, all red, as if to show men how he had been slain. Also the wounds, which the bloodthirsty heathen had made in his body with their repeated shots, were healed by the heavenly God; and so he lies uncorrupt until this present day, awaiting the resurrection and the eternal glory. His body shows us, which lies undecayed, that he lived without fornication here in this world, and by a pure life passed to Christ.

A certain widow who was called Oswyn dwelt near the saint's burial-place in prayer and fasting for many years after. Every year she would cut the saint's hair and cut his nails soberly and lovingly, and keep them in a shrine as relics on the altar. In this way the people of the land faithfully venerated the saint; and bishop Theodred gave great gifts of gold and silver in his honor.

Then once upon a time came some unblessed thieves, eight in one night, to the venerable saint, desiring to steal the treasures which people had brought to his shrine, and tried how they might get in by craft. One struck at the hasp violently with a hammer; one of them filed about it with a file; one dug under the door with a spade; one of them by a ladder wished to unlock the window: but they toiled in vain and fared miserably because the holy man wondrously bound them, each as he stood toiling with his implement, so that none of them could do that evil deed or stir from that place; but they stood there till morning. Then men wondered to see how the wretches hung there, one on a ladder, one bent down to his digging, and each was bound fast in his work. Then they were all brought to the bishop, and he commanded men to hang them all on a high gallows; but he was not mindful how the merciful God spoke through His prophet the words which here stand: Eos qui ducuntur ad mortem eruere ne cesses: "always deliver those who are led to death". And also the holy canons forbid clerics, both bishops and priests, to be concerned about thieves, because it is not fitting for those who are chosen to serve God to consent to any man's death, if they are the Lord's servants. Then Theodred the bishop, after he had searched his books, rued with lamentation that he had awarded such a cruel doom to these unhappy thieves, and ever deplored it to his life's end; and earnestly prayed the people to fast with him fully three days, praying the Almighty that He would have pity upon him.

In that land was a certain man called Leofstan, rich in worldly things and ignorant concerning God, who rode with great insolence to the saint's shrine and very arrogantly commanded them to show him the holy saint so that he could find out whether he was really incorrupt; but as soon as he saw the saint's body, he straightway raved and roared horribly, and miserably ended by an evil death. This is like that which the orthodox pope, Gregory by name, said in his writing concerning the holy Lawrence who lies in the city of Rome, that men were always wishing to see how he lay, both good and evil, but God checked them, so that there died in the looking all at once seven men together; so the others desisted from looking at the martyr with human error.

We have heard of many wonders in the popular talk about the holy Edmund, which we will not set down here in writing; but every one knows them. By this saint is it manifest and by others like him, that Almighty God can raise man again, in the day of judgment, incorruptible from the earth, He who preserves Edmund whole in his body until the great day, though he was made of earth. Worthy is the place for the sake of the venerable saint that men should venerate it and well provide it with God's pure servants, to Christ's service, because the saint is greater than men may imagine.

The English nation is not without the Lord's saints, since in England lie such saints as this holy king, and the blessed Cuthbert, and saint Æthelthryth in Ely, and also her sister, incorrupt in body, for the confirmation of the faith. There are also many other saints among the English who work many miracles, as is widely known, to the praise of the Almighty in whom they believed. Christ shows to men, through His illustrious saints, that He is Almighty God who causes such wonders, though the miserable Jews altogether denied Him, because they are accursed, as they desired for themselves. No wonders are wrought at their sepulchres because they believe not in the living Christ; but Christ manifests to men where the true faith is, since He works such miracles by His saints widely throughout the earth; wherefore to Him be Glory ever with His Heavenly Father, and with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.