This account is by Abbo of Fleury
Edmund the Blessed, King of East Anglia, was wise and worthy, and exalted among the noble servants of the almighty God. He was humble and virtuous and remained so resolute that he would not turn to shameful vices, nor would he bend his morality in any way, but was ever-mindful of the true teaching: “If you are installed as a ruler, don’t puff yourself up, but be among men just like one of them.” He was charitable to poor folks and widows, just like a father, and with benevolence he guided his people always towards righteousness, and restrained the cruel, and lived happily in the true faith.
Eventually it happened that the Danes [Vikings] came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom. In the fleet were the foremost chieftains Ivar and Ubbi, united through the devil. They landed warships in Northumbria, and wasted that country and slew the people. Then Ivar went [south-]east with his ships and Halfdan6 remained in Northumbria gaining victory with slaughter. Ivar came rowing to East Anglia in the year in which prince Alfred–he who afterwards became the famous West Saxon king–was 21.7 The aforementioned Ivar suddenly invaded the country, just like a wolf, and slew the people, men and women and innocent children, and ignominiously harassed innocent Christians. Soon afterward he sent to king Edmund a threatening message, that Edmund should submit to his allegiance, if he cared for his life. The messenger came to king Edmund and boldly announced Ivar’s message: “Ivar, our king, bold and victorious on sea and on land, has dominion over many peoples, and has now come to this country with his army to take up winter-quarters with his men. He commands that you share your hidden gold-hordes and your ancestral possessions with him straightaway, and that you become his vassal-king, if you want to stay alive, since you now don’t have the forces that you can resist him.”
Then king Edmund summoned a certain bishop with whom he was most intimate, and deliberated with him how he should answer the fierce Ivar. The bishop was afraid because of this emergency, and he feared for the king’s life, and counseled him that he thought that Edmund should submit to what Ivar asked of him. Then the king became silent, and looked at the ground, and then said to him at last : “Alas bishop, the poor people of this country are already shamefully afflicted. I would rather die fighting so that my people might continue to possess their native land.” The bishop said: “Alas beloved king, thy people lie slain. You do not have the troops that you may fight, and the pirates come and kidnap the living. Save your life by flight, or save yourself by submitting to him.” Then said king Edmund, since he was completely brave: “This I heartily wish and desire, that I not be the only survivor after my beloved thegns ["thegns" were the noblemen who fought for the king] are slain in their beds with their children and wives by these pirates. It was never my way to flee. I would rather die for my country if I need to. Almighty God knows that I will not ever turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.”
After these words he turned to the messenger who Ivar had sent him, and, undaunted, said to him: “In truth you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood, because I follow Christ who so instructed us by his example; and I happily will be slain by you if God so ordain it. Go now quickly and tell your fierce lord: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen war-leader, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.’” Then the messenger went quickly on his way, and met along the road the cruel Ivar with all his army hastening toward Edmund, and told the impious one how he had been answered. Ivar then arrogantly ordered that the pirates should all look at once for the king who scorned his command, and seize him immediately.
King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons. Lo! the impious one then bound Edmund and insulted him ignominiously, and beat him with rods, and afterwards led the devout king to a firm living tree, and tied him there with strong bonds, and beat him with whips. In between the whip lashes, Edmund called out with true belief in the Saviour Christ. Because of his belief, because he called to Christ to aid him, the heathens became furiously angry. They then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog (just like St. Sebastian was). When Ivar the impious pirate saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with resolute faith called after Him, he ordered Edmund beheaded, and the heathens did so. While Edmund still called out to Christ, the heathen dragged the holy man to his death, and with one stroke struck off his head, and his soul journeyed happily to Christ. There was a man near at hand, kept hidden by God, who heard all this, and told of it afterward, just as we have told it here.
Then the pirates returned to their ships and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it could not be buried with the rest of his body. After a time, after the pirates had departed, the local people, those who were left, came there where the remains of their lord’s body without a head was. They were very sad in heart because of his killing, and especially because they didn’t have the head for his body. Then the witness who saw the earlier events said that the pirates had the head with them, and that it seemed to him, as it was in truth, that they hid the head in the woods somewhere.
They all went together then to the woods, looking everywhere through the bushes and brambles to see if they could find that head anywhere. It was also a great miracle that a wolf was sent, through the guidance of God, to protect that head both day and night from the other animals. The people went searching and also calling out, just as the custom is among those who often go into the wood: “Where are you now, friend?” And the head answered them: “Here, here, here,” and called out the answer to them as often as any of them called out, until they came to it as a result of the calling. There lay the grey wolf who watched over that head, and had the head clasped between his two paws. The wolf was greedy and hungry, but because of God he dared not eat the head, but protected it against animals. The people were astonished at the wolf’s guardianship and carried home with them the holy head, thanking almighty God for all His miracles. The wolf followed along with the head as if he was tame, until they came to the settlement, and then the wolf turned back to the woods.
The local people then laid the head with the holy body and buried it as best they could in such a hurry, and soon erected a marker over him. After many years, when the harrying ceased and peace was granted to the afflicted people, they joined together and erected a church worthy of the saint at the marker where he was buried, because miracles happened frequently at his grave. They planned to carry the holy body with public honor and lay it in the church. Then there was a great miracle: Edmund was as sound as when he was alive, with a clean body, and his neck, which previously was severed, was healed. It was as if a red silken thread around his neck showed men how he was slain. Also the wounds which the cruel heathens made with frequent spear-shots to his body were healed by the heavenly God. And Edmund lies thus uncorrupted down to the present day, awaiting resurrection and the eternal glory. His body, which lies undecayed, tells us that he lived without fornication in this world, and with a clean life journeyed to Christ.
A certain widow named Oswyn lived near the holy tomb, and prayed and fasted there many years. She would cut the hair of the saint each year and trim his nails, chastely, with love, and place those holy relics in the shrine on the altar. Then the local people honored the saint by believing in him, and Bishop Theodred very greatly honored him with gifts of gold and silver.
One night eight accursed thieves came to the venerable saint. They wanted to steal the treasures which men brought thither, and craftily figured out how they might enter. One struck the hasps with a hammer; one of them filed round about with a file; one also dug under the door with a spade; one of them with a ladder wanted to unlock the window; but they labored without result and fared poorly in that the saint miraculously bound them stiffly, each as he stood with his tools, so that none of them might succeed in the crime nor stir from there. They stood thusly until morning. Men were amazed at that, how the men hung, one on a ladder, one stooped to dig, and each firmly bound in his task. The thieves were then all brought to the bishop and he commanded that they hang them all on high gallows. But he was not mindful of how the merciful God commanded through his prophets the words which stand here: Eos qui ducuntur ad mortem eruere ne cesses, ‘Always redeem those who man condemns to death.’ And the holy canons also forbid to the ordained, both bishops and priests, to judge concerning thieves, because it isn’t fitting for those who are chosen to the service of God to consent to any man’s death, especially if the criminals are Christians. After Bishop Theodred examined his book he repented grievously that he had so cruelly passed judgement on those unhappy thieves, and lamented it always until the end of his life. He asked the people eagerly that they fast with him for three entire days, asking almighty God that He should have mercy upon him.
In that country was a man named Leofstan, rich in worldly things but ignorant of God. He rode to the saint with exceeding arrogance and insolently ordered that the holy saint be shown to him so that he might see whether Edmund was whole. But as soon as he saw the saint’s body he went mad, and raged cruelly, and ended wretchedly in an evil death. This is similar to that which the pious Pope Gregory related in his narrative about the holy Laurentius, who lies in Rome, i.e., that men both good and evil wanted to examine how he lay, but God restrained them in such manner that seven men died all at one time at the examination. Then others with human shortcomings stopped examining the saint.
Many miracles concerning holy Edmund we heard about in popular parlance which we will not put into writing here, but everyone knows about them. Concerning this saint it is evident, and concerning others likewise, that God almighty, who preserves saint Edmund’s body until the great day, can resurrect that man again on Judgement Day uncorrupted by the earth, even though he comes from the earth. It is appropriate that man honor the holy places of the worthy saints, those servants of God in Christ’s service, and furnish them properly, because the saint is greater than any man can conceive of. The English are not deprived of the Lord’s saints, because in England lie such holy saints as this holy king, and Cuthbert the Blessed, and St. Aethelthryth at Ely, and also her sister, all sound in body, confirming the faith. There are also many other English saints who work many miracles, as is widely known, in praise of the Almighty who they believed in. Christ announces to men through his greater saints that he who makes such miracles is almighty God, even though the poor Jews all forsook him even though they wished for him, because they are accursed. There are no miracles wrought in any of their tombs because they do not believe in the living Christ. But Christ announces to men where the true faith exists when he works such miracles widely throughout the earth. Thus to him be ever glory with his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, ever without end. Amen.
Questions for consideration:
- Who are the heroes and villains in this story? How, specifically, does the author convey this?
- What aspects of this story are the most believable? The least?
- What is the purpose of this account beyond merely telling the story of what happened?