Saint Edmund Virgin, King & Martyr: 20 November

From St. Edmund King & Martyr by Rev. J.B. Mackinlay O.S.B. (1893)

In search of an heir

In the early part of the ninth century, Christian East Anglia fought repeatedly the attacks of pagan Mercia, that is, until the year 838 when Danish raiders—apostates—began to ravage the coasts of Northern Europe.

King Offa of East Anglia defended his kingdom successfully against both Mercians and Danes, but was left without a successor when his son renounced his kingly inheritance for a religious habit. With the intention of finding a successor, he embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, passing through the territory of Old Saxony, a dominion of Charlemagne which was ruled by his cousin Alcmund. Edmund, the son of Alcmund, at twelve years of age, waited on King Offa who, perhaps by divine inspiration, was moved to adopting him as his son and heir on witnessing the boy's sanctity, prudence and courage.

Edmund crowned

King Offa departed, leaving his seal with Edmund and died a holy death on the banks of the Bosphorous having completed his pilgrimage. Edmund was reluctantly released by his mother and father and, after a period of preparation, sailed to Hunstanton and was crowned at Bury on Christmas Day 855 at the age of 16 years.

As a king he possessed in abundance the virtues necessary for his office and, despite his youth, he soon commanded the loyalty of his subjects. He was above all renowned for his sanctity and had the Bishop (later Saint) Humbert as his closest advisor and spiritual director.

To war

In 864, the Danish invasions of England commenced in earnest. Edmund was engaged in almost continuous warfare and with such success that a hatred of his person as warrior, king, and devout Christian was engendered in the eyes of the Danes—particularly the sea kings Hinguar and Hubba.

Northumbria and Mercia fell to the barbarians who violated and killed to the extent that whole towns were left empty in their wake. After six years of conflict, a ravaging army entered East Anglia. By this time, King Edmund's forces were exhausted and outnumbered, but they had the courage to array themselves for a final battle against Hinguar which took place at Thetford. Edmund with his depleted army battled for seven hours and left the field red with blood having forced a Danish retreat. The war however was lost as news of the approach of new army under Hubba reached the weary survivors. The options left for Edmund were as follows: a fight to the death and the death of all his people; apostasy and eternal death; flight and the death of all his people; self surrender and sacrifice as a victim to God for his people.


He dismissed his remaining tearful warriors; "Laying aside his temporal arms, he put on the armour of heaven … prostrate before the altar with his forehead on the pavement, he poured out his soul in prayer".

Hegledune (Hoxne) was surrounded, the pagans entered the town and then the church. Thenceforth St. Edmund's story closely resembles that of our Divine Saviour.

He was bound and brought before his accuser, Hinguar, beaten while interrogated (some of the martyr's teeth were found wanting in his skull) and scourged against an oak tree. He was continually pressed to renounce his allegiance to Christ but resisted, uttering the name of Jesus at each stoke.

The barbarians then used his body as sport for their archers, careful to avoid his chest and head. Covered with arrows, streaming with blood, St. Edmund was dragged from the tree while uttering his final prayer:

O Lord, who of Thy mercy didst send Thy Son to earth to die for us, grant me patience unto the end. I yearn to change this world's life for Thy Blessed Company.

Hinguar himself with one stroke severed Edmund's head so that, on 20 November 870, at the age of 29 years, Edmund died Virgin, King and Martyr.

For three hundred and thirty years his body remained incorrupt as was verified officially on seven occasions during that period. Dozens of documented miracles are the result of his intercession and many thousands of others have been attributed to him. He was considered one of the most powerful saints throughout the Middle Ages in England and abroad.

His remains currently reside at the Basilica of Saint Sernin in Toulouse where they were taken in 1219 (by the marauding French mercenaries invited by King John to fight against the barons). His feast day is the day of his martyrdom and, in 1222, it was made a holy day of obligation for the whole of England. St. Edmund was the first Patron Saint of England, but was replaced by St. George in 1348.

The oak tree against which, by tradition, St. Edmund was tied fell by its own weight in 1848, "gnarled and wrinkled by a thousand winters". On cutting up the trunk, the saw struck upon a hard object which was found to be an arrowhead firmly embedded in a black knot that had grown around it.

View all the articles from Ite Missa Est