King Edmund’s short reign over the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia was marred by invasion by Vikings from Denmark. Edmund himself was killed by them. It is not certain how effectively he resisted, or whether his actions contributed to the invaders’ subsequent decision to withdraw, leaving no settlers behind them. He won no great battle. But the reality that underlies these scant and unpromising facts provided fertile soil for the growing cult and legend of the most celebrated of all Anglo-Saxon royal saints: dedicatee of dozens of churches, whose relics were the object of great pilgrimages, and who was regarded for some time as patron saint of England.
Successive hagiographers overlaid the facts with their own layers of interpretation and invention, until it became impossible to draw a line between the truth and its embellishment. Only believers in miracles would accept that Edmund’s severed head spoke; but was he the chaste, peace-loving man whom Abbo of Fleury depicted, or were the earlier descriptions of a powerful warrior more accurate? And why did subsequent generations of the Vikings whose arrival he opposed so determinedly play a large part in fostering his legend?
Joseph Mason roots his account in the Viking period: the last days of the life of the real man, and the first decades of the development of his cult. He focuses on the Vikings and Edmund’s interaction with them, both before and after his death, and he draws primarily on unconventional sources of information. The written record might be scarce, but can we build a better picture by looking too at the pattern of church dedications to Edmund, at place names, and at the archaeological record? Mason argues that these traces, albeit sparse, provide valuable evidence that suggests how and where the Vikings travelled, where the impact of their invasion was greatest, and where the source of his subjects’ gratitude to Edmund – which was surely the main factor in his acclamation as a saint – is really to be located.
Illustrated throughout, mostly in colour, the book concludes with a gazetteer of churches dedicated to St Edmund, in East Anglia and beyond.
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