Abbo of Fleury: The Martyrdom of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, 870
Abbo of Fleury's Life of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia before 870, here
comes from the Anglo-Saxon version as it appears in Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer, 9th
edn. (Oxford Univ Press: Oxford, 1961), pp. 81-87, trans. K. Cutler.
[Preface to the Anglo-Saxon version by Aelfric of Eynsham]
In King Aethelred's day1 a certain very learned monk
named Abbo came over the sea from the south, from St. Benedict's resting-place2 to Archbishop Dunstan, three years before Dunstan died.3 During their conversation Dunstan related the story of St.
Edmund, just as Edmund's sword-bearer related it to King Aethelstan4 when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer was an aged man. Abbo recorded the
entire story in a single book, and when the book came to us [i.e., Aelfric], we translated
it into English, just as it stands now. The monk Abbo returned home to his monastery
within two years, and was soon elevated to abbot of that same monastery.
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 came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying
widely throughout the land, as is their custom. In the fleet were the foremost chieftans
Ivar and Ubbi,5 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
harrassed innocent Christians. Soon afterward he sent to king Edmund a threatening
message, that Edmund should submit to his alliegence, 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 counselled 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 surviror after my beloved thegns 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 sieze 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 missles, 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 condems 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 grieviously
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
1 Aethelred II, reigned 978-1016
2 the monastery of Fleury-sur-Loire
3 i.e., in 985. Dunstan died in 988
4 Aethelstan reigned 924-939
5 Ivar the Boneless and Ubbi, sons of Ragnar Løthbrok who was slain in Northumbria in 865
6 brother of Ivar and Ubbi
7 i.e., 869/70
Abbo of Fleury's Life of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia before 870,
here comes from the Anglo-Saxon version as it appears in Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer,
9th edn. (Oxford Univ Press: Oxford, 1961), pp. 81-87, trans. Kenneth Cutler 1998
The translation is copyright to Prof. Cutler.
This text is part of the Internet
Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and
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© Paul Halsall, October 1998