St George of dragon slaying fame is the patron saint of Georgia (the country which is not named after him but it sure could be1), Portugal, Malta (although there are others there as well) and, of course, our neighbours, England. But St George was not born in (or even visited) these countries (albeit there are some legendary accounts of him visiting Glastonbury but there are about Jesus too!). George was born in Lydda, which was part of Roman Palestine, and was a soldier in the Roman army until he was tortured and executed by a surprisingly reluctant Diocletian for not making sacrifice to the Roman Gods.
Theories abound as to why he was adopted in England (with the truth probably being he was a bit exotic, had no connections with England – and so could be universally followed – and his Feast Day survived the Reformation intact, unlike a lot of saints). Maybe this occurred as a result of him being adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Or maybe it didn’t. But King Edward III adopted St George as patron of his newly formed Order of the Garter in 1348 before extending that designation to his entire kingdom.
In doing so, Edward usurped the existing Patron Saint of England – that’s right; there was another – whose Feast Day is today, November 20th. He is St Edmund, as English as a bulldog, who sacrificed himself for the good of his people in 869 AD. In next-to-no-time, no less a figure than King Alfred the Great elevated Edmund to saint and also patron of England. Within 20 years, he was the number one martyred saint in the country. Until St George muscled him aside that is (and not forgetting St Thomas, of course. He of brain-scooped-up-by-sword-fame).
The life story of St Edmund has come down to us with a Christian gloss. Little is known of his early life (although myths abound) but he was probably King of East Anglia in 869 AD, when the Great Heathen Army (full of Danes and would-be Vikings) fell on the kingdom in an orgy of traditional rape and pillage. The army was led by Ivar Ragnarsson or Ivar the Boneless, who was a Viking leader and berserker. According to legend, he was the son of the powerful Ragnar Lodbrok (who will be immediately recognisable by fans – like me – of the Vikings series). Anyway, old Ivar may have been boneless but he was no pushover and his army routinely defeated that of Edmund. The Viking issued terms for surrender (as was usual, even if it seems extremely civilised) with a proviso that St Edmund renounce his Christianity (or was this later gloss?). Edmund felt unable to do this, or, more importantly, agree to the surrender terms at all, saying to his bishop he would “rather die for my country”. Ivar obliged. He tied Edmund to a tree, scourged him (sound familiar), then shot him with arrows and javelins until they resembled “the bristles of a hedgehog” (described by an eyewitness), and then, finally, in that over-the-top Viking way we all love, had him beheaded. Job done. Martyred for his faith, 29 years-old, glamorous, royal, and, through dying valiantly, saving his people from an oppressive surrender treaty. No wonder Alfred dusted off the hagiography almost immediately. Edmund’s example was just what was needed to give other rulers a bit of backbone.
But, despite the Christian gloss, things from now on turned decidedly Pagan. Edmund’s bristled body was recovered quickly, but his severed head had been kicked into a nearby forest and was lost. When his followers went looking for the head, they were led to its location by the sounds of a howling grey wolf crying, in Latin no less, “Hic Hic!”, “Over Here!”. Clever wolf.
The wolf (later a giant wolf) seemed to stand guard over the head but allowed Edmund’s followers to retrieve it. As they did so, a spring gushed from the ground at the point at which it lay. When the followers later stuck the head back on the body, the two miraculously joined, so that the king was whole again for burial at, the appropriately named, Bury St Edmunds (I think the name came later). Very soon, a cult grew around Edmund’s shrine. One manifestation of this is that a woman hoping to conceive would take a pampered white bull to the shrine, garland it with flowers, kiss Edmund’s tomb, then whisper to the dead king her desire to conceive. The tradition survived into Tudor times and if Queen Mary has got herself a bull, there’s no telling what might have happened to English history.
Fertility seems to run through Edmund’s story. The King giving up his life for the land, a spring appearing beneath his slain head, and the posthumous joining of head and body, all suggest a sacrificial king who knew the role he had to play. He told his bishop it was “never my way to flee”. The cult of the severed head is well attested from Celtic times as is its potency as a relic. King Edmund had stepped into a world of myth, from Bran the Blessed of Celtic myth to King Arthur of medieval tales. He even had his own animal spirit protector and, unlike St George, Edmund did not try to slay the wolf.
Whether Edmund was Christian (possible at this date) or whether he was Pagan (as were many of his more rustic supporters) is immaterial. He was probably swayed a little by both faiths, just as King Rædwald of Sutton Hoo (died around 624 AD) was “half-believing” and had separate altars to worship both the Christian God and the Pagan Gods. Smart man. So the myths that grew up around Edmund served both causes, he was a Christian martyr but he also fulfilled the role of sacrificed king in Pagan mythology.
Should he ever have been usurped by St George, the dragon killing upstart who suffered no less at the hands of Diocletian, but had no physical, moral, or circumstantial link with England? What do you think? I know where my vote would go, but I’m Welsh so it wouldn’t count.
There is a new book by Mark Taylor called Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom which covers similar ground in much greater detail.
1 The name Georgia (Sakartvelo in Georgian) is an anglicisation of Gurj, derived from the Persian word for the frightening and heroic people in that territory.