When we think of the Patron Saints, we think of St George (England), St David (Wales), St Patrick (Ireland) and Saint Andrew (Scotland). But what about Saint Edmund The Martyr? England has a second Patron Saint and though his day is barely marked today, he was once as important as Saint George is today. Who is he? Why have few people heard of him? Why did his cult as England’s Patron Saint cease?
About Saint Edmund
Also known as “Edmund the Martyr”, we don’t know a great deal about the man. What we do know comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written some 80 years after the events. According to the report, he was king of East Anglia and had several times fought alongside King Alfred against Viking incursions.
When Guthrum’s Great Army arrived in the area, Edmund organised his own army. It is said that the Vikings captured Edmund, demanding that he renounce Christ and become a vassal of Guthrum. Edmund refused on both counts. He died on 20th November AD869, either in battle or as an execution, hence why we celebrate that date as his Patron Saint’s Day. Some sources say he was bound to a tree executed by a firing squad of arrows and then beheaded. Later writers would make claims about Edmund’s parentage, giving greater legitimacy for his reign that he may not have had, but as most contemporary evidence about him was destroyed, this cannot be verified.
His cult began soon afterwards, centred on what is now Bury St Edmunds (hence the name). In the early 10th century, Athelstan visited the area and was surprised to see the locals had not only interred Edmund’s remains, but had made him a local saint. He officially permitted the founding of a religious community to promote his memory and his Sainthood.
It would take over a century for his cult to go national. He was adopted as a symbol of growing national identity in England. There was also respect for the piety of those who would rather die than deny Christ. Many Catholic saints ended their days this way. King Canute (or Cnut) founded the stone abbey at Bury St Edmunds in 1020 that would see his cult popularity rise. As his national popularity grew, so did the abbey’s wealth.
Evidence of his importance as an English symbol grew throughout the 11th and 12th century after which it began to wane. Most interestingly, the nobles who would lead the revolt that would eventually pen Magna Carta met on St Edmund’s Day to formulate their plan.
Why is He No Longer the Patron Saint of England?
Around the end of the 12th century when England, along with its European allies, Crusaded in the Holy Lands. At that time, Edmund’s popularity gave way to a much older saint. Born in modern Turkey and probably of Greek descent, Saint George quickly became prominent. It is said that Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) visited Saint George’s grave on the eve of one of his biggest battles.
Richard the Lionheart simply adopted Saint George as his personal Patron Saint and the protector of his army. There was no clear national movement, and it would take several centuries for Edmund to fade from the public conscience. Even as late as 1348, Edward I carried Edmund’s banner alongside that of St George. A period of cataclysmic change in England first had his bones removed to France (during Henry VIII reign) and then the destruction of his shrine (during Cromwell’s Protectorate).
Today, Edmund’s bones are in Arundel Castle in Sussex. Campaigners have twice tried to remove Saint George and restore Saint Edmund as England’s Patron Saint. As recently as 2013, a Parliamentary e-petition was considered and rejected. The argument is that Saint George most likely never visited England whereas Edmund born, fought and died there.