Edmund the Martyr


Edmund the Martyr : biography

841 – 20 November 869

Edmund cannot be placed within any ruling dynasty. Numismatic evidence suggests he succeeded Æthelweard. According to the historian Susan Ridyard, Abbo of Fleury’s statement that Edmund was ‘ex antiquorum Saxonum nobili prosapia oriundus’ can be taken to mean that he was descended from a noble and ancient race.Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 217.

It is known that a variety of different coins were minted by Edmund’s moneyers during his reign. The letters AN, standing for ‘Anglia’, only appear on the coins of Edmund and Æthelstan of East Anglia: they appear on Edmund’s coins as part of the phrase + EADMUND REX AN. Later specimens read + EADMUND REX and so it is possible for his coins to be divided chronologically.Grierson and Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, p. 294. Otherwise, no chronology for his coins has been confirmed.Grierson and Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, p. 588.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which generally described few matters relating to the East Angles and their rulers, is the only source for a description of the events for the year 869 that led to the defeat of Edmund’s army at the hands of the Danes. It relates that "Her rad se here ofer Mierce innan East Engle and wiñt setl namon. æt Đeodforda. And þy wint’ Eadmund cying him wiþ feaht. and þa Deniscan sige naman þone cyning ofslogon. and þæt lond all ge eodon." – ‘here the army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory, and killed the king and conquered all that land’.Earle, Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, pp. 72, 74.Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 70. By tradition the leaders who slew the king were Hingwar and his brother Hubba.

Along with other forces, the Great Heathen Army then invaded Wessex, perhaps in December 870 (within a few weeks of killing Edmund) or after having spent a year pillaging and consolidating their position in East Anglia, before proceeding to attack Mercia and Northumbria.Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, p. 109.Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 211.

The Passio Santi Eadmundi

Edmund’s cult re-emerged in the 10th century and the site of his burial grew wealthy as a result of receiving grants of land from royally connected benefactors. In about 986, the monks of Ramsey Abbey commissioned Abbo of Fleury to write an account of the saint’s life and early cult.Gransden, Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England, pp. 45–46. The story of Edmund’s martyrdom came to him by way of St Dunstan, who heard it from the lips of Edmund’s own sword-bearer.Abbo of Fleury, Life of St. Edmund.

According to Abbo, Edmund came "ex antiquorum Saxonum nobili prosapia oriundus".Mawer, Encyclopedia Britannica, volume 8, pp. 947–948. This statement has confused later translators into thinking that Edmund was of continental Old Saxon origin, but according to the historian Steven Plunkett, he originated from East Anglia, which was a country settled by ‘Saxons’.Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times, pp. 202–212.

In Abbo’s version of events, the king refused to meet the Danes in battle, preferring to die a martyr’s death. The historian Susan Ridyard maintains that Edmund’s martyrdom cannot be proved and the nature of his fate — whether he died fighting or was cruelly murdered in the battle’s aftermath — cannot be read from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She notes that the story that Edmund had an armour-bearer implies that he would have been a warrior king who was prepared to fight the Vikings on the battlefield, but she acknowledges the possibility that later accounts belong to "the realm of hagiographical fantasy".Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England. pp.66–67.

Abbo named one of Edmund’s killers as Hinguar, who can probably be identified with Ivarr inn beinlausi (Ivar the Boneless), son of Ragnar Lodbrok.Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England. p. 67. After describing the horrific manner of Edmund’s death, the Passio continued the story. His severed head was thrown into the wood. As Edmund’s followers went seeking, calling out "Where are you, friend?" the head answered, "Here, here, here," until at last they found it, clasped between a wolf’s paws, protected from other animals and uneaten. The villagers then praised God and the wolf that served him. It walked tamely beside them, before vanishing back into the forest.