Ours is the only church in Wales to be dedicated to St Edmund, not entirely surprising as Edmund actually lived and died in East Anglia. He was however an inspirational Christian leader of his people. Indeed there was a move in 2007 to make Edmund patron saint of England in place of St George, effectively restoring the situation when Crickhowell’s church was dedicated in 1303.
Edmund was crowned at St Neots at the age of 14. He was of ‘British stock’, a term which included Celts, Germans and Romans. A professing Christian from his early years, he was compelled to rule by popular choice and was described as “eloquent, humble and extraordinarily kind”.
The Danes slaughtered and plundered their way up and down the East coast of England for some 200 years. They sacked Lindisfarne in 793 and targetted Christian monasteries in particular. Edmund fought back, but his army was defeated in 869 and Edmund himself was captured.
He was advised that he should submit his kingdom and flee with his life, but Edmund refused and so was condemned. The Danes tied him to a tree and flogged him. Edmund called out to Christ and when he refused to stop, the Danish archers used him for target practice until, according to a contemporary historian, ‘he resembled a hedgehog’. Edmund continued to call out to Christ, so the furious Danes beheaded him and threw his severed head into the bushes.
Here fact and fiction begin to blur! According to some accounts, Christians hear Edmund’s voice and find his head in the bushes, while others say that a wolf rescues his head. Either way, the body was recovered and Edmund was buried at Sutton. Within 30 years coins were being inscribed with Edmund Sanctus Rex (Edmund the Holy King), and legends about him abound.
The body was moved to London, with no less than 19 miracles happening en route. In 1014 Danish king Sven Forkbeard died crying ‘Edmund is killing me!’. A new minster was built at Bury in 1032, where the body was finally laid to rest, hence the name Bury St Edmunds. Pilgrims included William the Conqueror and the Pope.
Healings abounded, some recorded by Gerald of Wales. Relics included his Standard, his shirt and even his hair and nail clippings, which it is said, continued to grow and had to be cut.
During the reformation the site of the grave was lost, but as this article explains, archaeologists have started a new search for his final resting place.
Thanks to Revd Barry Roche for compiling this history, based on the book A Casket of Wonders by Tim Holt-Wilson with stunning illustrations by Brian Whelan, some of which are used on this page.