Map of 'Edmund' locations

Hidden East Anglia:

Landscape Legends of Eastern England

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home

 

Gazetteer

 

Landscape Features

 

Themes

EDMUND OF EAST ANGLIA

Part 4 - The Landscape of St. Edmund:

LANDFALL:  

As Edmund almost certainly didn't come from Old Saxony, he's very unlikely to have arrived by ship in 854 at Hunstanton. Some have said that the legend may have come about because of the existence of an old chapel dedicated to the saint there. But the chapel (TF675419), which now consists of no more than a short section of wall complete with archway, is said to have been built in 1272, while the first record of the legend originates with Geoffrey of Wells more than 100 years earlier.

 

The actual site of his landing, 'Maydenebure' or 'Maidenbury', is unknown, but is usually believed to have been either at what is now St. Edmund's Point, very near to the chapel, or less likely, Gore Point, a little further round the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea.

 

Although the healing springs that burst from the ground where the king-to-be knelt to pray are supposed to have been twelve in number, not all records agree. As White's 'History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk' says in 1845: "A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs".

 

Where these springs (or well) used to be is uncertain. But the sweetness of their water was supposed to have given rise to the town's name: the 'Honey-stone Town'. 'Honeystone', however, is the local name for the native rich brown carstone that makes up much of the area's remarkable 'striped' cliffs. The real origin of the name of the town is far more prosaic: the 'tún' or village of a Saxon called Húnstán.

 

Local legend will have none of it though. It says that Edmund not only built a royal dwelling there, but he founded the town itself. The town sign proudly shows the crowned king standing tall, and behind him the wolf that guarded his sacred head after death (though some reckon it's not a wolf at all, but Black Shuck himself, East Anglia's own phantom hound!) 

 

Although Geoffrey of Wells reported that, after landing here, Edmund spent a year in contemplation at Attleborough, about 40 miles away, other tales say that it was at Hunstanton itself that he spent a year in a tower (or, in a minor local variation, in the chapel, which some believed Edmund himself built). Still others, probably misreading the place-name, claim the honour for Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

 

ROYAL SEATS:  

Attleborough crops up again as the place where Edmund was supposedly acclaimed or elected king after his arrival, a mythical event that only occurs in the medieval tales. With little historical accuracy, White's 'Directory' for 1854 tells us that, in Saxon times, the town was "the seat of Offa and Edmund, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank". 

 

In fact this embanked earthwork, which may indeed be Saxon in date (though probably very early), is named Bunn's Bank, and fragments of it run for about two miles around the edges of Attleborough, Old Buckenham and Besthorpe parishes. Local people, who are proud of the alleged association with Edmund and have named several areas of Attleborough after him, are convinced that the king had the bank built as a defence against the invading Danes.

 

Another place claimed for the site of Edmund's mythical election as king is Caistor St. Edmund, just south of Norwich. Specifically, the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, which was built just after the failed Boudiccan revolt in 70 AD, as a way of controlling the local Iceni population. Some like to say that this was another of Edmund's royal seats (a 'palace' according to Edmund Gillingwater) - but while the Saxons would have been attracted by the 20 foot high flint and brick-faced wall that was built around the settlement at the end of the 2nd century, the stone would have been robbed out soon after the Romans left, and there's little sign of habitation after 500 AD.

 

The suffix of the village (and thus the dedication of the church) can be explained by the fact that both manor and church were granted to Bury St. Edmunds abbey by Edward the Confessor.

 

Quite why Reedham on the river Yare, at the southern end of the Norfolk Broads, was chosen by Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century to be another of Edmund's royal seats, I can't imagine. This is the place where Ragnar Lothbroc supposedly made land after being blown across the North Sea, and where he was murdered by Edmund's huntsman, Bern.

 

The antiquaries of the 19th century used to think that Reedham was once a 'Roman station', and that on this tongue of land above the river there used to stand a 'pharos' or Roman lighthouse - but it was all wishful thinking, not born out by the archaeology.

 

As well as Hunstanton, Bures, Attleborough, Caistor and Reedham supposedly being royal 'vills', some tales tell that Edmund's main seat was at Rendlesham, not far from Woodbridge in Suffolk.

 

Certainly there was once a royal house here, that belonged to the early Saxon kings of East Anglia known as the Wuffingas. The dynasty reached the height of its power in the time of Rædwald, who died in about 625 AD, and who may well be the king commemorated in the famous ship burial among the mounds of the royal cemetery at nearby Sutton Hoo.

 

But the Wuffingas died out with King Ælfwald in about 749, and there's no evidence that Rendlesham was occupied by royalty then, let alone 100 years later in Edmund's day.

 

THE CORONATION CHAPEL:  

As far back as 893 AD we're told by Asser that Edmund was consecrated as king at 'Burva', the royal seat at that time (which incidentally contradicts the assertion above that Attleborough was the fictional Offa's seat). No one actually knows for sure where this place was, but by long tradition - possibly dating back to the 12th century - 'Burva' has been identified with the village of Bures (St. Mary), on the river Stour south of Sudbury in Suffolk, which appears in Domesday Book as 'Bura'. An old hilltop chapel above the village is locally believed to be the site of Edmund's coronation, while there is a 'St. Edmund's Hill' a mile or so to the north.

 

DEFENCES:

Both history and legend are silent on the activities of Edmund after his coronation. But with the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia, his name starts being attached to more localities throughout the region.

 

Running across Newmarket Heath, and in part forming the boundary between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is the Devil's Dyke. Possibly of Romano-British or early Saxon date, this huge bank and ditch can be traced for 7½ miles from Wood Ditton to Reach. Although some tales say it was built by giants, the main legend says that one day the Devil arrived, uninvited of course, at a wedding being held in the church at Reach. As the unwelcome guest was being chased away, his fiery tail dug an enormous groove in the earth, and the dyke was formed.

 

But this is a late piece of local folklore. In Norman times it was known as 'Reach Dyke', then in the Middle Ages, the 'Great Ditch' (Miceldic), or 'St. Edmund's Dyke'. Although it gained the latter name because it marked the limit of jurisdiction of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds, many believed that Edmund himself ordered the earthwork to be built as a defence against the Danes, and gave it the name 'Holy Edmund's Fortifications'.

 

CASTLES & BATTLES:

There was a time in antiquarian studies when just about every ditch, earthwork and ancient burial mound in Norfolk and Suffolk, irrespective of its actual date, was supposed to mark the place where Saxon fought Dane. Plenty of them are recorded on this site, such as Drayton, Lyng, Warham, Glemsford and Nacton.

 

Even the 15th century monk John Lydgate, biographer of Edmund, said of his own Suffolk origins that he was:

 

"Born in a village which is called Lydgate

By olde time a famous castel towne

In Danes time it was beate downe

Time when S. Edmund martir made and King

Was slain at Oxne, record of writing".

 

Orford on the Suffolk coast is claimed by Denis Piramus in about 1180 to be the town destroyed by Hinguar, arriving to avenge his father Ragnar's death. Indeed, one local legend has the Danes making a landing at Orford, fighting with Edmund, then pursuing the king to Staverton Park near Butley, where a savage battle ensued. But some later tales have claimed that it was actually Norwich, now Norfolk's capital city, that was burned to the ground. (This may be a confusion with the historical burning of Norwich by King Sweyn Forkbeard in 1004).

 

An early medieval  story tells how Edmund, fleeing from the Danes after a battle, sought refuge in one of his castles, and was there besieged, only to be betrayed by an old blind mason. Local traditions have identified this castle with both Old Buckenham (near Attleborough in Norfolk) and Framlingham in east Suffolk, from which Edmund then escapes and flees to Hoxne, where he is caught and slain.

 

The Normans erected a castle at Buckenham, from which the stone was taken in the 12th century to build a priory. Only a fragment remains of this near the manor house. But the castle was raised within an existing rectangular earthwork that looks more Roman than anything, but could well be early Saxon in date.

 

At Framlingham on the other hand, much remains of the magnificent keepless but curtain-walled castle built by Roger Bigod in about 1200. This was on the site of an earlier Bigod castle that Henry II had demolished in 1174 - but local tradition (with little authority) says that there was a fortification on the site as far back as the late 6th century, supposedly built by King Rædwald himself.

 

On the southern edge of Thetford can be found the remains of the 12th century Benedictine Nunnery of St. George. Before that, legend says it was a priory of canons, founded in the reign of King Cnut (1014-35) in memory of those who fell nearby in a great battle between Edmund and the Danes. This may or may not be the same battle - the king's last - as that recorded for Rushford, where the Seven Hills mounds mark the graves of the slain on Snarehill, just outside Thetford.

 

Also of interest here is a passage that I found in Allan Jobson's 1971 book 'Suffolk Villages'. Speaking of Columbine Hall at Stowupland, the moated enclosure of which was popularly "thought to date from Danish times", he tells of an 'old illustration' found there, showing "the head of St. Edmund, set on a rayed background". Upon this illustration was an inscription, which read: "Head of St. Edmund. Formerly in the Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds. Beheaded by the Danish invaders Juga and Hubla at Eyberdun, now Hoxne in 870 A.D. at a great battle below Columbyne Hall in the valley of the Gipping". I don't know the age or provenance of this illustration, nor whether it still exists - but it's certainly very odd. The implication seems to be that 'Eyberdun' is some weird transliteration of 'Hægelisdun', though how it reached that stage, I can't imagine. When the inscription says that Edmund was beheaded at Hoxne, "at a great battle...", I'm pretty sure that's an error for "after a great battle..." otherwise it makes no sense. Hoxne is nowhere near the Gipping valley.

 

A legendary battle at Lyng in Norfolk is supposed to have been fought between Edmund and the Danes, with Edmund retreating to Castle Acre. At this spot is the 'Great Stone' which bleeds when pricked; the blood is that from the battle.

 

A battle that Edmund is supposed to have won is said to have occurred somewhere between Barnby and Carlton Colville, a little west of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and a long way outside the areas normally associated with the king. Gillingwater (below) says that it was the battle at 'Bloodmere-field', now Bloodmoor Hill at nearby Gisleham, but this is nowadays said to have been between the Angles and the Romano-British, several centuries earlier. There is actually no evidence that a battle took place there in any era.

 

THE HIDDEN FORD:

At Barnby there is also the Suffolk legend that Edmund escaped his foes, then defeated them at 'Bloodmere-field' by using a secret ford unknown to them. The earliest reference to this tradition that I can find comes from Edmund Gillingwater's 1790 book, 'An Historical Account of the Ancient Town of Lowestoft'. Here he localises the spot to "a ford (which was called Berneford, from Berno), and now called Barnby..." The idea was that the ford was named after Edmund's huntsman, Bern, who had betrayed him and caused the Danes to invade (and who was probably invented as a result of a misidentification with Lothbroc's son Bern/Beorn). Incidentally, Lothingland, the district in which Lowestoft stands, was once thought to have been named after Lothbroc himself.

 

This tiny village of Barnby on the river Waveney actually derives its name from 'Biarni's homestead', and is one of the few major Scandinavian place-names in Suffolk. It definitely doesn't owe its origin to any mythical or historical 'Bern' or 'Beorn'.

 

However, in Part 2 I mentioned that a minor 14th century tale had Edmund surprising and defeating his enemies by using a ford called 'Dernford'. 'Dern' is an Old English word meaning 'hidden', so the implication is that this site is a 'hidden ford', either known to few people, or hidden topographically. It's tempting to suggest two possibilities here: (1) that someone who didn't know the word's meaning, or who misheard it, may instead have given rise to the Barnby legend as a way of explaining the otherwise mysterious name of 'Dernford'; or (2) that the 'Bernford' name came first, with its direct link to the Lothbroc legend. The fact that it was 'hidden' may have caused someone to record it as a 'derne ford', and interpret it as an actual place-name. My own guess is that the first possibility is the more likely of the two.

 

Exactly which battle was won here may well never be known. The 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' only says that Edmund fought the Danes - which could refer to a single decisive conflict, or to a series of encounters, including the period when the Danes first wintered in East Anglia in 865, before peace was bought with a gift of horses.

 

Some years ago, an archaeologist speculated that Dernford, a Saxon manor and mill in the parish of Sawston just outside Cambridge, was the very spot where Edmund fought this battle. But in fact, there were at least four more 'Dernford's in East Anglia (actually all in Suffolk), and far closer to the accepted orbit of Edmund than Cambridge.

 

One was in the parish of Foxhall, about 4½ miles from Sutton Hoo, where Domesday Book says was once a manor called 'Derneford' (later Darnford), presumably at a crossing of the Mill River. Another is 10 miles to the north-east of Sutton Hoo, where Dernford Hall sits beside the river Alde, in the little village of Sweffling. The third is about 5½ miles south-east of Stowmarket in Suffolk, where 'Derneford' recorded in Domesday Book later became Darnford, possibly referring to a 'hidden' crossing of the river Gipping. The fourth I'm grateful to Keith Briggs for bringing to my attention, located in the parish of Cookley, south-west of Halesworth.

 

THE PLACE OF DEATH:

Speculation on the actual site of Edmund's final battle, his martyrdom and first resting place will be held until the last chapter of this investigation. Tradition, however, has several suggestions.

 

Hoxne, of course, is the favourite, its claim to being 'Hægelisdun' dating back to at least 1101. With its chapel, healing spring, bridge and memorial of the tree on which Edmund died, this little village has become a focus for traditions of East Anglia's own saint and martyr.

 

With 'Hægelisdun' becoming 'Hailesdune' in later texts, someone created the notion that Edmund was slain at 'The Hail' at Southwold. This unlikely location is supposed to be a small hill on the seabed that once displayed the remains of a chapel to the saint. As with much of the coast hereabouts, the shoreline was once considerably further out than now.

 

Old Newton north of Stowmarket - specifically, a field called 'The Pits' - is another candidate in folklore for the site of Edmund's martyrdom, cropping up again in Part 5 in conjunction with other local legends.

 

More recently I've learned that Wissett near Halesworth also has a local tale of Edmund being captured and slain at a spot known as King's Danger.

 

Along with the lore that Edmund's reign centered around Rendlesham goes a localised belief that - contrary to all historical and archaeological evidence - the king lies buried under one of the unexcavated mounds at Sutton Hoo.

 

THE BURIAL GATE:

IF Edmund was really martyred at Hoxne, and IF his body was really translated from there to 'Beodricesworth' in about 903 AD, then the procession would have travelled along the approximate route of what is now the A143 to Bury.

 

Of all the villages the cortege would have passed through or close to, a memory of the event only seems to have been retained in one place. The name of the parish, Burgate (south-west of Diss), is derived in popular imagination from the 'burial gate', a spot where the body of the saint lay for one night on its journey to the new shrine at Bury St. Edmunds.

 

But this is just a piece of poor etymology of course, as the name really means 'the gate of a burg, or fortified place', probably referring to the nearby Iron Age earthworks.

 

SHRINE OF THE SAINT:

And so we come to Edmund's (probable) final resting place - 'Beodricesworth', where King Sigeberht established a small monastery in about 633 AD, which had become 'Sancte Eadmundes Byrig' 400 years later, and is now Suffolk's second town, Bury St. Edmunds.

 

Exactly what became of the saint's shrine after the Dissolution, we don't know; and the remains of the abbey nowadays are not very extensive, and quite frankly rather dull. But in its day it was a powerful focus of pilgrimage, and the abbey second only to Glastonbury in wealth and influence.

 

The treasure still waiting to be found with his mortal remains has already been noted, as have some of the miracles associated with the king. But in the Middle Ages, even the invocation of his name was sometimes enough to produce miraculous results. An 8 year old boy from Cockfield apparently cut himself very badly with a knife, but when a prayer to Edmund was offered, the bleeding stopped instantly. A young labourer broke his neck in a fall, but recovered with the saint's help. And when a boy drowned in a moat at Great Whelnetham, he came back to life when Edmund's name was invoked.

 

In common with many other saints, not only Edmund's body was preserved at his shrine. The parings of his nails and locks of his hair, plus his shirt, banner and sword were kept there. Although they were probably destroyed at the Dissolution (or perhaps in the fire of 1465), some like to say that, along with the king's body, they still exist somewhere.

 

And there is supposedly an 'ancient prophecy' that, before the end of the world, all the relics of St. Edmund will be returned to Bury.

Part 1 - The Basic Mythology

Part 2 - The Chronology of Legend

Part 3 - History As We Know It

Part 5 - The Last Mystery: Where Did Edmund Die?