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EDMUND OF EAST ANGLIA

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

According to History As We Know It, the only fact we have concerning the death of King Edmund is that in 869, the Danes were wintering at Thetford, Edmund fought them, and was slain.

So says the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' in about 890. End of story.

But 95 years later Abbo of Fleury tells us that Edmund was martyred at a township called 'Hægelisdun', with a nearby forest or wood of the same name, which was "at some distance" from the unidentified city that Inguar had burned. Although told at third-hand, this information supposedly comes from an eye-witness, and is generally accepted by scholars.

Where then was 'Hægelisdun'?

Hægelisdun - The Candidates:

Hoxne:

For centuries Hoxne (pronounced 'Hoxon') was the only contender, and the inhabitants still think it so. The identification with the site of Edmund's martyrdom in the Norwich Priory charter of 1101 may have been for ecclesiastical or political purposes, or it may have been confirming an existing local tradition. We may never know. But it's telling that, although a chapel of St. Ethelbert is noted at Hoxne in Bishop Theodred's will of 950, there's no mention at all of Edmund.

 

Certainly by that date, only 80 years after Edmund's death, Hoxne was considered the 'see' or bishopric for Suffolk, and Theodred had his episcopal seat there. Research has uncovered the fact that there were once actually two medieval chapels dedicated to Edmund at Hoxne. One, at Cross Street, was to commemorate the place of his death, while the other was in a wood less than a mile away, in an area then known as 'Sowood' or 'Sutwode'. Bungalow Farm now stands on the approximate site. In about 1100 that existing chapel of St. Ethelbert was rededicated to Edmund, and in about 1226 a small priory in his honour was established next to the chapel. But while these may be interesting facts, and may point to a tradition of religious importance attaching to the village, they are a long way from proving Hoxne to have been 'Hægelisdun'.

 

The local tales of the healing spring and the Goldbrook Bridge are medieval or later additions to the mythos. The association of a particular tree at Hoxne with the tale of St. Edmund may be even more recent. When the oak fell in 1848, and people started claiming it to be the very tree to which the king was bound, a local man made it plain to the 'Gentleman's Magazine' that he'd known the area for over 50 years, and no tree in Hoxne had ever been popularly connected with St. Edmund's legend. Indeed, he said at the time that this particular tree was in fact known as Belmore's Oak.

 

Despite this, the association was confirmed in many minds when John Smythies, a correspondent of the 'Bury Post', visited the fallen tree, and discovered embedded in its wood "a piece of curved iron, possibly an arrowhead". A later writer said that it was actually a flint arrowhead (not very Danish!), while others claimed there were several. In truth there was only one, which for many years after could be seen displayed in the museum at Bury St. Edmunds. However, x-ray examination in more recent times has shown this rusty lump to be either a piece of fence wire, or a bent nail.

 

What about Abbo's mention of "the neighbouring forest [which] is called by the same name [as 'Hægelisdun']"? Woodland in medieval Suffolk was actually quite sparse, most having been cleared in prehistoric times. But Hoxne Wood, though damaged by replanting, is indeed a remnant of this old forestation.

 

The main objection to Hoxne being 'Hægelisdun' is the name. Hoxne had already been recorded as 'Hoxne' in the 'Cartularium Saxonicum' in 950 - more than 30 years before Abbo even wrote his 'Passio Sancti Eadmundi'. But Abbo of course was merely passing on a name that originated with Edmund's armour-bearer perhaps 60 years earlier. So could 'Hoxne' have developed from 'Hægelisdun' between 869 and 950?

 

Although it's unique (and uncertain) in etymological terms, the best estimate for the meaning of 'Hoxne' is a derivation from the O.E. 'hóhsinu' meaning 'heel-sinew', from the resemblance of the land to the hough or hock of a horse (the northern part of the village stands on a spur or ridge above the rivers Dove and Waveney). We can safely ignore the 19th century antiquaries who theorised that 'Hægelisdun' meant 'hill of eagles'.

 

'Hægel' is a Saxon personal name known from other locations such as Hailsham, Hayling and Hazeleigh (see also below under Maldon), and 'Hægelisdun' quite clearly means the 'dún' or hill of Hægel. Even without the written record, there's no way that 'Hoxne' could be derived from 'Hægelisdun'.

 

Actually, it's surprising that 18th and 19th century antiquaries didn't latch onto the town of Harleston as a possibility, as it's only 5 miles from Hoxne, on the Norfolk side of the river Waveney. But the early forms of the name show that it derives from 'Heroluestuna' - the homestead of Herewulf. No 'Hægelisdun' here.

 

Hellesdon:

Now a north-west suburb of Norwich, Hellesdon (pronounced 'Hellsdun') has long been the favourite of place-name experts and historians for the site of 'Hægelisdun'. It appears in Domesday Book as 'Hailesduna', which is exactly the form one would have expected 'Hægelisdun' to have evolved into. Even in the mythology, by the time of Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century, the site of the martyrdom was being written as 'Hæilesdune'.

 

But the name is the only thing Hellesdon has going for it. There are no chapels, no legends, no traditions of association with Edmund, and no records of old woodland in the area. About a mile away, further up the valley of the river Wensum, is Bloods Dale at Drayton, where Dane is said to have fought Saxon - but no hint of a connection with the king's last battle or death.

 

Bradfield St. Clare:

About 5 miles south-east of Bury St. Edmunds is the scattered parish of Bradfield St. Clare. Just south of Pitcher's Green within the parish has been found, on the 1840 Tithe Map, the medieval field name of 'Hellesden Ley', which is the new favourite location of 'Hægelisdun'.

 

Its position, close to Bury and only about 15 miles from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, are in its favour, as are several 'Kingshall' place-names a couple of miles to the north at Rougham (where Bury owned a 'Kingshalle' manor before the Conquest). It has also been suggested that the presence of a building called 'Bradfield Hall' within the former Bury Abbey, and that the abbey cellarer paid rent for some small parcels of land in St. Clare, denote a close historical connection. Also, within the parish are several areas of lost or existing medieval woodland, including Bradfield Woods and Monkspark Wood.

 

But once again, there are no traditional or cultic associations with St. Edmund. And quite frankly, we don't know the origin of the name 'Hellesden'. It could be named after a person or the actual Norfolk village for all we know, or it could be a corruption of something else entirely. Recent research by Dr. Keith Briggs has certainly shown that the identification with 'Hægelisdun' is far from a certainty. (See also under Maldon below.)

 

Hollesley:

Situated near the coast of Suffolk south-east of Woodbridge, Hollesley (pronounced 'Hoseley') is nowadays mostly known for being the location of a Young Offenders Institution. The earliest written form of the name is 'Holeslea', probably meaning the wood or clearing of someone named Hól or Hóla - and is clearly not a candidate for 'Hægelisdun'. But because of its position within a few miles of Orford, Rendlesham and Sutton Hoo, that hasn't stopped the locals from claiming it as the place where Edmund met his end.

 

Some have tried to strengthen the claim for the area by pointing to Domesday Book where is mentioned a small manor called 'Halgestou'. At the time of Domesday it was held by the mother of the founder of Eye priory, Robert Malet, and was later variously known as 'Haleghestowe' and 'Holstow'. Although the exact spot is unknown, W. G. Arnott in 1946 believed that it was on the east side of Shottisham, close to Hollesley. Personally, I wonder if it couldn't be that spot now marked as 'Holy Stile', a meeting of roads and tracks roughly halfway between the two villages. It wouldn't take much for local usage to corrupt 'Holstow' into 'Holy Stile'.

 

The argument requires that Abbo wrote the name wrongly in the first place, transposing two of the consonants. Thus, instead of 'Hægelisdun', he should have written 'Hæligesdun', which would then (they say) mean 'holy place'. 

 

But the linguistic twisting doesn't stop there. One researcher wrote "No place-name expert would argue about Hæligesdun being spelled Halgestou, allowing for the lapse of time and change of circumstance (dun or stou both mean place)". Well actually they would, and they don't.

 

One thing there's no argument about is the existence of ancient woodland in the area, with Staverton Park and the Thicks just to the north, near Butley.

 

Maldon:

More recently, another contender for 'Hægelisdun' has been compellingly put forward by Dr. Keith Briggs. He points to the place-name 'Halesdunam' which appears in Domesday Book at Hazeleigh, near Maldon in Essex. Disregarding the Latinization gives us the name 'Halesdun', appearing after 1272 as 'Hailisduna'. The location may refer to a hill near Hazeleigh or, it has been suggested, to the hill that named Maldon itself: 'mæl-dún' or 'hill with a monument/cross'. Dr. Briggs posits that the cross may have actually been a monument to the martyrdom of Edmund, but memory of its significance was later lost or suppressed. Edmund may have been here, far from his home territory, to aid an Essex ally in their defence against the Danes.

 

The name Hazeleigh itself translates as 'Hægel's wood', but otherwise the location and lack of surviving traditions or other connections to Edmund for me mitigate against Maldon being the actual site of 'Hægelisdun'. Nevertheless etymologically, 'Halesdunam' is as valid as Hellesdon, and probably more so than 'Hellesden Ley' at Bradfield. (See: 'Was Hægelisdun in Essex?' by Keith Briggs, in 'Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History', Vol. XLII, part 3, 2011, pp.277-291.)

~ ~ 

But there's a second facet to this investigation, introduced by Hermann of Bury just after 1095. While 'Hægelisdun' is, according to Abbo, where Edmund died, Hermann (probably a mistake for an archdeacon named Bertrann) tells us that Edmund was first buried "in a little village named 'Suthtuna', close to the scene of his martyrdom..."

 

Suthtuna:

 

The tales in Hermann's 'Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi' come partly from "an old book" and partly from "the tradition of our elders". Hermann would certainly have known of Abbo's 'Passio Sancti Eadmundi', but doesn't mention 'Hægelisdun' at all. The conclusion nevertheless is that the two places were quite close together.

 

'Suthtuna' comes from O.E. 'Súþ-tún', meaning southern homestead or village, and has resulted in the very common English place-name 'Sutton'. But in East Anglia, this has survived in only one village-name in Norfolk, and one in Suffolk. The Norfolk instance is an out-of-the-way little hamlet next to Stalham in the Broads, and can almost certainly be discounted. 

  • The Suffolk one is a different matter, and is the only one that appears in Domesday Book actually written as 'Suthtuna'. This is the large (and mostly empty) parish of Sutton near Woodbridge, within which stands the Saxon royal cemetery at Sutton Hoo, and which takes us back to the whole Rendlesham/Hollesley/'Halgestou' area.

At 34 miles as the crow flies from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, this seems an unlikely place for Edmund to have been buried. And despite the Saxon connections, the absence of a convincing 'Hægelisdun' still leaves this an improbable location for the action of the legend.

  • The existence of a place called Sutton Hall in Bradfield St. Clare parish has been introduced as further proof that this is the true burial place of Edmund. It can be found about ¾ of a mile south of the field once called 'Hellesden Ley', and stands next to a medieval moated enclosure. Here also the cellarer of Bury Abbey paid rent for some land.

  • At Hoxne, we have the traditions, but no actual 'Hægelisdun'. Neither do we have a Sutton - but there was something quite close, and which could possibly have evolved from 'Suthtuna'. According to the Wills of the Archdeaconry of Suffolk, dating from the mid-15th century, there was once a hamlet called 'Suddon' within the parish, and still exists as the area now called South Green.

  • Further away from Hoxne, 7 miles south in the parish of Kenton, is the manor of Suddon Hall, but of this I can find no further information. It's just under 2 miles from Bloody Field at Debenham, where the name of Edmund has been 'tacked on' to a legendary Saxon vs. Dane battlefield.

~ ~ 

So far we've considered possible locations for Edmund's martyrdom and burial - but what about the site of his final battle with the Danes? Historically, we have absolutely nothing to go on.

 

Consider the words of the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' for 869 AD: "In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land".

 

It's unlikely that Edmund would have launched an attack directly at the Danes entrenched behind the Iron Age and Saxon defences at Thetford itself. Some have suggested that the king attacked them before they even reached Thetford, but to my mind that sequence of events cannot be gained from the 'Chronicle'.

 

The most enduring local legend is that at Rushford,  where the final conflict allegedly took place on the slopes of Snarehill just outside Thetford, to the south-east. It's possible that Edmund somehow drew the Danish forces out from behind their defences to this range of low hills - but the tale probably came about because of the existence of many burial mounds spread along the ridge which are, however, bell barrows of the Bronze Age.

 

Whether he fought them one or several times, any of the battles, including the last, could have been many miles from Thetford.

 

~ ~ 

The Mystery Remains:

 

So, there are several clusters of possibility, but no definitive answer. To summarise:

 

HOXNE:

900 years of tradition and religious association, plus medieval woodland, but no 'Hægelisdun', and only a possible 'Sutton'.

 

HELLESDON:

A convincing 'Hægelisdun', but that's all.

 

BRADFIELD ST. CLARE:

A definite 'Sutton', a possible 'Hægelisdun', a couple of other suggestive place-names and medieval woodland, but no  traditional associations.

 

HOLLESLEY area:

Here is a positive 'Sutton', and the remains of ancient woodland, but a highly dubious 'Hægelisdun', an association with Saxon kings that is too early, an unlikely location, and a weak (and probably recent) tradition of Edmund.

 

OLD NEWTON area:

An Edmund legend and other relevant traditions, medieval woodland, but no 'Hægelisdun' or 'Sutton'.

 

WISSETT:

         A very minor Edmund tradition, with no other evidence.

 

MALDON:

A convincing 'Hægelisdun', an ancient wood of similar name, and a plausible historical reason for Edmund to be here, but no 'Sutton', and no surviving traditions.

~ ~ 

I suspect that, among historians, Bradfield St. Clare and perhaps Hellesdon will continue to be the favoured locations for the events of St. Edmund's death and burial. I doubt however that anything will shake the belief of Hoxne residents that their village is the one true site.

 

Maybe someday, someone trawling through medieval manuscripts or charters, wills or maps, will come across another 'Hægelisdun', with a 'Suthtuna' nearby, and make the connection. But there would still be the question of tradition. Such a series of events would, I think, have left an indelible mark of legend on the landscape. If not Hoxne, Hollesley, or Old Newton, then where?

 

The mystery of Edmund - king, martyr, and saint of East Anglia - remains.