AFTER the discovery of Richard III’S body beneath a car park in Leicester, almost anything seems archaeologically possible. As such, the hunt for the body of St Edmund, King of the East Angles (right), is now under way in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
According to the earliest hagiography of the King, composed by Abbo of Fleury in 985–7, Edmund was martyred by the Danes in 869. Having been mocked and scourged, he was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows until he looked ‘like a prickly hedgehog or spiny thistle’, before finally being decapitated. One account has it that his severed head, held aloft by a wolf, called ‘Here, here, here’, so that his followers were able to collect his remains.
His reassembled body was subsequently enshrined and St Edmund became the patron saint of England; he remained popular even after he was supplanted by St George in the mid 14th century.
Two medieval accounts describe a body in St Edmund’s coffin in the mid 11th century and again in 1198. However, it’s not known what happened to this when Henry VIII’S commissioners came to receive the surrender of this greatest and richest of England’s monasteries in 1539.
Those engaged on the hunt hope that his coffin may have been accorded a burial in the former monks’ graveyard, now beneath a tennis court, rather than being despoiled. The survival of the coffin is not an impossibility, as the example of the mortuary chests of Anglosaxon kings at Winchester Cathedral proves. As in the case of Winchester, however, whatever is discovered, it’s unlikely to be straightforward to interpret. JG