Saints alive!

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country -

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

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