Today the church celebrates King Edmund—not the clever lad who becomes king in Narnia—but St. Edmund, ninth-century King of East Anglia. St. Edmund’s story does have a rather Narnian feel, what with its wintery battles, wolves, and pirates, and it’s a story worth remembering.
Edmund lived in a time when the status of Christianity in England was still very much unsure. After Roman occupation of Britain ended in 419, the island was plagued by ethnic, political, and religious conflict. The pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded, pushed Celtic Christians to the west, and virtually destroyed the church.
The church in England was revived under Pope Gregory the Great, whose missionaries evangelized the pagan Anglo-Saxon rulers and drew them into alliance with the church. Roman missionaries were necessary because of the ongoing ethnic rivalry in England. Embittered Celtic Christians refused to evangelize the Anglos, so Gregory had to send missionaries like the Benedictine monk St. Augustine of Canterbury, who in the year 597 converted King Ethelbert in Kent. The once-pagan conquerors began to become Christian.
Two and a half centuries later, by the time of Edmund, the Anglo-Saxons had been thoroughly Christianized. Edmund was raised a Christian, and through the support of the Christian clergy became King of East Anglia. He strove to be a model Christian monarch, devoting his time and resources to proper worship, Christian learning, the administration of justice, and care for the poor.
But not all was well. Britons during this time lived in great fear of raiders from Scandinavia. These Danish and Norwegian pirates, also known as the Vikings, regularly raided the British Isles, especially targeting churches and monasteries. In 865 the Vikings mounted a full-scale invasion, sending a massive force described by the Anglo-Saxons as “the Great Heathen Army.” Within a decade, nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen to the pagan invaders: Northumbria in 867 and nearly all of Mercia in the 870s. As these kingdoms fell, so did churches, libraries and archives, and centers of learning.
In the winter of 869, this army of Vikings, led by Ingwar, or Ivar, invaded East Anglia. Edmund led his army into battle. After a bold and courageous defense, he was defeated and captured by the Danes. They demanded he renounce the Christian faith and rule as a vassal of the pagan king.
This sort of alliance was an eminently reasonable option. It would preserve Edmund’s life, and indeed a rule of some kind. Perhaps, with his limited powers, he could protect his people from a too-harsh rule by the Danes. Perhaps he could use this power for good—to maintain justice and charity, to keep the nation from slipping into complete paganism. Maybe he could even secretly preserve a vestige of Christian learning and worship. Maybe this was not only a practical choice, but a necessary one: the church needed him to compromise in order that it might survive. A desperate situation called for a desperate measure.
Woe to you, destroyer,
who yourself have not been destroyed;
you treacherous one,
with whom none has dealt treacherously!
When you have ceased to destroy,
you will be destroyed;
and when you have made an end of dealing treacherously,
you will be dealt with treacherously.
O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for thee.
Continue reading ““All Shall Be Well”: Lessons on Suffering from a Martyr King and an Anchorite”
Be our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble.
– Isaiah 33:1-2