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.
Be our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble.
– Isaiah 33:1-2
Here is an account of what happened next:
King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons. Lo! the impious one then bound Edmund and insulted him ignominiously, and beat him with rods, and afterwards led the devout king to a firm living tree, and tied him there with strong bonds, and beat him with whips. In between the whip lashes, Edmund called out with true belief in the Saviour Christ. Because of his belief, because he called to Christ to aid him, the heathens became furiously angry. They then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog. When Ivar the impious pirate saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with resolute faith called after Him, he ordered Edmund beheaded, and the heathens did so. While Edmund still called out to Christ, the heathen dragged the holy man to his death, and with one stroke struck off his head, and his soul journeyed happily to Christ.
Offered the chance to compromise, Edmund declined. He was stripped, whipped, and tortured with arrows carefully aimed to avoid his vitals, before he was beheaded. Historians have suggested that his execution was intended to replicate a traditional Viking sacrifice to the pagan gods. It appeared that these gods had won. Once again, England’s Christians would be forced the margins. Once again, the church would be destroyed.
According to legend, a wolf stood guard over Edmund’s head, holding it between his paws, until it was recovered by Christians—thus the appearance of a wolf in his iconography. These Christians buried his body in a small wooden chapel nearby. About fifty years later, Edmund’s body was discovered to be incorrupt and was translated to a shrine. It became one of the principal shrines in medieval England and the site of a great Benedictine monastery. By the eleventh century, Edmund’s feast figured prominently in the regional Christian calendars, and for a time he was the patron saint of England.
And this is the beauty of St. Edmund’s choice: in his refusal to apostatize, and in his death—indeed, in his martyred body—Edmund was planted like a seed in the East Anglian ground. From that seed sprouted a vine that bore much fruit. Around Edmund’s martyred body grew up godly worship, sound learning, and deep Christian commitment. Though struck down by the pagan Vikings, St. Edmund was by no means conquered.
In fact, we could say the opposite: St. Edmund conquered. Historians generally agree that it was by defeating Christians that the Vikings were slowly converted to the faith. Paganism was defeated, in other words, by appearing to defeat Christian kingdoms. Does that sound familiar? Death defeated by death?
As an aside, I have to tell my favorite Viking conversion story: King Harald Bluetooth Gormsson. (Yes, that’s his name. I have so many questions.) The son of a pagan king and queen, Harald ruled as king of Denmark from 958–986. In the early 960s, nearly a century after St. Edmund’s martyrdom, Harald encountered a Frisian monk named Poppo (you can’t make these names up) who boldly sought to convert the pagan king. Harald asked Poppo to prove his faith, and the monk did so rather dramatically: he reached into the fire, picked up a glowing lump of iron, and held it in his hand, unharmed. So Harald converted, introduced Christianity to Denmark, and put Scandinavia well on the road to Christianization.
“Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire?
Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”
He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
who despises the gain of oppressions,
who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe,
who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil,
he will dwell on the heights;
his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks;
his bread will be given him, his water will be sure.
– Isaiah 33:14-16
About a day’s walk north of where St. Edmund died, there’s a small parish church in the city of Norwich. Five-hundred years after St. Edmund, a woman huddled in her anchorite cell—her own fortress of rocks—and gave herself over to life of prayer, sustained by the little bread and water passed to her through the window.
If St. Edmund’s England was ridden with anxiety, all the more in Julian of Norwich’s day. The Black Plague decimated East Anglia and likely killed her own family; the western church was fractured by schism and rival popes; religious dissent in England was growing, as was class conflict, most recently in a series of peasant revolts. Julian lived in a time marked by plague, violence, and suffering.
These days it’s trendy to quote St. Julian line, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” What we don’t quote as freely are earlier passages from her Revelations, where St. Julian longs to experience in her body the sufferings of Christ, where the anchorite asks the Lord not only to give her a bodily vision but to give her illness. This is a remarkable, perhaps even troubling, prayer, and one that I can’t fully unpack here. (Consider becoming a Brazos Fellow so you can study Julian’s Revelations in-depth.)
For now, let me just point out St. Julian sees suffering exactly as does the martyr: when faced with death, when faced with pain, they run toward it rather than away. This makes absolutely no sense. It is not reasonable. It does not compute—unless we see our suffering as taking part in Christ’s suffering. As St. Paul writes, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
The martyrs paint in vivid colors what we only trace in faint lines: all of our suffering participates in Christ’s. In his crucified body Christ experienced and anticipated every instance of our suffering, bearing every pain we know. Our suffering is not just like his suffering, then, it actually participates in it. In a real sense, it is the same suffering. When we as Christ’s body suffer, “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” is completed.
Both martyr and anchorite teach us to say “all shall be well,” not as an optimistic sound-byte but as an act of resistance, a defiant joy in the face of suffering and death. “All shall be well” is not a saying to hang in a pretty font on our kitchen walls, but a truth we see most clearly in the body of the martyr.
Martyr and anchorite teach us not to fear death because our good King has conquered death by dying. Our good king did not compromise, did not waver, but went all the way. And from his death new life springs.
Look upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts!
Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be plucked up,
nor will any of its cords be broken.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
nor stately ship can pass.
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
the Lord is our king; he will save us.
– Isaiah 33:20-22