The oppressive Danish king impaled by St Edmund of the East Angles
Some brilliant detective work on evidence from a remarkable discovery made in 1987 has thrown new light on the reputation of St Edmund, the martyred king who gave his name to Bury St Edmunds.
For an exhibition at the V&A Museum in May 1987 a memorial brass engraved in 1551 was chosen for display from the disused church of St Andrew at Frenze in Norfolk. When it was taken up, an earlier image was found on the back.
It showed a bearded king, wearing nothing but his crown, sitting up in bed under a canopy, with the bedclothes over his legs. With one hand he is grasping the shaft of a spear that has transfixed him through the chest, its point sticking out from his back. Hanging from the shaft is a drawstring purse. Above his left hand a little figure like a child, representing his soul, is being grabbed by a hairy bird-footed demon.
Such reuse of brasses (known, like reused parchments, as palimpsests) was widespread, as the late John Page-Phillips had shown. His suggestion was that this image, which had East Anglian characteristics, was made for the tomb of St Edmund after a fire that devastated the abbey church at Bury in 1465.
So who does the image represent? The evidence is drawn together by Rebecca Pinner in her new Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia (Boydell Press). Though it bears some resemblance to depictions of the fate of the avaricious in the devotional work known as the Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”), it much more closely follows conventions illustrating the death of King Sweyn Forkbeard, as part of the legend of St Edmund.
A little devil is also shown grabbing Sweyn’s soul in a miniature (pictured) from a manuscript of St Edmund’s life by John Lydgate given to Henry VI when he visited Bury Abbey late in 1433. That miniature, like the brass, I’d point out, depicts the king with a forked beard.
So what does Sweyn Forkbeard, who died in 1014, have to do with St Edmund, King of the East Angles, who died in 869? In a book of miracles attributed to the saint, written by an archdeacon called Herman (no doubt to coincide with the rebuilding of the abbey holding Edmund’s shrine in 1095) is a tale of how Edmund appeared to Sweyn in a vision.
The apparition, it is made clear, took place when the good people of East Anglia resorted to the tomb of St Edmund (who had been martyred by Norsemen), beseeching his intercession to free them from the invasions and exaction of tribute by Sweyn’s armies.
So Edmund gave a warning to Sweyn in his vision: “Cease exacting a tribute that they have never given under any other king. ... If you do not remove this oppression from them, you shall soon see that you displease God.”
Sweyn, however, mounted a full-scale invasion of England, and was acknowledged as king. King Æthelred (the Unready) spent Christmas in the Isle of Wight, then fled to the Continent. Sweyn’s triumph was short. He died on February 3, 1014. Herman’s legend visualises the avaricious oppressor’s death as by a spear directed by the hand of the English saint.
Of course Sweyn was Danish, like the godless men who had martyred Edmund. But it was the godlessness that the story underlines, more than the Danishness. After all, Sweyn’s son Canute ruled England after him, and his history, for all its occasional barbarities, displayed acts of piety, such as walking barefoot five miles to the shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham. At Bury he was remembered as the king who founded its monastery and built a shrine for St Edmund’s relics.