True heroes are rare. Instead, the evening news is filled with examples of ungodly living: terrorists who prey on innocent people, repressive rulers, corrupt politicians, greedy and dishonest business executives, abusive spouses and parents, violent children… Because of our modern technological ability to have these examples ever before us, we especially need true heroes today.
From Christianity’s earliest days, the Church has held up as examples those who can help guide us in the right way. Faithful witness to God’s saving grace has been made by many heroes – from lowly slaves to mighty monarchs, from innocent babes to aged monks… Patron saints of parishes and occupations, the saints whose names we take at Chrismation, the saints whose feast days we celebrate throughout the year all help us to hold up and emulate the virtues of true heroes. St. Edmund, King and Martyr, is such a hero.
England in the 9th century was populated by many groups of people – some native to the land and some former invaders who were now part of that “Anglo-Saxon” amalgamation. Edmund was the son of Alcmund, an East Anglian nobleman living in exile in Old Saxony and a German princess, Siwara. A visit by his father’s cousin, King Offa of East Anglia, was a turning point in young Edmund’s life.
The boy had been raised as a Christian and knew the importance of upholding Christian ideals both in private life and in public demeanor, especially for a nobleman. King Offa was making a pilgrimage to visit the shrines of Christendom – the tombs of the martyrs in Rome and the sites of Our Lord’s earthly life in the Holy Land. This ideal of reverence for saints and pilgrimage to their shrines made a strong impression on young Edmund. King Offa was impressed with the intelligence and serious devotion of his young cousin and decided to make him his heir to the throne of East Anglia. Edmund accepted his offer, receiving the king’s ring as a token of the agreement.
Continuing on his pilgrimage, King Offa prayed at the holy shrines and traveling on toward Constantinople, he died while staying at a monastery dedicated to St. George. The noblemen accompanying him took his ring (matching the one given to Edmund) back to his cousin in Saxony with the news that the young man would now be their king, ruler of East Anglia.
King Edmund desired to be a good Christian monarch. He did not force himself upon the people, but waited to be accepted by them and, on Christmas Day in 856, he was consecrated king of all East Anglia. For almost ten years, peace ruled in the land. According to his 10th century biographer Aelfric, King Edmund “was bountiful to the poor and to widows, even like a father, benignly guiding his people towards righteousness, controlling the violent, and living happily in the true faith.” As king, Edmund was upholding the Christian ideal of loving and merciful relations with others, especially those under his care.
But around 865, a new wave of invasions by the pagan Danes began, bringing fear to all the people. These fierce worshipers of Woden, the pagan god of war, had in earlier raids concentrated on stealing things of value and people who could be used as slaves. They now seemed intent on destroying everything in their way – all the people and their way of life. The Danes were especially violent in their destruction of monasteries, desecrating relics, burning churches, raping nuns and violently killing those monastics who had devoted their lives to peaceful prayer, study and toil.
After four years under siege, King Edmund and his defending army were surrounded and outnumbered. Demanding Edmund’s surrender, Hinguar, the Danish warlord, promised that his life would be spared and that he could even be a vassal ruler under him if he would give up his Christian religion in the face of the more “powerful” religion of the invaders. Edmund’s reply was that he could never deny the Triune God but that he would serve under Hinguar if he would accept Christianity. This counter-offer was laughingly rejected. Despite admonitions by the bishop to flee for his life, King Edmund resigned himself to martyrdom in the hopes of sparing his people more violence and he went into the church to prepare for death. He had upheld that most important Christian ideal – unwavering faithfulness even in the face of worldly defeat.
The details of the king’s martyrdom are gruesome. The soldiers beat him and filled his body with arrows as they used him for “target practice.” Some sources say that he endured the typical Danish practice of having his lungs ripped out and draped over his shoulders, and he was finally beheaded. With his last breath, Edmund cried out to Christ our God.
The king who had ruled so justly and who had died so faithfully was immediately declared a saint by his people, who rescued his body from the invaders and built a small shrine over his place of burial. In more peaceful times, around the year 915, the incorrupt body was transferred to another area which is still known today as “Bury St. Edmonds”. Although another Danish invasion in 1010 required the temporary removal of the relics, they were returned to this shrine where many miracles of healing occurred.
Perhaps the greatest miracle associated with St. Edmund’s relics was that those fierce invaders of England were eventually brought into the fold of the Church, discarding their pagan beliefs and rituals to follow the sign of the life-giving Cross.
May we strive to uphold St. Edmund’s Christian ideals of reverence for the holy places and people of our faith, of loving and merciful relations with others, and of steadfast faithfulness even in the most difficult times. May we pray for public leaders who will uphold these ideals. And today, when once again Christian people throughout the world are under violent attack, may the prayers of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, bring healing and peace.