Stories of the Saints by Candle-Light – Saint Edmund, King and Martyr

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Edmund of East Anglia, date and artist unknown; clerestory of Our Lady and the English Martyrs church, Cambridge, England; swiped with permission from the flickr account of Brother Lawrence Lew, OPNow we are going back, back, back into a thousand years ago, and more. We shall stay in England, but it is a strange, wild England, covered with deep, mysterious green forests, where speckled deer roam about, and on moonlight nights you can hear the wolves howling. The Englishmen of these days are nearly as fierce as the wolves. If you met one coming down a forest path I believe you’d be a bit afraid of him, with his fierce eyes and shaggy head of hair, his round shield and sharp spear. A good many of these Englishmen are still heathens. But Saint Benedict’s monks have been hard at work for the last few hundred years turning the wild country into the beautiful England we know, and the fierce, cruel Saxons into brave Christian knights, with kindly, noble hearts as well as fearless spirits.

Well, in a part of the country called East Anglia there lived an old King called Offa. He was a Christian, and descended from a line of brave and noble Kings called the Uffings. Poor old Offa was very sad, because he felt he was getting old, and he thought that when he died the royal line of Uffings would end, for he had no son to succeed him.

As a matter of fact he had got a son, but many years before God had called this boy to give up all thoughts of worldly glory and become a holy hermit, giving up his life to prayer. When God calls a man to serve Him and Him alone, He does not let the world suffer by his loss. God had a plan of His own for replacing Offa’s hermit son by one of the most glorious Kings that ever reigned in England, and it is the wonderful story of how he was found, and of his thrilling adventures as the young King of East Anglia, that I’m going to tell you to-night.

Well, something – perhaps it was a whisper from the Holy Spirit – made old King Offa feel that if he prayed very hard he might in some wonderful way obtain an heir to his throne.

In those days, when people wanted to pray very hard and show God they really wanted a thing, and really believed He would give it them, they used to do what was called “going on a pilgrimage.” It was like doing instead of only saying a great prayer, for the whole, long, dangerous journey was one act of faith and devotion or of thanksgiving.

So old Offa set out on a pilgrimage to the very best place you could pilgrimage to – the land where Our Blessed Lord lived and died, where there are still the very same rocky paths His Blessed Feet touched, the same mountains and lakes His Eyes rested on, the very hill where His Precious Blood poured down from the Cross, dyeing the grass and the little white daisies red. Somehow the King felt that if he could go and pray where Our Lord had prayed he would get some wonderful answer. So he started off, crossed the blue sea and landed on the opposite coast. Now, God is so ready to grant the prayers of people who have so much love and faith that He sometimes answers almost before they have asked. That’s what happened with the old King. His way lay through Saxony, the kingdom of his cousin Acmund. One day he rode up with his men-at-arms to the Court, and decided to spend a few days there. Acmund, of course, welcomed his cousin, and received him joyfully to the palace.

Well, as King Offa sat resting on one of the low couches covered with the skins of wild beasts that Acmund had killed in the chase, there was a light footfall outside the chamber, the heavy curtain was drawn back from the doorway, and there stood before him a tall, slim boy of thirteen, with fair hair, truthful blue eyes, and a face tanned with the sun and wind of his open-air life. Something seemed to jump up in the old King’s sad heart. Oh, if only that noble boy were his son, his heir! He was a true Uffing. What a King he would make for East Anglia!

In the next few days Offa and the King’s son, Edmund, became great friends. Edmund took upon himself the job of looking after his old cousin, and seeing that he had all he needed and enjoyed his visit at the Court. And Offa watched Edmund with a feeling of love and interest such as he would have had for his own son. He saw that the boy was brave and clever, a good shot with his bow, able to throw a spear straight and ride a horse. He saw that he was loved by all, and always ready to do good turns and put the wishes of others before his own. But he saw something that pleased him more – that Edmund was a true, loyal Christian. In all the excitement of the chase and the gaiety of the Court, his first thought was of God – to serve Him and please Him, to keep from all sin for His sake.

The more Offa saw of Edmund, the more sure he felt that God had led him to this Court that he might find his heir. Still, though it seemed as if his request was already granted, he did not give up his pilgrimage, but decided to press on, if only as an act of thanksgiving to God.

Before starting once more on his way, the King called Edmund aside. Taking a gold ring from his finger, he put it on Edmund’s hand, and told him that if it were God’s will this might some day mean great things for him. Then he said good-bye, and rode away towards the East.

Young Edmund must often have wondered what it was that God held in store for him, and as he looked at the gold ring on his finger I feel sure he used to promise God that whatever it was he would do his best to fulfil His Holy Will.

Well, old Offa reached Palestine all right. His heart thrilled with joy and love as he saw the very village where Jesus was born, and where the shepherds came that early Christmas morning to adore the little new-born King. He remembered the three Kings of the East, who came plodding along on their camels, bearing gifts for Mary’s little Son.

Then he went on to Mount Calvary, and the tears ran down his old face as he saw the hill where Our Blessed Lord suffered such agony, with such glorious courage, for our sakes. He prayed and gave thanks, and then, with a confident heart, left all the future in God’s Hands and started homewards.

But he had not got very far before he fell ill, and soon his men saw that he was dying. Calling them about him, he told them that it was God’s will that young Edmund, Acmund’s son, should be their King. Taking from his finger the signet-ring that had been placed upon it by the Bishop at his coronation, he commanded that when he was dead it should be carried as quickly as possible to the boy. Then, heaving a last sigh of peace and gratitude, he closed his eyes on the world, and his faithful soul went to God.

The Coming of Saint Edmund

Now we will go back to England. The people have heard of the death of their King, and they are not at all sure that they want a strange young Prince from Saxony to come and rule over them. They have collected in a great crowd on the shore, for the galleys from across the sea have come in sight, bearing down before the wind.

The ships draw every moment nearer, and the people wait. As long as most of them can remember they have been ruled over by King Offa; and for many generations their Kings have been Uffings – tall, fair, blue-eyed men, with noble, fearless hearts. What will this strange boy be like?

And on the ship young Edmund pushed his way forward to the prow. He could see the green, tree-covered cliffs of his new kingdom, and the crowd of people on the shore. His heart beat fast, and he fingered the ring old Offa had put on his hand. Oh, if only these people knew that he came to them ready to do his best to be to them a good King – to do his best for them, for the love of God!

Splash, splash! – the big anchors go overboard and the chains rattle as they run out over the bows. Soon Edmund and his men are in small boats, being rowed swiftly to the shore. Edmund’s boat is the foremost and he himself stands up on the prow, ready to leap ashore. As the men of England look at him they see that he is no stranger, but one of themselves, a true Uffing, and then and there a sense of loyalty springs up in their rough hearts.

The nose of the boat grates on the shore. With a leap Edmund has cleared the water, and is standing on the land of which he is to be King. His first act is to fall on his knees and ask God’s blessing on himself and his people. His short prayer ended, he gets up and turns to greet his new friends; but to his surprise they are all falling on their knees, murmuring to one another, “A miracle, a miracle!” For a spring of clear water has bubbled up where Edmund’s knees touched the ground – a sign from Heaven that he is the true King, a symbol of the power of the Holy Ghost that will well up like a spring in his heart.

The Crowning of Saint Edmund

After a time of study and preparation under a holy man, called Bishop Humbert, who became a true father to the boy and his lifelong friend, the time of Saint Edmund’s coronation drew near. It took place on Christmas Day, and the old books tell us of the gorgeous procession and the wonderful service. Saint Edmund had to make a solemn promise of loyalty to God and his people, and after being anointed with holy oil he was clothed in certain royal garments by the Bishop, while a thane stepped forward and put sandals on his feet, a purple cloak was put upon his shoulders, and in his hand a sceptre of mercy and an iron rod of justice. After that a naked sword was presented to him, and a helmet put on his head. Then, laying aside all these, Saint Edmund stepped forward, and standing before the altar declared solemnly that by the grace of God he would fulfil all the duties of a good King. The Bishop placed the crown upon his head, saying, “Live the King for ever,” and the people all cried, “Amen, amen, amen.”

After that there was a solemn service of praise and thanksgiving to God, and the new King received Holy Communion. You can imagine how happy it made the holy young King that this should be the very first act of his reign, and what confidence it gave him that Christ would stay with him through all the difficult years to come.

War

For a long time there was peace in Saint Edmund’s kingdom, though the people in other parts of the country were suffering terribly from their enemies, the Danes, who came over in wild hordes from the North in their low, black-sailed boats, and, landing on the coast, went through the country burning and plundering and killing.

Saint Edmund knew they would sooner or later invade his kingdom too. So he set to work to prepare for them. His chief way of doing this was to win the loyalty of all his subjects, so that if there was war he knew they would all rally round him. He made wise laws, and he was so fair to all, and so ready to listen to the poor and oppressed and help them, that soon everyone in the kingdom loved the young King and would do anything for him. They could see that God was with him, and they could not help feeling that in serving the humblest of his subjects he felt that it was Christ Himself that he served.

Saint Edmund had, of course, prepared his army and had thrown up defences to try and keep the enemy out as long as possible. You can still see one of his great earthworks running from Newmarket to the Fen country. For hundreds of years it was called “Edmund’s Dyke.” He placed scouts and outposts all round his borders, and prepared in every way he could.

At last the day came when the country people came running into the towns in terror. They had seen along the borders huge, fierce men, with flashing eyes and long red hair and beards. Their leather tunics were stained dark with blood. Huge round shields were slung across their backs; they were armed with spears, bows, clubs, and knives, and they shouted to one another in a strange language.

Saint Edmund’s scouts came running in to say that the Danes were collecting in great crowds on the frontiers.

Soon they began creeping in at every point, burning houses and churches, and killing people, especially the Christians. Though it was an almost hopeless job, Saint Edmund led his brave army forward, and whenever it was possible he engaged the enemy in battles and drove them out. The Danes had never before been so powerfully resisted, and thousands of them were killed. There’s not time now to tell you all of the thrilling adventures Saint Edmund had at this time, and of his wonderful escapes from the Danes. Anyhow, the Danes were so much weakened that they asked for peace, and after spending the winter in a great camp at Thetford, they sailed away, full of rage and hatred and desire for revenge.

A Cowardly Plot

For a time there was peace, and then a sad thing happened.

One stormy day when the waves dashed and foamed up the shingly beach, and the sea and sky were a leaden grey, the fisher-folk who lived down by the shore saw a small boat, with tattered sails and broken mast, being driven before the wind. There seemed to be a man in it, but he was evidently weak and exhausted, and was doing nothing to help himself. Presently the boat was thrown up on the shore, and the fishermen ran down and collected in a little crowd round it. Looking down at the helpless man, still clinging to a spar and drenched with foam and sea-water, they soon saw he was not one of their people. “A Dane, a Dane!” they murmured with sullen hate. Then one who had served in Saint Edmund’s army suddenly gave a wild exclamation. “By Heaven,” he said, “it’s Lothparch!” Lothparch was the leader of the Danish army who had done such awful harm to East Anglia only a few years before. “Kill him!” growled one man. “Throw him back on the mercy of the sea!” hissed another. But the man who had fought under Saint Edmund would have nothing of the kind. The King never allowed a helpless man, even a cruel enemy, to be killed. So Lothparch was carried up to the royal palace.

To the surprise of the fierce Angles, Saint Edmund not only made the stranger welcome, but showed him every kindness. “Love your enemies,” said Our Lord, and sure enough Saint Edmund seemed truly to be obeying that command. Everything the King did seemed right to his loyal subjects; but there was one man – Berne, the King’s huntsman – whose jealousy was so bitter at Saint Edmund’s showing favour to a Dane that he waited till he had an opportunity, and then he murdered Lothparch.

The King was very angry, of course; but he said that, though Berne deserved to die for the crime, he would give him a faint chance of escape; he should be put in an open boat, and pushed out to sea and left to the mercy of the waves.

After tossing for many days, Berne was washed up on a strange coast.

During those lonely days of tossing on the waves, instead of repenting of his crime, Berne’s wicked heart had been full of hatred for the King. So when he heard that the land he had come to was Lothparch’s own kingdom, and that his two sons, Inguar and Hubba, were reigning in his place, a horrible idea came into his mind. Asking to be taken before the Princes, he made up and told them an awful lie, saying that when their father, Lothparch, had been washed up, helpless, on the coast of England, Edmund the King had caused him to be cruelly put to death.

Of course, this enraged Inguar and Hubba, and they at once collected a huge and fierce army, and set out once more for East Anglia.

A Fight to the Death

Landing in the North, and marching from York southward, the Danes plundered every city they passed through. They burned the monastery that had been built at Croyland (Saint Guthlac’s isle), and also those at Peterborough, Ramsey, Soham, and Ely. Meeting Saint Edmund’s army, they defeated it completely, killed the brave General who commanded it, and took Thetford by storm. Then they sent Saint Edmund a message to say that he must give up half his kingdom and pay heavy taxes, or they would do the most terrible “frightfulness” throughout the land.

But Saint Edmund and his men decided to make one great effort to keep their land in liberty and true to the Christian Faith. At the head of his gallant army, Saint Edmund marched on Inguar’s army, and a ghastly battle began.

Arrows flew thick; swords clashed on shields; great spears tore men open and left them to bleed to death. All day the battle raged, but at night the Danes fell back exhausted, and Saint Edmund held the field, victorious. But as he stood in the moonlight and looked upon the scene his heart sank.

Before him stretched the great battlefield, its trampled grass all soaked in blood; and around him, silent for ever, lay his great army – an army of dead men. With a heavy heart he led back his little handful of tired and wounded soldiers to the camp.

The next day came terrible news. Hubba, with ten thousand men, had marched up and joined his brother.

The Martyr

It was hopeless to try and resist any more – the King knew it, and his people knew it, and they shuddered to think of their fate. Then a great idea came to the King.

It was he himself the Danes hated so. If only they had him in their power, perhaps they would leave his beloved country in peace! The more he thought of this, the more certain he felt that, by giving himself up, he could buy the peace and happiness and safety of his people. Christ, his Captain, had done this – He had not feared to face the most cruel death to save mankind, and Saint Edmund’s heart suddenly leapt with the thought that he would follow Christ and do the same!

At first his old friend the Bishop, Saint Humbert, tried to hold him back. But after a while he saw that Saint Edmund was quite resolved. He spoke of it with such courage and joy that the aged Bishop knew the Holy Spirit must be in his heart leading him to this glorious sacrifice of himself, this giving of his very life for his God and his friends, this quest for the martyr’s crown. And so he gave him his blessing and bade him do as his brave heart prompted him. So, calling together his people, Saint Edmund told them what he was going to do. You can imagine what they felt – how they begged him with tears not to do it. But nothing would make him change his mind – he knew it was God’s Will.

Bravely he gave his last order to his men. It was that all the gates of the fortress should be thrown open, all the defences left unguarded, nothing done to stop the Danes entering it. Then he made his way to the chapel. Unbuckling his faithful sword, he laid it on the steps of the altar, and knelt down, with no protection save God’s mercy.

The little chapel was very dim, and full of a holy feeling. All was still. It seemed to the young King as if he were far, far away from the rest of the world, from all the horror of bloodshed and crashing battle-axes that had filled the last few weeks like some horrible dream. He let his mind just rest on the thought of God and His love, and a wonderful peace came over him.

Near him knelt the old Bishop, and his heart was near to breaking, for he loved Saint Edmund very much. The tears ran down his furrowed cheeks, and fell silently on the steps of the altar, but he spoke no word. Silently the moments passed, and then, suddenly, a sound broke the stillness that sent a cold shiver through Saint Humbert. Wild shouts, coarse laughter, the clash and clatter of armed men rushing in wild triumph through the fortress. It was the King they were seeking. Where was he? They cared for nothing but to find him and wreak their revenge.

The shouts came nearer . . . the tramp of feet . . . the clang and scrape of spears against the wall. Nearer, nearer, until the chapel door burst open and a crowd of cruel faces peered in. Then a wild oath rang through the quiet of the chapel. They had found the King! Rushing in, they seized him and dragged him out.

Faithful unto Death

In a field beyond the town the Danes tied Saint Edmund to a tree. They were determined to have a full revenge. With long whips they began to scourge his naked body. Each lash was like the touch of a red-hot iron, and left a long, bleeding wound in the bare flesh. But Saint Edmund only rejoiced that, at last, he could share truly what Christ had suffered from the Roman soldiers. No cry escaped him, except now and then the name of Jesus.

Then, throwing down their whips, the Danes took up their bows. The arrows fell thickly round Saint Edmund, piercing him in every part, until, as the old book says, he was as covered with arrows as a porcupine with quills.

Inguar, the Danish Prince, looked on with a horrible smile of cruel enjoyment. Hearing the Holy Name break like a sob from the mouth of the martyr, he began to taunt him, telling him to give up his faith in Christ, since it had only brought him to this. But Saint Edmund was “faithful unto death.” Soon, soon he would receive the “crown of life,” the welcome of the King of kings.

Seeing that nothing could make Saint Edmund cry for mercy or give up his faith in God, Inguar drew his long sword, and, with a hoarse laugh of triumph, cut the martyr’s head from his body.

Free and glorious the soul of King Edmund rose from his bloodstained body into the sunlight of heaven.

Saint Edmund had not sacrificed himself in vain. The Danes, so greatly weakened by the bloody battles they had fought, gave up the idea of ruling East Anglia, and sailed away to their country, leaving Saint Edmund’s people in peace, and free to practise the Christian Faith.

– text taken from the book Stories of the Saints by Candle-Light by Vera Barclay, 1922