What was it like at the time the story was set?
Life in Anglo Saxon times was often hard and brutal. The area that is now England used to be split up into many smaller kingdoms. The kingdoms were often at war with each other. One of the kingdoms, East Anglia, was formed about 571, after Angles and Saxons arrived from North Germany and Denmark. It was once a great kingdom. Its most famous King, Redwald, was known as a 'High King of England'. He died about 625 and was buried in great splendour at Sutton Hoo. After this time, however, East Anglia became less important. The kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex grew much stronger.
Most people still lived in small villages but, by the 8th century, towns like Ipswich had started up and, by the 9th century, they were growing because people were trading with Europe. Governments grew up and Christianity was spreading across England.
It was also a time of war. The kingdoms were often attacked by Danish and Viking pirates, who travelled by sea and river throughout Europe in their longboats. Because East Anglia had such a long coast line, facing East, it was very often attacked. Many wars were fought: if you did not die in the battle, what happened to you if you lost, or were taken prisoner, could be very unpleasant.
Who was King Edmund?
Edmund was a Saxon King. Very little is known of his life. An 11th century record (the Annals of St Neots) says he was crowned at Bures around 855. The date of his death is in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles (written about ten years later) as 869. However, the stories about his life and the miracles he did, were written down much later: this makes it difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction.
His life story was first written down in 985, more than 100 years after his death, by Abbo of Fleury, a monk living at Ramsey Abbey (near St Ives, Cambridgeshire). He says that Edmund bravely fought off two Danish chiefs around 869. They soon returned, however, and attacked with even more people. A Viking leader, called Hinguar, travelled with his fleet to East Anglia and attacked a city. Edmund fought them in battle but was taken prisoner; he was taken to the Danish chieftain in Hoxne (Suffolk).
When he turned down Hinguar's peace terms, part of which said he had to believe in the Viking Gods, he was whipped, shot with arrows and beheaded at Hegelisdun Wood on 20th November. The story also talks about the wolf that was supposed to have guarded the head of the king.
Although the story was written over a hundred years after it happened, the source was an archbishop; he said that, when he was a young man, he had heard the story from a very old man, who said that he was King Edmund's armour bearer at the time of his death. So, it is probably true that Edmund was killed by the Viking, after the battle, for refusing to bow to their gods.
What effect did his defeat have?
After Edmund's death, East Anglia fell under Viking rule or 'Dane Law'. A few years later, only the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex was free from control by the Viking armies. In 878, King Alfred of Wessex won an important victory over the Viking, Gudrum, at Ethandune (in Wiltshire). Alfred made a peace treaty (the Treaty of Wedmore)which divided England between them. The Vikings could only live in East Anglia under laws that Alfred himself approved. Here they settled and shared out the land.
It is about this time, that stories about the dead King Edmund started to be told. By 890, many of the Vikings had become Christians and memorial coins with the words 'sce eadmund rex' (O St Edmund the King!) show that, by this time, Edmund was already believed to be a saint. So, only twenty years after the brutal conquest of East Anglia, the East Anglian Vikings lived in a society that was still mostly Anglo-Saxon and celebrated a Saxon king who had been murdered by the Vikings themselves! By 915, the remains of St. Edmund had been taken to Bury St. Edmunds. In 945, a large area of land was given to the monastery - known as the Banleuca.
Peace, however, did not last. After further Danish raids, in the late 10th century, a kind of tax was raised, (Dane geld) to pay the Danes, to stop them attacking (beginning in 991). Things were made worse in 1002 when king Ethelred II had many Danes killed, including Gunhilde, the sister of the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard; he then started to attack England again.
How did the story arise?
The early part of the story may be true. King Edmund did exist and records suggest that he was probably killed by the Vikings. This was a time when faith was very strong and many people were ready to die for their beliefs. There are also some writings from early times that say Sweyn Forkbeard died suddenly in 1014.
The miracle of the killing of Sweyn Forkbeard by Saint Edmund, was probably first told by the 'shrine-keepers' at Bury. They wanted to show off the powers of their saint to the monks at the Cathedral. The monks then included the legend in the histories of Britain.
Most people could not read and write at this time and the church often used stories, based on the lives of the saints, to show the truth of the gospels and the power of faith. These stories were very important in the early years of the church and many legends grew from them. They often included brave stories of battles with dragons and monsters. There were also lots of Visions of angels, dead saints and martyrs in the stories. Many included miracles that happened after the death of the saint. This is one such story.
St Edmund was an important holy figure and was seen as a defender of England. There are many local legends connected with the saint. Shrines (tombs) holding a saint's relics (remains) were once held to be very holy places. Registers of miracles were kept at the shrines. Pilgrims who travelled to the shrine brought candles and other gifts. Some shrines became quite rich. The monks would, also, often sell souvenirs to the pilgrims. Indeed, around the shrine of St Edmund grew of one of the greatest and richest abbeys of England.