The Passion of St. Edmund

The Passion of St. Edmund

Translated by Michael Seuffert © 2002


Three years before he died, a very learned monk named Abbo came over the sea from the south from St. Benedict’s place to archbishop Dunston during King Aethelred’s reign.  It happened they spoke together until Dunston told the story of St. Edmund, just as Edmund’s elderly sword bearer explained it to King Aethelstan when Dunston was still a young man. Immediately, Abbo then wrote out the whole story in a book.  When the book came to us a few years later, we translated it into English, just as you see it now.  The monk Abbo went home two years later and was soon raised to the position of abbot of his monastery

            Edmund the blessed, King of the East Angles, was wise and honorable, and always nobly praised the Almighty God.  He was humble and virtuous, he remained so resolute that he was unwilling to turn to shameful sins, nor did he ever deviate from his religious practice.  King Edmund was always mindful of this wise lesson: “As a leader, do not raise yourself above your people, but be among them just like anyone else.”  Like a father, he was generous to the poor and widows, and with kindness guided his people to righteous ways, protecting them from the cruel, so they all happily lived with true faith in God.

            Eventually, though, the Danish people came with ships to ravage and attack the land far and wide, as they often do.  Leading the Vikings’ raids were the fierce Hingwar and Hubba, united together in evil.  They landed in Northumbria, laid waste to the land, and slew the people with ash spears.  Then Hingwar took his ships east to East Anglia, while Hubba remained behind in Northumbria, winning victory in his bloodthirstiness.  This all happened when Prince Alfred, who would later be the glorious West Saxon King, was 21 years old.  Like a wolf, Hingwar moved stealthily on land, slaying many men, women, and innocent children, shamefully tormenting the innocent Christians.

            Hingwar soon sent a messenger with a boastful message to King Edmund, saying that he should pay his tribute if he cared about his life.  The message said, “Hingwar our King, keen and victorious on sea and on land, commands many people.  He will soon arrive here with his army to make camp for himself and his troops for the winter.  He now orders that you share your gold and your elders’ wealth with him.  If you do this, he will allow you to live and rule beneath him, as you do not have the might to withstand his assault."

            So then King Edmund called for the nearest bishop, and together they debated how he should answer the fierce Hingwar.  The bishop was afraid of this sudden misfortune and for the King’s life.  He advised Edmund that it seemed best to submit to Hingwar.  For a moment, the King was quiet and looked to the ground and regally answered, “Listen good bishop.  My poor people are being shamefully mistreated.  I would rather fall in battle myself if it would allow my people to once again enjoy their land.”  The bishop replied, “Listen, dearest King, your people lie dead, killed, and you have not the help that you need to fight.  The Vikings will come and enslave any they leave alive. So save yourself while you can.  Pay the tribute or take flight.  It is the only way to live.”

            Then King Edmund bravely said, “My only desire is that I am not the only man who will survive after these Vikings kill my men, women, and children, while they lie in their beds.  It is not my way to take flight.  If I must die to save my land and my people, so be it.  The Almighty God knows that I will never turn away from his worship, nor from his true love, whether I live or whether I die."

            After these words, he turned to Hingwar’s messenger and said boldly, “Certainly, you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood.  Instead, I follow Christ, who set an example for us.  I will gladly be killed by you, if that is God’s will.  So go swiftly to your lord and tell him, “Never will Edmund yield to you, heathen, until you first submit to the ways of Jesus Christ.”

            The messenger went quickly away and met the fierce Hingwar, who with all his army was fast approaching Edmund.  The messenger told the dishonorable leader how Edmund had answered.  Insulted, Hingwar then furiously commanded his army to seize and bind the King who had rejected his demands. 

            When Hingwar came, King Edmund stood in his hall, mindful of the savior and threw away his weapons.  He wished to follow the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to fight against the fierce Jews with his weapons.  So the dishonorable ones bound Edmund and mocked him shamefully, beating him with staffs.  Afterwards, they led the faithful king to a sturdy tree and tied him there with strong bonds, thereupon beating him for a long time with whips.  Between each lash, however, Edmund called out with true belief to Holy Christ, which only further angered the furious heathens.  Then, they threw spears at him, as if for sport, until his body was covered with their weapons, like a hedgehog’s bristles, just as St. Sebastian was.  When Hingwar saw that Edmund would not renounce his faith, but with resolute belief he always held to Christ, he commanded them to behead the noble king.  This the heathens did.  While he still yet called to Christ, the heathen took the holy man to his slaughter.  With one blow, they struck off his head, and his soul traveled joyfully to Christ. 

So then the Viking band went afterwards back to their ships and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick briars so that it would not be buried.  After they departed, Edmund’s remaining followers came to where their lord’s body lay without his head.  Their spirits sorrowed sorely not only for his death, but especially because they did not have the head for his body. But there was a man nearby, kept hidden from the heathens by God, who saw the Viking’s deed and afterward told the story just as we it tell now to the people.  He said that the Vikings had the head with them, but it seemed to him that they hid the head in the forest somewhere.

            The people all went together into the woods, searching everywhere, through bushes and briars to find the head.  As they searched, they always called out, as it is customary to do when one’s friend is lost in the forest, “Where are you now friend?”  And the head miraculously answered them, “Here!  Here!  Here!”  The head replied as frequently as the people called out, until they came to where the shouting occurred.  There, guarding the head to the wonder of the people, lay a gray wolf, clasping the head between his two feet.  Though the wolf was greedy and hungry, he dared not taste the head, as he was commanded by God to protect it from the other wild animals day and night.  Then the people marveled at the wolf’s guardianship, and, rejoicing, carried the holy head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all his wonders.  But the wolf followed the head all the way into town, as if he were tame, until finally turning back into the woods.  Afterward, the people placed the head with the holy body and buried him as best they could in such haste and built a grave for him.  It was at that holy saint’s grave that many miracles would occur over time.

            After many years, when the Vikings’ ravaging desisted, the afflicted people found peace. Then they joined together and made a splendid church, worthy of the holy one and the miracles he provided. They planned to take his holy body in a great ceremony and lay it within the church.  But there was much wonder when they found that Edmund’s body was pure, his body whole, and his neck healed where it was previously cut through, as if he were still alive.  Even the wounds that the bloodthirsty Vikings inflicted with their spears were also healed by the heavenly God.  All that remained was a red silken thread around his neck, as evidence of how he was killed.  His body lies whole to this present day, awaiting the resurrection and eternal glory.  It reveals to us that he without wantonness lived here in this world and, with a clean soul, traveled to Christ.

            For many years afterward, a widow named Oswyn who prayed and fasted at the burial site would cut the saint’s hair and fingernails neatly with love every year, and place these relics on the altar of the church.  In their religious practice, the people gave much honor to the saint and Bishop Theodred endowed gifts of gold and of silver in his honor

One night, eight unsavory thieves came to the holy saint.  They desired to steal the treasures that men would bring in his honor.  Each knew a method that he could use to break in. One attacked the door hinges fiercely with a hammer, another tried to penetrate with a file.  One dug under the door with a shovel, while yet another tried to unlock the window using a ladder. But they all labored in vain and became miserable when the holy man miraculously bound them stiff, as each stood struggling with his tools.  They remained frozen in place until morning, none able to succeed in the crime he would commit.  When they were discovered, the people marveled at how the criminals could hang, one on his ladder, one bent digging, and each bound fast in his work. 

The thieves were all brought to Bishop Theodred, who ordered them to be hanged on the high gallows.  But the bishop was not mindful of these words which the merciful God gave to us through his prophets: eos qui ducunter ad mortum eruere ne cesses.  This reads, “Always redeem those who men would lead to death.”  Moreover, the holy canon also forbids the ordained, such as a priest or bishop, to judge the lives of thieves, because it is not right for one who is chosen by God to authorize any man’s death, especially not in the case of another Christian.  Afterwards, when Bishop Theodred studied his book,  he repented with great sadness that he cruelly set down judgment on the unfortunate thieves. He bid his people fast with him for three full days as a way to ask for God’s mercy.

In the land, there was a man named Leofstan, rich in worldly possession but ignorant of God.  He rode to the saint, and with arrogance ordered that the holy one be shown to him, to see whether the body was truly whole.  But as soon as he saw the saint’s body, he went mad and raged horribly before meeting his miserable and evil death.  This story reminds us of the one Pope Gregory told about St. Lawrence, who lies in Rome.  Both good men and evil men wanted to behold how the uncorrupted saint laid in death, but God stopped them when seven men died upon their viewing at the same time.  No man with sin would then ever dare to look upon the body of the martyr.

We have heard many wonders about St. Edmund that are told by the people, but we will not put all of them into writing, since everyone already knows them.  From this saint and from others like him, however, the lesson is clear: as the Almighty God can keep Edmund’s body whole until the last day, though it came from the earth.  We must then honor and preserve these saints who God keeps whole within the earth, though they are made of earth.  Worthy is that place because of that worshipful saint.  Men should honor the saints and maintain their shrines with the cleanness like that of God’s servants for the sake of Christ’s kingdom, because the saints are greater than what any man can imagine.

The English people are not without their share of saints.  There is the holy King Edmund, Cuthbert the Blessed, Aethelred in Ely, and also his sister, who all lie within English lands, whole in body, as a confirmation of faith.  There are many others in the English lands who make miracles, as we well know, to the praise of the Almighty whom they trust in their faith.  Christ reveals to all persons, through his glorious saints, that he is the Almighty God who makes many miracles, although the wicked Jews reject his teachings, because they are cursed, as they themselves know.   No wonders come from the graves of those Jews because they do not believe in the living Christ.  Christ reveals to man the marvels of God only where true faith lies through his saints far and wide on the earth.  So may Christ be given glory forever with his Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.  Amen.