Ahwoo! The varied history of East Anglia and the wolf

The Bury st. Edmunds Wolf Trail.
Some of the 26 Wolves placed around Bury st. Edmunds.

The Bury st. Edmunds Wolf Trail. Some of the 26 Wolves placed around Bury st. Edmunds. - Credit: citizenside.com

The image of the wolf runs deep in Suffolk, particularly in the west of the county where legend has it that a wolf guarded St Edmund’s head after he was slain.

Robin Herne

Robin Herne - Credit: Archant

But Robin Herne, lecturer in Religious Studies at UCS Bury St Edmunds says there are many more reasons why the wolf is a symbol for East Anglia.

Wolves once roamed the woods of East Anglia, and their presence has leant a curious theme to our local history. Even before Roman times, the Iceni tribes of East Anglia were producing coins, called Iceni Staters, bearing the image of stylised wolves, pictured below. Exactly why Boudica’s tribe chose the wolf as a symbol is uncertain - maybe they worshipped a lupine god or goddess, maybe one of their royal dynasties had the wolf as an emblem, or maybe they just admired the beast for its strength and familial devotion. Whatever the case, the creature was clearly dear to their hearts.

When the Romans arrived in Britain they carried the wolf standard with them wherever they went, honouring the she-wolf Lupa who was said to have suckled the abandoned twin boys Romulus and Remus who eventually founded the Eternal City.

Every February 15th the Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, festival of the wolves, and doubtless those imperial citizens settled in our region marked this day too.

Saint Edmund, the Patron Saint of England , was killed by arrows and beheaded. The wolf found his h

Saint Edmund, the Patron Saint of England , was killed by arrows and beheaded. The wolf found his head and howled until it was reunited and buried with his body. - Credit: citizenside.com

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Most famously in this area, St Edmund is associated with the wolf. Sometime during the 570s the Anglo-Saxon King Wuffa (whose name means “Little Wolf”) acceded to the throne of the Eastern Angles. He became the sire of the entire Wuffinga dynasty, whose most illustrious member was King Raedwald. Amongst the treasures found in Raedwald’s ship burial at Sutton Hoo is the ornate gold and garnet clasp for a money bag. This clasp depicts a male figure (probably the god Woden) flanked by two wolves.

The last descendant of the Wuffinga line was King Edmund, who met his untimely end at an uncertain location (then called Haegelisdun) in Suffolk. Caught up in battle with the Great Heathen Army, he was tied to a tree and raddled with arrows – allegedly to force him to recant his Christian faith. When he refused to do so the leader of the Danes, Ivar the Boneless, ordered the lopping off of the king’s head. When Edmund’s followers discovered the decapitated body they searched in vain, till a wolf cried out in Latin, “here, here, here!” The linguistically gifted lupine was standing guard over the martyr’s head, and so features on various carvings, flags and suchlike all around Bury to this day.

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Bury also has another curious connection to our furry friends. The western tower of the abbey stood where an estate agents’ premises now resides. When the area was being excavated, quite some years ago, archaeologists found a large pit containing many wolf skulls. The exact reason for this deposit, without benefit of a Tardis to check, can now only be a matter of conjecture. Some historians hypothesise that this is evidence of some sort of sacrificial offering placed beneath the tower (if this seems odd in a Christian site, bear in mind that early Christianity often melded with pagan practices – for example, an entire bull was buried underneath the altar at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris). Other historians, of a slightly less romantic turn of mind, conjecture that there might have been a furrier working near the tower who simply discarded unwanted bones in a pit. Many people wore wolf fur for warmth in centuries long past. If it was something as prosaic as a rubbish pit, then it still makes for a very curious coincidence that so many wolf skulls should be found near a sacred site with strong wolf imagery.

In another saintly vein, St Botolph – founder of the now derelict abbey at Colchester and patronym of the town train station – once established various churches, abbeys etc. around the region. A number of the items dedicated to him in centuries past, such as the stone cross from at the Suffolk village of Iken, bear the heads of what are either wolves or dogs. The story goes that the hermit retired to the marshes of Suffolk to contemplate God. When assorted marsh demons attempted to distract him and prevent the building of churches, he found aid from either a large wolf or possibly dog. This became his especial companion. Botolph is one of the few saints to sometimes be depicted in early iconography as having the head of a wolf or dog (the topic of one of the short stories in my murder mystery anthology, ‘A Dangerous Place’ published by Moon Books). His feast day is June 17th, and Botolph is regarded as a patron saint of both travellers and farmers.

Christianity has a somewhat mixed relationship with the natural world and its flora and fauna. The ancient pagan religions made extensive use of natural imagery, which may explain why the early Church seemed somewhat ambiguous about embracing imagery that was so associated with the religions it was trying to displace. Shepherding was a way of life for many of the peoples amongst whom Christianity first emerged, and the iconography of Jesus as the Good Shepherd stands proud within ecclesiastical tradition. Shepherds seldom have a high opinion of creatures such as wolves, which are prone to devour the occasional lamb. It comes as no great surprise that the early Church often used the image of the wolf as a symbol of the Devil predating upon the flock of Jesus. Sadly this attitude in no small part contributed to the irrational fear of a creature that has never been any real risk to humanity, but has nonetheless been driven close to extinction by our superstitious paranoia.

Not all Christian stories revile the wolf however. One of the best known positive tales is that of the nature-loving St Francis who converted a hungry wolf who had been scaring the Italian city of Gubbio until the gentle saint converted it to Brother Wolf. Afterwards it became his loyal companion, and a metaphor for the possibility that even the fiercest and wildest of humans can find salvation.

The skeleton of a large wolf was found buried beneath the 13th century Church of St Francis in Gubbio. Who knows what might be buried underneath some of our ancient Suffolk churches?!

During the Norman Invasion, William the Conqueror brought many loyal aristocrats over with him to subdue Britain. The victorious army were rewarded with territories, invariably ones confiscated from displaced Saxon aristocrats. One such family were the Vis de Lou who, under the leadership of Ralph, settled in Norfolk. The name means Wolf Face, and their armorial design features three wolf heads. William de Visdelieu (a variant spelling) settled in Shotley, Suffolk in 1300 and his family continued there for at least seven generations.

The name is a mere coincidence of course, but a very apposite one!

Many readers will be familiar with the stories of Black Shuck, the monstrously large black hound whose spectral appearance portends death and whose claw marks can supposedly be seen in the church door at Blythburgh in Suffolk.

He was also said to appear as part of a hunting pack that frightened the life out of monks at Peterborough in the 1100s. Though he is a dog, Shuck might still be considered part of East Anglia’s tradition of wolf-like imagery.

In modern times we have the Anglian Wolf Society in Bedfordshire, which does extensive educational and conservation work, and houses a number of wolves (who are adjusted to human contact) to help with such vital work.

Wolves roam these lands still!

Even now Bury is still celebrating its lupine heritage with the Wolf Trail of 26 artistic representations of wolves in various media dotted all around the town for people to try and spot (don’t forget to enter the competition, details of which may be found on the website http://www.ourburystedmunds.com/wolftrail)

The analytic psychologist Carl Jung argued that certain archetypal images imprint themselves on national consciousness.

Might it also operate at a regional level, and the wolf – whether endearing or terrifying – has made its indelible mark on the collective mind of East Anglia?

Robin Herne – is course leader for the Religious Studies & Ethics degree modules at UCS Bury. He is also the author of several books (Old Gods, New Druids; Bard Song; A Dangerous Place) with Moon Books publishing and contributor of chapters to numerous anthologies of poetry, religion, and mythology. Places are still available on this year’s degree course. For more information, call 01284 716333, visit the courses section of the website or email Mr Herne

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