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Suffolk/Essex: Doubts cast over legend of St Edmund

PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 December 2011

St Edmund statue

St Edmund statue

NEW research claims that Suffolk’s legendary Saint Edmund did not die in the county, and probably was not even buried in the abbey that bears his name.

Instead, University of the West of England linguistics expert Keith Briggs suggests the king and martyr was actually killed by the Vikings in Maldon.

If verified, the controversial new proposal would radically change the early history of Suffolk, Bury St Edmunds and its abbey.

However, Bury Society chairman Alan Jary says there is not enough evidence to back the latest theory about how St Edmund met his doom and where he is buried.

What is widely accepted is that he was captured and killed in a battle between the Vikings and the East Anglians in 869. Historians have suggested the site of the battle – recorded as Haegelisdun – was Hoxne or Bradfield St Clare in Suffolk, or Hellesdon in Norfolk. But in his proposal, based on the language structure of the place-names involved, Dr Briggs claims Haegelisdun is the name of a hill in Essex – known as Hailesdon – where the town of Maldon now stands.

After his death, Edmund became known as a Christian martyr, and the abbey, founded about 1020 where his remains are believed to be buried, was dedicated to him.

But Dr Briggs said: “It was never likely that Edmund was really buried in his eponymous abbey. Probably the whole legend which makes him a hero and martyr is manufactured, as were many other similar stories in the Middle Ages. And it does now seem that Edmund ranged more widely than just Suffolk, and probably had an Essex ally against the Vikings.”

According to Mr Jary, though, every time a field is discovered with a name that sounds like Haegelisdun, the accepted story is questioned.

He added: “Dr Briggs seems to be saying this is all a myth, but his evidence to challenge it seems quite vague. It was one of the greatest abbeys in Christendom and Europe, and history says when you get something as big as this, it is usually built on good foundations rather than a myth.

“There is a book in the British Library with a picture of the boy king visiting the tomb of St Edmund in our abbey, so to challenge that it was never the home of St Edmund, I find quite amazing. Until someone finds his bones I guess we will never really know for sure, but the majority of evidence points here as his resting place.”

Mr Jary also disputed the new theory of where St Edmund died, concluding: “The Vikings were everywhere in East Anglia and there are river estuaries stretching from King’s Lynn to Southend.

“I am not saying that this research should be completely ignored, but I think it should be filed away somewhere until something else comes to light. As it stands, there is not enough evidence here for the people of Bury St Edmunds to be worried.”

Keith Briggs’s paper, Was Haegelisdun in Essex? A new site for the martydom of Edmund is published by the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History.

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