When Edmund Found His Match: a Martyr’s Two Greatest Defeats

This is not a story of football. The Great Heathen Army was a Viking force that came from the north and landed in East Anglia. The king, Edmund, was killed on 20 November in 869. The evidence comes in a couple of lines from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and says simply: ‘here the army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory, and killed the king and conquered all that land’.

And so that may be that. Except the traditions of storytelling give us a much more colourful tale.

Edmund came to meet Vikings with wonderful names. There was Ragnar Hairy Breeches (the same Ragnar in the television series Vikings), Ivorr the Boneless, Halfdan Wide-Embrace  and  Ubba. Some say that Ragnar arrived by boat having been blown by a storm to the Norfolk coast. Once here he tried to learn the Saxon ways of hunting and was murdered by the king’s jealous huntsman, Bjorn. His crime was discovered and was punished by being cast out to sea in his victim’s boat, without a sail or oars. God was to decide his fate. Bjorn ended up at the home of Ragnar and his sons recognised their father’s boat. They tortured Bjorn until he said what had happened to his father. Bjorn lied and said that Ragnar had been killed by King Edmund of East Anglia. So, of course, Ivorr, Halfdan and Ubba raised their armies to seek vengeance of Edmund.

Other tales say that Ragnar had been raiding in France and crossed to England only to be captured by King Alle of Northumbria. Here the Viking was thrown into a pit of vipers and was bitten to death. Whilst singing his death song he called out “How the little pigs would grunt if they knew the situation of the old boar!”

His sons went on to East Anglia and King Edmund met his death in an unidentified location  known as Haegelisdun, after he refused the Vikings’ demand that he renounce Christianity. Edmund was shot with arrows and then beheaded on the orders of Ubba and Ivorr the Boneless.

Edmund’s head was thrown into the forest. His body was found but the head was missing for a while until those searching heard a voice calling “Here, here, here!” They followed the voice and found Edmund’s head, guarded by a grey wolf. Stories vary as to whether it was the head or the wolf calling, but it is impressive either way.

As for the Great Heathen Army, they went on to pillage (well, they were Vikings after all) East Anglia before moving on to Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Edmund’s shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites at Bury Saint Edmunds until it was destroyed during the Reformation in 1539.

A great army, a great header, pillaging, marching and then smashing up a shrine. This is not a football story: this is a martyr’s story. Edmund had been patron saint of England for five hundred years. Then George took over in the mid 1300s. Two really heavy defeats, I’d say.

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