The iconostasis of our new church, whose opening was so long delayed, at 14, High Street, Little Abington (CB21 6BG) in south-east Cambridgeshire portrays its patron saint, St Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia, and also a second local saint, St Audrey of Ely. Therefore we have decided to publish simple and short Lives of both saints for visitors, both on paper and also here below:
St Edmund, King and Martyr (841-869)
‘The English nation is not bereft of the Saints of the Lord, since in the English land lie such saints as this holy king….and St Audrey in Ely’.
Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham, c. 1000
Edmund was born on Christmas Day 841 and was brought up in piety. ‘From his earliest youth, he followed Christ wholeheartedly’. In particular the young Edmund learned to love the name of Jesus Christ, which was to go with him all his life. He learned to read and began to learn the Psalter by heart. After the death of the previous King of East Anglia, Edmund was called to become King in 855, aged only fourteen. Chosen King at what is now Caistor St Edmund, just to the south of Norwich, in 856 Edmund was anointed and crowned King of East Anglia at Bures on the border of Suffolk and Essex. This town commanded the strategic crossing-place over the river between East Anglia and Essex.
With Edmund’s reign begins a new age in the history of East Anglia. ‘Edmund the blessed, King of the East Angles, was wise and honourable, and always glorified by his noble conduct before Almighty God. He was humble and devout, and continued so steadfast that he would not yield to shameful sins, nor in any way did he bend aside his conduct, but was always mindful of the true teaching…. He was bountiful to the poor and to widows even like a father and always benignly led his people to righteousness, and controlled the violent and lived happily in the true faith’. So reads the Life of St Edmund written in the tenth century, which concludes: ‘He was raised up by God to be the defender of His Church’.
It was into this world that in 865 a storm broke. The storm consisted of a full-scale Viking invasion, some twenty-thousand strong, which landed in East Anglia on the Suffolk coast, but then went north towards York. It may be that at this time Edmund rebuilt the great earthworks to the south-west of his Kingdom near Little Abington, a stretch of which is known as ‘St. Edmund’s Ditch’ and at the northern end there is an area called ‘St. Edmund’s Fen’.
In any case, in 869 the Vikings reappeared. In Thetford in the late autumn of 869 a pitched battle took place between them and Edmund’s forces. Edmund was victorious, but at great cost. Now outmatched, Edmund retreated towards Hoxne in the north of Suffolk. The Vikings offered peace – at a price. A messenger came with the offer, an offer which meant the Christian Edmund becoming an under-king to the pagans. It is clear that he would neither see himself become the puppet ruler of pagans, nor would he flee from possible martyrdom.
His reply to the messenger was: ‘I shall not submit to a pagan master for the love of earthly life; first you must accept our holy faith’. ‘I have vowed to live under Christ, to live under Christ alone, to reign under Christ alone’. It would also seem that Edmund saw the possibility that in his own death his Kingdom might find peace: ‘I alone should die for my people, that the whole nation should not perish’.
The Vikings now advanced on Hoxne. They surrounded Edmund who wished to imitate Christ, Who forbade Peter to use arms. The Vikings ‘bound Edmund and shamefully insulted him, beating him with clubs’. They tried to make Edmund renounce his Faith: ‘Living or dead, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ. Christ’s Faith was his mighty shield’. ‘Then they led the faithful King to a tree and bound him to it tightly. Afterwards they whipped him for a long time and he always called with true faith on Christ the Saviour.
Because of his faith and his calling on Christ to help him, the pagans became furious. They shot at him with arrows as if for their pleasure until he bristled with them, like St Sebastian. When the wicked seamen saw that the noble king would not deny Christ but called on Him with steadfast faith, they beheaded him’. ‘His soul departed joyfully to Christ’. His last words were ‘Jesus! Jesus!’. It was Monday 20 November 869. Edmund was not yet twenty-eight years old; he had reigned for less than thirteen years. Thus he exchanged an earthly crown for a heavenly one, exchanging Kingdom for Martyrdom.
After killing the King at Hoxne, the Vikings returned to their ships, throwing into thick brambles the head, which they had taken ‘that it might not be buried’. The story continues: ‘Then some time after they had gone, country folk came and were very sad, especially because they had not the head with the body’. According to tradition, forty days later, on 30 December 869, their search was rewarded. In their desperation the searchers cried out, ‘Where are you?’ Incredibly they received an answer, which to them sounded like, ‘Here, here, here’.
Following the sounds they found a grey wolf guarding the head between its paws: ‘They were astonished at the wolf’s guardianship, and carried the head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all His wonders; but the wolf followed on with the head, as if he were tame, and then turned back again into the wood’. Symbolically the wolf had been converted by St. Edmund’s sacrifice, just as the sea-wolves, the Vikings, would also be converted by their victim. ‘Then the country folk laid the head by the holy body, and buried him with haste as best they could, and full soon built a church over him’.
The miracle of Edmund’s sacrifice was that within nine years the ‘sea-wolves’ who had martyred him were accepting the Christian Faith. Miraculously, the first Christian King of East Anglia after St Edmund was a former Viking, Athelstan – the blood of martyrs had triumphed over enmity. Meanwhile, the lowly wooden chapel in Hoxne, where Edmund’s remains had been buried, witnessed miracles. ‘Wonders were often worked at the chapel where he was buried. At night some of the faithful would notice a column of light hovering over the shrine from evening until dawn. Then, one night a blind man and a boy who led him came through the woods. Lost, they saw a building, which they were glad to enter for the night. But once inside, they stumbled onto the grave and realised that this building contained a tomb. Nevertheless, they decided to stay. Hardly had they fallen asleep when they awoke, a column of light shining before them. At dawn the blind man awoke and for the first time in his life he saw day break. The miracle was told to others – a man blind from birth had regained his sight.
Already by 895 King Alfred had minted coins bearing the image of ‘St Edmund the King’. Other coins had also been struck, through the ironies of Providence, by Vikings, styling Edmund ‘Saint’. But it was not until 902, according to some traditions, that the Bishop who was responsible for war-torn East Anglia resolved to move the body of St Edmund to a more worthy place, to Bedricsworth, now called Bury St Edmunds. It lay and lies exactly at the centre of a cross drawn over the four counties of Eastern England, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex.
The Bishop with his clergy proceeded the twenty-five miles to Hoxne to fetch the relics. On opening the coffin, they were amazed for they saw not bones and dust, but their martyred King Edmund, his body incorrupt as if asleep and his head united with his body – only a threadlike seam around the neck bore witness to his beheading. The arrow wounds had also healed. ‘The devout multitude carried the body to the shrine in the new church, there to await in the same peaceful sleep the joys of the resurrection. In this manner took place the first translation of St Edmund, thirty-three years after his burial.
As regards the church at Bedricsworth we are told that it was enriched with gold and silver in the saint’s honour. Indeed such was the veneration of the Royal Martyr Edmund at Bedricsworth, that the town was variously called ‘St Edmundstowe’, ‘Edmundston’ and ‘Kingston’ before becoming Bury St Edmunds. From this time on the monastery of St Edmund became richer. By 1044 its ‘liberty’ or patrimony came to include a third of Suffolk, including all of West Suffolk. Pilgrims began to come in great numbers and pilgrims ways developed, especially the road to Newmarket and the London road. Later, pilgrims brought in a pious custom of kneeling as soon as they caught sight of the monastery and then walking the last mile barefoot.
St Edmund became a national hero and his name, meaning ‘blessed protection’, became a reality as he was adopted as England’s Patron Saint, ‘a terrible defender of his own’, as we have seen again and again in recent times also. He was a very popular saint, with over sixty churches dedicated to him. Moreover, both after the First Reformation of the Roman Catholic Norman Conquest in 1066, when men became less sincere and righteous in their faith and miracles fewer, and also after the Protestant Second Reformation in the sixteenth century, when they tried to erase Edmund’s name from the land, there are still those who keep St Edmund in their hearts and minds.
Holy King and Martyr Edmund, Pray to God for us!
St Audrey of Ely (630-679)
In the history of the Kingdom of East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire), few figures stand out like St Audrey of Ely. She was born in 630, the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, in Exning in Suffolk. She received the name ‘Æthelthryth’, meaning ‘noble strength’. This name soon came to be pronounced more simply as ‘Audrey’. Audrey most certainly knew the great missionary Felix, the Apostle of East Anglia, after whom Felixstowe is named. He doubtless baptised and taught King Anna and his family, including Audrey. Indeed, he set up a monastery near Exning, in Soham.
On 8 March 647, Bishop Felix reposed and was buried in his monastery. Audrey was already strongly drawn to the monastic life. However, in c. 652 she had to marry Tondbert, a noble of the people living in the East Anglian fenlands, in what is now Cambridgeshire. As her dowry she received the Isle of Ely (Ely meaning ‘the island of eels’ from the many eels there), now in eastern Cambridgeshire, which thus became part of East Anglia. This political marriage soon ended in c. 655 with Tondbert‘s death.
Audrey’s marriage had not been consummated and she had remained a virgin. There followed for her five years of widowhood, during which she retired to Ely where she gave herself to prayer and the ascetic life, hoping to found a monastery. But in c. 660 Audrey had to marry once more – again for political reasons. This time it was to re-cement relations with the Kingdom of Northumbria by marrying Egfrid the King of Northumbria, then aged only fifteen. In this way Audrey, from being an East Anglian princess, became the Queen of Northumbria.
As Egfrid grew older, he came to demand that their marriage be consummated. Audrey was opposed and finally, with her husband’s consent, in 672 she separated from him and left for Coldingham where her husband’s aunt had founded a monastery. Here she at last became a nun. The following year, 673, she travelled south to East Anglia, returning to Ely. A legend from this period says that her husband, not yet remarried, changed his mind about letting her go and, pursuing her, was cut off by the high tide on the River Humber. Once across the Humber, she paused to rest at the village now called West Halton. Planting her staff in the ground, immediately it blossomed. For many years in the Middle Ages West Halton was known as the holy place of Audrey.
In Ely Audrey rebuilt the old church and set up a monastery. She lived in an exemplary way, a ‘heavenly life in word and deed’. Giving up royal luxury, she never wore linen, but only woollen garments. She did not wash in hot water and she first helped the other nuns to wash, following the example of Christ, Who washed the feet of His disciples. She ate little, only one meal a day, except at great feasts or in times of pressing need. Unless ill, she would remain in church at prayer from matins until dawn, in other words from about midnight until six in the morning. The results of these ascetic feats were that Abbess Audrey obtained the gift of prophecy. She reposed in 679, some seven years after she had become Abbess. So she ‘exchanged all pain and death for everlasting life and health’.
Audrey was followed as Abbess by her sister, Saxburgh. In 696, the latter decided to have her sister’s bones taken from the wooden coffin in which they had been buried, in order to place them in a stone coffin and have them translated to the church. The monks found a Roman stone coffin near the city walls of what is now Cambridge.
The day for the translation, 17 October 696, came. The monks prepared to open the wooden coffin containing Audrey’s remains. As she went with others to open the coffin and wash the bones, Abbess Saxburgh was heard to cry out in a loud voice: ‘Glory to the Name of the Lord’. She had discovered that her sister’s body was incorrupt, ‘as if she had died and been buried that very day’. Proof was given by the monastery doctor, who had treated Abbess Audrey for a tumour on her throat three days before she had reposed. Only a scar remained.
‘All the linen cloths in which the body had been folded looked as fresh and as new as the day they had been wrapped around her pure body’. It is said that St Audrey had welcomed the pain from the tumour on her neck and any pain of that kind as a punishment for her vanity when as a girl, she had worn jewellery around her neck. She had come to wear ‘a burning red tumour instead of gold and pearls’: ‘They washed the soulless body and bound it with all honour in new garments, and carried it into the church, making glad with hymns, and laid her in the coffin where she lies until now in great honour for men to marvel at.
Several miracles took place. Firstly at the touch of the linen robes in which her body had been lying all those years, demons were expelled from the possessed and illnesses were cured. Secondly the wooden coffin itself cured eye diseases and failing eyesight, when the faithful placed their heads on it. And thirdly it was found that the sacred body fitted perfectly the Roman stone coffin, as if it had been made for it.
The Venerable Bede, writing a few years after these events, wrote the following of St Audrey: ‘Queenly by birth she wore an earthly crown most nobly, but a heavenly crown pleased her more. Scorning the marriage bed, she remained a virgin wife for twelve years, then sought the monastic life. She came most pure to her heavenly spouse, virgin in soul’. And later Abbot Ælfric, the author of many saints’ lives, wrote of ‘the English maiden who had two husbands and nevertheless remained a virgin’.
As a result of St Audrey’s holiness, Ely was to become the great sanctuary of East Anglia until its sack by the Vikings in 870. Of this event it is related that when one of their warriors opened her coffin, thinking it to be a treasure-chest, and saw the intact body, he was fear struck and fell down dead. Exactly one hundred years later, in 970, during the great period of national revival, monastic life was restored in Ely. Once more it became a great centre of monasticism and industry and the twelfth-century Book of Ely records the presence there of a Greek bishop during King Edgar’s reign. It was especially famed for its embroidery.
After the Norman Occupation of 1066, St Audrey’s shrine became the last centre of English physical resistance to the Invader. In Ely in 1070–1 under Hereward ‘the Last of the English’, there gathered forces to resist the Normans. Thus St Audrey, Mother of East Anglia, became the champion of the native cause, her shrine the rallying point for the English resistance movement. Inspired by St Audrey’s ‘noble strength’, all refused to recognise the occupier and warmly welcomed Hereward and his army of resistance. All who joined Hereward had to take an oath of service over the shrine of St. Audrey and promise to labour with them ‘body and soul’.
When the Norman Duke William through witchcraft and betrayal entered St Audrey’s sanctuary, it is recorded that, ‘standing far from the holy body of the virgin, he threw a gold coin onto the altar, not daring to come any closer for fear that the judgement of God might come upon him because of the wicked deeds which his followers had committed in the house’.
Throughout the Middle Ages, by virtue of the incorrupt body of St Audrey, Ely was to remain one of the greatest shrines in the land, a symbol of England’s former spiritual greatness. In all, thirteen churches were dedicated to St Audrey. She was surrounded by miracles and was one of the most popular saints in the land, especially in East Anglia, and girls were named after her.
Although the shrine was destroyed by the men of greed in 1541, today, over thirteen hundred years on since the revelation of St Audrey’s incorruption, relics of the Saint still remain in London and her hand, still incorrupt, is revered at the Roman Catholic church in Ely. And, visible for some twenty miles around, still there towers Ely Cathedral itself. Built on the site of Abbess Audrey’s monastery, it stands as a memorial to the witness of St Audrey’s ‘noble strength’, that essential Christian Faith of the first millennium which Orthodox Christians everywhere are honoured to share with St Audrey, Mother of East Anglia.
Holy Mother Audrey, Pray to God for us!