Introduction: After the Romans
Already in Roman times south-eastern Britain was the first area to be settled by mercenaries and then traders (and pirates) of Germanic origin. This was natural as this region neighbours North-Western Europe. Already in the late third century the coastal areas of the south-east were called the ‘Saxon Shore’. For ‘Saxon’ (Scottish ‘Sassenach’) was then a generic term for all Germanic peoples, Saxons, Angles, Frisians, Swabians, Franks, Jutes or Danes, simply because the Saxons were the first to be encountered by others. These peoples had all moved down to the shores of what is now northern France, Belgium and Holland, seeking to cross the narrow sea and settle new land, mainly as a result of the rising sea levels where they had previously lived.
After the Romans had been forced to withdraw completely from Britain by 410, many more from these Germanic peoples sailed across the southern stretches of the North Sea and the Channel in the day or two it took. They had been invited to settle the newly vacated lands, some intermarrying with the descendants of the Ancient Britons, as well as of the various Celtic tribes, who had invaded Britain some 500 years before the Romans. Thus, the Jutes settled in Kent and southern parts of Hampshire, the minority Saxons settled in the south in what became Essex (the Saxons of the East), Sussex (the Saxons of the South) and Wessex (the Saxons of the West) and the majority Angles, who gave their name to the new land, settled most of the country in what became Mercia (the Midlands), Northumbria and East Anglia (Suffolk, Norfolk and eastern Cambridgeshire up to the Rivers Ouse and Cam, though these county names only came into being in the tenth century).
By the sixth century seven English kingdoms, four small (Kent, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia) and three large (Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex), had been formed. In time these would be united and create the united Kingdom of England, though this only really took shape in the tenth century thanks to the foundations laid by the heroic defender of Christian Civilisation, King Alfred the Great (+ 899). Thus, in the mid-sixth century the Kingdom of East Anglia was formed, under a royal dynasty named the Wuffings, named after King Wuffa (+ 578). It had royal centres along the Suffolk coast and the rivers of the ‘Wicklaw’, the territory subject to the law of the ‘wick’ or trading centre, called Gippeswic (Ipswich), known as ‘the first English town’. The Wicklaw is represented today by south-east Suffolk and includes the Wuffings’ famous burial ground at Sutton Hoo and their ‘hall’ or palace at Rendlesham.
The Baptism of Suffolk
Faith in Christ came northwards to Suffolk from Kent through Essex. Sutton Hoo and the archaeological finds made there bear witness to this. For this location is most probably the site of the burial of King Raedwald, who ruled from 599 to 625 and was the first King of East Anglia to be baptised, though he was hardly practising, as his pagan wife persuaded him otherwise. His baptism took place in the early seventh century in Canterbury, as is recorded by St Bede. His burial site was famously uncovered in 1939.
King Raedwald was succeeded by his surviving son Eorpwald (+ 627), then by an interloper called Ricbert (+ 629) who had murdered Eorpwald directly after his baptism. Ricbert was succeeded by King Raedwald’s stepson, Sigebert, the future saint (+ 635), who had become a Christian in Gaul, where he had been driven into exile by Raedwald. Next came the short-lived King Aethilric (+ 636), a nephew of Raedwald, for both Sigebert and Aethilric were murdered by the pagan Mercian ruler and invader, Penda. St Sigebert was the first practising Christian King of East Anglia and in 631 he welcomed to his Kingdom from Gaul the Burgundian Bishop Felix (+ 647), whom he had met there. Felix was a disciple of the Irish missionary St Columban and would become the Apostle of East Anglia.
It has now been established that Bishop Felix most likely began his mission in south-east Suffolk at the old Roman fortress (called ‘Burgh’ in Old English and ‘Dommoc’ in Celtic). This is now Felixstowe, the town much later named after the saint. This is not far from the royal centre in Rendlesham, where the Kings of East Anglia lived and where a church, probably founded by Bishop Felix, was dedicated to St Gregory the Great, the Apostle of the English. From here Bishop Felix worked along the rivers. First, he sailed north-westwards along the valley of the River Orwell/Gipping in Ipswich (with a church dedicated to St Peter), and westwards along the River Stour in Sudbury (a church dedicated to St Gregory) in south Suffolk.
A second area of coastal mission was at the north-east Suffolk royal centre in Blythburgh, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and then further north by the Suffolk border near Flixton. He also established a church dedicated to the Mother of God in nearby South Elmham, others dedicated to St Michael at Oulton and to St Andrew at a second place called Flixton, this one near Lowestoft. Next he founded another church at Reedham across today’s border in Norfolk. (Both Flixtons were probably named after St Felix). Thirdly, he founded a monastery in the fens at Soham, now in Cambridgeshire, near the royal centre in Exning in Suffolk and perhaps also found a church in what is now Cambridge (also dedicated to St Peter?). Finally, he established churches along the rivers in north-west Norfolk at Babingley (now dedicated to St Felix) and Shernborne (Sts Peter and Paul).
King Anna and Family
From 636 to 654 there came the rule of King Anna, King Aethelric’s brother, whose wife was probably a relative (a grand-daughter?) of the earlier King of Essex, Saebert (+ c. 615). Anna lived mostly at the royal centre at Exning, guarding the Suffolk border of East Anglia against the Mercians. Anna was the father of a dynasty of saints who, following on from Bishop Felix, Christianised East Anglia. The most famous of these is St Audrey (Aethelthryth) (+ 679), baptised by Bishop Felix in Exning. She became famous as the Abbess of Ely just across the Suffolk border in what is now Cambridgeshire, and had fenland disciples there like the priest St Huna of Chatteris and St Owin of Haddenham.
St Audrey had other saintly sisters. These were: Seaxburgh, Abbess of Minster in Sheppey in Kent, Withburgh, the hermitess of Dereham in Norfolk (+ 743, aged about 90), and Ethelburgh and a stepsister, St Saethrith, who both lived in the convent of St Fara in what is now France. She also had a brother, St Jurmin (Eormen). He was murdered in Blythburgh in Suffolk and his relics were enshrined in Bedricsworth, later called Bury St Edmunds. Another saint, Wendreda (Cwendrith), to whom is dedicated the church in fenland March, may have been connected to the family.
St Felix was succeeded by Bishop Thomas and then Bishop Boniface. After King Anna, killed in battle by Penda of Mercia, together with his son Jurmin in 654, came briefly Anna’s brother King Aethelhere (654). He was also killed in battle by Penda, though Penda died in the same battle. Next came King Aethelwald (654-664), the fourth and last nephew of Raedwald. He assured the Church bonds with the kingdoms of Essex and Kent. Indeed, in about 660 St Cedd of Essex baptised the King of Essex at Rendlesham, King Aethelwald perhaps standing as godfather.
It was in this year of 654 that St Botolph (Botwulf) (+ 674) founded a monastery on a promontory or ‘hoo’ (as in Sutton Hoo) at Iken by the River Alde near the Suffolk coast. From here he went out and founded other churches both dedicated to Sts Peter and Paul, possibly these are the churches at Eye and Hoxne, which also later became church centres in their own right. The village of Botesdale in Suffolk is also named after the saint. This is not far from where the Irish ascetic St Fursa (Fursey) and his disciples, like St Foillan, St Utan and St Dicul (of Dickleburgh in Norfolk), had earlier laboured in a monastery, probably at Burgh Castle by the south-eastern coast of Norfolk. Fursa had made his way to France before 651 when all the remaining monks with Foillan were driven out by the long-lived pagan Mercian invader, Penda.
Consolidation and Missionary Work (664-749)
With the death of King Aethelwald in 664, there came to an end the 35-year long reigns of the four nephews of King Raedwald. There now came a long period of peace and consolidation under two East Anglian rulers, father and son, the two reigns totalling 85 years, so giving continuity. The first was King Aldwulf (664-713), son of King Aethilric (+ 636), with a reign of 49 years. During the reign of King Aldwulf, East Anglia was divided into two dioceses, with a see in south-east Suffolk at what is now Felixstowe, and in north-east Suffolk, probably at what is now South Elmham (then called Helmham). Probably in the ninth century this centre was transferred to what is now called North Elmham, not so far away in south Norfolk.
It was in this period that the port of Gipeswic (Ipswich) developed as a great trading centre, facing the northern Continent, the Rhine and Scandinavia across the North Sea. In fact, this Sea could perhaps better be viewed as a lake, on whose western shore lies Ipswich. Two more churches, dedicated to the Mother of God and St Augustine, were built here. Pottery, now known as ‘Ipswich Ware’, was made, ships were built and textiles, jewellery, leatherware, antlerware and baskets were manufactured. Frisian merchants were very active, as Ipswich was the commercial centre of East Anglia. ‘Gipeswic’, the third biggest English port and trading centre (‘wic’) after London (‘Lundenwic’) and York (‘Eoforwic’) and situated between them.
In this way East Anglia also became one of the most important centres for missionary work for north-western Europe. Thus, the local veneration for St Botolph was taken there and later reached Scandinavia and from there Kiev, making him a patron saint of travellers. Later an English missionary to Utrecht called St Eadwulf (later deformed into Adulf), possibly related to St Botolph (Botwulf), also reposed at Iken.
During the reign of King Aldwulf’s son, King Aelfwald (713-749), developments went further. East Anglia controlled its economy, developed international trade and towns, promoting churches, monasteries and literacy, sending forth its light into the world, breathing the Gospel both into Mercia to the west and to north-western Europe, to the east. Thus, in 714 Aelfwald’s sister, Edburgh, who may have been identical with St Edburgh, Abbess of Minster in Thanet in Kent, provided a coffin for the great fen ascetic, the Mercian Guthlac of Crowland. Aelfwald himself commissioned the Life of the saint, written by a certain monk Felix, the name suggesting his East Anglian origins. At the same time King Aelfwald of East Anglia, with its two bishops in Felixstowe and South Elmham, helped the Mercian King Aethelbald to power after the death of the evil King of Mercia, Ceolred, in 716.
His sister Edburgh continued to play an important role and is believed to have become Abbess of Ely and then went to Minster in Kent, if she is indeed identical to the Abbess of Minster. In any case in the thirteenth century a chapel dedicated to her, St Edburgh, is recorded at Thornham in north mid-Suffolk. Abbess Edburgh came under the influence of the great English missionary Boniface of Crediton and became one of his most devoted disciples. Boniface, born in c. 675, had first gone to Friesland as a missionary in 716 and was to spend most of the next almost forty years in what is now western Germany, Luxembourg and Holland, totally reorganising the Church of the Franks and becoming the ‘Apostle of the Germans’.
King Aelfwald’s Achievements And After
Under King Aelfwald, East Anglian mints began to issue more and more coins. Ipswich, facing north-western Europe, became even more important, as Aelfwald laid out a new town on a rectangular grid pattern, the plan of which is visible today. Potteries were in full production and long continued this production, being the most important pottery centre in south-east England. There was a busy market, butchers and bakers’ shops and workshops for making clothing, saddlery, bagpipes, shoes and combs, as well as for metalwork and timber construction, of carts for example. In the centre of the town (where now stands the Town Hall) a church dedicated to St Mildred of Minster in Thanet in Kent was built. The link to her would be through King Aelfwald’s sister, Abbess Edburgh, who we believe succeeded St Mildred as Abbess of MInster in Kent. About this time a church in Utrecht was also dedicated to St Mildred, and this must also have been the result of the direct connection with the port of Ipswich.
Ipswich, between the ports of London and York, presented East Anglian commerce and culture directly to the Rhine mouth ports, among them Utrecht. Abbess Edburgh of Minster maintained her close friendship with St Boniface throughout his correspondence. As Abbess of Minster in Thanet, as we believe, she was the teacher of his closest companion, Leoba, who was buried with St Boniface in Fulda in what is now Germany. If Abbess Edburgh (+ 751) is synonomous with the East Anglian King’s sister, she represents the high point of East Anglian royal culture in Kent, through her knowledge of the Scriptures, poetry, calligraphy and her connections with Ely. She had a command of Latin and a good understanding of theology, like her brother, as is witnessed to by a surviving letter from him, probably taken to St Boniface by ship from Ipswich. Thus, Aelfwald’s kingdom had one of the major ports of the North Sea coastal rim, a new urban centre with a pottery quarter and industry, a minting organisation, several monasteries and two dioceses, all under royal patronage.
However, King Aelfwald had no successor and little East Anglia began to slip under the dominance of a much larger Anglian Kingdom, that of Mercia, the Midlands. Thus, Aelfwald was succeeded by a certain Beonna and Aethelberht who divided the Kingdom between them, perhaps one in what we now call Suffolk and the other in what became Norfolk. Then came a King Aethelred who was based in what later became Bury St Edmunds. However, all this time real power lay in the hands of King Offa of Mercia (c.765-796). Nevertheless, at this time the monastic centre in Brandon assumed importance, perhaps with Offa’s patronage.
Next there appeared the figure of the son of King Aethelred, King Aethelbert (Albright). He seems to have come to power after his father in the 780s and pursued a line, independent of Mercia. However, in 794 this King Aethelbert was beheaded outside Hereford in western Mercia, presumably by King Offa, and ever after venerated as a martyr with many dedications of churches in Suffolk, especially at Hoxne and near Ipswich at Albrighteston (named after him) and near Felixstowe, but also across the Suffolk borders, to the north in Norfolk and to the south in Essex. After this royal murder, Offa invaded East Anglia and subdued it after a battle at Blood Hill, near Claydon outside Ipswich.
St Aethelbert was succeeded by a new puppet of Mercia, King Edwald, who reigned at least into the 810s. The next shadowy figures who emerge are a King Athelstan (c. 821-845), still it seems under Mercian patronage, who had faced an attack from the Danish Vikings in 841, and then a King Athelwerd (c. 845-855). Viking attacks were to be faced again, this time by the greatest East Anglian of them all, King Edmund (841-869).
Of royal origin, 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 Christ, which was to go with him all his life. He learned to read and began to learn the Psalter by heart. 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 probably 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.
‘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 the storm broke. The storm consisted of a full-scale Viking invasion, some twenty-thousand strong, which landed 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, now in Cambridgeshire, a stretch of which is known as ‘St. Edmund’s Ditch’ and at its northern end there is an area called ‘St. Edmund’s Fen’. In any case, he fought alongside his friend, the future King Alfred the Great, in Nottingham. In 869 the Vikings reappeared and in the late autumn a pitched battle took place between them and Edmund’s forces at Thetford in southern Norfolk.
Edmund was victorious, but at great cost. Now outmatched, Edmund retreated almost certainly towards the centre at Hoxne in north 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.
As a result 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 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 (Edmund’s own wolfhound?) guarding the head between its paws: ‘They were astonished…and carried the head home with them….; 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, baptised 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.
Conclusion: King and Martyr
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 pilgrim 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, including in Little Abington, where now stands an Orthodox church in his honour. He was a very popular saint, with over sixty churches dedicated to him. 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 have still been those who keep St Edmund in their hearts and minds.
St Edmund’s martyrdom ended the periods of foundation and then of the consolidation of the Faith which had been brought to Suffolk two and a half centuries before, with the baptism of King Raedwald. After the Martyr-King of East Anglia, Christianity developed anew as the Faith of England and the English, unchallenged for 200 years until the fateful year of 1066, after which all changed. Edmund King and Martyr is the culminating example of the greatest era of English Orthodox Christianity and his martyrdom is the consecrated symbol of its passing. For the Church is confirmed by the blood of the martyrs.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
St Felix Orthodox Church,
4 November 2021