King Eadmund lived a boring life full of piety, generosity and justice. Things hotted up when Vikings stalked in his land and ran off with his head. But wait, it doesn’t stop there! What Eadmund’s life lacked in action and adventure, he made up for in the afterlife.
Last week, we left the East Angles as they ventured into the forest in search of Eadmund’s missing head. Off they went, into the deep dark forest, and, as sensible woodsmen do, they shouted out to one another as they went:
Where are you, comrade?
Where are you, comrade?
And the head shouted back to them:
Over here! Over here!
As often as one of them shouted out Where are you, comrade?, the head of King Eadmund shouted back: Over here! Over here! And soon enough they came across the head, nestled between the paws of a slavering, ravening wolf. This wolf really, really, desperately wanted to eat the head. Om nom nom, tasty head. However, luckily for the East Angles, God had given the wolf divine orders not to eat the head of king Eadmund. Not even a little bit. Not even a tiny snacking around the ears. (Unlike the Wolfish stalking Hinguar, real wolves obey God. Vikings are mean and nasty and diabolical. Subtlety and tolerance? Not Aelfric’s cup of tea.)
The East Angles were quite pleased to have the head back, and they grabbed it out of the wolf’s paws and scurried back to the castle. The wolf followed them all the way back to the town, and, realising that it wasn’t going to get even a nibble of the head, finally gave up and went home. Poor wolf.
Delighted with the way things were going (despite the obliteration of their king and most of their countrymen), the East Angles got together and put up a church over Eadmund’s body. Some time later, (in 869) their descendants decided that a shoddy job and been done, and built a grand shiny new church. Predictably, when they pulled out Eadmund’s body, it was all perfectly intact, head attatched, wounds healed, the whole works. (‘Now, if I were a skeptical person,’ says a devout audience, ‘which I’m not, that might suggest to me that it wasn’t the same body.‘) What’s more, there’s a nice silk thread around his red throat. (‘If I were a skeptical person,’ says my devout listener, ‘I might be inclined to think it was the body of a recently hanged man…’)
The ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, est. 869.
At any rate, miraculous preservation of body achieved, King Eadmund is set up in a brand spanking new church, with a holy widow to keep him company and clip his fingernails. (Her name was Oswyn, and her fondness for barbering and manicuring dead saints is all we know of her.) All the locals brought gifts and offerings in Eadmund’s honour, and Bishop Theodred decked the church out in gold and silver. The afterlife was going well for King Eadmund, but a rich church will attract unwonted attention, and one night, eight ‘unblessed’ theives turned up, bent on knicking off with the offerings.
Some of them slogged at the door haspe with sledge-hammers; some filed around it with files; some of them got spades and tried to dig under the door; and some of them brought ladders and tried to get in by the windows. For a mere eight thieves, they were swarming all over the place like flies. But for naught- St Eadmund, it turns out, was the best kind of saint: better than a closed-circuit video camera. He froze those theives in their tracks, and held them there all night. When the townspeople (and presumably the monks) turned up in the morning, they found eight thieves- some hanging from ladders, some frozen over spades, and so on, stuck fast in their tracks. They picked them up (apparently without un-freezing them) and dragged them off to Bishop Theodred.
Now, Bishop Theodred was a pretty good bishop, but not the best bishop around. He was good about donating silver and gold to churches, not so good on his canon law. And so he (conveniently?) forgot that he, as a bishop, shouldn’t be sentencing anyone to death, and ordered the poor frozen thieves to be hung. And hung they were, nowhere does AElfric mention any un-freezing.
After the thieves were good and dead, Bishop Theodred thought to look in his books1, and suddenly remembered that he was a churchman, and not supposed to be orchestrating hangings. He was properly sad, and feared for his immortal soul, and ordered the East Angles to fast with him for three days and pray for his salvation. (Salvation: so much easier if you have minions!)
Next up, a fellow named Leofstan, of a more skeptical bent than was generally good for you in Anglo-Saxon England, came along and demanded to see the intact body of St Eadmund. The monks were obliging, and opened up the tomb for him to have a looksee. Leofstan looked, and saw, and went barking mad and ran off and committed suicide. I’ve no idea what was going on there, but AElfric assures us it was a copycat miracle, in the model of St Lawrence, who sent mad seven men who dared to look upon his intact body.
Apparently many more hilarious miraculous things happened to St Eadmund in his afterlife, but AElfric didn’t feel like writing them down for us, and so we don’t get to find out what they were.
1. Look, look, books! AElfric and Wulfstan seem to be on common ground here: books (ie, canon law books) are crucial to proper bishoply behavior.