The Anglo-Saxon Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955-1025) was a prodigious hagiographer, writing over thirty accounts of the lives of saints. His Life of St. Edmund, based on a Latin text by the French monk Abbo of Fleury, is of particular importance to readers with an interest in Viking lore, since his account of the martyrdom of the ninth-century East Anglian King Edmund (on November 20, 869) includes two Danes called Hinguar and Hubba.
|Edmund's decapitated head cries out while guarded by a gray wolf|
English illustration, c. 1475
This pair of Norsemen are better known as Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba, sons of the legendary saga hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnarr Loðbrók), who has himself surprisingly become a recognizable figure in contemporary popular culture, thanks to the History Channel's Vikings television program, which is (very, very loosely) based on his adventures.
Those with knowledge of Norse mythology may be surprised that this Christian tale includes the appearance of a gray wolf guarding a talking head and a dead body with the power to “make his enemies... blind, or deaf, or terror-struck” (as Snorri Sturluson writes of Odin). Some mythic ideas cross religious boundaries.
Those who think anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon may also be surprised by a couple of nasty slurs that appear in the text. Sadly, such bigotry was often part of Christian teaching long before the twentieth century.
The full text in Old English of the Life of St. Edmund can be found in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson's A Guide to Old English, which is now available as a paperback in The Norse Mythology Store under Books → Dictionaries & Language.
Ælfric's Life of St. Edmund
Translated from the Old English by Karl E. H. Seigfried
In the day of King Æthelred [968-1016], a certain very learned monk came from the south over the sea from the place of Saint Benedict [the French monastery of Fleury] to Archbishop Dunstan [of Canterbury] three years before he died, and the monk was called Abbo. Then they conversed until Dunstan related about Saint Edmund, just as Edmund’s swordbearer related it to King Æthelstan, when Dunstan was a young man and the swordbearer was elderly.
|The Danes torture King Edmund|
Illustration by James E. Doyle (1864)
Then the monk set down all the narrative in a book and afterwards, when the book came to us within a few years, then we translated it into English, just as it stands hereafter. Then within two years the monk Abbo returned home to his monastery and was immediately appointed as abbot in the same monastery.
Edmund the blessed, king of the East Anglians, was wise and honorable and always honored the almighty God with noble practices. He was humble and virtuous and thus remained resolute that he would not yield to shameful sins, nor to either side did he bend from his practices, but was always mindful of the true teaching, “You are appointed as leader? Do not raise yourself up, but be between men just as one of them.” He was as generous as a father to the poor and to widows and with benevolence always guided his people to righteousness and punished the cruel and blessedly lived in true belief.
The Vikings Arrive
It eventually befell that the Danish people set out with a fleet, ravaging and attacking far and wide throughout the land as is their custom. On that ship were the foremost leaders Hinguar and Hubba, united by the devil, and they landed on the land of the Northumbrians with spears and laid waste the land and slew the people. Then Hinguar returned to the east with his ships and Hubba remained behind in the land of the Northumbrians, victory having been won with bloodthirstiness.
|The Viking Ship by N.C. Wyeth (1922)|
Hinguar then came rowing to East Anglia, in the year that Prince Alfred was twenty-one years old , he who was later famous as king of the West Saxons [as Alfred the Great]; and the aforementioned Hinguar suddenly like a wolf stalked on the land and slew the people, men and women and the innocent children, and shamefully mistreated the innocent Christians.
He then sent immediately afterwards to the king the threatening message that he should submit to his service if he cared for his life. Then the messenger came to King Edmund and quickly delivered the message of Hinguar to him: “Hinguar our king, brave and victorious on sea and on land, has the power of many peoples and now has come suddenly with the army here to the land so that he may have here winter quarters with his host. Now he commands you to quickly share your hidden hoards of gold and the wealth of your ancestors with him, and you be his under-king, if you wish to be alive, because you do not have the power that you can withstand him.”
|Calling of Vikings by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)|
Lo, then King Edmund summoned a bishop who was nearest to him, and considered with him how he ought to answer to the fierce Hinguar. Then the bishop was afraid because of the sudden misfortune and for the life of the king, and said that it seemed advisable to him that he submit to that which Hinguar commanded him.
Then the king fell silent and looked at the earth and then at last regally said to him, “Oh, bishop, the poor people of this land have been shamefully mistreated, and it would now be preferable to me that I would fall in battle, so long as my people might be allowed to enjoy their homeland”; and the bishop said, “Oh, you dear king, your people lie slain and you do not have the support that would enable you to fight, and these Vikings will come and bind you alive, unless you protect your life with flight, or you protect yourself by submitting to him.”
Then King Edmund said, as he was very brave, “Of that I desire and wish with my spirit, that I alone should not survive after my beloved retainers who with their children and wives were suddenly slain in their beds by these Vikings. It was never customary to me that I would take flight, but I would wish rather to perish if I needed to for my own homeland; and the almighty God knows that I will not ever turn from his service, nor from his true love, whether I die or live.”
After these words he returned to the messenger that Hinguar had sent to him and said unafraid to him, “Certainly you would now be worthy of slaughter, but I do not want to defile my clean hands in your foul blood, because I follow Christ, who so set an example for us; and I will gladly be slain by you, if God so preordains. Go now very quickly and say to your cruel lord, ‘Edmund will never yield to Hinguar alive, to the heathen commander, unless he first submits with faith to Christ the Savior in this land.'”
Then the messenger turned quickly away and met the bloodthirsty Hinguar on the road with all his army, hastening to Edmund, and told the dishonorable one how he was answered. Hinguar then commanded the Viking host with arrogance that they should seize that one king, who rejected his command, and bind him immediately. Lo, then King Edmund, when Hinguar came, stood inside his hall, mindful of the Savior, and threw away his weapons: he wished to imitate the example of Christ, who forbad Peter to fight against the bloodthirsty Jews with weapons.
Lo, the dishonorable ones then bound, shamefully mocked, and beat Edmund with cudgels, and so afterwards led the faithful king to a tree firmly rooted in the earth and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and again beat him for a long time with whips; and he always cried out between the blows with true faith to Christ the Savior; and then the heathens became furiously angry because of his faith, because he called Christ as help for himself. They shot then with spears, as if for entertainment for themselves, thither, until he was completely covered with their missiles, as it were the bristles of a hedgehog, just as [Saint] Sebastian was.
|"...until he was completely covered with their missiles"|
English illustration, c. 1130
Then Hinguar saw, the dishonorable Viking, that the noble king would not renounce Christ, but with resolute faith ever called out to him: he ordered them to behead him, and then the heathens did so. While he was still calling out to Christ, then the heathens took the holy one to the slaughter and with one stroke struck the head from him, and his soul travelled blessedly to Christ. There was a certain man nearby, held hidden by God from the heathens, who heard all this and afterwards said it just as we say it here.
The Wolf & the Talking Head
Lo, then the Viking army fared again to the ship and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it would not be buried. Then after a time, after they had departed, the people of the land came thither, who there was then left, where the body of their lord lay without a head, and became very sorrowful in spirit because of his slaughter, and especially that they had not the head to the body. Then said the witness who had seen it, that the Vikings had the head with them, and it seemed to him, as it was completely true, that they hid the head in the forest somewhere.
|"They hid the head in the forest somewhere"|
English illustration, c. 1130
Then they went all together to the wood, seeking everywhere, through bushes and brambles, if they could find the head anywhere. It was also a great wonder that a wolf was sent by God´s guidance to protect the head against the other wild animals through day and night. Then they went seeking and always crying out, just as it is customary for those who often go in the wood, “Where are you now, comrade?,” and the head answered them, “Here! Here! Here!,” and so frequently cried out, answering them all as often as any of them called out, until they all came to him through the cryings out.
There lay the gray wolf which had guarded the head and with his two feet had clasped, greedy and hungry, and because of God dared not to taste of the head but held it from the wild animals. Then they were astonished by the guardianship of the wolf, and carried the holy head homewards with them, thanking the Almighty for all of his wonders; but the wolf followed forth with the head, until they came to town, like he was tame, and then afterwards returned back to the wood. Then the people of the land afterwards laid the head near to the holy body and buried him such as best they could in such haste, and erected a church above him immediately.
|"They were astonished by the guardianship of the wolf"|
English illustration, c. 1130
Edmund's Body is Healed
Then after a time, after many years, when the harrying ceased and peace was given to the afflicted folk, then they joined together and splendidly made a church for the holy one, because there were frequently miracles at his grave at the prayer house where he was buried. They wished then to carry the holy body with public honor and to lay it within the church.
Then was the great miracle that he was just as whole as if he were alive, with a clean body, and his neck was healed, that before was cut through, and was as it were a red silken thread about his neck, as evidence to men how he was slain. Also the wounds that the bloodthirsty heathens made on his body with frequent missiles, were healed by the heavenly God; and he lies as whole up to this present day, awaiting resurrection and eternal glory. His body reveals to us, which lies undecayed, that he lived without wantonness here in the world and with a clean life traveled to Christ.
A certain widow, named Oswyn, dwelt at the grave of the holy one in prayer and fasting for many years afterwards; she would cut the hair of the saint each year and neatly trim his nails with love and keep them in a coffer as a relic on the altar.
Thieves in the Night
Then the people of the land honored the saint with belief, and Bishop Theodred greatly endowed the monastery with gifts in gold and in silver as an honor to the saint. Then came on a certain occasion eight wretched thieves in one night to the honorable holy one: they wished to steal the treasures that men had brought thither, and tried to discover with skill how they could come in.
|Dead abbots in coffins at Bury St. Edmunds Abbey (1903)|
One struck the hasp mightily with a sledgehammer, one of them filed around with a file, one also dug under the door with a spade, one of them with a ladder wished to open the window, but they labored in vain and so wretchedly fared, in that the holy man wondrously held them, each one as he stood struggling with a tool, that none of them could perpetrate that crime, nor could they move themselves from there, but stood so until morning. Then men wondered at that, how the criminals hung, one on a ladder, one bent to digging, and each was bound fast to his work.
They were then all brought to the bishop and he ordered them all to be hanged on high gallows, but he was not mindful how the merciful God spoke out through his prophet these words that stand here: eos qui ducuntur ad mortem eruere ne cesses [Proverbs 24:11: “Do not fail to release those who are lead to death”] “those that one leads to death, always release them out”; and also the holy canons forbid the ordained, both bishops and priests, to be among thieves, because it does not befit them that are chosen to serve God, that they should assent in the death of any man, if they be the servants of God.
Afterwards, when Bishop Theodred later looked at his books: he repented with sadness that he set down such a cruel judgment for the wretched thieves, and after regretted it until the end of his life, and bade the people zealously that they would fast with him fully three days, asking the Almighty that he should pardon him.
The Body of the Saint
In that land was a certain man, named Leofstan, powerful with respect to the world and ignorant with respect to God, that rode fiercely to the holy one with arrogance, and very insolently ordered them to show the saint, if he were whole; and so as soon as he saw the body of the saint, then he immediately went mad and raged horribly and wretchedly ended with an evil death.
|The Shrine of St. Edmund in an 1843 illustration|
This is similar to that which the faithful Pope Gregory told in his narrative about the holy [Saint] Lawrence, who lies in Rome – that men always wished to see how he lay, the good and the bad; but God restrained them, so that there perished in that viewing at once a group of seven men. Then the others ceased to look at the martyr with human error.
We heard of many wonders in the vernacular speech about the holy Edmund, which we will not set in writing here, but everyone knows them. In this holy one is clear, and also in others, that God almighty can again raise man on the day of judgment whole from the earth, he who holds for Edmund his body whole until that great day, although he came from the earth. Worthy is that place because of the venerable holy one, so that one honors it and furnishes it well with pure servants of God for the service of Christ, because the holy one is more glorious than men can imagine.
Saints of England
England is not deprived of the saints of the Lord, when in the land of the English lie such holy ones as this holy king, and [Saint] Cuthbert the blessed, and Ætheldryth [a.k.a. Saint Audrey] in Ely, and also her sister [Saint Sexburga], whole in body, as confirmation of belief. There are also many other holy ones the English nation that work many wonders (just as it is widely known) as praise to the Almighty, whom they believed in.
|A contemporary icon of St. Edmund|
by Bulgarian artist Marchela Dimitrova
Christ reveals to men through his glorious holy ones that he is Almighty God who makes such wonders, although the wretched Jews utterly forsook him, wherefore they are accursed, just as they wished for themselves. There are not any wonders worked at their graves, because they believed not in the living Christ, but Christ reveals to men where the true belief is, when he works such wonders through his holy ones far and wide throughout this earth.
Therefore to him be the glory forever with his heavenly father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This modern English translation is © 2015 by Karl E. H. Seigfried