Saint Edmund has been the patron of the Douai Abbey community since its foundation in 1615, and so makes our community a descendent, as it were, of the great mediæval abbey of Bury St Edmund. The key to that monastery's greatness was, in large part, the fact that it housed the pilgrimage shrine of St Edmund, King of East Anglia and for a time the patron saint of England.
Edmund was born in about 841, and when he was 14 he succeeded to the throne of the then-independent kingdom of East Anglia on the death of his father, King Æthelweard. He was crowned on Christmas Day in 855 by St Humbert, Bishop of Elmham (which would later become the see of Norwich), who was himself later martyred by the Danes. Edmund was considered a model king, even-handed in all his dealings and with little time for the flatterers who constantly attend the great and the powerful. He was obviously devout, and it is recorded of him that he retired for the best part of a year to Hunstanton in order to learn the psalms by heart, revealing something of a monastic spirit in him.
The centuries around the time of St Edmund were difﬁcult ones for Britain, as the Vikings ravaged its shores in fits and starts over several hundred years. So it was that in 869 (not 870 as originally thought), when King Edmund was still only 28, the Danes, under the Ivar (or Hinguar) the Boneless, again invaded East Anglia. King Edmund refused to meet the heathen Danes in battle, looking to our Lord’s command to Peter not to raise the sword against the unbelievers who came to arrest him in Gethsemane.
Refusing to ﬂee, Edmund gave himself into the hands of the Danes. Ivar had called upon Edmund to pay him homage, but Edmund refused to do so unless Ivar became a Christian. So young King Edmund was seized and beaten, then tied to a tree and shot full of arrows till he looked like a hedgehog, much like the earlier Christian martyr, young St Sebastian. Still alive, and still calling on the name of the Lord, the Danes dragged him away and cut off his head, throwing it into brambles before they left.
There are two poignant sequels, perhaps legendary but still instructive. One is that, after the Danes had left, the Anglians sought King Edmund’s head and found it being guarded by a wolf. As the people took the head back to be buried the wolf followed at a distance and did not leave until the head had been given the Christian burial it deserved. The place of the martyred king’s tomb soon became Bury St Edmunds, one of mediæval England's greatest abbeys, and one its most popular shrines.
The second sequel involves the last heathen Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard. He besieged Bury St Edmunds in 1014, seeking its treasure, and threatened to destroy the town and abbey and put all the clergy to death unless they handed the treasure over to him. As he made his demands he mocked St Edmund buried within its walls. But while preparing to attack the town he saw Saint Edmund, a crown on his head and a lance in his hand, coming towards him from the heavens. He cried out for help, “Edmund is coming to kill me”. At that point he fell to the ground in convulsions and died. Sweyn’s son and heir, Canute, became a Christian, perhaps in part as a result of his father’s death.
Subsequent English kings took St Edmund as their patron so that he became patron saint of England. With the invasion of Anglo-Saxon England by the Normans, his days as national patron were numbered. By the time of Edward III, St Edmund had been supplanted by St George, a warrior saint of the middle east, the devotion to whom was imported by crusaders returning from the Holy Land. Nevertheless, young St Edmund stands as a ﬁtting patron for England, and indeed a shining example of Christian leadership for all the world today.