East Anglia – the kingdom of the East Angles – enjoyed a brief period of supremacy, under Rædwald, at the beginning of the 7th century. At the end of the 8th century East Anglia was under Mercian control, but, in the aftermath of a resounding West Saxon victory over Mercia in 825, the East Angles recovered their independence. In late 869, however, following their killing of King Edmund, the Vikings became the masters of East Anglia. The last Viking king of East Anglia was killed in 917, as Edward the Elder, king of Wessex, fought to reclaim England from the Scandinavian interlopers.
Bede notes (HE II, 15) that: “King Rædwald … was the son of Tytil, whose father was Wuffa, from whom the kings of the East Angles are called Wuffingas.” According to the Historia Brittonum, though, it was Wuffa’s father, Wehha (spelled Guecha in the Historia), who “reigned first over the people of the East Angles in Britain” (§59).
After the Norman Conquest, four centuries after Bede, Henry of Huntingdon wrote (HA II, 25): “There began the kingdom of East Anglia, which comprises Norfolk and Suffolk.[*] The first to hold this kingdom was Wuffa, from whom the kings of the East Angles are called Wuffingas. Afterwards his son Tytil held it, the father of the mightiest king of East Anglia, Rædwald.” Henry slots these remarks between events dated 571 and 577 by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Writing a century after Henry of Huntingdon, Roger of Wendover, s.a. 571, declares categorically: “Wuffa reigns in East Anglia.” Then, s.a. 578, he says: “At this period, Wuffa, king of the East Angles, from whom the kings of that province are called Wuffingas, was succeeded by Tytil his son, who was the father of Rædwald, the tenth from Woden.” Roger asserts that Tytil was still ruling East Anglia in 586. These indications of date may represent nothing more than educated guesses.[*]
Bede (HE II, 15): “King Rædwald, being noble by birth, though ignoble in his actions, was the son of Tytil, whose father was Wuffa, from whom the kings of the East Angles are called Wuffingas.”
There is no date for Rædwald’s accession.[*] During the earlier part of his reign, though, Æthelberht – who was the first Anglo-Saxon king to adopt Christianity, having received the mission of St Augustine in 597 – ruled Kent. Bede notes (HE II, 5) that Æthelberht was the third ruler to have overlordship of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the river Humber – an achievement to which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would later attach the title Bretwalda. Rædwald was, at some stage, converted to Christianity in Kent, “but in vain”, says Bede (HE II, 15): “for on his return home, he was seduced by his wife and certain perverse teachers, and turned aside from the sincerity of the faith; and thus his latter state was worse than the former; so that, like the Samaritans of old, he seemed at the same time to serve Christ and the gods whom he served before; and in the same temple he had an altar for the Christian Sacrifice, and another small one at which to offer victims to devils. Aldwulf, king of that same province, who lived in our time, testifies that this temple had stood until his time, and that he had seen it when he was a boy.” It was Rædwald’s renunciation of Christianity which prompted Bede to call him “noble by birth, though ignoble in his actions”. At any rate, subsequent to Æthelberht’s death, in February 616, Rædwald himself became overlord of “all the southern provinces” – the fourth listed by Bede (and consequently the fourth Bretwalda listed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Indeed, it could be (the meaning of Bede’s phraseology is not clear) that Rædwald had already achieved independence for East Anglia before Æthelberht’s death: “the fourth was Rædwald, king of the East Angles, who, even in the life-time of Æthelberht, had been acquiring the leadership for his own race.” (HE II, 5).
Rædwald provided sanctuary for the fugitive Edwin (son of Ælle, former king of Deira), who, according to Bede (HE II, 12), had: “wandered for many years as an exile, hiding in divers places and kingdoms, and at last came to Rædwald, beseeching him to give him protection against the snares of his powerful persecutor. Rædwald willingly received him, and promised to perform what was asked of him.” The “powerful persecutor” was Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria (i.e. Bernicia and Deira combined). Æthelfrith sent messengers to Rædwald, offering him “a great sum of money” to murder Edwin:
But it had no effect. He sent a second and a third time, offering even larger gifts of silver, and, moreover, threatening to make war on him if his offer should be despised. Rædwald, whether intimidated by his threats, or corrupted by his bribes, complied with this request, and promised either to kill Edwin, or to deliver him up to the envoys. A faithful friend of Edwin’s, hearing of this, went into his chamber, where he was going to bed, for it was the first hour of the night; and calling him out, told him what the king had promised to do with him, adding, “If, therefore, you are willing, I will this very hour conduct you out of this province, and lead you to a place where neither Rædwald nor Æthelfrith shall ever find you.” He answered, “I thank you for your good will, yet I cannot do what you propose, and be guilty of being the first to break the compact I have made with so great a king, when he has done me no harm, nor shown any enmity to me; but, on the contrary, if I must die, let it rather be by his hand than by that of any meaner man. For whither shall I now fly, when I have for so many long years been a vagabond through all the provinces of Britain, to escape the snares of my enemies?” His friend went away; Edwin remained alone outside, and sitting with a heavy heart before the palace, began to be overwhelmed with many thoughts, not knowing what to do, or which way to turn.
When he had remained a long time in silent anguish of mind, consumed with inward fire, on a sudden in the stillness of the dead of night he saw approaching a person, whose face and habit were strange to him, at sight of whom, seeing that he was unknown and unexpected, he was not a little startled. The stranger coming close up, saluted him, and asked why he sat there in solitude on a stone troubled and wakeful at that time, when all others were taking their rest, and were fast asleep. Edwin, in his turn, asked, what it was to him, whether he spent the night within doors or without. The stranger, in reply, said, “Do not think that I am ignorant of the cause of your grief and sleeplessness, and why you sit alone outside. For I know of a surety who you are, and why you grieve, and the evils which you fear will soon fall upon you. But tell me, what reward you would give to him, should there be any one, who can deliver you out of these troubles, and persuade Rædwald neither to do you any harm himself, nor to deliver you up to be murdered by your enemies.” Edwin replied, that he would give such a person all that he could in return for so great a benefit. The other further added, “What if he also assured you that your enemies would be destroyed, and you would be a king surpassing in power, not only all your own ancestors, but even all that have reigned before you in the English nation?” Edwin, encouraged by these questions, did not hesitate to promise that he would make a fitting return to anyone who conferred such benefits upon him. Then the other spoke a third time and said, “But if he, who has truly foretold that all these great blessings are about to befall you, can also give you better and more profitable counsel for your life and salvation than any of your parents or kindred ever heard, do you consent to obey him, and to follow his wholesome guidance?” Edwin at once promised that he would in all things follow the teaching of that man who could deliver him from so many great calamities and raise him to a throne.
Having received this answer, the man who talked to him laid his right hand on Edwin’s head saying, “When this sign shall be given you, remember this present discourse that has passed between us, and do not delay the performance of what you now promise.” Having uttered these words, he is said to have immediately vanished. So Edwin perceived that it was not a man, but a spirit, that had appeared to him.
Whilst the royal youth still sat there alone, glad of the comfort he had received, but still troubled and earnestly pondering who he was, and whence he came, that had so talked to him, his aforesaid friend came to him, and greeting him with a glad countenance, “Rise,” said he, “go in; calm and put away your anxious cares, and compose yourself in body and mind to sleep; for the king’s resolution is altered, and he designs to do you no harm, but rather to keep his pledged faith; for when he had privately made known to the queen his intention of doing what I told you before, she dissuaded him from it, reminding him that it was altogether unworthy of so great a king to sell his good friend in such distress for gold, and to sacrifice his honour, which is more valuable than all other adornments, for the love of money.” In short, the king did as has been said, and not only refused to deliver up the banished man to his enemy’s messengers, but helped him to recover his kingdom. For as soon as the messengers had returned home, he raised a mighty army to subdue Æthelfrith; who, meeting him with much inferior forces (for Rædwald had not given him time to gather and unite all his power), was slain on the borders of the nation of the Mercians, on the east bank of the river that is called the Idle.[*] In this battle, Rædwald’s son, called Rægenhere, was killed. Thus Edwin, in accordance with the oracle he had received, not only escaped the snares of the king his enemy, but, by his death, succeeded him on the throne [in 616].HE II, 12
Edwin had, thanks to Rædwald, become king of Northumbria in 616. Rædwald himself became overlord of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber – the fourth such listed by Bede, and, consequently, the fourth Bretwalda listed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After Rædwald, Bede says that Edwin (“his power was greater”): “ruled over all the inhabitants of Britain, both English and Britons, except only the people of Kent” (HE II, 5). Edwin is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s fifth Bretwalda. At Easter 627, Edwin was baptized. “Edwin was so zealous for the true worship, that he likewise persuaded Eorpwald, king of the East Angles, and son of Rædwald, to abandon his idolatrous superstitions, and with his whole province to receive the faith and sacraments of Christ.… Eorpwald, not long after he had embraced the faith, was slain by one Ricberht, a pagan; and from that time the province was in error for three years, till Sigeberht succeeded to the kingdom, brother to the same Eorpwald” (HE II, 15). Bede says no more of Ricberht, but it is possible that he ruled for the three years during which “the province was in error” (i.e. reverted to paganism).
Bede doesn’t provide any dates, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places Eorpwald’s baptism in 632. There are, however, grounds to believe that he was baptized soon after Edwin, and dead by 628 at the latest (see below).
Bede says (HE II, 15) that Sigeberht was: “a most Christian and learned man, who was banished, and went to live in Gaul during his brother’s life, and was there initiated into the mysteries of the faith, whereof he made it his business to cause all his province to partake as soon as he began to reign. His exertions were nobly promoted by Bishop Felix, who, coming to Honorius, the archbishop [of Canterbury], from the Burgundian region, where he had been born and ordained, and having told him what he desired, was sent by him to preach the Word of life to the aforesaid nation of the Angles [i.e. the East Angles].[*] Nor were his good wishes in vain; for the pious labourer in the spiritual field reaped therein a great harvest of believers, delivering all that province (according to the inner signification of his name) from long iniquity and unhappiness, and bringing it to the faith and works of righteousness, and the gifts of everlasting happiness. He had the see of his bishopric appointed him in the city Dommoc, and having presided over the same province with pontifical authority 17 years, he ended his days there in peace.”
Later (HE III, 18), Bede elaborates, saying that Sigeberht: “had been baptized in Gaul, whilst he lived in banishment, a fugitive from the enmity of Rædwald.[*] When he returned to his own land, as soon as he became king, being desirous to imitate the good institutions which he had seen in Gaul, he founded a school wherein boys should be taught letters, and was assisted therein by Bishop Felix, who came to him from Kent, and who furnished them with masters and teachers after the manner of the people of Kent.”
Bede reports that Sigeberht welcomed an Irish missionary, Fursa, to East Anglia. Fursa: “set himself with all speed to build a monastery on the ground which had been given him by King Sigeberht, and to establish a rule of life therein. This monastery was pleasantly situated in the woods, near the sea; it was built within the area of a fort, which in the English language is called Cnobheresburg, that is, Cnobhere’s Town; afterwards, Anna, king of that province, and certain of the nobles, embellished it with more stately buildings and with gifts.” (HE III, 19).
Sigeberht: “became so great a lover of the heavenly kingdom, that at last, quitting the affairs of his kingdom, and committing them to his kinsman Ecgric, who before held a part of the same kingdom, he entered a monastery, which he had built for himself, and having received the tonsure, applied himself rather to do battle for an eternal kingdom. A long time after this, it happened that the nation of the Mercians, under King Penda, made war on the East Angles; who finding themselves no match for their enemy, entreated Sigeberht to go with them to battle, to encourage the soldiers. He was unwilling and refused, upon which they took him against his will out of the monastery, and brought him to the fight, hoping that the soldiers would be less afraid and less disposed to flee in the presence of one who had formerly been an active and distinguished commander. But he, still mindful of his profession, surrounded, as he was, by a most excellent army, would carry nothing in his hand but a staff, and was killed with King Ecgric; and the pagans pressing on, all their army was either slaughtered or dispersed. They were succeeded in the kingdom by Anna, the son of Eni, of the blood royal” (HE III, 18). “These things happened in the 637th year from the incarnation of the Word of God”, is the opinion of the anonymous, late-12th century, author of the Liber Eliensis (I, 1). Bede’s comments about Sigeberht abdicating “at last” and his having been in his monastery “a long time”, however, seem at odds with this early date for his death. Further, Bede tells how Fursa, having built the monastery at Cnobheresburg: “became desirous to rid himself of all business of this world, and even of the monastery itself, and forthwith left the care of it and of its souls, to his brother Foillan, and the priests Gobban and Dicul, and being himself free from all worldly affairs, resolved to end his life as a hermit. He had another brother called Ultan, who, after a long monastic probation, had also adopted the life of an anchorite. So, seeking him out alone, he lived a whole year with him in self-denial and prayer, and laboured daily with his hands. Afterwards seeing the province thrown into confusion by the irruptions of the pagans, and foreseeing that the monasteries would also be in danger, he left all things in order, and sailed over into Gaul, and being there honourably entertained by Clovis, king of the Franks, or by the patrician Erchinoald, he built a monastery in the place called Latineacum, and falling sick not long after, departed this life.” (HE III, 19). Bede has not indicated that Sigeberht had died before Fursa departed, and “the irruptions of the pagans” could well refer to the Mercian attacks which eventually resulted in the deaths of Sigeberht and Ecgric. Mention of “the patrician Erchinoald” suggests that Fursa didn’t arrive in Gaul until at least 641,[*] so perhaps a date around then is more likely for Anna’s succession – it was certainly before 645.
From 645–648, Anna gave refuge to Cenwalh of Wessex, who was driven from his kingdom by Penda, king of Mercia. Under Anna’s auspices, Cenwalh was baptized, and, according to the Liber Eliensis (I, 7), Anna assisted Cenwalh to recover his throne.
Bede describes Anna as “a man of true religion, and altogether noble in mind and deed” (HE IV, 19), and as “a good man, and blessed with a good and saintly offspring” (HE III, 7). Anna had three sainted daughters (Seaxburh, Æthelthryth and Æthelburh) and a sainted stepdaughter (Sæthryth).[*] The Liber Eliensis (I, 2) says it was in the fifth year of her father’s reign that, the eldest daughter, Seaxburh (St Sexburga), married Eorcenberht, king of Kent. According to the same source (I, 4), it was in about 652 that Æthelthryth (St Etheldreda or St Audrey) married one Tondberht, the ruler of a minor (though strategically placed in the fenland to the west of East Anglia), Middle Anglian, people called the South Gyrwe.[*]
A text written at Nivelles, in modern Belgium, shortly after the events it describes, mentions an attack on East Anglia round about 650: “After the departure [i.e. death] of the blessed man Fursa, there was violence, which he had foreseen in spirit as he was serving [God] in lands overseas. For after the most Christian king, Anna, had been expelled, the monastery which he had built there was looted by an invasion of pagans of all its possessions and its monks were carried off. Abbot Foillan, himself, uterine brother of the above-mentioned man, would have been led off into custody to die if the Divine Right Arm had not saved him for the profit of many, the pagans having been terrified by the reported arrival of the above-mentioned King Anna. With the monks redeemed from captivity, the holy relics found, with the holy implements of the altar and books having been loaded on a ship, they [Abbot Foillan and his monks] then sought the lands of the Franks”. No doubt “the pagans” were Penda’s Mercians. In 654, Anna was: “slain like his predecessors by the same pagan chief of the Mercians.” (HE III, 18).[*]
The Liber Eliensis notes (I, 7) that Anna was buried at Blythburgh, Suffolk, “and to this day is venerated by the pious devotion of faithful people.”[*] There is a much cited ‘local tradition’ that the battle where Anna was killed took place at Bulcamp, across the river from Blythburgh.
Perhaps Æthelhere was installed on the throne by Penda. He was certainly one of Penda’s allies at the battle of the Winwæd (an unknown river somewhere in the vicinity of Leeds), fought on 15th November 655, against, the Northumbrian king, Oswiu. Despite having the larger army, the battle was a catastrophic defeat for Penda. He was killed, and Bede says (HE III, 24) that: “the 30 royal commanders, who had come to Penda’s assistance, were almost all of them slain; among whom was Æthelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles”. Bede then seems to name Æthelhere as the cause of the war, but it is now widely accepted that this reading is caused by a scribe’s omission of punctuation and that Bede was actually naming Penda as the author of his own downfall.[*]
After his defeat of Penda, on 15th November 655, the Northumbrian king, Oswiu, became overlord of the southern kingdoms for a period of three years (he is the 7th Bretwalda listed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Oswiu’s overlordship was brought to an end by a Mercian rebellion. Bede says (HE III, 22) that the East Saxon king, Swithhelm: “was baptized by Cedd [bishop of the East Saxons], in the province of the East Angles, in the royal township, called Rendlæsham [Rendlesham], that is, Rendil’s Dwelling; and Æthelwald, king of the East Angles, brother to Anna, king of the same people, received him as he came forth from the holy font.” This circumstance tends to suggest that Æthelwald had overlordship of Essex at the time – presumably gained after Oswiu’s authority collapsed.
In 660, Æthelwald married-off his widowed niece, Æthelthryth (King Anna’s daughter, who had been the wife of Tondberht, deceased ruler of the South Gyrwe), to Oswiu’s son (and future king of Northumbria), Ecgfrith.
The commencement of Aldwulf’s reign is dated by the synod of Hatfield, which took place on 17th September 679 or 680, and was in Aldwulf’s seventeenth regnal year.[*] He is the last East Anglian king mentioned by Bede, who reports (HE II, 15) that, as a boy, Aldwulf saw a temple set up by Rædwald, having both Christian and pagan altars.
Bede says (HE IV, 23) that Aldwulf’s mother was Hereswith – a daughter of a nephew of Edwin, king of Northumbria – who, after the death of Aldwulf’s father (before c.647), had become a nun at Chelles, to the east of Paris. Due to a lack of local monasteries at this time, it was not particularly unusual for an East Anglian royal lady to become a nun in Gaul – a connection which may explain why the date of Aldwulf’s death, 713, has only survived in Frankish annals. It would seem then, that, remarkably, Aldwulf reigned for fifty years – during which time the first East Anglian coins (known as ‘sceattas’) were minted[*].
After twelve years of unconsummated marriage to Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, Aldwulf’s cousin Æthelthryth (St Etheldreda or St Audrey) became a nun. In 673 she returned to East Anglia and founded a double monastery at Ely[*].
Although he is not listed as a Bretwalda, it seems likely that during the 660s and early-670s, Wulfhere, king of Mercia, steadily acquired overlordship of the other English kingdoms south of the Humber. There is no direct evidence of his influence in East Anglia, but, probably in 674, he “roused all the southern nations”[*], which, of course, would include East Anglia, with the intention of gaining the overlordship of Northumbria also. Wulfhere’s forces were roundly defeated, however, and his grip on power was loosened. He battled against the West Saxons in 675, and later the same year he died. It would be a half-century or so before another king, once more a Mercian, Æthelbald, dominated southern England.
Ælfwald is probably best remembered for commissioning a Latin Vita (Life) of St Guthlac.[*] Written by one Felix, seemingly between 730 and 740, the work begins:
In the name of the Lord of Lords, to my lord King Ælfwald, beloved by me beyond any other of royal rank, who rules by right over the realm of the East Angles, Felix, a servant of the Catholic community, sends greetings and wishes him everlasting happiness in Christ.
In obedience to your commands, though not without a bold forwardness, I have drawn up the book which you bade me compose concerning the life of our father Guthlac of blessed memory, weaving the text in a simple pattern. In this confidence I have publicly presented it to you, praying that if, as will happen, my faulty language shall here and there have offended the ears of a learned reader in any respect, he may note at the beginning of the volume these words in which I ask his pardon.[*]Vita Sancti Guthlaci Prologue
Guthlac was in fact a Mercian nobleman turned hermit who lived at Crowland – then an isolated island in the fenland of Middle Anglia (the borderland between Mercia and East Anglia), now a small town on the southern edge of Lincolnshire. He gave succour to, the future king of Mercia, Æthelbald, who was, at the time, an exile. Guthlac died in 714. In 716 Æthelbald succeeded to the throne of Mercia.
In the concluding paragraphs of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written in 731, Bede states that the: “southern provinces, as far as the boundary formed by the river Humber, with their several kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of the Mercians.” (HE V, 23). That Ælfwald chose to commission the Vita of a Mercian saint, in which Æthelbald is presented in a positive way, is widely seen to be indicative that he and Æthelbald, his overlord, were on very good terms.
Symeon of Durham (HR), s.a. 749, reports that “Ælfwald, king of the East Angles, died”. The combined reigns of Ælfwald and his father span of the best part of nine, ostensibly peaceful, decades. The text of a letter from Ælfwald, written towards the end of his reign, to St Boniface, the ‘Apostle of Germany’, has survived[*].
With the death of Ælfwald the mists of time, through which the history of the East Angles has been hazily visible, become an almost impenetrable fog. “Next came Beorna; after him Æthelred. His son was St Æthelberht, whom Offa, king of the Mercians, killed through treachery … After him, through the violence of the Mercians, few kings reigned in East Anglia till the time of St Edmund” – so says William of Malmesbury (GR I §97).[*]
Beorna, or rather Beonna, is known from a considerable number of coins inscribed with his name. According to Symeon of Durham (HR), however, when Ælfwald died, in 749: “Hunbeanna and Alberht divided the kingdom between them.” It is generally thought that Hunbeanna is the result of a scribal inexactitude, and that there was actually a three way division of East Anglia after Ælfwald’s death, between Hun, Beonna and Alberht. It has recently become apparent that Alberht is a contraction of the name Æthelberht – a coin (acquired by the British Museum in 1992) excavated at Burrow Hill, Suffolk, in the same context as, and stylistically similar to, coins of Beonna, being inscribed with a representation of the name Æthelberht in runic characters. There is still, though, no substantiating evidence of Hun’s existence. It would, in any case, seem that Beonna was the senior figure – he is certainly the only one of them known to William of Malmesbury and Florence of Worcester. Beonna (Beorna) is said by Florence, s.a. 758, to have been ruling the East Angles “at this period”. The coins can’t be tightly dated, but perhaps they are indicative that the East Angles, following the murder of King Æthelbald of Mercia in 757, broke free from Mercian domination.[*] When Beonna’s reign ended is not known.
There are no known coins of Æthelred, Beonna’s purported successor. Æthelred’s sainted son, Æthelberht (now usually called Æthelberht II, to distinguish him from Beonna’s co-ruler), is said, in a Passio found in an early-12th century manuscript, to have succeeded his father in 779.[*] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Æthelberht’s dramatic demise s.a. 792 (but it should be s.a. 794[*]): “In this year Offa, king of the Mercians, commanded the head of Æthelberht to be struck off.”[*] Coins minted in East Anglia in Offa’s name indicate that, at some stage beforehand, he had taken control of East Anglia. Æthelberht also minted coins, so perhaps he rebelled against Offa and paid with his life. Subsequently, legend accumulated around Æthelberht’s death. His execution came to be regarded as a martyrdom, and he was venerated as a saint:
Æthelberht, the most glorious and holy king of the East Angles, courteous of speech to all, and acceptable to Christ, the true King, by reason of his virtues, lost at once his kingdom and his life, being beheaded by the detestable commands of Offa, the very potent king of the Mercians, and the wicked incitement of his [Offa’s] wife, Queen Cynethryth; but, although wickedly deprived of his kingdom and slain, the martyr-king entered the courts of the blessed angels amid the great rejoicings of holy spirits.[*]Florence of Worcester s.a. 793
William of Malmesbury asserts that, after he had beheaded Æthelberht, Offa: “then unjustly seized upon the kingdom of the East Angles which Æthelberht had held.” (GR I §86).
Coins minted in the name of Eadwald suggest that, following Offa’s death in 796, East Anglia snatched another period of independence, before being brought back to the Mercian fold by Offa’s eventual successor, Cenwulf.
The defeat of the Mercian king Beornwulf by Egbert of Wessex (at the battle of Ellendun), in 825, marks the turning point in Mercia’s fortunes. The incumbent king of Kent (apparently a Mercian puppet) was driven out by Egbert’s son, Æthelwulf, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that: “the people of Kent, and those of Surrey, and the South Saxons, and the East Saxons, turned to him [Egbert] … And in the same year the king of the East Angles, and the nation, sought Egbert for peace and as protector, from dread of the Mercians; and in this same year the East Angles slew Beornwulf, king of the Mercians.” Florence of Worcester elaborates: “[Egbert] promised that he would willingly assist them [the East Angles] in all things. But Beornwulf, king of the Mercians, counted this promise for nought, and collecting a large army, entered their territories in a hostile manner, and began to put all the chief inhabitants to death. Their king opposed him with his forces, and joining battle, slew him and almost all his army”. The Chronicle, and similarly Florence, gives the impression that Ellendun, Æthelwulf’s assault on Kent and Beornwulf’s death all took place in the same year, 825. The evidence of a Kentish charter (S1267), however, indicates that it was not until after 27th March 826 that Beornwulf was slain.
In 827, Ludeca, Beornwulf’s successor, was killed, “and his 5 ealdormen with him”. The Chronicle provides no other information, but Florence of Worcester again elaborates: “Ludeca, king of the Mercians, mustered his forces and led an army into the province of the East Angles, for the purpose of taking vengeance for the death of King Beornwulf, his predecessor. He was quickly met by the natives and their king, who in a severe battle slew him and five of his ealdormen, and very many of his troops, and put to flight the remainder.[*]” There are, however, other versions of Ludeca’s demise, and, although it seems entirely possible that Florence’s source had simply inferred it to be the case, it is widely believed that it was, indeed, the East Angles who killed Ludeca.[*]
It would appear that Ellendun, and the subsequent West Saxon advance, had provided the East Angles with an opportunity to rebel against Mercia. Beornwulf was killed attempting to put down the revolt. His successor, Ludeca, apparently had some initial success against the East Angles – he recovered sufficient control in East Anglia to enable him to mint coins there (the last Mercian king to do so) – but, it is generally supposed, he soon suffered the same fate as his predecessor. Coin evidence suggests that the East Anglian king responsible for freeing his country, once and for all, from Mercian domination was one Athelstan.[*] For the time being, however, the East Angles were apparently beholden to Egbert. In 829 Egbert invaded Mercia and drove out its king, Wiglaf. The partisan Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (it originated in Wessex during the reign of Egbert’s grandson, Alfred) crows: “King Egbert subdued the kingdom of the Mercians, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king who was Bretwalda.” Just a year later, though, in 830, Wiglaf recovered his kingdom.[*] The East Angles had only recently killed two Mercian kings (certainly one anyway) in order to win their independence, and it is hard to imagine that they would readily accept subservience to the West Saxons. Egbert probably had no influence in East Anglia after 830.[*] Athelstan was a prolific minter of coins, and a King Æthelweard, presumably Athelstan’s successor, is also known only by his coins.[*]
England had been suffering Viking raids since at least the 790s.[*] At first, though clearly an irritant, they must, for the most part at least, have been relatively small scale and containable. From 835, however – heralded by the announcement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “In this year heathen men ravaged Sheppey” – Viking activity ratcheted-up to the point where the survival of any Anglo-Saxon kingdom was in doubt.[*] The first mention of Vikings in East Anglia (though clearly not their first actual visitation) occurs s.a. 838 (for 841) in the Chronicle: “In this year Ealdorman Hereberht was slain by heathen men, and many with him among the marsh-dwellers [i.e. Romney Marsh]; and again, in the same year, in Lindsey, and in East Anglia, and among the people of Kent, many men were slain by the [heathen] army.[*]”
The, so-called, Annals of St Neots states s.a. 855: “King Edmund, most glorious of the East Anglian sovereigns, began to reign on the 8th of the Kalends of January, that is, on Christmas Day, in the 14th year of his age.” Then, s.a. 856: “Hunberht, bishop of the East Angles, anointed with oil, and consecrated as king the most glorious Edmund, amid great rejoicings, and with the highest honour, in the royal town which is called Burna (for at that time it was a royal residence), in the 15th year of his age, on the sixth day of the week [i.e. Friday], the 24th of the moon’s age, being Christmas Day.”
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 866, reports that there: “came a great heathen army to the land of the English,[*] and took winter quarters among the East Angles, and were there horsed; and they [the East Angles] made peace with them.” The phrase “made peace”, in this context, means ‘bought off’. To better reflect the modus operandi of the “heathen army”, the Chronicle evidently adopts the convention of starting its annalistic year in the previous autumn.[*] This large army of Danes arrived, therefore, in the autumn of 865. Æthelweard names their leader as “the tyrant Ivar” (IV, 2). A year later, i.e. in the autumn of 866, the Chronicle reports that: “the army went from the East Angles, over the mouth of the Humber, to the city of York in Northumbria.” V ►
“The army” captured York and made it their base. Having killed two Northumbrian kings, the Danes installed one Egbert, a compliant Englishman, on the Northumbrian throne. In the autumn of 867 they moved on to Nottingham, where eventually, without a fight, “the Mercians made peace with the army”. A year later the Danes returned to York.
In the autumn of 869, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that: “the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them[*], and the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and subdued all that land.…” Manuscript E (the Peterborough Manuscript) continues: “… and destroyed all the monasteries which they came to. At that same time they came to Medeshamstede [Peterborough], burned and broke, slew the abbot and the monks, and all that they found there; then made that which was ere full rich, that it was reduced to nothing.” A between-the-lines addition to Manuscript F states: “The names of the chiefs who slew the king were Ivar and Ubba.”
Between 985 and 987 Abbo, a scholarly monk from Fleury (near Orléans, France) taught at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon). During this time, he wrote his Passio Sancti Eadmundi Regis et Martyris (Passion of St Edmund King and Martyr).[*] In a preface, Abbo explains that the source of his information was Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d.988). Dunstan, in his youth, had heard the story of Edmund’s death told to King Athelstan (r.924–939) by “a broken down veteran” who had been Edmund’s armour bearer. At any rate, Abbo simplifies the Danish army’s progress up to their arrival in East Anglia in the autumn of 869. He makes no mention of their previous, apparently peaceful, sojourn in East Anglia during 865–6, nor of the year, 867–8, they spent in Mercia. In Abbo’s story, the Danes, under the command of Ivar and Ubba, first attack Northumbria, “inflicting upon it the heaviest devastation”, and then, straight away, Ivar on his own leads a shipborne force to East Anglia:
Having raked together their booty, Ivar left on the spot [i.e. in Northumbria] Ubba, his associate in cruelty, and approaching [East Anglia] suddenly with a great fleet, landed by stealth at a city in that region, entered it before the citizens were aware of his approach, and set it on fire. Boys, and men old and young, whom he encountered in the streets of the city were killed; and he paid no respect to the chastity of wife or maid. Husband and wife lay dead or dying together on their thresholds; the babe snatched from its mother’s breast was, in order to multiply the cries of grief, slaughtered before her eyes. An impious soldiery scoured the town in fury, athirst for every crime by which pleasure could be given to the tyrant who for sheer love of cruelty had given orders for the massacre of the innocent.
… he [Ivar] summoned a few poor wretches whom he judged to be not worth killing, and by searching cross-examination of them endeavoured to ascertain whereabouts their king was at that time residing. It seems that a report had reached him that the glorious King Edmund, who was in the prime of life, and in the fullness of vigour, was a keen soldier. On this account Ivar made it his business to cut off all the men whom he could find around, so that the king, deprived of the support of a compact force for the defence of his kingdom, should be unable to offer effective resistance. Edmund, it happened, was at that time staying at some distance from the city, in a township which in the native language is called Hægelisdun, from which also the neighbouring forest is called by the same name. The monster of impiety calculated, as was indeed the truth, that whatever number of the natives his murderous minions could succeed in destroying, so many the less would there be, if it came to a pitched battle, for the king to lead against his foes.Abbo Passio §§5–6
Ivar sends a man ahead to deliver an ultimatum to Edmund:
… “My august master, and unconquerable sovereign Ivar, a terror by land and sea, having by force of arms brought divers countries into subjection to himself, has landed with a great fleet on the desirable shores of this territory with the intention of fixing his winter quarters here, and in pursuance thereof commands you to share with him your ancient treasures, and your hereditary wealth, and to reign in future under him. But if you hold in contempt his power, which is fortified by innumerable battalions, it will be to your own prejudice, as you will be accounted unworthy to live or reign.… Submit therefore with all your people to this greatest of monarchs whom the elements obey, since he is prepared in his great clemency in all that he undertakes ‘To spare the meek, while he o'erwhelms the proud.’ ”Abbo Passio §7
After listening to Ivar’s message, Edmund discusses his options with “one of his bishops, who was his confidential adviser”. The bishop is primarily concerned for Edmund’s safety, and advises him that, if he cannot countenance submitting to Ivar, he should flee:
“… I fear the tormentors will soon arrive, and you will forfeit your life through the unholy execution of their orders.” “That,” answered the king, “is what I desire; that is my dearest wish, not to survive my loyal and dear subjects, who have been bereft of their lives and massacred with their children and their wives as they lay in bed, by a bloodthirsty brigand. And what do you advise? that in life’s extremity, bereft of my comrades, I should besmirch my fair fame by taking flight? I have always avoided the calumnious accusations of the informer; never have I endured the opprobrium of fleeing from the battlefield, realizing how glorious it would be for me to die for my country; and now I will of my own free will surrender myself, for the loss of those dear to me has made light itself hateful.…”
Then, turning to the messenger whom the impious Ivar had sent to announce the terms on which his kingdom might be retained, Edmund exclaimed: “Reeking as you are with the blood of my countrymen, you might justly be doomed to death; but to speak plainly, I would follow the example of Christ my Lord, and refrain from staining my pure hands; and for his name’s sake, if the need arise, I am willing and glad to perish by your weapons. Therefore return as fast as you can at once to your lord, and take forthwith this message to him: ‘Son of the devil, well do you imitate your father, who through his swelling pride fell from heaven, and striving to involve mankind in his falseness, rendered multitudes liable to his punishment. You, his chief follower, are powerless to terrify me by threats, nor shall you deceive me with the snares and sophistries that inveigle to destruction, for you will not find me lacking the armour of Christian principles. As for the treasures and the wealth, which till now God’s favour has bestowed on me, take and squander them as your insatiable greed may prompt, since, even though you should break in pieces this frail and perishable body, like a potter’s vessel, my soul, which is truly free, will never for a moment submit to you. For it is more honourable to champion the cause of perpetual freedom, if not with arms, at any rate with life, than to spend tearful complaints in redemanding it when lost, since in the one case death is glorious, but in the other the opposition is but the rebellion of slaves.… let my free spirit wing its way from its prison to heaven, untainted by by any appearance of sale or surrender; for be assured Dane, you shall never see me, a king, survive the loss of freedom to adorn your triumph. You ply me with expectations of a continued reign, after the slaughter of all my people, as if I were possessed by so mad a lust of rule, that I could have the heart to reign over houses emptied of their noble inhabitants: their precious garniture. Let your savage ferocity go on as it has begun: after the subjects let the king be snatched from his throne, dragged away, spat upon, struck and buffeted, and finally butchered. The King of kings sees all that with compassion, and will, I am confident, translate the victim to reign with him in life eternal. Know, therefore, that for the love of this earthly life Edmund, the Christian king, will not submit to a heathen chief, unless you first become a convert to our religion; he would rather be a standard-bearer in the camp of the Eternal King.’ ”(Abbo Passio §§8–9
By this time, Ivar was almost at Edmund’s palace, so he soon encountered his returning messenger and received Edmund’s response. Ivar acted quickly – the palace was surrounded, Edmund was taken captive, and was:
… tightly bound with chains, and in his innocence was made to stand before the impious general, like Christ before the governor Pilate, and eager to follow in the footsteps of Him who was sacrificed as a victim for us.Abbo Passio §10
And so in chains he was mocked in many ways, and at length, after being savagely beaten, he was brought to a tree in the neighbourhood, tied to it, and for a long while tortured with terrible lashes. But his constancy was unbroken, while without ceasing he called on Christ with broken voice. This roused the fury of his enemies, who, as if practising at a target, pierced his whole body with arrow-spikes, augmenting the severity of his torment by frequent discharges of their weapons, and inflicting wound upon wound, while one javelin made room for another. And thus, all haggled over by the sharp points of their darts, and scarce able to draw breath, he actually bristled with them, like a prickly hedgehog or a thistle fretted with spines, resembling in his agony the illustrious martyr Sebastian. But even when it was made apparent to the villainous Ivar that not even by these means could the king be made to yield to the agents of his cruelty, but that he continued to call upon the name of Christ, the Dane commanded the executioner to cut off his head forthwith. The king was by this time almost lifeless, though the warm lifestream still throbbed in his breast, and he was scarcely able to stand erect. In this plight he was hastily wrenched from the blood-stained stem, his ribs laid bare by numberless gashes, as if he had been put to the torture of the rack, or had been torn by savage claws, and was bidden to stretch forth the head which had been adorned by the royal diadem. Then, as he stood in all his meekness, like a ram chosen out of the whole flock, and desirous of hastening by a happy exchange this life for eternity, absorbed as he was in the mercies of God, he was refreshed by the vision of the light within, for the satisfaction of which he earnestly yearned in his hour of agony. Thus, while the words of prayer were still on his lips, the executioner, sword in hand, deprived the king of life, striking off his head with a single blow. And so, on the 12th of the Kalends of December [i.e. 20th November, 869], as an offering to God of sweetest savour, Edmund, after he had been tried in the fire of suffering, rose with the palm of victory and the crown of righteousness, to enter as king and martyr the assembly of the court of heaven.Abbo Passio §10
The Danes, with their instigator, instruments of the devil, left his body mutilated, as has been described, and transfixed with javelins, while the sacred head, which had been anointed not with the oil of sinners, but with the sacramental chrism of mystery, was carried by them as they retired into a wood, the name of which is Haglesdun, and was thrown as far as possible among the dense thickets of brambles, and so hidden; the Danes contriving this with the greatest cunning, so that the Christians, but few of whom were left alive, should not be able to commit to such decent burial as their limited means of interment would allow, the sanctified body of the martyr conjoined with the head.
Of this appalling scene there was present as a spectator, though in hiding, one of our religion, who was rescued, as I believe, by God’s providence from the swords of the heathen, and so preserved to bring to light the traces of these events, although he was entirely ignorant what had been done with the head, beyond the fact that he had seen the Danes betaking themselves with it into the depths of the wood.Abbo Passio §§11–12
Abbo says (Passio §12) that when the Danes departed, “engaged in the work of devastation elsewhere”, the search began for Edmund’s remains. The body was easily found, still laying on the spot where he had been killed. A search-party was formed to spread-out and scour the woods for his head:
… a thing happened marvellous to relate, and unheard of in the course of ages. The head of the holy king, far removed from the body to which it belonged, broke into utterance without assistance from the vocal chords, or aid from the arteries proceeding from the heart.… the head, in response to the calls of the search-party mutually encouraging one another, and as comrade to comrade crying alternately ‘Where are you?’ indicated the place where it lay by exclaiming in their native tongue, Here! Here! Here!Abbo Passio §13
The head had been kept safe by “a monstrous wolf”. The searchers, accompanied by the wolf, took Edmund’s head back to his body. Its duty done, the wolf returned to its solitary existence.
When the wolf had retired, those who were intrusted with the duty, with the utmost care and with all possible zeal and skill provisionally fitted the head to the sacred body, and committed the two joined together to a becoming sepulchre. And there they built over the grave a chapel of rude construction, in which the body rested for many years, until the conflagration of war and the mighty storms of persecution were over, and the religious piety of the faithful began to revive, upon relief from the pressure of tribulation.… the Saint, from beneath the lowly roof of his consecrated abode, made manifest by frequent miraculous signs the magnitude of his merits in the sight of God. These events aroused great numbers of the inhabitants of that province, high and low alike; and in the royal town which, in the English tongue, is named Bedricesgueord, but in Latin is called Bedrici curtis [now, Bury St Edmunds], they erected a church of immense size, with storeys admirably constructed of wood, and to this they translated him with great magnificence, as was due.
But, marvellous to tell, whereas it was supposed that the precious body of the martyr would have mouldered to dust in the long interval of time which had elapsed, it was found to be so sound and whole that it would be out of place to speak of the head having been restored to and united with the body, for there was absolutely no trace apparent of wound or scar. And so the king and martyr Edmund was with reverence pronounced to be a Saint, and was translated whole and entire, and wearing every semblance of life, to the place above mentioned, where to this day without change of form he awaits the covenanted felicity of a blessed resurrection. One thing only is to be noticed: round his neck, as an ensign of his martyrdom, there was seen an extremely thin red crease, like a scarlet thread, as was frequently attested by a certain woman of blessed memory called Oswen, who shortly before these recent times of ours passed many years in succession near his consecrated tomb, absorbed in fastings and prayers. This venerable woman, either from some divine intuition, or from excess of devotion, made it her constant practice to open the sepulchre of the blessed martyr year by year, at the anniversary of the Lord’s Supper, and to trim and pare his hair and nails. These relics, one and all, she studiously collected, and stored in a casket; nor did she ever omit, as long as she lived, to cherish them with an affection that was wonderful, having placed them on the altar of the church to which I have referred. And there they are still preserved with due veneration.Abbo Passio §§14–15
Finds of commemorative coins indicate that Edmund was revered as a saint in East Anglia within thirty years of his death.[*]
Coins, of apparently later date than Edmund, in the names of Æthelred and Oswald, tend to suggest that the Danes established a puppet regime in East Anglia. In late-870, however, “the army” moved on again, this time to Wessex. V ►
In May 878 the forces of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, decisively defeated the Danish army of King Guthrum. Not only did the Danes agree to leave Wessex, but Guthrum was christened, taking the name Athelstan, with Alfred as his godfather. In the autumn of 878 they withdrew to Cirencester, in Mercia, where they stayed for a year. In the autumn of 879: “the army went from Cirencester into East Anglia, and occupied that land, and divided it.” (ASC s.a. 880). Guthrum ruled East Anglia, issuing coins under his Christian name, Athelstan. There exists a treaty, possibly dating from 886 (after Alfred had been accepted as overlord of all Anglo-Saxon held territory), which, amongst other things, defines a boundary between Alfred’s and Guthrum’s territories[*]. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, s.a. 890, that: “Guthrum, the Northern king, died, whose baptismal name was Athelstan; he was King Alfred’s godson, and he abode in East Anglia, and was the first [of the Danes] to settle that land.” According to the Annals of St Neots, Guthrum was “buried in the royal town which is called Headleaga [Hadleigh, Suffolk]”.
Coins issued in East Anglia after Guthrum’s death commemorated St Edmund, but they did not bear the name of the ruling king. The name of only one king is known from chronicles – Eohric, who was killed in 902. The last, unnamed, Danish king of East Anglia was killed in 917, and later the same year “all the army in East Anglia” submitted to Edward, king of Wessex.