ST EDMUND was not killed in Suffolk and was never buried in the town that bears his name, according to a linguistics expert.
Dr Keith Briggs a visiting research fellow in linguistics at Bristol’s University of the West of England has resurrected the debate on where Saxon King Edmund was killed by the Vikings after examining likely derivations of the battle site’s name Hægelisdun.
Though Hoxne and Bradfield St George, in Suffolk, and Hellesdon, in Norfolk, have been claimed as the site by past historians, Dr Briggs thinks it was in Essex.
The university says he makes a ‘strong case’ Hægelisdun is the hill in Essex on which Maldon stands. He uses historical documents which show the hill was called Hailesdon and was the headquarters of a local chieftain in the ninth century, so was of strategic importance and likely to be a target of the Vikings.
Dr Briggs’ paper, Was Hægelisdun in Essex? A new site for the martyrdom of Edmund, is published by the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History.
He says the ‘myth’ of Edmund as a king and martyr contains ‘at least one element of truth’ – in 869 there was a battle between the East Anglians and the Vikings, Edmund was captured and later killed. About 100 years later the story was written down then Edmund came to be considered a Christian martyr and Bury St Edmunds’ abbey, founded about 1020, was dedicated to him. Edmund’s remains were believed to be housed in the abbey, miracles were attributed to him and Bury became a major pilgrimage site and a rich and powerful abbey for the next 500 years.
But Dr Briggs said: “It was never likely that Edmund was really buried in his eponymous abbey. Probably the whole legend which makes him a hero and martyr is manufactured, as were many other similar stories in the Middle Ages. But any progress towards confirming the germ of truth which started this process is worthwhile. And it does now seem that Edmund ranged more widely than just Suffolk and probably had an Essex ally against the Vikings.”
But this idea has been viewed sceptically in Edmund’s kingdom.
Alan Jary, chairman of the Bury Society said: “It’s an interesting angle but if anything has changed over the centuries, it’s the language, The spelling of a name like that [Hægelisdun], which most of us can no longer pronounce, is open to challenge. I’m sure the people of Hoxne and Bradfield would have similar claims.”
He said the strength of the legend was supported by the fact Bury’s abbey became one of the most significant in Europe and St Edmund was our patron saint whose day was so significant a celebration that the barons used it as cover to gather in the abbey to draw up the Magna Carta.
But he also thanked Dr Briggs: “It’s good of him to raise it and put Bury back in the news.”