After subduing York, and the failed attempt to take Nottingham from the Mercian King Burghred and his West Saxon brothers-in-law, the Danes turned their attention to East Anglia. The Danish army, headed by Ivarr the boneless and his brother Ubba crossed over Mercia and wintered at Thetford in East Anglia, raiding and pillaging the surrounding area. Edmund, who was the king of those lands at that time, took his forces to meet the enemy at Thetford where he engaged them with less than stellar results.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Edmund died in this battle. The Danes then went about destroying many villages and churches in the kingdom, including Medeshamsted (Peterborough) and its monks and abbot. Simeon of Durham adds that a certain Bishop Humbert died as well in the original battle and Florence of Worcester simply states that Edmund died on Sunday the 12th of the calends of December (20th November).
King Edmund was not the first or last king to fall under the Danish army, but what makes him special is that he quickly became a beacon of resistance for the East Anglian people and Christianity under later Danish subjection. A cult formed around a sensationalised version of Edmund’s death which carried on well into the later medieval period. Roger of Wendover gives us a glimpse of this story, explaining that the king and his advisor Bishop Humbert, escaped with survivors from Thetford back to one of his royal halls at a place called Haeilesdune.
In the meantime, Ivarr and his brother Ubba were also on their way to the royal vill and promptly surrounded the king and survivors. Edmund went to his church to pray for strength to endure the death he knew was coming for him. The Danes stormed the church, killed Bishop Humbert, took Edmund to Ivarr and on the Dane’s command Edmund was tied to a tree and openly mocked and jeered at. Edmund continued to pray out aloud to God which so angered and frustrated the Danes that they started shooting their arrows into his body. At last they ran out of arrows and Ivarr ordered that the king’s head be removed. The body was then dumped in the briars in the wood nearby, and the head hidden separately at an unknown location.
When they finally left, the East Anglians left behind started searching for their king’s head so that they could bury it with the body. They searched for years before a miracle occurred, the head spoke to them and said ‘here, here, here’, but when they followed the voice to the head there was a wolf standing guard over it (other tales say that it was the wolf who said ‘here, here, here’). The people took the head back to be entombed with the body, at which point the wolf returned to the wood, having done its duty. A church was built on the spot where Edmund’s body had been found and for years after many more miracles are said to have occurred.
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- Historical Figure Profile: Halfdan (ahgray.wordpress.com)