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St Edmund's Day 2020: Who was he and why do we celebrate him?




Residents across Suffolk are today marking St Edmund's Day - a celebration of the king whose emblem is displayed on the county's flag.

The event will see people celebrate differently this year due to the coronavirus but, with St Edmund being the patron saint of pandemics, perhaps there is no better time to show our appreciation for him.

But who was St Edmund and why is he celebrated every year on the anniversary of his death?

Statue of St Edmund, whose body is said to be buried somewhere in the Abbey Gardens. Picture by Mark Westley.
Statue of St Edmund, whose body is said to be buried somewhere in the Abbey Gardens. Picture by Mark Westley.

The legend of St Edmund

St Edmund was born on Christmas Day in 841 and was crowned king when he was just 14 years old.

He fought alongside King Alfred in the battle against the Great Heathen Army of vikings, who descended on East Anglia in 869.

It was by this army that Edmund was captured and ordered to renounce his Christianity.

When he refused to do so, Edmund was tied to a tree, shot with arrows and then beheaded, with his head having been thrown into a forest.

Legend has it that his head was found by his loyal followers, who followed the cries of a wolf which they found protecting the head from other animals.

The St Edmund of Suffolk flag
The St Edmund of Suffolk flag

It is said that his men then buried his body and head which, during a later exhumation, were found to have become reattached. Arrow wounds on his body had also disappeared and his skin had not decomposed.

Where the body of St Edmund now lies is shrouded in mystery, but it is rumoured to have been buried somewhere in the Abbey Gardens.

The original patron saint of England

Edmund is also famed for being our nation's original patron saint, having been stripped of the title by Edward III who named St George the country's new heavenly protector.

For years, Suffolk residents have been campaigning to reclaim the title, with a petition having gone to and been rejected by Parliament in 2006.

Statue of St Edmund in Bury St Edmunds. Picture by Mark Westley
Statue of St Edmund in Bury St Edmunds. Picture by Mark Westley

The argument of many is that the title should be held by someone St George was the patron saint of more than 17 countries and may never have stepped on English soil during his lifetime.

Patron saint of pandemics

It is no surprise that, until this year, St Edmund's status as the patron saint of pandemics and protection against the plague may have gone unnoticed by many.

But this month, a Bury St Edmunds artist helped draw attention to this status, having taken photographs of all the town's former hospital sites and imposed images of St Edmund on them in an effort to teach residents about the realities of 17th century life and healthcare.

St Edmund is thought to have been given this title after the French city of Toulouse became ravaged by plague in the 17th century.

Residents of the city are said to have prayed to the saint, after which the plague came to an end.

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