This is an occasional series of short biographies of our East Anglian Saints. They are written by our Parish Priest, Dom Martin Gowman OSB and are shown in alphabetical order.
St Edmund of East Anglia, King and Martyr
For several hundred years from around the time of the Norman Conquest, St Edmund was regarded as Patron Saint of England. He was also King of East Anglia (c 855-869) and is honoured for having given his life in battle (20 November 869) when the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes, led by Ivar the Boneless, laid waste to his kingdom.
Warrior or Martyr? As representative of a Christian people, King Edmund was in the front line when he went to meet the Danes somewhere near Thetford (perhaps at Hoxne in Suffolk). Soon after losing his kingdom and his life, King St Edmund came to be honoured in late 9th-century coinage used by the Vikings and the Danes, many of whom converted to Christianity following their subjugation to Alfred the Great – less than a decade after King Edmund lost his battle.
Medieval chroniclers gave prominence to the martyrdom of St Edmund because of his role in the evangelisation of England, for which his life was given in sacrifice (probably before the age of thirty).
Anglo-Saxon or Incomer? St Edmund is described as being ‘of ancient and noble Saxon stock’ which could have meant that he was from Saxony – hence the legend of his landing (presumably with an extended family!) on the shore at Hunstanton, aged 14, in order to take possession of his kingdom (c 855-869). Alternatively, St Edmund could have been of the old ‘Saxon stock’ that had invaded England a few centuries previously – i e he was ‘Anglo-Saxon’, a term coined by Alfred the Great when he made peace with the Danes & the Vikings (Wessex, 878-80).
St Felix of East Anglia † 647 (Feast Day: 8 March)
Following in the footsteps of St Augustine of Canterbury – about 30 years behind him but quite a bit further up the east coast – Felix arrived from Burgundy around the year 629 and landed, according to the local legend, at Babingley in Norfolk.
Having been commissioned by Augustine’s successor Honorius, Felix was soon established as first Bishop of East Anglia. His see was at a place called Dommoc – long identified with the city of Dunwich. However, the correct location may be further south: Walton Castle, a Roman ruin near Felixstowe, could well have been the episcopal see. (Both these places have since sunk beneath the waves).
Bishop Felix collaborated closely with King Sigeberht of East Anglia in works of education and evangelisation. The two men may have known each other in the Frankish Kingdom of Burgundy, where Sigeberht had been exiled for a time and where Felix had probably served as a monk prior to his ordination.
The influence of Celtic monasticism extended as far as Burgundy as well as to eastern England, where St Felix entered into contact with St Aidan (of Lindisfarne) and St Fursey (at Burgh Castle). In the longer term, the ‘Roman’ monasticism of St Augustine and his successors would prevail.
Sigeberht soon relinquished his kingdom and retired to one of the East Anglian monasteries he’d founded; he was celebrated as a Saint after his death (feastday October 29).
St Felix outlived King Sigeberht, remaining as Bishop for 17 years, and was buried in his episcopal see of Dommoc. His relics were later translated to Soham Abbey (which had probably been one of the Saint’s original foundations).
They were stolen from there by the monks of Ramsey, where the relics were venerated throughout the Middle Ages; some of the treasures can still be seen in St Ives Museum.
St George (Patron of the English royal family since the 14th century)
St George has probably been Patron of England for longer than St Edmund was.
It has been said that we ‘know’ even less about St Edmund than we do about St George – despite the voluminous chronicles devoted to the Life of Edmund, not to mention the work and witness of the medieval monks of at Edmondsbury.
Such monuments to Christian life confirm that, for us, there are important relationships to be found between the truths of history and those of Faith: such relations are already to be seen in the lives of the saints – and uncovered through the study of Holy Scripture.
Saint Walstan – Feast day 30 May
Figures carrying scythes are often identified with the ‘grim reaper’ but this would clearly be a mistake in any representation of St Walstan, who lived and died in the environs of Norwich around the turn of the 11th century, and is the patron saint of farms, farmers, farmhands, ranchers and husbandmen.
In at least one version of his Life, he was born in Suffolk, and places with which he is particularly associated include Taverham, Costessey and Bawburgh – as well as Blythburgh .
There are stained-glass windows dedicated to him throughout East Anglia as well as church buildings with the same dedication in Bawburgh and Costessey – and much further afield, in Kenya and the USA.
A ‘St Walston window’ in St Michael’s, Beccles, mentioned in a will of 1547, may have been destroyed along with other ‘superstitious images’ when William Dowsing visited the parish in 1643.
St Walstan is usually represented in peasants’ gear with a scythe in his hand because he was haymaking on the last day of his life – 30 May 1016 – but in some images, he is crowned and his attributes include orb, sceptre and royal seal.
According to Legend, he was related to the Kings of East Anglia but forsook his wealthy background (in times when the kingdom was frequently overrun by the Danes) to live a life of evangelical poverty. He created a scandal by giving away a pair of shoes, granted to him by the Lady of the Manor, to a beggar who was poorer than himself.
Like many of the great saints, Walstan foretold the day of his own death, and when his time came he was granted a vision of angels in the hayfield where he was working.
His funeral cart was drawn by two white oxen, exactly as he had foreseen. His crown, orb and sceptre are emblems of the royal kingship shared by all the saints of the Christian calendar.
As the Lord of the Harvest promises at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food…’ (Mt 25, 34)