And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 6. februar 2015

Saint Edmund the Ring-giver – SS Edmund and Edward in the later Middle Ages

I’m currently doing some reading in Legenda Aurea, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine’s great compendium of saints’ legends and other liturgical feasts, designed to be a reference book for homilists. Jacobus compiled these stories in the 1260s and relied on a wide range of Christian authors, often citing contradicting views on certain matters as a summary of the views held by previous authors. Legenda Aurea is first and foremost a conservative compilation, since it contains only five saints from Jacobus’ own time or the preceding century. Four of these modern saints are connected with the vogue of mendicant sanctity that dominated the religious sentiments of the Latin Mediterranean in the thirteenth century. These are the mendicant founders Francis (d.1226) and Dominic (d.1221), the Dominican friar and martyr Peter of Verona (d.1252) and the Franciscan tertiary Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1231). The last of the modern saints is Thomas Becket (d.1170) whose martyrdom in Canterbury cathedral Jacobus erroneously dates to 1174, the year after his canonization by Pope Alexander III.

This incorrect date suggests that although Jacobus was extremely well-read and could draw references from a long and impressive list of sources, his knowledge of English material was quite sparse. Jacobus’ lack of familiarity with English hagiography becomes all the more apparent when you compare his original work with the adaptations from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England such as the Gilte Legende, the South English Legendary and the Nova Legenda Anglie. Considering that Jacobus probably envisioned only a relatively local circulation of his work, his lack of English material is neither surprising nor something that merits rebuke, but it does result in the occasional misinformation, such as the year of Becket’s death.

Another piece of information is an interesting anecdote appended to his chapter on St John the Apostle. Jacobus writes (in William Granger Ryan’s American translation):

Saint Edmund [of East Anglia], king of England, never refused anyone who asked a favor in the name of Saint John the Evangelist. Thus it happened one day when the royal chamberlain was absent that a pilgrim importuned the king in the saint’s name for an alms [sic]. The king, having nothing else at hand, gave him the precious ring from his finger. Some time later an English soldier on overseas duty received the ring from the same pilgrim, to be restored to the king with the following message: “He for whose love you gave this ring sends it back to you.” Hence it was obvious that Saint John had appeared to him in the guise of a pilgrim.

'Cy seynt Edward dona un anel a Iohan le ewangelist'
Yates Thompson 13, English book of hours, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library

'Cy sein Johan le ewangelist vient a seint edward p[ur] demaund[er] acun bien pur lam[ur] de deu'
Yates Thompson 13, English book of hours, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library

This anecdote is significant for several reasons. First of all because it shows an interesting confluence of two of high-medieval England’s most important saints: Edmund of East Anglia and Edward the Confessor. The story of the king giving his ring to Saint John in disguise belongs to the legend of Edward the Confessor and is perhaps one of the most famous miracles from his hagiographies. It first appears in Aelred of Rievaulx’s Vita Sancti Edwardi Regis, a work written for the translation of Edward’s body in 1163, and which was commissioned by Lawrence, abbot of Westminster. The ring became Edward’s main attribute and remained so throughout the Middle Ages, as seen below from a calendar page from the early 1400s.

Edward the Confessor holding his ring, oddly placed at March 18
Harley 2332, Almanac with astrological miscellany, England, 15th century (before 1412)
Courtesy of British Library

Jacobus’ attribution of this episode to the legend of St Edmund is also significant because it allows us a glimpse of the close relationship between those cults from the twelfth century onwards. Edmund had been venerated as a saint since the late ninth century, and his cult centre had been at Bury St Edmunds from the start. In the second half of the eleventh century and onwards, the cult of St Edmund experienced an increased literary output of hagiographical and liturgical material. A new, proper, liturgical office was composed between 1065 and 1087, and Herman the Archdeacon wrote De Miracula Sancti Edmundi c.1100. In the literature of Bury’s long twelfth century, King Edward the Confessor – universally respected in English history – was invoked as one of Edmund’s devotees, and as a just king who granted the abbey many valuable charters. The generosity of Edward was a recurring feature, appearing both in Herman’s De Miracula and Jocelin’s late-twelfth-century Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

Edward the Confessor was not canonised until 1161 and his cult was a product of Westminster Abbey and the political interests of King Henry II. Edward’s cult had a brief but intense first period of popularity which rapidly diminished at the explosive growth of the cult of Thomas Becket in the 1170s. Becket’s cult did not affect the cult of Edmund in the same way, much thanks to Bury being a thriving literary centre, and brief anecdotes in late-twelfth-century historiographies – such as Benedict of Peterborough’s Gesta Henrici II and Ralph Coggeshall’s Chronicon Anglicanum – suggests that Edmund enjoyed a much wider and more stable veneration than did Edward.

Martyrdom of St Edmund
Yates Thompson 13, English book of hours, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library

From the thirteenth century onwards, the two royal saints began to appear together in both art and literature. We don’t know which is the earliest example of this. Edward and Edmund – along with two others – are both listed among England’s peaceable kings in the anonymous Anglo-Norman Le Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei from the 1240s, and in the late 1300s William Langland states in Piers Plowman that Edmund and Edward were both followed by the personification of Charity. To name some of the examples of these two appearing together in art, we have a glass cycle in Amiens from c.1280, and perhaps the most famous instance of them all, the Wilton Diptych where they appear together with John the Baptist as patron for the young Richard II.

The Wilton Diptych
Edmund and Edward both displaying their most well-known attributes
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In all these instances mentioned above the pairing of Edmund of Edward have been done deliberately, while in Jacobus’ Legenda Aurea the two saints have blended together by mistake. The interesting question is whether this mistake was owing to Jacobus’ own faulty memory, having heard the story from one of the many English pilgrims in Italy and then confused the characters, or whether the story was transmitted to Jacobus in the way he recorded it. In any case, the faulty attribution of the miracle of the ring to Edmund of East Anglia, suggests that by the latter half of the thirteenth century, the two royal patrons of England may already have begun to be paired together, not only in art and literature but also in the common imagination.


Anonymous, Le Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei, translated by Thelma Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ACMRS Press, 2008

Aelred of Rievaulx, The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, translated by Jane Patricia Freeland and published in Dutton, Marsha (ed.), Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works, Cistercian Publications, 2005

Herman the Archdeacon, The Miracles of St Edmund, translated by Tom Licence, Clarendon Press, 2014

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, translated by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers, Oxford World Classics, 2008

Langland, William, The Vision of Piers Plowman, translated by Schmidt, Everyman, 1995

4 kommentarer:

  1. Very interesting post! Presumably the image in Harley 2332 represents a further step of confusion - mixing up Edward the Confessor with Edward the Martyr (whose feast is 18 March)?

    1. Thank you, that means a lot when it comes from you. And I think you are also spot on regarding 18 March, I hadn't considered that, so thank you for pointing that out. The relationship between the two Edwards in the later Middle Ages is also interesting and interestingly confusing.

      From the very beginning of the Confessor's cult there seems to have been an effort to link those two together, as Aelred dates one of the Confessor's miracles - the only punitive miracle in his catalogue - to the feast of Edward Martyr. And as far as I could make out in my MA research, such a punitive miracle does not appear in the legends of Edward Martyr (but of course I need to double check that).

      The reason for this overt linking has troubled me for years. Perhaps this was done to eclipse the Martyr? Or perhaps to let the Martyr act as a supporting character for the Confessor, in the way Thomas Becket became a supporting character for William of Norwich, or Cuthbert for Godric of Finchale.

      However, the case of Harley 2332 I believe is a matter of confusion rather than a deliberate confluence, and if I remember correctly it's not a unique incident. I will have to double check - as I'm out of office today - but I think similar signs of confusion can be found both in Gilte Legende and in some liturgical calendars.

      I would really like to dig deeper into this, so maybe that's my blogpost for March 18.

  2. I recently came across a C15 book of hours in which the Feast of St Edward the Martyr on 18 March was clearly marked 'Sci Edmundi'.

    1. That is immensely interesting, thank you for notifying me! Do you remember which book of hours this was?