Portrayals of St Edmund, King and Martyr after the Reformation

The martyrdom of St Edmund, from Ecclesiae Anglicanae Trophaea (1584) after an original painting by Niccolo Circignani at the English College, Rome (1583)

On 20 November 2015 a new statue of St Edmund, King and Martyr, the patron of Douai Abbey at Woolhampton, near Reading was blessed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols as part of the Abbey’s 400th birthday celebrations. An article by me, entitled ‘Portrayals of St Edmund, King and Martyr after the Reformation’ has now appeared in the latest edition of Douai Magazine, the Abbey’s journal. In the article, I examine the surviving portrayals of St Edmund from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which include an engraving of Niccolo Circignani’s depiction of the martyrdom of St Edmund from the chapel of the English College, Rome; a depiction of the saint from the English College at Seville (now at Valladolid); the appearance of St Edmund in the martyrs’ picture at the English College, Rome; Charles de la Fosse’s painting of the saint for the high altar of the Priory of St Edmund, Paris; and a depiction of St Edmund from the ceiling of the English College, Valladolid. I advance the argument that the early post-Reformation depictions of St Edmund were largely dependent on the account of the saint’s martyrdom given in Nicholas Harpsfield’s Historia Anglicana Ecclesiastica, which was first published at Douai in 1620 but circulated in manuscript for decades before that.

The article also examines hagiographical portrayals of the martyrdom of St Edmund by other Catholic authors including Richard Verstegan, John Wilson and Serenus Cressy, who was himself an English Benedictine monk. I draw attention to the very great difference between late medieval portrayals of St Edmund (thoroughly examined in a recent book by Rebecca Pinner) which tended to portray a glorified martyr holding the instruments of his martyrdom (arrows) and the post-Reformation depictions, usually by Continental artists working under the patronage of English Catholic communities in exile. These latter are full of the pathos characteristic of the reformed Tridentine cult of the saints, which sought to emphasise the heroic virtues shown by the saints in their documented lives and downplayed cults which were based wholly on the perceived efficacy of a saint’s prayers for a particular purpose. Thus St Edmund’s pre-Reformation status as a symbolic embodiment of East Anglia and the East Anglian people declined after the Reformation as the saint took on the role of exemplar of ideal English (Catholic) kingship and authentic martyr.

Martyrs Picture
The Martyrs’ Picture at the English College, Rome featuring St Edmund in the bottom right hand corner

St Edmund’s new role is nowhere better shown than in the late sixteenth-century ‘Martyrs’ Picture’ which still hangs over the high altar of the chapel of the English College, Rome. The painting depicts the ‘Mercy Seat’ (a particular representation of the Trinity) above the Flaminian Gate, Rome’s northern gate through which English priests would travel on their way to risk their lives on the mission. Flanking the gate are the two greatest English martyrs: St Thomas of Canterbury and St Edmund. Apart from the fact that Cardinal Allen’s English College merged two English pilgrim hostels dedicated to St Thomas and St Edmund respectively, the appearance of the two martyrs reminded students of the possibility (even likelihood) of their own martyrs and offered them two exemplars, one clerical and one lay. As England’s only significant martyr king, St Edmund embodied (for post-Reformation Catholics) the possibility of a return to Catholic monarchy and the reconciliation of the nation with Rome.



Catholic East Anglia book available to order

Catholic East Anglia front cover

Catholic East Anglia: A History of the Catholic Faith in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough published by Gracewing and now available to pre-order, is the official history of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary in 2016. The book consists of seven chapters by different authors covering the history of Catholicism in East Anglia since 1559, as well as an Introduction setting the region’s post-Reformation history in the context of its medieval heritage. The Introduction also includes a brief history of the first (Anglo-Saxon) see of East Anglia. The book features a Foreword by the present Bishop of East Anglia, the Rt Rev. Alan Hopes. The book will be officially launched at the Catholic East Anglia Conference at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich, at 2.15pm on Saturday 11 June 2016.

The authors who contributed to Catholic East Anglia include Prof. John Morrill, Prof. John Charmley, Joy Rowe, Timothy Fenwick and Fr Tony Rogers. The book also includes a revised version of an article that appeared in the Diocesan Ordo for 2001 by the late Fr Michael Edwards. The idea for a history of the Diocese of East Anglia arose from a study day I delivered in March 2014 for Wuffing Education at Sutton Hoo on the Catholic families of East Anglia. Later that year I met with John Morrill, Fr Tony Rogers and Fr Russell Frost and began planning the book and the accompanying Catholic East Anglia conference. However, the book has developed far beyond what we originally envisaged. At 315 pages, Catholic East Anglia is probably the most thorough diocesan history of any Catholic diocese in England and Wales, although the chapters quite deliberately draw on existing printed sources rather than manuscripts so as to provide pointers for further research for individuals or groups interested in taking further the history of their parish or locality.

The first chapter, which I co-authored with Joy Rowe (the veteran historian of East Anglian Catholicism who pioneered the field in the 1950s) focusses on Elizabethan Catholics in the period 1559-1603. John Morrill then takes up the story of seventeenth-century Catholics in the years 1603-1688, the period which culminated in the suppression of James II’s plans for toleration and the destruction of fledgling Catholic chapels in Norwich, Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds. The third chapter, which I wrote, covers the long period between 1688 and 1829 and provides a demographic analysis of the eighteenth-century Catholic community as well as a reconsideration of the effect of French émigré priests from 1793 onwards. The fourth chapter, which I co-authored with Timothy Fenwick, deals with the much shorter chronological span between 1829 and 1850, which saw an upsurge in the number of chapels and missions in the region and the establishment of a short-lived seminary at Giffords Hall in Suffolk by Bishop William Wareing. In Chapter 5 John Charmley tells the story of the East Anglian counties within the cash-strapped and chronically undermanned Diocese of Northampton between 1850 and 1901, telling of churches founded and new parishes established against all the odds. Fr Michael Edwards’ Chapter 6 covers the twentieth century up to 1976, while Fr Tony Rogers, who was ordained in Northampton in 1970 and has ministered in the Diocese of East Anglia since its inception, provides a personal memoir of bishops, priests and people of the Diocese over the last forty years.

Those interested in taking research into the history of Catholicism in East Anglia further will find the appendices helpful, since they include short biographies of eighty East Anglian Catholics since the Reformation as well as a brief ‘gazeteer’ of important historic sites associated with Catholicism in the region. Catholic East Anglia is by no means the last word on the history of England’s easternmost diocese but it is intended to provide a sound basis for future study as well as introducing East Anglian Catholics to the rich history of post-Reformation Catholicism in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. I am delighted that the Diocese of East Anglia, which has never had a diocesan history society, now has a diocesan history that will hopefully provide rich material for parish history groups and interested individuals for years to come.