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.


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