The king under the tennis courts?

The tennis courts behind the Abbey Ruins, © The Daily Telegraph

A local story that has been blowing up in the national media over the last few days is the speculation that St Edmund might be buried under the tennis courts behind the east end of the ruins of the abbey church in Bury St Edmunds. It all started with an announcement by Cllr Robert Everett of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, reported in the East Anglian Daily Times, that agreement had been reached about moving the tennis courts to an alternative site, which would allow an archaeological investigation of the area. Yesterday I was interviewed by both The Daily Telegraph and BBC Radio 5 Live (listen from 21:31) about the prospects of finding St Edmund’s body. Today I was interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland and ITV Anglia News, and The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror and Christian Today picked up the story. A snippet of my interview with ITV’s Nina Nannar appeared on ITV News at Ten.

The story originally derived from two sources, the first of which was speculation by Sarah Friswell published by the East Anglian Daily Times in 2013 that St Edmund might have been buried in the monks’ cemetery behind the abbey church when he had been removed from his richly decorated shrine in 1539. Then, later in 2013, I discovered a document in the library of Douai Abbey, the symbolic successor community to St Edmunds Abbey, which appeared to lay to rest rumours that the body of St Edmund was removed from the site in the Middle Ages, since it was an account by the grandson of one of the ex-monks of how his grandfather and others had hidden the body of the saint in an ‘iron chest’ in 1539. The account in published in my books Where is St Edmund? (2014) and The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (2016). Unfortunately, this account did not say where the body was hidden, but the site of the old monks’ cemetery is a very good place to start looking because

  1. It was very close to the shrine site, and an iron chest is heavy
  2. It was a private area not accessible to the public
  3. Monks digging a grave in their own cemetery would not have aroused suspicion

Furthermore, there are some grounds to believe that the body of St Edmund could be identified in an excavation. There is no DNA evidence (as in the case of Richard III) because St Edmund and the Wuffing dynasty have no known descendants, but it is likely that when Edmund’s body was placed in the iron chest it was still inside the loculus (wooden inner coffin) described by Jocelin de Brakelond in his 1198 account of the examination of the saint’s body by Abbot Samson. That loculus contained a gold image of the archangel, about a foot long, over the breast of the martyr. This angel was not one of the treasures listed by the commissioners in 1535 as having been stripped from the saint’s shrine, meaning they only stripped the exterior of the shrine and did not open it. The iron of the chest would allow archaeologists to distinguish it from the lead, wood or stone coffins of the monks, and if the angel were found in association with bones of ninth-century date then these could be identified, beyond reasonable doubt, as those of the saint.

All of this remains in the realm of speculation; I consider it extremely unlikely that the body of St Edmund will actually be found. However, in my view that is beside the point. The removal of the tennis courts will allow investigation of the monastic cemetery (from which we can learn a great deal about the life of the monks by analysing their bones). It will also allow the completion of the excavation of the abbey church which began in the 1950s and could not be finished because the chapel at the extreme east end of the ambulatory (the former Chapel of St Mary, later known as the Chapel of the Cross) lay under the tennis courts. Discovering all of this would be every bit as interesting as finding a king under the tennis courts.