St Edmund: a Christmas saint

St Edmund, from the rood screen dado at Barton Turf, Norfolk

It might seem strange to associate a saint whose feast day falls even before the start of Advent with Christmas, and yet in the Middle Ages St Edmund was strongly linked to the Christmas celebration in a number of different ways. In the first place, St Edmund was often paired with St Nicholas of Myra (the Christmas saint par excellence), whose feast falls on 6 December. The reason for this pairing was that both saints were associated with the protection of seafarers. A second reason why St Edmund was associated with Christmas was the fact that his feast day inaugurated a fair in medieval Bury St Edmunds that lasted from 20 November until Christmas Eve. That fair has been revived in modern form, and still begins on St Edmund’s Day, although it no longer goes on until 24 December! In medieval Bury, therefore, St Edmund’s Day marked the start of preparations for Christmas, rather than Advent Sunday as elsewhere. St Edmund even had his own vernacular carol, which I recently adapted into modern English.

There are deeper reasons, however, for St Edmund’s links with Christmas. According to the Annals of St Neots, Edmund was crowned on Christmas Day 855 at a place called Burum (traditionally identified with Bures, near Sudbury). While this is almost certainly a later, fabricated tradition, Edmund did indeed become king of the East Angles in the mid-850s, and certainly by 860, judging from the numismatic evidence (which is the only contemporary evidence we have for Edmund’s actual reign). The practice of crowning kings on Christmas Day was quite widespread in the 9th century and went back to the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. A Christmas Day coronation underlined the king’s close relationship with Christ (whose kingship was especially emphasised in the Christmas liturgy), although 6 January was also a popular date, in order to elide a king with the magi/kings who came to worship the infant Christ. So it is certainly possible that the historical king Edmund really was inaugurated on Christmas Day, especially since his royal dynasty had a track record of appropriating imperial symbolism.

Henry VI surrounded by the monks of Bury St Edmunds in 1433

The final reason why Edmund became linked with Christmas in the Middle Ages was liturgical. The antiphon for first vespers of the Feast of St Edmund, Ave rex gentis Anglorum (‘Hail, king of the English people’) bears a superficial similarity to the Christmas antiphon Ave rex angelorum. The tradition of playing on the similarity of the Latin words for ‘angels’ and ‘English’ (angeli and Angli) is as old as the 6th century – Pope Gregory the Great famously did it – but the conflation of the two antiphons reached its apogee in 1433, when the young King Henry VI came to stay at St Edmunds Abbey for Christmas. The monks substituted the Christmas antiphon Ave rex angelorum for Ave rex gentis Anglorum, thereby not only substituting St Edmund for Christ but also substituting Henry VI for St Edmund, since the antiphon was effectively being sung to welcome the living king.

There is a curious coda to this story in an argument advanced by Prof. Bennett Zon that the 18th-century Christmas carol Adeste fideles (‘O Come All Ye Faithful’) plays on the same similarity between angeli and Angli. The carol was, according to Prof. Zon, a covert celebration of the birth of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (the Jacobite heir to the throne) on 20 December 1720. Curiously, at this period in the 18th century English Catholics erroneously celebrated the feast of St Edmund on 20 December, not 20 November, so it is possible the line natum videte regem angelorum (‘Come and behold him, born the king of angels’) was intended to reference St Edmund as well, whose ‘heavenly birthday’ was the day of his martyrdom. Or perhaps this is an interpretative leap too far…


Peter John Payne 1924-2019

A young Peter Payne (left) with his father George, 1930s

Today I delivered the address at the funeral of my relative Peter Payne, who died aged 95 on 28 October. Peter was one of the leading computer scientists of the post-War era, and in my address I attempted to do justice to his scientific achievements.

Peter Payne was a man who changed the world we live in. It is not often that this can truly be said of someone; but in Peter’s case it really is true. Peter was such a modest man that he barely ever talked about his achievements, still less boasted of them; indeed, it was not really until last year, when I bumped into one of his former colleagues, that I really started to appreciate the significance of what Peter did. As a child I was always fascinated by the things Peter could do with the rather basic home computers then available; on one occasion, I remember that he managed to scan a drawing I had made of a cartoon mouse and turn it into a brief animation.

Peter was not born into the Young family, and yet he was grafted into the Youngs when his father George married Flo, my great aunt. George Payne died in 1950, but Peter often said that his father was even more talented than he was – an engineering foreman at W.H. Allen so skilled that he was the only worker permitted to use the most sophisticated cutting machines. Peter inherited his father’s gift for working with technology – but unlike his father, Peter had the opportunity to receive a higher education, and became one of the leading computer programmers of the post-War era.

Peter was always a man ahead of his time, and this was why I always enjoyed visiting him. He seemed to see further than the rest of us, and his was an intellect focussed on the horizon of the future. Indeed, while the work of many researchers soon gets supplanted and fades into insignificance, Peter’s pioneering programming for the design and manufacture of three-dimensional objects is much more important now than it was in the 1960s. It will be still more important in years to come. 3D printing technology, the technology of the future, is dependent on programming developed by Peter Payne for W.H. Allen, British Airways Corporation, Clark’s Shoes and others. In 1972, Peter was the first person in the world to demonstrate that a computer program could be used to cut a three-dimensional object. That moment was, in effect, the birth of all 3D computer-aided manufacturing, including 3D printing.

In 2018 I met a gentleman called Ernest Warman who worked with Peter in the ’60s and ’70s, and remembered him as both a legend and a visionary genius of computer-aided design. Ernie remembers Peter working through the night to design the nose-cone of the BAC111 aeroplane, a type of short-haul jet that remained in service from the 1960s until the retirement of the last plane as recently as May of this year. Peter showed that he could accomplish in one night what would have taken a conventional team weeks to complete. On another occasion, Ernie remembered someone asking if a program could be developed to design shoes; Peter took off one of his own shoes there and then and used it to write a program that would create templates for shoes. There was no faffing about with Peter! He subsequently worked with Clark’s Shoes, developing a computer-controlled shoe last that is now on public display in the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. The programs he developed were probably used to create the shoes you are all wearing today. Believe it or not, even the humble snap-shut spectacle case was developed by Peter’s team.

Peter’s work bridged the worlds of engineering and academic research, and he worked both in Cambridge University’s Engineering Department and in the Mathematical Laboratory, the predecessor of today’s Department of Computer Science. The area in which Peter excelled was creating programmes that could deal with complex, curved 3D surfaces – something that, when Peter started, no-one thought a computer could do. But the more challenging the problem, the more eager Peter was to find a solution. Indeed, a preoccupation with the three-dimensional spilled into Peter’s hobby of stereoscopic photography, while his brilliant spatial sense was no doubt the secret of his gifted coaching in snooker.

The life of Peter John Payne is a reminder of how much a single modest and unassuming human being can contribute to the world – in ways that seem small at first, but in the perspective of history may be huge. The work of pioneers of computer science, of whom Peter was one, now dominates all our lives in ways they could not have imagined. Peter himself started to feel as early as the late 1990s that he no longer understood modern computers. But in truth we do not yet know the true significance of Peter’s work, as the technology made possible by his vision is still being invented. Peter was one of the last surviving pioneers of the first age of computing that followed the Second World War.

I don’t know why Peter was so modest about what he accomplished. Perhaps he felt that the credit should go to the team in which he worked, rather than to any one individual. But above all, I think Peter understood that it was his quiet work as a mentor – whether to young engineering students, to young snooker players, or to members of his own family – that mattered most. His kindness, his patience, and his ability to inspire inquiry have left a legacy that I think Peter would have considered just as important as his scientific contribution. Because Peter was always able to see more than one dimension.


Why the millennium of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds matters

Seal of the Abbey of St Edmund

Today the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership formally launched the 2020 celebrations of the millennium of St Edmunds Abbey in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, an event which I was sadly unable to attend but which marks the culmination of a great deal of planning by the Partnership and other organisations. Coincidentally (I think!) the launch falls on the 984th anniversary of the death of the abbey’s alleged founder King Cnut. Many exciting events are planned for 2020, but I am most excited about the gathering of Benedictine monks and nuns on 24 and 25 May. This was something I originally proposed back in 2017 (albeit on a smaller scale than what is now planned), and I am delighted the Partnership took up my suggestion. The event looks set to be the largest Benedictine gathering on the site of a pre-Reformation monastery since 1997, when Cardinal Basil Hume led the English Benedictines back to Canterbury Cathedral to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury and his monks.

But why does the millennium of the foundation of this particular abbey matter so much? The circumstances surrounding the establishment of such a great abbey are surprisingly obscure, but according to tradition King Cnut introduced Benedictine monks to look after the shrine of St Edmund in 1020. This probably did happen in some form, although the earliest contemporary source we have for the foundation (the Bury St Edmunds Psalter in the Vatican Library) dates from about a decade later and identifies the Bishop of Elmham as the founder. Certainly, a new stone church was consecrated in 1032, and the replacement of secular priests by Benedictine monks happened at some point after 1013 and before 1032. The monks later forged a charter of foundation by Cnut, but incorporated elements of a real charter of Cnut, so the evidential waters are somewhat murky. There are also competing theories about where the monks came from. At least some of the monks were former shrinekeeper priests who accepted the Benedictine rule, but the abbey’s own tradition was that monks from Ely and St Bene’t’s, Holme united in a new community led by Ufi, Prior of St Bene’t’s, who became the first abbot. This narrative has been comprehensively challenged by historians, however, and the reality of the abbey’s foundation remains a mystery (for a more detailed discussion of the competing theories read my book about the abbey).

Some involvement in the abbey’s foundation by Cnut remains highly likely, however, purely on the basis that the day celebrated by the monks at the day of their foundation was 18 October – the same date as the Battle of Assandun in 1016, when Cnut defeated Edmund II Ironside and established himself as king of England as well as Denmark and Norway. It was customary at the time for victorious political leaders to found monasteries in thanks for victories (consider William I’s Battle Abbey), and the idea that Cnut might have founded a monastery four years after his victory at Assandun is plausible, especially since his family had an awkward connection with St Edmund that Cnut might have wished to deal with. In February 1016 Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, had supposedly been killed at Gainsborough by an apparition of St Edmund himself when Swein attempted to impose a tax on the people of Bury St Edmunds. By introducing the Benedictine reform to Bury St Edmunds by installing Benedictine monks as the guardians of St Edmund’s shrine, Cnut established his credentials as a pious ruler but also appropriated the powerful cult of St Edmund for his own Danish dynasty.

If this did happen, then it was not the first time Scandinavian settlers in England had attempted to appropriate St Edmund for themselves. As early as 890 (less than thirty years after Edmund’s death), the Danish rulers of East Anglia began minting memorial coins in St Edmund’s name, an event which may have coincided with the exhumation of Edmund’s body and its translation to the town that would become Bury St Edmunds. Indeed, while historians have often been tempted to see St Edmund as a focus for English resistance to Danish domination, the evidence (in my view) actually points in the opposite direction, and suggests that the cult of St Edmund was, at least in part, a Scandinavian creation. Edmund was destined to become an immensely popular saint in the Scandinavian world, and I argued in my book about St Edmund that the cult of St Edmund was the major instrument by which a cohesive Anglo-Scandinavian identity was developed in 11th-century England. Although the Norman Conquest complicated matters significantly, by 1066 the English and Scandinavian communities were largely at peace and extensively integrated with one another, in spite of much violence earlier in the century. The Scandinavian character of 11th-century England is now largely forgotten, and England would no doubt have continued to be part of the Nordic world (and more closely integrated into it) if William I had not invaded (or, indeed, if Harold Hardrada had defeated Harold II).

Cnut’s St Edmunds Abbey was a powerful symbol of a new Anglo-Scandinavian England which was part of a much wider Scandinavian world over which the great Danish king presided. The abbey’s foundation is a reminder of the power of the figure of St Edmund to reconcile and unite people groups whose interests and history might otherwise have seemed entirely at odds with one another. The abbey would go on to perform much the same role after the Norman Conquest, when St Edmund functioned simultaneously as a symbol of English national identity and a means for Norman lords to construct themselves as English through their devotion to him. The millennium of St Edmunds Abbey matters because it reminds us of England’s remarkable patron saint and his capacity to unify peoples and cultures. It is an opportunity to celebrate a complex, multifaceted and inclusive English national identity that matters as much today as it did a thousand years ago.