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.

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