This morning I spoke to Mark Murphy on BBC Radio Suffolk (listen from time signature 1:53:15) about St Edmund’s role as the patron saint of pandemics, explaining the history behind this rather surprising feature of the cult of St Edmund. The idea of invoking St Edmund’s protection against infectious disease springs, essentially, from his instrument of martyrdom – arrows. In the Bible and in Christian tradition, the metaphor of arrows is used for infectious disease. St Sebastian, the Roman martyr who was tied to a tree and pierced with arrows, was invoked against the plague from an early date, and St Edmund occasionally appears alongside St Sebastian in medieval depictions, suggesting that a popular tradition of St Edmund as a plague saint existed in medieval England. However, no evidence survives that St Edmund was thus promoted by St Edmunds Abbey, even though the monk John Lydgate (Edmund’s biggest late medieval promoter) wrote about the plague.
Instead, the idea of St Edmund as a plague saint took off in the French city of Toulouse in the 17th century. Since at least the late 15th century, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin in the city had claimed to be in possession of the body of an English royal saint who came to be identified with St Edmund (a strange claim, given that Edmund’s body had been in Bury St Edmunds since the 10th century). In 1631 the city was ravaged by a terrible outbreak of plague and the Consuls invoked the saints enshrined at Saint-Sernin. When they invoked St Edmund, the plague came to an end – securing Edmund a place as one of the holy protectors of the city of Toulouse. In 1644 the supposed relics of St Edmund were solemnly translated to a new chapel and shrine, with a beautiful reliquary designed by Jean Chalette that depicted a plague victim supplicating the saint from his bed. Unfortunately the reliquary was stolen at the time of the French Revolution, when the church was ransacked.
A guide for pilgrims to Saint-Sernin published in 1762 includes a prayer to be said at the shrine of St Edmund for protection against infectious disease:
Lord, who by an incomprehensible effect of your mercy, accorded the blessed King Edmund the grace of victory over the enemies of your holy name: grant that by his prayers we may avoid the traps and the dangerous promptings of the enemy of salvation.
In the 19th century the Catholic Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr in Bury St Edmunds acquired some relics from Toulouse attributed to St Edmund, and as late as 1902 these relics were secretly carried through the streets of the town by a Jesuit priest during an outbreak of smallpox, when the town was in lockdown. We now know that these relics were not genuine – but we also know that the body of St Edmund is almost certainly buried somewhere in the precincts of his Abbey.