Review: Anyone for Edmund? by Simon Edge

Simon Edge, Anyone for Edmund? (London: Lightning Books, 2020), 304pp.

It is rare for me to review fiction on here – indeed, I don’t think I have ever done so before – but Anyone for Edmund? is rather different, because Simon Edge’s novel was inspired by my research into the last resting-place of St Edmund, especially in my book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King. I never anticipated that my historical work would inspire fiction, and I am rather honoured that Simon Edge considered my historical hypotheses worthy of fictionalising. Anyone for Edmund? imagines a scenario I have imagined many times – the discovery by archaeologists of the mortal remains of St Edmund, on the site of the monastic cemetery in Bury St Edmunds, from where the municipal tennis courts were recently removed. The focus of Edge’s novel, however, is not on the archaeologists who find Edmund, but rather on a hapless government spin-doctor whose job it is to turn the story to the advantage of his political masters – resulting in a disastrous (and hilarious) litany of fabrication, exaggeration and deceit that would not be out of place in the propaganda machine of a medieval monastery. In the meantime, it turns out that St Edmund himself has a part to play, with equally catastrophic results.

Anyone for Edmund? is a very enjoyable and skilfully crafted novel that goes far beyond the fantasy of Edmund’s re-discovery to explore highly pertinent themes of national identity and authenticity in history and heritage – as well as providing a salutary lesson against the perils of slapdash historical research. Any historian who has dealt with the media (or, worse still, with politicians) will be painfully aware of the ease with which fabrications can slip into the public presentation of a historical or archaeological news story, so I found myself cringing through much of the book; the sort of narrative disaster envisaged in the novel is all too easy to imagine in reality. As we have seen, iconic archaeological discoveries like the exhumation of the body of Richard III can produce something akin to a collective cultural hysteria, resulting in claims and counter-claims and a tussle over real and symbolic ownership. There was a hint of this in Bury St Edmunds in 1965 when a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Bryan Houghton, attempted to acquire relics then supposed to be the body of St Edmund from Arundel Castle – only to find himself opposed by the Church of England establishment, since St Edmundsbury Cathedral considered itself the rightful custodian of Edmund’s body. Fr Houghton wisely gave up the attempt, and the bones remained at Arundel before they were shown to be a miscellaneous collection of human remains in 1994.

In spite of the fact that I uncovered a key source in the search for the body of St Edmund, and have hypothesised about his possible resting-place, the thought of archaeologists actually digging for Edmund and finding him fills me with something between trepidation and horror. As Simon Edge shows vividly in this book, discoveries of this kind are seized upon by politicians and the media to weave their own narratives – and in this respect we have changed little from the days of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Perhaps we should hope that St Edmund remains firmly hidden in the earth of Bury St Edmunds, and enjoy Simon Edge’s rich imagination rather than seeking the secrets of the king…

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