Aged just 14, Edmund was crowned King of East Anglia on 25 December 855 by St Humbert at Burna (modern Bures St Mary in Suffolk). For the next fourteen years he reigned quietly but justly, modeling himself on King David – so much so, in fact, that he withdrew for a while to his royal tower at Hunstanton in order to learn the entire Psalter in such a way that he would be able to recite it from memory in public worship.
In 869 the Danish army under Ubbe Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless marched into East Anglia and set up camp at Thetford. Edmund challenged the invaders in battle (probably at Hoxne near Eye in Suffolk) but was defeated, and the Danes proceeded to lay waste the Kingdom, destroying churches and monasteries throughout East Anglia. The most precise account of Edmund’s martyrdom comes from Abbo of Fleury, who heard the story from St Dunstan who in turn heard it from Edmund’s own sword-bearer.
According to Abbo, Edmund was mindful of the story in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ rebukes Peter for wanting to fight against those who were seeking arrest him. Thus it was that, when confronted before the battle (in which he never actually fought) by Ivar the Boneless, he threw down his weapons – for which he was mocked, beaten, tied to a tree and scourged (with obvious echoes of Christ’s scourging at the pillar) while continuing to proclaim his faith in Christ.
The more that Edmund refused to renounce Christ, and the more that he refused to hand over his Christian kingdom to the heathen Vikings, the more the Vikings intensified the torture, firing innumerable arrows into him until he was “all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles” (here the echo is of the martyrdom of St Sebastian).
Finally, realizing that no amount of torture was going to weaken Edmund’s resolve, Ivar had him decapitated, and ordered that his severed head should be thrown into the surrounding wood. Edmund’s followers eventually found the head being guarded by a wolf (which, though starving, chose to protect the sacred relic rather than consume it).
Edmund’s head and body were buried together, and, when they were exhumed a few years later for the purposes of being properly buried in the new church which was being constructed in Edmund’s honour, it was discovered that they had become miraculously reattached to each other, the only indication of the manner of his death being a red line around his neck (British Museum scientists have suggested that the body which was dug up was actually that of a ritually strangled prehistoric bog body).
Edmund’s remains were finally laid to rest at Beadoriceworth (modern Bury St Edmunds), which by the 12th century developed into a major shrine and place of pilgrimage. Though Edmund was an Anglo-Saxon martyr, the Normans were always keen to stress the continuity between pre-conquest and post-conquest England (in order to emphasize their own political and cultural legitimacy), and were active in promoting Edmund’s cultus. (They also fostered the custom of carrying a banner his arms into battle, most notably at Agincourt.)
According to one legend, in 1014 Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark and England, was threatening to destroy the church where Edmund was buried when he was struck dead by the saint who descended from heaven with a lance. While there is evidence that Sweyn may have died suddently of apoplexy while attacking Bury St Edmunds, acceptance of this legend would presuppose that Edmund had drastically changed his views on the use of violence during the years since his martyrdom.
On converting to Christianity (which, perhaps for political reasons, his father had always tolerated), Sweyn’s son King Canute, rebuilt the destroyed abbey at Bury St Edmunds, making a pilgrimage there in 1020 and presenting his crown at the shrine to make atonement for Danish crimes against Edmund.