HOT on the heels of the discovery of Richard III beneath a council car park (News, 14 September 2012) comes the suggestion that another English king may lie buried beneath municipal land, this time a town’s tennis courts.
The monarch is King Edmund, martyred by the Vikings in 869 for refusing to deny his Christian faith. His shrine in the Benedictine abbey in Bury St Edmunds was one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage sites, and he was for a while England’s patron saint.
But, in 1539, the abbey was desecrated during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and his relics were removed. One theory is that the saint’s remains were interred in an iron box in the monks’ graveyard, which today lies under tennis courts in public gardens laid out beside the abbey ruins.
It has now been suggested that a dig to find the coffin could be included in a bigger makeover of the grounds that link the site to St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
A writer on East Anglian religious history, Francis Young, said: “The commissioners who dissolved the abbey mentioned nothing about the body, and, given St Edmund’s royal status, it is likely they would have quietly allowed the monks to remove the body from the shrine and relocate it.
“According to a third-hand account from 1697, St Edmund was placed in an iron chest by a few monks, but sadly the account does not give the location within the abbey precincts where he was buried. On balance, however, the monks’ cemetery is the most likely location.”
A spokeswoman for St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Nicki Dixon, said: “No one really knows where St Edmund is buried. Some people say he was taken to France, others that he is much nearer; so it’s all a bit speculative.
“We are in a heritage partnership with St Edmundsbury Borough Council to improve the site to create a more open link between the abbey grounds and the cathedral. At the moment, they are separated by a large wall. The tennis courts are run by the council; so they would be the ones involved in any digging.”
Little is known about Edmund’s life. His kingdom of East Anglia was devastated by the Vikings, who destroyed any contemporary evidence of his reign. He was first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written some years after his death, and later writers produced fictitious accounts of his life.
Tradition holds that he died at an unidentified place known as Haegelisdun, when the Danes, on the orders of Ivar the Boneless, and his brother Ubba, first beat him, then shot him with arrows, and finally beheaded him.
His head was thrown into the forest, and is said to have been found, guarded by an ethereal wolf, after calling in Latin, “Hic, hic, hic” (“Here, here, here”).