Blood and glory
I HAD my first taste of a familiar parenting nightmare recently. I discovered that everyone in my daughter’s class had spent the whole term working on individual projects about the local area, which were to be displayed in an exhibition — to which I was invited — the following week.
“Darling,” I said in the very calm voice I reserve for serious emergencies, “are you supposed to have done one of these?”
“Oh, maybe. I think so.” Her nonchalance was breathtaking.
A long-suffering vicar’s daughter, she greeted my first suggestion of a guidebook for the church with horror and derision, but we eventually settled on a sculptural retelling of the story of our local saint, Edmund: a gory enough prospect to impress her classmates. That is why I have just spent a fun weekend attempting to make a balled-up newspaper and a plastic mask look like the decapitated head of a beatified king.
Echoes of history
THE life of St Edmund, like all the best hagiography, is a tapestry woven of myth, hearsay, and political propaganda, with a thin golden thread of the possible and probable running through the middle. Pick at the thread, and it all falls apart — you have to tell the whole glorious mess of a story.
It begins like any fairy tale, with a king and a queen desperate for a child. King Offa headed to Jerusalem expecting a miraculous cure for infertility, but instead met and adopted Edmund on the journey.
A pious teenage king, Edmund’s troubles began when he gave asylum to a shipwrecked Danish refugee. It’s an uncomfortably pertinent tale more than 1000 years later: Edmund’s courtiers, jealous of the high rank given to this foreigner, managed to stir up enough damaging fake news to precipitate a Viking invasion. After some entertaining battle-and-chase stories (the best one involves Framlingham Castle and a cow), the life of Edmund ended with martyrdom: asking to die in the place of his subjects, he was tied to a tree, shot full of arrows, and beheaded.
One of our curacy churches boasted a medieval wall-painting of the wolf that was supposed to have found Edmund’s head and guarded it, howling “Over here!” to alert his followers. Half a dozen towns and villages claim to be the place where the king was martyred, and where miracles then occurred.
Edmund was the patron saint of England until George booted him out at some point in the Middle Ages, and there have been a couple of moves to reinstate him. Today, St Edmundsbury Cathedral is planning a millennial celebration, and hoping to find King Edmund’s long-lost grave underneath some tennis courts. It is fascinating to see how such an ancient tale still appeals to the imagination and identity of East Anglians.
The missing link
WHEN the phone rings in the rectory, I tend to be reluctant to pick it up. I don’t mind taking messages for “the Rev.”, but I’m often mistaken for a parish secretary and archivist in possession of the entire history of the church, an intimate knowledge of graveyard rules, and the Rector’s schedule for the next two years.
A surprising number of Americans call us up, wanting to know whether we have buried any of their ancestors, because at least two important village families travelled to became founding members of the United States. We have to confess to these callers that our churchyard was cleared more than 40 years ago — and all the gravestones shuffled — by people who would not have been able to imagine the interest shown by members of today’s society in their own family history.
Although we have not got the faintest idea exactly where anyone is buried, record offices can place them somewhere in our churchyard. People come a long way to see for themselves. The other day, I came across a couple taking photographs inside the church: an ancestor, they said, had been baptised there. I watched them for a while before curiosity got the better of me.
“Surely you want to photograph the font?” I asked.
“Oh, why is that?”
“The font is where she would have been baptised,” I explained. Eager clicking ensued as I described what would have taken place at their great-great-grandmother’s baptism: information that, for all their searching in registers and archives, had somehow passed them by.
Generation to generation
NEXT week, we will once again be welcoming members of the extended families of veterans from the 447th Bomb Group, who were stationed here for 18 months at the end of the Second World War. Every two years, there’s a 1940s dance and lunch.
Only two veterans are well enough to make the journey, but their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have made it a tradition to come and see the side chapel dedicated to them, and to find the memorials, dotted around the area, of fallen planes and lost lives.
This year, a new monument will be placed to commemorate a fatal crash. One of the pilots had a daughter, unborn when he died: she will be there, along with her grandchildren.
I REDISCOVERED my grandfather’s Bible, dated 1929 on the bookplate, and heavily annotated from his training as a missionary. It triggered an afternoon of online detective work, finding out where he went to college, when he was ordained deacon, and what happened to the church that he built in Port Elizabeth.
Perhaps the more itinerant we become, the more we look for roots. My daughter, although her clergy upbringing may move her anywhere, will now always have St Edmund as part of her heritage — although I’m holding out hope that his eyeless death-mask will not last long as part of her bedroom decor.
Amy Scott Robinson is an author and performance storyteller. Her new Advent book, Image of the Invisible (BRF), and a children’s trilogy, The Gladstone Tales (Kevin Mayhew), will both be published in September.