WHEN King Offa of East Anglia was travelling in Germany he found there a dear little prince named Edmund; and, as he had no children of his own, he adopted him as his son. Soon afterwards lie died, and the young prince inherited the throne of East Anglia, which is that part of England called Norfolk and Suffolk. Edmund was only fifteen at this time, and he felt himself so unworthy of kingship that the Wise Men had to take him almost by force to the church, where the good Bishop Humbert put the crown upon his head on Christmas Day, and the people proclaimed their allegiance with great shouts and rejoicings.
For many years Edmund ruled in peace. But when he was twenty-eight the Danes came over in their ships, and began to ravage England.
They had two fierce princes, Hingwar and Hubba. Hingwar was very clever and cunning; Hubba was a terrible giant, the cruellest man that the English had ever seen. These two brothers conquered wherever they went, and at each victory they slew not only the English soldiers but the old men and the children as well; so that through the length and breadth of the land folk shuddered at their name. At last they marched down from the North, and appeared on the borders of Edmund's kingdom. But they were exhausted with their battles, the Anglians were brave and strong, and the winter was near at hand; so for that season they lay quiet and bided their time.
In the spring the terrible brothers came on again, burning and slaying wherever they went. The East Anglians went out bravely to meet them; but at the battle of Thetford they were defeated with terrible loss, and no army was left to stop the enemy's advance. Next day a Danish horseman galloped into Edmund's camp, and demanded to see the king. Edmund sat in his little palace surrounded by his counsellors, while the Dane spoke in haughty tones--
"I am the ambassador of Prince Hingwar. His very name should have been enough to save me the trouble of coming here. Scotland, Northumbria and Mercia bear witness to his prowess; and you ought to have learned their lesson, and not tried to oppose so mighty a conqueror. But now he has charged me to say that, though he has the right to exterminate you all, he will spare you further punishment if you will consent to his terms. You must accept his gods, divide all your treasure with him, and become his vassal. Consider--it is better to give up something than to lose all!"
The ambassador went clanking out of the counsel-chamber. The Wise Men turned to the young king, and implored him to submit.
"Oh, consider," they cried, "how useless is further resistance! Scotland is fallen, Mercia is fallen. These Danes are God's plague sent us for our sins. Give them what they ask, or at least escape to some friendly court where you can live in peace."
But Edmund had made up his mind. And his brave young face lit up as he turned to the old grey beards round the council-table, and said:--
"I have but one life and it is not mine, for I owe it twice over. As a king, I ought to spend every drop of blood in my body for my people. As a Christian, I may not shirk martyrdom or beg my life at the hands of men who would stamp out every spark of religion in the land. I will go forth and die for God and my people."
So he called back the proud ambassador and gave him his answer; whereat he turned away in a fury, and rode back to the Danes.
That night King Edmund, with the Bishop Humbert who had crowned him in the happy days of his boyhood, left the little wooden palace and walked to the forest of Heglisdune, hard by the Danish camp. Here was a little chapel which the king and bishop entered to spend the rest of the night in prayer.
Next morning the Danes set forward to wreak their vengeance on the poor remnants of the English. But the advance-guard stopped to burn the chapel in the forest, and there they found Edmund and Humbert. Raising a great shout of triumph, they seized their prisoners and dragged them along as if they had been two thieves.
But the young king was bright and ready. He held out his arms that they might bind them the more easily; and, as they hurried him along to their prince, he walked even quicker than they.
Great was the joy of the cunning Hingwar when he saw his prize approach him.
"Ha!" he said, "boy, so you cannot escape me with all your impudence! What terms would you like to make with me now?"
But Edmund answered never a word. And Hingwar, boiling over with rage, cried to his men--
"Tear off his clothes and tie him to a tree."
They bound him fast to a tree, and then drew off and watched him as he stood there so quiet and firm under the branches, the sun finding its way through the gay spring leaves to play upon his fair hair and make patterns on the carpet of fresh grass. He stood there alone at some distance from them, and a broad stretch of turf lay between. Then Prince Hingwar called his ablest archers, and cried--
"Now, my men! Show us your skill."
The bows were bent, and the arrows flew through the air, first one and then another; and at each shot a roar of admiration went up. For the object of the bowmen was to see how many times they could touch their victim without killing him. The arrows stuck in him here and there as if at random, till his poor body looked like the body of a hedgehog; but never an arrow touched his head or his heart, or any mortal place.
Far away in the recesses of the forest the frightened peasants heard the shouts and cheers, and crept behind the trees, wondering what new woe had befallen. And their young king was dying alone, his one companion, Bishop Humbert watching him from the place where he too lay bound. Even the wild animals, whom Edmund had always loved, fled from the place, rabbits and wild cats scampering away together, and an old grey wolf slunk inoffensively by their side, crying Heugh! Heugh!
At last the Danes struck off Edmund's head; and, seizing it in derision, they threw it far into the depths of the forest. The good bishop, who had once anointed that young head and laid the golden crown upon it, saw it now decked with the crown of martyrdom, which is a diadem so glorious that no bishop can give it and no prince can take it away. In a few moments more that crown was given to Humbert too, and he went to join his brave king in the home of the saints.
The Danes were a restless people. In a few days they were off again to seek fresh conquests. Then the English crept out from their hiding-places and found the king's body; but his head they could not find. They walked backwards and forwards, striking among the fern and brambles with long sticks, and crying to each other--"Where are you? Where are you? Have you found it?"
So they searched through a whole morning, and cried through the trees and bushes to each other. At last they heard a deep voice calling to them-- "Here, here!"
They rushed to the place whence the sound came, and lo! there was an old grey wolf with his great muzzle lifted in the air as he bayed--"Heugh, Heugh! Here, Here!" And between his paws lay the head of Saint Edmund, unharmed.
So they took up the head, and brought it in solemn procession to where they had laid the body. First went the village priest with the sacred burden, and then the men, two by two, carrying their long sticks and singing psalms. But what was their wonder when they saw the old wolf drop into his place behind the priest, and walk Quietly along in the procession. They laid the head in its tomb with the martyr's body, and then the wolf trotted back into the dark forest of Heglisdune, and was never seen again.
The people were very, very poor, after all the ravages of the Danes; and all they could do was to raise a humble wooden chapel over the tomb. But very soon stories began to go about of wonderful things that had happened in St. Edmund's Chapel. It was said that a blind man had strayed into it, feeling his way with his staff, not knowing where he was, and that in the gloomy little church his sight came back to him. Many people visited it and put offerings before the shrine, till it became quite rich. And some robbers went there one night to steal the offerings, but found themselves held by invisible bonds, so that next morning they were discovered, and Edmund's gifts were saved.
Soon the shrine became so famous that the Bishop of London pulled down the wooden chapel and built one of stone. A little while after, the martyr's body was taken to a new town, where a great and fair church was built to receive it. This town was re-christened the Burgh or town of St. Edmund, and it is still called Bury St. Edmunds, so that one day you will be able to go and see for yourself the ruins of the abbey which was built there. Some while after, the last heathen Danish king, Swegen (the father of Canute), tried to destroy St. Edmund's town. He laid siege to it, and demanded all the treasure of the church, else he threatened to destroy the church and kill all the clergy; and this he said with many taunting words about the saint who lay buried there. But as he was sitting on his war-horse, waiting to attack the town, he saw in the sky St. Edmund coming towards him, a crown on his head and a long bright lance in his hand. "Help, friends!" he cried. "Edmund is coming to kill me! " Then he fell down, and died in convulsions.
King Canute, his son, became a Christian; and he rebuilt the minster. In the year 1020 he made a pilgrimage to it, and offered his own crown upon the shrine as atonement for the sins of his forefathers.
Right down to the middle of this present century an old tree stood in Hoxne Park (which is all that is left of Heglisdune Forest); and men said that this was the very tree on which St. Edmund had been slain. In the year 1849 this old tree fell down, and was broken up; and in the heart of it an arrow-head was found. Pieces of the tree have been kept, and one of them now forms part of the altar of a church which is dedicated to St. Edmund, King and Martyr.