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Does a tennis court hold the secret of St Edmund's bones?

PUBLISHED: 11:10 18 November 2017

A wall painting at St Mary the Virgin church in Lakenheath which depicts King Edmund.

A wall painting at St Mary the Virgin church in Lakenheath which depicts King Edmund.

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2015

November 20 is St Edmund's Day, the feast day of the 'last king of East Anglia' and - some would say - England's proper patron saint. But where do his bones lie? Trevor Heaton explores the twists and turns of a centuries-old mystery.

Do the bones of St Edmund lie under these tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens at Bury St Edmunds?Do the bones of St Edmund lie under these tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens at Bury St Edmunds?

When the king’s men came, their greed was only matched by their thoroughness. The saint’s ‘riche shryne’ was stripped of its gold and silver, its cross studded with emeralds dismantled, the gemstones meticulously collected and assessed.

St Edmund’s Abbey still had four years left to live, but to all intents and purposes this was the day it died. Centuries of history, centuries of devotion, centuries of miracles, centuries of grateful gifts, all crumbled away on that mournful day in 1538.

Henry VIII’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell had first sent his commissioners to Bury St Edmunds in November 1535 to assess the abbey’s alleged state of moral turpitude – a convenient excuse for what was to follow – and prepare a detailed report for their master on its wealth.

Truth be told, St Edmunds’ Abbey was already in decline when Cromwell’s henchmen arrived. It was still a vast complex – the third-largest Romanesque building north of the Alps - but a disastrous fire in 1465 had taken its toll. The church tower had partially collapsed a few decades earlier too.

Criticism had grown, too, of the privilege and perceived superstitions which underlay such institutions.

And, finally, the need of a powerful and ruthless king to fund his foreign wars meant that Bury’s fate – like so many hundreds of others – was sealed. The shrine of the saint who had once been a personal favourite of kings was being destroyed by one of their number.

Its portable wealth was carted off to London. The shrine, which had inspired a cult which stretched all the way to Iceland, was left defaced and broken. Today, the huge gatehouse on Angel Hill gives a tantalising flavour of how magnificent the buildings in what is now Abbey Gardens must have been like.

And so the material remains of Bury St Edmunds’ once-mighty abbey were broken up and dispersed. Its monks pensioned off, its site stripped for building materials. History moved on; nothing to do now except mourn for lost glories.

But not quite, not quite. One abiding mystery remains: what happened to the bones of Edmund, ‘saint, king and martyr’?

The sensational rediscovery of Richard III’s remains under a Leicester car park has sparked interest in tracking down the bones of other kings and queens. In 2014, for example, a pelvic bone from a male was dated from somewhere between 895-1010. The bone had been discovered in a box of items excavated at the former Hyde Abbey, burial place of Alfred the Great. Could it be him…?

The bones of St Edmund were still in good condition as the 13th Century dawned, as his remains had been inspected in 1044-65 and 1198 and found to be intact. And they would have escaped that disastrous 1465 fire, as they had been moved out to a purpose-built chapel in the monks’ cemetery in 1275.

That’s if they were still there anyway. For here comes the second strand of this fascinating historical mystery. Dr Rebecca Pinner, Lecturer in Medieval Literature and History at UEA, and an expert on the saint, takes up the story.

“We need to go back to 1215-6, in the aftermath of Magna Carta,” she explained. “It was the First Barons’ War [against King John] and the French dauphin [heir to the throne] Louis had invaded,” she explained.

“We’re not quite entirely sure what he got up to” – although Norwich Castle did fall to Louis’ forces – “but a chronicler Roger of Wendover, from St Albans, says he overran some monastic houses.

“We have no corroboration that one of these was Bury St Edmunds, but then again, they’re not going to advertise this, are they?”

If the French prince did raid Bury, the temptation to steal the saint’s bones might have been too strong to resist. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and there are references in the 15th century to the Basilica of St Sernin in Toulouse having them.

“Then in the 1640s Pierre de Caseneuve wrote that the relics had been in Toulouse since 1216. There had been an outbreak of plague in the 1620s and it seems the community brought out some of the relics and showed them special devotion.”

It worked – the outbreak subsided. So was this St Edmund’s final miracle?

The next chapter in this fascinating story takes place in the first few years of the 20th century, with the consecration of the new Westminster Cathedral.

It sparked ‘a really intense media debate’ at the time, Dr Pinner said. In keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine, a holy relic was sought as part of the ceremony. “And the cathedral authorities at the time decided some of the relics of St Edmund would be ideal.”

The French said ‘non’. Eventually the Pope intervened and ruled that some of the relics should be sent to England, to Arundel Castle, seat of the Duke of Norfolk, the most prominent Roman Catholic family in the country.

It was only supposed to be a temporary measure. But the newspapers of the day had other ideas. “Another media campaign got under way, which objected to the relics going to Westminster,” Rebecca explained. “The argument was along the lines of ‘England is no longer a Roman Catholic country, so why should we be engaging in Roman Catholic beliefs and practices?’.”

There were also some objections from Catholic scholars who said the ‘real’ St Edmund would never have allowed his bones to be stolen in the first place...

So they are still there, in a casket in the chapel of the West Sussex castle. In the early 1990s the Duke of Norfolk authorised an Arundel Scientific Committee to carry out a full analysis of the bones.

“There were more than 100 fragments, but some of these were tiny. The upshot was that these were a collection of bones from a number of individuals.” Rebecca continued. And another surprise: “They were from both male and female individuals…”

But there was one object of particular interest, as it had been mentioned in that 1640s French account – a skull. But here, too, science was unable to come up with any definitive answers.

So have we finally a dead end in our search? Maybe not, for back in Bury St Edmunds it so happens that the monks’ cemetery is now under tarmac tennis courts. It was mooted in 2013 that the king’s remains might still be there, spirited away from the chapel by monks and hastily reburied to thwart Cromwell’s men. “There is a 16th century reference that possibly the remains were put in a lead casket and buried somewhere…”

St Edmundsbury Borough Council drew up plans two years earlier for an extensive remodelling of the Abbey Gardens, which would have involved moving the tennis courts to the Eastgate Nurseries and allowing archaeologists to excavate the old graveyard.

Sadly, the Heritage Lottery Fund application was not successful. If stronger evidence emerges that the king’s bones might be there, then the council has said that its bid could be re-submitted. But the Catch-22 in all this is, of course, that the strongest evidence would be the bones themselves.

Dr Pinner, however, is sceptical. “You are not going to find an intact skeleton,” she insists.

And even if the tennis court were to be dug up and some bones found, how could you possibly prove they were those of St Edmund, or, rather, the historic king Eadmund?

Unlike Richard III there are no convenient collateral descendants who could provide the clincher when it came to DNA links. Poor, butchered, tragic, Eadmund was the last of the ancient Wuffinga dynasty.

The closest you might do is find a radiocarbon date which might give you a date sometime in the late ninth century, plus or minus 50-60 years or so (if you were really lucky). But what then? After all that effort, all you could really establish was that an Anglo-Saxon was buried there.

Ifs, buts, maybes. The trail, then, looks cold – almost five centuries cold, in fact.

But let’s just say – and this is a very, very big ‘what if?’ – that one day we do find the martyred king’s bones in some secure, dateable and unimpeachable way (a sealed and engraved casket, perhaps). What would such a discovery mean?

It’s a difficult question, as Dr Pinner is the first to admit. “It would mean different things to different people,” she said. “For some people it would be a very tangible, an almost visceral, connection to the past. It would become part of a debate about East Anglian identity.”

The rediscovered saint might find himself caught up in wider issues, however, about the nature of ‘Englishness’ in a fast-changing, post-Brexit world. “Some of the rhetoric about how St Edmund is the true English saint is very problematic, quite frankly.”

For the town of Bury St Edmunds, though, it would sure mean only good things, catapulting it to the front rank of English historic attractions, up there with the Yorks and the Durhams.

“You only have to look what has happened in Leicester [with Richard III]. There would be an enormous economic and tourism benefit,” Dr Pinner added.

And there we must leave it. The rediscovery of St Edmund looks so remote as to be, well, a miracle if it happens. In a world of certainties, Edmund (and probably Eadmund too) seemed destined to remain familiar, yet tantalisingly out of reach too.

Rather like his bones, in fact.

Dr Pinner’s book The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia is published by the Boydell Press.

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