Assuming that England needs a patron saint, should St George be replaced by St Edmund? Another campaign is apparently now being orchestrated for the latter by Suffolk partisans. Edmund is said to have two advantages over George: he was a victim of violence, not a war-mongerer, and perhaps most importantly, he was English. In the stout words of a certain Clive Paine, as reported on the BBC, “Edmund is an indigenous Anglo-Saxon who died in defence of the Christian religion, whereas St George is a foreigner”.
It’s always great to see the early Middle Ages getting some attention. But actually, as a medievalist, I’m a bit ambivalent about this campaign, and suggest a few things need to be clarified. Firstly, while it’s a nice idea for some to think of Edmund as nobly dying in defence of Christianity, it’s probably more likely that he went out in battle to face the pagan invaders to defend his kingdom, and his place at the top of it. Christianity survived in Viking-controlled areas of England, after all, and far from being rabidly anti-Christian, plenty of Vikings went on to convert to Christianity, not least Guthrum of, er, East Anglia; the prospects for the incumbent kings after Viking takeovers were distinctly less promising, as Edmund presumably knew or guessed.
Secondly, and more importantly: if indigenous means ‘born in a region’, then yes, Edmund was indigenous. However, his presumed Anglo-Saxon identity (we don’t after all know how Edmund himself thought about it, he might have put more emphasis on the East Anglian bit) was no more than a couple of hundred years old at the point of his death, the product of a hugely important narrative of mass migration overlaid with stories about religion conversion; while England was simply a concept, not a political reality – it was in fact the pagan invaders who helped make that reality possible, by eliminating most of the independent kingdoms of the time.
That’s not to say that the England of Edmund’s day has no relation to the England of the present, of course. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening millennium; still, there are definite political and intellectual continuities. But it’s worth bearing in mind that all we know about Edmund’s death comes from – whisper it – the pen of a foreigner. The earliest record about Edmund’s martyrdom, on which all subsequent accounts were based, was written in a ‘foreign’ language, Latin, by a French monk named Abbo, around a hundred years after the event (an English version, based on it, came only later). Given the importance of Abbo’s text in shaping our knowledge of Edmund, we might say that the St Edmund beloved of the EDL is effectively the imagination of a Frenchman. The story was moreover stylised on the martyrdom of another ‘foreigner’, Sebastian, who was famously shot to death with arrows a few hundred years earlier. So our indigenous Englishman becomes a hybrid Franco-Italian.
It all goes to show that reducing the history of the Middle Ages, and especially the early Middle Ages, to stories about modern nationalities may be knock-about stuff for politics, but it does not make for good history. People and ideas moved around a lot then, as now: that’s not something that should be forgotten in people’s urge to (mis)use the period as a time of origins. It’s not for me to say who if anyone should be England’s patron saint. But whatever the problems may be of his crusading associations, and perhaps ironically in view of his adoption by English nationalists, at least St George, as the patron saint of places from Georgia to Portugal, reminds us of the fundamental multiculturalism of the medieval world.
Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. His book, Reframing the Feudal Revolution. Social and political transformation between Marne and Moselle, c.800-1100, is out now with Cambridge University Press.