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Death by Viking – a painful way to achieve sainthood

All old European kingdoms have a martyred royal or two. In Sweden it’s St Erik, in Norway it is St Olof, Scotland has St Margaret, and England has St Edward. And St Edmund. Two royal saints – one of whom was martyred by the ancestors of St Erik and St Olof.

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St Edmund, crowned in glory

So who was this Edmund, and what did he ever do to deserve the honorific of saint? Well, obviously he died – rather painfully – but many people throughout history have done that without being rewarded with a sainthood.

Very little is known about Edmund. In fact, what comes down through the ages is a story of a beleaguered hero, a symbol necessary to keep the fire burning in the hearts of his people, cowering under the weight of the Viking yoke. And what a yoke it was, the Nordic raiders returning year after year to plunder. At times, attempts were made to buy them off, but in the latter half of the ninth century, Ingvar Benlös (Ivar the Boneless), as per the sagas one of Ragnar Lodbroke’s sons, assembled a huge Viking army – adequately named the Great Heathen Army – and landed on English soil. This time, they did not want plunder. This time, the Vikings wanted land. I guess they’d had it with war and blood, hankering instead for meadows and tilled fields. After all, even bashing innocent monks over the head to rob them of everything they have gets a bit old after a while.

Due to all that Viking raiding and pillaging, most East Anglian written records of the time have been lost. Vikings didn’t read books – they burnt them. (Which is not to say they were illiterate. It’s just that the Vikings preferred carving runes into stones – a far more permanent record of their doings than ink on parchment) Despite this lack or records, we do know there existed an Edmund – coins with his name testify to this. Those same coins indicate he succeeded a gentleman named Aethelweard as king of East Anglia. It is thought he was related to Aethelstan, king of Kent, and whatever the case, the general supposition is that he was of a “noble and ancient race”, i.e. of royal Saxon blood.

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Edmund’s death

Edmund became king at the tender age of fifteen – or so the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us, which means we need to take things with a pinch of salt, as the Chronicle showed little interest in the events unfolding in East Anglia until twenty years after Edmund’s supposed death. But let us assume the Chronicle had it right – if nothing else because it makes for a better story. A young, gallant prince takes up the ermine (well…no ermine at the time, but still) and proceeds to lead his people. By all accounts, he did a good job, showing plenty of promise.

He was also a good Christian – a pious young man who in everything was the perfect role model for all those future young men who aspired to be brave and heroic. Here we had a king who refused to compromise when it came to his faith – no matter what it might cost him.

In the 860s, the Viking army landed in England with the intention of staying – for good. This did not go down well with those already there, but the Vikings were a somewhat brusque race, and what people didn’t give them, they took. They started by marching north to conquer York and Northumberland, went from there to Mercia where they forced the king into accepting a treaty, and then turned south to formally conquer East Anglia.

Edmund defended his kingdom as well as he could. But however competent Edmund may have been, he wasn’t much of a match for the battle-hardened Vikings, and his men were pathetically inadequate in facing up to the roaring Northern horde. To be fair, all of the Saxon kingdoms except Wessex were to succumb before the Viking warlords.

In November of 869, Edmund and his men ended up surrounded by the Vikings. There are various versions of what happened, but I prefer the one where Edmund yielded to save the lives of his men. There’s another variant whereby Edmund hid himself under a bridge in Hoxne – hoping no doubt to live and fight another day – but his spurs caught the sunlight and a young girl gave him up. However it came about, our Edmund was now in the less than tender care of the Danes.

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Killing the saint

Vikings were practical people. Why kill someone you could milk until they were dry? They therefore suggested that Edmund buy his life by giving them half his treasure. But, they added, he would have to embrace their faith as well. Anathema to Edmund. He might consider parting with what little treasure he had left, but his faith was not up for discussion. Edmund squared his shoulders, prepared to meet his fate. A young man still, not yet thirty, about to be cut down in his prime.

The Vikings found this rather hilarious. In general, Vikings couldn’t quite understand how anyone could worship such a weakling as the White Christ – the silly man got himself nailed to a cross, and as far as the Vikings could make out, he hadn’t even tried to fight himself free. Very strange, as per the Norsemen. It therefore amazed them that so many men were willing to die for this – in their opinion – useless god.

Edmund was tied to a tree. He was whipped with chains until he was bleeding from all over. He still refused to disavow his god. If Christ could die for all humanity, then Edmund could die for Christ. Very well, said Ubba – the man in charge – and ordered the half-dead man to be peppered with arrows. Still he didn’t die, but by now his tormentors had tired of their game, so they chopped off his head and threw it into the surrounding woods, leaving the decapitated corpse tied to the tree.

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A talking wolf (?)

No sooner had the Vikings ridden off, but Edmund’s men cut him down, weeping (I suppose) at this futile death. They looked everywhere for the head, but it was dark and cold, and no matter how they looked they couldn’t find it. But Edmund had friends among the wild creatures that lived in the woods, and so it was that a wolf found the head, and called out a series of “hic, hic, hic” until Edmund’s men cottoned on and came charging through the underbrush, marvelling at the miracle of a talking wolf (in Latin, no less).

Edmund was buried in a nearby church and there he remained for twenty-odd years. By then, the myth and legend of Edmund, the brave and handsome young king who died for Christ, had found its ways to the Church, and it was decided that the saintly king needed a more suitable shrine – which is how Edmund ended up being reburied in Bury St Edmunds. ( I like it when place names are this straightforward :))

By then, those Viking raiders had settled firmly into their new land. The Danelaw covered most of England, but interestingly enough those savage heathen warriors developed a softer side when living in peace. Many of them became Christians, and thirty years or so after Edmund’s death, the mints of East Anglia produced pennies with the legend SCE EADMUND REX (St Edmund King). Those ferocious Vikings and their descendants were proud of their brave saint, conveniently choosing to forget he wouldn’t have been a saint had the Vikings not killed him.

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St Edmund’s martyrdom depicted by Brian Whelan ( Creative Commons)

By 925, the cult of St Edmund had grown to such size it required a separate community devoted to this English saint. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds grew fat and happy thanks to their resident saint. Until the Reformation, the cult of the saint remained strong, and when the shrine was defaced and destroyed in the 16th century, it is said gold and silver to the value of 5 000 marks were carried away. Interestingly enough, at the time the shrine was probably empty, as it is said the French invaders who fought King John in the early 13th century stole away the body. As per this story, St Edmund’s remains ended up in Toulouse and were venerated by the French for centuries.

In the early 20th century, some of the remains in the French shrine were returned to England. It has never been determined if they belong to Edmund, which is why these sad little fragments remain in Arundel, under the care of the Duke of Norfolk rather than being buried under the high altar of Westminster Cathedral as originally intended.

Well over 1100 years ago, a young king was tortured to death by barbaric invaders. To this day, his name is remembered, even if the man behind the saint remains forever enigmatic. Me, I hope he did other things in his life but die. I hope there was love, and comradeship, moments filled with the sheer joy of being alive. I hope there were women and beer, nights of peaceful dreams and days of wondrous beauty. I hope Edmund had a life, before he so valiantly gave it away to save his companions.

In search of a saint

Saints The_Olivetan_Master_Monks_Singin_the_OfficeToday’s post is about a saint I’ve always believed never existed. In actual fact, I suspect quite a few saints never existed – or were particularly saintly – but when a country embraced Christianity it was sort of important to produce a nice paragon of virtues to hold up as an example to the previously pagan population and inspire conversion. Seeing as saints very often met grisly deaths, I’m not so certain this worked all that well, but still.

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St Birgitta

Anyway: us Swedes would say we only have one real saint, namely St Birgitta. We would like to claim St Lucia as ours, but she is Italian, no matter that, in our opinion, we do a far better job of celebrating St Lucia than any other nation in the world. Some Swedes would put forward that St George must be a Swedish saint – if nothing else because of the absolutely fabulous sculpture depicting St George in Stockholm’s Cathedral (A true work of art, commissioned in the 15th century). St George would probably object. The English might object as well, although St George was no more English than St Lucia is Swedish.

But we do have a longish list of home-grown saints – starting, of course with St Birgitta who scared everyone from her king to a sequence of popes silly. A tough lady, St Birgitta – but then what was a woman to do if she wanted to get ahead in the 14th century? Sit and spin? Other than St Birgitta, only two of the Swedish saints have been canonised by the pope: St Sigfrid (who was English) and St Helena of Skövde (never heard of her – must read up – but it seems the pope had his arm twisted to canonise her so as to inspire conversion…) So the rest of our saints were mostly canonised by local bishops, and one of these is the subject of today’s post, namely St Erik.

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St Erik as depicted on a church wall

St Erik is the patron saint of Stockholm, and died gruesomely – as saints do – in 1160. At the time, he was king Erik, although he wasn’t necessarily recognised as being king by all his subjects. In the 12th century, Sweden was not a cohesive kingdom. The southern part of present day Sweden was Danish, the middle part was divided into Götaland and Svealand, and as to the north, no one really cared: it was forested, wild and preferably avoided as God alone knew what lived up there beyond giant wolves and strange people who had tame reindeer. Note that the “north” corresponded to roughly half of present day Sweden…

What we truly know about St Erik can be summarised in like eight words, i.e. it’s not exactly much. We do know he had a son, who did his best to promote his dear, departed father’s saintliness. Seeing as this son murdered to become king of Sweden, maybe his opinion is neither here nor there. On the other hand, at the time kings were murdered regularly in Sweden.

Back to our Erik: he was one of those murdered kings. Yup. Very sad, but there you have it. The story goes like this: Erik Jedvardsson was a pious man, who took the celebration of mass very seriously. After becoming king (probably through violent means) in 1150, Erik had spent most of his time fighting off other claimants – and spreading the word about God in a country that still contained deep pockets of pagan beliefs (and in Finland: Erik led a crusade to Finland). By all accounts, Erik was a capable king, and under him the country flourished. Laws were implemented, trade grew and for some years there was peace.

saints The_battle_of_PoitiersOn the 18th of May 1160 – exactly 856 years ago today – Erik was attending a church service in Östra Aros (close to Stockholm) when word reached him that one of his enemies was approaching fast, accompanied by many, many armed men. Erik was urged to flee, but he refused, saying he had no intention of cutting short the service in honour of God. (That’s what saints do: they set God before life). By the time mass was concluded, the church was surrounded. Erik, however, was a brave man and a proven fighter, so he stepped outside to meet his enemies.

A battle ensued. Erik was swarmed and wounded repeatedly until at last he fell to the ground, too weak to remain on his feet. His enemies, led by Magnus, the Danish claimant to the Swedish throne, jeered at him, taunted him, hurt him some more, and in general had their fun before finally chopping off the prostrate Erik’s head.

Immediately, a spring welled forth where the decapitated king lay. Miracles were reported not only at the spring but also at the king’s grave. A king was dead, a saint was born. Not that it helped Erik – or his son, who fled for his life. God was clearly most displeased by all this, and within a year Danish Magnus was dead, the crown passing instead to Karl Sverkersson, the son of the man who was king before St Erik. (This King Sverker was murdered on his way to church, but not by Erik). Some years later, Knut Eriksson invited Karl Sverkersson to visit him and had him killed, thereby taking the Swedish crown as his own.

saints Pilgrims-In-Front-Of-The-Church-Of-The-Holy-Sepulchre-Of-JerusalemSome decades after his death, Erik’s remains ended up in a reliquary. People made pilgrimages to pray by his bones or the well, and he was one of those household saints people directed their daily prayers to. He was one of the most depicted saints in contemporary art, churches were built in his name. Over the centuries, the veneration grew. And then came the Reformation. Suddenly, saints were not the thing. Shrines were packed away, bones were thrown on the garbage heap. Well: not all bones. However cocky, the new Protestant bishops were hesitant to dump dear old St Erik on a midden – or, as we say, a “kökken-mödding” – so instead they put him in deep storage. Which is why his bones are still around…

Recently, these bones have been examined. Not for the first time, I might add, but back in the 1940s techniques were not all that advanced, so the conclusions were not exactly riveting. “His head has been chopped off.” Err…we already knew that.

The new examination has revealed more. First of all, our Erik ate a lot of fish – which was in line with the teachings of the Church. He was roughly forty years old at the time of his death and was all of 1.67 metres tall (5 ft 6 inches). Preliminary isotope analysis shows he spent most of his life south of present-day Stockholm, and healed injuries to his cranium match stories from his exploits as a crusader in Finland. Dating is consistent with a death in the 12th century. The skeleton also shows signs of several unhealed wounds, received just before death,  none of which are on the torso. This, the experts say, indicate that Erik was wearing a hauberk.

Cuts to his shin bones show he’s been wounded while lying on the ground, consistent with the legend’s version. And then there’s the damage to the neck vertebrae, which indicates that someone actually relieved the king of his hauberk before delivering the fatal blow – with the poor man flat on the ground. Maybe he was unconscious by then, because all those blows to his legs must have bled a lot. Whatever the case, someone said “off with his head” and Erik was no more – just like in the legend.

In conclusion, the bones confirm that once upon a time there was a man who was attacked, badly wounded, thrown to the ground and decapitated. We must take it on trust that the bones belong to Erik Jedvardsson – his bones don’t exactly come with an engraved name. Likewise, we cannot assess his character: all we know about Erik comes from the legend constructed by his son who had a vested interest in painting poor dad in the brightest of lights. But whether Erik deserved the sobriquet of saint yes or no, at least he did exist. Always a good start, I’d say.

The saint in the kitchen

250px-Teresa_of_Avila_dsc01644One of my favourite historical persons is St Teresa de Jesus (or St Teresa de Avila as she is also known). I would actually go as far as to say this lady is my favourite saint – but that may of course be because she is one of the few saints I have found interesting enough to read up on.

What I like about Teresa is how down-to-earth she seems. This woman doesn’t get her visions from God while fasting and praying, no her visitations come as she is busy in the convent’s huge kitchen. Imagine the dark, cool space. Over the open hearth the kitchen maid is turning the spitted birds, to the side the dough has been set to swell under a rumpled but clean linen cloth, and by the huge table stands Teresa, busy stirring a mixture of herbs and oils in a copper pan. Which is when Jesus says “Teresa, can you hear me?”
She most certainly can. Her face grows slack, her eyes glaze over, and her hold on the pan loosens to the point that it clatters to the floor. Teresa doesn’t notice; she is levitating a couple of inches off the floor, face turned upwards, towards the sky, towards the sound of the heavenly voice that fulls her spirit with joy, her heart with content. Moments later, Teresa is back to her normal capable self. The pot has been picked up, the mess on the floor wiped clean. But all the while she goes about her work, Teresa’s head rings with the words of her Lord and Saviour.

Let’s start at the beginning. Teresa was born 1515 in Ávila, an ancient and beautiful Spanish city. On her mother’s side, Teresa’s bloodline was impeccable – true Christian blood as far back as one could go. On her father’s side, things were somewhat more fuzzy – borderline dubious, as her father was of Jewish descent, however much a Christian he might be.

Goya_Tribunal_FlammenhutAs a child, Teresa’s father had been subjected to the humiliating experience of having to do penance for not being a true convert to the Christian faith. Not that the poor boy had done anything, but his father was accused of still holding to Jewish traditions such as not eating pork, and so the entire family had to wear sambenito robes (gowns and conical hats in a bright yellow colour, decorated with flames and crosses – a discreet little hint as to what end awaited a heretic) and for seven consecutive Fridays walk from church to church in Toledo, admitting their sins. At every stop they were pelted with offal and submitted to verbal abuse, and as there are very many churches in Toledo, this was quite a harrowing experience. No wonder that Teresa’s father was so keen to marry beautiful Beatrix de Ahumada, what with her Christian lineage. He even took her family’s name as his, attempting to erase all traces of his own ancestry.

Teresa’s mother was fourteen when she married, dying at 33 after nine childbirths. The poor woman had spent a lot of time in bed, what with one pregnancy following on the other, and to while away her time, she devoured romances starring brave knights and demure damsels. As a consequence, Teresa was very young when she developed an interest in books, even though she would upgrade from romances to heavier tomes as her life progressed. The influence of her early reading matter can, however, be seen in her own writing, which lacks the stiff formality usually present in religious writings of the time.

Kempeneer,_Peter_de_(Campaña,_Pedro)_-_Bildnis_einer_DameWith her mother dead, Teresa had to assume certain responsibilities in the household of her father. Marriage contracts were discussed, but Teresa was less than interested. The life of a well-born woman in 16th century Castille was very restricted, the wife’s role being to orbit round her husband and give him as many children as she could. The wives of the well-to-do led most of their lives behind the walls of their homes, and when they went abroad they would be adequately covered so as not to give rise to any gossip about their flightiness. Adequately covered in this case being everything but one eye, veils intricately arranged so as to achieve “tapada de medio ojo” (covering half the eyes).

Teresa had no wish to end up like her mother. A year in a nearby convent to calm her down, didn’t initially make her desire to become a nun either. Young Teresa was confused as to what to do with her life, but after some consideration she decided to elope to a nearby convent and take vows – very much against her father’s wishes. Supposedly, as she got into the carriage that was to take her to the convent, a man came by and made some complimentary comments about her ankle, for an instant visible below her skirts. The young woman laughed and thanked him, hoping he would appreciate that he was the last man ever to have the joy of seeing her skin thus uncovered.

This little episode gives us an insight into another aspect of Teresa. She was pretty enough to attract male glances, and she had no compunction about utilising this attraction to her benefit, wheedling donations and support out of almost every rich man she met. There was a lot of muttering about this handsome woman and the men who surrounded her. On one occasion, Teresa was hauled before the Inquisition on charges of fornication, with her confessor. At the time, Teresa was sixty plus, her confessor was around thirty, and the accusations were quickly laid to rest. But, some would snidely say, no smoke without fire, hey? Teresa never deigned to confront these malicious gossips.

406px-Hildegard_von_Bingen_Liber_Divinorum_OperumIt is said that Teresa’s decision to enter the convent was not due to devotion, but rather reflected her fear for her soul. Teresa considered herself prone to sin, and what better way to combat such tendencies than to remove oneself from the outside world? Still, she remained lukewarm in her religious convictions – which worried her. One day she became seriously ill, was ill for the coming three years or so, and during this period she had repeated experiences of religious ecstacy. Some people suggested her visions were the work of the devil, and Teresa, being convinced of her own sinful nature, was initially worried that they were right. Luckily, one of her confessors concluded that was not the case, and so Teresa could allow herself to be swept up in the passion of religious ecstacy.

Teresa was a prolific writer – her visions and spiritual experiences were committed to large tomes in which she developed her religious thinking. Today she is considered one of the great Christian mystics, but at the time this was a dangerous thing to do. Very, very dangerous – and especially if you were a woman. Which is probably why Teresa is so depreciating of herself in her books “I am but a simple woman” or “I have been asked by men much wiser than I to relate…” or “This calls for a simile, and I beg you excuse me, silly woman that i am for…” At times, her depreciation borders on sarcasm. Maybe it was…

424px-Cisneros1So why this animosity towards women? Well, what’s new? The Church had been a male dominion for most of its existence, women relegated to be supporting “Marthas”, i.e. they should cook and feed, they should nurse and comfort, but they should preferably do this in silence, obsequiously bowing before the greater wisdom of men. Hmm. Very much hmm, come to think of it… Anyway, some men were enlightened, charming characters, such as Cardinal Ximénes Cisneros, who had the Bible translated to Spanish in the early 16th century and encouraged women to read and study the Holy Writ and other divine texts. Women leapt to the challenge. They read, they discussed, they did some more discussing – well, you know, like us women do, we talk things over, and while we’re at it, we digress into tangential discussions about Mercedes’ latest baby (seven sons, I tell you!), and is it true your hair becomes blonder if you wash it in chamomile water (yes), and has anyone else tried this new, strange vegetable called potato? (no way, was the resounding reply, patatas were for pigs and peasants)

Execution_of_Mariana_de_CarabajalThe more serious and devout among the women joined groups with male members, groups with the sole purpose of striving to understand the Holy Writ. They were called alumbrados, or enlightened, these laypeople who took it upon themselves to make their own interpretation of the Bible, and the priests were not happy. Not at all. Especially as many of the more vociferous alumbrados were women – and conversos (Christians of Jewish origins), which, in the eyes of the Inquisition, was quite the toxic combo. Once Cardinal Cisneros died in 1517, there was a major backlash. The female leaders of the alumbrados were tortured, whipped, exiled, forced into convents – and in some cases burnt. All for the temerity of developing a personal relationship with God – and for being of Jewish descent, of not being sufficiently “pure” in their bloodlines.

This was bad news for Teresa. Not only did she have Jewish blood, but she also had a very personal relationship with God. She experienced utter joy when taken over by her visions, total abandonment when the moment passed. As she moved upwards through the hierarchy of the convents (she started quite a few herself), she studied the holy books, she had more visions and felt compelled to share her experiences. The Inquisition hovered over her – repeatedly. Teresa chose to handle this by applying a healthy dose of self-censorship – at least to her books. She was somewhat more forthright in her criticism of the Church and its prelates in other circumstances – which was why she founded her own order, which advocated a return to a simpler monastic life, with ample opportunity for contemplation and prayer.


The Seal of the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition

On several occasions, Teresa had the less than pleasant experience of having to defend herself – and her writings – before the Inquisition. In 1580, she was forced to burn her commentary to the Song of Solomon, page by page, before the assembled Inquisitors – most of them men young enough to be her sons. And yet, for all that it hounded her, the Church also admired this tenacious woman, this nun who wrote enormous tomes about her close relationship with her King and Lord, Jesus. I suppose her sincerity shone through, as did her devotion and love.

When Teresa lay dying, her every word, her every expression was recorded. The nuns around her bedside whispered among themselves; were they witnessing the death of a saint? Yes, yes, they murmured, look at her face, lit from within, look at the joy blazing from her eyes! Excitement rippled through the room. Imagine that! A saint, dying here, in their convent. They’d build her a nice tomb, and soon the pilgrims would come, and…the abbess may have rubbed her pudgy hands together, calculating the potential profits this would mean. Teresa was beyond caring.
“Who are you?” her Beloved one asked her one afternoon.
“I am Teresa of Jesus,” she mumbled in reply, “and who are you?”
“I am Jesus – of Teresa.”

In 1583, Teresa was called to her heavenly father. For her sake, I hope he was there, waiting for her. Maybe He took her hand and led her towards the brilliance of heaven, maybe He just smiled, somewhat enigmatically, at this woman who loved Him so much.


The reliquary containing St Teresa’s arm

No sooner had Teresa died, but the nuns hastened to bury her, wanting to ensure her bodily remains remained in their convent, Alba de Tormes. Not to be. Some days after her death, her confessor, Jerónimo Gracían rode in. His plans were to take the body with him to Ávila. The body was disinterred, the (male) witnesses marvelled at her beautiful body, free of all signs of putrefaction and firm and round, this despite her advanced age of 67 (and the fact that she was dead). Gracían produced a saw and cut off her left hand. A major quarrel re the remains broke out. The body was taken to Ávila to be buried there (but an arm was chopped off and left at the convent where she died).


St Teresa’s heart

The bereaved convent protested, all the way to the Holy Father. Teresa’s body was yet again dug up. And again. And again. Five times in total, the poor corpse was dug up and reburied, and every time it was returned to the grave, it was several limbs/organs poorer. An eye was popped out, a finger was nipped off, her heart ended up in a reliquary, her upper jawbone was removed, her dainty foot was cut off….

Over the centuries, Teresa’s body parts have done quite the walkabout. And her hand, the one so callously chopped off by her dear confessor, was one day to adorn the pillow of Franco’s deathbed. I guess the old dictator hoped that by holding on to it, he’d be led all the way to heaven. Fat chance. Teresa wouldn’t have liked him, and neither, I’m sure, would God.

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