And so, I return after an unannounced absence: since I last wrote, I have written, submitted and passed my doctoral thesis. Hooray! I can now return to writing things that are (relatively) short, manageable and fun!
So, to the topic today: the Vikings.
Scandinavian Warriors washed over England in several waves, from 793 through to the 1060s. At times they went in for smash-and-grab raids, at other times they got organized and took control over large parts of the British Isles.
The Vikings sometimes controlled and lived in London. On other occasions, they sacked and burned the city. For all of the dry facts that we know about the movements of armies and the rise and fall of individual kings, there is remarkably little detail or drama concerning what it was like to live through this period in our sources.
This begins to change in the later Viking attacks that started from 1002 and lasted for the next decade and a half. Several sources, both Viking and English, recount vivid stories in this period. In this blog and the next few, I am going to retell some of these stories.
Today it is the story of Aelwine of Bury, an English monk who made an epic journey through war-torn England to reach safety in London in 1010. His mission inspired two monks, Herman and Goscelin, to write accounts of his journey. Both were writing shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 – close enough that this account is probably not pure fiction, but far enough away for many of the details to become hazy.
Aelwine and the Corpse
In some ways, the story starts much earlier. In 869, an army of pagan Vikings tore through East Anglia. They captured the Saxon ruler of that area, King Edmund, and killed him. Because he was killed by heathens when defending a Christian realm, Edmund was soon acclaimed as a martyr. The church in which he was buried became a pilgrimage site, and later a monastery. The place where they buried St Edmund is today the fittingly-named town of Bury St Edmunds.
In the 1000s, there lived a layman in Bury named Aelwine. This was a time in which most monks would have been oblates, which meant that they had been donated to the monastery as a small boy by their parents. Aelwine had a particular devotion to St Edmund, which caused him to distain ‘worldly pomp’ and join the monastery as an adult, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund p. 19).
Herman seems to have been employed as the personal keeper of the body of St Edmund. Many medieval people venerated relics – the holy bodies and body-parts of saints – in ways that we find quite strange today. In Aelwine’s case, this involved living with the body and acting as a ‘devoted servant’: ‘indeed, he often poured pure water over the incorrupt body and combed its hair, and he lovingly kept any hairs, drawn out of the comb, in a box, as relics’, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 19).
Aelwine met with pilgrims and heard their problems. He would then go to the corpse of Edmund and ‘discuss various problems with the saint as one friend does with another, through the stillness of the night’, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 19).
If he was alive today, the fact that Aelwine’s closest friendship was with a corpse may be considered concerning. By the standards of the day, he was showing piety, reverence and treating Edmund in a suitable way for a king or lord.
Enter the Vikings
A new wave of Viking invasions began in the early 1000s. In 1010, a Dane named Thorkell the Tall led an invasion that put Bury St Edmunds at risk. The Vikings had a habit of raiding wealthy monasteries and stealing their goods. And in Aelwine’s eyes, the greatest treasure at Bury was the body of St Edmund. Edmund was not just a valuable prize: he was also a resource of great spiritual power and the enemy absolutely could not be allowed to take him.
Aelwine placed the corpse in a casket and hoisted it onto a cart. He disguised himself as a pedlar and set off on a journey: he would take the relics to London, where they would be safe and their miraculous power could support the English against the invaders. Aelwine’s journey was tense:
Impelled by this fearful anxiety, he proceeded with extreme caution, wheeling the shafts as boldly as he dared, avoiding the highways wherever possible; keeping away from built-up areas; content at any humble lodgings. He was not unlike those pedlars who frequent markets to sell their goods, in that their homeward path is a road of dread: for they constantly watch their backs, nor are they less apprehensive of the road ahead of them’ (Herman, Miracles of Edmund, p. 29)
Aelwine thought he might have found a safe port of call in Essex. He called in with an old friend, a priest named Eadbriht, and asked to stay. Eadbriht, ‘frightened by the talk of the enemy all around’, said that they could not come in (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 31). He even denied them the shelter of his yard.
Aelwine was not disheartened. He crawled into the coffin for shelter and reflected on his holy mission. Above him, divine lights appeared: ‘the monk reclined under the martyr, the martyr under the open sky, glittering under a radiant pillar of flowing light. O happy man!… Even the most eloquent orator would struggle to describe how delightful slumber and sweet repose relieved your sorrow and weariness alike’ (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 161).
Aelwine was jolted awake – the cart was moving! The spirit of St Edmund, ‘who had foreseen his enemies’ manoeuvres, preferred to get back on the road (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 31)’. As they rolled past the house where they had been denied shelter, Aelwine saw that it was ‘engulfed in avenging flames’, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 163). Medieval religion was often a harsh and unforgiving one: Eadbriht had broken the rules of hospitality and for that crime, he had lost everything. Things weren’t all bad for him though, because he survived and later his son, would become an important abbot, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 31).
And so, the pilgrims rolled on towards London.
The Miracle of the Bridge
Aelwine had reached Stratford, which is now in East London (site of the Olympic park) and then was a village on the edge of things. It was just three miles to the city walls. He could see the cathedral. But there was an obstacle. The river Lea laid before him. And the bridge was ravished by war.
Goscelin’s Miracles of St Edmund captures the tension of the situation best, (p. 163)
‘A narrow bridge lay across it, broken in many places and safe for none to tread, especially soldiers. He starts to cross, but the boards, being narrower than the cart, will not support it and prevent him. He wades into the water; the swollen torrent threatens shipwreck. What could he do; where could he go? The poor man has no idea. The bridge’s narrowness halts his advance; there is no solid path amid the waves, and no boat. The Dane is at his heels…’
For any of us, it would be a bleak moment. But Aelwine was a man of faith, indeed, blind faith. He drove the cart forward onto the bridge. I’d imagine in this situation that I’d be hiding my eyes behind my hands. Aelwine did not hide his eyes and so was able to see an incredible sight: one wheel of the cart was in contact with the bridge. The other hung over the edge, where it made contact with the surface of the river and – remarkably – continued it found a purchase and continued to move as if the water was solid. Jesus had walked on water – St Edmund could drive on water. Thus, they drove on forwards, Aelwine singing praises to St Edmund as he passed.
Finally, they had arrived! Aelwine had brought his precious cargo to London. (Or, given how much of the heavy lifting has been done by miracles, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Edmund had brought Aelwine to London).
They pulled through Aldgate and entered the walled city. Goscelin says of London: ‘Whoever has entered its gates, however grand, will appreciate all the more that he was entering a city of wonders. Sick folk afflicted with various ailments congregate; the streets throng with a multitude of the infirm’. (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 165).
Soon, Edmund’s miraculous effects were working: the blind could see, the dumb could talk, the deaf could hear! A paralysed woman who had for all of her life been carried in a basket suddenly leapt free! ‘Edmund’s name, Edmund’s praise, Edmund’s glory resounds from everyone’s lips…the ringing air grew thick with the shouts of people amazed at the stream of miracles’, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 165).
There was one person who was left out. A crippled woman, lying in bed, heard the shouts. She desperately wanted to join the crowd, but she was unable to stand. She wailed out ‘Woe is me!’, convinced in her heart that one touch of the holy relic would be enough. And because of her faith, suddenly her legs became straight. She took a step, tentatively at first, and then ran forward, crying Edmund’s praises! She was the eighteenth person to be cured on that day, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, pp. 165-9).
A procession of clergy, lay elites and magnates gathered and lifted the holy relics onto their shoulders and bore him up to the Church of St Gregory, which was the parish church attached to the Cathedral.
In the crowd was one wealthy Dane who was ‘inflexible and swollen with pride’. He pressed himself forward and found that the Cathedral priests were drawing a curtain around the holy relics. He demanded to see for himself what the fuss was about and so rudely yanked at the curtain. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t see the coffin behind. He was quickly struck blind. He threw himself on the ground, wailing and begging forgiveness: his tears, Goscelin cruelly notes, became his baptismal waters, and soon the man became a Christian (Miracles of St Edmund, pp. 169-171).
Edmund’s coffin had been installed. A respectful curtain was pulled around. The people of London showed due reverence and respect. They had arrived. Aelwine had achieved his mission. Edmund was safe.
A crowd thronged around it. They had arrived.
The Punishment of Sweyn
This wasn’t the end of Aelwine’s story. Edmund was safe, but the land was still being ravished by Vikings. King Sweyn of Denmark invaded in August 1013 and declared himself to be King of England on Christmas day of that year.
Aelwine met with pilgrims coming to the shrine of Edmund and heard from them the great exactions, taxes and violence of Sweyn’s rule. He talked all night about their problems with Edmund’s corpse in the macabre way that was his habit.
In his dreams, Aelwine heard Edmund’s voice. He had a message for Sweyn: ‘Why do you rage against my people? Why do you make them pay tribute?… If you do not stop this trouble, you will quickly learn that God and I, the champions of our people, are displeased with you’, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 19). Aelwine new that it was his dangerous task to deliver this confrontational message to the Viking King.
When he arrived at Sweyn’s court, ‘the place was packed with Danish and wretched English courtiers’, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 21). Aelwine laid out in eloquent the martyr’s demands: Sweyn must cease oppressions, or face Edmund’s wrath.
‘Fierce Sweyn…started like a lion’, and scorned both Aelwine and the martyr Edmund. (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 21). Aelwine was scorned, insulted and exiled from the court.
A vision of Edmund appeared, telling Aelwine that he had nothing to fear from earthly kings. This didn’t comfort Aelwine as much as you might expect. He still lived in fear that Sweyn’s wrath would fall upon him and the monk fled into the night.
On the road one night, he found a band of soldiers ahead of him. Aelwine turned back but found another behind him. Worse still, they were speaking in Danish! There was no way out – he had to walk past them. The soldiers shouted out his name – they recognized him from court! He feared that the time of his death had arrived.
And then they told him the news: Sweyn was dead, struck down by divine providence shortly after he had banished Aelwine. Edmund had saved the day! Aelwine was safe!
There is obviously a lot of embellishment in this story, but in reality, Sweyn’s reign was short and troubled: it lasted only from December 1013 to February 1014.
Safety was returning to the land at last. It was time for Aelwine to bring Edmund’s body home. There was, however, a problem. Edmund’s cult was too popular in London. The masses were devoted to their new saint and the Bishop of London loved that his city was now the centre of a cult. It would be very difficult to extract the body.
Aelwine asked for permission to take the relics home. The bishop gathered twelve men and brought them to the shrine of Edmund: they planned to take the relics into protective custody, to stop the monks of Bury taking them back. But as they tried to lift the coffin, suddenly they found that it was heavy – impossibly heavy. They simply couldn’t lift it.
Aelwine entered the church and laid a hand on the coffin. Suddenly, it was light as a feather and he carried it back to his cart. Edmund had spoken. His time in London was over. A sad crowd of pilgrims gathered and followed him well beyond the walls.
This time, Aelwine did not need to hide or use back routes. He rode proudly through the countryside and the pious Christians of each village received him gladly. At Bury, the townsmen and monks received them in procession. Finally, Edmund was at home
What do we make of it?
You may be able to tell from how much detail I have gone into on this tale that I really enjoyed reading and rewriting the tale of Aelwine and Edmund. Both Herman and Goscelin have a knack for vivid storytelling and capturing small and interesting details. Aelwine faces genuine adversity, although the fact that he has some all-powerful saints’ relics in his back pocket at all times prevents any of these situations from becoming properly tense.
We probably shouldn’t take these stories as being very accurate descriptions of the time period. Edmund’s relics really were seconded to safety in London, and Aelwine is probably based on a real person. Beyond this, most of the story is sketchy – the ability of our authors to put national events in the right order can be quite hit and miss.
What we perhaps can get from these stories is something of how it feels to live in a medieval kingdom during an invasion or civil war. Goscelin and Herman were both of the generation who had come over in the Norman conquest. They lived through the frequent revolts and civil wars of the post-Conquest generation. They knew what it was like to live in a land ravaged by war.
Whilst I wouldn’t trust most of the facts in these accounts, some of the most vivid and memorable experiences ring true: fleeing before a powerful army, important men disguising themselves as nobodies in order to avoid detection, fear and apprehension upon meeting soldiers, or making your way to the nearest large city to find safety. Many of the refugees who were in this situation must have wished for a divine protector: in this story at least, the relics of St Edmund answered that call.
References: Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Miracles of St Edmund, Ed./trans. Tom Licence, Oxford Medieval Texts, (Oxford, 2014).