“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”
— Jesus; John 12:24
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What do we do when barbarians come knocking at the gate? Pilgrims of the past have responded by way of costly personal example. And the answers they’ve left behind can be as tough to chew as they are to swallow.
Similar to the tale of Boris and Gleb is that of Edmund, king of East Anglia (mid-ninth century). His history comes down to us from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints.
The Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of eastern Britain were no strangers to the terror of foreign invasion. Again and again during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries the people of Northumbria, Anglia, and Kent suffered cruelly at the hands of ruthless Viking raiders. Edmund knew exactly what to expect, then, when word came that a Danish sciphere or naval force under the command of two bloodthirsty leaders, Hinguar and Hubba, had landed in the north, and was at that moment cutting a swath through the country of Northumbria, wasting fields, looting villages, and killing men, women, and children indiscriminately.
It wasn’t long before Hinguar’s envoy arrived in King Edmund’s hall. “Hinguar is going to winter in your land,” he arrogantly announced. “He demands your gold and your allegiance. You will bow the knee to him at once if you value your life, for it is clear that you do not possess the might to withstand him.”
Despite his bishop’s warnings and pleadings, Edmund gave the Northman an uncompromising reply: “Worthy of death as you are, I will not defile my clean hands with your foul blood. I follow Christ, who has left us a very different example, and I will gladly be slain by your people if that is God’s will. Now go quickly and tell your cruel lord that Edmund will never bow to Hinguar while he lives, for his allegiance is due to Christ alone!”
Aelfric describes the sequel as follows:
So then: when Hinguar came, King Edmund stood within his hall, mindful of the Savior, and threw his arms aside. He wanted to imitate the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to use weapons against the Jews.
The Vikings’ response? They bound Edmund, mocked him, beat him, dragged him out of doors, and tied him to a tree. There they shot him with arrows until the shafts piercing his body resembled “a hedgehog’s bristles, just as it was with Sebastian” (swa swa Sebastianus waes).* Aelfric testifies that the king did not cease calling upon Christ until the end. After he was dead, the “impious heathens” (Aelfric’s term) cut off his head and hid it in the woods.
Though many of us today will find this hard to accept, that wasn’t the end of Edmund’s story. For when the raiders departed, the people of East Anglia found the king’s head and buried it with the body. In time, a church was raised above Edmund’s grave in recognition of the fact that “many wonders and miracles of healing took place at his tomb, that is, at the chapel where he was buried.”
We may perhaps doubt these miraculous tales. But whether they be mere embellishments or not, they nevertheless highlight and illustrate a truth that is of critical importance to every Pilgrim: the truth that death is the prelude to life, and that grace and supernatural power are released whenever we choose to lay down our lives in emulation of the Master.
*St. Sebastian, a captain in the Roman army, was martyred during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian after it was discovered that he had been leading other soldiers to Christ. He was shot by a firing squad of archers and left for dead in the year 288. His martyrdom is clearly reflected in Tolkien’s description of the death of Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring.