St. Edmund, whose name means “blessed protection”, was probably born in 841. He lived during one of the most troubled periods of early English history, when hordes of Danish pirates were devastating English kingdoms one after another, burning churches and monasteries, ravaging them, murdering Christians and all inhabitants. According to tradition, Edmund was called to the throne of East Anglia by the kingdom’s people in this critical period. He landed from exile (according to one of the versions of his life) at St. Edmund’s Point near Hunstanton in Norfolk in 855, praying to God to give His blessing on him and his fellow countrymen. Then Edmund proceeded to the royal palace at Attleborough in Norfolk where he officially staked his claim to the throne.
For a year young Edmund was instructed in Attleborough by Bishop Humbert of Elmham (who would also be martyred by the Danes). It was said that within one year he then learned all the Psalms of David by heart, and this Psalter was kept as a relic until the Reformation. The people saw in him their only hope to preserve their small Christian state. On the day of Nativity of Christ, December 25, 855 (or 856), the 15-year-old Edmund was crowned and anointed King of East Anglia. The following years showed that the people’s choice was providential: not only did Edmund become an exemplary and devout king, but he came to be a true national hero and a holy man.
Edmund was tall, with fair hair, well-built and with a particular majesty of bearing. He was a wise and honest man, pious and chaste in all his deeds. In all things he always strove to please God and by his pure life and glorious works he won the respect of all his subjects. Edmund was very meek and humble: he knew that, becoming a king, he could never be conceited with his countrymen, but should only be on a par with everybody in the kingdom. Edmund was protector of the Church and a shelter for orphans, was generous to the poor and cared for widows like a loving father. All who pleaded to him for justice received help.
In 865, a huge army of Danes, known as “the great heathen army”, led by chieftain commanders Ingvar (identified as Ivar the Boneless) and his brother Ubba “who entered into alliance with satan,” attacked England, invading Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. Burning and destroying everything on their way, the pagans decided to conquer the whole of England. They attempted to attack East Anglia more than once, and Edmund, concentrating all his strength, arranged a lasting resistance to the invaders. It is obvious that Edmund even won several minor battles with the Danes but the pagan army was too numerous and strong (it may have had over 20,000 soldiers). Thus, in 869, like a rabid wolf, Ingvar ferociously flew across East Anglia, put to death many men, women and cruelly tortured defenseless Christians. Finally Thetford, the capital, was taken over and all its population slain. Only Edmund with a remainder of his army survived at this crucial moment.
Intoxicated with his success, Ingvar sent a menacing message to the king: If Edmund valued his life then he was to bow before him, Ingvar, as his vassal. Edmund called for his bishop and asked for advice. The bishop, horrified said, “Alas, dear king! Your people lie dead, and you have no strong army to struggle. The pirates will come and seize you, unless you escape or submit to their leader’s demands.” Edmund answered bravely, “You offer me the life of a slave, but I do not wish to save my life after my servants have been murdered together with their wives and children. I am not used to fleeing my enemies, and, if God wills, I am ready to give my life for my people and my faith. My Lord knows that I will never renounce His love and will never stop serving Him, even if I have to die.” Then Edmund addressed the messenger and pronounced, “Go and tell your master that King Edmund will never bow before the heathen chief Ingvar until he bows before Christ as the true God!” The saint stood praying hard in his royal hall, imploring the Savior to strengthen him in this difficult hour.
Seeing the multitude of pagans, Edmund dropped his weapon, imitating Christ Who refused to defend Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Vikings bound Edmund hand and foot and then subjected him to relentless tortures and beat him with thick sticks. After that the murderers tied Edmund to an oak tree and for a long time flogged the king with whips, constantly insulting him. The humble and faithful king bore all the suffering with great patience and only kept pronouncing the name of Jesus Christ. The heathen were filled with fury, hearing the name of Christian God. They then shot arrows at the holy martyr until he was covered with them, in his passion repeating the exploit of St. Sebastian. At last, Ingvar realized that the pious king would never renounce Christ and commanded his servants to behead him. The soldiers instantly fulfilled his command, and St. Edmund until the last moment of his life repeated and called on the name of Christ Who was above all for him. He was later beheaded.