Seeking the Body of St Edmund: 1539 to the present
with Dr Francis Young (The King’s School, Ely)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 30th May, 2015.


The fate of the body of St Edmund after the Reformation is an enduring mystery. This study day explores the search for St Edmund, as well as the reinvention of the saint in history and folklore since the sixteenth century.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                The End of the Cult of St Edmund in Suffolk, 1539 – This session explores the late medieval cult of St Edmund and the position of the Abbey of St Edmund in the local area from around 1450 to the dissolution of the Abbey in November 1539. It will consider how the representation of St Edmund was changing in the late Middle Ages and why the cult of an incorrupt Anglo-Saxon king was declining in popularity, eclipsed by more fashionable devotions. The session will pose the question of whether the shrine, Abbey and cult of St Edmund were already destined for obscurity before Henry VIII intervened to destroy the shrine in November 1539.

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                Re-making a Saint: The Story of St Edmund after the Reformation – This session will examine how Protestants and Catholics after the Reformation used the story of St Edmund and re-fashioned his image to suit their own needs. The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe stripped the story of its ‘superstitious’ elements and made St Edmund a heroic Christian warrior pure and simple, while Catholics made St Edmund into a model of Catholic kingship. Paintings of St Edmund appeared at the English Catholic colleges in Rome, Spain and Paris that were training priests to return to England and restore the Catholic faith, reminding students of the possibility of martyrdom that awaited them. Meanwhile, the early antiquaries argued over the truth of elements of St Edmund’s story.

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:                 St Edmund in East Anglian Folklore – This session considers the stories that were told about St Edmund by ordinary people in East Anglia after the Reformation. Unlike other saints, whose memory was obliterated by the Reformation, St Edmund survived as a local hero and, perhaps surprisingly, the surviving stories about St Edmund centred on the village of Hoxne rather than Bury St Edmunds itself. The session will also consider local memory of pre-Reformation traditions associated with St Edmund, such as the ‘Bury bull’ ceremony, folklore of the landscape associated with battles fought by the saint, and local customs around Suffolk linked to St Edmund.

14.50 – 15.10:               Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:                Where is St Edmund? – This session will try to answer the biggest question there is about St Edmund after the Reformation: what happened to the saint’s body at the dissolution? In the absence of any contemporary documentary evidence, numerous theories have sprung up including the idea that St Edmund was taken to Toulouse in 1216. The session will evaluate the competing theories and advance a new hypothesis, based on evidence discovered in 2013, that St Edmund’s body was hidden by the monks somewhere in the vicinity of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

c.16.00:                            Thanks and Close

About Dr Francis Young

Francis Young was born and brought up in Suffolk and studied at Cambridge University, where he eventually obtained a PhD in History. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Head of Sixth Form (Academic) at The King’s School, Ely. He is the author of many books and articles, including English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829 (2013), Where is St Edmund? (2014) and The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640–1767 (2015).

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

Bale, A. (ed.), St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint (York Medieval Press: York, 2009)

Carey Evans, M., ‘The Contribution of Hoxne to the Cult of St Edmund King and Martyr in the Middle Ages and Later’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History 36 (1988), pp. 182–195 (available online:

Gottfried, R. S., Bury St Edmunds and the Urban Crisis: 1290–1539 (Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ, 1982)

Gransden, A. (ed.), Bury St Edmunds: Medieval Art, Architecture, Archaeology and Economy, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XX (British Archaeological Association: London, 1998)

Houghton, B. R. S., St Edmund King and Martyr (Terence Dalton: Lavenham, 1970)

MacCulloch, D., Suffolk and the Tudors: Politics and Religion in an English County 1500-1600 (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1986)

Scarfe, N., ‘The Body of St Edmund: An Essay in Necrology’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History 31 (1969 [1970]), pp. 303–317 (available online:

Webling, A. F., The Last Abbot (Edmund Ward: Leicester, 1944)

Young, F., Where is St Edmund? The Search for East Anglia’s Martyr King (East Anglian Catholic History Centre: Ely, 2014)