August 7 2009 by Sam Lowe
If you go to the English town of Bury St. Edmunds, and you really should go there sometime, one of your first questions will be: Where'd they get that name?
The answer is quite simple: It's where they allegedly buried St. Edmund. But there's a mix of fact and fiction involved here, so the story takes on a legendary status that often blurs the edges of truth. In brief, it goes like this:
King Edmund, the ruler of East Anglia and a devout Christian, was captured by raiding Vikings in 869 A.D. The invaders tied him to a tree and demanded that he renounce his faith. He refused so they shot him full of arrows, decapitated him and threw his head into the nearby woods. While searching for the head, his followers allegedly heard a voice calling, "Here, here, here!" and found the severed head being guarded by a wolf. When laid in a coffin, Edmund's head and body were mysteriously reunited and he was proclaimed a saint.
But when the Normans invaded the area, they took the remains back to France where they stayed for many years before England demanded their return. The French sent some bones but the suspicious Britons weren't sure if it was Edmund so they didn't hold a burial ceremony in the town named after him. Years later, their suspicions were confirmed - the bones were from several different corpses, including that of a woman. So now, nobody's sure where St. Edmund is buried. But the town keeps the name.
And it is a delightful place, well worth a visit because it's relatively flat and easy to navigate. One of the highlights is the ruin of the abbey of St. Edmund, a huge complex built between 1120 and 1148 on the spot where the saint's shrine stood. It was partially destroyed in 1327 when the townspeople rose up against the monks who controlled not only the monastery but much of the city's government. It was rebuilt, but taken apart again in the 16th Century on the orders of Henry VIII. His troops did a pretty good wrecking job so now there's little left to indicate the abbey's grandeur except for stone columns and pillars throught to be about one-third the original height. Today, most of the site is dedicated to the well-kept Abbey Gardens.
Visitors may still enter through the Abbey Gate, gaze up at the Norman Tower, visit the new Abbey church, and read the plaque denoting the alleged spot where the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, the document that became the foundation of all constitutional governments. Or, for something a bit more earthy, they can tour the Nutshell, smallest pub in England, or go direcetly to the source and take a guided tour of the Greene King Brewery, which has been crafting ales, lagers and stouts since 1799. The tour includes scrambling up and down more than 140 steps, but the owners have mercifully installed a comfortable visitor center where the weak-kneed and short-breathed can wait before heading into the tasting room to sample the products.
Bury St. Edmunds is in Suffolk County, about 70 miles northeast of London. For more information, log on to www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk.