The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part two): Hoxne, Suffolk
Last month we discussed the history and location of St Edmund’s springs or well at Hunstanton at the site where the saint arrived in England, in this post we move forward to the time of Edmund’s martyrdom and to Hoxne, a place said to be historically associated with that event.
The Martyrdom of King Edmund
Edmund’s death is recorded by his chronicler Abbo occurring at Haeglisdun. Although Hellesdon near Norwich or Bradfield St Clare, where there is a Heelesdon ley near Bury, are perhaps phonetically more likely sites. Neither have any folklore associations only Hoxne. Which is said to be associated with the account as early as 1101 has a tree, woods, chapel, holy well and bridge connected with the King. Aside from the spring there are or rather were four sites associated with the saint – a chapel, a woods, a tree and a bridge.
The most notable being the tree and the bridge. Of the bridge called Goldbrook Bridge, it is said that the saint hid from the Danes, however his golden spurs glinting in the water were seen by a newly-wed couple who thus gave him away to the Danes. As he was dragged to his martyrdom he cursed all wedding couples who would cross the bridge and well into the 19th century, wedding corteges would go the long way around.
Of the tree a more direct link exists to his death. For on the 20th November 869 Edmund was captured by the Danes and tortured being tied to a tree, shot with arrows, speared with javelins and scourged and then beheaded. Hoxne claims the tree:
“DEAR Sir, I send you the particulars which I able to collect respecting the St Edmund’s Oak which was a remarkable tree and full of was entirely demolished on the llth of any apparent cause the trunk was shivered pieces and the immense limbs with the all round in a very remarkable manner The of the trunk were 12 feet in length 6 feet 20 feet in circumference it contained about St timber and the limbs 9 leads 11 foot of excellent the branches which spread over 48 yards yielded four loads of battens and 184 faggots.”
I examined the trunk carefully and found the an arrow partly corroded projecting from the inside of the hollow part of the trunk about 4 or 5 feet from which part had warted nearly feet quite inside of the tree and Wes perfectly decayed arrow and was covered a little more than a foot sound wood the annual ring or layer shewing of more than 1000 years as near as can be made.”
Now at the site of this tree is a monument reading:
“‘St. Edmund the Martyr, AD 870. Oak Tree fell August 1848 by its own weight.”
The other wood association is Home wood which the account above records where was found between the legs of a wolf the:
“adjacent head of St Edmund was supposed to have been was cleared many years ago”
What of the chapel? Well there were two one at the site of his death at Cross Street and another in a wood called Sowood possibly where the head was found. Only 80 years after his death, Hoxne had become a see of the church and by 1226 a priory was founded. All suggesting Hoxne was important.
Will the correct site reveal itself?
Like at Hunstanton tracking down the true location of St. Edmund’s Springs or Well is problematic as again multiple sites via for its location. Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 notes of:
“ST EDMUND’S OAK ……inexhaustible character of the spring of water which is tabled we to have miraculously flowed from the place the head of the martyr lay may we have no doubt explained by natural causes.”
This source most certainly places it in the same field:
“There is also a spring of the spot where the St Edmund’s tree grew which of the field have never been able to divert”
This is the site stated by Burgess (1988) Crosses and holy wells of Norfolk and Suffolk being a stagnant pond enclosed in trees, twenty yards from the memorial cross marking the location of the tree the saint was martyred on. The author states that it was used by pilgrims visiting the site of the saint’s supposed martyrdom which does appear to be a more likely location.
Yet Taylor (2016) places it as a spring said to arise on an island in a moated pond stating:
“Near Hoxne in Suffolk – one possible site for Edmund’s martyrdom – is a deep moat enclosing a small island on which the very same freshwater spring was said to be found.”
This is now enclosed in the grounds of a modern house but fieldwork cannot indicate a spring and the island itself is inaccessible. Unfortunately no one was in to ask.
Another source, states that it was enclosed in a modern well house to the North of Abbey Farm. In the Historic England entry for Hoxne Abbey it is recorded that: “
“There was also a cistern, presumably to collect water for domestic use, and a well known as St Edmund’s Well.”
This I presume is the small tile pitched roof brick square structure beside the drive to the house. This is engulfed in briars and close inspection was difficult.
Interesting it does not appear to have been referred to as St Edmund’s Well and it appears Burgess (1988) is the first to record this name. It is worth noting also absent in Jeremy Harte’s (2008) English holy wells. However, a possible fourth location was indicated by the manager of a business close to the Abbey Farm, a building built 15 years ago was placed over a copious spring which made its construction difficult. It was filled with concrete.
Head and spring?
The Eastern Counties Magazine & Suffolk Note-Book’ records something interesting that the :
“freshwater spring, said to have emerged on the spot where Edmund’s head was found between the paws of a grey wolf.”
Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 records also:
“the character of the spring of water which is tabled to have miraculously flowed from the head of the martyr lay may we have no be explained by natural causes”
Now this is an interesting part of the legend which compares favourably hagiographically speaking with many holy wells where the head lands on the ground a spring arises. A spring arose where St Alban’s head fell after decapitation, St Juthware’s well, Dorset, St Osyth’s Essex, St Kenelm’s at Client and even a recent one that of St Thomas’s well at Windleshaw from a Roman Catholic decapitated in the protestant persecutions. It looks like we can add St Edmund’s Spring to this list.
A lost pre-Saxon saint?
It is thought that these associations with the saint and particularly the legend of Goldbrook Bridge are later embellishments and it is possible that the account recorded above of the tree in the Gentlemen’s magazine may have been a concoction of the writer of that piece especially as he even calls it Belmore’s oak. So it begs the question why? Does this mean the spring at Hoxne is not holy? I think no and I think it hides something more interesting perhaps; the record of a pre-Saxon probably Celtic hermit saint. All the clues are there; the island an ideal hermitage location with its spring, the bridge curse, curses being associated with hermit saints to discourage visitors and of course the decapitation a common motif (which many have argued indicate the survival of a head cult but this is debatable). Did local memory of a saint survive long enough into the Norman conquest to have the Saxon saint’s story be grafted onto the holy landscape as a sort of patriotic response?