Extract from No 186 Volume XLVII (April 1938)
The Picture of St Edmund at Greensted Church
By Sir Gurney Benham, F.S.A.
In the Essex Review of 1913 there appeared an article on Greensted Church, by Aug. V. Phillips. Many other notices of the church have appeared in our past volumes from time to time. But no allusion has hitherto been made in the Essex Review, or in the Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, to a remarkable painting of St Edmund, preserved in the church, nor has any reproduction of that picture appeared. We are now able to show it for the first time. it is a small picture painted in oil on a round-headed wooden panel.
The story is that in the year 870 King Edmund, the last nominal King of East Anglia – that is of Norfolk and Suffolk – was defeated by the Danes at a battle near Thetford and was captured. Refusing to renounce Christianity he was tied to a tree and shot by Danish archers. They also decapitated him. His body was removed 33 years later to the town afterwards known as Bury St Edmunds. A great Abbey was built there and the relics of King Edmund became famous for working miracles. A century later, in 1010, the Danes were again on the warpath, devastating Suffolk. They pillaged Bury St Edmunds and its Abbey. One faithful monk remained in the Abbey and succeeded in taking away St Edmund’s body to London, finding refuge for it in St Gregory’s church near St Paul’s. Three years later, when panic had subsided, the sacred remains were solemnly taken back to Bury St Edmunds. The procession passed through Stratford Langthorne to Chigwell, Lambourne and Stapleford Abbotts, and thence by Stanford Rivers to Greensted near Ongar. There it rested for the night in a chapel near the Manor House. The present parish church of Greensted is believed to be that privileged sanctuary.
The structure is unique, the nave being built of split oak trees. …. As evidence of the antiquity of their workmanship it was pointed out by the late Dr Henry Laver, F.S.A., that the trunks were not sawn, but cleft by axes.
As to the painting there is no record of how and when it was given to the church. It is considered by experts to date from the year 1500. The manor and living of Greensted belonged to the Bourchiers, Earls of Essex, from 1367 onward till the family became extinct in the male line. In 1491 the presentation was in the hands of ‘Thos. Bourchier and other feoffees of the manor’. Sir Wm. Parr married the sole heiress of the Bourchiers and became the Earl of Essex and Lord of the manor. The picture might have been given by some member of the Bourchier family or by one of the Parr family.
It will be seen that the picture shows the King bound to a tree, wearing a crown, but otherwise nude, except for a loin cloth. Three arrows are shown piercing him. Two archers are portrayed in the background, one in Roman armour. At the foot is shown the Saint’s severed head. This duplication of the head in the painting is to emphasise the fact that he was decapitated – according to some accounts before he was dead. A painted panel in the rood-screen of Stambourne Church (near Yeldham) represents St Edmund carrying his head, another method of indicating martyrdom by decapitation. This latter method gives rise to legends, in the case of St Denys of France and St Osyth of Essex, that the martyred saints actually carried their heads after decapitation.
We may suppose that the painting was at one time shown in the church, and that it was removed to the tower either to save it from the iconoclasts or because it was regarded as superstitious and unsuitable for display in a Protestant place of worship.
Saint Edmund, King and Martyr, has two days in the Calendar, namely 20 November, the reputed anniversary of his martyrdom, at Hoxne, in Norfolk, and 9 June, ‘Translation of Edmund, K. and M.’ meaning the date of the restoration of the remains from London to Bury St Edmunds Abbey in 1013. Only the former (20 November) is retained it the Church of England Calendar. There is some reason for supposing the correct day for the Feast of the Translation of St Edmund, should be 29 April, the 9 June being really the Feast of Translation of St Edmund, an Englishman by birth, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died a natural death in France, at Soissy, on 16 November, 1242, his remains being translated to Pontigny, where (says Baring Gould) his relicts attract numerous pilgrims.