Against the Heathen: Saints and martyrs in late Anglo-Saxon literature

Against the Heathen: Saints and martyrs in late Anglo-Saxon literature

By Thomas Roswell

Published Online (2012)

Anglo-Saxon England suffered two Viking ages; both well documented in Anglo-Saxon literature. The arrival of the heathen raiders had political and religious significance for the history of the Anglo-Saxons and the clerical writing of the time reflects this. Vikings targeted monasteries and churches where wealth was to be found, monks responded through literature; demonising the Scandinavians and glorifying the martyred Christians who fought to defend their nation.

The second Viking age began under the reign of Æthelred II (d. 1016). Although it is during this time that Denmark was Christianised, it is also a time when heathens were arriving on the shores of the long since Christianised land of Anglo-Saxon England. It is during Æthelred’s reign that the battle of Maldon occurred in 991, and within a century of the composition of the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, which strangely depicts a Viking victory over defending Saxons. Scragg identifies the literary devices of the poem which serve to “contribute to the valour of the English and our contempt and mistrust of the Vikings.”1 Yet it is uncertain why the poet uses such a humiliating defeat as a means to glorify the Saxons who are depicted fleeing from battle. The poet’s task may be seen as to use Christian ideology to portray defeat as victory; the victory belongs to the Christian God. J.R.R. Tolkien argued that the defeat at Maldon is depicted as divine punishment for the East Saxon leader, Bryhtnoth’s ofermod, “pride” which is used as a pejorative.2 Pride is a deadly sin, but is also a common trait of many Germanic societies, whether Christian or heathen. Anglo-Saxon Christianity had not imposed the ideal of passive resistance on the warrior aristocracy; to fight and kill the heathen in the manner of Charlemagne and Ælfred was the natural way for a warrior king to demonstrate his allegiance to the church. But this poet is depicting a new kind of warfare that the English may employ by imitating the martyrdom of Christ and differentiating themselves from their heathen enemies. Despite the sin of ofermod, Bryhtnoth dies at the hands of the heathen, repeating the name of God, fighting for the Catholic cause and is thus glorified in his defeat. This literary device is also employed in Anglo-Saxon hagiography where martyrs and saints, though defeated in the physical sense, remain eternally triumphant through spiritual resolve and determination.


The lives of martyred saints such as St. Edmund (d. 869) and Ælfheah (St. Alphege) (d. 1012) provide examples of extraordinary courage drawn from their faith, such that might impress even the most sceptical of pagans. In this essay I will argue that the militarised martyrs and saints in Anglo-Saxon England are both a shining example to Saxon Christians and an enticing lure to encourage the Scandinavian settlers to adopt the Catholic faith like King Cnut did.

The desire for the conversion of the pagans is a recurring aspect of interactions between Saxon and Scandinavian during the Viking period. King Ælfred’s baptism of the Viking leader Guthrum in the 890’s was intended to ensure a mutual understanding of honesty between the two peoples and is described in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

wiþ þone here se cyning friþ nam,  him þa aþas sworon on þam halgan beage, þe hie ær nanre þeode noldon, þæt hie hrædliche of his rice foren.


876. The king made peace with the host, and they swore him oaths on the sacred ring, which earlier they would not do to any nation, that they would quickly leave his kingdom.3

It was vital, in order to prevent on-going conflict, that pacts between Viking and Saxon were kept. It is for this reason that Vikings were required to make oaths on þam halgan beage “on their holy ring”, rather than on the bible. This beag may refer to a law ring, similar to the Forsa ring from Hälsingland, northern Sweden, that is engraved with runes which detail regional pagan law.4 By converting Viking leaders, the Saxons could be certain of common values and rely on them to keep their oaths.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), King Edmund was killed while fighting Vikings in 869.5 Abbo of Fleury wrote his Passio Sancti Edmundi Regis et Martyris in the late tenth century and Ælfric rewrote the story in Old English soon afterwards at around 990. Both were written during the reign of Æthelred the unready and seem to communicate contemporary fears regarding the heathen invaders.


Ælfric’s story of Edmund’s martyrdom is far more elaborate than the brief entry in the chronicle or the in Asser’s Life of Alfred. After losing the battle, Edmund refuses to take the bishop’s advice and flee, instead saying:

Næs me næfre gewunelic þæt ic worhte fleames. Ac ic wolde swiðor sweltan gif ic þorfte for minum agenum eared.

It was never my custom to take flight, but I would rather die, if I must, for my own land.6


When confronted by the Viking leader Hingwar, Edmund decides he should geæfen-læcan cristes gebysnungum, “Imitate Christ’s example,” who forbade Peter to fight against the Jews. This is the first of several comparisons between the Jews and the Vikings in the text, one which by association equates Edmund with both Jesus and Saint Peter.  The Vikings torture Edmund, trying to make him deny Christ, they shoot him with so many javelins that he resembles a hedgehog:

Besæt mid heora scotungum swilce igles byrsta. Swa swa sebastianus wæs.

(He was) beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.7

This comparison with Sebastian corresponds with an entry in the Old English Martyrology:

Sebastianes tid þæs æðelan martyres, þone Dioclitianus se casere – he wæs hæðen – he het hine mid strælum of scotian, þæt he wæs þara swa full swa igl þæt deor bið byrsta,

The noble martyr St Sebastian, whom the Emperor Diocletian – he was a heathen – ordered to be shot with arrows, that he was full of them as a hedgehog is of bristles, (Herzfeld). 8


When Edmund still refuses to renounce Christ, he is decapitated by the Vikings in a scene which bares more than a passing resemblance to the story of Saint Kenelm (d. 811) as told in the Vita Et Miracula Sancti Kenelmi, probably composed between 1045 and1075.9 Kenelm’s elder sister Cwoenthryth has ambitions to rule so orders him killed by a steward named Æscberht. Though only a boy, Kenelm bravely meets death in the manner of Christ and Saint Edmund:

The martyr seemed with the voice of the Lord to rebuke him saying: ‘That which thou dost, do quickly.’ And so there under a thorn-tree the milky-white head of Kenelm, a little lad, as has been said, of 7 years, is cut off.10

The similarity of these three martyr stories brings the authenticity of Ælfric’s account into question, as does the fact that Edmund’s severed head allegedly continues calling out the name of Christ long after decapitation, but this does not mean it does not contain fragments of reliable information.11

Whitelock’s conviction that oral tradition was strong enough for an eye witness account to be passed down through the decades, via Saint Dunstan (d. 988) to Abbo and Ælfric, is questionable. In addition to the numerous absurd embellishments and discrepancies with the ASC, the story of Edmund’s martyrdom bares too much resemblance to other hagiographical sources to be considered an accurate portrayal of events. The 870 entry of The ASC (E), a document begun by monks in Wessex within twenty years of Edmund’s death, merely states that he fought and lost:

AN.dccclxx. her for se here ofer Myrce innon Eastængle wintersetle namon æt Ðeodforda. On þam geare Sancte Ædmund cining gim wið gefeaht, þa Deniscan sige naman þone cining ofslogon þet land eall geedon. 12

In this year the (Danish) host rode across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters at Thetford and the same year King Edmund fought against them and the Danes won the victory, and they slew the King and overran the entire kingdom.13

Ælfric’s account is, however, an excellent example of how Christian martyrdom and historical war against the heathen can be employed as psycho-spiritual weapons; as a call to arms against heathenry and a declaration of fellowship amongst Christians. Here is a shining example of an Englishman who mimics the death of Christ for the benefit of Christianity in England. Such works can only increase religious fervour and a sense of identification with fellow Christians in opposition to marauding Scandinavians. Edmund had been venerated as a saint during the period of Danish rule in England. Carroll suggests the possibility that the very Danes who had killed Edmund may later have venerated him as a martyr saint.14

The popularity of the cult of Saint Edmund amongst Scandinavians is supported by Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók, written between 1122 and 1133, which describes the killing of Edmund at the hands of Īvarr (OE: Hinguar) the son of Ragnarr Loðbrók. The importance of the martyrdom of Edmund to Icelanders like Ari may have arisen, not out of respect for his Christ-like martyrdom but out of acknowledgement and identification with the Viking dynasty of the semi-mythical Ragnarr from whom even Ari claimed descent.15 Abbo is the first source to name Hinguar (Hingwar), most likely Īvarr inn beinlausi, who did leading a Viking army in East-Anglia during the 860’s.16 So unless Ari had access to an unknown source now lost, it is likely that the Icelandic interpretation of Edmund’s martyrdom is derived from Abbo or the ASC.

The cult of Saint Edmund developed in keeping with hagiographical conventions and is unlikely to have been intended as a means of converting heathens to Christianity. But there is evidence that The Danish rulers of England accepted Edmund as a saint, the ‘St Edmund Memorial coinage’, bearing the inscription ‘sce Eadmund rex’, from the early tenth century, was circulated and minted within the Danelaw territory that included Edmund’s former kingdom.17

Heroism was a quality admired in both Christian and pagan societies, but Christianity, as identified by Phelpstead, has a more flexible definition of heroism to manipulate for hagiographical purposes,  “The heroic is an alternative within Christian culture rather than an alternative in opposition to it,”.18 Ælfric reflects this ideal with the inclusion of the lives of two English royal martyrs in his Lives Of Saints,19 both St. Edmund and St. Oswald die in battle against pagans in a similar manner to Bryhtnoth in The Battle of Maldon:

St Edmund himself makes it clear, in Ælfric’s account of his passion, that he understands his office as involving the imitation of Christ: he explains that he will not shed the blood of the Viking messenger who has offered him an ultimatum, ‘for ðan- þe ic Criste folgie þe us swag ge-bysnode’ (‘because I follow Christ who set us such an example’). 20

This is not to say that imitation of Christ was considered mandatory for Anglo-Saxons, rather it was one potential ideal, amongst many alternatives, to which they could aspire.21 Total pacifism would hardly be an adequate form of defence against the heathen. Ælfred, Offa and Charlemagne are the most obvious examples of the militant Christian warrior against the heathen, examples that Olaf Tryggvason followed in Scandinavia. The two archetypes both fulfil the role of a rex christianus, whose authority is enhanced by conflict with pagan foreigners. 22 From as far back as the seventh century; the popes had found the themes of St. Peter and warfare for Christ as vital for adapting Christianity to the cultural requirements of Germanic barbarians.23 The theme of passive resistance in the style of St. Peter, was a specialised form of conflict that, though impractical in battle, was employed by hagiographers to transform past defeats into victories.

Ælfric’s Old English version of Abbo’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi, emphasises Edmund’s virginity as being an explanation for the preservation of his corpse and Ælfric gives the same reason to explain the preservation of Æthelthryth’s corpse in his Life of Æthelthryth.24 In both cases the miraculous absence of decay is interpreted as an example of God’s power which will be used to raise the dead on the day of the Last Judgement. 25 The attribution of virginal qualities to a King seems divisive; it can be a means of cutting off a blood line and thus rendering illegitimate any rival claimants to the throne after the king’s death. This may explain the popularity of the cult of St. Edmund in Cnut’s Danelaw, but does not explain why Ælfric included the theme in two of his saint’s lives. The explanation is most likely related to recurring hagiographical themes that serve to illuminate a particular point. Ælfric adapted his source materials to serve his intended purposes and would even collate several different saint’s lives in order to reinforce whichever concept he considered most significant.26

The style of spiritual warfare against pagans that is prevalent in Anglo-Saxon hagiographical literature is in keeping with the apocalyptic rhetoric in numerous Anglo-Saxon texts such as Wulfstan’s ‘Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecute sunt eos’, 27 in which the fate of the English at the hands of the heathen Vikings is said to be a manifestation of divine punishment for the impiety of the English and symptomatic of the beginning of the Apocalypse. The ASC introduces the Viking raids in typically apocalyptic terms:

AN.dccxciii. Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norþanhymbra land 7 þæt folc earmlice bregdon: Þet wæron ormete ligræscas, 7 wæron geseowene fyrene dracan on þam lyfte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, 7 litel æfter þam þæs ilcan geares on .vi. idus Ianuarii earmlice heðenra manna hergung adiligode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarenae þurh reaflac 7 mansleht.

(Manuscript E)

793 AD. In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants; these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. And soon followed a great famine, and after that in that same year the harrying of the heathen wretchedly destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne through rapine and slaughter.28

The heathen raids are again depicted as divine punishment in Alcuin’s letter from the court of Charlemagne to Æthelred, king of Northumbria.29 “Consider carefully, brothers, and examine diligently, lest perchance this unaccustomed and unheard-of evil was merited by some unheard-of evil practice.” 30 If the arrival of the heathen is the product of un-Christian behaviour, the same reasoning holds that the remedy to heathen raids is a more Christian society; one with more Christ-like saints, canonised through martyrdom.

The arrival of a common enemy on English shores could actually have been of benefit to an Anglo-Saxon King, although they are unlikely to have realised this at the time. The perceived otherness of the Danes due to their paganism could be a means of uniting and militarising different regions and therefore consolidating power. Homilists such as Wulfstan and the anonymous author of one of the sermons in the Blickling Homily collection, use fear of the impending apocalypse to create a sense of urgency in the battle against the heathens.31 Wulfstan had been bishop of London, Worcester and York where he is likely to have had first-hand experience of Danish invaders. His ‘Sermo Lupi’ was composed 1010-1016, under the reign of Æthelred II and puts the blame for the arrival of the heathen on their English victims:

Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is: ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse; and swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær Antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde.

Beloved men, recognise what the truth is: this world is in haste and nearing the end, and therefore the longer it is, the worse it will get in the world. And it needs must thus become very much worse as a result of the people’s sins prior to the advent of Antichrist; and then, indeed, it will be terrible and cruel throughout the world.32

The sermon suggests that the pagans arrive because the Anglo-Saxons have failed to be pious Christians and they will only be free of the heathen through a program of militarisation and Christian reform such as that implemented by Ælfred over a century earlier. The impending doom of apocalypse puts a time limit on salvation, encouraging desperate attempts to prove one’s Christian virtue before the second coming:

Antecristes tima is wel gehende, and ðy hit is on worulde a swa leng swa wacre. Men syndon swicole and woruld is þe wyrse, and þæt us dereð eallum. And huru hit sceal hefegian heonanforð þearle rihtwisan þearfan and ðam unbealafullum.

…The time of the Antichrist is very close, and so the longer the world goes on the worse it is. People are treacherous and the world is the worse for it, and that damages us all. And henceforth, indeed, things are going to become seriously heavy for the righteous, the needy and the innocent.33

The Lives of both Saint Kenelm, written 1045-1075, and Saint Wigstan written c.1130, were equally as embellished as the Edmund myth, the all-important aspect in each case is their death.34 The miracles that occur after death, such as a preserved corpse from which, according to hagiographic convention, a virginal life can be assumed, serve contemporary functions for both church and monarchy:

The key to the recurring pattern of the youthful Prince’s murder, followed by the miraculous disclosure of his unmarked grave and his enshrinement in a family monastery, seems to lie in dynastic politics and the important part which certain communities played in them.35

After the extinction of Penda’s bloodline in 716, began a transitory age in which many rivals from various lineages could claim a right to the throne through quite distant relations. The foundation of a dynastic cult such as that of Kenelm could reinforce a family’s claim to kingship.36 This is in contrast to Ælfric’s virginal saints who leave no dynasties, only legacies which can be adopted by foreigners such as Cnut and the Danes.

The cult of Ælfheah was based on a similar type of martyrdom to that of Edmund, but was contemporary with the second Viking age. Had Ælfric still been alive when Ælfheah was martyred in 1012, he may have written a life of Ælfheah which reflected the biblical themes with which his other works were concerned.  The Laud Chronicle portrays bishop Ælfheah’s brave and noble sacrifice in the name of Christianity, preferring to be martyred than to have a ransom paid on his behalf to the Vikings:

Þa on þone Sæternesdæg wearð swiðe gestured se here ongean þone biscop, forþan þe he nolde heom nan feoh behaten forbeard þet man nan þing wið him syllan ne moste; …Genamon þa þone biscop, leadoon hine to heora hustinga on þone Sunnanefen octabas Pasche hine þa þær oftorfodon mid banum mid hryðera heafdum, sloh hine þa an heora mid anre æxe yre on þet heafod þet he mid þam dynte niðer asah, his halige blod on ða eorðan feoll, his þa haligan sawle to Godes rice asende.37

1012AD(…)Then on the Saturday the host became greatly incensed against the Bishop, because he was not willing to offer them any money, and forbade any ransom to be given for him… Then they took the Bishop and led him to their tribunal, on Saturday evening, within the octave of Easter [19 April] and pelted him to death with bones and the head of cattle; and one of them smote him on the skull with the iron [head] of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell upon the earth, and his holy Soul was sent forth to God’s kingdom.38

The Parker Chronicle also records how King Cnut later became associated with the cult of Saint Ælfheah.  It describes how in 1023, Cnut had the bones of the saint moved from St. Paul’s in London to Christ Church, Canterbury. This act may have helped to associate Cnut with the cult of Ælfheah, and disassociate him from his Scandinavian kinsmen who were responsible for the killing:

Cnut’s favourable later reputation was greatly aided by his benefactions of land, holy relics and other precious objects to churches both inside and outside of his dominions.39

Cnut had already converted to Christianity when he became king of England and so he was accepted as such by members of the clergy such as archbishop Wulfstan. Wulfstan helped guide Cnut toward the ideal of an English Christian king.40 He learned the value of public displays of piety and patronage as a means to legitimise his claim to the throne of a Christian nation, despite his recent heathen heritage (and the fact that official eulogies maintained that his rule in Scandinavia was legitimised by approval of Oðinn).41

According to a thirteenth century manuscript of Miracula Sancti Swithuni,42 Cnut not only moved the relics of Anglo-Saxon saints within England but also sent a relic of St. Swithhun to Denmark.43 Haki Antonsson argues that Cnut’s intentions behind the relocation of saints’ relics in England also led him to relocate the bones of saints in Scandinavia,44 including those of his former enemy Olaf Haraldsson. This was a means of neutralising hostile sentiments toward his rule. His policy regarding saints across his vast kingdom seems to have been to “draw relics to established centres of power,”.45 This is likely to have contributed to the secure establishment of Christianity in Norway and Denmark in the 11th century. Cnut not only adopted the cults of the indigenous saints of England but also the conventions of hagiography regarding the ideals of English kingship. His most famous legend, an act of flamboyant humility in which he demonstrates his lack of power over the ocean, corresponds to the ideal of pious leadership that had been maintained for centuries in England.

A much older example of an Anglo-Saxon warrior saint against the heathen is that of Saint Guthlac. Guthlac had been a violent war lord in the seventh century, waging campaigns against the Welsh, though he had in fact lived amongst them and learned their language while in exile.46 His life as a hermit living in a plundered pagan burial mound, is in keeping with the Anthonian tradition. In the same way that Saint Anthony of Egypt had been tested by demons in the desert, so too was Guthlac tested in the distinctly un-Christian environment of a pagan barrow. This shows how classical conceptions of saintly behaviour were modified and re-invented to suit Anglo-Saxon tastes. The Guthlac poems A and B, although most likely based on Felix’s work, use that account of the saint’s death as a means of presenting the theme of the soldier of Christ:

Where Felix created a narrative, this poet (Guthlac A) is intent on exploring Guthlac’s opposition to temptations that beset a solitary, a chosen soldier of Christ. There is little circumstantial detail, and human companions play no part.47

While the later Guthlac poems, like other late Anglo-Saxon hagiography are more concerned with the theme of the warrior of Christ, Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac appears to be a means of consolidating royal power and building bridges between the clergy and different royal houses such as that of Mercia through Æthelbald who visited Guthlac’s tomb after he had died and there saw a vision of Guthlac who prophesised that he would be king within a year.48 This tale reinforces Æthelbald’s claim to the Mercian throne and shows another example of clerical writing being used to consolidate royal power.

Guthlac differs from other Anglo-Saxon saints discussed in this essay because he was recognised as a holy ascetic within his own life time. His cult grew posthumously just as those of Edmund, Kenelm and Ælfheah, but he is exceptional because of his importance before death. His cult cannot be attributed merely to Æthelbald as a means to reinforce dynastic claims.49 Although his monarchic and clerical associations may have stemmed from the recognition of popular devotion to Guthlac; this is not a common theme in the emergence of other Anglo-Saxon saints’ cults.  Felix’s hagiographical account of Guthlac’s life, written for King Ælfwald of East Anglia, brings an existing cult in line with the conventions of other saint’s lives that serve political purposes.

Just as Felix’s life of Saint Guthlac was a means to curry favour with contemporary royal houses, so too were Cnut’s revivals of Anglo-Saxon saint’s cults, a political device used to appease his English subjects.  William of Malmesbury identified the political motivation of Cnut’s gifts to the English church as a means of pacifying those amongst the clergy, such as Bishop Fulbert of Chartres who declared his admiration of Cnut despite having heard he was a prince of pagans.50 Cnut’s scalds were still referring to him in poems by the names of pagan gods like Yngvi and Freyr.51 This is certainly a most undesirable association for a Christian king, since these deities were most likely seen as devils by the English.52

Yet, despite the potential to be thought of as a devil worshipper, Cnut was seen as a most pious of kings. This is in part due to his patronisation of monasteries, his appeasement of church officials such as Wulfstan, and also the process of relocating saints’ relics and restoring their cults. Ridyard speculates on the diplomatic motivation of the Danes who adopted the cult of St. Edmund:

Edmund seems to have been the last reigning monarch, and perhaps even the last surviving representative, of the ancient ruling dynasty of the East Angles. Quite possibly his Danish ‘successors’ hoped that by showing themselves to be patrons of his cult they might suggest their own legitimate succession to the kingdom and might accordingly buttress their somewhat anomalous political position. 53

Certainly, the cult of Saint Edmund was a regional one, it could not hold the same meaning on a national level as that of Saint Cuthbert and was therefore only useful to Cnut in the context of East Anglia. The fact that Cuthbert was not actively involved in contemporary politics made him a more suitable figure to be adopted as a national saint, whereas King Edmund was defined by his political and military activity.54

A more thorough understanding of the effect of clerical literature and its intended purpose can be attained through identification of the audience. Felix’s life of Guthlac is addressed to Ælfwald king of the East Angles, to whom Guthlac was related, so it can be safely assumed that the King would have read it, or had it translated to him.55 It is also likely to have been heard by the court and was intended for the literate and wealthy sections of society. Ælfric’s Lives of Saints were composed for devotional private reading but they could be read out to an audience.56 In each case the messages of the hagiographies seem to be intended primarily for literate clerical officials and for royal courts, though it can be assumed they filtered down from there to other sections of society. The source cited as The Saga of Saint Edmund in Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók 57 is most likely Abbo of Fleury’s Vita S. Eadmundi.58 By the twelfth century, the cult and its story had penetrated Scandinavian clerical literature; this would have been unlikely to occur if access to such texts was exclusive to a small section of Anglo-Saxon society.

The stories of many martyred saints were constructed posthumously and quickly gained momentum as their cults were adopted by Kings and perpetuated through patronisation. Æthelred II paid out huge sums of money to invading Danes, including £36,000 in 1007AD and was unable to protect his country from the invaders. The transition from Æthelred to Cnut was made less problematic by the fact that Æthelred was an unpopular king and Cnut successfully manufactured an image of himself as a Christian king despite his pagan heritage. M.K. Lawson suggests that Wulfstan’s writings, such as The Institutes of Polity, contain allusions to current affairs such as the transition from Æthelred to Cnut.59 He states that the people shall be made wretched many times through the misræd of a bad king, but with a wise king will be made prosperous.60

To conclude, the canonisation of saints in the mediaeval world was a vital weapon in the war against the heathen. Later Anglo-Saxon hagiographical writing reflects European cultural norms so that parallels may be drawn between the Anglo-Saxon saints such as Edmund and much earlier saints such as Lawrence. The stability of Anglo-Saxon Christianity and indeed of England itself was threatened by the advent of the second Viking age. To the authors of clerical literature, the heathen represented the divine hand of God and became a social device with which the church could manufacture a new understanding of Christianity in England. Much of this was formalised under the reign of King Cnut whose own Viking heritage drove him towards a more fervent Christianity. Cnut restored and revived the cults of many Anglo-Saxon saints which survived long after the Norman Conquest. Under his reign the Scandinavians living in the Danelaw became assimilated and Anglo-Saxon saints were adopted by Danes in England and abroad.


  1. The Battle of Maldon, ed. D.G. Scragg (Manchester University Press, 1981), p. 37.
  2. Ibid., p. 38.
  3. ASC. trans. G.N. Garmonsway, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1953), p. 74.
  4. S. Brink, trans, The Forsa Rune Ring – the earliest written law in Scandinavia.,
  5. AS Chronicle, Garmonsway, p. 71.
  6. W.W. Skeat, trans. ‘XXXII. Passio Sancti Edmundi regis’, in Saints’ lives: Lives of the saint
  7. s, (London: 1900). p.320-21.
  8. Ibid., p. 323, l. 117-18.
  9. An Old English Martyrology., G. Herzfeld, (the Early English Text Society, by K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., ltd., 1900) p. 27.
  10. Vita Et Miracula Sancti Kenelmi’, in Three eleventh century Anglo-Latin Saints’ lives, R. Love, ed, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), Ch. 3, ii, p. xci.
  11. Ibid., p. 61.
  12. From Bede to Alfred: studies in early Anglo-Saxon literature and history, D.Whitelock, (London:Variorum reprints , 1980). Ch.XI, p. 233.
  13. ASC., S. Irvine (Cambridge: 2004) p. 48.
  14. ASC., Garmonsway, p. 71.
  15. J. Carroll, ‘When were the Vikings in England’, in Beowulf and Other Stories, R. North, J. Allard, eds, (Harlow: Longman, 2007), p. 334.
  16. A. Finlay, ‘Chronology, Genealogy and Conversion’, in St. Edmund King and Martyr. Changing Images of a Mediaeval Saint, ed. By A. Bale, (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2009), p. 48.
  17. C. Phelpstead, ‘King, Martyr and Virgin’, in St. Edmund King and Martyr, p. 32.
  18. Finlay, ‘Chronology, Genealogy and Conversion’ p. 55.
  19. Phelpstead, ‘King, Martyr’, p. 39.
  20. ‘Sancti Edmundi’, Skeat, (London: 1900).
  21. Phelpstead, ‘King, Martyr’, p. 34.
  22. Ibid, p. 37.
  23. Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent., J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 141.
  24. Ibid., p. 68.
  25. Ælfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England., M. Gretsch, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 225-26.
  26. Ibid., p. 226.
  27. Ibid., p. 160-1.
  28. Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecute sunt eos., D.Whitelock, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen’s Old English library, 1952).
  29. ASC., Garmonsway, p. 56.
  30. Carroll, ‘Vikings in England’, p. 331.
  31. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse., ed. by D. Whitelock, 15th ed., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).
  32. S. Brookes, ‘Were there stories in late OE literature’ in Beowulf and Other Stories, p. 460.
  33. Ibid., p. 460.
  34. Wulfstan’s ‘Secundum Marcum’, trans. by R. North (Pers. Comm, 2012).
  35. A. Thacker, ‘Kings, Saints, and monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia’ in Midland History 10, (Maney Publishing, 1985) p. 14.
  36. Ibid., p. 14.
  37. Ibid., p. 14.
  38. ASC., Irvine, p. 69.
  39. ASC., Garmonsway, p. 142.
  40. The Reign of Cnut, A. Rumble, ed, (Leicester University press. 1994) p. 8.
  41. S. Keynes, ‘Cnut’s Earls’ in The Reign of Cnut, p. 87.
  42. R. Frank, ‘Cnut and his Skalds’, in The Reign of Cnut, p. 117.
  43. The cult of St. Swithun., M. Lapidge, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
  44. H. Antonsson, ‘Saints and Relics in Early Christian Scandinavia’ in Mediaeval Scandinavia vol:15 (Bergen: University of Bergen: 2005) p. 60.
  45. Ibid., p. 61.
  46. Ibid., p. 60.
  47. J. Roberts, ‘Hagiography and literature: the case of Guðlac of Crowland’, in Mercia., ed. by M.P. Brown, C.A. Farr, (Continuum International Publishing Group. 2005) p. 73.
  48. Ibid., p. 83.
  49. Ibid., p. 76.
  50. Thacker, ‘Kings, Saints, and monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia’, p. 20.
  51. Frank, ‘Cnut and his Skalds’, p. 119.
  52. Ibid., p. 119.
  53. Heathen gods in Old English Literature,. R. North (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 77.
  54. The royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England: a study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults, S.J. Ridyard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988).
  55. Ælfric and the Cult Of Saints, Gretsch, p. 96.
  56. Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent, Wallace-Hadrill, p 60.
  57. Ælfric and the Cult of Saints, Gretsch, p. 158.
  58. A. Thorgilsson, The book of the Icelanders: Íslendingabók (1067-1148), H. Hermannsson, ed, trans, (Oxford university press , 1930).
  59. Finlay, ‘Chronology, Genealogy and Conversion.’ p. 47.
  60. M.K. Lawson, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’, in The Reign of Cnut, p. 149.
  61. Ibid., p. 149.


Primary sources

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Herzfeld, G, An Old English Martyrology (the Early English Text Society, by K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., ltd., 1900)

Irvine, S., ed. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, vol.7, (Cambridge: 2004)

Lapidge, M, The cult of St Swithun, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003)

Love, R, (ed), Vita Et Miracula Sancti Kenelmi, in ‘Three eleventh century Anglo-Latin Saints lives.’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

Scragg, D.G. (ed), The Battle of Maldon (Manchester University Press, 1981),

Skeat, W.W. (trans) ‘XXXII. Passio sancti Edmundi regis’, in Saints’ lives: Lives of the saints (…).Edited from ms. Julius E VII in the Cottonian collection,  (London: 1900).

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Whitelock, D, Brett, M and Brooke, C.N.L (ed) Councils & synods : with other documents relating to the English Church; , A.D.871-1204 (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1981)

Whitelock, D, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecute sunt eos. 2nd ed. (London: Methuen’s Old English library, 1952).

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Antonsson, H, ‘Saints and Relics in Early Christian Scandinavia’ in Mediaeval Scandinavia vol:15 (Bergen: University of Bergen: 2005) p.51-80

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

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Gretsch, M, Ælfric and the Cult Of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) From Bede to Alfred. D. Whitelock. Variorum Reprints. 1980.

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North, R, (Translation), Wulfstan’s ‘Secundum Marcum’ (Pers. Comm, 2012).

North, R, Allard, J, (ed), Beowulf And Other Stories. A New Introduction to Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo Norman Literatures. (Harlow: Longman, 2007)

Rumble, A, (ed), The Reign of Cnut, (Leicester University press. 1994)

Ridyard, S.J., The royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England: a study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988)

Thacker, A, ‘Kings, Saints, and monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia’ in Midland History 10, (Maney Publishing, 1985)

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Whitelock, D, (ed and rev), Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, 15th edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

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