10 March 2024

Saint Edmund, the English
king and martyr who almost
replaced Saint Patrick as
the patron saint of Ireland

Saint Edmund depicted in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s Day always falls in Lent, and this year it coincides with the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which used to be known in the Church Calendar as Passion Sunday, marking the beginning of the two-week period of Passiontide before Easter Day.

To mark Saint Patrick’s Day this year, the latest edition of the new Dominican journal Conversations, edited by Bernard Treacy, has published a paper by me, asking: ‘Did St Patrick Bring Christianity to Ireland?’

Throughout Lent this year, in my prayer diary on my blog each morning, I am looking at the life and influence of an early, pre-Reformation English saint or martyr commemorated in the Church of England in the calendar of Common Worship.

This morning, I was reflecting on Saint Edmund, the ninth century king, who was martyred in 869 or 870 and who is commemorated Common Worship on 20 November. As I was researching his life and story, I came across the fascinating claim that Saint Edmund almost supplanted Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland in the 14th century.

Perhaps, after England’s defeat of Ireland at Twickenham yesterday, I dare not suggest that Saint Patrick was probably what we would today call an Englishman. Of course, that is a form of an anchronism, as the Angles had not yet arrived in former Roman Britain by the time of Saint Patric. But the story of another English saint, Saint Edmund, and how he almost replaced Saint Patrick as the patron of Ireland, has been told recently by Dr Francis Young in his book Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2020), and in a feature that year in History Ireland, ‘St Edmund: Patron Saint of Ireland?’

Saint Edmund was the Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia when he was shot through with arrows and finally beheaded by Viking invaders. His shrine at Beodricesworth, the Suffolk town that later became Bury St Edmunds, was an important centre of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 11th century, Saint Edmund was seen throughout Europe as the patron saint of England and his shrine church at Bury St Edmunds was of the largest Romanesque churches ever built. He became the patron saint of pandemics as well as kings, and he remained the patron saint of England until he was supplanted by Saint George.

At an early stage, Saint Edmund also became a popular saint in Ireland. A hoard of coins minted by 10th-century Vikings in memory of Saint Edmund within a century of his death, was found in Co Offaly in the 19th century. It seems Saint Edmund was also popular in Norse Dublin by the early 11th century, and he is named in the 12th century Irish text, the Félire Húi Gormán or Martyrology of Gorman.

Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169-1170, a chapel was dedicated to Saint Edmund in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Francis Young wonders whether devotion to Saint Edmund was been brought back to Ireland by knights who fought under the banner of Saint Edmund to save the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in 1173. Or, he suggests, there is the possibility that the chapel was partly funded by English merchants from East Anglia, as merchants from Chester had paid for Saint Werburgh’s Church in Dublin.

Saint Edmund depicted in a window in Saint Mary’s Church in Whitby, Yorkshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Francis Young is a writer historian who was born in Bury St Edmunds. He studied Philosophy at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and Classics at the University of Wales, Lampeter, before receiving his doctorate in History from Cambridge University. He points out that the early leading Anglo-Normans in Ireland included William de Burgh (died 1206), who took his name from the village of Burgh-next-Aylsham in Norfolk, and who was ancestor of the powerful Burke or Bourke family. Young argues that William de Burgh’s devotion to Saint Edmund is explained by his origins in East Anglia. William founded two significant churches dedicated to Saint Edmund – one at Ardoyne, Co Carlow, and the other at Athassel Priory, near Golden, Co Tipperary.

Athassel Priory became the largest mediaeval priory in Ireland and for 300 years it was the centre of the veneration of Saint Edmund in Ireland for the next 300 years. Saint Edmund’s status as the patron of England gave Athassel a special status for the English of Ireland.

At the beginning of the reign of Richard II (1377-1399), a monk of Bury St Edmunds claimed that Athassel Priory held a miraculous image of Saint Edmund. The story claimed that immediately before the death of the head of the Burke family of Clanwilliam, the image of Saint Edmund would hurl the spear it was holding onto the pavement of the choir. The monk named Saint Edmund as the patron saint of Ireland, describing him as ‘the protector and defender of that whole land.’

The claim that Saint Edmund was the patron saint of Ireland could easily be dismissed as the ramblings of an English monk, Young writes. But, he points, nine years later, when Richard II gave the title ‘Duke of Ireland’ to Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, in 1386, he also gave him the right to quarter his coat of arms with the arms of Saint Edmund (three gold crowns on a blue background) – for as long as he remained Lord of Ireland.

The three crowns of Saint Edmund were used as an emblem of English royalty from as early as 1276, and, from 1460, the three crowns of Saint Edmund appeared on coins minted in Dublin in the name of the king. However, Saint Edmund’s significance in England had been declining steadily from the mid-14th century, and by the 15th century Saint George was well established as the patron saint of the Order of the Garter and of England’s military.

Under the Tudors, Saint George became the sole patron of England and Saint Edmund lost his popular appeal. When Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1542, the three crowns of Saint Edmund disappeared from Irish coins, replaced by the harp. By then, it appears, the original meaning of the three crowns was forgotten, and Henry VIII’s officials thought they represented the triple tiara of the pope and the papacy’s long-standing claim to Ireland as a papal fief.

Young sees lingering traces of the mediaeval importance of the cult of Saint Edmund in the flag of Munster, with three gold crowns on a blue background. The flag is first recorded in the 17th century, but Young tries to link it with the Butler family, Earls of Ormond, who had replaced the Burkes as patrons of Athassel Priory in the early 16th century.

He sees a further trace of the once-prominent cult of Saint Edmund in Ireland in the persistence of the name Edmund and its Irish equivalent Éamon, popular in Ireland since the 14th century. Éamon was one of the few male names of English origin to gain widespread popularity in Gaelic Ireland in the Middle Ages. The earliest individuals to bear the name in Ireland were members of the Burke or Bourke and Butler families, successive patrons of Athassel Priory. The earliest Gaelic Irish families to adopt Éamon as a forename were the septs of Ó Broin (O’Byrne) and Ó Cinnéide (O’Kennedy), clients of the Butlers of Ormond.

The name Edmund or Edmond is first found in the Comerford family, thanks perhaps to close connections with the Butlers of Ormond, in the person of Edmund Comerford from Co Kilkenny, who died in 1509. He was educated at Oxford, and was Rector of Saint Mary’s, Callan, Prior of Saint John’s, Kilkenny, a canon and then Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, and Bishop of Ferns (1505-1509). Although Hore, Leslie, Foster and Gillespie incorrectly give his name as ‘Edward,’ although he is named Edmund in Cotton, Carrigan and Crockford’s, and is called both Edmond and Edmund by Grattan-Flood.

Edmund’s brother, Richard Comerford, was the direct ancestor of the Comerford families of Ballybur and Bunclody, and the name Edmund continued to be passed down in the Comerford family through Edmund Comerford (1722-1788), until my father’s generation: the eldest brother he never knew was Edmond Joseph Comerford (1900-1905).

Saint Edmund’s connection with Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, continues. A stained glass window by Clayton and Bell in the Baptistry depicting Saint Edmund was presented by the architect George Edmund Street (1824-1881) in memory of his second wife Jessie (1843-1876). They were married on 11 January 1876, but she contracted typhoid fever during their honeymoon in Rome and died on 6 March 1876, eight weeks after their wedding.

However, Saint Edmund’s brief time as patron saint of Ireland in the late Middle Ages was long forgotten until Francis Young published his research in recent years.

Further Reading:

Anthony Bale (ed), St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint (York Medieval Press, 2009).
Francis Young, Edmund: in search of England’s lost king (London: IB Taurus, 2018).
Francis Young, Athassel Priory and the cult of St Edmund in medieval Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2020).
Francis Young, ‘St Edmund: patron saint of Ireland?’, History Ireland (July/August 2020), Vol 28 No 4.

The Chapel of Saint Edmund in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Last edited: 14 March 2024

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
26, 10 March 2024,
Saint Edmund the Martyr

Saint Edmund the Martyr (centre) with Saint Martin of Tours (left) and Saint Maurice (right) in a window in Lichfield Cathedral by CE Kempe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are more than half-way through the Season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Lent IV), also known as Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day (10 March 2024). This Sunday is also called Mid-Lent Sunday or Refreshment Sunday, a day of respite from fasting halfway through the penitential season of Lent.

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship.

Later this morning, I hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

CE Kempe’s window in the north nave aisle in Lichfield Cathedral with Saint Martin of Tours, Saint Edmund the Martyr and Saint Maurice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 26, Saint Edmund the Martyr

Saint Edmund (870), King of the East Angles, Martyr, is commemorated in Common Worship on 20 November.

Edmund was born ca 840, and was nominated as king while je was still a boy. He became king of Norfolk in 855 and of Suffolk the following year. As king, he won the hearts of his people by his care of the poor and his steady suppression of wrongdoing.

When attacked by the Danes, he refused to give over his kingdom or to renounce his faith in Christ. He was tied to a tree, shot with arrows and finally beheaded on 20 November 870. His shrine at Beodricesworth, the town that became known as Bury St Edmunds, was an important centre of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages.

Saint Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics as well as kings, and he was the patron saint of England until he was supplanted by Saint George. During the reign of Richard II (1377-1399), there was an attempt to make Saint Edmund the patron saint of Ireland.

Saint Edmund depicted in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 3: 14-21 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

The Chapel of Saint Edmund in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 10 March 2024, Lent IV):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: JustMoney Movement.’ This theme is introduced today by Matt Ceaser, Movement Builder, JustMoney Movement:

Read Deuteronomy 15: 1, 4-5, 15

The Exodus is perhaps the defining story of the people of God in the Hebrew Bible. They understood themselves as a people who had been miraculously rescued from slavery – by the power of God alone – and brought into a new land in which they were to live distinctively.

For Christians, this story points ahead to the even greater rescue of all humanity through the saving work of Jesus. Once we were enslaved in our sin, but Christ’s death and resurrection accomplish what no human effort could achieve in liberating us to a life of freedom.

Yet for many around the world today, poverty is limiting their sense of any kind of freedom.

Poverty means having fewer choices for how to live, and bigger risks if those choices go wrong. It can also lead to exclusion from many areas of life, whether through lack of time, education, or status. Simple pleasures such as food, hobbies, and socialising become out of reach, as all money goes on essentials. The experience of poverty can feel a million miles from life to the full (John 10: 10) or the freedom for which Christ has set us free (Galatians 5: 1).

God’s vision of freedom, revealed in the Old Testament law and brought to completion in Christ, is clearly concerned that no one should feel the shackles of debt slavery and of poverty limiting their capacity to enjoy that freedom. And we, as Christians, must take up the challenge of ensuring that no one in our society is in need when there are sufficient resources to go around. This means being generous with what we have and sharing with those in need, but it also means advocating for an economy that works for everyone.


This is a sample taken from the 2024 USPG Lent Course which can be downloaded and ordered from the USPG website www.uspg.org.uk

The USPG Prayer Diary today (10 March 2024, Lent IV) invites us to pray in these words:

In a world of limited resources, Lord,
where a few have too much
and most have too little,
teach us there’s enough for all, if we can only learn to share.
(Nick Fawcett).

The Collect:

Merciful Lord,
absolve your people from their offences,
that through your bountiful goodness
we may all be delivered from the chains of those sins
which by our frailty we have committed;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake, our blessed Lord and Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Collect of Mothering Sunday:

God of compassion,
whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary,
shared the life of a home in Nazareth,
and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself:
strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and in sorrow
we may know the power of your presence to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Merciful Lord,
you know our struggle to serve you:
when sin spoils our lives
and overshadows our hearts,
come to our aid
and turn us back to you again;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday: Saint Swithun of Winchester

Tomorrow: Alfred the Great (899), King of the West Saxons, Scholar

Saint Edmund, King and Martyr … the last remaining church in Lombard Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Edmund depicted in a window in Saint Mary’s Church in Whitby, Yorkshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Last edited: 14 March 2024