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The Canon of John Lydgate Project

The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

The Poem: Sources and Influence
Lydgate's Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund is a poem of some 3700 lines, in Rhyme Royal stanzas, telling of the life and martyrdom of Edmund, King of the East Angles, who was killed by Viking invaders in 870 and was enshrined in Lydgate's own abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. The third book of the Lives tells of Fremund, Edmund's cousin and King of Mercia, who comes to avenge Edmund's death and to continue his war with the Danish invaders; with 24 companions, Fremund slays 40,000 of the Danish army. However, Fremund was treacherously slain by one of his own while he knelt in prayer. For the Fremund story there is no basis in history. (The Lives is Index of Middle English Verse no. 3440; also see the Manual of the Writings in Middle English 6: 1830-1833 and 2096-2097. The poem regularly appears in the manuscripts preceded by a prefatory poem on "The Banner of St. Edmund" [IMEV no. 530; Manual 6: 1829 and 2096] and succeeded by two poems, one an "Envoy to Henry VI" [IMEV no. 928; Manual 6: 1852-1853 and 2128-2130] and the other a "Prayer to St. Edmund for Henry VI" [IMEV no. 2445; Manual 6: 1853-1854 and 2118-2119]. Lydgate also is credited as the author of one other prayer to St. Edmund, which does not appear with the Lives but can be taken as evidence of his devotion to the patron saint of his abbey: the "Glorious Prayer to St. Edmund" appears in three manuscripts of Lydgate's verse [for bibliography, see IMEV no. 915; Manual 6: 1890 and 2146: Renoir and Benson, authors of the Manual entry, suggest that this prayer "may have been written on his return from Paris (about 1429) to be sung in the monastery at Bury"].)

Heale considers Lydgate's version of the Edmund story to be evidence of a renewed spirituality at the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in the early fifteenth century. While Lydgate's retelling of the story for Henry VI had obvious political implications in terms of reasserting the antiquity and significance of the abbey itself and of the special relationship between the abbey and English royalty (and Lydgate exploits these themes in the addresses to Henry in Prologue and Envoi, and in Book 1 when he describes the ideal monarch), generally, though, Lydgate de-emphasizes the political and historical in order to emphasize the spiritual (mostly by way of introducing Biblical, especially Christological, parallels). In particular, Lydgate builds upon precedents in Abbo's "Passio" (precedents which tended to be ignored in the intervening hagiographic tradition) "to relate Edmund to the work of Christ"; "[w]ithin two dozen lines" in the Preface to Book 1, "Lydgate has placed the martyrdom of the Saint within the context of the Fall, Original Sin, the chief Christian virtues, and the salvatory scheme of the Incarnation" (181).

Lives verges on romance, with fantastic otherworldly journeys and other similar motives.

Schirmer describes the Lives as an epic opportunity lost: it has "a great hero, fighting for a national cause, [who] clashes tragically with the ons of Lothbrocus, and finally, like Beowulf, sacrifices himself for his people. We know that Lydgate made no use of such narrative potentialities as the story provided" (162-163). Such a judgment, however, seems to ignore the hagiographical nature and spiritual intent of the work.

While most critics have accepted that Lydgate, late in his life, produced a second version of the Lives to incorporate stories of some recent miracles in Bury and London (three children raised from death to life in answer to prayers to St. Edmund).

Within a few years after the completion of the Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund, in 1439, Lydgate was commissioned by Abbot John Whethamstede of St. Alban's to do a similar double saints' life concerning the patron saint of his abbey, which Lydgate produced as the Lives of Ss. Alban and Amphibal (IMEV no. 3748; Manual 6: 1811-1813 and 2077-2078). There is in St. Albans a record of payment for the poem of 10 marks. As Derek Pearsall indicates, these two "legend-epics" of "national saints" had a significant influence on other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century writers of saints' lives such as Osbern Bokenham (Legends of Holy Women, begun in 1443), Henry Bradshaw (Life of St. Werburge, ca. 1513), and Alexander Barclay (Life of St. George, ca. 1515) (Pearsall, 280-281).

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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Last revised: 22 Nov. 1995

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