Watch out! Major spoilers ahead.
“The emperor of Rome, on discovering that Sebastian had found God, ordered him to renounce his faith, he refused. So then the Emperor ordered that he’d be filled full of arrows and yet…he lived.”
Rule number one for surviving the viking ‘Great Army’ invasion of 865 — don’t give the enemy a reason to shoot arrows at you. Somehow, King Edmund of East Anglia missed the memo, both in real life and in the Netflix series The Last Kingdom.
Saints Won’t Always Save You
The viewer meets Edmund, King of East Anglia, almost immediately in the first season of The Last Kingdom. East Anglia is a hellscape. That’s because every pious 9th century Christian’s worst nightmare has come true in the form of Danes arriving and taking over. If you didn’t know, Danes were the worst of the worst — they were pagan.
It wasn’t long before the invaders captured the ruler of East Anglia, King Edmund. Among Edmund’s captors is the mercurial chieftain Ubba, a terrifying man known for his fervent, fanatical belief in Danish gods. There’s also Guthrum, a morose and equally terrifying warlord.
The vikings offer Edmund the chance to live, so long as he sticks around as a puppet king under their command. The choice is simple — act as middle management and continue carrying out the mundane tasks necessary to rule a kingdom — or die. Edmund isn’t in the best frame of mind for weighing his options thanks to having been beaten and strung up to a cross in his own church.
Once Ubba and Guthrum are ready to get to brass tacks, they untie Edmund and situate him on the hard stone floor. Just the place for a cozy little heart-to-heart. After a teensy interruption, Ubba inquires about a painting on the wall. “I just have to know, who is that?” He demands as he strides across the room, ax in hand. “His eyes are watching me.”
Edmund, befuddled, realizes he’s talking about an image of Saint Sebastian.
“I Like This Game”
The East Anglian king explains that Saint Sebastian was a former Roman soldier who found God. “Found him where?” Guthrum asks. Annoyed, Edmund launches into the story of the saint, explaining how the Emperor discovered Sebastian’s secret devotion to Christianity and demanded he renounce it. Sebastian refused.
This didn’t go over well. The Emperor ordered his men to fill Sebastian with arrows. Miraculously, he lived. Edmund explains that his salvation came thanks to God’s protection. Badda-bing, badda-boom. Except that Sebastian died shortly after thanks to a follow-up execution by clubbing.
“So he died?”
“He went to heaven, so he lived.”
Cue much blinking and more confusion.
At this point, Edmund can sense the warlords’ frustration. Frustrated vikings are never rarely ever a good thing, so it seems a ripe time to acquiesce. Edmund hastily declares he’ll rule under the Danes and provide them with hostages, money, and horses. He just wants them to submit to God and get baptized in return.
God is great, magnificent, all-powerful. Edmund is hawking Christianity harder than a member of an athleisure wear MLM, but Guthrum ain’t buying it. How’s about he quit his yammering and prove it? Like Saint Sebastian, what if they shot him full of arrows, too? Would God protect him? Experiment time.
God must’ve been out to lunch because when several Danish footmen shoot Edmund with a handful of arrows, he promptly keels over and dies.
Did That Really Happen?
Boy did it, sort of. Well, the arrows part. Possibly.
Saint Sebastian was and is a venerated Catholic saint. The story goes that he was born in Narbonne in the third century to a wealthy Roman family. He was educated in Milan and entered the army under Emperor Carinus circa 283. Such was his courage that he became a captain of the Praetorian Guards under Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian and considered him a favorite.
Apparently, they liked Sebastian so much they made him master and duke of their meiny and power and wanted him around constantly. Tad clingy. But while Diocletian was persecuting Christians, Sebastian brought them supplies and comforted them in prison. He was also busy converting folks and went so far as to heal the wife of a fellow soldier by making the Sign of the Cross over her.
Unsurprisingly, word of Sebastian’s not-so-secret secret Christianity reached Diocletian. The Emperor summoned his good friend and said:
“I have always loved thee well, and have made thee master of my palace; how then hast thou been Christian privily against my health, and in despite of our gods?”
Sebastian answered, “Always I have worshipped Jesus Christ for thy health and for the state of Rome, and I think for to pray and demand help of the idols of stone is a great folly.” Ouch. Diocletian did not love having his faith insulted, nor was he a fan of disloyal friends. Enraged, he commanded his men lead Sebastian to a field, tie him to a tree, and shoot him silly with arrows. Which is what they did.
They left his body there.
Here Cometh a Miracle
The following night, a Christian woman came along to take Sebastian and bury him, but lo and behold he was alive. Which was probably a good thing, unless she had super strength that allowed her to lug the corpses of full-grown men around. She brought him home and nursed him to health while other Christians came over and begged him to leave for good. Instead, Sebastian went to a spot in town where he knew the Emperor would pass, and threw more insults at him.
As soon as Diocletian mosied past, Sebastian called out:
“The bishops of the idols deceive you evilly which accuse the Christian men to be contrary to the common profit of the city, that pray for your estate and for the health of Rome.”
Burn. We think.
Diocletian replied, “art thou not Sebastian whom we commanded to be shot to death?”
To which Sebastian answered, “therefore our Lord hath rendered to me life to the end that I should tell you that evilly and cruelly ye do persecutions unto Christian men.”
Diocletian disagreed. He ordered Sebastian to be thrown into his personal palace prison and beat him with stones and/or clubs until he died. Then, to avoid Christians burying him and making a whole thing out of it, they tossed his body into a “great privy.” Martydom status, denied.
Just kidding, Sebastian appeared to a widow called Lucina and told her she could find his body languishing in the sewer, how to wash it, and where to lay it to rest. Lucy and her servants got to work and did as he said. They buried him in the catacombs beneath Rome, where he remained for 80 years before being exhumed and moved to a basilica in Rome.
And because people love taking relics of their saints, a few devout followers removed a couple body parts to share with monks in France. A German monastery had the honor of receiving his cranium, which they nestled into a lovely silver case in 934. It’s still there, case and all, in a reliquary in Ebersberg.
Hundreds of years later, after many a plague had…well plagued European cities, people took to comparing the sickness to being shot by Mother Nature’s personal army of archers. Many prayed to the saints to intervene on their behalf, and Sebastian seemed like just the guy to help. Apparently he defended Rome against a plague in 680, which was nice of him.
What about King Edmund of East Anglia?
King Edmund did rule East Anglia when the vikings came invading. The thing about invasions, though, is that usually much of the conquered kingdom’s records don’t survive. A few medieval chroniclers tried to fill in the gaps later, but the details are of course dubious.
Despite the spottiness, some historians feel confident that Edmund was a capable warrior king — rather than a timid wimp — killed by vikings when he wouldn’t acquiese. The legend goes that when East Anglia was overrun by viking invaders, the king of the angles fought bravely even though outnumbered. After Danish forces took control, Edmund refused to renounce his Christianity or share his power.
One (semi-unreliable) source claims that as the vikings advanced, Edmund stood inside his hall and threw out all weapons in order to emulate Jesus Christ. This made it easy for the captors to bind him, beat him, and insult him. Between the lashes, King Edmund called out to Christ.
The vikings didn’t like the strength the king drew from his savior and so led him to a firm tree for execution. They shot arrows at him as if it were a game until he was so riddled with them he resembled a hedgehog or urchin. Strikingly similar to the venerated Saint Sebastian.
They beheaded him for good measure and tossed his melon into the woods. Later, Edmund’s followers canvassed the area crying out, “Where are you, friend?” The head answered hic hic hic or her her her (Here! Here! Here!). They found their saintly king’s head protected between a wolf’s paws, unharmed.
Once reunited, body and head fused together in the first of a sucession of miracles. Around a century after being buried, Edmund was exhumed and moved to Bury St. Edmunds, a town that would later host supernatural green children. But that’s another story for another time.
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