In 1433–34, the 12-year-old King Henry VI spent Christmas until Easter at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. To celebrate this royal visit, the abbot commissioned one of his monks, John Lydgate (c. 1370–1450), who was by then a renowned poet, to write a history of St Edmund (the Abbey’s patron saint) in Middle English verse. This poem is known as The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund.

Over the next six years the monks of Bury created a spectacular copy of Lydgate’s poem, which they presented as a gift to the king in 1439. The monks worked on the manuscript in the scriptorium – a dedicated ‘writing room’ found in monasteries, where manuscripts were copied and illuminated. It contains 118 half-page illustrations from the life of the saint. In the first of the images here you can see Henry surrounded by the monks of Bury (f. 6r, which is followed by a verse account of the king’s visit on f. 7v, ll. 135–43). Because of these amazing, elaborate images, the manuscript has a claim to be one of the most important illustrated Middle English manuscripts in existence.

The legend of King Edmund and the kindly wolf

There are several different versions of the legend of St Edmund (c. 841–869). The basic story is that Edmund was an Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia. In 869–70, East Anglia was invaded by an army of Vikings led by Ingvar (also known as Ivar the Boneless). The Vikings defeated the East Angles and Edmund was captured, but he refused to submit to the Viking leader and reject his Christian faith. As a result, Ingvar had Edmund shot with arrows and then beheaded (illustrated on f. 63r – digitised image 2). According to some versions of the legend, Edmund’s head rolled away into a nearby bush, where it was found by a wolf which protected it until his head and body were miraculously re-joined (illustrated on f. 66r – digitised image 3).

John Lydgate’s version of the story of St Edmund

Lydgate’s Life has some slight variations to this story. His account is largely based on an early 13th-century version of the story by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). Although Lydgate described his work as a ‘translacion’ [translation] (f. 7v, l. 135), the poem isn’t a translation of a single source. ‘Translacion’ is one of the words which Middle English writers used, often loosely, to describe their work.

The poem is written in seven-line stanzas known as ‘rhyme royal’. This is a verse form made popular by Lydgate’s contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for the Prioress’s Tale and the Second Nun’s Tale. Lydgate’s use of this poetic form is just one of the ways that he paid homage to Chaucer, who he saw as his ‘maister’ [master] and the first great English poet.

View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.