Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 2.7: Greensted Church with Objects Commemorating St. Edmund

Plate: An unsigned engraving by George Vertue (1684-1756) of three views and a plan of the wooden parish church of Greensted in Essex based on drawings by Smart Lethieullier (1701-1760): one view of the shrine of St. Edmund based on an illumination from a manuscript by John Lydgate (c. 1370-c. 1451), “The Lives Of Sts. Edmund And Fremund,” (Harley MS 2278, f.9r) and the front and reverse of a fragmentary seal of the abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury in Suffolk.

Object: The church of St. Andrew, Greensted still stands today, though it has been heavily restored. The shrine of St. Edmund was in the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds until it was destroyed in the Reformation. The seal fragment is attached to B.M. Add. Charter 17226, and originated from the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds.


Top: In this plate are delineated,
I. An antient WOODEN CHURCH at Greensted in Essex.
II. The SHRINE of St. EDMUND the King and Martyr.
III. The SEAL of the ABBOT of St. Edmund’s Bury in Suffolk.

Bottom: The nave or body of this church, which renders it so remarkable, is intirely composed of the trunks of large oaks, split & roughly hewed on both sides. They are set upright, and close to each other; being let into a fill at the bottom, and a plate at the top, where they are fastened with wooden pins. This was the whole of the original fabric, which yet remains intire, tho much corroded and worn by length of time. It is twenty nine feet nine inches long, fourteen feet wide, and five feet six inches high, on the sides, which supported the primitive roof. The inhabitants have a tradition that the corps of a dead king once rested in this church; which seems to have been founded upon the accounts given us by some of our old writers. For in a MS intitled, Vita et passio S.ti Edmundi, there is this passage: A.D. MX. et anno regis Ethelredi XXX S. Edmundus propter infestationem Turkilli, comitis Danorum, Londoniam est ab Ailwino translatus; sed tertio anno sequente ad Bedricesworthe est reversus. And soon after it is said: Quidam apud Stapleford hospitio recepit corpus ejus in redeundo de London.’1 And in another MS. cited in the Monasticon, and intitled Registrum coenobii S. Edmundi, it is further added: Idem apud Aungre hospitabatur, ubi in ejus memoria lignea capella permanet usque hodie.'2 Now the parish of Aungre, or Ongar, adjoins to that of Greensted, where this church is situated. And that the antient road from London into Suffolk lay thro Oldford, Abridge, Stapleford, Greensted, Dunmow and Clare, we learn not only from tradition, but likewise from several remains of it, which are still visible. It seems not improbable, therefore, that this rough and unpolished fabric was first erected, as a sort of shrine, for the reception of the corps of S.t Edmund, which in its return from London to Bedricesworth, or Bury, as Lydgate sais, was carried in a chest.'3 And as we are told by the Register above mentioned, that it remained afterwards in memory of that transaction; so it might in process of time, with proper additions made to it, be converted into a parish church. For we find by Newcourt, that Simon Feverell succeed John Lodet, as rector of Grinsted juxta Ongar, in 1328. He sais likewise, that Richard de Lucy very probably divided the parishes of Grinsted & Aungre, and built the church at Aungre, in the reign of Henry II, and that those two churches, which are distant from each other but a quarter of a mile, were united in the reign of Edward VI, but divided again in that of Q. Mary.’4

1 In Biblioth. Lambethan.
2 Dugdale Monasti. Anglie. V.I. p. 293.
3 Life of K. Edmund, MS.
4 Repertor. V.II. p. 288, 449.

Label, Center Top: The north side of the Church.
Label, Center: I / The south view of the Church drawn in 1748.

Label, Upper Left: The west end of the Church.
Label, Center Left: II / The Shrine of S.t Edmund.
Label, Lower Left: Copied from a beautiful MS. of the life of K. Edmund, written by J. Lydgate, and dedicated to K. Henry VI, now in the Harleian Library.

Label, Upper Right: III / A fragment of the Abbey seal of S.t Edmund's Bury. / The front.
Label, Lower Right: The reverse.

Bottom, Right: Impens. Soc. Antiq. Lond.


Latin passages included in the text:

A.D. MX. et anno regis Ethelredi XXX S. Edmundus propter infestationem Turkilli, comitis Danorum, Londoniam est ab Ailwino translatus; sed tertio anno sequente ad Bedricesworthe est reversus. 
In the year 1010 and the 30th year of the reign of King Ethelred, on account of the invasion by Thorkill, Earl of the Danes, St. Edmund was translated to London from Ailwin; but on the third subsequent year he was returned to Beodericsworth. (From The Life and Passion of St. Edmund in the Lambeth Palace Library)

Quidam apud Stapleford hospitio recepit corpus ejus in redeundo de London.
Somebody at Stapleford received his body with hospitality during the return from London.

Idem apud Aungre hospitabatur, ubi in ejus memoria lignea capella permanet usque hodie.
He [Edmund] was hosted at Ongar, where a wooden chapel remains in his memory up until today.

Commentary by Meg Bernstein: This plate is unusual within the context of Volumes I and II of Vetusta Monumenta because it includes three subjects in diverse media and locations. They are linked together by context; each relates in some way to the commemoration of the East Anglian king, St. Edmund the Martyr (born c. 841, reigned 855-869). Little is securely known about Edmund, but he was born a Christian and was considered a just and faithful ruler, though he became king at only fifteen years of age. His piety is evidenced in the fact that he apparently spent an entire year learning the Psalter so that he could recite it from memory (Phillips 1909). With his troops, Edmund fought pagan Viking invaders alongside King Alfred of Wessex. According to tradition, he was martyred by the Vikings because he refused to renounce his Christianity. The legend of St. Edmund’s death says that he was killed with shots from so many arrows that “his corpse resembled a hedgehog or a thistle” and his head was severed (Crook 2011, 90). Edmund’s fellow Christians first recovered his body, and then were alerted that his head was in a wood by a wolf who proclaimed its presence, shouting “hic, hic, hic!” (“here, here, here!”).

There had been an abbey in Bury (originally known as Beodericsworth) from 663 AD, and this became the center of the cult of the Martyr, whose tomb became a major draw for pilgrims. From 1020 the Abbey was home to a Benedictine community. Bury St Edmunds was an extremely rich abbey with tremendous power over the town, which it controlled until the Reformation (Morgan and Woodman 2003).

Part I: The Church

The church of Greensted in Essex is the earliest surviving wooden church in England, and indeed the whole of Europe, predating the surviving stave churches in Scandinavia. In 1010, St Edmund’s body was translated from Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk to the church of St Gregory’s by St Paul’s in London for safekeeping during threat of Viking invasions. In 1013, the saint’s body was returned to Bury St Edmunds. At the time that the engraving was made, it was believed that the church at Greensted was constructed as a shrine to house the body of the saint during its journey back to Suffolk. However, twentieth-century scholars argued against this view because the church bears no marks of hurried construction. A dendromagnetic study conducted sometime in the twentieth century led to the guidebook for the church asserting that it was built around 845. Further dendrochronology, funded by English Heritage, was conducted; those results, published in 1997, showed that the trees were felled at the same time, between 1063 and 1100 (Tyers, Groves, Hilliam, and Boswijk 1997, 142).

Thus, it is impossible that Edmund’s body rested in a church made of extant timbers in 1013. Might there have been a previous building on the site? Though there is no documentary evidence to support this idea, it does seem plausible that a previous wooden church was present on the site in 1013, and that the post-1063 iteration was rebuilt using the same material (wood, rather than the increasingly popular and more practical choice of stone) in order to honor the site as the location where Edmund’s body had rested some fifty years earlier. This theory is perhaps supported by the dedication to St Andrew; one imagines that if the original church were built to house the body of St Edmund in the first place, it might have been dedicated to him rather than St Andrew. Regardless of the facts, we must accept that the idea that the body of Edmund rested within the church was a commonly-held belief until the twentieth century, and that it was venerated as his resting place.

The nave is made from oak logs split in half and arranged vertically. Since the restoration of T.H. Wyatt (1842-9), these have sat on an oak sill and brick plinth. There is some debate about whether the reconstructed version mirrors the original church. The present roof has three dormers on each side; the VM plate (as well as other pre-restoration images) provide a view of only the south side, and reflect the presence of only one dormer, east of the porch. The addition of dormers during or after the restoration likely reflects the dark interior of a nave otherwise without windows. The chancel is a later building than the nave, at upper levels of the early sixteenth century, but below that is flint rubble, which Pevsner and Bettley suggest comes from a structure that predates the sixteenth century (Bettley and Pevsner 2010, 436). The engraving reflects the sixteenth-century chancel, but the change in coursing is not evident in it. The tower is made of wood, a common practice in Essex, and has been variously dated as to the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century.

The plate contains a rendering described as “the west end of the church.” However, this image represents a view that would have been impossible for Smart Lethieullier to see, as the tower was almost certainly in place by the eighteenth century (though it has been variously dated as sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century). Lethieullier’s south view of the church does show the tower, as does the plan beneath it. Therefore, it is likely that he has extrapolated based on an impossible view; we do not have sufficient evidence about the western termination of the building in the Middle Ages.

George Vertue’s engraving of c. 1752 is based upon drawings by Lethieullier and was bound with Volume II of Vetusta Monumenta in 1789 (Alexander 2008, 385). Lethieullier was interested in Saxon architecture, which he investigated in the company of Francis Wise. With fellow antiquary Bishop Charles Lyttelton (1714-68), he “attempted to introduce a more systematic mode” in the study of Saxon architecture (Sweet 2004, 249). It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the first mention of a print of Greensted is in the Society’s minutes, dated 24 January 1750, when Charles Lyttleton, then Dean of Exeter, “communicated to the Society” drawings of Greensted—as well as of Tutbury (Staffordshire) and details from Hales Owen (Salop) and Adel (Yorkshire). These buildings, all noted to be “Saxon” or from the time around the Conquest, presumably formed for Lyttelton a group of useful comparanda. It was at that meeting that a motion was made to have a print of Greensted engraved (SAL Minutes VI.72-73).

Stylistically, the images of the church on the plate are reminiscent of Sir Henry Spelman’s print labeled “The first Church of the Christians in Britaine” from his pro-Laudian Concilia, Decreta, Leges, Constitutiones in Re Ecclesiarum Orbis Britannici (1639). Spelman, following Anglo-Saxonist scholars of the sixteenth century like John Foxe who advocated for belief in an apostolic Anglo-Saxon church in England, was concerned with proving an early date for the arrival of the Christianity in Britain—one shortly after the death of Christ, not centuries later as is commonly accepted (Frantzen 1990, 88-40). Spelman argued that it was Joseph of Arimathea who brought Christianity to the British Isles, and that the church pictured in his book, which appears to be made of woven twigs and a thatch roof, was the “very first church built for the worship of Christ in the world” (Parry 1995, 170). The church is schematically rendered and floats in space without any background to anchor it. Unlike Greensted, it has window openings, three on the south side, and one on the east. Was Lethieullier familiar with Spelman’s print, and might it have influenced the way he rendered Greensted? Given his interest in Anglo-Saxon history and architecture, also a specialty of Spelman’s, it seems probable that he was aware of it. We might conclude that in effort to exalt the sanctity of Greensted, that Lethieullier intentionally invoked Spelman’s print showing the supposed first Christian church in Britain in order to place it on the same level of importance.

Part II: The Shrine

The Shrine of St. Edmund, we are told from the inscription, is copied from a manuscript by John Lydgate (1370–1451) on the life of King Edmund; this manuscript, known as Harley 2278, is now preserved at the British Library. The image on the VM plate is drawn directly from f. 9 of the Harley manuscript. This shrine is no longer extant, having been destroyed by Thomas Cromwell’s Commissioners in 1539. At the time that the monastery and shrine were dissolved, the Commissioners wrote to Cromwell that they found “a riche shryne, which was very comberous to deface” (Pinner 2015, 1; Wright 1843, 144).

The shrine is shown on a stepped platform. It is composed of two elements, the base and on top of it, the shrine or feretory. The base is rectangular in shape, and buttressed on its corners; each buttress is topped with a circular base for a tall candle. On the long sides, there are three arched openings with gabled frames, and on the short sides, there are two such openings. These openings, we know from a drawing in the thirteenth-century Estoire de St Aedward li Rei of the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, were used by pilgrims who crawled into the shrine base to gain closer access to the relics (Crook 1998, 40; see Plate 1.16). Atop the base is the shrine itself, which contains imagery on its long side. As in the original illumination from the Lydgate manuscript, these images are difficult to decipher, but appear to be individual figures.

Though lost to us, the shrine pictured is consistent with surviving examples, like the shrine base of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, and the tomb-shrine of St. Osmond at Salisbury Cathedral. Though Edmund had been venerated at least since the 980s at Bury St. Edmund’s (previously known as Beodericsworth), when an account of his martyrdom was written by Abbo of Fleury for the monks of Ramsey (Crook 2011, 90), what is depicted in the plate is likely the restored version of his shrine in use beginning on 22 November 1198, necessitated by a fire in June of that year. The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond tells us that during the abbacy of Samson (r. 1182-1211), a wooden platform between the shrine and high altar caught fire when a candle fell. According to John Crook, “the wooden feretrum evidently suffered as a result of the fire. It had been covered in silver plates, presumably repoussé work, whilst on the ‘front’ (i.e. the west end, facing the altar) was a golden maiestas, presumably a figure of Christ in Glory...Jocelin tells us that the wooden core was burnt ‘to the thickness of my finger’, so that the silver plates simply dangled loosely, no longer supported by their nails.” (Crook 2011, 148). The shrine was taken apart in order to repair it, and we are told that it was repaired in “the same manner as it had been before” with the “self-same sixteen nails” (148). The repair and translation also facilitated an examination of the body during which time it was declared that the body remained incorrupt. According to the hagiographic tradition, St Edmund was, like numerous other saints, demanding with regards to the treatment and veneration of his body.

Part III: The Seal

The third object depicted on the plate is described as a “fragment of the Abbey seal of St Edmund’s Bury.” On the front, St. Edmund, recognizable by the arrow he holds in his right hand, is shown seated beneath a trefoil arch surmounted by a gable. Beneath his feet are two heads. On the reverse, the lower part of a seated figure is visible; below it are the nude soul of Edmund being lifted to heaven by two fragmentary angels, and at the bottom, the scene of Edmund’s beheading by a Dane is encompassed by a trefoil. We know from other impressions of the same seal that the text on the front reads: SIGILLUM . CONVENTUS . ECCLESIE . SANCTI . EDMVNDI . REGIS . ET . MARTIRIS (Ouvry 1859, 189). A fuller description is also possible based on other impressions: on the front, two other crowned saints (slightly smaller than Edmund), each holding a fleur-de-lys sceptre, sit within arches on either side of Edmund. The reverse is divided into three registers: in the lowest is the martyrdom of the saint, with the wolf who will protect the severed head on its haunches at the right. Above it, the soul of Edmund ascends to heaven with the assistance of two angels. In the top segment, God the father sits, attended by two angels, to greet Edmund.

This seal fragment is almost certainly the same that George Vertue drew and showed to members of the Society of Antiquaries on Thursday, 29th August 1745. It is described as “a seal appendant to the grant of the monastery of Bury to make William Paston Justice and Brother of the Chapter-house” (SAL Minutes V.31). William Paston I (1378-1444) was made brother of the chapter-house in 1429, and this seal is attached to BL MS Add. Charter 17226 (Davis, Richmond, and Beadle 2004, liii). This designation granted Paston many of the privileges afforded to the monks of the Abbey both in life and after his death, when his name was to be recorded in the monastery’s Martyrology and sent to other monasteries for the multiplication of prayers (Yates 1843, 156). Another impression of the seal that Vertue drew is described on 31 October 1751 as the “Seal of the Priory of St Edmondsbury as when it was delivered into the hands of King Henry the VIII at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries” (SAL Minutes VI.111). A more complete impression fragment of the same seal was published by Frederic Ouvry in Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History in 1859; Ouvry notes that “an impression of this seal is in the British Museum, appendant to a deed of 9 Henry VIII” (188). This seal of the Abbey was evidently in use until the time of the Dissolution.

Greensted church, St. Edmund’s shrine, and the seal of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds are linked by their associations with the royal saint; however, these objects are diverse in medium, date created, and location. Though the Society's Minute Books do not reveal how these disparate objects related to St. Edmund were drawn together, at least two of the objects (the church and seal) were shared in graphic form among the Antiquaries in the 1740s and 50s. This plate, unusual in the early volumes for presenting a collection of objects rather than focusing on a single subject, can perhaps be considered an interpretive intervention, bringing together objects that could never logically exist in the same space.

Works Cited:

Alexander, David. 2008. “George Vertue as Engraver.” The Volume of the Walpole Society 70: 207-517.

Bettley, James and Nikolaus Pevsner. 2010. Essex. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Christie, HÃ¥kon, Olaf Olsen, and H.M. Taylor. 1979. “The Wooden Church of St. Andrew at Greensted, Essex.” The Antiquaries Journal 58, no. 1: 92–112.

Crook, John. 1998. “The Architectural Setting of the Cult of St Edmund of Bury 1095-1539.” In Bury St Edmunds: Medieval Art, Architecture, Archaeology and Economy, edited by Antonia Gransden, 34-44. Leeds: Maney Publisher for British Archaeological Association.

------. 2011. English Medieval Shrines. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

Davis, Norman, Richard Beadle, and Colin Richmond, eds. 2004. Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frantzen, Allen J. 1990. Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Ouvry, Frederic. 1859. “Bury Abbey Seal.” Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History 2: 188–89.

Parry, Graham. 1995. The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, George. 1909. “St. Edmund the Martyr.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Pinner, Rebecca. 2015. The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

Tyers, Ian, Cathy Groves, Jennifer Hillam, and Gretel Boswijk. 1997. “List 80 Tree-Ring Dates from Sheffield University.” Vernacular Architecture 28, no. 1: 138–58.

Woodman, Francis and Nigel J. Morgan. 2003. “Bury St Edmunds.” Grove Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, Thomas. 1843. Three Chapters of Letters Relating to the Suppression of the Monasteries. London: Camden Society.

Yates, Richard. 1843. History and Antiquities of the Abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury. London: J.B. Nichols and Son.

Young, Francis. 2016. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery. Norwich: The Lasse Press.

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