Standing in the choir stalls as the eleventh-century antiphon, ‘Ave rex gentis Anglorum,’ resounded around the magnificent cathedral of St Edmundsbury, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the present situation and the historical context of the antiphon. The words, ‘Hail, king of the Angles,’ were composed in honour of the martyred Anglo-Saxon monarch, St Edmund, and were traditionally performed on his feast day (November 20th). A sunny March afternoon had just elapsed, and there were no feasts in sight, yet here a group of devotees to St Edmund’s life and cult were gathered together for a celebration of the figure at Evensong. The music and its subject still had the power the incite veneration, though the grounds for the occasion were not monastic, but academic.
The conference, ‘Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest’, organised by Dr Tom Licence of the University of East Anglia, ran across three days (25th-27th March) and featured talks from experts in the medieval Abbey and its monastic community, including some of the scholars who had organised and attended the British Archaeological Association conference held in Bury St Edmunds in 1994. Professor Richard Sharpe opened the conference on Sunday evening with a paper on ‘St Edmund and the kings of the English,’ in which he drew attention to ‘Ave rex gentis Anglorum’ as an antiphon that may have encouraged kings who had visited the Abbey to reflect on their own status as God-sanctioned protector of the people. Monday’s talks were centred on the national and international reputation of the Abbey and the cult of St Edmund, while Tuesday’s sessions provided insight into the daily lives of the monks.
Dr Henry Parkes, a fellow of music at the University of Cambridge, made a double contribution to the conference, giving a paper entitled ‘St Edmund: Music and Liturgy’ and arranging Evensong with music and liturgy from medieval Bury sources. His paper considered the repertoire of liturgical materials relating to St Edmund, taking into account how the Common of Martyrs, a compilation of chants used by other medieval cathedrals including Worcester, influenced the Office of St Edmund and continued to be important even after composers at Bury had developed chants that were specific to the Saint. Parkes approached the chants as a way of assessing perceptions about Edmund within the monastic community. The literary products of Bury had produced two dominant views of the Saint: while Abbo of Fleury’s earlier narrative, the Passio Sancti Eadmundi, had portrayed Edmund as a passive martyr, an eleventh-century account of Edmund’s life and miracles, written byHerman the Archdeacon, presented him as a warrior of God. Parkes argued that the liturgical material available to us reinforced this militaristic view of St Edmund, with chants celebrating his warrior status through martial imagery. Parkes’ choice of materials for the Evensong service reflected this image. The responsory, ‘Miles Christi Edmundus’ depicts Edmund fearlessly standing up to the Danish invader king, declaring the glory of dying for the Lord, and the second line of ‘Ave rex gentis Anglorum’ punningly describes Edmund as ‘miles regis angelorum,’ soldier of the king of the angels.
The Evensong service also highlighted another theme that was central to Parkes’ talk: liturgy as ‘the medium through which the Saint came alive in the minds of his people.’ The chants of Edmund made him a living presence, a personage of immediate importance within the monastic community, as well as commemorating him as a historic figure. The last piece of the liturgy was a joyful polyphonic votive antiphon, which divided the chant melody for ‘Ave rex gentis Anglorum’ between the base voices. The choir left the stalls, and positioned themselves in front of the shrine of St Edmund, as would have been the custom on feast days. Their voices, now distant from the rest of the congregation and yet powerfully projected, sounded as if they came from another place, another time, and were all the more affecting for this estranging effect. The liturgical performance, a historical exercise and a part of the cathedral’s daily ritual practices, encouraged reflection upon topics discussed at the conference and on St Edmund’s place in the wider community even today.
Proceedings from the conference will be published by Boydell & Brewer
Sophie A. Sawicka-Sykes