The Shrieval Dead

James Lloyd pays homage to the late George Romero with this Anglo-Saxon zombie flick from darkest Suffolk.

Just north of Bury Saint Edmund’s (as we purists insist on spelling it), now bisected by the A14, is Thingoe Hill. Its name means the place where the “thing” or council met. In Anglo-Saxon times, it was where the sheriff would preside over the shire court of Suffolk, which served as the all-purpose administrative body of the shire, covering both judicial and executive affairs. Nearby was the Abbey of Saint Edmund, which, like all churches, claimed the right of sanctuary, that is to say any criminal who made it to the church without being caught was entitled to hide in the church for forty days without being arrested. Understandably, sheriffs found the inconvenience of having an ecclesiastical sanctuary so near to the court site irksome, and several of the histories of Saint Edmund’s Abbey record the extraordinary tale of what happened to one sheriff when he decided to ignore the rule of sanctuary.

The following episode is translated from Abbot Samson’s On the Miracles of Saint Edmund, written in the twelfth century but concerning events reputed to have occurred in the tenth:

. . . There was a certain courtier, Leofstan by name, who was a formidable presence to all the folk hereabout more by the terror of his cruelty than by the tenor of his judgement. He had accepted from the king the office of sheriff and, augmenting his wickedness, he not only bore no devotion to Saint Edmund but even scoffed at his accumulated renowned miracles.

This man came to a certain place hard by the blessed martyr on the day appointed for the meeting of the shire court. There, with many people flocking together to him from all and sundry, he noticed that a certain woman was absent, who, because of an acknowledged crime, deserved to be submitted to his power. He asked around and learnt that she, being utterly terrified and fear-stricken, had fled to Saint Edmund’s tomb.

Once he had heard this, the man’s lungs puffed up and his whole being roared. He commanded her to be bound over to his bailiffs with all haste. They went off to fulfil his orders but almost immediately that man, impatient with the delay, abandoned the court sitting and hurried after them, a traveller hastening in their footprints.

The bailiffs came with swift step to the church, demanding the judge’s business with great violence of words, while the woman prostrated herself near the martyr’s relics. The clerics constantly refused the bailiffs, asserting that that which the saint undertook to be protected could not be handed over for any reason.

What is there more to say? The partisans strove to obey impiety’s commands – their hands occasioned sacrilege – they violated the holy places – they provoked the saint – they dragged the woman out. Now the clerics without impunity, seeing the audacity of his minions prevail, were overcome by excessive sadness and threw themselves down around the grave of the saint, importuning tokens of divine revenge with tearful psalms and litanies filled with sobbing.

Then, while the woman was constantly invoking the saint, the sacrilegious people had scarcely brought their foot from the church, when behold! Suddenly the sheriff, who had now descended within the porch of the church with all his retinue to punish her, was possessed by a demon and became contorted twisted with dire suffering. He was struck to the ground, frothing at the mouth and gnashing his teeth and rolled through the street. All the people ran amok, crying out in confusion.

During their careless noise, the happy woman slipped from the hands of her tormentors and ran back to the protection of her sanctuary.

And whilst that unlucky man was being twisted, letting forth a wretched voice, amidst his torments he breathed out his soul.

He was given to the grave but he began to disturb the residents in the neighbourhood by the hours of night. No doubt about it, he himself through this bore witness to his own lack of peace, when (as it is better to confess) not he himself but a demon in his image seduced not so much those who are educated in religion as those who are greatly deceived by illusions. In the end, he was pulled up from the ground, sewn up in a sack and sunk in a swamp. Would to God that he might be delivered to Satan now in the present, so that his spirit be saved in the Day of Judgement . . .

This story was first recorded in the 1090s, in Archdeacon Herman’s Miracles of Saint Edmund, where the sheriff was named as Leofstan. Its central motif, that of a disrespectful authority figure who fails to show respect for a saint’s power and is struck with madness and/or death as punishment, is fairly standard hagiographical stuff and is not even necessarily historically inaccurate. The description of the sheriff’s affliction – spasms, contortion, foaming at the mouth – sounds like an epileptic seizure and, although it seems a bit convenient that his seizure just happens to occur during an act of sacrilege, the monks of Saint Edmund would have had no interest in recording seizures that occurred at any other time, nor would they have wanted to record all the arrests that successfully did take place within their church without divine censure.

The real reason to doubt the story’s inaccuracy is that, though there are several accounts of miracles at Saint Edmund’s shrine from contemporary tenth-century sources, they do not include this incident. They do, however, include a story of a local nobleman named Leofstan who has just such a seizure after breaking open Saint Edmund’s tomb in order to test the claim that his body had not rotted. One can understand how this story might have become elaborated over the next hundred years into the story of a zombie sheriff.

It is that last-minute plot-twist (not present in the Anglo-Saxon sources) that makes the story particularly interesting as the earliest account from England of what would later be called vampirism or revenancy. The superstition that those who died in unusual circumstances might not stay dead is worldwide and the ambiguous way Abbot Samson describes it in his version testifies to the medieval church’s difficulty in squaring the popular belief with its own theology: The sheriff’s soul should have been in purgatory, so, if his body had indeed risen again, it must have been because a demon was occupying it and using it to deceive and frighten people.

The stake through the heart so beloved of modern horror films was originally designed to serve the purely practical purpose of nailing the overactive corpse to the ground. The citizens of Bury Saint Edmund’s employed a different technique but it was apparently equally effective. More than a thousand years later, the zombie sheriff has not been seen again in Bury Saint Edmund’s but the nervous reader, on a visit to the town, might be wise to avoid deep water and to choose carefully where to swim.

Photo credits: Bury Saint Edmund’s Cathedral and Abbey ruins (Bob Jones) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Nowton Park, Nowton, near Bury Saint Edmund’s (Andy Parrett) / CC BY-SA 2.0