The History of The Kings of England 09

William of Malmesbury

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From this king the English chronicles trace the line of the generation of their kings upwards, even to Adam, as we know Luke the evangelist has done with respect to our Lord Jesus; and which, perhaps, it will not be superfluous for me to do, though it is to be apprehended, that the utterance of barbarous names may shock the ears of persons unused to them. Ethelwulf was the son of Egbert, Egbert of Elmund, Elmund of Eafa, Eafa of Eoppa, Eoppa was the son of Ligild, the brother of king Ina, who were both sons of Kenred; Kenred of Ceolwald, Ceolwald of Cutha, Cutha of Cuthwin, Cuthwin of Ceawlin, Ceawlin of Cynric, Cynric of Creoding, Creoding of Cerdic, who was the first king of the West Saxons; Cerdic of Elesa, Elesa of Esla, Esla of Gewis, Gewis of Wig, Wig of Freawin, Freawin of Frithogar, Frithogar of Brond, Brond of Beldeg, Beldeg of Woden; and from him, as we have often remarked, proceeded the kings of many nations. Woden was the son of Frithowald, Frithowald of Frealaf, Frealaf of Finn, Finn of Godwulf, Godwulf of Geat, Geat of Tastwa, Taetwa of Beaw, Beaw of Sceldi, Sceldi of Sceaf; who, as some affirm, was driven on a certain island in Germany, called Scamphta, (of which Jornandes, the historian of the Goths, speaks,) a little boy in a skiff, without any attendant, asleep, with a handful of corn at his head, whence he was called Sceaf; and, on account of his singular appearance, being well received by the men of that country, and carefully educated, in his riper age he reigned in a town which was called Slaswic, but at present Haitheby; which country, called old Anglia, whence the Angles came into Britain, is situated between the Saxons and the Gioths. Sceaf was the son of Heremod, Heremod of Itermon, Itermon of Hathra, Hathra of Guala, Guala of Bedwig, Bedwig of Streaf, and he, as they say, was the son of Noah, born in the Ark.

In the year of our Lord 857, the two sons of Ethelwulf divided their paternal kingdom; Ethelbald reigned in West Saxony, and Ethelbert in Kent. Ethelbald, base and perfidious, defiled the bed of his father by marrying, after his decease, Judith his step-mother. Dying, however, at the end of five years, and being interred at Sherborne, the whole government devolved upon his brother. In his time a band of pirates landing at Southampton, proceeded to plunder the populous city of Winchester, but soon after being spiritedly repulsed by the king’s generals, and suffering considerable loss, they put to sea, and coasting round, chose the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, for their winter quarters. The people of Kent, giving hostages, and promising a sum of money, would have remained quiet, had not these pirates, breaking the treaty, laid waste the whole district by nightly predatory excursions, but roused by this conduct they mustered a force and drove out the truce-breakers. Moreover Ethelbert, having ruled the kingdom with vigour and with mildness, paid the debt of nature after five years, and was buried at Sherborne.

In the year of our Lord 867, Ethelred, the son of Ethelwulf, obtained his paternal kingdom, and ruled it for the same number of years as his brothers. Surely it would be a pitiable and grievous destiny, that all of them should perish by an early death, unless it is, that in such a tempest of evils, these royal youths should prefer an honourable end to a painful government. Indeed, so bravely and so vigorously did they contend for their country, that it was not to be imputed to them that their valour did not succeed in its design. Finally, it is related, that this king was personally engaged in hostile conflict against the enemy nine times in one year, with various success indeed, but for the most part victor, besides sudden attacks, in which, from his skill in warfare, he frequently worsted those straggling depredators. In these several actions the Danes lost nine earls and one king, besides common people innumerable.

One battle memorable beyond all the rest was that which took place at Eschendun. The Danes, having collected an army at this place, divided it into two bodies; their two kings commanded the one, all their earls the other. Ethebed drew near with his brother Alfred. It fell to the lot of Ethelred to oppose the kings, while Alfred was to attack the earls. Both armies eagerly prepared for battle, but night approaching deferred the conflict till the ensuing-day. Scarcely had the morning dawned ere Alfred was ready at his post, but his brother, intent on his devotions, had remained in his tent; and when urged on by a message, that the pagans were rushing forward with unbounded fury, he declared that he should not move a step till his religious services were ended. This piety of the king was of infinite advantage to his brother, who was too impetuous from the thoughtlessness of youth, and had already far advanced. The battalions of the Angles were now giving way, and even bordering on flight, in consequence of their adversaries pressing upon them from the higher ground, for the Christians were fighting in an unfavourable situation, when the king himself, signed with the cross of God, unexpectedly hastened forward, dispersing the enemy, and rallying his subjects. The Danes, terrified equally by his courage and the divine manifestation, consulted their safety by flight. Here fell Oseg their king, five earls, and an innumerable multitude of common people.

The reader will be careful to observe that during this time, the kings of the Mercians and of the Northumbrians, eagerly seizing the opportunity of the arrival of the Danes, with whom Ethelred was fully occupied in fighting, and somewhat relieved from their bondage to the West Saxons, had nearly regained their original power. All the provinces, therefore, were laid waste by cruel depredations, because each king chose rather to resist the enemy within his own territories, than to assist his neighbours in their difficulties; and thus preferring to avenge injury rather than to prevent it, they ruined their country by their senseless conduct. The Danes acquired strength without impediment, whilst the apprehensions of the inhabitants increased, and each successive victory, from the addition of captives, became the means of obtaining another. The country of the East Angles, together with their cities and villages, was possessed by these plunderers; its king, St. Edmund, slain by them in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 870, on the tenth of November, purchased an eternal kingdom by putting off this mortal life. The Mercians, often harassed, alleviated their afflictions by giving hostages. The Northumbrians, long embroiled in civil dissensions, made up their differences on the approach of the enemy. Replacing Osbert their king, whom they had expelled, upon the throne, and collecting a powerful force, they went out to meet the foe; but being easily repelled, they shut themselves up in the city of York, which was presently after set on fire by the victors; and when the flames were raging to the utmost and consuming the very walls, they perished for their country in the conflagration. In this manner Northumbria, the prize of war, for a considerable time after, felt the more bitterly, through a sense of former liberty, the galling yoke of the barbarians. And now Ethelred, worn down with numberless labours, died and was buried at Wimborne.

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 872, Alfred, the youngest son of Ethelwulf, who had, as has been related before, received the royal unction and crown from pope Leo the fourth at Rome, acceded to the sovereignty and retained it with the greatest difficulty, but with equal valour, twenty-eight years and a half. To trace in detail the mazy labyrinth of his labours was never my design; because a recapitulation of his exploits in their exact order of time would occasion some confusion to the reader. For, to relate how a hostile army, driven by himself or his generals, from one part of a district, retreated to another; and, dislodged thence, sought a fresh scene of operation and filled every place with rapine and slaughter; and, if I may use the expression, “to go round the whole island with him,” might to some seem the height of folly: consequently I shall touch on all points summarily. For nine successive years battling with his enemies, sometimes deceived by false treaties, and sometimes wreaking his vengeance on the delivers, he was at last reduced to such extreme distress, that scarcely three counties, that is to say, Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Somersetshire, stood fast by their allegiance, as he was compelled to retreat to a certain island called Athelney, which from its marshy situation was hardly accessible. He was accustomed afterwards, when in happier circumstances, to relate to his companions, in a lively and agreeable manner, his perils there, and how he escaped them by the merits of St. Cuthbert; for it frequently happens that men are pleased with the recollection of those circumstances, which formerly they dreaded to encounter. During his retreat in this island, as he was one day in the house alone, his companions being dispersed on the river side for the purpose of fishing, he endeavoured to refresh his weary frame with sleep: and behold ! Cuthbert, formerly bishop of Lindisfarne, addressed him, while sleeping, in the following manner: — “I am Cuthbert, if ever you heard of me; God hath sent me to announce good fortune to you; and since England has already largely paid the penalty of her crimes, God now, through the merits of her native saints, looks upon her with an eye of mercy. You too, so pitiably banished from your kingdom, shall shortly be again seated with honour on your throne; of which I give you this extraordinary token: your fishers shall this day bring home a great quantity of large fish in baskets; which will be so much the more extraordinary because the river, at this time hard-bound with ice, could warrant no such expectation; especially as the air now dripping with cold rain mocks the art of the fisher. But, when your fortune shall succeed to your wishes, you will act as becomes a king, if you conciliate God your helper, and me his messenger, with suitable devotion.” Saying thus, the saint divested the sleeping king of his anxiety; and comforted his mother also, who was lying near him, and endeavouring to invite some gentle slumbers to her hard couch to relieve her cares, with the same joyful intelligence. When they awoke, they repeatedly declared that each had had the self-same dream, when the fishermen entering, displayed such a multitude of fishes as would have been sufficient to satisfy the appetite of a numerous army.

Not long after, venturing from his concealment, he hazarded an experiment of consummate art. Accompanied only by one of his most faithful adherents, he entered the tent of the Danish king under the disguise of a minstrel; and being admitted, as a professor of the mimic art, to the banqueting room, there was no object of secrecy that he did not minutely attend to both with eyes and ears. Remaining there several days, till he had satisfied his mind on every matter which he wished to know, he returned to Athelney: and assembling his companions, pointed out the indolence of the enemy and the easiness of their defeat. All were eager for the enterprise, and himself collecting forces from every side, and learning exactly the situation of the barbarians from scouts he had sent out for that purpose, he suddenly attacked and routed them with incredible slaughter. The remainder, with their king, gave hostages that they would embrace Christianity and depart from the country; which they performed. For their king, Gothrun, whom our people call Grurmund, with thirty nobles and almost all the commonalty, was baptised, Alfred standing for him; and the provinces of the East Angles, and Northumbrians were given up to him, in order that he might, under fealty to the king, protect with hereditary right, what before he had overrun with predatory incursion. However, as the Ethiopian cannot change his skin, he domineered over these tributary provinces with the haughtiness of a tyrant for eleven years, and died in the twelfth, transmitting to his posterity the inheritance of his disloyalty, until subdued by Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred, they were, though reluctantly, compelled to admit one common king of England, as we see at the present day. Such of the Danes as had refused to become Christians, together with Hastings, went over sea, where the inhabitants are best able to tell what cruelties they perpetrated. For overrunning the whole maritime coasts to the Tuscan sea, they unpeopled Paris and Tours, as well as many other cities seated on the Seine and Loire, those noted rivers of France. At that time the bodies of many saints being taken up from the spot of their original interment and conveyed to safer places, have ennobled foreign churches with their relics even to this day. Then also the body of St. Martin, venerated, as Sidonius says, over the whole earth, in which virtue resides though life be at an end, was taken to Auxerre, by the clergy of his church, and placed in that of St. German, where it astonished the people of that district by unheard-of miracles. And when they who came thither, out of gratitude for cures performed, contributed many things to requite the labours of those who had borne him to this church, as is commonly the case, a dispute arose about the division of the money; the Turonians claiming the whole, because their patron had called the contributors together by his miracles: the natives, on the other hand, alleging that St. German was not unequal in merit, and was of equal kindness; that both indeed had the same power, but that the prerogative of their church preponderated. To solve this knotty doubt, a leprous person was sought, and placed, nearly at the last gasp, wasted to a skeleton, and already dead, as it were, in a living carcass, between the bodies of the two saints. All human watch was prohibited for the whole night: the glory of Martin alone was vigilant; for the next day, the skin of the man on his side appeared clear, while on that of German, it was discoloured with its customary deformity. And, that they might not attribute this miracle to chance, they turned the yet diseased side to Martin. As soon as the morning began to dawn, the man was found by the hastening attendants with his skin smooth, perfectly cured, declaring the kind condescension of the resident patron, who yielded to the honour of such a welcome stranger. Thus the Turonians, both at that time and afterwards, safely filled their common purse by the assistance of their patron, till a more favourable gale of peace restored them to their former residence. For these marauders infesting France for thirteen years, and being at last overcome by the emperor Ernulph and the people of Brittany in many encounters, retreated into England as a convenient receptacle for their tyranny. During this space of time Alfred had reduced the whole island to his power, with the exception of what the Danes possessed. The Angles had willingly surrendered to his dominion, rejoicing that they had produced a man capable of leading them to liberty. He granted London, the chief city of the Mercian kingdom, to a nobleman named Ethered, to hold in fealty, and gave him his daughter Ethelfled in marriage. Ethered conducted himself with equal valour and fidelity; defended his trust with activity, and kept the East Angles and Northumbrians, who were fomenting rebellion against the king, within due bounds, compelling them to give hostages. Of what infinite service this was, the following emergency proved. After England had rejoiced for thirteen years in the tranquillity of peace and in the fertility of her soil, the northern pest of barbarians again returned. With them returned war and slaughter; again arose conspiracies of the Northumbrians and East Angles: but neither strangers nor natives experienced the same fortune as in former years; the one party, diminished by foreign contests, were less alert in their invasions; while the other, now experienced in war and animated by the exhortations of the king, were not only more ready to resist, but also to attack. The king himself was, with his usual activity, present in every action, ever daunting the invaders, and at the same time inspiriting his subjects, with the signal display of his courage. He would oppose himself singly to the enemy; and by his own personal exertions rally his declining forces The very places are yet pointed out by the inhabitants where he felt the vicissitudes of good and evil fortune. It was necessary to contend with Alfred even after he was overcome, after he was prostrate; insomuch that when he might be supposed altogether vanquished, he would escape like a slippery serpent, from the hand which held him, glide from his lurking-place, and, with undiminished courage, spring on his insulting enemies: he was insupportable after flight, and became more circumspect from the recollection of defeat, more bold from the thirst of vengeance. His children by Elswitha, the daughter of earl Ethelred, were Ethelswitha, Edward who reigned after him; Ethelfled who was married to Ethered earl of the Mercians; Ethelwerd, whom they celebrate as being extremely learned; Elfred and Ethelgiva, virgins. His health was so bad that he was constantly disquieted either by the piles or some disorder of the intestines. It is said, however, that he entreated this from God, in his supplications, in order that, by the admonition of pain, he might be less anxious after earthly delights.

Yet amid these circumstances the private life of the king is to be admired and celebrated with the highest praise. For although, as some one has said, “Laws must give way amid the strife of arms,” yet he, amid the sound of trumpets and the din of war, enacted statutes by which his people might equally familiarise themselves to religious worship and to military discipline. And since, from the example of the barbarians, the natives themselves began to lust after rapine, insomuch that there was no safe intercourse without a military guard, he appointed centuries, which they call “hundreds,” and decennaries, that is to say, “tythings,” so that every Englishman, living according to law, must be a member of both. If any one was accused of a crime, he was obliged immediately to produce persons from the hundred and tything to become his surety; and whosoever was unable to find such surety, must dread the severity of the laws. If any who was impleaded made his escape either before or after he had found surety, all persons of the hundred and tything paid a fine to the king. By this regulation he diffused such peace throughout the country, that he ordered golden bracelets, which might mock the eager desires of the passengers while no one durst take them away, to be hung up on the public causeways, where the roads crossed each other. Ever intent on almsgiving, he confirmed the privileges of the churches, as appointed by his father, and sent many presents over sea to Rome and to St. Thomas in India. Sighelm, bishop of Sherborne, sent ambassador for this purpose, penetrated successfully into India, a matter of astonishment even in the present time. Returning thence, he brought back many brilliant exotic gems and aromatic juices in which that country abounds, and a present more precious than the finest gold, part of our Saviour’s cross, sent by pope Marinus to the king. He erected monasteries wherever he deemed it fitting; one in Athelney, where he lay concealed, as has been above related, and there he made John abbot, a native of Old Saxony; another at Winchester, which is called the New-minster, where he appointed Grimbald abbot, who, at his invitation, had been sent into England by Fulco archbishop of Rheims, known to him, as they say, by having kindly entertained him when a child on his way to Rome. The cause of his being sent for was that by his activity he might awaken the study of literature in England, which was now slumbering and almost expiring. The monastery of Shaftesbury also he filled with nuns, where he made his daughter Ethelgiva abbess. From St. David’s he procured a person named Asser, a man of skill in literature, whom he made bishop of Sherborne. This man explained the meaning of the works of Boethius, on the Consolation of Philosophy, in clearer terms, and the king himself translated them into the English language. And since there was no good scholar in his own kingdom, he sent for Werefrith bishop of Worcester out of Mercia, who by command of the king rendered into the English tongue the books of Gregory’s Dialogues. At this time Johannes Scotus is supposed to have lived; a man of clear understanding and amazing eloquence. He had long since, from the continued tumult of war around him, retired into France to Charles the Bald, at whose request he had translated the Hierarchia of Dionysius the Areopagite, word for word, out of the Greek into Latin. He composed a book also, which he entitled ‘Of the Division of Nature’, extremely useful in solving the perplexity of certain indispensable inquiries, if he be pardoned for some things in which he deviated from the opinions of the Latins, through too close attention to the Greeks. In after time, allured by the munificence of Alfred, he came into England, and at our monastery, as report says, was pierced with the iron styles of the boys whom he was instructing, and was even looked upon as a martyr; which phrase I have not made use of to the disparagement of his holy spirit, as though it were matter of doubt, especially as his tomb on the left side of the altar, and the verses of his epitaph, record his fame. These, though rugged and deficient in the polish of our days, are not so uncouth for ancient times:

”Here lies a saint, the sophist John, whose days on earth were graced with deepest learning’s praise: Deeraed meet at last by martyrdom to gain Christ’s kingdom, where the saints for ever reign.”

Confiding in these auxiliaries, the king gave his whole soul to the cultivation of the liberal arts, insomuch that no Englishman was quicker in comprehending, or more elegant in translating. This was the more remarkable, because until twelve years of age he absolutely knew nothing of literature.

At that time, lured by a kind mother, who under the mask of amusement promised that he should have a little book which she held in her hand for a present if he would learn it quickly, he entered upon learning in sport indeed at first, but afterwards drank of the stream with unquenchable avidity. He translated into English the greater part of the Roman authors, bringing off the noblest spoil of foreign intercourse for the use of his subjects; of which the chief books were Orosius, Gregory’s Pastoral, Bede’s History of the Angles, Boethius Of the Consolation of Philosophy, his own book, which he called in his vernacular tongue “Handboc,” that is, a manual. Moreover he infused a great regard for literature into his countrymen, stimulating them both with rewards and punishments, allowing no ignorant person to aspire to any dignity in the court. He died just as he had begun a translation of the Psalms. In the prologue to “The Pastoral“ he observes, “that he was incited to translate these books into English because the churches which had formerly contained numerous libraries had, together with their books, been burnt by the Danes.” And again, “that the pursuit of literature had gone to decay almost over the whole island, because each person was more occupied in the preservation of his life than in the perusal of books; wherefore he so far consulted the good of his countrymen, that they might now hastily view what hereafter, if peace should ever return, they might thoroughly comprehend in the Latin language.” Again, “That he designed to transmit this book, transcribed by his order, to every see, with a golden style in which was a mancus of gold; that there was nothing of his own opinions inserted in this or his other translations, but that everything was derived from those celebrated men Plegmund archbishop of Canterbury, Asser the bishop, Grimbald and John the priests.” But, in short, I may thus briefly elucidate his whole life: he so divided the twenty-four hours of the day and night as to employ eight of them in writing, in reading, and in prayer, eight in the refreshment of his body, and eight in dispatching the business of the realm. There was in his chapel a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions, and an attendant, whose peculiar province it was to admonish the king of his several duties by its consumption. One half of all revenues, provided they were justly acquired, he gave to his monasteries, all his other income he divided into two equal parts, the first was again subdivided into three, of which the first was given to the servants of his court, the second to artificers whom he constantly employed in the erection of new edifices, in a manner surprising and hitherto unknown to the English, the third he gave to strangers. The second part of the revenue was divided in such a mode that the first portion should be given to the poor of his kingdom, the second to the monasteries, the third to scholars, the fourth to foreign churches. He was a strict inquirer into the sentences passed by his magistrates, and a severe corrector of such as were unjust. He had one unusual and unheard of custom, which was, that he always carried in his bosom a book in which the daily order of the Psalms was contained, for the purpose of carefully perusing it, if at any time he had leisure. In this way he passed his life, much respected by neighbouring princes, and gave his daughter Ethelswitha in marriage to Baldwin earl of Flanders, by whom he had Arnulf and Ethelwulf; the former received from his father the county of Boulogne, from the other at this day are descended the earls of Flanders. Alfred, paying the debt of nature, was buried at Winchester, in the monastery which he had founded; to build the offices of which Edward, his son, purchased a sufficient space of ground from the bishop and canons, giving, for every foot, a mancus of gold of the statute weight. The endurance of the king was astonishing, in suffering such a sum to be extorted from him; but he did not choose to offer a sacrifice to God from the robbery of the poor. These two churches were so contiguous, that, when singing, they heard each others’ voices; on this and other accounts an unhappy jealousy was daily stirring up causes of dissension, which produced frequent injuries on either side. For this reason that monastery was lately removed out of the city, and became a more healthy, as well as a more conspicuous, residence. They report that Alfred was first buried in the cathedral, because his monastery was unfinished, but that afterwards, on account of the folly of the canons, who asserted that the royal spirit, resuming its carcass, wandered nightly through the buildings, Edward, his son and successor, removed the remains of his father, and gave them a quiet resting-place in the new minster. These and similar superstitions, such as that the dead body of a wicked man runs about, after death, by the agency of the devil, the English hold with almost inbred credulity, “borrowing them from the heathens, according to the expression of Virgil, become one nation with the Danes; the Scots, who inhabit the northern part of the island; and all the Britons, whom we call Welsh, after perpetual battles, in which he was always successful. He devised a mode of frustrating the incursions of the Danes; for he repaired many ancient cities, or built new ones, in places calculated for his purpose, and filled them with a military force, to protect the inhabitants and repel the enemy. Nor was his design unsuccessful; for the inhabitants became so extremely valorous in these contests, that if they heard of an enemy approaching, they rushed out to give them battle, even without consulting the king or his generals, and constantly surpassed them, both in number and in warlike skill. Thus the enemy became an object of contempt to the soldiery and of derision to the king. At last some fresh assailants, who had come over under the command of Ethelwald, the son of the king’s uncle, were all, together with himself, cut off to a man; those before, settled in the country, being either destroyed or spared under the denomination of Angles. Ethelwald indeed had attempted many things in the earlier days of this king; and, disdaining subjection to him, declared himself his inferior neither in birth nor valour; but being driven into exile by the nobility, who had sworn allegiance to Edward, he brought over the pirates; with whom, meeting his death, as I have related, he gave proof of the folly of resisting those who are our superiors in power. Although Edward may be deservedly praised for these transactions, yet, in my opinion, the palm should be more especially given to his father, who certainly laid the foundation of this extent of dominion. And here indeed Ethelfled, sister of the king and relict of Ethered, ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of an enlarged soul, who, from the difficulty experienced in her first labour, ever after refused the embraces of her husband; protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such painful consequences. This spirited heroine assisted her brother greatly with her advice, was of equal service in building cities, nor could you easily discern, whether it was more owing to fortune or her own exertions, that a woman should be able to protect men at home, and to intimidate them abroad. She died five years before her brother, and was buried in the monastery of St. Peter’s, at Gloucester; which, in conjunction with her husband, Ethered, she had erected with great solicitude. Thither too she had transferred the bones of St. Oswald, the king, from Bardney; but this monastery being destroyed in succeeding time by the Danes, Aldred, archbishop of York, founded another, which is now the chief in that city.

William of Malmesbury

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29 January, 2015
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