The History of The Kings of England 10

William of Malmesbury

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As the king had many daughters, he gave Edgiva to Charles, king of France, the son of Lewis the Stammerer, son of Charles the Bald, whose daughter, as I have repeatedly observed, Ethelwulf had married on his return from Rome; and, as the opportunity has now presented itself, the candid reader will not think it irrelevant, if I state the names of his wives and children. By Egwina, an illustrious lady, he had Athelstan, his first-born, and a daughter, whose name I cannot particularise, but her brother gave her in marriage to Sihtric, king of the Northumbrians. The second son of Edward was Ethelward, by Elfleda, daughter of earl Etheline; deeply versed in literature, much resembling his grandfather Alfred in features and disposition, but who departed, by an early death, soon after his father. By the same wife he had Edwin, of whose fate what the received opinion is I shall hereafter describe, not with confidence, but doubtingly. By her too he had six daughters; Edfleda, Edgiva, Ethelhilda, Ethilda, Edgitha, Elgifa: the first and third vowing celibacy to God, renounced the pleasure of earthly nuptials; Edfleda in a religious, and Ethelhilda in a lay habit: they both lie buried near their mother, at Winchester. Her father gave Edgiva, as I have mentioned, to king Charles, and her brother, Athelstan, gave Ethilda to Hugh: this same brother also sent Edgitha and Elgifa to Henry, emperor of Germany, the second of whom he gave to his son Otho, the other to a certain duke, near the Alps.

Again; by his third wife, named Edgiva, he had two sons, Edmund and Edred, each of whom reigned after Athelstan: two daughters, Eadburga, and Edgiva; Eadburga, a virgin, dedicated to Christ, lies buried at Winchester; Edgiva, a lady of incomparable beauty, was united, by her brother Athelstan, to Lewis, prince of Aquitaine. Edward had brought up his daughters in such wise, that in childhood they gave their whole attention to literature, and afterwards employed themselves in the labours of the distaff and the needle, that thus they might chastely pass their virgin age. His sons were so educated, as, first, to have the completest benefit of learning, that afterwards they might succeed to govern the state, not like rustics, but philosophers.

Charles, the son-in-law of Edward, constrained thereto by Rollo, through a succession of calamities, conceded to him that part of Gaul which at present is called Normandy. It would be tedious to relate for how many years, and with what audacity, the Normans disquieted every place from the British ocean, as I have said, to the Tuscan sea. First Hasten, and then Rollo; who, born of noble lineage among the Norwegians, though obsolete from its extreme antiquity, was banished, by the king’s command, from his own country, and brought over with him multitudes, who were in danger, either from debt or consciousness of guilt, and whom he had allured by great expectations of advantage. Betaking himself therefore to piracy, after his cruelty had raged on every side at pleasure, he experienced a check at Chartres. For the townspeople, relying neither on arms nor fortifications, piously implored the assistance of the blessed Virgin Mary. The shift too of the virgin, which Charles the Bald had brought with other relics from Constantinople, they displayed to the winds on the ramparts, thronged by-the garrison, after the fashion of a banner. The enemy on seeing it began to laugh, and to direct their arrows at it. This, however, was not done with impunity; for presently their eyes became dim, and they could neither retreat nor advance. The townsmen, with joy perceiving this, indulged themselves in a plentiful slaughter of them, as far as fortune permitted. Rollo, however, whom God reserved for the true faith, escaped, and soon after gained Rouen and the neighbouring cities by force of arms, in the year of our Lord 876, and one year before the death of Charles the Bald, whose grandson Lewis, as is before mentioned, vanquished the Normans, but did not expel them: but Charles, the brother of that Lewis, grandson of Charles the Bald, by his son Lewis, as I have said above, repeatedly experiencing, from unsuccessful conflicts, that fortune gave him nothing which she took from others, resolved, after consulting his nobility, that it was advisable to make a show of royal munificence, when he was unable to repel injury; and, in a friendly manner, sent for Rollo. He was at this time far advanced in years; and, consequently, easily inclined to pacific measures. It was therefore determined by treaty, that he should be baptised, and hold that country of the king as his lord. The inbred and untameable ferocity of the man may well be imagined, for, on receiving this gift, as the bystanders suggested to him, that he ought to kiss the foot of his benefactor, disdaining to kneel down, he seized the king’s foot and dragged it to his mouth as he stood erect. The king falling on his back, the Normans began to laugh, and the Franks to be indignant; but Rollo apologized for his shameful conduct, by saying that it was the custom of his country. Thus the affair being settled, Rollo returned to Rouen, and there died.

The son of this Charles was Lewis: he being challenged by one Isembard, that had turned pagan, and renounced his faith, called upon his nobility for their assistance: they not even deigned an answer; when one Hugh, son of Robert, earl of Mont Didier, a youth of no great celebrity at the time, voluntarily entered the lists for his lord and killed the challenger. Lewis, with his whole army pursuing to Ponthieu, gained there a glorious triumph; either destroying or putting to flight all the barbarians whom Isembard had brought with him. But not long after, weakened by extreme sickness, the consequence of this laborious expedition, he appointed this Hugh, a young man of noted faith and courage, heir to the kingdom. Thus the lineage of Charles the Great ceased with him, because either his wife was bar being dissolved, the archbishop went to Rome with splendid presents, appeased the pope with much humility, and related the king’s ordinance, which gave the pontiff great satisfaction. Returning home, in one day he ordained in the city of Canterbury seven bishops to seven churches: — Frithstan to the church of Winchester; Athelstan to Cornwall; Werstan to Sherborne; Athelelm to Wells; Aidulf to Crediton in Devonshire: also to other provinces he appointed two bishops; to the South-Saxons, Bernegus, a very proper person; and to the Mercians, Cenulph, whose see was at Dorchester, in Oxfordshire. All this the pope established, in such wise, that he who should invalidate this decree should be damned everlastingly.”

Edward, going the way of all flesh, rested in the same monastery with his father, which he had augmented with considerable revenues, and in which he had buried his brother Ethelward four years before.

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 924, Athelstan, the son of Edward, began to reign, and held the sovereignty sixteen years. His brother, Ethelward, dying a few days after his father, had been buried with him at Winchester. At this place, therefore, Athelstan, being elected king by the unanimous consent of the nobility, he was crowned at a royal town, which is called Kingston; though one Elfred, whose death we shall hereafter relate in the words of the king, with his factious party, as sedition never wants adherents, attempted to prevent it. The ground of his opposition, as they affirm, was, that Athelstan was born of a concubine. But having nothing ignoble in him, except this stain, if after all it be true, he cast all his predecessors into the shade by his piety, as well as the glory of all their triumphs, by the splendour of his own. So much more excellent is it to have that for which we are renowned inherent, than derived from our ancestors; because the former is exclusively our own, the latter is imputable to others. I forbear relating how many new and magnificent monasteries he founded; but I will not conceal that there was scarcely an old one in England which he did not embellish, either with buildings, or ornaments, or books, or possessions. Thus he ennobled the new ones expressly, but the old, as though they were only casual objects of his kindness. With Sihtric, king of the Northumbrians, who married, as I have before said, one of his sisters, he made a lasting covenant; he dying after a year, Athelstan took that province under his own government, expelling one Aldulph, who resisted him. And as a noble mind, when once roused, aspires to greater things, he compelled Jothwel, king of all the Welsh, and Constantine, king of the Scots, to quit their kingdoms; but not long after, moved with commiseration, he restored them to their original state, that they might reign under him, saying, “it was more glorious to make than to be a king.” His last contest was with Anlaf, the son of Sihtric, who, with the beforenamed Constantine, again in a state of rebellion, had entered his territories under the hope of gaining the kingdom. Athelstan purposely retreating, that he might derive greater honour from vanquishing his furious assailants, this bold youth, meditating unlawful conquests, had now proceeded far into England, when he was opposed at Bruneford by the most experienced generals, and most valiant forces. Perceiving, at length, what danger hung over him, he assumed the character of a spy. Laying aside his royal ensigns, and taking a harp in his hand, he proceeded to our king’s tent: singing before the entrance, and at times touching the trembling strings in harmonious cadence, he was readily admitted, professing himself a minstrel, who procured his daily sustenance by such employment. Here he entertained the king and his companions for some time with his musical performance, carefully examining everything while occupied in singing. When satiety of eating had put an end to their sensual enjoyments, and the business of war was resumed among the nobles, he was ordered to depart, and received the recompense of his song; but disdaining to take it away, he hid it beneath him in the earth. This circumstance was remarked by a person, who had formerly served under him, and immediately related it to Athelstan. The king, blaming him extremely for not having detected his enemy as he stood before them, received this answer: “The same oath, which I have lately sworn to you, O king, I formerly made to Anlaf; and had you seen me violate it towards him, you might have expected similar perfidy towards yourself: but condescend to listen to the advice of your servant, which is, that you should remove your tent hence, and remaining in another place till the residue of the army come up, you will destroy your ferocious enemy by a moderate delay.” Approving this admonition, he removed to another place. Anlaf advancing, well prepared, at night, put to death, together with the whole of his followers, a certain bishop, who had joined the army only the evening before, and, ignorant of what had passed, had pitched his tent there on account of the level turf. Proceeding farther, he found the king himself equally unprepared; who, little expecting his enemy capable of such an attack, had indulged in profound repose. But, when roused from his sleep by the excessive tumult, and urging his people, as much as the darkness of the night would permit, to the conflict, his sword fell by chance from the sheath; upon which, while all things were filled with dread and blind confusion, he invoked the protection of God and of St. Aldhelm, who was distantly related to him; and replacing his hand upon the scabbard, he there found a sword, which is kept to this day, on account of the miracle, in the treasury of the kings. Moreover, it is, as they say, chased in one part, but can never be inlaid either with gold or silver. Confiding in this divine present, and at the same time, as it began to dawn, attacking the Norwegian, he continued the battle unwearied through the day, and put him to flight with his whole army. There fell Constantine, king of the Scots, a man of treacherous energy and vigorous old age; five other kings, twelve earls, and almost the whole assemblage of barbarians. The few who escaped were preserved to embrace the faith of Christ.

Concerning this king a strong persuasion is prevalent among the English, that one more just or learned never governed the kingdom. That he was versed in literature, discovered a few days since, in a certain old volume, wherein the writer struggles with the difficulty of the task, unable to express his meaning as he wished. Indeed I would subjoin his words for brevity’s sake, were they not extravagant beyond belief in the praises of the king, and just in that style of writing which Cicero, the prince of Roman eloquence, in his book on Rhetoric, denominates “bombast.” The custom of that time excuses the diction, and the affection for Athelstan, who was yet living, gave coimtenance to the excess of praise. I shall subjoin, therefore, in familiar language, some few circumstances which may tend to augment his reputation.

King Edward, after many noble exploits, both in war and peace, a few days before his death subdued the contumacy of the city of Chester, which was rebelling in confederacy with the Britons; and placing a garrison there, he fell sick and died at Farringdon, and was buried, as I before related, at Winchester. Athelstan, as his father had commanded in his will, was then hailed king, recommended by his years, — for he was now thirty, — and the maturity of his wisdom. For even his grandfather Alfred, seeing and embracing him affectionately when he was a boy of astonishing beauty and graceful manners, had most devoutly prayed that his government might be prosperous: indeed, he had made him a knight unusually early, giving him a scarlet cloak, a belt studded with diamonds, and a Saxon sword with a golden scabbard. Next he had provided that he should be educated in the court of Ethelfled his daughter, and of his son-in-law Ethered; so that, having been brought up in expectation of succeeding to the kingdom, by the tender care of his aunt and of this celebrated prince, he repressed and destroyed all envy by the lustre of his good qualities; and, after the death of his father, and decease of his brother, he was crowned at Kingston. Hence, to celebrate such splendid events, and the joy of that illustrious day, the poet justly exclaims:

Of royal race a noble stem
Hath chased our darkness like a gem.
Great Athelstan, his country’s pride,
Whose virtue never turns aside;
Sent by his father to the schools,
Patient, he bore their rigid rules.
And drinking deep of science mild.
Passed his first years unlike a child.
Next clothed in youth’s bewitching charms.
Studied the harsher lore of arms,
Which soon confessed his knowledge keen.
As after in the sovereign seen.
Soon as his father, good and great,
Yielded, though ever famed, to fate.
The youth was called the realm to guide,
And, like his parent, well preside.
The nobles meet, the crown present.
On rebels, prelates curses vent;
The people light the festive fires,
And show by turns their kind desires.
Their deeds their loyalty declare,
Though hopes and fears their bosoms share.
With festive treat the court abounds;
Foams the brisk wine, the hall resounds:
The pages run, the servants haste.
And food and verse regale the taste.
The minstrels sing, the guests commend,
Whilst all in praise to Christ contend.
The king with pleasure all things sees.
And all his kind attentions please.

The solemnity of the consecration being finished, Athelstan, that he might not deceive the expectation of his subjects, and fall below their opinion, subdued the whole of England, except Northumbria, by the single terror of his name. One Sihtric, a relation of that Gothrun who is mentioned in the history of Alfred, presided over this people, a barbarian both by race and disposition, who, though he ridiculed the power of preceding kings, humbly solicited affinity with Athelstan, sending messengers expressly for the purpose; and himself shortly following confirmed the proposals of the ambassadors. In consequence, honoured by a union with his sister, and by various presents, he laid the basis of a perpetual treaty. But, as I have before observed, dying at the end of a year, he afforded Athelstan an opportunity for uniting Northumbria, which belonged to him both by ancient right and recent affinity, to his sovereignty. Anlaf, the son of Sihtric, then fled into Ireland, and his brother Guthferth into Scotland. Messengers from the king immediately followed to Constantine, king of the Scots, and Eugenius, king of the Cumbrians, claiming the fugitive under a threat of war. The barbarians had no idea of resistance, but without delay coming to a place called Dacor, they surrendered themselves and their kingdoms to the sovereign of England. Out of regard to this treaty, the king himself stood for the son of Constantine, who was ordered to be baptized, at the sacred font. Guthferth, however, amid the preparations for the journey, escaped by flight with one Turfrid, a leader of the opposite party; and afterwards laying siege to York, where he could succeed in bringing the townsmen to surrender neither by entreaties nor by threats, he departed. Not long after, being both shut up in a castle, they eluded the vigilance of the guards, and escaped. Turfrid, losing his life quickly after by shipwreck, became a prey to fishes. Guthferth, suffering extremely both by sea and land, at last came a suppliant to court. Being amicably received by the king, and sumptuously entertained for four days, he resought his ships; an incorrigible pirate, and accustomed to live in the water like a fish. In the meantime Athelstan levelled with the ground the castle which the Danes had formerly fortified in York, that there might be no place for disloyalty to shelter in; and the booty which had been found there, which was very considerable, he generously divided, man by man, to the whole army. For he had prescribed himself this rule of conduct, never to hoard up riches; but liberally to expend all his acquisition either on monasteries or on his faithful followers. On these, during the whole of his life, he expended his paternal treasures, as well as the produce of his victories. To the clergy he was humble and affable; to the laity mild and pleasant; to the nobility rather reserved, from respect to his dignity; to the lower classes, laying aside the stateliness of power, he was kind and condescending. He was, as we have heard, of becoming stature, thin in person, his hair flaxen, as I have seen by his remains, and beautifully wreathed with golden threads. Extremely beloved by his subjects from admiration of his fortitude and humility, he was terrible to those who rebelled against him, through his invincible courage. He compelled the rulers of the northern Welsh, that is, of the North Britons, to meet him at the city of Hereford, and after some opposition to surrender to his power. So that he actually brought to pass what no king before him had even presumed to think of: which was, that they should pay annually by way of tribute, twenty pounds of gold, three hundred of silver, twenty-five thousand oxen, besides as many dogs as he might choose, which from their sagacious scent could discover the retreats and hiding places of wild beasts; and birds, trained to make prey of others in the air. Departing thence, he turned towards the Western Britons, who are called the Cornwallish, because, situated in the west of Britain, they are opposite to the extremity of Gaul. Fiercely attacking, he obliged them to retreat from Exeter, which, till that time, they had inhabited with equal privileges with the Angles, fixing the boundary of their province on the other side of the river Tamar, as he had appointed the river Wye to the North Britons. This city then, which he had cleansed by purging it of its contaminated race, he fortified with towers and surrounded with a wall of squared stone. And, though the barren and unfruitful soil can scarcely produce indifferent oats, and frequently only the empty husk without the grain, yet, owing to the magnificence of the city, the opulence of its inhabitants, and the constant resort of strangers, every kind of merchandise is there so abundant that nothing is wanting which can conduce to human comfort. Many noble traces of him are to be seen in that city, as well as in the neighbouring district, which will be better described by the conversation of the natives, than by my narrative.

On this account all Europe resounded with his praises, and extolled his valour to the skies: foreign princes with justice esteemed themselves happy if they could purchase his friendship either by affinity or by presents. Harold king of Norway sent him a ship with golden beak and a purple sail, furnished within with a compacted fence of gilded shields. The names of the persons sent with it, were Helgrim and Offrid: who, being received with princely magnificence in the city of York, were amply compensated, by rich presents, for the labour of their journey. Henry the First, for there were many of the name, the son of Conrad, king of the Cornu Gallise, a fanciful etymology. Teutonians and emperor of the Romans, demanded his sister, as I have before related, for his son Otho: passing over so many neighbouring kings, but contemplating from a distance Athelstan’s noble descent, and greatness of mind. So completely indeed had these two qualities taken up their abode with him, that none could be more noble or illustrious in descent; none more bold or prompt in disposition. Maturely considering that he had four sisters, who were all equally beautiful, except only as their ages made a difference, he sent two to the emperor at his request; and how he disposed of them in marriage has already been related: Lewis prince of Aquitania, a descendant of Charles the Great, obtained the third in wedlock: the fourth, in whom the whole essence of beauty had centred, which the others only possessed in part, was demanded from her brother by Hugh king of the Franks. The chief of this embassy was Adulph, son of Baldwin earl of Flanders by Ethelswitha daughter of king Edward, When he had declared the request of the suitor in an assembly of the nobility at Abingdon, he produced such liberal presents as might gratify the most boundless avarice: perfumes such as never had been seen in England before: jewels, but more especially emeralds, the greenness of which, reflected by the sun, illumined the countenances of the bystanders with agreeable light: many fleet horses with their trappings, and, as Virgil says, “Champing their golden bits:“ an alabaster vase so exquisitely chased, that, the cornfields really seemed to wave, the vines to bud, the figures of men actually to move, and so clear and polished, that it reflected the features like a mirror; the sword of Constantine the Great, on which the name of its original possessor was read in golden letters; on the pommel, upon thick plates of gold, might be seen fixed an iron spike, one of the four which the Jewish faction prepared for the crucifixion of our Lord: the spear of Charles the Great, which whenever that invincible emperor hurled in his expeditions against the Saracens, he always came off conqueror; it was reported to be the same, which, driven into the side of our Saviour by the hand of the centurion, opened, by that precious wound, the joys of paradise to wretched mortals: the banner of the most blessed martyr Maurice, chief of the Theban legion; with which the same king, in the Spanish war, used to break through the battalions of the enemy however fierce and wedged together, and put them to flight: a diadem, precious from its quantity of gold, but more so for its jewels, the splendour of which threw the sparks of light so strongly on the beholders, that the more steadfastly any person endeavoured to gaze, so much the more he was dazzled, and compelled to avert his eyes; part of the holy and adorable cross enclosed in crystal; where the eye, piercing through the substance of the stone, might discern the colour and size of the wood; a small portion of the crown of thorns, enclosed in a similar manner, which, in derision of his government, the madness of the soldiers placed on Christ’s sacred head. The king, delighted with such great and exquisite presents, made an equal return of good offices; and gratified the soul of the longing suitor by a union with his sister. With some of these presents he enriched succeeding kings: but to Malmesbury he gave part of the cross and crown; by the support of which, I believe, that place even now flourishes, though it has suffered so many shipwrecks of its liberty, so many attacks of its enemies. In this place he ordered Elwin and Ethelwin, the sons of his uncle Ethelward, whom he had lost in the battle against Anlaf, to be honourably buried, expressing his design of resting here himself: of which battle it is now proper time to give the account of that poet, from whom I have taken all these transactions.

His subjects governing with justest sway,
Tyrants oeerawed, twelve years had passed away,
When Europe’s noxious pestilence stalked forth,
And poured the barbarous legions from the north.
The pirate Anlaf now the briny surge
Forsakes, while deeds of desperation urge.
Her king consenting, Scotia’s land receives
The frantic madman, and his host of thieves:
Now flushed with insolence they shout and boast.
And drive the harmless natives from the coast.
Thus, while the king, secure in youthful pride,
Bade the soft hours in gentle pleasures glide,
Though erst he stemmed the battle’s furious tide,
With ceaseless plunder sped the daring horde,
And wasted districts with their fire and sword.
The verdant crops lay withering on the fields
The glebe no promise to the rustic yields.
Immense the numbers of barbarian force,
Countless the squadrons both of foot and horse.
At length fame’s rueful moan alarmed the king,
And bade him shun this ignominious sting.
That arms like his to ruffian bands should bend:
‘Tis done: delays and hesitations end.
High in the air the threatening banners fly,
And call his eager troops to victory.
His hardy force, a hundred thousand strong
Whom standards hasten to the fight along.
The martial clamour scares the plundering band,
And drives them bootless towards their native land.
The vulgar mass a dreadful carnage share,
And shed contagion on the ambient air,
While Anlaf, only, out of all the crew
Escapes the meed of death, so justly due,
Reserved by fortune’s favour, once again
When Athelstan was dead, to claim our strain.

This place seems to require that I should relate the death of Elfred in the words of the king, for which I before pledged the faith of my narrative. For as he had commanded the bodies of his relations to be conveyed to Malmesbury, and interred at the head of the sepulchre of St. Aldhelm; he honoured the place afterwards to such a degree, that he esteemed none more desirable or more holy. Bestowing many large estates upon it, he confirmed them by charters, in one of which, after the donation, he adds: “Be it known to the sages of our kingdom, that I have not unjustly seized the lands aforesaid, or dedicated plunder to God; but that I have received them, as the English nobility, and even John, the pope of the church of Rome himself, have judged fitting on the death of Elfred. He was the jealous rival both of my happiness and life, and consented to the wickedness of my enemies, who, on my father’s decease, had not God in his mercy delivered me, wished to put out my eyes in the city of Winchester: wherefore, on the discovery of their infernal contrivances, he was sent to the church of Rome to defend himself by oath before pope John. This he did at the altar of St. Peter; but at the very instant he had sworn, he fell down before it, and was carried by his servants to the English School, where he died the third night after. The pope immediately sent to consult with us, whether his body should be placed among other Christians. On receiving this account the nobility of our kingdom, with the whole body of his relations, humbly entreated that we would grant our permission for his remains to be buried with other Christians. Consenting, therefore, to their urgent request, we sent back our compliance to Rome, and with the pope’s permission he was buried, though unworthy, with other Christians. In consequence all his property of every description was adjudged to be mine. Moreover, we have noted this in writing, that, so long as Christianity reigns, it may never be abrogated, whence the aforesaid land, which I have given to God and St. Peter, was granted me; nor do I know any thing more just, than that I should bestow this gift on God and St. Peter, who caused my rival to fall in the sight of all persons, and conferred on me a prosperous reign.”

William of Malmesbury

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29 January, 2015
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