The History of The Kings of England 18

William of Malmesbury

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At that time the body of Pallas, the son of Evander, of whom Virgil speaks, was found entire at Rome, to the great astonishment of all, for having escaped corruption so many ages. Such, however, is the nature of bodies embalmed, that, when the flesh decays, the skin preserves the nerves, and the nerves the bones. The gash which Turnus had made in the middle of his breast measured four feet and a half. His epitaph was found to this effect, Pallas, Evander’s son, lies buried here In order due, transfixed by Turnus’ spear.

Which epitaph I should not think made at the time, though Carmentis the mother of Evander is reported to have discovered the Roman letters, but that it was composed by Ennius, or some other ancient poet. There was a burning lamp at his head, constructed by magical art; so that no violent blast, no dripping of water could extinguish it. While many were lost in admiration at this, one person, as there are always some people expert in mischief, made an aperture beneath the flame with an iron style, which introducing the air, the light vanished. The body, when set up against the wall, surpassed it in height, but some days afterwards, being drenched with the drip of the eves, it acknowledged the corruption common to mortals; the skin and the nerves dissolving.

At that time too, on the confines of Brittany and Normandy, a prodigy was seen in one, or more properly speaking, in two women: there were two heads, four arms, and every other part two-fold to the navel; beneath, were two legs, two feet, and all other parts single. While one was laughing, eating, or speaking, the other would cry, fast, or remain silent: though both mouths ate, yet the excrement was discharged by only one passage. At last, one dying, the other survived, and the living carried about the dead, for the space of three years, till she died also, through the fatigue of the weight, and the stench of the dead carcass. Many were of opinion, and some even have written, that these women represented England and Normandy, which, though separated by position, are yet united under one master. Whatever wealth these countries greedily absorb, flows into one common receptacle, which is either the covetousness of princes, or the ferocity of surrounding nations. England, yet vigorous, supports with her wealth Normandy now dead and almost decayed, until she herself perhaps shall fall through the violence of spoilers. Happy, if she shall ever again breathe that liberty, the mere shadow of which she has long pursued ! She now mourns, borne down with calamity, and oppressed with exactions; the causes of which misery I shall relate, after I have despatched some things pertaining to my subject. For since I have hitherto recorded the civil and military transactions of the kings of England, I may be allowed to expatiate somewhat on the sanctity of certain of them; and at the same time to contemplate what splendour of divine love beamed on this people, from the first dawning of their faith: since I believe you can no where find the bodies of so many saints entire after death, typifying the state of final incorruption. I imagine this to have taken place by God’s agency, in order that a nation, situated, as it were, almost out of the world, should more confidently embrace the hope of a resurrection from the contemplation of the incorruption of the saints. There are, altogether, five which I have known of, though the residents in many places boast of more; Saint Etheldrida, and Werburga, virgins; king Edmund; archbishop Elphege; Cuthbert the ancient father: who with skin and flesh unwasted, and their joints flexible, appear to have a certain vital warmth about them, and to be merely sleeping. Who can enumerate all the other saints, of different ranks and professions ? whose names and lives, singly to describe, 1 have neither intention nor leisure: yet oh that I might hereafter have leisure ! But I will be silent, lest I should seem to promise more than I can perform. In consequence, it is not necessary to mention any of the commonalty, but merely, not to go out of the path of my subject history, the male and female scions of the royal stock, most of them innocently murdered; and who have been consecrated martyrs, not by human conjecture, but by divine acknowledgement. Hence may be known how little indulgence they gave to the lust of pleasure, who inherited eternal glory by means of so easy a death.

In the former book, my history dwelt for some time on the praises of the most holy Oswald, king and martyr; among whose other marks of sanctity, was this, which, according to some copies, is related in the History of the Angles: In the monastery at Selsey, which Wilfrid of holy memory had filled with Northumbrian monks, a dreadful malady broke out, and destroyed numbers; the remainder endeavoured to avert the pestilence by a fast of three days. On the second day of the fast, the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, appearing to a youth who was sick with the disorder, animated him by observing: “That he should not fear approaching death, as it would be a termination of his present illness, and an entrance into eternal life; that no other person of that monastery would die of this disorder, because God had granted this to the merits of the noble king Oswald, who was that very day supplicating for his countrymen: for it was on this day that the king, murdered by the faithless, had in a moment ascended to the heavenly tribunal: that they should search, therefore, in the scroll, in which the names of the dead were written, and if they found it so, they should put an end to the fast, give loose to security and joy, and sing solemn masses to God, and to the holy king.” This vision being quickly followed by the death of the boy, and the anniversary of the martyr being found in the martyrology, and at the same time the cessation of the disorder being attested by the whole province, the name of Oswald was from that period inserted among the martyrs, which before, on account of his recent death, had only been admitted into the list of the faithful. Deservedly, I say, then, deservedly is he to be celebrated, whose glory the divine approbation so signally manifested, as to order him to be dignified with masses, in a manner, as I think, not usual among men. The undoubted veracity of the historian precludes the possibility of supposing this matter to be false; as does also the blessed bishop Acca, who was the friend of the author.

Egbert, king of Kent, the son of Erconbert, whom I have mentioned before, had some very near relations, descended from the royal hue; their names were Ethelred and Ethelbert, the sons of Ermenred his uncle. Apprehensive that they might grow up with notions of succeeding to the kingdom, and fearful for his safety, he kept them about him for some time, with very homely entertainment: and, at last, grudging them his regards, he removed them from his court. Soon after, when they had been secretly despatched by one of his servants named Thunre, which signifies Thunder, he buried them under heaps of rubbish, thinking that a murder perpetrated in privacy would escape detection. The eye of God however, which no secrets of the heart can deceive, brought the innocents to light, vouchsafing many cures upon the spot; until the neighbours, being roused, dug up the unsightly heaps of turf and rubbish cast upon their bodies, and forming a trench after the manner of a sepulchre, they erected a small church over it. There they remained till the time of king Edgar, when they were taken up by St. Oswald, archbishop of Worcester, and conveyed to the monastery of Ramsey; from which period, granting the petitions of the suppliant, they have manifested themselves by many miracles.

Offa king of the Mercians murdered many persons of consequence for the security, as he supposed, of his kingdom, without any distinction of friend or foe; among these was king Ethelbert; thereby being guilty of an atrocious outrage against the suitor of his daughter. His unmerited death, however, is thought to have been amply avenged by the short reign of Offa’s son. Indeed God signalised his sanctity by such evident tokens, that at this very day the episcopal church of Hereford is consecrated to his name. Nor should any thing appear idle or irrelevant, which our pious and religious ancestors have either tolerated by their silence, or confirmed by their authority.

What shall my pen here trace worthy of St. Kenelm, a youth of tender age ? Kenulf, king of the Mercians, his father, had consigned him, when seven years old, to his sister Quendrida, for the purpose of education. But she, falsely entertaining hopes of the kingdom for herself, gave her little brother in charge to a servant of her household, with an order to despatch him. Taking out the innocent, under pretence of hunting for his amusement or recreation, he murdered and hid him in a thicket. But strange to tell, the crime which had been so secretly committed in England, gained publicity in Rome, by God’s agency: for a dove, from heaven, bore a parchment scroll to the altar of St. Peter, containing an exact account both of his death and place of burial. As this was written in the English language it Avas vainly attempted to be read by the Romans and men of other nations who were present. Fortunately, however, and opportunely, an Englishman was at hand, who translated the writing to the Roman people, into Latin, and gave occasion to the pope to write a letter to the kings of England, acquainting them with the martyrdom of their countryman. In consequence of this the body of the innocent was taken up in presence of a numerous assembly, and removed to Winchcombe. The murderous woman was so indignant at the vocal chaunt of the priests and loud applause of the laity, that she thrust out her head from the window of the chamber where she was standing, and, by chance, having in her hands a psalter, she came in course of reading to the psalm “O God my praise,” which, for I know not what charm, reading backwards, she endeavoured to drown the joy of the choristers. At that moment, her eyes, torn by divine vengeance from their hollow sockets, scattered blood upon the verse which runs, “This is the work of them who defame me to the Lord, and who speak evil against my soul.” The marks of her blood are still extant, proving the cruelty of the woman, and the vengeance of God. The body of the little saint is very generally adored, and there is hardly any place in England more venerated, or where greater numbers of persons attend at the festival; and this arising from the long continued belief of his sanctity, and the constant exhibition of miracles.

Nor shall my history be wanting in thy praise, Wistan, blessed youth, son of ‘Wimund, son of Withlaf king of the Mercians, and of Elfleda, daughter of Ceohvulf, who was the uncle of Kenelm; I will not, I say, pass thee over in silence, whom Berfert thy relation so atrociously murdered. And let posterity know, if they deem this history worthy of perusal, that there was nothing earthly more praiseworthy than your disposition; at which a deadly assassin becoming irritated, despatched you: nor was there any tiling more innocent than your purity towards God; invited by which, the secret Judge deemed it fitting to honour you: for a pillar of light, sent down from heaven, piercing the sable robe of night, revealed the wickedness of the deep cavern, and brought to view the crime of the murderer. In consequence, Wistan’s venerable remains were taken up, and by the care of his relations conveyed to Rependun; at that time a famous monastery, now a villa belonging to the earl of Chester, and its glory grown obsolete with age; but at present thou dwellest at Evesham, kindly favouring the petitions of such as regard thee.

Bede has related many anecdotes of the sanctity of the kings of the East Saxons, and East Angles, whose genealogy I have in the first book of this work traced briefly; because I could no where find a complete history of the kings. I shall however, dilate somewhat on St. Edmund, who held dominion in East Anglia, and to whom the time of Bede did not extend. This province, on the south and east, is surrounded by the ocean; on the north, by deep lakes, and stagnant pools, which, stretching out a vast distance in length, with a breadth of two or three miles, afford abundance of fish for the use of the inhabitants; on the west it is continuous with the rest of the island, but defended by the earth’s being thrown up in the form of a rampart. The soil is admirable for pasture, and for hunting; it is full of monasteries, and large bodies of monks are settled on the islands of these stagnant waters; the people are a merry, pleasant, jovial race, though apt to carry their jokes to excess. Here, then, reigned Edmund; a man devoted to God, ennobled by his descent from ancient kings, and though he presided over the province in peace for several years, yet never through the effeminacy of the times did he relax his virtue. Hingwar and Hubba, two leaders of the Danes, came over to depopulate the provinces of the Northumbrians and East Angles. The former of these seized the unresisting king, who had cast away his arms and was lying on the ground in prayer, and, after the infliction of tortures, beheaded him. On the death of this saintly man, the purity of his past life was evidenced by unheard-of miracles. The Danes had cast away the head, when severed from the body by the cruelty of the executioners, and it had been hidden in a thicket. While his subjects, who had tracked the footsteps of the enemy as they departed, were seeking it, intending to solemnize with due honour the funeral rites of their king, they were struck with the pleasing intervention of God: for the lifeless head uttered a voice, inviting all who were in search of it to approach. A wolf, a beast accustomed to prey upon dead carcasses, was holding it in its paws, and guarding it untouched; which animal also, after the manner of a tame creature, gently followed the bearers to the tomb, and neither did nor received any injury. The sacred body was then, for a time, committed to the earth; turf was placed over it, and a wooden chapel, of trifling cost, erected. The negligent natives, however, were soon made sensible of the virtue of the martyr, which excited their listless minds to reverence him, by the miracles which he performed. And though perhaps the first proof of his power may appear weak and trivial, yet nevertheless I shall subjoin it. He bound, with invisible bands, some thieves who had endeavoured to break into the church by night: this was done in the very attempt; a pleasant spectacle enough, to see the plunder hold fast the thief, so that he could neither desist from the enterprise, nor complete the design. In consequence, Theodred bishop of London, who lies at St. Paul’s, removed the lasting disgrace of so mean a structure, by building a nobler edifice over those sacred limbs, which evidenced the glory of his unspotted soul, by surprising soundness, and a kind of milky whiteness. The head, which was formerly divided from the neck, is again united to the rest of the body showing only the sign of martyrdom by a purple seam. One circumstance indeed surpasses human miracles, which is, that the hair and nails of the dead man continue to grow: these, Oswen, a holy woman, used yearly to clip and cut, that they might be objects of veneration to posterity. Truly this was a holy temerity, for a woman to contemplate and handle limbs superior to the whole of this world. Not so Leofstan, a youth of bold and untamed insolence, who, with many impertinent threats, commanded the body of the martyr to be shown to him; for he was desirous, as he said, of settling the uncertainty of report by the testimony of his own eyesight. He paid dearly, however, for his audacious experiment; for he became insane, and shortly after, died, swarming with vermin. He felt indeed that Edmund was now capable of doing, what he before used to do; that is, “To spare the suppliant, but confound the proud,” by which means he so completely engaged the inhabitants of all Britain to him, that every person looked upon himself as particularly happy, in contributing either money or gifts to St. Edmund’s monastery: even kings themselves, who rule others, used to boast of being his servants, and sent him their royal crown; redeeming it, if they wished to use it, at a great price. The exactors of taxes also, who, in other places, gave loose to injustice, were there suppliant, and ceased their cavilling at St. Edmund’s boundary, admonished thereto by the punishment of others who had presumed to overpass it.

My commendations shall also glance at the names of some maidens of the royal race, though I must claim indulgence for being brief upon the subject, not through fastidiousness, but because I am unacquainted with their miracles. Anna king of the East Angles had three daughters, Etheldrida, Ethelberga, and Sexberga. Etheldrida, though married to two husbands, yet by means of saintly continence, as Bede relates, without any diminution of modesty, without a single lustful inclination, triumphantly displayed to heaven the palm of perpetual virginity. Ethelberga, first a nun, and afterwards abbess, in a monastery in France called Brigis, was celebrated for unblemished chastity; and it is well worthy of remark, that as both sisters had subdued the lusts of the flesh while living, so, when dead, their bodies remained uncorrupt, the one in England, and the other in France; insomuch, that their sanctity, which is abundantly resplendent, may suffice ”To cast its radiance over both the poles.” Sexberga was married to Erconbert king of Kent, and, after his death, took the veil in the same monastery where her sister Etheldrida was proclaimed a saint. She had two daughters by king Erconbert, Earcongota and Ermenhilda.

Of Ercongota, such as wish for information will find it in Bede; Ermenhilda married Wulf here, king of the Mercians, and had a daughter, Werburga, a most holy virgin. Both are saints: the mother, that is to say, St. Ermenhilda, rests at Ely, where she was abbess after her mother, Sexberga; and the daughter lies at Chester, in the monastery of that city, which Hugo earl of Chester, ejecting a few canons who resided there in a mean and irregular manner, has recently erected. The praises and miracles of both these women, and particularly of the younger, are there extolled and held in veneration; and though they are favourable to all petitions without delay, yet are they more especially kind and assistant to the supplications of women and youths.

Merewald the brother of Wulfhere, by Ermenburga, the daughter of Ermenred brother of Erconbert king of Kent, had two daughters: Mildritha and Milburga. Mildritha, dedicating herself to celibacy, ended her days in the Isle of Thanet in Kent, which king Egbert had given to her mother, to atone for the murder of her brothers, Ethelred and Ethelbert. In after times, being transferred to St. Augustine’s monastery at Canterbury, she is there honoured by the marked attention of the monks, and celebrated equally for her kindness and affability to all, as her name implies. And although almost every corner of that monastery is filled with the bodies of saints of great name and merit, any one of which would be of itself sufficient to irradiate all England, yet no one is there more revered, more loved, or more gratefully remembered; and she, turning a deaf ear to none who love her, is present to them in the salvation of their souls.

Milburga reposes at Wenlock; formerly well known to the neighbouring inhabitants; but for some time after the arrival of the Normans, through ignorance of the place of her burial, she was neglected. Lately, however, a convent of Clugniac monks being established there, while a new church was erecting, a certain boy running violently along the pavement, broke into the hollow of the vault, and discovered the body of the virgin; when a balsamic odour pervading the whole church, she was taken up, and performed so many miracles, that the people flocked thither in great multitudes. Large spreading plains could hardly contain the troops of pilgrims, while rich and poor came side by side, one common faith impelling all. Nor did the event deceive their expectations: for no one departed, without either a perfect cure, or considerable abatement of his malady, and some were even healed of the king’s evil, by the merits of this virgin, when medical assistance was unavailing.

Edward the Elder, of whom I have before spoken at large, had by his wife Edgiva, several daughters. Among these was Eadburga, who, when she was scarcely three years old, gave a singular indication of her future sanctity. Her father was inclined to try whether the little girl was inclined to God, or to the world, and had placed in a chamber the symbols of different professions; on one side a chalice, and the gospels; on the other, bracelets and necklaces. Hither the child was brought in the arms of her indulgent attendant, and, sitting on her father’s knee, was desired to choose which she pleased. Rejecting the earthly ornaments with stern regard, she instantly fell prostrate before the chalice and the gospels, and worshipped them with infant adoration. The company present exclaimed aloud, and fondly hailed the prospect of the child’s future sanctity; her father embraced the infant in a manner still more endearing. “Go,” said he, “whither the Divinity calls thee; follow with prosperous steps the spouse whom thou hast chosen, and truly blessed shall my wife and myself be, if we are surpassed in holiness by our daughter.” When clothed in the garb of a nun, she gained the affection of all her female companions, in the city of Winchester, by the marked attention she paid them. Nor did the greatness of her birth elevate her; as she esteemed it noble to stoop to the service of Christ. Her sanctity increased with her years, her humility kept pace with her growth; so that she used secretly to steal away the socks of the several nuns at night, and, carefully washing and anointing them, lay them again upon their beds. Wherefore, though God signalized her, while living, by many miracles, yet I more particularly bring forward this circumstance, to show that charity began all her works, and humility completed them: and finally, many miracles in her life-time, and since her death, confirm the devotion of her heart and the incorruptness of her body, which the attendants at her churches at Winchester and Pershore relate to such as are unacquainted with them.

St. Editha, the daughter of king Edgar, ennobles, with her relics, the monastery of Wilton, where she was buried, and cherishes that place with her regard, where, trained from her infancy in the school of the Lord, she gained his favour by unsullied virginity, and constant watchings: repressing the pride of her high birth by her humility. I have heard one circumstance of her, from persons of elder days, which greatly staggered the opinions of men: for she led them into false conclusions from the splendour of her costly dress; being always habited in richer garb than the sanctity of her profession seemed to require. On this account, being openly rebuked by St. Ethelwold, she is reported to have answered with equal point and wit, that the judgment of God was true and irrefragable, while that of man, alone, was fallible; for pride might exist even under the garb of wretchedness: wherefore, “I think,” said she, “that a mind may be as pure beneath these vestments, as under your tattered furs.” The bishop was deeply struck by this speech; admitting its truth by his silence, and blushing with pleasure that he had been chastised by the sparkling repartee of the lady, he held his peace. St. Dunstan had observed her, at the consecration of the church of St. Denys, which she had built out of affection to that martyr, frequently stretching out her right thumb, and making the sign of the cross upon her forehead; and being extremely delighted at it, “May this finger,” he exclaimed, “never see corruption:” and immediately, while celebrating mass, he burst into such a flood of tears, that he alarmed with his faltering voice an assistant standing near him; who inquiring the reason of it, “Soon,” said he, “shall this blooming rose wither; soon shall this beloved bird take its flight to God, after the expiration of six weeks from this time.” The truth of the prelate’s prophecy was very shortly fulfilled; for on the appointed day, this noble, firmly-minded lady, expired in her prime, at the age of twenty-three years. Soon after, the same saint saw, in a dream, St. Denys kindly taking the virgin by the hand, and strictly enjoining, by divine command, that she should be honoured by her servants on earth, in the same manner as she was venerated by her spouse and master in heaven. Miracles multiplying at her tomb, it was ordered, that her virgin body should be taken up, and exalted in a shrine; when the whole of it was found resolved into dust, except the finger, with the abdomen and parts adjacent. In consequence of which, some debate arising, the virgin herself appeared, in a dream, to one of those who had seen her remains, saying, “It was no wonder, if the other parts of the body had decayed, since it was customary for dead bodies to moulder to their native dust, and she, perhaps, as a girl, had sinned with those members; but it was highly just, that the abdomen should see no corruption which had never felt the sting of lust; as she had been entirely free from gluttony or carnal copulation.”

Truly both these virgins support their respective monasteries by their merits; each of them being filled with large assemblies of nuns, who answer obediently to the call of their mistresses and patronesses, inviting them to virtue. Happy the man, who becomes partaker of those virgin orisons which the Lord Jesus favours with kind regard. For, as I have remarked of the nuns of Shaftesbury, all virtues have long since quitted the earth, and retired to heaven; or, if any where, (but this I must say with the permission of holy men,) are to be found only in the hearts of nuns; and surely those women are highly to be praised, who, regardless of the weakness of their sex, vie with each other in the preservation of their continence, and by such means ascend, triumphant, to heaven.

I think it of importance to have been acquainted with many of the royal family of either sex; as it may be gathered from thence that king Edward, concerning whom I was speaking before I digressed, by no means degenerated from the virtues of his ancestors. In fact he was famed both for miracles, and for the spirit of prophecy, as I shall hereafter relate. In the exaction of taxes he was sparing, and he abominated the insolence of collectors: in eating and drinking he was free from the voluptuousness which his state allowed: on the more solemn festivals, though dressed in robes interwoven with gold, which the queen had most splendidly embroidered, yet still he had such forbearance, as to be sufficiently majestic, without being haughty; considering in such matters, rather the bounty of God, than the pomp of the world. There was one earthly enjoyment in which he chiefly delighted; which was, hunting with fleet hounds, whose opening in the woods he used with pleasure to encourage: and again, with the pouncing of birds, whose nature it is to prey on their kindred species. In these exercises, after hearing divine service in the morning, he employed himself whole days. In other respects he was a man by choice devoted to God, and lived the life of an angel in the administration of his kingdom. To the poor and to the stranger, more especially foreigners and men of religious orders, he was kind in invitation, munificent in his presents, and constantly exciting the monks of his own country to imitate their holiness. He was of a becoming stature; his beard and hair milk-white; his countenance florid; fair throughout his whole person; and his form of admirable proportion.

William of Malmesbury

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29 January, 2015
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