After Ethelred no one durst ascend the throne; each dreading the fate of his predecessor, and preferring a life of safety in inglorious ease, to a tottering reign in anxious suspense: for most of the Northumbrian kings had ended their reigns by a death which was now become almost habitual. Thus being without a sovereign for thirty-three years, that province became an object of plunder and contempt to its neighbours. For when the Danes, who, as I have before related from the words of Alcuin, laid waste the holy places, on their return home represented to their countrymen the fruitfulness of the island, and the indolence of its inhabitants; these barbarians came over hastily, in great numbers, and obtained forcible possession of that part of the country, till the time we are speaking of: indeed they had a king of their own for many years, though he was subordinate to the authority of the king of the West Saxons. However, after the lapse of these thirty-three years, king Egbert obtained the sovereignty of this province, as well as of the others, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 827, and the twenty-eighth of his reign. And since we have reached his times, mindful of our engagement, we shall speak briefly of the kingdom of the Mercians; and this, as well because we admire brevity in relation, as that there is no great abundance of materials.
In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 626, and the hundred and thirty-ninth after the death of Hengist, Penda the son of Pybba, tenth in descent of Woden, of noble lineage, expert in war, but at the same time an irreligious heathen, at the age of fifty assumed the title of king of the Mercians, after he had already fostered his presumption by frequent incursions on his neighbours. Seizing the sovereignty, therefore, with a mind loathing quiet and unconscious how great an enormity it was even to be victorious in a contest against his own countrymen, he began to attack the neighbouring cities, to invade the confines of the surrounding kings, and to fill everything with terror and confusion. For what would not that man attempt, who, by his lawless daring, had extinguished those luminaries of Britain, Edwin and Oswald, kings of the Northumbrians, Sigebert, Ecgric, and Anna, kings of the East Angles; men, in whom nobility of race was equalled by sanctity of life ? Kenwalk also, king of the West Saxons, after being frequently harassed by him, was driven into exile; though, perhaps, he deservedly paid the penalty of his perfidy towards God, in denying his faith; and towards Penda himself, in repudiating his sister. It is irksome to relate, how eagerly he watched opportunities of slaughter, and as a raven flies greedily at the scent of a carcase, so he joined Cadwalla, and was of infinite service to him, in recovering his dominions. In this manner, for thirty years, he attacked his countrymen, but did nothing worthy of record against strangers. His insatiable desires, however, at last found an end suitable to their deserts; for being routed, with his allies, by Oswy, who had succeeded his brother Oswald, more through the assistance of God than his military powers, Penda increased the number of infernal spirits. By his queen Kyneswith his sons were Peada, Wulfhere, Ethelred, Merwal, and Mercelin: his daughters, Kyneburg, and Kyneswith; both distinguished for inviolable chastity. Thus the parent, though ever rebellious towards God, produced a most holy offspring for Heaven.
His son Peada succeeded him in a portion of the kingdom, by the permission of Oswy, advanced to the government of the South Mercians; a young man of talents, and even in his father’s lifetime son-in-law to Oswy. For he had received his daughter, on condition of renouncing paganism and embracing Christianity; in which faith he would soon have caused the province of participate, the peaceful state of the kingdom and his father-in-law’s consent tending to such a purpose, had not his death, hastened, as they say, by the intrigues of his life, intercepted these joyful prospects. Then Oswy resumed the government, which seemed rightly to appertain to him from his victory over the father, and from his affinity to the son. The spirit, however, of the inhabitants could not brook his authority more than three years; for they expelled his generals, and Wulfhere, the son of Penda, being hailed as his successor, the province recovered its liberty.
Wulfhere, that he might not disappoint the hopes of the nation, began to act with energy, to show himself an efficient prince by great exertions both mental and personal, and finally to afford Christianity, introduced by his brother and yet hardly breathing in his kingdom, every possible assistance. In the early years of his reign he was heavily oppressed by the king of the West Saxons, but in succeeding times, repelling the injury by the energy of his measures, he deprived him of the sovereignty of the Isle of Wight; and leading it, yet panting after heathen rites, into the proper path, he soon after bestowed it on his godson, Ethelwalch, king of the South Saxons, as a recompense for his faith. But these and all his other good qualities are stained and deteriorated by the dreadful brand of simony; because he, first of the kings of the Angles, sold the sacred bishopric of London to one Wini, an ambitious man. His wife was Ermenhilda, the daughter of Erconbert, king of Kent, of whom he begat Kinred, and Wereburga, a most holy virgin who lies buried at Chester. His brother Merewald married Ermenburga, the daughter of Ermenred, brother of the same Erconbert; by her he had issue, three daughters; Milburga, who lies at Weneloch; Mildritha in Kent, in the monastery of St. Augustine; and Milgitha: and one son, Merefin. Alfrid king of the Northumbrians married Kyneburg, daughter of Penda.: who, after a time, disgusted with wedlock, took the habit of a nun in the monastery which her brothers, Wulfhere and Ethelred, had founded.
Wulf here died at the end of nineteen years, and his brother Ethelred ascended the throne; more famed for his pious disposition than his skill in war. Moreover he was satisfied with displaying his valour in a single but illustrious expedition into Kent, and passed the remainder of his life in quiet, except that attacking Egfrid, king of the Northumbrians, who had passed beyond the limits of his kingdom, he admonished him to return home, by the murder of his brother Elfwin. He atoned however for this slaughter, after due deliberation, at the instance of St. Theodore, the archbishop, by giving Egfrid a large sum of money. Subsequently to this, in the thirtieth year of his reign, he took the cowl, and became a monk at Bardney, of which monastery he was ultimately promoted to be abbot. This is the same person who was contemporary with Ina, king of the West Saxons, and confirmed by his authority also the privilege which St. Aldhelm brought from Rome. His wife was Ostritha, sister of Egfrid, king of the Northumbrians, by whom she had issue a son named Ceolred.
He appointed Kenred, the son of his brother Wulfhere his successor, who, equally celebrated for piety to God and uprightness towards his subjects, ran his mortal race with great purity of manners, and proceeding to Rome in the fifth year of his reign, passed the remainder of his life there in the offices of religion; chiefly instigated to this by the melancholy departure of a soldier, who, as Bede relates, disdaining to confess his crimes when in health, saw, manifestly, when at the point of death, those very demons coming to punish him to whose vicious allurements he had surrendered his soul.
After him reigned Ceolred, the son of Ethelred his uncle, as conspicuous for his valour against Ina, as pitiable for an early death; for not filling the throne more than eight years, he was buried at Lichfield, leaving Ethelbald, the grandnephew of Penda by his brother Alwy, his heir. This king, enjoying the sovereignty in profound and long-continued peace, that is, for the space of forty-one years, was ultimately killed by his subjects, and thus met with a reverse of fortune. Bernred, the author of his death, left nothing worthy of record, except that afterwards, being himself put to death by Offa, he received the just reward of his treachery. To this Ethelbald, Boniface, archbishop of Mentz, an Angle by nation, who was subsequently crowned with martyrdom, sent an epistle, part of which I shall transcribe, that it may appear how freely he asserts those very vices to have already gained ground among the Angles of which Alcuin in after times was apprehensive. It will also be a strong proof, by the remarkable deaths of certain kings, how severely God punishes those guilty persons for whom his long-suspended anger mercifully waits.
“To Ethelbald my dearest lord, and to be preferred to all other kings of the Angles, in the love of Christ, Boniface the archbishop, legate to Germany from the church of Rome, seized with sickness, he appears to have imagined that he saw two angels approach with a very small volume, in which were written the few good actions he had ever performed; when immediately a large company of demons advancing, display another book of enormous bulk and weight, containing all his evil deeds, which are read to him; after which, asserting their claim to the sinner against the angels, they strike him on the head and feet, as symptoms of his approaching end. Bede, wisheth, perpetual health in Christ. We confess before God that when we hear of your prosperity, your faith, and good works, we rejoice; and if at any time we hear of any adversity befallen you, either in the chance of war or the jeopardy of your soul, we are afflicted. We have heard that, devoted to almsgiving, you prohibit theft and rapine, are a lover of peace, a defender of widows, and of the poor; and for this we give God thanks. Your contempt for lawful matrimony, were it for chastity’s sake, would be laudable; but since you wallow in luxury and even in adultery with nuns, it is disgraceful and damnable; it dims the brightness of your glory before God and man, and transforms you into an idolater, because you have polluted the temple of God. Wherefore, my beloved son, repent, and remember how dishonourable it is, that you, who, by the grant of God, are sovereign over many nations, should yourself be the slave of lust to his disservice. Moreover, we have heard that almost all the nobles of the Mercian kingdom, following your example, desert their lawful wives and live in guilty intercourse with adulteresses and nuns. Let the custom of a foreign country teach you how far distant this is from rectitude. For in old Saxony, where there is no knowledge of Christ, if a virgin in her father’s house, or a married woman under the protection of her husband, should be guilty of adultery, they burn her, strangled by her own hand, and hang up her seducer over the grave where she is buried; or else, cutting off her garments to the waist, modest matrons whip her and pierce her with knives, and fresh tormentors punish her in the same manner as she goes from town to town, till they destroy her. Again the Winedi, the basest of nations, have this custom — the wife, on the death of her husband, casts herself on the same funeral pile to be consumed with him. If then the gentiles, who know not God, have so zealous a regard for chastity, how much more ought you to possess, my beloved son, who are both a Christian and a king ? Spare therefore your own soul, spare a multitude of people, perishing by your example, for whose souls you must give account. Give heed to this too, if the nation of the Angles, (and we are reproached in France and in Italy and by the very pagans for it,) despising lawful matrimony, give free indulgence to adultery, a race ignoble and despising God must necessarily proceed from such a mixture, which will destroy the country by their abandoned manners, as was the case with the Burgundians, Provensals, and Spaniards, whom the Saracens harassed for many years on account of their past transgressions. Moreover, it has been told us, that you take away from the churches and monasteries many of their privileges, and excite, by your example, your nobility to do the like. But recollect, I entreat you, what terrible vengeance God hath inflicted upon former kings, guilty of the crime we lay to your charge. For Ceolred, your predecessor, the debaucher of nuns, the infringer of ecclesiastical privileges, was seized, while splendidly regaling with his nobles, by a malignant spirit, who snatched away his soul without confession and without communion, while in converse with the devil and despising the law of God. He drove Osred also, king of the Deirans and Bernicians, who was guilty of the same crimes, to such excess that he lost his kingdom and perished in early manhood by an ignominious death. Charles also, governor of the Franks, the subverter of many monasteries and the appropriator of ecclesiastical revenues to his own use, perished by excruciating pain and a fearful death.” And afterwards, “Wherefore, my beloved son, we entreat with paternal and fervent prayers that you would not despise the counsel of your fathers, who, for the love of God, anxiously appeal to your highness. For nothing is more salutary to a good king than the willing correction of such crimes when they are pointed out to him; since Solomon says ‘Whoso loveth instruction, loveth wisdom.’ Wherefore, my dearest son, showing you good counsel, we call you to Avitness, and entreat you by the living God, and his Son Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, that you would recollect how fleeting is the present life, how short and momentary is the delight of the filthy flesh, and how ignominious for a person of transitory existence to leave a bad example to posterity. Begin therefore to regulate your life by better habits, and correct the past errors of your youth, that you may have praise before men here, and be blest with eternal glory hereafter. We wish your Highness health and proficiency in virtue.”
I have inserted in my narrative portions of this epistle, to give sufficient knowledge of these circumstances, partly in the words of the author and partly in my own, shortening the sentences as seemed proper, for which I shall easily be be excused, because there was need of brevity for the sake of those who were eager to resume the thread of the history. Moreover, Boniface transmitted an epistle of like import to archbishop Cuthbert, adding that he should remonstrate with the clergy and nuns on the fineness and vanity of their dress. Besides, that he might not wonder at his interfering in that in which he had no apparent concern, that is to say, how or with what manners the nation of the Angles conducted itself, he gave him to understand, that he had bound himself by oath to pope Gregory the Third, not to conceal the conduct of the nations near him from the knowledge of the apostolical see; wherefore, if mild measures failed of success, he should take care to act in such manner, that vices of this kind should not be kept secret from the pope. Indeed, on account of the fine texture of the clerical vestments, Alcuin obliquely glances at Athelard the archbishop, Cuthbert’s successor, reminding him that, when he should come to Rome to visit the emperor Charles the Great, the grandson of Charles of whom Boniface was speaking above, he should not bring the clergy or monks dressed in party-coloured or gaudy garments, for the clergy amongst the Franks dressed only in ecclesiastical habits.
Nor could the letters of so great a man, which he was accustomed to send from watchful regard to his legation and pure love of his country, be without effect. For both Cuthbert, the archbishop, and king Ethelbald summoned a council for the purpose of retrenching the superfluities which he had stigmatised. The acts of this synod, veiled in a multiplicity of words, I shall forbear to add, as I think they will better accord with another part of my work, when I come to the succession of the bishops: but as I am now on the subject of kingly affairs, I shall subjoin a charter of Ethelbald’s, as a proof of his devotion, because it took place in the same council.
“It often happens, through the uncertain change of times, that those things which have been confirmed by the testimony and advice of many faithful persons, have been made of none effect by the contumacy of very many, or by the artifices of deceit, without any regard to justice, unless they have been committed to eternal memory by the authority of writing and the testimony of charters. Wherefore I Ethelbald, king of the Mercians, out of love to heaven and regard for my own soul, have felt the necessity of considering how I may, by good works, set it free from every tie of sin. For since the Omnipotent God, through the greatness of his clemency, without any previous merit on my part, hath bestowed on me the sceptre of government, therefore I willingly repay him out of that which he hath given. On this account I grant, so long as I live, that all monasteries and churches of my kingdom shall be exempted from public taxes, works, and impositions, except the building of forts and bridges, from which none can be released. And moreover the servants of God shall have perfect liberty in the produce of their woods and lands, and the right of fishing, nor shall they bring presents either to king or princes except voluntarily, but they shall serve God without molestation.”
Lullus succeeded Boniface, an Englishman by birth also; of whose sanctity mention is made in the life of St. Goar, and these verses, which I remember to have heard from my earliest childhood, bear witness:
“Lullus, than whom no holier prelate lives. By God’s assistance healing medicine gives, Cures each disorder by his powerful hand, And with his glory overspreads the land.”
However, to return to my history, Offa, descended from Penda in the fifth degree, succeeded Ethelbald. He was a a man of great mind, and one who endeavoured to bring to effect whatever he had preconceived; he reigned thirty-nine years. When I consider the deeds of this person, I am doubtful whether I should commend or censure. At one time, in the same character, vices were so palliated by virtues, and at another virtues came in such quick succession upon vices that it is difficult to determine how to characterize the changing Proteus. My narrative shall give examples of each. Engaging in a set battle with Cynewulf, king of the West Saxons, lie easily gained the victory, though the other was a celebrated warrior. When he thought artifice would better suit his purpose, this same man beheaded king Ethelbert, who had come to him through the allurement of great promises, and was at that very time within the walls of his palace, soothed into security by his perfidious attentions, and then unjustly seized upon the kingdom of the East Angles which Ethelbert had held. The relics of St. Alban, at that time obscurely buried, he ordered to be reverently taken up and placed in a shrine, decorated to the fullest extent of royal munificence, with gold and jewels; a church of most beautiful workmanship was there erected, and a society of monks assembled. Yet rebellious against God, he endeavoured to remove the archiepiscopal see formerly settled at Canterbury, to Lichfield, envying forsooth, the men of Kent the dignity of the archbishopric: on which account he at last deprived Lambert, the archbishop, worn out with continual exertion, and who produced many edicts of the apostolical see, both ancient and modern, of all possessions within his territories, as well as of the jurisdiction over the bishoprics. From pope Adrian, therefore, whom he had wearied with plausible assertions for a long time, as many things not to be granted may be gradually drawn and artfully wrested from minds intent on other occupations, he obtained that there should be an archbishopric of the Mercians at Lichfield, and that all the prelates of the Mercians should be subject to that province. Their names were as follow: Denebert, bishop of Worcester, Werenbert, of Leicester, Edulph, of Sidnacester, Wulpheard, of Hereford; and the bishops of the East Angles, Alpheard, of Elmham, Tidfrid, of Dunwich; the bishop of Lichfield was named Aldulph. Four bishops however remained suffragan to Lambert, archbishop of Canterbury, London, Winchester, Rochester, and Selsey. Some of these bishoprics are now in being, some are removed to other places, others consolidated by venal interest, for Leicester, Sidnacester, and Dunwich, from some unknown cause, are no longer in existence. Nor did Offirs rapacity stop here, for he showed himself a downright public pilferer, by converting to his own use the lands of many churches, of which Malmesbury was one. But this iniquity did not long deform canonical institutions, for soon after Kenulf, Offa’s successor, inferior to no preceding king in power or in faith, transmitted a letter to Leo, the successor of Adrian, and restored Athelard who had succeeded Lambert, to his former dignity. Hence Alcuin, in an epistle to the same Athelard, says “Having heard of the success of your journey, and your return to your country, and how you were received by the pope, I give thanks with every sentiment of my heart to the Lord our God, who, by the precious gift of his mercy, directed your way with a prosperous progress, gave you favour in the sight of the pope, granted you to return home with the perfect accomplishment of your wishes, and hath condescended, through you, to restore the holiest seat of our first teacher to its pristine dignity.” I think it proper to subjoin part of the king’s epistle and also of the pope’s, though I may seem by so doing to anticipate the regular order of time; but I shall do it on this account, that it is a task of greater difficulty to blend together disjointed facts than to despatch those I had begun.
“To the most holy and truly loving lord Leo, pontiff of the sacred and apostolical see, Kenulf, by the grace of God king of the Mercians, livith the bishops, princes, and every degree of dignity under our authority, sendeth the salutation of the purest love in Christ.
We give thanks ever to God Almighty, who is wont, by the means of new guides, the former being taken to the life eternal, to guide the church, purchased by his precious blood, amid the diverse storms of this world, to the haven of salvation, and to shed fresh light upon it, in order that it be led into no error of darkness, but may pursue the path of truth without stumbling; wherefore the universal church justly rejoices, that when the true rewarder of all good men took the most glorious pastor of his flock, Adrian, to be eternally rewarded in heaven, still his kind providence gave a shepherd to his flock, not less skilled, to conduct the sheep of God into the fold of life. We also, who live on the farthest confines of the world, justly boast, beyond all other things, that the church’s exaltation is our safety, its prosperity our constant ground of joy; since your apostolical dignity and our true faith originate from the same source. Whentfore I deem it fitting to incline the ear of our obedience, with all due humility, to your holy commands, and to fulfil, with every possible endeavour, what shall seem just to your piety for us to accomplish: but to avoid, and utterly reject, all that shall be found inconsistent with right. But now, I, Kenulf, by the grace of God king, humbly entreat your excellence that I may address you as I wish, without offence, on the subject of our progress, that you may receive me with peaceful tranquillity into the bosom of your piety, and that the liberal bounty of your benediction may qualify me, gifted with no stock of merit, to rule my people; in order that God may deign, through your intercession, to defend the nation, which, together with me, your apostolical authority has instructed in the rudiments of the faith, against all attacks of adversaries, and to extend that kingdom which he hath given. This benediction all the Mercian kings before me were, by your predecessors, deemed worthy to obtain. This, I humbly beg, and this, most holy man, I desire to receive, that you would more especially accept me as a son by adoption, as I love you as my father, and always honour you with all possible obedience. For among such great personages faith ever should be kept inviolate, as well as perfect love, because paternal love is to be looked upon as filial happiness in God, according to the saying of Hezekiah, A father will make known thy truth to his sons, O Lord.’ In which words I implore you, O loved father, not to deny to your unworthy son the knowledge of the Lord in your holy words, in order that, by your sound instruction, I may deserve, by the assistance of God, to come to a better course of life. And moreover, O most affectionate father, we beg, with all our bishops, and every person of rank among us, that, concerning the many inquiries on which we have thought it right to consult your wisdom, you would courteously reply, lest the traditions of the holy fathers and their instructions should, through ignorance, be misunderstood by us; but let your reply reach us in charity and meekness, that, through the mercy of God, it may bring forth fruit in us. The first thing our bishops and learned men allege is, that, contrary to the canons and papal constitutions enacted for our use by the direction of the most holy father Gregory, as you know, the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Canterbury is divided into two provinces, to whose power, by the same father’s command, twelve bishops ought to be subject, as is read throughout our churches, in the letter which he directed to his brother and fellow bishop, Augustine, concerning the two metropolitans of London and York, which letter doubtlessly you also possess. But that pontifical dignity, which was at that time destined to London, with the honour and distinction of the pall, was, for his sake, removed and granted to Canterbury. For since Augustine, of blessed memory, who, at the command of St. Gregory, preached the word of God to the nation of the Angles, and so gloriously presided over the church of the Saxons, died in that city, and his body was buried in the church of St. Peter, the chief of apostles, which his successor St. Laurentius consecrated, it seemed proper to the sages of our nation, that the metropolitan dignity should reside in that city where rests the body of the man who planted the true faith in these parts. The honour of this pre-eminence, as you know, king Offa first attempted to take away and to divide it into two provinces, through enmity against the venerable Lambert and the Kentish people; and your pious brother and predecessor, Adrian, at the request of the aforesaid king, first did what no one had before presumed, and honoured the prelate of the Mercians with the pall. But yet we blame neither of these persons, whom, as we believe, Christ crowns with eternal glory. Nevertheless we humbly entreat your excellence, on whom God hath deservedly conferred the key of wisdom, that you would consult with your counsellors on this subject, and condescend to transmit to us what may be necessary for us to observe hereafter, and what may tend to the unity of real peace, as we wish, through your sound doctrine, lest the coat of Christ, woven throughout without seam, should suffer any rent among us. We have written this to you, most holy father, with equal humility and regard, earnestly entreating your clemency, that you would kindly and justly reply to those things which have been of necessity submitted to you. Moreover we wish that you would examine, with pious love, that epistle which, in the presence of all our bishops, Athelard the archbishop wrote to you more fully on the subject of his own affairs and necessities, as well as on those of all Britain; that whatever the rule of faith requires in those matters which are contained therein, you would condescend truly to explain. Wherefore last year I sent my own embassy, and that of the bishops by Wada the abbot, which he received, but idly and foolishly executed. I now send you a small present as a token of regard, respected father, by Birine the priest, and Fildas and Ceolbert, my servants, that is to say, one hundred and twenty mancuses, together with letters, begging that you would condescend to receive them kindly, and give us your blessing. May God Almighty long preserve you safe to the glory of his holy church.”