The History of The Kings of England 11

William of Malmesbury

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In these words of the king, we may equally venerate his wisdom, and his piety in sacred matters: his wisdom, that so young a man should perceive that a sacrifice obtained by rapine could not be acceptable to God: his piety in so gratefully making a return to God, out of a benefit conferred on him by divine vengeance. Moreover, it may be necessary to observe, that at that time the church of St. Peter was the chief of the monastery, which now is deemed second only: the church of St. Mary, which the monks at present frequent, was built afterwards in the time of king Edgar, under abbot Elfric. Thus far relating to the king I have written from authentic testimony: that which follows I have learned more from old ballads, popular through succeeding times, than from books written expressly for the information of posterity. I have subjoined them, not to defend their veracity, but to put my reader in possession of all I know. First, then, to the relation of his birth.

There was in a certain village, a shepherd’s daughter, a girl of exquisite beauty, who gained through the elegance of her person what her birth could never have bestowed. In a vision she beheld a prodigy: the moon shone from her womb, and all England was illuminated by the light. When she sportively related this to her companions in the morning, it was not so lightly received, but immediately reached the ears of the woman who had nursed the sons of the king. Deliberating on this matter, she took her home and adopted her as a daughter, bringing up this young maiden with costlier attire, more delicate food, and more elegant demeanour. Soon after, Edward, the son of king Alfred, travelling through the village, stopped at the house which had been the scene of his infantine education. Indeed, he thought it would be a blemish on his reputation to omit paying his salutations to his nurse. He became deeply enamoured of the young woman from the first moment he saw her, and passed the night with her. In consequence of this single intercourse, she brought forth her son Athelstan, and so realized her dream. For at the expiration of his childish years, as he approached manhood, he gave proof by many actions what just expectations of noble qualities might be entertained of him. King Edward, therefore, died, and was shortly followed by his legitimate son Ethelward. All hopes now centred in Athelstan: Elfred alone, a man of uncommon insolence, disdaining to be governed by a sovereign whom he had not voluntarily chosen, secretly opposed with his party to the very utmost. But he being detected and punished, as the king has before related, there were some who even accused Edwin, the king’s brother, of treachery. Base and dreadful crime was it thus to embroil fraternal affection by sinister constructions. Edwin, though imploring, both personally and by messengers, the confidence of his brother, and though invalidating the accusation by an oath, was nevertheless driven into exile. So far, indeed, did the dark suggestions of some persons prevail on a mind distracted with various cares, that, forgetful of a brother’s love, he expelled the youth, an object of pity even to strangers. The mode adopted too was cruel in the extreme: he was compelled to go on board a vessel, with a single attendant, without a rower, without even an oar, and the bark crazy with age. Fortune laboured for a long time to restore the innocent youth to land, but when at length he was far out at sea, and sails could not endure the violence of the wind, the young man, delicate, and weary of life under such circumstances, put an end to his existence by a voluntary plunge into the waters. The attendant wisely determining to prolong his life, sometimes by shunning the hostile waves, and sometimes by urging the boat forward with his feet, brought his master’s body to land, in the narrow sea which flows between Wissant and Dover. Athelstan, when his anger cooled, and his mind became calm, shuddered at the deed, and submitting to a seven years’ penance, inflicted severe vengeance on the accuser of his brother: he was the king’s cup-bearer, and on this account had opportunity of enforcing his insinuations. It so happened on a festive day, as he was serving wine, that slipping with one foot in the midst of the chamber, he recovered himself with the other. On this occasion, he made use of an expression which proved his destruction: “Thus brother,” said he, “assists brother.” The king on hearing this, ordered the faithless wretch to be put to death, loudly reproaching him with the loss of that assistance he might have had from his brother, were he alive, and bewailing his death.

The circumstances of Edwin’s death, though extremely probable, I the less venture to affirm for truth, on account of the extraordinary affection he manifested towards the rest of his brothers; for, as his father had left them very young, he cherished them whilst children with much kindness, and, when grown up, made them partakers of his kingdom; it is before related to what dignity he exalted such of his sisters as his father had left unmarried and unprovided for. Completing his earthly course, and that a short one, Athelstan died at Gloucester. His noble remains were conveyed to Malmesbury and buried under the altar. Many gifts, both in gold and silver, as well as relics of saints purchased abroad in Brittany, were carried before the body: for, in such things, admonished, as they say, in a dream, he expended the treasures which his father had long since amassed, and had left untouched. His years, though few, were full of glory.

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 940, Edmund the brother of Athelstan, a youth of about eighteen, received and held the government for six years and a half. In his time the Northumbrians, meditating a renewal of hostilities, violated the treaty which they had made with Athelstan, and created Anlaf, whom they had recalled from Ireland, their king. Edmund, who thought it disgraceful not to complete his brother’s victorious course, led his troops against the delinquents; who presently retreating, he subjugated all the cities on this side the river Humber. Anlaf, with a certain prince, Reginald, the son of that Gurmund of whom we have spoken in the history of Alfred, sounding the disposition of the king, offered to surrender himself, proffering his conversion to Christianity as a pledge of his fidelity, and receiving baptism. His savage nature, however, did not let him remain long in this resolution, for he violated his oath, and irritated his lord. In consequence of which, the following year he suffered for his crimes, being doomed to perpetual exile. The province which is called Cumberland Edmund assigned to Malcolm, king of the Scots, under fealty of an oath.

Among the many donations which the king conferred on different churches, he exalted that of Glastonbury, through his singular affection towards it, Avith great estates and honours; and granted it a charter in these words:

”In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I Edmund, king of the Angles, and governor and ruler of the other surrounding nations, with the advice and consent of my nobility, for the hope of eternal retribution, and remission of my transgressions, do grant to the church of the holy mother of God, Mary of Glastonbury, and the venerable Dunstan, whom I have there constituted abbot, the franchise and jurisdiction, rights, customs, and all the forfeitures of all their possessions; that is to say, burhgeritha, and hundred-setena, athas and ordelas, and infangenetheofas, hamsocne, and for debrice, and forestel and toll, and team, throughout my kingdom, and their lands shall be free to them, and released from all exactions, as my own are. But more especially shall the town of Glastonbury, in which is situated that most ancient church of the holy mother of God, together with its bounds, be more free than other places. The abbot of this place, alone, shall have power, as well in causes known as unknown; in small and in great; and even in those which are above, and under the earth; on dry land, and in the water; in woods and in plains; and he shall have the same authority of punishing or remitting the crimes of delinquents perpetrated within it, as my court has; in the same manner as my predecessors have granted and confirmed by charter; to wit, Edward my father, and Elfred his father, and Kentwin, Ina, and Cuthred, and many others, who more peculiarly honoured and esteemed that noble place. And that any one, either bishop, or duke, or prince, or any of their servants, should dare to enter it for the purpose of holding courts, or distraining, or doing any thing contrary to the will of the servants of God there, I inhibit under God’s curse. Whosoever therefore shall benevolently augment my donation, may his life be prosperous in this present world; long may he enjoy his happiness: but whosoever shall presume to invade it through his own rashness, let him know for certain that he shall be compelled with fear and trembling to give account before the tribunal of a rigorous judge, unless he shall first atone for his offence by proper satisfaction.”

The aforesaid donation was granted in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ’s incarnation 944, in the first of the indiction, and was written in letters of gold in the book of the Gospels, which he presented to the same church elegantly adorned. Such great and prosperous successes however, were obscured by a melancholy death. A certain robber named Leofa, whom he had banished for his crimes, returning after six years’ absence totally unexpected, was sitting, on the feast of St. Augustine, the apostle of the English, and first archbishop of Canterbury, among the royal guests at Pucklechurch, for on this day the English were wont to regale in commemoration of their first preacher; by chance too, he was placed near a nobleman whom the king had condescended to make his guest. This, while the others were eagerly carousing, was perceived by the king alone; when, hurried with indignation and impelled by fate, he leaped from the table, caught the robber by the hair, and dragged him to the floor; but he secretly drawing a dagger from its sheath plunged it with all his force into the breast of the king as he lay upon him. Dying of the wound, he gave rise over the whole kingdom to many fictions concerning his decease. The robber was shortly torn limb from limb by the attendants who rushed in, though he wounded some of them before they could accomplish their purpose. St. Dunstan, at that time abbot of Glastonbury, had foreseen his ignoble end, being fully persuaded of it from the gesticulations and insolent mockery of a devil dancing before him. Wherefore, hastening to court at full speed, he received intelligence of the transaction on the road. By common consent then it was determined, that his body should be brought to Glastonbury and there magnificently buried in the northern part of the tower. That such had been his intention, through his singular regard for the abbot, was evident from particular circumstances. The village also where he was murdered was made an offering for the dead, that the spot which had witnessed his fall might ever after minister aid to his soul.

In his fourth year, that is, in the year of our Lord 944, William, the son of Rollo, duke of Normandy, was treacherously killed in France, which old writers relate as having been done with some degree of justice. Rinulph, one of the Norman nobility, owing William a grudge from some one in Gloucestershire. known cause, harassed him with perpetual aggressions. His son, Anschetil, who served under the earl, to gratify his lord durst offer violence to nature for taking his father in battle: he delivered him into the power of the earl, relying on the most solemn oath, that he should suffer nothing beyond imprisonment. As wickedness, however, constantly discovers pretences for crime, the earl, shortly after feigning an excuse, sends Anschetil to Pavia bearing a letter to the duke of Italy, the purport of which was his own destruction. Completing his journey, he was received, on his entrance into the city, in the most respectful manner; and delivering the letter, the duke, astonished at the treachery, shuddered, that a warrior of such singular address should be ordered to be despatched. But as he would not oppose the request of so renowned a nobleman, he laid an ambush of a thousand horsemen, as it is said, for Anschetil when he left the city. For a long time, with his companions whom he had selected out of all Normandy, he resisted their attack; but at last he fell nobly, compensating his own death by slaying many of the enemy. The only survivor on either side was Balso, a Norman, a man of small size, but of incredible courage; although some say that he was ironically called short. This man, I say, alone hovered round the city, and by his single sword terrified the townspeople as long as he thought proper. No person will deem this incredible, who considers what efforts the desperation of a courageous man will produce, and how little military valour the people of that region possess. Returning thence to his own country, he laid his complaint of the perfidy of his lord before the king of France. Fame reported too, that Rinulph, in addition to his chains, had had his eyes put out. In consequence the earl being cited to his trial at Paris, was met, under the pretence of a conference, as they assert, and killed by Balso; thus making atonement for his own perfidy, and satisfying the rage of his antagonist in the midst of the river Seine. His death was the source of long discord between the French and Normans, till by the exertions of Richard his son it had a termination worthy such a personage. A truer history indeed relates, that being at enmity with Ernulph, earl of Flanders, he had possessed himself of one of his castles, and that being invited out by him to a conference, on a pretended design of making a truce, he was killed by Balso, as they were conversing in a ship: that a key was found at his girdle, which being applied to the lock of his private cabinet, discovered certain monastic habiliments; for he ever designed, even amid his warlike pursuits, one day to become a monk at Jumieges; which place, deserted from the time of Hasten, he cleared of the overspreading thorns, and with princely magnificence exalted to its present state.

In the year of our Lord 946, Edred, Edward’s third son, assuming the government, reigned nine years and a half. He gave proof that he had not degenerated in greatness of soul from his father and his brothers; for he nearly exterminated the Northumbrians and the Scots, laying waste the whole province with sword and famine, because, having with little difficulty compelled them to swear fidelity to him, they broke their oath, and made Iricius their king. He for a long time kept Wulstan, archbishop of York, who, it was said, connived at the revolt of his countrymen, in chains, but afterwards, out of respect to his ecclesiastical dignity, released and pardoned him. In the meantime, the king himself, prostrate at the feet of the saints, devoted his life to God and to Dunstan, by whose admonition he endured with patience his frequent bodily pains, prolonged his prayers, and made his palace altogether the school of virtue. He died accompanied with the utmost grief of men, but joy of angels; for Dunstan, learning by a messenger that he was sick, while urging his horse in order to see him, heard a voice thundering over his head, “Now king Edred sleeps in the Lord.” He lies buried in the cathedral at Winchester.

In the year of our Lord 955, Edwy, son of Edmund, the brother of Athelstan the former king, taking possession of the kingdom, retained it four years: a wanton youth, who abused the beauty of his person in illicit intercourse. Finally, taking a woman nearly related to him as his wife, he doted on her beauty, and despised the advice of his counsellors. On the very day he had been consecrated king, in full assembly of the nobility, when deliberating on affairs of importance and essential to the state, he burst suddenly from amongst them, darted wantonly into his chamber, and rioted in the embraces of the harlot. All were indignant of the shameless deed, and murmured among themselves. Dunstan alone, with that firmness which his name implies, regardless of the royal indignation, violently dragged the lascivious boy from the chamber, and on the archbishop’s compelling him to repudiate the strumpet, made him his enemy for ever. Soon after, upheld by most contemptible supporters, he afflicted with undeserved calamities all the members of the monastic order throughout England, — who were first despoiled of their property, and then driven into exile. He drove Dunstan himself, the chief of monks, into Flanders. At that time the face of monarchism was sad and pitiable. Even the monastery of Malmesbury, which had been inhabited by monks for more than two hundred and seventy years, he made a sty for secular canons. But thou, O Lord Jesus, our creator and redeemer, gracious disposer, art abundantly able to remedy our defects by means of those irregular and vagabond men. Thou didst bring to light thy treasure, hidden for so many years — I mean the body of St. Aldhelm, which they took up and placed in a shrine. The royal generosity increased the fame of the canons; for the king bestowed on the saint an estate, very convenient both from its size and vicinity. But my recollection shudders even at this time, to think how cruel he was to other monasteries, equally on account of the giddiness of youth, and the pernicious counsel of his concubine, who was perpetually poisoning his uninformed mind. But let his soul, long since placed in rest by the interposition of Dunstan,

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 959, Edgar, the honour and delight of the English, the son of Edmund, the brother of Edwy, a youth of sixteen years old, assuming the government, held it for about a similar period. The transactions of his reign are celebrated with peculiar splendour even in our times. The Divine love, which he sedulously procured by his devotion and energy of counsel, shone propitious on his years. It is commonly reported, that at his birth Dunstan heard an angelic voice, saying, “Peace to England so long as this child shall reign, and our Dunstan survives.” The succession of events was in unison with the heavenly oracle; so much while he lived did ecclesiastical glory flourish, and martial clamour decay. Scarcely does a year elapse in the chronicles, in which he did not perform something great and advantageous to his country; in which he did not build some new monastery. He experienced no internal treachery, no foreign attack. Kinad, king of the Scots, Malcolm, of the Cambrians, that prince of pirates, Maccus, all the Welsh kings, whose names were Dufnal, Giferth, Huval, Jacob, Judethil, being summoned to his court, were bound to him by one, and that a lasting oath; so that meeting him at Chester, he exhibited them on the river Dee in triumphal ceremony. For putting them all on board the same vessels he compelled them to row him as he sat at the prow: thus displaying his regal magnificence, who held so many kings in subjection. Indeed, he is reported to have said, that henceforward his successors might truly boast of being kings colloquy between the abbot and the devils on the subject, may be found in Osberne’s Life of Dunstan, Anglia Sacra, ii. 108. of England, since they would enjoy so singular an honour. Hence his fame being noised abroad, foreigners, Saxons, Flemings, and even Danes, frequently sailed hither, and were on terms of intimacy with Edgar, though their arrival was highly prejudicial to the natives: for from the Saxons they learned an untameable ferocity of mind; from the Flemings an unmanly delicacy of body; and from the Danes drunkenness; though they were before free from such propensities, and disposed to observe their own customs with native simplicity rather than admire those of others. For this history justly and deservedly blames him; for the other imputations which I shall mention hereafter have rather been cast on him by ballads.

At this time the light of holy men was so resplendent in England, that you would believe the very stars from heaven smiled upon it. Among these was Dunstan, whom I have mentioned so frequently, first, abbot of Glastonbury; next, bishop of Worcester; and lastly, archbishop of Canterbury: of great power in earthly matters, in high favour with God; in the one representing Martha, in the other Mary. Next to king Alfred, he was the most extraordinary patron of the liberal arts throughout the whole island; the munificent restorer of monasteries; terrible were his denunciations against transgressing kings and princes; kind was his support of the middling and poorer classes. Indeed, so extremely anxious was he to preserve peace ever in trivial matters, that, as his countrymen used to assemble in taverns, and when a little elevated quarrel as to the proportions of their liquor, he ordered gold or silver pegs to be fastened in the pots, that whilst every man knew his just measure, shame should compel each neither to take more himself, nor oblige others to drink beyond their proportional share. Osberne, precentor of Canterbury, second to none of these times in composition, and indisputably the best skilled of all in music, who wrote his life with Roman elegance, forbids me to relate farther praiseworthy anecdotes of him. Besides, in addition to this, if the divine grace shall accompany my design, I intend after the succession of the kings at least to particularize the names of all the bishops of each province in England, and to offer them to the knowledge of my countrymen, if I shall be able to coin anything “worth notice out of the mintage of antiquity. How powerful indeed the sanctity and virtue of Dunstan’s disciples were, is sufficiently evidenced by Ethelwold, made abbot of Abingdon from a monk of Glastonbury, and afterwards bishop of Winchester, who built so many and such great monasteries, as to make it appear hardly credible how the bishop of one see should be able to effect what the king of England himself could scarcely undertake. I am deceived, and err through hasty opinion, if what I assert be not evident. How great are the monasteries of Ely, Peterborough, and Thorney, which he raised from the foundations, and completed by his industry; which though repeatedly reduced by the wickedness of plunderers, are yet sufficient for their inhabitants. His life was composed in a decent style by Wulstan, precentor of Winchester, who had been his attendant and pupil: he wrote also another very useful work, “On the Harmony of Sounds,” a proof that he was a learned Englishman, a man of pious life and correct eloquence. At that time too Oswald, nephew of Odo, who had been archbishop before Dunstan, from a monk of glory becoming bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, claimed equal honours with the others. Treading the same paths, he extended the monastic profession by his authority, and built a monastery at Ramsey in a marshy situation. He filled the cathedral of Worcester with monks, the canons not being driven out by force, but circumvented by pious fraud. Bishop Ethelwold, by the royal command, had before expelled the canons from Winchester, who, upon the king’s giving them an option either to live according to rule, or depart the place, gave the preference to an easy life, and were at that time without fixed habitations wandering over the whole island. In this manner these three persons, illuminating England, as it were, with a triple light, chased away the thick darkness of error. In consequence, Edgar advanced the monastery of Glastonbury, which he ever loved beyond all others, with great possessions, and was anxiously vigilant in all things pertaining either to the beauty or convenience of the church, whether internally or externally. It may be proper here to subjoin to our narrative the charter he granted to the said church, as I have read it in their ancient chartulary.

“Edgar of glorious memory, king of the Angles, son of king Edmund, whose inclinations were ever vigilantly bent on divine matters, often coming to the monastery of the churches, according to the ancient custom of the church of Glastonbury, and the apostolical authority of archbishop Dxmstan, and of all the bishops of my kingdom; but the dedications of the churches we consign to the bishop of Wells, if he be required by the abbot. At Easter let him receive the chrism of sanctification, and the oil from the bishop of Wells, according to custom, and distribute them to his before mentioned churches. This too I command above all other things: on the curse of God, and bv my authority, saving the right of the holy Roman church, and that of Canterbury, I inhibit all persons, of whatever dignity, be they king, or bishop, or earl, or prince, or any of my dependants, from daring to enter the bounds of Glastonbury, or of the above named parishes, for the purpose of searching, seizing, holding courts, or doing any thing to the prejudice of the servants of God there residing. The abbot and convent shall alone have power in causes known and unknown, in small and in great, and in every thing as we have before related. And whosoever, upon any occasion, whatever be his dignity, whatever his order, whatever his profession, shall attempt to pervert or nullify the pre-eminence of this privilege by sacrilegious boldness, let him be aware that he must without a doubt give account thereof, with fear and trembling, before a severe Judge, unless he first endeavour to make reparation by proper satisfaction.” The charter of this privilege the aforesaid king Edgar confirmed by his own signature at London, in the twelfth year of his reign, with the common consent of his nobles; and in the same year, which was the 965th of our Lord’s incarnation, and the 14th of the indiction, pope John, in a general assembly, authorized it at Rome, and made all the men of chief dignity who presided at that council confirm it; and also, from motives of paternal regard, sent a letter to the following effect to earl Alfric, who was then grievously persecuting the aforesaid church: —

William of Malmesbury

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29 January, 2015

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