The History of The Kings of England 04

William of Malmesbury

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On the death of Alia, Ethelric, the son of Ida, advanced to extreme old age, after a life consumed in penury, obtained the kingdom, and after five years, was taken off by a sudden death. He was a pitiable prince, whom fame would have hidden in obscurity, had not the conspicuous energy of the son Hfted up the father to notice.

When, therefore, by a long old age, he had satisfied the desire of life, Ethelfrid, the elder of his sons, ascended the throne, and compensated the greenness of his years by the maturity of his conduct. His transactions have been so displayed by graceful composition, that they want no assistance of mine, except as order is concerned. Bede has eagerly dwelt on the praises of this man and his successors; and has dilated on the Northumbrians at greater length, because they were his near neighbours: our history, therefore, will select and compile from his relation. In order, however, that no one may blame me for contracting so diffuse a narrative, I must tell him that I have done it purposely, that they who have been satiated with such high-seasoned delicacies, may respire a little on these humble remnants: for it is a saying trite by use and venerable for its age, “that the meats which cloy the least are eaten with keenest appetite.” Ethelfrid then, as I was relating, having obtained the kingdom, began at first vigorously to defend his own territories, afterwards eagerly to invade his neighbours, and to seek occasion for signalizing himself on all sides. Many wars were begun by him with foresight, and terminated with success; as he was neither restrained from duty by indolence, nor precipitated into rashness by courage. An evidence of these tilings is Degstan, a noted place in those parts, where Edan, king of the Scots, envying Ethelfrid’s successes, had constrained him, though averse, to give battle; but, being overcome, he took to flight, though the triumph was not obtained without considerable hazard to the victor. For Tedbald, the brother of Ethelfrid, opposing himself to the most imminent dangers that he might display his zeal in his brother’s cause, left a mournful victory indeed, being cut off with his whole party. Another proof of his success is afforded by the city of Carlegion, now commonly called Chester, which, till that period possessed by the Britons, fostered the pride of a people hostile to the king. When he bent his exertions to subdue this city, the townsmen preferring any extremity to a siege, and at the same confiding in their numbers, rushed out in multitudes to battle. But deceived by a stratagem, they were overcome and put to flight; his fury being first vented on the monks, who came out in numbers to pray for the safety of the army. That their number was incredible to these times is apparent from so many half-destroyed walls of churches in the neighbouring monastery, so many winding porticoes, such masses of ruins as can scarcely be seen elsewhere. The place is called Bangor; at that day a noted monastery, but now changed into a cathedral. Ethelfrid, thus, while circumstances proceeded to his wishes abroad, being desirous of warding off domestic apprehensions and intestine danger, banished Edwin, the son of Alia, a youth of no mean worth, from his kingdom and country. He, wandering for a long time without any settled habitation, found many of his former friends more inclined to his enemy than to the observance of their engagements; for as it is said,

“If joy be thine, ’tis then thy friends abound: Misfortune comes, and thou alone art found.”

At last he came to Redwald, king of the East Angles, and bewailing his misfortunes, was received into his protection. Shortly after there came messengers from Ethelfrid, either demanding the surrender of the fugitive, or denouncing hostilities. Determined by the advice of his wife not to violate, through intimidation, the laws of friendship, Redwald collected a body of troops, rushed against Ethelfrid, and attacked him suddenly, whilst suspecting nothing less than an assault. The only remedy that courage, thus taken by surprise, could suggest, there being no time to escape, he availed himself of. Wherefore, though almost totally unprepared, though beset with fearful danger on every side, he fell not till he had avenged his own death by the destruction of Regnhere, the son of Redwald. Such an end had Ethelfrid, after a reign of twenty-four years: a man second to none in martial experience, but entirely ignorant of the holy faith. He had two sons by Acca, the daughter of Alia, sister of Edwin, Oswald aged twelve, and Oswy four years; who, upon the death of their father, fled through the management of their governors, and escaped into Scotland.

In this manner, all his rivals being slain or banished, Edwin, trained by many adversities, ascended, not meanly qualified, the summit of power. When the haughtiness of the Northumbrians had bent to his dominion, his fehcity was crowned by the timely death of Redwald, whose subjects, during Edwin’s exile among them, having formerly experienced his ready courage and ardent disposition, now willingly swore obedience to him. Granting to the son of Redwald the empty title of king, himself managed all things as he thought fit. At this juncture, the hopes and the resources of the Angles centred totally in him; nor was there a single province of Britain which did not regard his will, and prepare to obey it, except Kent: for he had left the Kentish people free from his incursions, because he had long meditated a marriage with Ethelburga, sister of their king. When she was granted to him, after a courtship long protracted, to the intent that he should not despise that woman when possessed whom he so ardently desired when withheld, these two kingdoms became so united by the ties of kindred, that, there was no rivalry in their powers, no difference in their manners. Moreover, on this occasion, the faith of Christ our Lord, infused into those parts by the preaching of Paulinus, reached first the king himself, whom the queen, among other proofs of conjugal affection, was perpetually instructing; nor was the admonition of bishop Paulinus wanting in its place. For a long time, he was wavering and doubtful; but once received, he imbibed it altogether. Then he invited neighbouring kings to the faith; then he erected churches, and neglected nothing for its propagation. In the meanwhile, the merciful grace of God smiled on the devotion of the king; insomuch, that not only the nations of Britain, that is to say, the Angles, Scots, and Picts, but even the Orkney and Mevanian isles, which we now call Anglesey, that is, islands of the Angles, both feared his arms, and venerated his power. At that time, there was no public robber; no domestic thief; the tempter of conjugal fidelity was far distant; the plunderer of another man’s inheritance was in exile: a state of things redounding to his praise, and worthy of celebration in our times. In short, such was the increase of his power, that justice and peace willingly met and kissed each other, imparting mutual acts of kindness.

And now indeed would the government of the Angles have held a prosperous course, had not an untimely death, the stepmother of all earthly felicity, by a lamentable turn of fortune, snatched this man from his country. For in the forty-eighth year of his age, and the seventeenth of his reign, being killed, together with his son, by the princes whom he had formerly subjugated, Cadwalla of the Britons and Penda of the Mercians, rising up against him, he became a melancholy example of human vicissitude. He was inferior to none in prudence: for he would not embrace even the Christian faith till he had examined it most carefully; but when once adopted, he esteemed nothing worthy to be compared to it.

Edwin thus slain, the sons of Ethelfrid, who were also the nephews of Edwin, Oswald, and Oswy, now grown up, and In the budding prime of youth, re-sought their country, together with Eanfrid, their elder brother, whom I forgot before to mention. The kingdom, therefore, was now divided into two. Lideed, Northumbria, long since separated into two provinces, had elected Alia, king of the Deirans, and Ida, of the Bernicians. Wherefore Osric, the cousin of Edwin, succeeding to Deira, and Eanfrid, the son of Ethelfrid, to Bernicia, they exulted in the recovery of their hereditary right. They had both been baptized in Scotland, though they were scarcely settled in their authority, here they renounced their faith: but shortly after they suffered the just penalty of their apostacy through the hostillty of Cadwalla. The space of a year, passed in these transactions, improved Oswald, a young man of great hope, in the science of government. Armed rather by his faith, for he had been admitted to baptism while in exile with many nobles among the Scots, than by his military preparations, on the first onset he drove Cadwalla, a man elated with the recollection of his former deeds, and, as he used himself to say, “born for the extermination of the Angles,” from his camp, and afterwards destroyed him with all his forces. For when he had collected the little army which he was able to muster, he excited them to the conflict, in which, laying aside all thought of flight, they must determine either to conquer or die, by suggesting, “that it must be a circumstance higtly disgraceful for the Angles to meet the Britons on such unequal terms, as to fight against those persons for safety, whom they had been used voluntarily to attack for glory only; that therefore they should maintain their liberty with dauntless courage, and the most strenuous exertions; but, that of the impulse to flight no feeling whatever should be indulged.” In consequence they met with such fury on both sides, that, it may be truly said, no day was ever more disastrous for the Britons, or more joyful for the Angles: so completely was one party routed with all its forces, as never to have hope of recovering again; so exceedingly powerful did the other become, through the effects of faith and the accompanying courage of the king. From this time, the worship of idols fell prostrate in the dust; and he governed the kingdom, extended beyond Edwin’s boundaries, for eight years, peaceably and without the loss of any of his people. Bede, in his History, sets forth the praises of this king in a high style of panegyric, of which I shall extract such portions as may be necessary, by way of conclusion. With what fervent faith his breast was inspired, may easily be learned from this circumstance. If at any time Aidan the priest addressed his auditors on the subject of their duty, in the Scottish tongue, and no interpreter was present, the king himself would directly, though habited in the royal robe, glittering with gold, or glowing with Tyrian purple, graciously assume that office, and explain the foreign idiom in his native language. It is well known too, that frequently at entertainments, when the guests had whetted their appetites and bent their inclinations on the feast, he would forego his own gratification; procuring, by his abstinence, comfort for the poor. So that I think the truth of that heavenly sentence was fulfilled even on earth, where the celestial oracle hath said, “He that dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, his righteousness remaineth for ever.” And moreover, what the hearer must wonder at, and cannot deny, that identical royal right hand.

When he was seated at table and just about to commence dinner, the royal almoner informed the king that a great number of poor were assembled in the street, asking relief; on which he immediately ordered the whole of the provisions to be distributed, and the silver dish also to be cut into pieces, and divided amongst them. See the dispenser of so many alms, remains to this day perfect, with the arm, the skin and nerves, though the remainder of the body, with the exception of the bones, mouldering into dust, has not escaped the common lot of mortality. It is true the corporeal remains of some of the saints are unconscious altogether of decay. Wherefore let others determine by what standard they will fix their judgment; I pronounce this still more gracious and divine on account of its singular manifestation; because things ever so precious degenerate by frequency, and whatever is more unusual, is celebrated more generally. I should indeed be thought prolix were I to relate how diligent he was to address his prayers on high, and to fill the heavens with vows. This virtue of Oswald is too well known to require the support of our narrative. For at what time would that man neglect his supplications, who, in the insurrection excited by Penda king of the Mercians, his guards being put to flight and himself actually carrying a forest of darts in his breast, could not be prevented by the pain of his wounds or the approach of death, from praying for the souls of his faithful companions ? In such manner this personage, of surpassing celebrity in this world, and highly in favour with God, ending a valuable life, transmitted his memory to posterity by a frequency of miracles; and indeed most deservedly. For it is not common, but even more rare than a white crow, for men to abound in riches, and not give indulgence to their vices.

When he was slain, his arms with the hands and his head were cut off by the insatiable rage of his conqueror, and fixed on a stake. The dead trunk indeed, as I have mentioned, being laid to rest in the calm bosom of the earth, turned to its native dust; but the arms and hands, through the power of God, remain, according to the testimony of an author of veracity, without corruption. These being placed by his brother Oswy in a shrine, at the city of Bebbanburg, so the Angles call it, and shown for a miracle, bear testimony to the fact. Whether they remain at that place at the present day, I venture not rashly to affirm, because I waver in my opinion. If other historians have precipitately recorded any matter, let them be accountable: I hold common report at a cheaper rate, and affirm nothing but what is deserving of entire credit. The head was then buried by his beforementioned brother at Lindisfarne; but it is said now to be preserved at Durham in the arms of the blessed Cuthbert. When Ostritha, the wife of Ethelred, king of the Mercians, daughter of king Oswy, through regard to her uncle, was anxious to take the bones of the trunk to her monastery of Bardney, which is in the country of the Mercians not far from the city of Lincoln, the monks refused her request at first denying repose even to the bones of that man when dead whom they had hated whilst living, because he had obtained their country by right of arms. But at midnight being taught, by a miraculous light from heaven shining on the relics, to abate their haughty pride, they became converts to reason, and even entreated as a favour, what before they had rejected. Virtues from on high became resident in this place: every sick person who implored this most excellent martyr’s assistance, immediately received it. The withering turf grew greener from his blood, and recovered a horse: and some of it being hung up against a post, the devouring flames fled from it in their turn. Some dust, moistened from his relics, was equally efficacious in restoring a lunatic to his proper senses. The washings of the stake which had imbibed the blood fresh streaming from his head, restored health to one despairing of recovery. For a long time this monastery, possessing so great a treasure, flourished in the sanctity of its members and the abundance of its friends, more especially after king Ethelred received the tonsure there, where also his tomb is seen even to the present day. After many years indeed, when the barbarians infested these parts, the bones of the most holy Oswald were removed to Gloucester. This place, at that period inhabited by monks, but at the present time by canons, contains but few inmates. Oswald, therefore, was the man who yielded the first fruits of holiness to his nation; since no Angle before him, to my knowledge, was celebrated for miracles. For after a life spent in sanctity, in liberally giving alms, in frequent watchings and prayer, and lastly, through zeal for the church of God, in waging war with an heathen, he poured out his spirit, according to his wishes, before he could behold, what was his greatest object of apprehension, the decline of Christianity. Nor indeed shall he be denied the praise of the martyrs, who, first aspiring after a holy life, and next opposing his body to a glorious death, certainly trod in their steps: in a manner he deserves higher commendation, since they barely consecrated themselves to God; but Oswald not only himself, but all the Northumbrians with him.

On his removal from this world, Oswy his brother assumed the dominion over the Bernicians, as did Oswin, the son of Osric, whom I have before mentioned, over the Deirans. After meeting temperately at first on the subject of the division of the provinces, under a doubtful truce, they each retired peaceably to their territories; but not long after, by means of persons who delighted in sowing the seeds of discord, the peace, of which they had so often made a mockery by ambiguous treaties, was finally broken, and vanished into air. Horrid crime that there should be men who could envy these kings their friendly intimacy, nor abstain from using their utmost efforts to precipitate them into battle. Here then fortune, who had before so frequently caressed Oswin with her blandishments, now wounded him with her scorpion-sting. For thinking it prudent to abstain from fighting, on account of the smallness of his force, he had secretly withdrawn to a country-seat, where he was immediately betrayed by his own people, and killed by Oswy. He was a man admirably calculated to gain the favour of his subjects by his pecuniary liberahty; and, as they relate, demonstrated his care for his soul by his fervent devotion. Oswy, thus sovereign of the entire kingdom, did every thing to wipe out this foul stain, and to increase his dignity, extenuating the enormity of that atrocious deed by the rectitude of his future conduct. Indeed the first and highest point of his glory is, that he nobly avenged his brother and his uncle, and gave to perdition Penda king of the Mercians, that destroyer of his neighbours, and fomenter of hostility. From this period he either governed the Mercians, as well as almost all the Angles, himself, or was supreme over those who did. Turning from this time altogether to offices of piety, that he might be truly grateful for the favours of God perpetually flowing down upon him, he proceeded to raise up and animate, with all his power, the infancy of the Christian faith, which of late was fainting through his brother’s death. This faith, brought shortly after to maturity by the learning of the Scots, but wavering in many ecclesiastical observances, was now settled on canonical foundations: first by Agilbert and Wilfrid, and next by archbishop Theodore: for whose arrival in Britain, although Egbert, king of Kent, as far as his province is concerned, takes much from his glory, the chief thanks are due to Oswy. Moreover he built numerous habitations for the servants of God, and so left not his country destitute of this advantage also. The principal of these monasteries, at that time for females, but now for males, was situate about thirty miles north of York, and was anciently called Streaneshalch, but latterly Whitby. Begun by Hilda, a woman of singular piety, it was augmented with large revenues by Elfled, daughter of this king, who succeeded her in the government of it; in which place also she buried her father with all due solemnity, after he had reigned twenty-eight years. This monastery, like all others of the same order, was destroyed in the times of the Danish invasion, which will be related hereafter, and bereaved of the bodies of many saints. For the bones of St. Aidan the bishop, of Ceolfrid the abbot, and of that truly holy virgin Hilda, together with those of many others, were, as I have related in the book which I lately published on the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury, at that time removed to Glastonbury; and those of other saints to different places. Now the monastery, under another name, and somewhat restored as circumstances permitted, hardly presents a vestige of its former opulence.

To Oswy, who had two sons, the elder who was illegitimate being rejected, succeeded the younger, Egfrid, legitimately born, more valued on account of the good qualities of his most pious wife Etheldrida, than for his own; yet he was certainly to be commended for two things which I have read in the history of the Angles, his allowing his wife to dedicate herself to God, and his promoting the blessed Cuthbert to a bishopric, whose tears at the same time burst out with pious assent. But my mind shudders at the bare recollection of his outrage against the holy Wilfrid, when, loathing his virtues, he deprived the country of this shining character. Overbearing towards the supplant, a malady incident to tyrants, he overwhelmed the Irish, a race of men harmless in genuine simplicity and guiltless of every crime, with incredible slaughter. On the other hand, inactive towards the rebellious, and not following up the triumphs of his father, he lost the dominion of the Mercians, and moreover, defeated in battle by Ethelred the son of Penda, their king, he lost his brother also. Perhaps these last circumstances may be truly attributed to the unsteadiness of youth, but his conduct towards Wilfrid, to the instigation of his wife, I and of the bishops; more especially as Bede, a man who knew not how to flatter, calls him, in his book of the Lives of his Abbats, the most pious man, the most beloved by God. At length, in the fifteenth year of his reign, as he was leading an expedition against the Picts, and eagerly pursuing them as they purposely retired to some secluded mountains, he perished with almost all his forces; the few who escaped by flight carried home news of the event; and yet the divine Cuthbert, from his knowledge of future events, had both attempted to keep him back, when departing, and at the very moment of his death, enlightened by heavenly influence, declared, though at a distance, that he was slain.

While a more than common report every where noised the death of Egfrid, an intimation of it, “borne on the wings of haste,” reached the ears of his brother Alfrid. Though the elder brother, he had been deemed, by the nobility, unworthy of the government, from his illegitimacy, as I have observed, and had retired to Ireland, either through compulsion or indignation. In this place, safe from the persecution of his brother, he had, from his ample leisure, become deeply versed in literature, and had enriched his mind with every kind of learning. On which account the very persons who had formerly banished him, esteeming him the better qualified to manage the reins of government, now sent for him of their own accord. Fate rendered efficacious their entreaties; neither did he disappoint their expectations. For during the space of nineteen years, he presided over the kingdom in the utmost tranquillity and joy; doing nothing that even greedy calumny itself could justly carp at, except the persecution of that great man Wilfrid. However he held not the same extent of territory as his father and brother, because the Picts, proudly profiting by their recent victory, and attacking the Angles, who were become indolent through a lengthened peace, had curtailed his boundaries on the north. He had for successor his son, Osred, a boy of eight years old; who disgracing the throne for eleven years, and spending an ignominious life in the seduction of nuns, was ultimately taken off by the hostility of his relations. Yet he poured out to them a draught from the same cup; for Kenred after reigning two, and Osric eleven years, left only this to be recorded of them; that they expiated by a violent death, the blood of their master, whom they supposed they had rightfully slain. Osric indeed deserved a happier end, for, as a heathen says, he was more dignified than other shades, because, while yet living he had adopted Ceolwulf, Kenred’s brother, as his successor. Then Ceolwulf ascended the giddy height of empire, seventh in descent from Ida: a man competent in other respects, and withal possessed of a depth of literature, acquired by good abilities and indefatigable attention. Bede vouches for the truth of my assertion, who, at the very juncture when Britain most abounded with scholars, offered his History of the Angles, for correction, to this prince more especially; making choice of his authority, to confirm by his high station what had been well written; and of his learning, to rectify by his talents what might be carelessly expressed.

In the fourth year of his reign, Bede, the historian, after having written many books for the holy church, entered the heavenly kingdom, for which he had so long languished, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 734; of his age the fifty-ninth. A man whom it is easier to admire than worthily to extol: who, though born in a remote corner of the world, was able to dazzle the whole earth with the brilliancy of his learning. For even Britain, which by some is called another world, since, surrounded by the ocean, it was not thoroughly known by many geographers, possesses, in its remotest region, bordering on Scotland, the place of his birth and education. This region, formerly exhaling the grateful odour of monasteries, or glittering with a multitude of cities built by the Romans, now desolate through the ancient devastations of the Danes, or those more recent of the Normans, presents but little to allure the mind. Here is the river Wear, of considerable breadth and rapid tide; which running into the sea, receives the vessels, borne by gentle gales, on the calm bosom of its haven. Both its banks have been made conspicuous by one Benedict, who there built churches and monasteries; one dedicated to Peter, and the other to Paul, united in the bond of brotherly love and of monastic rule. The industry and forbearance of this man, any one will admire who reads the book which Bede composed concerning his life and those of the succeeding abbots: his industry, in bringing over a multitude of books, and being the first person who introduced in England constructors of stone edifices, as well as makers of glass windows; in which pursuits he spent almost his whole life abroad: the love of his country and his taste for elegance beguiling his painful labours, in the earnest desire of conveying something to his countrymen out of the common way; for very rarely before the time of Benedict were buildings of stone seen in Britain, nor did the solar ray cast its light through the transparent glass. Again, his forbearance: for when in possession of the monastery of St. Augustine at Canterbury, he cheerfully resigned it to Adrian, when he arrived, not as fearing the severity of St. Theodore the archbishop, but bowing to his authority. And farther, while long absent abroad, he endured not only with temper, but, I may say, with magnanimity, the substitution of another abbot, without his knowledge, by the monks of Wearmouth; and on his return, admitted him to equal honour with himself, in rank and power. Moreover, when stricken so severely with the palsy that he could move none of his limbs, he appointed a third abbot, because the other, of whom we have spoken, was not less affected by the same disease. And when the disorder, increasing, was just about to seize his vitals, he bade adieu to his companion who was brought into his presence, with an inclination of the head only; nor was he better able to return the salutation, for he was hastening to a still nearer exit, and actually died before Benedict.

Ceolfrid succeeded, under whom the affairs of the monastery flourished beyond measure. When, through extreme old age, life ceased to be desirable, he purposed going to Rome, that he might pour out, as he hoped, his aged soul an offering to the apostles his masters. But failing of the object of his desires, he paid the debt of nature at the city of Langres. The relics of his bones were in after time conveyed to his monastery; and at the period of the Danish devastation, with those of St. Hilda, were taken to Glastonbury. The merits of these abbots, sufficiently eminent in themselves, their celebrated pupil, Bede, crowns with superior splendour. It is written indeed, “A wise son is the glory of his father:“ for one of them made him a monk, the other educated him. And since Bede himself has given some slight notices of these facts, comprising his whole life in a kind of summary, it may be allowed to turn to his words, which the reader will recognize, lest any variation of the style should affect the relation. At the end then of the Ecclesiastical History of the English this man, as praiseworthy in other respects as in this, that he withheld nothing from posterity, though it might be only a trifling knowledge of himself, says thus:

William of Malmesbury

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