Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Martin Robb
Edwy the Fair or the First Chronicle of Aescendune:
A Tale of the Days of Saint Dunstan,
by the Rev. A. D. Crake.
It has been the aim of the Author, in a series of original tales told to
the senior boys of a large school, to illustrate interesting or
difficult passages of Church History by the aid of fiction. Two of these
tales--"Aemilius," a tale of the Decian and Valerian persecutions; and
"Evanus," a tale of the days of Constantine--he has already published,
and desires gratefully to acknowledge the kindness with which they have
He is thus encouraged to submit another attempt to the public, having
its scene of action in our own land, although in times very dissimilar
to our own; and for its object, the illustration of the struggle between
the regal and ecclesiastical powers in the days of the ill-fated and
ill-advised King Edwy.
Scarcely can one find a schoolboy who has not read the touching legend
of Edwy and Elgiva--for it is little more than a legend in most of its
details; and which of these youthful readers has not execrated the
cruelty of the Churchmen who separated those unhappy lovers? While the
tragical story of the fate of the hapless Elgiva has been the theme of
many a poet and even historian, who has accepted the tale as if it were
of as undoubted authenticity as the Reform Bill.
The writer can well remember the impression the tale made upon his
youthful imagination, and the dislike, to use a mild word, with which he
ever viewed the character of the great statesman and ecclesiastic of the
tenth century, Dunstan, until a wider knowledge of history and a more
accurate judgment came with maturer years; and testimonies to the
ability and genius of that monk, who had been the moving spirit of his
age, began to force themselves upon him.
Lord Macaulay has well summed up the relative positions of Church and
State in that age in the following words: "It is true that the Church
had been deeply corrupted by superstition, yet she retained enough of
the sublime theology and benevolent morality of her early days to
elevate many intellects, and to purify many hearts. That the sacerdotal
order should encroach on the functions of the chief magistrate, would in
our time be a great evil. But that which in an age of good government is
an evil, may in an age of grossly bad government be a blessing. It is
better that men should be governed by priest craft than by brute
violence; by such a prelate as Dunstan, than by such a warrior as Penda."
The Church was indeed the salt of the earth, even if the salt had
somewhat lost its savour; it was the only power which could step in
between the tyrant and his victim, which could teach the irresponsible
great--irresponsible to man--their responsibility to the great and
awful Being whose creatures they were. And again, it was then the only
home of civilisation and learning. It has been well said that for the
learning of this age to vilify the monks and monasteries of the medieval
period, is for the oak to revile the acorn from which it sprang.
The overwhelming realisation of these facts, the determination to set up
the dominion of truth and justice which they held to be identical with
that of the Church, as that was identical with the kingdom of God,
supplies the key to the lives and characters of such men as Ambrose,
Cyril, Dunstan, and Becket. They each came in collision with the civil
power; but Ambrose against Justina or even Theodosius, Cyril against
Orestes, Dunstan against Edwy, Becket against Henry Plantagenet--each
represented, in a greater or less degree, the cause of religion, nay of
humanity, against its worst foes, tyranny or moral corruption.
Yet not one of these great men was without his faults; this is only to
say he was human; but more may be admitted--personal motives would mix
themselves with nobler emotions. Self would assert her fatal claims, and
great mistakes were sometimes made by those who would have forfeited
their lives rather than have committed them, had they known what they
were doing. Yet, on the whole, their cause was that of God and man, and
they fought nobly. Shall we asperse their memories because they "had
this treasure in earthen vessels"?
The tale itself is intended to depict what the writer believes to be the
true relative positions of Edwy and the great ecclesiastic; therefore he
will not attempt to deal with the subject here. It will be noticed
however, that he has shorn the narrative of the dread catastrophe with
which it terminated in all the histories of our childhood. Scarcely any
writer has made such wise research into the history of this period as
Mr. E. A. Freeman, and the author has adopted his conclusions upon this
point. With him he has therefore admitted the marriage of Edwy with
Elgiva, although it was an uncanonical marriage beyond all doubt, and
has given her the title of queen, which she bore in a document preserved
by Lappenburg. But, in agreement with the same authority, the writer
feels most happy to be able to reject the story of Elgiva's supposed
tragical death. All sorts of stories are told by later writers, utterly
contradictory and confused, of a woman killed by the Mercians in their
revolt. This could not be Elgiva, for she was not divorced till the
rebellion was over; and even the sad tale that she was seized by the
officers of Odo, and branded to disfigure her beauty, rests on no good
authority. In spite of the reluctance with which men relinquish a
touching tragedy, the calumny should be banished from the pages of
historians; and it is painful to see it repeated, as if of undoubted
authenticity, in a recent popular history for children by one of the
greatest of modern novelists.
Edwy's character has cost the writer much thought. He has endeavoured to
paint him faithfully--not so bad as all the monastic writers of the
succeeding period (the only writers with few exceptions) describe him;
but still such a youth as the circumstances under which he became placed
would probably have made him--capable of sincere attachment, brave,
and devoted to his friends, yet careless of all religious obligations;
bitterly hostile to the Church, that is to Christianity, for the terms
were then synonymous; and reckless of obligations, or of the sanctity of
truth and justice.
His measures against St. Dunstan, as they are related in the tale, have
the authority of history; although it is needless to say that the agents
are in part fictitious characters. The writer's object has been to
subordinate fiction to history, and never to contradict historic fact;
if he has failed in this intention, it has been his misfortune rather
than his fault; for he has had recourse to all such authorities as lay
in his reach.[i] Especially, he is glad to find that the
character he had conceived as Edwy's perfectly coincides with the
description given by Palgrave in his valuable History of the Anglo-Saxons:
"Edwy was a youth of singular beauty, but vain, rash, petulant,
profligate, and surrounded by a host of young courtiers, all bent on
encouraging and emulating the vices of their master."
Another object of the tale has been to depict the trials and
temptations, the fall and the recovery, of a lad fresh from a home full
of religious influences, when thrown amidst the snares which abounded
then as now. The motto, "Facilis descensus Averno," etc, epitomises the
In relating a tale of the days of St. Dunstan, the author has felt bound
to give the religious colouring which actually prevailed in that day. He
has found much authority and information in Johnson's Anglo-Saxon
Canons, especially those of Elfric, probably contemporaneous with the
tale. He has written in no controversial spirit, but with an honest
desire to set forth the truth.
It may be objected that he has made all his characters speak in very
modern English, and has not affected the archaisms commonly found in
tales of the time. To this he would reply, that if the genuine language
were preserved, it would be utterly unintelligible to modern Englishmen,
and therefore he has thought it preferable to translate into the
vernacular of today. The English which men spoke then was no more
stilted or formal to them than ours is to us.
Although he has followed Mr. Freeman in the use of the terms English and
Welsh, as far less likely to mislead than the terms Saxons and Britons,
and far truer to history, yet he has not thought proper to follow the
obsolete spelling of proper names; he has not, e. g., spelt Edwy, Eadwig
or Elgiva, Aelfgifu. Custom has Latinised the appellations, and as he
has rejected obsolete terms in conversation, he has felt it more
consistent to reject these more correct, but less familiar, orthographies.
The title, "First Chronicle of Aescendune," has been adopted, because
the tale here given is but the first of a series of tales which have
been told, but not yet written, attaching themselves to the same family
and locality at intervals of generations. Thus, the second illustrates
the struggle between Edmund Ironside and Canute; the third, the Norman
Conquest; etc. Their appearance in print must depend upon the indulgence
extended to the present volume.
In conclusion, the writer dedicates this book with great respect to Mrs.
Trevelyan, authoress of "Lectures upon the History of England;" whose
first volume, years ago, first taught him to appreciate, in some degree,
the character of St. Dunstan.
All Saints' School, Bloxham,
CHAPTER I. "THIS IS THE FOREST PRIMEVAL."
IT was a lovely eventide of the sunny month of May, and the declining
rays of the sun penetrated the thick foliage of an old English forest,
lighting up in chequered pattern the velvet sward thick with moss, and
casting uncertain rays as the wind shook the boughs. Every bush seemed
instinct with life, for April showers and May sun had united to force
each leaf and spray into its fairest development, and the drowsy hum of
countless insects told, as it saluted the ears, the tale of approaching
Two boys reclined upon the mossy bank beneath an aged oak; their dress,
no less than their general demeanour, denoted them to be the sons of
some substantial thane. They were clad in hunting costume: leggings of
skin over boots of untanned leather protected their limbs from thorn or
brier, and over their under garments they wore tunics of a dull green
hue, edged at the collar and cuffs with brown fur, and fastened by
richly ornamented belts: their bows lay by their sides, while quivers of
arrows were suspended to their girdles, and two spears, such as were
used in the chase of the wild boar, lay by them on the grass. They had
the same fair hair, which, untouched by the shears, hung negligently
around neck and shoulder; the same blue eyes added an indescribable
softness to the features; they had the same well-knit frames and agile
movements, but yet there was a difference. The elder seemed possessed of
greater vivacity of expression; but although each well-strung muscle
indicated physical prowess, there was an uncertain expression in his
glance and in the play of his features, which suggested a yielding and
somewhat vacillating character; while the younger, lacking the full
physical development, and somewhat of the engaging expression of his
brother, had that calm and steady bearing which indicated present and
future government of the passions.
"By Thor and Woden, Alfred, we shall be here all night. At what hour did
that stupid churl Oscar say that the deer trooped down to drink?"
"Not till sunset, Elfric; and it wants half an hour yet; see, the sun is
"I do think it is never going to set; here we have been hunting, hunting
all the day, and got nothing for our pains."
"You forget the hare and the rabbit here."
"Toss them to the dogs. Here, Bran, you brute, take this hare your
masters have been hunting all day, for your dinner;" and as he spoke he
tossed the solitary victim of his own prowess in the chase to the huge
wolfhound, which made a speedy meal upon the hare, while Alfred threw
the rabbit to the other of their two canine companions.
"I would almost as soon have lost this holiday, and spent the time with
Father Cuthbert, to be bored by his everlasting talk about our duties,
and forced to repeat '_hic, haec, hoc_,' till my head ached. What a long
homily [ii] he preached us this morning--and then that
long story about the saint."
"You are out of spirits. Father Cuthbert's tales are not so bad, after
all you seemed to like the legend he told us the other night."
"Yes, about our ancestor Sebbald and his glorious death; there was
something in that tale worth hearing; it stirred the blood--none of
your moping saints, that Sebbald."
"I once heard another legend from Father Cuthbert, about the burning of
Croyland Abbey, and how the abbot stood, saying mass at the altar,
without flinching or even turning his head, when the Danes, having fired
the place, broke into the chapel. Do you not think it wanted more
bravery to do that in cold blood than to stand firm in all the
excitement of a battle?"
"You are made to be a monk, Alfred, and I daresay, if you get the
chance, will be a martyr, and get put in the calendar by-and-by. I
suppose they will keep your relics here in the priory church, and you
will be St. Alfred of Aescendune; for me, I would sooner die as the old
sea kings loved to die, surrounded by heaps of slain, with my sword
broken in my hand."
It was at this moment that their conversation was suddenly interrupted
by a loud crashing of boughs in the adjacent underwood, a rush as of
some wild beast, a loud cry in boyish tones--"Help! help! the wolf!
Elfric jumped up in an instant, and rushed forward heedless of danger,
followed closely by his younger brother, who was scarcely less eager to
render immediate assistance.
The cries for help became more and more piercing, as if some pressing
danger menaced the utterer. Elfric, who, in spite of his flippant
speech, was by no means destitute of keen sympathies and self devotion,
hurried forward, fearless of danger, bounding through thicket and
underwood, until, arriving upon a small clearing, the whole scene
flashed upon him.
A huge grey wolf, wounded and bleeding, was about to rush for the second
time upon a youth in hunting costume, whose broken spear, broken in the
first encounter with the beast he had disturbed, seemed to deprive him
of all chance of success in the desperate encounter evidently impending.
His trembling limbs showed his extreme apprehension, and the sweat stood
in huge drops on his forehead; his eyes were fixed upon the beast as if
he were fascinated, while the shaft of his spear, presented feebly
against the coming onslaught, showed that he had lost his self
possession, for he neglected the bow and arrows which were slung at his
side--if indeed there was time to use them.
The beast sprang, but as he did so another spear was stoutly presented
to meet him, and he literally impaled himself in his eager spring on the
weapon of Elfric.
Still, such was his weight that the boy fell backward beneath the mighty
rush, and such the tenacity of life that, though desperately wounded,
even to death, the beast sought the prostrate lad with teeth and claws,
in frantic fury, until a blow from the hunting knife, which Elfric well
knew how to use, laid the wolf lifeless at his side.
Breathless, but not severely injured, he rose from the ground covered
with blood; his garments torn, his face reddened by exertion, and paused
a moment, while he seemed to strive to repress the wild beatings of his
heart, which bounded as if it would burst its prison.
But far more exhausted was the other combatant, yet scarcely so much by
exertion as by fear, of which he still bore the evident traces. After a
few moments he broke the silence, and his words seemed incoherent.
"Where is my horse? the beast threw me--I wish the wolves may get him
--I fear you are hurt; not much, I hope; where can those serfs be? Fine
vassals, to desert their master in peril. I'll have them hung. But, by
St. Cuthbert, you are all covered with blood."
"'Tis that of the wolf, then, for I have scarcely a scratch: one of the
beast's claws ripped up my sleeve, and the skin with it; that was all he
could do before he felt the cold steel between his ribs."
"Not a moment too soon, or he would have killed you before we could
interfere; why, as you rolled together, I could hardly see which was boy
and which was wolf. But where's my horse? Did you see a white horse rush
"We heard a rush as of some wild animal."
"Wild enough. I was riding through the glade, and my attendants were on
in front, when we stumbled on this wolf, crouched under that thicket.
The horse started so violently that it threw me almost upon the monster
you have killed."
Here the speaker paused, and blew impatient blasts upon a horn which had
been slung round his neck. They were soon answered, and some attendants,
dressed in semi-hunting costume, made their appearance with haste and
confusion, which showed their apprehensions.
"Guthred! Eadmer! Why did you get so far away from me? I might have been
killed. Look at this monstrous wolf; why, its teeth are dreadful. It
broke my spear, and would have had me down, but for this--this youth.
"I forgot, I haven't asked to whom I am indebted. Aren't you two brothers?"
"Our father is the Thane of Aescendune. His hall is not far from here.
Will you not go home with us? We have plenty of room for you and yours."
"To be sure I will. Aescendune? I have heard the name: I can't remember
where. Have you horses?"
"No; we were hunting on foot, and expecting to let fly our shafts at
some deer. May I ask, in return, the name of our guest?"
Before the youth could answer, one of the attendants strode forward, and
with an air of importance replied, "You are about to receive the honour
of a visit from the future lord of Britain, Prince Edwy."
"Keep your lips closed till I give you leave to open them, Guthred. You
may leave me to announce myself.
"I shall be only too glad to go with you both; and these two huntsmen
deserve to be left in the forest to the mercy of your wolves."
Somewhat startled to find that they had saved the future Basileus or
King of Britain--the hope of the royal line of Cerdic--the brothers
led their guest through the darkening forest until the distant light of
a clearing appeared in the west, and they emerged from the shadow of the
trees upon the brow of a gentle hill.
Below them lay the castle (if such it should be called) of their father
the Thane of Aescendune. Utterly unlike the castellated buildings which,
at a later period, formed the dwellings of the proud Norman nobility, it
was a low irregular building, the lower parts of which were of stone,
and the upper portions, when there was a second story, of thick timber
from the forest.
A river, from which the evening mist was slowly rising, lay beyond, and
supplied water to a moat which surrounded the edifice, for in those
troublous times few country dwellings lacked such necessary protection.
The memory of the Danish invasions was too recent; the marauders of
either nation still lurked in the far recesses of the forest, and
plundered the Saxon inhabitant or the Danish settler indiscriminately,
as occasion served.
On the inner side of the moat a strong palisade of timber completed the
defence. One portal, opening upon a drawbridge, formed the sole apparent
means of ingress or egress.
Passing the drawbridge unquestioned, the boys entered the courtyard,
around which the chief apartments were grouped. Before them a flight of
stone steps led to the great hall where all the members of the community
took their meals in common, and where, around the great fire, they wiled
away the slow hours of a winter evening.
On each side of the great hall stood the bowers, as the small
dormitories were called, furnished very simply for the use of the higher
domestics with small round tables, common stools, and beds in recesses
like boxes or cupboards. Such were commonly the only sleeping chambers,
but at Aescendune, as generally in the halls of the rich, a wide
staircase conducted to a gallery above, from each side of which opened
sleeping and sitting apartments allotted to the use of the family. It
was only in the houses of the wealthy that such an upper floor was found.
On the right hand, as they entered the courtyard, stood the private
chapel of the household, where mass was said by the chaplain, to whom
allusion has been already made, as the first duty of the day, and where
each night generally saw the household again assembled for compline or
evening prayers.[iii] On the left hand were domestic offices.
Upon the steps of his hall stood Ella, the Thane of Aescendune, the
representative of a long line of warlike ancestors, who had occupied the
soil since the Saxon conquest of Mercia.
He was clad in a woollen tunic reaching to the knee, over which a cloak
fastened by a clasp of gold was loosely thrown; and his feet were clad
in black pointed boots, while strips of painted leather were wound over
red stockings from the knee to the ankle.
"You are late, my sons," he said, "and I perceive you have brought us a
visitor. He is welcome."
"Father," said Elfric, in a voice somewhat expressive of awe, "it is
The thane had in his earlier days been at court, and had known the
murdered Edmund, the royal father of his guest, intimately. It was not
without emotion, therefore, that he welcomed the son to his home, and
saluted him with that manly yet reverential homage their relative
positions required of him.
"Welcome, thrice welcome, my prince," he said, "to these humble halls."
He added, with some emotion, "I could think the royal Edmund stood
before me, as I knew him while yet myself a youth."
The domestics, who had assembled, gazed upon their visitor with country
curiosity, yet were not wanting in rude but expressive courtesy; and
soon he was conducted to the best chamber the house afforded, where
change of raiment and every comfort within the reach of his host was
provided, while the cooks were charged to make sumptuous additions to
the approaching supper.
CHAPTER II. THE HOUSE OF AESCENDUNE.
The earlier fortunes of the house of Aescendune must here obtrude
themselves upon the notice of the reader, in order that he may more
easily comprehend the subsequent pages of our veritable history.
Sebbald, the remote ancestor of the family, was amongst the earliest
Saxon conquerors of Mercia. He fell in battle with the Britons, or
Welshmen as our ancestors called them, leaving sons valiant as their
sire, to whom were given the fertile lands lying between the river Avon
and the mighty midland forests, to which they gave the name "Aescendune."
They had held their own for three hundred years with varying fortunes;
once or twice home and hearth were desolated by the fierce tide of
Danish invasion, but the wars subsided, and the old family resumed its
position, amidst the joy of their dependants and serfs, to whom they
were endeared by a thousand memories of past benefits.
But a generation only had passed since the shadow of a great woe fell on
the family of Aescendune.
Offa, who was then the thane, had two sons, Oswald the elder, and Ella
the younger, with whom our readers are already acquainted.
The elder possessed few of the family virtues save brute courage. He was
ever rebellious, even in boyhood, and arrived at man's estate in the
midst of unsettled times of war and tumult. Weary of the restraints of
home, he joined a band of Danish marauders, and shared their victories,
enriching himself with the spoils of his own countrymen. Thus he
remained an outlaw, for his father disowned him in consequence of his
crime, until, fighting against his own people in the great battle of
Brunanburgh, [iv] where Athelstane so gloriously conquered the allied
Danes, Scots, and Welsh, he was taken prisoner.
The victor king sat in judgment upon the recreant, surrounded by his
chief nobility and vassal kings. The guilt of the prisoner was evident,
nay undenied, and the respect in which his sire was held alone delayed
the doom of a cruel death from being pronounced upon him.
While the council yet deliberated, Offa appeared amongst them, and, like
a second Brutus, took his place amongst his peers. Disclaiming all
personal interest in the matter, he sternly proposed that the claims of
justice should be satisfied.
Yet they hesitated to shed Oswald's blood: the alternative they adopted
was perhaps not more merciful--although a common doom in those times.
They selected a crazy worm-eaten boat, and sent the criminal to sea,
without sail, oar, or rudder, with a loaf of bread and cruse of water,
the wind blowing freshly from off the land.
Oswald was never heard of again; but after his supposed death,
information was brought to his father that the outlaw had been married
to a Danish woman, and had left a son--an orphan--for the mother
died in childbirth.
Offa resolved to seek the boy, and to adopt him, as if in reparation for
the past. The effort he had made had cost him a bitter pang, and the
father's heart was well-nigh broken. For a time the inquiries were
unsuccessful. It was discovered that the mother was dead, that she had
died before the tragedy, but not a word could be learned respecting the
boy, and many had begun to doubt his existence, when, after years had
elapsed, one of the executioners of the cruel doom deposed on his
deathbed that a boy of some ten summers had appeared on the beach, had
called the victim "father," and had so persistently entreated to share
his doom, that they had allowed him to do so, but had concealed the
fact, rightly fearing blame, if not punishment. The priest who had
attended his dying bed, and heard his last confession, bore the tidings
to Offa at the penitent's desire.
The old thane never seemed to lift up his head again: the sacrifice his
sense of duty had exacted from him had been too great for a heart
naturally full of domestic affection, and he sank and died after a few
months in the arms of his younger and beloved son Ella.
The foundation of the neighbouring priory and church of St. Wilfred had
been the consolation of his later years, but the work was only half
completed at his death. It was carried on with equal zeal by Ella, now
the Thane of Aescendune.
He married Edith, the daughter of a rich thane of Wessex, and the
marriage proved a most happy one.
Sincerely religious, after the fashion of their day, they honoured God
with their substance, enriched the church of St. Wilfred, where the dust
of the aged Offa awaited the resurrection of the just, and continued the
labour of building the priory. Day after day they were constant in their
attendance at mass and evensong, and strove to live as foster parents to
their dependants and serfs.
The chief man in his hundred, Ella acted as reeve or magistrate, holding
his court for the administration of justice each month, and giving such
just judgment as became one who had the fear of God before him. No
appeal was ever made from him to the ealdorman (earl) or scirgerefa
(sheriff) and the wisdom and mercy of his rule were universally renowned.
His land was partly cultivated by his own theows, who were in those days
slaves attached to the soil, and partly let out to free husbandmen (or
ceorls) who owed their lord rent in kind or in money, and paid him, as
"his men," feudal service.
Around his hospitable board the poor of the district found sustenance,
while work was made for all in draining meres, mending roads, building
the priory, or in the various agricultural labours of the year.
In the first year of King Edmund the lady Edith presented her lord with
his first-born son, to whom in baptism they gave the name Elfric, and a
year later Alfred was born, and named after the great king. One
daughter, named Edgitha, completed the fruits of their happy union, and
in their simple fashion they strove to train their children in the fear
of the Lord.
We will now resume the thread of our story.
It was now the hour of eventide, and the time for "laying the board"
drew near. From forest and field came in ceorl and theow, hanging up
their weapons or agricultural implements around the lower end of the
hall. Meanwhile the domestics brought in large tressels, and then huge
heavy boards, which they arranged so as to form the dining table, shaped
like the letter T, the upper portion being furnished with the richest
dainties for the family and their guest, the lower with simpler fare for
A wild boar caught in the forest formed the chief dish, and was placed
at the upper end, while mutton and beef; dressed in various ways,
flanked it on either side.
The thane, Ella, occupied the central seat at the high table: his chair,
rudely carved, had borne the weight of his ancestors before him; on his
left hand was seated the once lovely Edith. Age had deprived her of her
youthful beauty, but not of the sweet expression which told of her
gentleness and purity of heart; they had left their impress on each line
of her speaking countenance; and few left her presence unimpressed with
respect and esteem.
On his right hand sat Prince Edwy, "Edwy the fair" men called him, and
right well he deserved the name. His face was one which inspired
interest at a glance: his large blue eyes, his golden hair which floated
over his shoulders, his sweet voice, his graceful bearing, all united to
impress the beholders.
Elfric, Alfred, and their sister Edgitha, completed the company at the
The hungry crowd of ceorls and serfs, who were, as we have said, fresh
from field or forest, sat at the lower table, which was spread with huge
joints of roasted meat, loaves of bread, wedges of cheese, piles of
cabbage or other vegetables, rolls or coils of broiled eels, and huge
pieces of boiled pork or bacon.
Around the table sat the hounds and other dogs, open jawed, waiting such
good luck as they might hope to receive at the hands of their masters,
while many "loaf eaters," as the serfs were called who fed at their
master's table, stood with the dogs, or sat on the rush-strewn floor,
for want of room at the board.
It was marvellous to see how the food disappeared, as hand after hand
was stretched out to the dishes, in the absence of forks--a modern
invention--and huge horns of ale helped the meat downwards.
Game, steaks of beef and venison on spits, were handed round. The
choicer joints were indeed reserved for the upper board, but profusion
was the rule everywhere throughout the hall, and there was probably not
a serf; nay, not even a dog, whose appetite was not fully satisfied
before the end of the feast.
The prince seemed thoroughly to have recovered his spirits, somewhat
damped perhaps before by his adventure with the wolf; and exerted his
talents to make himself agreeable. He had seen life on an extended
scale, young as he was, and his anecdotes of London and the court, if a
little wild, were still interesting. Elfric and Alfred listened to his
somewhat random talk, with that respect boys ever pay to those who have
seen more of the wide world than themselves--a respect perhaps
heightened by the high rank of their princely guest, who was, however,
only a month or two older than Elfric.
As they heard of the marvels of London, and of the court, home and its
attractions seemed to become dim by comparison, and Elfric especially
longed to share such happiness.
Their father seemed to wish to change the conversation, as he asked the
prince whether he had been long in Mercia.
Edwy replied, "Nay, my host; this is almost my first day of perfect
freedom, and I only left London, and my uncle the king, a few days back.
Dunstan has gone down to Glastonbury, for which the Saints be thanked,
and I am released for a few days from poring over the musty old
manuscripts to which he dooms me."
"It is well, my prince, that you should have a preceptor so well
qualified to instruct you in the arts your great ancestor King Alfred so
"Ah yes, Alfred," said Edwy, yawning; "but you know we can't all be
saints or heroes like him: for my part, I sometimes wish he had never
The astonished looks of the company seemed to demand further explanation.
"Because it is always, 'Alfred did this,' and 'Alfred did that.' If I am
tired of '_hic, haec, hoc_,' I am told Alfred was never weary; if I
complain of a headache, Dunstan says Alfred never complained of pain or
illness, but bore all with heroic fortitude, and all the rest of it. If
I want a better dinner than my respected uncle gives us on fast days in
the palace, I am told Alfred never ate anything beyond a handful of
parched corn on such days; if I lose my temper, I am told Alfred never
lost his; and so on, till I get sick of his name; and here it greets me
in the woods of Mercia."
"I crave pardon, my liege," said Ella, who hardly knew whether to smile
or frown at the sarcastic petulance of his guest, who went on with a sly
smile--"And now old Dunstan does not know where I am. He left me with
a huge pile of books in musty Latin, or crabbed English, and I had to
read this and to write that, as if I were no prince, but a scrivener,
and had to get my living by my pen; but as soon as he was gone I had a
headache, and persuaded my venerable uncle the king, through the
physician, that I needed change of air."
"But what will Dunstan say?"
"Oh, he must fight it out with Sigebert the leech, and Sigebert knows
which side his bread is buttered."
The whole tone of Edwy indicated plainly that the headache was but a
pretence, but he spoke with such sly simplicity that the boys could not
help joining in his contagious laughter; sympathising, doubtless, in his
love of a holiday in the woods.
"Your headache is not gone yet, I trust, my prince," said Elfric.
"Why?" said Edwy, turning his eyes upon him with a smile.
"Because we have splendid woods near here for hunting, and I must have"
(he whispered these words into Edwy's ear) "a headache, too."
Edwy quite understood the request conveyed in these words, and turning
to the old thane requested him to allow his boys to join the sport on
the morrow as a kind of bodyguard, adding some very complimentary words
on the subject of Elfric's courage shown in the rescue that afternoon.
"Why, yes," said the old thane, "I have always tried to bring up the
boys so as to fear neither man nor beast, and Elfric did indifferently
well in the tussle. So he has earned a holiday for himself and brother,
with Father Cuthbert's leave," and Ella turned to the ecclesiastic.
"They are good boys," said the priest, "only, my lord, Elfric is
somewhat behind in his studies."
Elfric's looks expressed his contempt of the "studies," but he dared not
express the feeling before his father.
"But I trust, my prince," said Ella, "that we shall not keep you from
your duties at court. Dunstan is a severe, although a holy man."
"Oh, he is gone to have another encounter with the Evil One at
Glastonbury, and is fashioning a pair of tongs for the purpose," said
Edwy, alluding to the legend already current amongst the credulous
populace; "and I wish," he muttered, "the Evil One would get the best of
it and fly away with him. But" (in a louder tone) "he cannot return for
a month, which means a month's holiday for me."
Ella could interpose no further objection, although scarcely satisfied
with the programme.
The conversation here became general. It turned upon the subject of
hunting and war, and the enthusiasm of young Edwy quite captivated the
thane, who seemed to see Edmund, the father of the young prince, before
his eyes, as he had known him in his own impetuous youth. Dear, indeed,
had that prince been to Ella, both before and after his elevation to the
throne, and as he heard the sweet boyish voice of Edwy, his thoughts
were guided by memory to that ill-omened feast at Pucklechurch, where
the vindictive outlaw Leolf had murdered his king. The sword of Ella had
been amongst those which avenged the crime on the murderer, but they
could not call back the vital spark which had fled. "Edmund the
Magnificent," as they loved to call him, was dead. [v]
So, as Ella listened, he could hardly help condoning the wild speeches
of the young prince in deference to the memory of the past.
And now they removed the festive board from the hall, while kneeling
serfs offered basin and towel to the thane and his guest to wash their
hands. Wine began to circulate freely in goblets of wood inlaid with
gold or silver; the clinking of cups, the drinking of healths and
pledges opened the revel, cupbearers poured out the wine. The glee-wood
(harp) was introduced, while pipes, flutes, and soft horns accompanied
its strains. So they sang--
Here Athelstane king,
Of earls the lord,
To warriors the ring-giver
Had won in the strife,
By edge of the sword,
And Ella--who had stood by his father's side in that dread field where
Danes, Scots, and Welshmen fled before the English sword--listened
with enthusiasm, till he thought of his brother Oswald, when tears,
unobserved, rolled down his cheeks.
Not so with the boys. They had no secret sorrow to hide, and they
listened like those whose young blood boils at the thought of mighty
deeds, and longed to imitate them. And when the gleeman finished his
lengthy flight of music and poesy, they applauded him till the roof rang
Song followed song, legend legend, the revelry grew louder, while the
lady Edith, with her daughter, retired to their bower, where they
employed their needles on delicate embroidery. A representation in
bright colours of the consecration of the church of St. Wilfred occupied
the hands of the little Edgitha, while her mother wove sacred pictures
to serve as hangings for the sanctuary of the priory church.
But soon the tolling of the bell announced that it was the compline
hour, nine o'clock, and that hour was never allowed to pass unobserved
at Aescendune, but formed the termination of the labour or the feast,
after which it was customary for the whole household to retire, as well
they might who rose with the early dawn.
Neither was it passed by on this occasion, although the boys looked very
disappointed, for they would fain have listened to song or legend till
midnight, if not later.
"Come, my children," said the thane; "we must rise early, so let us all
commit ourselves to the keeping of God and His holy angels, and seek our
So the whole party repaired to the chapel, where the chaplain said the
compline office or night song, after which Ella saluted his royal guest
with reverent affection, and bestowed his paternal benediction upon his
children. Then the whole party separated for the night.
The household was speedily buried in sleep, save the solitary sentinel
who paced around the building. Not that danger was apprehended from any
source, but precaution had become habitual in those days of turmoil.
Occasionally the howl of the wolf was heard from the woods, and the
sleepers half awoke, then dreamt of the chase as the night flew by.
CHAPTER III. LEAVING HOME.
The sun arose in a bright and cloudless sky on the following morning,
and his first beams aroused every sleeper in the hall of Aescendune from
his couch of straw, for softer material was seldom or never used for
repose. Even the chamber in which the prince slept could not be called
luxurious: the bed was in a box-like recess; its coverlets, worked
richly by the fair hands of the ladies, who had little other occupation,
covered a mattress which even modern schoolboys would call rough and
The wind played with the tapestry which represented the history of
Joseph and his brethren, as it found its way in through crevices in the
ill-built walls. There were two or three stools over which the thane's
care for his guest had caused coverlets to be thrown; a round table of
rough construction stood like a tripod on three legs, upon which stood
the unwonted luxury of ewer and basin, for most people had to perform
their ablutions at the nearest convenient well or spring.
Leaving this chamber in good time, Prince Edwy acompanied his new
friends to the priory church, where they heard mass before the sun was
high in the heavens, after which they returned to the hall to take a
light breakfast before they sought the attractions of the chase in the
forest. Full of life they mounted their horses, and galloped in the wild
exuberance of animal spirits with their dogs through the leafy arches of
the forest, startling the red deer, the wolf, or the wild boar. Soon
they roused a mighty individual of the latter tribe, who turned to bay,
when the boys dismounted and finished the affair with their boar spears,
not without some personal danger, and the loss of a couple of dogs.
Onward again they swept, past leafy glades of beech trees, where the
swineherd drove his half-tame charges, or where the woodcutters plied
their toil, and loaded their rude carts or hand barrows with fuel for
the kitchen of the hall; past rookeries, where the birds made the air
lively by their noise; over brook, through the half-dry marsh, until
they came upon an old wolf; whom they followed and slew for want of
better game, not without a desperate struggle, in which Elfric, ever the
foremost, got a much worse scratch than on the preceding day.
But how enjoyable the sport was, how sweet to breathe the bright pure
air of that May day; how grand to outstrip the wind over the yielding
turf, and at last to carry home the trophies of their prowess; the scalp
of the wolf, the tusks of the boar, leaving the serfs to bring in the
succulent flesh of the latter, while the hawks and crows fed upon the
And then with what appetite they sat down to their "noon meat," taken,
however, at the late hour of three, after which they wandered down to
the river and angled for the trout which abounded in the clear stream.
The youthful reader will not wonder that such attractions sufficed to
detain Edwy several days, during which he was continually hunting in the
adjacent forests, always attended by Elfric, and sometimes by Alfred. To
the elder brother he seemed to have conceived a real liking, and
expressed great reluctance to part with him.
"Could you not return with me to court," he said, "and relieve the
tedium of old Dunstan's society? You cannot think what pleasures London
affords; it is life there indeed--it is true there are no forests like
these, but then, in the winter, when the country is so dreary, the town
is the place."
"My father will never consent to my leaving home," returned Elfric, who
inwardly felt his heart was with the prince.
"We might overcome that. I am to have a page. You might be nominally my
page, really my companion; and should I ever be king, you would find you
had not served me in vain."
The idea had got such strong possession of the mind of Edwy, that he
ventilated it the same night at the supper table, but met with scant
encouragement. Still he did not despair; for, as he told Elfric, the
influence of his royal uncle, King Edred, might be hopefully exerted on
their joint behalf.
"I mean to get you to town," he said. "I shall persuade my old uncle,
who is more a monk than a king, that you are dreadfully pious, attached
to monkish Latin, and all that sort of thing, so that he will long to
get you to town, if it is only to set an example to me."
"But if he does not find that I answer his expectations?"
"Oh, it will be too late to alter then; you will be comfortably
installed in the palace; and, between you and me, he is but old and
feeble, and has always had a disease of some kind. I expect he will soon
die, and then who will be king save Edwy, and who in England shall be
higher than his friend Elfric?"
It was a brilliant prospect, as it seemed to boys of fifteen, for such
was the mature age of the speakers.
Shortly after the last conversation, an express came from the court to
seek the young prince--the messenger had been long delayed from
ignorance of the present abode of Edwy, who had carefully concealed the
secret until he felt he could tarry no longer, fearing the wrath not
only of the king, but of Dunstan, whom he dreaded yet more than his uncle.
So he and his attendants, who had, like him, found pleasant
entertainment at Aescendune, bade farewell to the home where he had been
so hospitably entertained: and so ended a visit, pregnant with the most
important results, then utterly unforeseen and unintended, to the family
he had honoured by his presence.
Some few weeks passed, and under the tuition of their chaplain, who was
charged with their education, Elfric and Alfred had returned to their
usual course of life.
It would seem somewhat a hard one to a lover of modern ease. They rose
early, as we have already seen, and before breaking their fast went with
their father and most of the household to the early mass at the
monastery of St. Wilfred, returned to an early meal, and then worked
hard, on ordinary occasions at their Latin, and such other studies as
were pursued in that primitive age of England. The midday meal was
succeeded by somewhat severe bodily exercise, generally hunting the boar
or wolf which still abounded in the forests, an excitement not
unattended by danger, which, however, their father would never permit
them to shun. He knew full well the importance of personal courage at an
age when the dangers of hunting were only initiatory to the stern duties
of war, and no Englishman could shun the latter when his country called
upon him to take up arms. Nor were martial exercises unknown to the
boys; the bow, it is true, was somewhat neglected then in England, but
the use of sword, shield, and battle-axe was daily inculcated.
"_Si vis pacem_," Father Cuthbert said on such occasions, "_para arma._"
Wearied by their exertions, whether at home or abroad, the brothers
welcomed the evening social meal, and the rest which followed, when old
Saxon legend or the harp of the gleeman enlivened the household fire,
till compline sweetly closed the day.
Swiftly and pleasantly were passing the weeks succeeding the visit of
the prince, when a royal messenger appeared, bearing a letter sealed
with the king's signet. The old thane, who had passed his youth in more
troublous times, and could scarcely read the Anglo-Saxon version of the
Gospels, then extant, could not construe the monkish Latin in which it
was King Edred's good pleasure to write.
So the chaplain, Cuthbert, read him the letter in which the king greeted
his loyal and well-beloved subject, Ella of Aescendune, and begged of
him, as a great favour, that he would send his eldest boy to court, to
be the companion of the young prince, who had (the king said) conceived
a great affection for Elfric.
"I hear," added Edred, "that your boy is a boy after his father's heart,
full of love for the saints, diligent in his studies, and I trust well
qualified to amend by example the somewhat giddy ways of my nephew."
Ella felt that this latter commendation might be better bestowed upon
Alfred, who, although far less full of boyish spirit and energy than his
brother, was far more attached to his religious duties, as also far more
attentive to the wishes of his parents; but his love for Elfric blinded
him to more serious defects in the character of his son, or he might
have feared their development in a congenial soil.
So the father saw his boy alone, and communicated the contents of the
letter. The news was indeed welcome to Elfric, who panted for travel and
adventure and the freedom he fancied he should get in Edwy's society.
But Ella hardly perceived this, and enlarged upon the dangers to which
his son would be exposed, and tried to put before the boy all the "pros
" and "cons" of the question faithfully.
"He would not keep him back," he said, "if he desired to leave home,"
but as he uttered the words he felt his heart very heavy, for Aescendune
would lose half its brightness in losing Elfric.
But Elfric's choice was already made, and he only succeeded in
repressing his delight with great difficulty, in deference to the
serious aspect and words of his revered sire. But his decision, for it
was left to him, was unchanged, and he stammered forth his desire to be
a man, and to see the world, in words mingled with expressions of his
deep love for his parents, which he was sure nothing could ever change.
Strange to say, now that the parental consent was gained, and no
obstacle lay between him and the accomplishment of his ardent wish, he
did not feel half so happy as he had expected to feel. Home affections
seemed to increase as the hours rushed by which were to be his last in
the bosom of his family; every familiar object became precious as the
thought arose that it might be seen for the last time; favourites, both
men and animals, had to be bidden farewell. There was the old forester,
the gleeman, the warder, the gardener, the chamberlain, the cellarius,
the cook (not an unimportant personage in Saxon households), the foster
mother, his old nurse, and many a friend in the village. Then there were
his favourite dogs, his pony, some pigeons he had reared; and all had
some claim on his affection, home nurtured as he had been in a most
But the appointed day came, the horse which was to bear him away stood
at the door, another horse loaded with his personal effects stood near,
for carriages were then unknown, neither would the roads have permitted
their use, so changed were the times since the Roman period.
His father and mother, his brother and sister, stood without the
drawbridge, where the last goodbye took place; tears started unbidden to
his eyes--he was only fifteen--as he heard the parting blessing, and
as his mother pressed him to her bosom.
Alfred and his sister Edith seemed almost broken hearted at the parting.
But Elfric tried to bear up, and the end came.
The little cavalcade left the castle, two attendants, well armed and
mounted, being his bodyguard.
Again and again he looked back; and when, after a journey of two miles,
the envious woods closed in, and hid the dear familiar home from his
sight, a strange sense of desolation rushed upon him, as if he were
alone in the world.
The route taken by the cavalcade led them in the first place to Warwick,
even then a flourishing Saxon town: this was the limit of Elfric's
previous wanderings, and when they left it for the south, the whole
country was strange to him.
The royal messenger had business at the cathedral city of Dorchester, at
the junction of the Tame and Isis, and they did not take the more direct
route by the Watling Street, the most perfect Roman road remaining. The
land was but thinly peopled, forests covered the greater portion, and
desolate marshes much of the remainder; thus, through alternate forest
and marsh, the travellers advanced along the ruinous remains of an old
Roman crossroad, which had once afforded good accommodation to
travellers, but had been suffered to fall into utter ruin and decay by
the neglect of their successors, our own barbarous ancestors.
Originally it had been paved with stone, and causeways had been formed
over marsh and mere, but the stones had been taken away, for the road
formed the most accessible quarry in the neighbourhood. Here and there,
however, it was still good, surviving the wear of centuries, and even
the old mileposts of iron were still existing covered with rust, with
the letters denoting so many Roman miles--or thousands of paces--
A few hours' riding from Warwick brought them at the close of the day in
sight of Beranbyrig (Banbury), where three centuries earlier a bloody
battle had been fought, [vi] wherein success--almost for the last time
--visited the British arms, and saved the Celtic race from expulsion
for twenty years.
The spot was very interesting to Elfric, for here his ancestor Sebbald
had fought by the side of the invading king, Cynric, the son of Cerdic,
and had fallen "gloriously" on the field.
"Look," said Anlaf, the guide, "at that sloping ground which rises to
the northwest. There the Welsh (Britons) stood, formed in nine strong
battalions. In that hollow they placed their archers, and here their
javelin men and cavalry were arranged after the old Roman fashion. Our
Englishmen were all in one battalion, and charged them fiercely, when
they were thrown into confusion by the cunning tricks of the Welsh, who
made up in craft what they wanted in manly courage.
"Look at this brook which flows to the river, it was running with blood
that evening, and our men lay piled in huge heaps where they tried to
scale the hill which you see yonder."
"And did the Welsh gain the day so easily?" said Elfric, sorrowfully.
"I don't wonder; they were fighting for their lives, and even a rat will
fight if you get him into a corner; besides, they had all their best men
"Do you know where Sebbald fell?" said Elfric, referring to his own
"Just under this hillock, close by King Cynric, who fought like a lion
to save the body, but was unable to do so. The Welsh were then gaining
the day. Still, even his foes respected his valour, and gave your
forefather a fair and honourable burial."
Leaving the battlefield, they entered the Saxon town, which was defended
on one side by the Cherwell, on the other by a mound and palisade, with
an outer ditch supplied by the river. Here they found hospitable
entertainment, and left on the morrow for the town of Kirtlington.
They left Beranbyrig early, and reached the village of Sutthun (King's
Sutton), where they perceived a great multitude of people collected
around a well at the outskirts of the village.
"What are these people doing?" asked Elfric.
"Oh, do you not know?" replied Anlaf. "This is St. Rumbald's well," and
he crossed himself piously.
"Who was St. Rumbald?" asked Elfric innocently.
"Oh, he was son of the king of Northumbria, and of his queen, the
daughter of the old king Penda of Mercia, and the strange thing is that
he is a saint although he only lived three days."
"How could that be?"
"Why it was a miracle, you see. On the day after his birth he was taken
to Braceleam (Brackley), where he was baptized, and after his baptism he
actually preached an eloquent sermon to the people. They brought him
back to Sutthun next day, where he died, having first blessed this well,
so that many precious gifts of healing are shown thereat. His relics
were removed first to Braceleam, then to Buccingaham (Buckingham), where
his shrine is venerated by the faithful. But come, you must drink of the
So they approached the spot, and, after much labour to get at the well,
drank of the water, which had a brackish taste, and proceeded on their
journey southward through Kirtlington, then a considerable city,
although now a small village. It was their intention to pass by the
cathedral city of Dorchester, where Wulfstan was then bishop, where they
arrived on the second night of their journey.
It was the largest city Elfric had as yet seen, possessing several
churches, of which only one now remains. The hand of the ruthless Danes
had not yet been laid heavily upon it, and the magnificence of the
sacred fanes, built by cunning architects from abroad, amazed the
There was the tomb of the great Birinus, the apostle of Mercia, who had
founded the see in the year 630 A.D., and to whose shrine multitudes of
pilgrims flocked each year. But the remains of Roman greatness most
astonished Elfric. The ruins of the amphitheatre situate near the river
Tame were grand even in their decay, and all the imaginative faculties
of the boy were aroused, as one of the most learned inhabitants
described the scenes of former days, of which tradition had been
preserved, the gladiatorial combats, the wild beast fights.
The heir of Aescendune found hospitality at the episcopal palace, where
Wulfstan,[vii] once the turbulent Archbishop of York, held his court.
The prelate seemed favourably impressed with his youthful guest, whom
he dismissed with a warm commendation to Dunstan.
They left the city early in the morning, and passed through Baenesington
(Benson), which having been originally taken from the Welsh by the Saxon
chieftain Cuthulf, in the year 571, became the scene of the great
victory of Offa, the Mercian king, over Cynewulf of Wessex in the year
777. One of Elfric's ancestors had fought on the side of Offa, and the
exploits of this doughty warrior had formed the subject of a ballad
often sung in the winter evenings at Aescendune, so that Elfric explored
the scene with great curiosity. Inferior to Dorchester, it was still a
Late at night they reached Reading, where they slept, and started early
on the morrow for London, where they arrived on the evening of the
CHAPTER IV. LONDON IN THE OLDEN TIME.
London, in the days of King Edred, differed widely from the stately and
populous city we know in these days, and almost as widely from the
elegant "_Colonia Augusta_," or Londinium, of the Roman period. Narrow,
crooked, and unpaved lanes wound between houses, or rather lowly
cottages, built of timber, and roofed with thatch, so that it is not
wonderful that a conflagration was an event to be dreaded.
Evidence met the eye on every side how utterly the first Englishmen had
failed to preserve the cities they had conquered, and how far inferior
they were in cultivation, or rather civilisation, to the softer race
they had so ruthlessly expelled; for on every side broken pedestal and
shattered column appeared clumsily imbedded in the rude domestic
architecture of our forefathers.
St. Paul's Cathedral rose on the hill once sacred to Diana but was
wholly built within the ruins of the vast temple which had once occupied
the site, and which, magnificent in decay, still surrounded it like an
outwork. Further on were the wrecks of the citadel, where once the stern
legionary had watched by day and night, and where Roman discipline and
order had held sway, while the wall raised by Constantine, broken and
imperfect, still rose on the banks of the river. Near the Ludgate was
the palace of the Saxon king, and the ruins of an aqueduct overshadowed
its humbler portal, while without the walls the river Fleet rolled,
amidst vineyards and pleasant meadows dotted with houses, to join the
Edred, the reigning king of England, was the brother of the murdered
Edmund, and, in accordance with the custom of the day, had ascended the
throne on the death of his brother, seeing that the two infant sons of
the late king, Edwy and Edgar, were too young to reign, and the idea of
hereditary right was not sufficiently developed in the minds of our
forefathers to suggest the notion of a regency. It must also be
remembered that, within certain limits, there was an elective power in
the Witenagemot or Parliament, although generally limited in its scope
to members of the royal family.
Edred was of very delicate constitution, and suffered from an inward
disease which seldom allowed him an interval of rest and ease. Like so
many sufferers he had found his consolation in religion, and the only
crime ever laid to his charge (if it were a crime) was that he loved the
Church too much. Still he had repeatedly proved that he was strong in
purpose and will, and the insurgent Danes who had settled in Northumbria
had owned his prowess. In the internal affairs of his kingdom he was
chiefly governed by the advice of the great ecclesiastic and statesman,
with whose name our readers will shortly become familiar.
Upon the morning after the arrival of Elfric in London, Edwy, the young
prince, and his new companion, sat in a room on the upper floor of the
palace, which had but two floors, and would have been considered in
these days very deficient in architectural beauty.
The window of the room opened upon the river, and commanded a pleasant
view of the woods and meadows on the Surrey side, then almost
uninhabited, being completely unprotected in case of invasion, a
contingency never long absent from the mind in the days of the sea kings.
A table covered with manuscripts, both in Latin and Anglo-Saxon,
occupied the centre of the room, and there Elfric was seated, looking
somewhat aimlessly at a Latin vocabulary, while Edwy was standing
listlessly at the window. The "library," if it deserved the name, was
very unlike a modern library; books were few, and yet very expensive, so
that perhaps there was no fuller collection in any layman's house in the
kingdom. There were Alfred's translations into Anglo-Saxon, the
"_Chronicle of Orosius_," or the history of the World; the "_History of
the Venerable Bede_," both in his original Latin and in English;
Boethius on the "_Consolations of Philosophy_;" narratives from ancient
mythology; extracts from the works of St. Augustine and St. Gregory; and
the Apologues or Fables from Aesop.[viii]
"Oh, put those stupid books aside," exclaimed the prince; "this is your
first day in town, and I mean to take a holiday; that surly old Dunstan
should have left word to that effect last night."
"Will he not be here soon?"
"Yes, he is coming this morning, the old bear, to superintend my
progress, and I wish him joy thereof."
"What has he given you to do?" inquired Elfric.
"Why, a wretched exercise to write out. There, you see it before you;
isn't it a nuisance?"
"It is not very hard, is it?"
"Don't you think it hard? See whether you can do it!"
Elfric smiled, and wrote out the simple Latin with ease, for he had been
well instructed by Father Cuthbert at Aescendune.
He had scarcely finished when a firm step was heard upon the stairs.
"Hush," said Edwy; "here comes Dunstan. Be sure you look solemn enough,"
and he composed his own countenance into an expression of preternatural
The door opened, and an ecclesiastic in the prime of life entered the
room, one whose mien impressed the beholder with an indefinable awe.
He was dressed in the Benedictine habit, just then becoming common in
England, and his features were those of a man formed by nature to
command, while they reconciled the beholder to the admission of the fact
by the sad yet sweet smile which frequently played on the shapely
countenance. He was now in the thirtieth year of his age, having been
born in the first year of King Athelstane, and had been abbot of
Glastonbury for several years, although his services as counsellor to
King Edred had led him to spend much of his time in town, and he had
therefore accepted the general direction of the education of the heir to
the throne. Such was Dunstan.
He seemed but little welcome to Edwy, and the benediction with which he
greeted his pupil was but coldly received.
Not appearing to notice this, he mildly said, "You must introduce your
young companion to me, my prince. Am I not right in concluding that I
see before me Elfric, heir to the lands of Aescendune?"
Elfric blushed as he bent the knee to the great churchman to receive the
priestly benediction with which he was greeted, but remained silent.
"Father Cuthbert, whom I knew well years agone, has told me about you,
and your brother Alfred; is not that his name?"
"He is so named, my father."
"I am glad to perceive that my royal pupil has chosen so meet a
companion, for Father Cuthbert speaks well of your learning. You write
the Latin tongue, he tells me, with some little facility."
Elfric feared his powers had been overrated.
"I trust you have resumed your studies after your long holiday,"
continued Dunstan. "Youth is the season for sowing, age for reaping."
"I have had a very bad headache," said Edwy, "and have only been able to
write a page of Latin. Here it is, father."
And he extended the exercise Elfric had written to the abbot, who looked
at the writing for one moment, and then glanced severely at the prince.
The character was very like his own, but there was a difference.
"Is this your handwriting, Prince Edwy?" he asked.
"Of course. Elfric saw me write it, did you not?"
Elfric was not used to falsehood; he could not frame his lips to say "Yes."
Dunstan observed his confusion, and he turned to the prince with a look
in which contempt seemed to struggle with passive self-possession.
"I trust, Edwy," he said, "you will remember that the word of a king is
said to be his bond, and so should the word of a prince be if he ever
hopes to reign. I shall give Father Benedict charge to superintend your
studies as usual."
He wished them a grave good morning, and left the room.
As soon as the last sound of his steps had ceased, Edwy turned sharply
to Elfric--"Why did you not say yes at once? Surely you have a tongue?"
"It has never learnt to lie."
"Pooh! What is the harm of such a white lie as that would have been? If
you cannot give the credit of a Latin exercise, which you happen to have
written, to your future king, you must be selfish; it is my writing, if
you give it me, isn't it?"
Elfric did not quite see the matter in that light, yet did not care to
dispute the point; but his conscience was ill at ease, and he was glad
to change the subject.
"When can we go out?" he said, for he was anxious to see the city.
"Oh, not till after the midday meal, and you must see the palace first;
So they descended and traversed the various courts of the building; the
dormitories, the great dining hall, the audience chambers where Edred
was then receiving his subjects, who waited in the anteroom, which alone
the two boys ventured to enter. Finally, after traversing several courts
and passages, they reached the guardroom.
Three or four of the "hus-carles" or household guards were here on duty.
But in the embrasure of the window, poring over a map, sat one of very
different mien from the common soldiers, and whose air and manner, no
less than his dress, proclaimed the officer.
"Redwald," said the prince, advancing to the window, "let me make you
acquainted with my friend and companion, Elfric of Aescendune."
The officer started, as if with some sudden surprise, but it passed away
so quickly that the beholder might fancy the start had only existed in
imagination, as perhaps it did.
"This gallant warrior," said Edwy to Elfric, "is my friend and
counsellor in many ways; and if he lives there shall not be a thane in
England who shall stand above him. You will soon find out his value,
"My prince is pleased to flatter his humble servant," said Redwald.
But Elfric was gazing upon the soldier with feelings he could scarcely
analyse. There was something in his look and the tone of his voice which
struck a hidden chord, and awoke recollections as if of a previous
"Redwald," as Edwy named him, was tall and dark, with many of the
characteristics of the Danish race about him. His nose was slightly
aquiline, his eyes hid beneath bushy eyebrows, while his massive jaw
denoted energy of character--energy which one instinctively felt was
quite as likely to be exerted for evil as for good.
He was captain of the hus-carles, and had but recently entered the royal
service. Few knew his lineage. He spoke the Anglo-Saxon tongue with
great fluency, and bore testimonials certifying his valour and
faithfulness from the court of Normandy, where the Northmen under Rollo
had some half-century earlier founded a flourishing state, then ruled
over by the noble Duke "Richard the Fearless."
Edwy seemed to be on intimate terms with this soldier of fortune; in
fact, with all his proud anticipation of his future greatness, he was
never haughty to his inferiors, perhaps we should say seldom, for we
shall hereafter note exceptions to this rule. It would be a great
mistake to suppose that the pomp and ceremony of our Norman kings was
shared by their English predecessors: the manners and customs of the
court of Edred were simplicity itself.
After a few moments of private conversation with Redwald, the boys
returned to their chamber to prepare for dinner.
"You noted that man," said Edwy; "well, I don't know how I should live
Elfric's looks expressed surprise.
"You will find out by and by; you have little idea how strictly we are
kept here, and how much one is indebted to one's servants for the gift
of liberty, especially in Lent and on fast days, when one does not get
half enough to eat, and must sometimes escape the gloom and starvation
of the palace."
"What else do you call it, when you get nothing but fish, fish, fish,
and bread and water to help it down. My uncle is awfully religious. I
can hardly stand it sometimes. He would like to spend half the day in
chapel, but, happily for all the rest of us, the affairs of state are
too urgent for that, so we do get a little breathing time, or else I
should have to twist my mouth all of one side singing dolorous chants
and tunes which are worse than a Danish war whoop, for he likes, he
says, to hear the service hearty."
"But it helps you on with your Latin."
"Not much of that, for I sing anything that comes into my head; the
singing men make such a noise, they can hear no one else, and I fancy
they don't know what a word of the Latin prayers means."
"But isn't it irreverent--too irreverent, I mean. Father Cuthbert made
me afraid to mock God, he told such stories about judgment."
"All fudge and nonsense--oh, I beg your pardon, it is all very godly
and pious, and really I expect to be greatly edified by your piety in
chapel. Pray, when shall you be canonised?"
Elfric could not bear ridicule, and blushed for the second time that
morning. Just then the bell rang for dinner, or rather was struck with a
mallet by the master of the ceremonies.
King Edred dined that day, as one might say, in the bosom of his family;
only Dunstan was present, besides the boys Edwy, Edgar his younger
brother, and Elfric. It was then that Elfric first saw the younger
prince, a pale studious-looking boy of twelve, but with a very firm and
intellectual expression of countenance. He was a great favourite with
Dunstan, whom the boy, unlike his brother, regarded with the greatest
respect and reverence.
The conversation was somewhat stiff; Edred spoke a few kind words to the
young stranger, and then conversed in an undertone with Dunstan, the
whole dinner time; the princes themselves were awed by the presence of
their uncle and his spiritual guide.
But at last, like all other things, it was over, and with feelings of
joy the boys broke forth from the restraint. The whole afternoon was
spent in seeing the sights of London, and they all three, for Edgar
accompanied them, returned to the evening meal, fatigued in body, but in
high spirits. Compline in the royal chapel terminated the day, as mass
had begun it.
CHAPTER V. TEMPTATION.
But a few days had passed before Elfric learned the secret of Redwald's
influence over the young prince.
The household of Edred was conducted with the strictest propriety.[ix]
All rose with the lark, and the first duty was to attend
at the early mass in the royal chapel. Breakfast followed, and then the
king on ordinary days gave the whole forenoon to business of state, and
he thought it his duty to see that each member of the royal household
had some definite employment, knowing that idleness was the mother of
many evils. So the young princes had their tasks assigned them by their
tutor, as we have already seen, and the spare hours which were saved
from their studies were given to such practice in the use of the
national weapons as seemed necessary to those who might hereafter lead
armies, or to gymnastic exercises which strengthened nerve and muscle
for a time of need.
In the afternoon they might ride or walk abroad, but a strict interdict
was placed upon certain haunts where temptation might perchance be
found, and they had to return by evensong, which the king generally
attended in person when at home. Then, in winter, indoor recreations
till compline, for it was a strict rule of the king that his nephews
should not leave the palace after sundown.
He further caused their tutor, who directed their education under the
supervision of Dunstan--Father Benedict--whom we have already
introduced, to see that they properly discharged all the duties of
public and private devotion.
But he did not see, in the excess of his zeal, that he was really
destroying the prospects which were nearest his heart, and that there
can be no more fatal mistake than to compel the performance of religious
duties which exceed the measure of the youthful capacity or endurance.
With Edgar, who was naturally pious, the system produced no evil result;
but with Edwy the effect was most sad. He had become, as we have seen,
deceitful; and a character, naturally fair, was undermined to an extent
which neither the king nor Dunstan suspected.
The reader may naturally ask how could Dunstan, so astute as he was,
make this mistake, or at least suffer Edred to make it?
The fact was that Dunstan understood the affairs of state better than
those of the heart, and although well fitted for a guide to men of
sincere piety, and capable of opposing to the wicked an iron will and
inflexible resolution, he did not understand the young, and seemed to
have forgotten his own youth. Sincerely truthful and straightforward, he
hardly knew whether to feel more disgust or surprise at Edwy's evident
unfaithfulness. He little knew that unfaithfulness was only one of his
failings, and not the worst.
A few nights after Elfric's arrival, when the palace gates had been shut
for the night, the compline service said, the household guard posted,
and the boys had retired to their sleeping apartments, he heard a low
knock at his door. He opened it, and Edwy entered.
"Are you disposed for a pleasant evening, Elfric?"
"Such pleasure as there is in sleep."
"No, I do not mean that. We cannot sleep, like bears in winter, during
all the hours which should be given to mirth. I am going out this
evening, and I want you to go with me."
"Yes. Don't stand staring there, as if I was talking Latin or something
harder; but get your shoes on again--
"No; you had better come down without shoes; it will make less noise."
"But how can we get out? I have not the least idea where you are going?"
"All in good time. We shall get out easily enough. Are you coming?"
Half fearful, yet not liking to resist the prince, and his curiosity
pressing him to solve the secret, Elfric followed Edwy down the stairs
to the lower hall, where Redwald was on guard. He seemed to await the
lads, for he bowed at once to the prince and proceeded to the outer
door, where, at an imperious signal from him, the warder threw the
little inner portal open, and the three passed out.
"Is the boat ready?" said Edwy.
"It is; and trusty rowers await you."
Redwald led the way to the river's brink, and there pointed out a skiff
lying at a short distance from the shore. At a signal, the men who
manned it pulled in and received the two youths on board, then pulled at
once out into the stream.
"How do you like an evening on the river?" said Edwy.
"It is very beautiful, and the stars are very bright tonight; but where
are we going?"
"You will soon find out."
Finding his royal companion so uncommunicative, Elfric remained silent,
trusting that a few minutes would unravel the mystery.
But an hour had passed, during which the boat steadily progressed up
stream, before the watermen pulled in for the shore, and a dark building
loomed before them in dim shadow.
"Here is the place," said Edwy. "Be ready, my men, to take us back about
midnight, or a little later;" and he threw some pieces of money amongst
Passing through a large garden, they arrived at a porch before a stout
door garnished with knobs of iron, which might bid defiance to thief or
"Whose house is this?" asked Elfric.
"Wait; you shall soon see."
The loud knocking Edwy made at the door soon brought some domestics,
who, opening a small wicket, discovered the identity of their principal
visitor, and immediately threw open the door.
"Thanks," said Edwy; "we were almost frozen."
Passing through a kind of atrium--for the old Roman fashion was still
sometimes followed in this particular--the domestics ushered the
visitors into a room brilliantly lighted by torches stuck in cressets
projecting from the walls, and by huge wax candles upon a table spread
for a feast. The light revealed a small but apparently select party, who
seemed to await the prince: a lady, who appeared to be the mistress of
the mansion; a young girl apparently about the age of Edwy, who, calling
her his fair cousin, saluted her fondly; and two or three youths, whose
gaudy dress and affected manners were strongly in contrast with the
stern simplicity of the times.
After saluting each person with the greatest freedom, Edwy introduced
"Here is a young novice I have brought to learn the noble art of
merrymaking, of wine and wassail. We have both been literally starved at
the palace--I should say monastery--of Monk Edred today. It is
Friday, and we have been splendidly dining upon salt fish served up on
golden salvers. My goodness! the flavour of that precious cod is yet in
my mouth. Food for cats, I do assure you, and served up to kings. What
did you think of it, Elfric?"
Elfric was ashamed to say that it had not been so very bad after all.
Truth to say his conscience was uneasy, for he had been brought up to
respect the fasts of the Church, and he saw a trial awaiting him in the
luscious dishes before him.
"What does it matter?" the reader may exclaim; "it is not that which
goeth into the mouth which defileth a man," etc.
True, most wise critic, but it is that which goeth out; and if
disobedience be not amongst the evils which defile, then Adam did not
fall in Paradise when he ate the forbidden fruit. Elfric could not touch
flesh on fast days without the instinctive feeling that he was doing
wrong, and no one can sin against the conviction of the heart without
The party now seated themselves, and without any grace or further
preface the feast began. Servants appeared and served up the most
exquisite dishes, of a delicacy almost unknown in England at that day,
and poured rich wines into silver goblets. It was evident that wealth
abounded in the family they were visiting, and that they had expended it
freely for the gratification of Edwy.
Ethelgiva, the lady of the house, was of noble presence, which almost
seemed to justify the claim of royal blood which was made for her. Tall
and commanding, age had not bent her form, although her locks were
already white. Her beauty, which must have been marvellous in her
younger days, had attracted the attention of a younger son of the
reigning house, and they were married at an early age, secretly, without
the sanction of the king.
The fruit of their union was Elgiva, a name destined to fill a place in
a sad and painful tragedy; but we are anticipating, and must crave the
Bright and cheerful indeed was the fair Elgiva at this moment. Her
beauty was remarkable even in a land so famed for the beauty of its
daughters; and the ill-advised Edwy may be pitied, if not altogether
pardoned, for his infatuation, for infatuation it was in a day when the
near tie of blood between them precluded the possibility of lawful
matrimony, save at the expense of a dispensation never likely to be
conceded, since the temperament of men like Odo, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, and of Dunstan, was opposed to any relaxation of the law in
the case of the great when such relaxation was unattainable by the poor
To return to our subject:
The feast proceeded with great animation. At first Elfric hesitated when
the meat was placed before him, but he withered, in his weakness, before
the mocking smile of Edwy, and the sarcasm which played upon the lips of
the rest of the company, who perceived his hesitation. So he yielded,
and, shaking off all restraint, ate heartily.
Dish followed dish, and the wine cup circulated with great freedom.
Excited as he was, Elfric could but remark the loose tone of the
conversation. Subjects were freely discussed which had never found
admittance either in the palace of King Edred or at Aescendune, and
which, indeed, caused him to look up with surprise, remembering in whose
presence he sat.
But, as is often the case in an age where opinion is severely repressed
in its outward expression, and amongst those compelled against their
will to observe silence on such subjects on ordinary occasions, all
restraint seemed abandoned at the table of Ethelgiva. It was not that
the language was coarse, but whether the conversation turned upon the
restraints of the clergy, or the court, or upon the fashionable
frivolities of the day--for there were frivolities and fashions even
in that primitive age--there was a freedom of expression bordering
upon profanity or licentiousness.
Edred was mocked as an old babbler; Dunstan was sometimes a fool,
sometimes a hypocrite, sometimes even a sorcerer, although this was said
sneeringly; the clergy were divided into fools and knaves; the claims of
the Church--that is of Christianity--derided, and the principle
freely avowed--"Enjoy life while you can, for you know not what may
Excited by the wine he had drunk, Elfric became as wild in his talk as
the other young men, and as the intoxicating drink mounted to his brain,
seemed to think that he had just learnt how to enjoy life.
The ladies retired at last, and Edwy followed them. Elfric was on the
point of rising too, but a hint from his companions restrained him. The
wine cup still circulated, the conversation, now unrestrained, initiated
the boy into many an evil secret he had never known earlier; and so the
hours passed on, till Edwy, himself much flushed, came in and said that
it was time to depart, for midnight had long been tolled from the
distant towers of London.
He smiled as he saw by Elfric's bloodshot eyes and unsteady gait, as he
rose, upsetting his seat, that his companion was something less master
of himself than usual; he felt, it need hardly be said, no remorse, but
rather regarded the whole thing as what might now be termed "a jolly lark."
"Shall you require bearers, or can you walk to the boat? I do not wonder
you are ill, you have eaten too much fish today; it is a shame to make
the knees weak through fasting in this style."
"I--I--am all right now."
"You will be better in the air."
So, bidding a farewell of somewhat doubtful character to his
entertainers, Elfric was assisted to the boat. The air did not revive
him, he felt wretchedly feverish and giddy, and could hardly tell how he
reached the river.
Reach it, however, he did, and the strong arms of the watermen impelled the
boat rapidly down the tide, until it reached the stairs near the palace.
Here Redwald was in waiting, and assisted them to land.
"You are very late, or rather early," he said.
"Yes," said Edwy, "but it has been a jolly evening, only poor Elfric has
been ill, having of course weakened himself by fasting."
Redwald smiled such a scornful smile, and muttered some words to
himself. Yet it did not seem as if he were altogether displeased at the
state in which he saw Elfric. It may be added that Edwy was but little
"You must keep silent," said Redwald; "I believe the king and Dunstan
are hearing matins in the chapel: it is the festival of some saint or
other, who went to the gridiron in olden days."
The outer gate of the palace was cautiously opened, and, taking off
their shoes, the youths ascended the stairs which led to their
apartments as lightly as possible.
"Send the leech Sigebert to us in the morning--he must report Elfric
unwell--for he will hardly get up to hear Dunstan mumble mass."
"Perhaps your royal highness had better rest also."
"And bring suspicion upon us both? No," said Edwy, "one will be enough
to report ill at once; Dunstan is an old fox."
Poor Elfric could hardly get to bed, and, almost for the first time
since infancy, he laid himself down without one prayer. Edwy left him in
the dark, and there he lay, his head throbbing, and a burning thirst
seeming to consume him.
Long before morning he was very sick, and when the bell was sounded for
the early mass it need hardly be said that he was unable to rise.
Sigebert the physician, who, like Redwald, was in the confidence of the
future king, Edwy, came in to see him, and asked what was the matter.
"I am very sick and ill," gasped Elfric.
"I suppose you have taken something that disagreed with you--too much
fish perhaps." (with a smile).
"No--no--I do not--"
"I understand," said the leech; "you will soon be better; meanwhile, I
will account for your absence at chapel. Here, take this medicine; you
will find it relieve you."
And he gave Elfric a mixture which assuaged his burning thirst, and
bathed his forehead with some powerful essence which refreshed him
greatly, whereupon the leech departed.
Only an hour later, and Edred, hearing from the physician of Elfric's
sudden illness, came in to see the boy, whose bright cheerful face and
merry disposition had greatly attracted him. This was hardest of all for
Elfric to bear; he had to evade the kind questions of the king, and to
hear expressions of sympathy which he felt he did not deserve.
More than once he felt inclined to tell all, but the fear of the prince
restrained him, and also a sense of what he thought honour, for he would
not betray his companion, and he could not confess his own guilt without
Poor boy! it would have been far better for him had he done so: he had
taken his first step downward.
CHAPTER VI. LOWER AND LOWER.
It becomes our painful duty to record that from the date of the feast,
described in our last chapter, the character of poor Elfric underwent
rapid deterioration. In the first place, the fact of his having yielded
to the forbidden indulgence, and--as he felt--disgraced himself,
gave Edwy, as the master of the secret, great power over him, and he
never failed to use this power whenever he saw any inclination on the
part of his vassal to throw off the servitude. It was not that he
deliberately intended to injure Elfric, but he had come to regard virtue
as either weakness or hypocrisy, at least such virtues as temperance,
purity, or self restraint.
The great change which was creeping over Elfric became visible to
others: he seemed to lose his bright smile; the look of boyish innocence
faded from his countenance, and gave place to an expression of sullen
reserve; he showed less ardour in all his sports and pastimes, became
subject to fits of melancholy, and often seemed lost in thought, anxious
thought, in the midst of his studies.
He seldom had the power, even if the will, to communicate with home.
Mercia was in many respects an independent state, subject to the same
king, but governed by a code of laws differing from those of Wessex; and
it was only when a royal messenger or some chance traveller left court
for the banks of the Midland Avon, that Elfric could use the art of
writing, a knowledge he was singular in possessing, thanks to the wisdom
of his sire.
So the home authorities knew little of the absent one, for whom they
offered up many a fervent prayer, and of whom they constantly spoke and
thought. And yet, so mysterious are the ways of Providence, it seemed as
if these prayers were unanswered--seemed indeed, yet they were not
forgotten before God.
Seemed forgotten; for Elfric was rapidly becoming reckless. Many
subsequent scenes of indulgence had followed the first one, and other
haunts, residences of licentious young nobles, or taverns, had been
sought out by the youths, and always by Redwald's connivance.
He was Edwy's evil genius, and always seemed at hand whensoever the
prince sought occasion to sin. Still, he was not at all suspected by
Edred, before whom he kept up an appearance of the strictest morality--
always punctual in his attendance at mass, matins, and evensong, and
with a various stock of phrases of pious import ready at tongue in case
of need or opportunity of using them to advantage.
To Elfric, his behaviour was always reserved, yet he seemed even more
ready to lend him a helping hand downward than did the prince.
So time passed on; weeks became months; and Christmas with all its
hallowed associations had passed; it had been Elfric's first Christmas
away from home, and he was sad at heart, in spite of the boisterous
merriment of his companions. The spring of the year 955 came on, and
Lent drew near, a season to which Edwy looked forward with great dread,
for, as he said, there would be nothing in the whole palace to eat until
Easter, and he could not even hope to bribe the cook.
The canons of the church required all persons to make confession, and so
enter upon the fast tide, having "thus purified their minds;" [x]
it may, alas! be easily guessed how the guilty lads performed this duty,
how enforced confession only led to their adding the sin of further
deceit, and that of a deadly kind.
Thus they entered upon Lent: their abstinence was entirely compulsory,
not voluntary; and although they made up for it in some degree when they
could get away from the palace, yet even this was difficult, for it was
positively unlawful for butchers to sell or for people to buy meat at
the prohibited seasons, and the law was not easily evaded. But it was a
prayerless Lent also to Elfric, for he had, alas! even discontinued his
habit of daily prayer, a habit he had hitherto maintained from
childhood, a habit first learned at his mother's knee.
Holy Week came, and was spent with great strictness; the king seemed to
divide his whole time between the business of state and the duties of
Dunstan was absent at Glastonbury, but other ecclesiastics thronged the
palace, and there were few, save the guilty boys and Redwald, who seemed
uninfluenced by the solemn commemoration.
But it must not be supposed that Elfric was wholly uninfluenced: after
the preaching of the Passion by a poor simple monk on Good Friday, he
retired to his own little room, where he wept as if his heart would
break. Had Dunstan been then in town, the whole story would have been
told, and much misery saved, for Elfric felt he could trust him if he
could trust anybody; but unhappily Dunstan was, as we have seen, keeping
Passiontide at his abbey.
Still, Elfric felt he must tell all, and submit to the advice and
penance which might be imposed; and as he sat weeping over his sin that
Good Friday night, with the thought that he might find pardon and peace
through the Great Sacrifice so touchingly pleaded that day, he felt that
the first step to amendment must lie in a full and frank confession of
all; he knew he should grievously offend Edwy, and that he should lose
the favour of his future king, but he could not help it.
"Why, oh why did I leave Aescendune, dear Aescendune?--fool that I was
--I will go back."
And a sweet desire of home and kindred rose up before him--of his
father's loving welcome, his fond mother's chaste kiss, and of the dear
old woods and waters--the hallowed associations of his home life. He
rose up to seek Father Benedict, determined to enter upon the path of
peace at any cost, when Edwy entered.
He did not see in the gathering darkness the traces of emotion visible
on poor Elfric's countenance, and he began in his usual careless way--
"How are you, Elfric, my boy; glad Lent is nearly over? What a dismal
time that wretched monk preached this morning!"
"Edwy, I am utterly miserable: I must tell all; I cannot live like this
"What a burst of penitence! go to confession; to be sure it looks well,
and if one can only manage to get out a few tears they account him a
saint; tell me the receipt."
"But, Edwy, I must tell all!"
"Not if you are wise."
"Why not? It is all in secrecy."
"No it is not; you will be required as a penance to go and tell the king
all that we have done; you may do so, and I will manage to represent
matters so as to throw the whole blame on you; you will be sent home in
Poor Elfric hung down his head; the thought of his disgrace reaching
home had not occurred to him.
"Come," said Edwy, "I don't want to be hard upon you. Cheer up, my man.
What have you done amiss? Only enjoyed yourself as nature has guided
you. Why should you think God meant us to pass through life like those
miserable shavelings Edred delights to honour? Cheer up, Elfric; your
bright face was never meant for that of a hypocrite. If you are so
dreadfully bad, you are in a pretty numerous company; and I don't think
the shavelings believe their own tales about fire and torment hereafter.
They are merry enough, considering."
In short, poor Elfric's short-lived penitence was given to the winds.
Edwy went alone to be shriven on the morrow.
On Easter Day they both received the Holy Communion in the royal chapel.
From that time remorse ceased to visit the heir of Aescendune, as if he
had at last quenched the Spirit, and he became so utterly wild and
reckless, that at last Dunstan thought it necessary to speak to him
privately on the subject. It was nearly six months after Easter.
The boy entered the study set apart for the use of the great monk and
statesman with a palpitating heart, but he managed to repress its
beatings, and put on a perfectly unconcerned expression of countenance.
He had gained in self control if in nothing else.
"I wished to speak with you, Elfric," said the abbot, "upon a very
serious matter. When you first came here, I was delighted to have you as
a companion to the prince. You were evidently well brought up, and bore
an excellent character; but, I grieve to say, you have greatly changed
for the worse. Are you not aware of it?"
"No, father. What have I done?"
Dunstan sighed at the tone of the reply, and continued--"It is not any
particular action of which I wish to accuse you, but of the general
tenor of your conduct. I do not speak harshly, my boy; but if truth be
told, you are as idle as you were once diligent, as sullen and reserved
as once candid and open: and, my son, your face tells a tale of even
worse things, and, but that I am puzzled to know where you could obtain the
means of self indulgence, I should attribute more serious vices to you."
"Who has accused me, father?"
"Yourself--that is, your own face and manner. Did you ever contemplate
yourself in a mirror when at home? There is a steel one against that
wall, go and look at yourself now."
Elfric blushed deeply.
"My face is still the same," he said.
"It is the same, and yet not the same. Innocence once took her place at
its portals, and had sealed it as her own; the expression is all
changed; my boy, I am absolutely certain that all is not well with you.
For your own sake, delay no longer to avoid the danger of losing your
salvation, for the habits you form now will perhaps cling to you through
life. Turn now to your own self; confess your sin, and be at peace."
"I came to confession at Shrovetide; I am not required to come now, am I?"
"Required? No, my boy, it is your own sense of guilt, alone, which
should draw you. The Church, since there has been no public scandal,
leaves you to your own judgment at such a time as this. Have you never
felt such remorse of conscience as would tell you your duty?"
He thought of Good Friday, and blushed.
"Your tone and words belie each other, my boy. God grant you repentance;
you will not accept my help now, but the time may come when you will
seek help in vain."
Elfric bowed, without reply, and at a sign left the chamber.
A few weeks later, at the beginning of November, Edred left London for a
tour in the west, and quitted his nephews with more than his usual
affection, although his goodbye to Elfric was more constrained, for the
good old king, not knowing the whole truth, was beginning to fear that
Elfric was a dangerous companion. He little thought that he was rather
sinned against than sinning.
Dunstan was to follow him in a week, and only remained behind to
discharge necessary business.
The heart of the amorous Edwy beat with delight as he saw his uncle
depart, and he made arrangements at once to spend the night after
Dunstan's departure in mirth and jollity at the house of Ethelgiva and
her fair daughter.
He came back after an interview with Redwald on the subject, and found
Elfric in their common study. There was an alcove in the room, and it
was covered by a curtain.
"O Elfric," said the prince, "is it not delightful? The two tyrants, the
king and the monk, will soon be gone. I wish the Evil One would fly off
with them both, and when the cat is away will not the mice play? I have
made all the arrangements; we shall have such a night at the lady
"How is the fair Elgiva?"
It was now Edwy's turn to blush and look confused.
"I wish I had the power of teasing you, Elfric. But if you have a secret
you keep it close. Remember old Dunstan vanishes on the fifteenth, and
the same evening, oh, won't it be joyful? But I am tired of work. Come
and let us take some fresh air."
They left the room, when the curtain parted, and the astonished
countenance of Father Benedict, who had been quietly reading in the deep
embrasure of the window, presently appeared. He looked like a man at
whose feet a thunderbolt had fallen, and hastily left the room.
The week passed rapidly away, and at its close Dunstan took his
departure. A train of horses awaited him, and he bade the young princes
Edwy and Edgar farewell, with the usual charge to work diligently and
obey Father Benedict.
That same night, after the clerks had sung compline in the chapel, and
the chamberlain had seen to the safety of the palace, Edwy came quietly
to the room of his page, and the two left as on the first occasion.
Redwald attended them, and just before the boat left the bank he spoke a
word of caution.
"I fear," he said, in a low tone, "that all is not quite right. That old
fox Dunstan is up to some trick; he has not really left town."
"Perhaps he has a similar appointment tonight," said Edwy,
sarcastically. "I should keep mine though he and all his monks from
Glastonbury barred the way."
They reached the castellated mansion of Ethelgiva in due course, and the
programme of the former evening was repeated, save that, if there was
any change, the conversation was more licentious, and the wine cup
passed more freely.
It was midnight, and one of the company was favouring them with a song
of questionable propriety, when a heavy knock was heard at the door. The
servants went to answer it, and all the company awaited the issue in