Alfgar the Dane or the Second Chronicle of Aescendune by A. D. Crake

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A Tale of the Days of Edmund Ironside

by the Rev. A. D. Crake.




























The tale now presented to the indulgence of the public is the second of a series of tales, each complete in itself, which, as stated in the preface to the first of the series, have been told to the senior boys of a large school, in order to secure their interest in historical characters, and to illustrate great epochs in human affairs by the aid of fiction.

Yet the Author has distinctly felt that fiction must always, in such cases, be subordinate to truth, and that it is only legitimately used as a vehicle of instruction when it fills up the gaps in the outline, without contradicting them in any respect, or interfering with their due order and sequence.

Therefore he has attempted in every instance to consult such original authorities as lay within his reach, and has done his best to present an honest picture of the times.

The period selected on the present occasion is full of the deepest interest. The English and the Danish invaders of their soil were struggling desperately for the possession of England–a struggle aggravated by religious bitterness, and by the sanguinary nature of the Danish creed.

The reign of Ethelred the Unready, from his accession, after the murder of his innocent brother, until the scene depicted in the nineteenth chapter of the tale, was a tragedy ever deepening. Its details will seem dark enough as read herein, but how utterly dark they were can only be appreciated by those who study the contemporary annals. Many facts therein given have been rejected by the Author as too harrowing in their nature; and he has preferred to render the contemplation of woe and suffering less painful, by a display of those virtues of patience, resignation, and brave submission to the Divine will, which affliction never fails to bring out in the fold of Christ, whose promise stands ever fast, that the strength of His people shall be equal to their needs.

With the death of the unhappy king, and the accession of his brave but unfortunate son, the whole character of the history changes. Englishmen are henceforth at least a match for their oppressors, and the result of the long contest is the conversion of their foes to Christianity, their king setting the example, and the union of the two races–not the submission of one to the other. The Danish element had been received into the English nation to join in moulding the future national character–to add its own special virtues to the typical Englishman of the future.

One more rude shock had yet to be sustained before the alloy of foreign blood was complete–the Norman Conquest. This is the subject of the Third Story of Aescendune, which has yet to be written.

One character in the tale has always puzzled historians–a character, so far as the author knows, absolutely without redeeming trait–Edric Streorn. It is well said that no man is utterly bad, and perhaps he possessed domestic virtues which were thought unworthy of the attention of the chroniclers; but as they picture him–now prompting Ethelred to deeds of treachery against the Danes, now joining those Danes themselves, and surpassing them in cruelty–now seeking pretended reconciliation, only to betray his foe more surely, and in all this aided and supported by the weak, unprincipled king–as thus pictured there is scarcely a blacker character in history.

But more incomprehensible than the existence of so bad a man in such a dark age is the renewed confidence ever accorded him, when, after more than once betraying the armies of his country into the hands of their foes, and fighting openly in the hostile cause, he is again forgiven, nay, received into favour, and sent once more to command the men he has already deceived, until he repeats the experiment, and when it fails is again admitted into confidence.

To some extent the Author has endeavoured to find possible solutions of the mystery, but mystery it will remain until the day when all secrets are known.

The death of this unhappy man is taken, in all its main details, from a comparison of the chroniclers, as are also all the chief historical events herein noted.

An objection has been raised to the modern English in which the Author has made his characters speak. He can only say in reply that the Anglo-Saxon in which they really expressed themselves would be unintelligible to all but the few who have made the study of our ancient tongue their pursuit–far more unintelligible to those of ordinary education than Latin or French. Therefore it would be mere affectation to copy the later orthography of Chaucer, or to interlard one’s sentences with obsolete words. The only course seems to be a fair translation of the vernacular of the period of the tale into our own everyday English. The Author anticipated this objection in the preface to his earlier volume. He repeats his answer for those who may not have seen the former book. A similar rule has guided him in the orthography of proper names; he has used the customary Latinised forms.

In his descriptions of Dorchester and Abingdon he has been aided by the kind information received from the present vicar of the magnificent Abbey Church, still existing in the former ancient town, and by the extensive information contained in the Chronicle of the Abbey of Abingdon, edited by the Rev. Joseph Stevenson, M.A. He has also to express his obligations to his friend Mr. Charles Walker, editor of the “Liturgy of the Church of Sarum,” for valuable assistance in monastic lore.

The moral aim of the tale has been to depict the mental difficulties which our heathen forefathers had severally to encounter ere they could embrace Christianity–difficulties chiefly arising from the inconsistencies of Christians–and to set forth the example of one who, having found the “pearl of great price,” sold all he had and bought it, forsaking all that could appeal to the imagination of a warlike youth–“choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.”

Yet his Christianity, like that of all other characters in the tale, is that of their age, not of ours, and men will differ as to its comparative merits. “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.”

The author dedicates this tale to his brother, engaged, like himself, in that most responsible task, the education of youth, in memory of those happy days when they pored together in rapturous delight over old legend or romantic lore in their father’s home at that very Clifton (now Clifton Hampden) familiar to hearers or readers of the tale as the home of Herstan, and the scene of the heroic defence of the English dwelling against the Danes. It will be a great reward for the Author’s toil should this little volume similarly gladden many firesides during the approaching Christmas, and perhaps cause some to thank God for the contrast between the Christmas of 1007 and that of 1874.


All Saints’ School, Bloxham.

Advent, 1874.


All Saints’ Day, 1002.

Inasmuch as I, Cuthbert, by the long-suffering of the Divine goodness, am prior of the Benedictine house of St. Wilfrid at Aescendune, it seems in some sort my duty, following the example of many worthy brethren, to write some account of the origin and history of the priory over which it has pleased God to make me overseer, and to note, as occasion serves from time to time, such passing events as seem worthy of remembrance; which record, deposited in the archives of the house, may preserve our memory when our bodies are but dust, and other brethren fill our places in the choir. Perhaps each generation thinks the events which happen in its own day more remarkable than any which have preceded, and that its own period is the crisis of the fate of Church or State. Yet surely no records of the past, extant, tell us of such dark threatening clouds as hang over the realm of England at this time; when the thousandth year since our blessed Lord’s nativity having passed, we seem to be entering on those awful plagues which the Apocalypse tells us must precede the consummation of all things.

But we who trust in the Lord have a strong tower wherein to hide, and we know of a land where there is no darkness or shadow of death; therefore we will not fear though the earth be moved, and the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.

This house of St. Wilfrid was founded by Offa, Thane of Aescendune, in the year of the Lord 938, and completed by his son and successor Ella, who was treacherously murdered by his nephew Ragnar, and lies buried within these sacred walls. The first prior was Father Cuthbert, my godfather, after whom I was named. He was appointed by Dunstan, just then on the point of leaving England to escape the rage of the wicked and unhappy Edwy, and continued to exercise the authority until the year 975, the year in which our lamented king, Edgar the Magnanimous, departed to his heavenly rest, with whose decease peace and prosperity seemed likewise to depart.

Father Godric succeeded him, under whose paternal rule we enjoyed peace for ten years. Truly the memory of the just is blessed. He died in 985, and then was I chosen by the votes of the chapter to be their prior, and my election was confirmed by the holy Dunstan, who himself admitted me to mine office.

And truly the lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places, dark although–as I have said–the times are. The priory lies on the banks of the glorious Avon, where the forests come nearly down to its banks. Above us rises a noble hill, crowned with the oak and the beech, beneath whose shade many a deer and boar repose, and their flesh, when brought thither to gladden our festivals, is indeed toothsome and savoury.

Our buildings are chiefly of wood, although the foundations are of stone. The great hall is floored and lined with oak, while the chapel–the Priory Church the people call it–excels for limning and gilding, as well as for the beauty of its tapestry, any church in this part of Mercia. Our richest altar cloth is made of the purple robe which King Edgar wore at his consecration, and which he sent to the thane Alfred of Aescendune for the Priory Church as a token of the respect and favour he bore him. And also he gave a veil of gold embroidery which representeth the destruction of Troy. It is hung upon great days over the dais at the high table of the hall.

The monastery is well endowed with lands by the liberality of its first founder, as appears in the deeds preserved in our great muniment chest. We have ten hides of woodland, wherein none may cut wood save for our use in the winter; five hides of arable land, and the same extent of pasturage for cattle. Now for the care of the culture thereof we have a hundred serfs attached to the glebe, who, we trust, do not find us unkind lords.

There are twenty brethren who have taken the final vows according to the rule of St. Benedict, and ten novices, besides six lay brethren, and other our chief servitors. We keep the monastic hours, duly rising at daybreak to sing our lauds, and lying down after compline, with the peace and blessing of Him who alone maketh us dwell in safety.

Our daily work is not light. We preach on Sundays and festivals in the priory church. We visit the sick. We instruct the youth in the elements of Christian doctrine. We superintend the labours of those who till the soil. We copy the sacred writings. In short, we have a great deal to do, and I fear do it very imperfectly sometimes.

I will add a few words only about myself. I am the third son of Alfred {i}, thane of Aescendune, and his wife the Lady Alftrude of Rollrich. Elfric, my eldest brother, died young. Elfwyn is now thane, and I, the third boy, was given to the Church, for which I had ever felt a vocation, perhaps from my love to my godfather. We only had one sister, Bertha, and she has married the Thane Herstan of Clifton, near Dorchester, the seat of our good bishop Aelfhelm, and the shrine of holy Birinus.

My father and mother both sleep the sleep of the just. They lived to see their children happy and prosperous, and then departed amidst the lamentations of all who had known and loved them. Taken from the evil to come, we cannot mourn them, nor would we call them back, although we sorely missed their loved forms. They were full of years, yet age had not dimmed their faculties. My father died in the year 998, my mother the following year. They rest by the side of their ancestors in the priory church.

My brother Elfwyn married Hilda, the daughter of Ceolfric, a Thane of Wessex, in the year 985. He has two children–Bertric, a fine lad of twelve, and as good as he is manly; and Ethelgiva, a merry girl of ten. His household is well-ordered and happy–nurtured in the admonition of the Lord.

For myself I have had many offers of promotion in the brotherhood of St. Benedict, but have refused them. I was once offered the high office of abbot in one of our great Benedictine houses, but I wished to be near my own people and my father’s house, and here I trust I shall stay till I seek a continuing city, whose builder and maker is God.

And now a little about the state of the country round us. In this neighbourhood we have as yet been preserved from the evils of war, but for many years past the Danes, those evil men, have renewed their inroads, as they used to make them before the great King Alfred pacified the country. They began again in the year 980, and, with but slight intermission, have continued year by year.

The awful prophecy which God forced from the lips of Dunstan {ii}, at the coronation of our most unhappy king, has been too sadly fulfilled. Ah me! I fear the curse of the saints is upon him. When the holy bishop departed this life, I was one of the few who stood round his bed, and as he foretold of the evil to come, he bade us all bear our portion manfully, for the time, he said, would be short in which to endure, and the eternal crown secure.

Many of those to whom he spoke have since died the martyr’s or the patriot’s death, but as yet no evil has reached us at Aescendune, although many parts of Wessex, nay, all the sea coast and the banks of the great rivers have been wasted with fire and sword, and the money which has been given the barbarians has been worse than wasted, for they only come for more.

Our armies seem led by traitors; our councils, sad to say, by fools. Nothing prospers, and thoughtless people say the saints are asleep. Every day we say the petition in our Litany, “That it would please Thee to abate the cruelty of our pagan enemies, and to turn their hearts; we beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord,” and we must wait His time, and pray for strength to submit to His will.

Around the priory live the serfs, the theows, and ceorls of the estate, each in his own little cottage, save the domestics, who live at the Hall, which is only half-a-mile distant.

On Sundays and Saints’ days they all assemble in our minster church. It was full this day at the high mass, and I preached them a homily upon the Saints, great part of which I took from a sermon I once heard the holy Dunstan preach. And he showed us how saints did not live idle lives on this earth, but always went about, like their Lord and Master, doing good, and that through much tribulation they entered the eternal kingdom, which also bids fair to be our lot nowadays, although we be all miserable sinners, and not saints.

Ah! how I thought of the dear ones we have lost when the Gospel was read at mass, about the great multitude which no man could number, and I almost seemed as if I could see father, mother, and Elfric there. I would not wish them back; yet my heart is very lonely sometimes. I wonder whether they remember now that it is All Saints’ Day, and that we are thinking of them. Yes, I am sure they must do so.

There have been few troubles from the Danes, close at hand; so few that they seem trivial in comparison with those our countrymen suffer elsewhere. Still we have many of the pagans living as settlers in our neighbourhood, whose presence is tolerated for fear of the reprisals which might follow any acts of hostility against them. Kill one Dane, the people say, and a hundred come to his funeral. Many of these settlers have acquired their lands peaceably, but others by the strong arms of their ancestors in periods of ancient strife; and these have been allowed to keep their possessions for generations, so that if they did not retain their heathen customs we might forget they were not Englishmen.

One of these lives near us. His name is Anlaf. Some say he boasts of being a descendant of that Anlaf who once ravaged England, and was defeated at Brunanburgh. He married an English girl, whose heart, they say, he broke by his cruelty. They had one child, Alfgar by name.

The mother died a Christian. Taking my life in my hands, I penetrated their fortalice, and administered the last sacrament to her; but they threatened my life for entering their domains, and, perhaps, had I been but a simple priest, and not also, small boast as it is, the son of a powerful English thane, whom they feared to offend, I had died in doing my duty. When the poor girl was dying she committed the boy as well as she could to my care, begging me to see that he was baptized; but the father has prevented me from carrying out her wishes, asserting that he would sooner slay the lad.

But it seems as if the boy retained some traces of his mother’s faith; over and over again I have seen him hiding in some remote corner of the church during service time, but he has always shrunk away when any of the brethren attempted to speak to him.

I am sure he wishes to be a Christian.

I may, perhaps, find a chance of speaking to him, and a few words may reach his heart. He knows my brother’s family, and has once or twice joined them in expeditions in the woods, and even entered their gates. His must be a lonely life at home; there are no other children, but from time to time hoary warriors, upon whose souls lies, I fear, the guilt of much innocent blood, find a home there.

November 2d.–

This morning we said the office and mass for the dead, as usual on All Souls’ Day. My brother Elfwyn and his children were, of course, present. That boy, Bertric, with all his boyish spirit and brightness, is very pious. It was a sight which I thought might gladden their guardian angels to see him and his sister kneeling with clasped hands at their uncle Elfric’s tomb, and when service was over, they made me tell them the old old story about the first Elfric, the brother of my father, and how my father rescued him when the old castle was burnt {iii}.

When I had told them the story, I saw my brother was anxious to say a few words to me.

“Cuthbert,” he said, “have you seen the young Dane, Alfgar, lately?”

“Not very long since,” I replied; “he was at mass yesterday.”

“Because I believe the lad longs to be a Christian, but does not dare speak to any one.”

“He fears his stern father.”

“Yes, Anlaf might slay him if he was to be baptized; yet baptized I am sure he will be, sooner or later.”

“Does the boy love his father, I wonder?” said I, musingly.

“Doubtless; it would be unnatural did he not; but perhaps he loves the memory of his mother yet more. We both knew her, Cuthbert.”

“Yes, when she was a bright-hearted merry village maiden. Poor Kyneswith!”

“For her sake, then, let us both try to do something for the boy.”

“With all my heart. I will seek an opportunity of speaking to him, perhaps he may unburden his mind.”

“Have you seen Edric the sheriff?” asked Elfwyn.

“Not lately. Has he been here?”

“He has, and there was something in connection with his visit which troubled me. He had been telling me for a long time about the cruelties and insolence of the Danes, when he added, in a marked manner, that they might go too far, for hundreds of their countrymen, like Anlaf here, were living unprotected amongst us.”

“What could he mean?”

“I understood him to hint that we might revenge ourselves upon them, and replied that whatever their countrymen might be guilty of, our neighbours would, of course, always be safe amongst Christians.”

“What did he reply?”

“He changed the subject.”

Elfwyn said no more, but bade me goodbye and returned to the castle; still I saw that he was a little discomposed by the sheriff’s words. I don’t like that sheriff; he is a cruel and a crafty man; but I daresay his words were only the expression of a passing thought.


SUNDAY, November 6th.–

Today I noticed Alfgar, the son of Anlaf, at the high mass, and felt a little discomposed at the relaxation of discipline, which, contrary to the canons of the church, permits the unbaptized, as well as persons who ought rightly to be deemed excommunicate, or at least penitents, to be present at the holy mysteries.

But it is not this poor boy’s fault that he is not a Christian, for I have seen him, and learned for a certainty the real state of his mind.

The way in which it came about was this. I marked that after service he entered the woods, as if he shunned the society of his fellow worshippers, and there I followed him, coming upon him at last, as if by accident, in a chestnut glade, the leaves of which strewed the ground–emblem of our fading mortality.

He started as he saw me, and at first looked as if he were inclined to fly my presence, but I gently addressed him.

“Dominus vobiscum, my son,” I said. “I am pleased to see you sometimes at the minster church.”

“I did not know I was noticed amongst so many,” he replied.

“You mean, my boy, that you would sooner your presence were not observed. I can guess your reason too well.”

He looked so sad, that I was sorry I had spoken precipitately, and a deep red blush suffused his dark countenance. He has a most attractive face–so thoughtful, yet so manly; his mother’s gentle lineaments seem to have tempered the somewhat fierce and haughty bearing of his sire, as they meet in the countenance of their child.

My sympathy became so deep that I could not restrain myself and spoke out:

“My boy, will you not confide your troubles to me, for your dear mother’s sake? Do you not remember how she commended you to my care? And never have I forgotten to pray daily that her God may be your God also.”

At the mention of his mother the tears filled his eyes. We were sitting together on the trunk of a fallen tree, and he covered his face with his hands, but I could see that the tears forced their way between the fingers, and that he was sobbing violently. He is only as yet a mere boy, and such emotion is excusable.

At last he looked up.

“I long to be a Christian like her,” he said; “over and over again she taught me, during her last days on earth, of the Christ she loved, and who, she said, was ever near her. I have heard all about the faith she loved, yet I am an outcast from it. What can I do?–my father will not let me be baptized, and I dare not oppose his will; yet I sometimes think I ought to chance all, and to die, if death should be the penalty.”

“Die? You do not surely think he would slay you?”

“I know he would.”

“In that case, my child, your duty seems plain: your Lord calls you to give Him your love, your obedience, and to seek refuge in the fold of His church.”

“Ought I to leave my father?”

I felt very much puzzled indeed what to say. I could have no doubt as to the lad’s duty; but then his father was his natural guardian, and in all things, save the plain duty of professing Christ, had a claim to his obedience.

“I think,” I said at last, “my Alfgar, that when he knew you were determined to be a Christian he would oppose you no longer; that is, if you were once baptized he would tolerate a Christian son as he once did a Christian wife.”

“He broke her heart.”

“At all events I think that you should delay no longer, but should seek instruction and baptism, which we will afford you; and then, unless you really feel life is in danger, you should return to him and try to bear your lot; it may not be so hard as you think.”

“I am not afraid of death; but he is my father, and from his hands it would be hard.”

“He hates Christianity grievously then?”

“He says it is the religion of cowards and hypocrites; that it forms a plea for cowardice when men dare not be men, and is thrown aside fast enough when they have their foes in their power.”

Alas! I could but feel how much reason the ill lives of Christians had given him to form this opinion, and of the curse pronounced upon those who shall put a stumbling block in their brother’s way. The conversation of the Sheriff, Edric Streorn, rose up in my mind as an apt illustration of Anlaf’s words.

“My boy,” I said, “there is nothing perfect on earth. In the visible church the evil is mingled with the good. Yet the church is the fold of the Good Shepherd, and there is salvation therein for all who love and serve their Lord, and strive humbly to follow His example, and those of His blessed Saints.”

“May I think over all you have said, and meet you next Sunday? You will be here, will you not?”

And he looked imploringly in my face. Poor boy! my heart bled for him.

So we parted, and he went home.

Friday, November 11th.–

I feel thoroughly uneasy and anxious about the sheriff’s proceedings. He has been about the neighbourhood today, and seems to have been talking secretly with all the black sheep of my flock; thank God, I do not think there are many. What they can be going to do, or what plot they are hatching, I cannot discover, only I fear that it is some design for vengeance upon the Danes–some dark treachery plotted against those in our midst; and, if such is the case, I can but feel uneasy for poor Alfgar. I wish the lad would leave his home, if but for a short time, until the signs are less threatening; but he would not forsake his father in danger, and I ought hardly to wish it.

St. Brice’s Day, Sunday, November 13th–

This has been a harassing and eventful day. Early in the morning, before the high mass, whereat the neighbourhood is generally present, I received a missive from the sheriff, bidding me, in the name of the King, to exhort my people to remain at home tonight, since danger is afoot, and there is likely, he says, to be a rising on the part of the pagans who dwell amongst us. Why, they are but one in five in this neighbourhood; hardly that. I determined to give the message in my own way, for I could not keep silent, lest, through fault of mine, any of my sheep should perish. So I preached upon the Saint of the day, who was pre-eminently a man of peace, and I took occasion to tell my people that there were many hurtful men about, who, like their master, Satan, were seeking whom they might devour, and that, like that master, they chose the night for their misdeeds, seeing they loved darkness rather than light. So I said I hoped every good Christian would keep at home, and go to bed early.

At this point I observed a sarcastic smile upon many faces, notably on those of the black sheep aforesaid, to whom the sheriff had spoken, and I concluded that they were very likely to be the ministers of darkness themselves. So I spoke on the Christian duties of love and forgiveness, and exhorted all present to take joyfully the chastisement of the Lord, even like holy Job; and that it would all tend to their eternal good, through Him who, when He was reviled, reviled not again. And so with this exhortation to patience I closed my homily. I fear I spoke to many in vain.

I am sure they are bent on immediate mischief, and that this notice of the sheriff has much to do with it. He wants to keep good people at home to have all the field to himself. I see him–the black bellwether.

After mass I mingled with the dispersing congregation. The weather was very gloomy–the faces of the congregation yet more so. All seemed to apprehend coming evil. Instead of returning cheerfully home they stood together in groups, talking in low tones, as if they feared to speak their thoughts aloud.

Most of them evidently were men of peace, but not all, as I have already hinted; and, as I drew near a group standing behind the great yew tree, I heard one of these latter discoursing to his fellows.

“Heard you the prior’s sermon?” said Siric, for that was the fellow, Siric of the Wold; “a fine homily he gave us on St. Brice–that man of peace.”

“It was easy for him to be a man of peace,” returned another; “he hadn’t got Danes for his neighbours.”

“Holy Job himself would have turned cutthroat if he had.”

“Then they have been insulting, robbing, and murdering all over the country.”

Just then I interrupted them, for I could no longer hear the blasphemy.

“How now, Siric,” said I; “hast thou come to Aescendune to revile the saints?”

“Nay, Father,” said he, with a mocking smile; “I was only rejoicing that they were not exposed to such trials as we. Job’s Chaldeans were gentlefolk in comparison with our Danes.”

“Thou blasphemest; and what didst thou say of the blessed St. Brice?”

“Only that I wished he were living now to tame the cutthroats who live in our midst, and who murder and rob daily, just in mere sport, or to keep their hands in.”

“What new outrages have occurred?” I asked.

“A party of the heathen carried off the cattle from my farm down the water early this morning, and slew the herdsman.”

“Dost thou know who the fellows were?”

“All too well; they were Anlaf’s men.”

I hardly knew what to answer, the outrage was so recent, and the excitement of the speaker so pardonable, as I could but feel.

Well, at this moment my brother Elfwyn came out of the church, where he had lingered to pray, as he generally does, at his brother’s tomb, and, noticing us, came and joined the group. He seemed much concerned when he heard the details.

“Siric,” he said, with his usual kind way of speaking, “do not distress yourself unduly; you know I am rich in flocks and herds. I will make up the loss of the cattle, my brother the prior will have a mass said for poor Guthred, and he shall have the last rites performed at our expense; it is all we can do for him; the rest we must leave to the mercy of God.”

“Nay, Thane,” said Siric; “I thank you for your goodwill, but I may not stand thus indebted to any man. I will repay myself at the expense of the robbers. Still you may remember Guthred at God’s altar.”

And he strode away.

My brother was now joined by his children Bertric and Ethelgiva, and his wife, the Lady Hilda. I saw that he was ill at ease, but we did not mention the subject, which I am sure was uppermost in both our minds, lest we should alarm the gentle ones.

Just then I remembered that I had promised to meet Alfgar in the pine wood, and I hastened to the spot.

I found him seated again on the fallen tree. He rose at my approach, and saluted me with some emotion, as if some inward excitement made itself visible in spite of his efforts to suppress it.

“My son,” said I, “have you pondered my words of last Sunday?”

“I have, and I am come to put myself under your instruction. I will be guided by you in all things, and fulfil thus the dying wish of the only being who ever loved me.”

“But, my boy, there must be yet a higher, a holier motive.”

“I trust it is not wanting, my father.”

“Are you able to stay long today?”

“O yes, my father is keeping high festival; a number of his countrymen are visiting him and holding revel; this morning they drove in a number of oxen, I know not whence, and slaughtered two on the spot, and they have broached several barrels of mead; they will keep the feast all day, and before night my father will not be in a state to miss me; I always absent myself if I can on such occasions.”

“Then you must come home with me, and share the noon meat, after which I can give you my time until evensong.”

He made no objection, and we returned to the Priory together, where he took his noon meat in the guest chamber, and I devoted all the time between the meal and nones to an examination of my catechumen.

I found that poor Kyneswith had impressed all the primary truths of our holy faith deeply upon his mind, although he wanted much building up, and needed instruction in details; he seemed deeply impressed by the main facts of the life and teaching of our blessed Lord, particularly His message of peace on earth, good will towards men, contrasting so forcibly with the faith of his own people.

The time passed rapidly away, and we went to the minster church at three, when nones and evensong were said together, for we could not keep the people till the proper hour for the latter office, owing to the darkness of November.

When the holy office was over, I accompanied my brother part of the way home, for I wanted to communicate my suspicions, and to learn whether he shared them.

It was a dark and gloomy eventide: the sun, which had only made its appearance at intervals during the day, was fast sinking behind a heavy bank of clouds which filled the western horizon; and the wind, which was freshening to a gale, seemed to bear the storm onward in its track, while it tore the few surviving leaves rudely from the trees, and whirled them in mazy windings.

“Elfwyn,” said I, “what do you suppose was the true object of the sheriff in bidding folks keep indoors tonight?”

“I cannot divine, unless he has some deed of blood on hand which he wishes to have undisturbed, all to himself and his underlings.”

“Siric spoke mysteriously.”

“Yes; if there is aught going on amiss, he has a hand in it.”

Here I communicated my fears respecting Alfgar, whom I had invited, with my brother’s permission, to sup at the hall.

“Could you not keep the poor fellow with you all night? I fear his father is in some danger, as well he may be, acting as wickedly as he did this very morn.”

“I will try to persuade him to stay, he is along with Bertric and Ethelgiva; they are only a few steps behind. Cuthbert, I have ordered every one of my theows and ceorls to be obedient to your warning if they wish to preserve their allegiance to Aescendune, or to escape chastisement, and I think none of them are likely to be abroad tonight.”

“Can you not find out what the sheriff has told them? I saw him speaking to one or two.”

“I will try. You must be my guest tonight, or at least for a few hours.”

“Nay, I must return to compline; I may be wanted tonight, and ought to be at my post,” said I.

We arrived at the old home, dear familiar place! stronger and better built than most such houses, because, being burnt down in my father’s younger days, it had been rebuilt in a more substantial manner, and was capable of sustaining a formidable attack successfully.

We crossed the drawbridge, and entered the courtyard under the gateway; before us was the door of the great hall, merrily illumined by its blazing fire.

There, then, was the supper table bountifully spread, and the theows and ceorls awaiting the arrival of their lord. We entered, Elfwyn and I, and soon after Bertric, Ethelgiva, and Alfgar followed.

A loud horn was blown upon the battlements. Stragglers made their entrance good; the drawbridge was drawn up, the doors closed, and I blessed the meat.


Monday, November 14th, 1002.–

I hardly know how to write the events of last night, my pen almost refuses to begin. I feel thoroughly sickened by the very remembrance of the bloodshed and treachery which have disgraced Christian England, and which will assuredly bring down God’s judgment upon us.

But I will do violence to myself, and will write all things accurately, in order it may serve to show that there were those amongst us who were not consenting parties, who entered not into the counsels of those men of blood, whom may God “reward after their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their own inventions.”

Well, to begin. When supper was ended at the hall last night, my brother bade his wife and children seek their bower, and Alfgar went with them; then he addressed his people with that confidence and affection he not only shows in his outward speech, but really feels in his heart.

“Are all the folk present within the gates?” he asked.

“We are all here, my lord,” replied they; “none have been wanting in their duty.”

“It is well; and now, my people, I ask you, whom I have ever trusted, and to whom I have tried to be a friend as well as a master, have you any of you a suspicion what the sheriff is about tonight, and why he desired the prior to tell good Christians to keep within doors?”

There was a dead silence. At last one of the ceorls rose up, and spoke with some hesitation:

“I think, my lord, that they intend to avenge themselves upon the Dane folk.”

“Did they say anything about it to you or any other of my people?”

“Yes; they tried to get two or three of us to join in the work, but when they found we would do nothing without your knowledge, they told us no more.”

“Then you do not know what is the exact work they have in hand?”

“No. But I heard something which made me think that plunder and massacre were both likely to be committed.”

“Did you hear any particular names mentioned?”

“Yes. That of Anlaf.”

“This explains Siric’s insolence, Cuthbert.”

“It does,” I replied.

“But surely they cannot intend to do anything tonight. They would not choose Sunday for a deed of darkness. Men who have attended mass during the day, surely would not so forget their God as to go through the country like cowardly wolves, pulling down the prey in company which they dare not attack singly.”

“I should hope the same; but then the looks and words of today,” said I.

“Did they say what authority they had for their projected scheme?”

“They dared to say,” replied the ceorl who had before spoken, “they had the sanction of the king.”

There was again a painful silence. We groaned in the bitterness of our hearts–O Ethelred, son of Edgar, hast thou forgotten all truth and mercy?–thou, the son of Edgar the Magnanimous?

Every impulse of our hearts led us to detest the cruel deed of treachery about to be consummated, but which we could not prevent.

At least there was one whom we could save from the general destruction, the young Alfgar, and we determined to detain him if possible by persuasion, keeping the truth from him, but in any case to detain him at the hall during the night.

I could not remain at the hall myself, for, on such a night, it seemed necessary to be with my own people, and to be ready to seize any opportunity of saving the effusion of blood, or of giving protection to any who might seek refuge under the shelter of our roof, where murder would be sacrilege, a consideration of some importance where Christians, shame to say, were the murderers.

But before I went my brother and I sent to Alfgar that we might speak to him, and prevail upon him to stay with us the night.

“Alfgar,” said Elfwyn, “the night is very stormy and blustering, and we wish you to remain with us, and share our hospitality till the morn. Your father will not miss you?”

“I do not think he will; for after one of these debauches he generally sleeps far into the next day. But the domestic serfs may remark my absence.”

“There is another reason, my boy, why we wish you to stay. Wild men who hate your father’s race are abroad, and did you fall into their hands while returning home it might fare hard with you.”

“I can imagine that. I marked the looks they cast upon me in God’s house, even there, this day. They cannot forgive me my Danish blood, although my mother was one of themselves, and a Christian.”

“They have suffered much, my lad; and suffering, as is often the case, has blunted their feelings. But you will stay with us, will you not?”

“I will stay; many thanks for your kindness.”

After this I had nothing further to detain me at the castle, so I left for the priory.

It was a black dark night. The violence of the wind almost lifted me from my feet; not a star could be seen but occasionally a sharp hailstorm pelted down. Glad was I, although the distance was not great, to see the lights of the priory, and to dry my chilled limbs and wet garments before the fire in the common room while I told my brethren the tidings of the night, and the suspicions which we entertained.

When I had finished there was a dead pause, during which the howling blast without, as it dashed the hail against the casement, seemed a fitting accompaniment to our sombre thoughts.

The compline bell rang.

This office is always full of heavenly comfort, but there seemed a special meaning tonight in one verse–“A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.”

Yet the thousands were heavy on our hearts, and I meditated some means of carrying tidings of their danger to our pagan neighbours; but I knew nothing of the details of the plot, only that there was a plot, and I knew that if I sent a brother, the Danes, in their hatred to monks, would probably set their huge dogs at him before he could speak, and perhaps worry him to death. Neither could any other messenger approach their dwellings safely at night.

I tried to hope, but against reason, that we had perhaps exaggerated the danger. Still, after the compline was over, we sat in deliberation a long time in the hall. The novices and lay brothers, ignorant of the peril, had retired to rest; but we, who knew the portentous state of things around us, could not have slept had we retired. Ever and anon we looked forth from doors and windows into the black darkness without; but although it was near midnight, neither sight nor sound told of aught amiss, and we were beginning to yield to fatigue, when I ascended the tower in company with Father Adhelm, to survey the scene for the last time. It was so windy that we could hardly stand upon the leaded roof, and although we gazed around, nought met our eyes until we were on the point of returning.

“Listen!” said Father Adhelm, the subprior.

It was unnecessary. Borne upon the wind, a loud noise, as of men who shout for mastery, met our ears, followed or intermingled with cries for help or mercy–so we fancied at least.

While we stood rooted by horror to the spot, a bright light arose, which rapidly increased, as a conflagration well might in such a wind, and soon the whole horizon was illuminated. I knew but one homestead in that direction–the fortified house of Anlaf.

I thought of the poor boy, with thankfulness that we had restrained him from returning home. He is saved, at least, thought I, as a brand from the burning.

The other brethren joined us, and after a short consultation, we determined to go to the scene in a body, to mitigate the rage of the people, and save life where we could.

So, putting our cowls over our heads, we sallied forth into the black night–black and dark save where the light of the fire illumined the horizon, and even cast a faint ray upon our own path. We were not used to journeys in such weather, and I am afraid we made very slow progress, but it was not for want of good will. The fire grew brighter and brighter as we proceeded, and the shouts louder and louder. We knew that Anlaf had a party of his countrymen, all of them obnoxious to the English, and could easily understand that they had collected themselves together for their own destruction. Yet, when we looked around, we perceived by the blood-red reflection in the skies at other points, that the same ruthless task was being carried out in many a distant spot, as well as close at hand.

Reaching the bank of the river, we directed our course along its banks until the dark forest closed in upon us, and rapid progress became difficult. The trees were all rocking wildly in the wind, and here and there a severed branch fell down before us. Occasionally a gust of rain and hail descended. The path was wet and slippery. Poor Father Adhelm groaned aloud. He had the podagra, (or gout), and ought not to have ventured forth; but zeal would not let him rest.

“Verily our path is hedged about with thorns. It is hard to kick against the pricks,” said the chamberlain.

“It is God’s work,” said I, “and we may not falter.”

Yet I felt my own heart weak.

But for the red light, which shone even through the shade of the forest, we could not have pursued our path. But plainer and plainer the wind brought the fierce shouts of the assailants to our ears, until, emerging from a dark belt of underwood, the whole horror of the scene burst upon us.

Before us, at the distance of a few hundred yards, defended by a mound and a ditch, rose the irregular and fortified dwelling of Anlaf. It was wrapped in flames from top to basement, and even as we looked one of the towers gave way, and fell upon the hall beneath, with hideous din, in headlong ruin.

Around the blazing pile stood some two or three hundred men, who completely encircled it, and who had doubtless prevented the escape of the inmates. We were evidently too late; the passive attitude of the assailants showed that their bloody work was done.

We learned afterwards that the domestics, who were English serfs, had betrayed the place to the foe, while the Danish lords were revelling in the great hall, and half drunk with wine. Surprised at the banquet, they fell an easy prey, and were slaughtered almost without resistance, after which the house was plundered of everything worth carrying away, and then set on fire in every part. Further details we could not gather. All was over when we arrived.

Full of indignation, I and my brethren advanced straight upon the group surrounding the sheriff, the crafty and cruel Edric Streorn, and in the name of God denounced the cruelty and sin of which they had been guilty.

“Sir monk,” was the reply, “are you traitor to your king that you thus league yourself with his deadly enemies? All that is done this night is done by his order.”

“God will avenge the deed,” said I. “Ye have not fought like men, but crept on like serpents, and slain those who, trusting to the faith of Christians, dwelt blindly in our midst. And now, what can we say? How can we hope to win our foes to God and Christ when we set at naught his precepts and despise his example?”

“Sir monk, I have not time to listen to a homily; keep it for next Sunday, when I will try to attend. For the present–“

Here he was interrupted by a loud cry which arose near us.

“The wolf cub! the wolf cub! Slay him, and the work is complete.”

The cry, “Slay him! slay him!” was taken up by a dozen voices, when I recognised Alfgar, who by some means had learned the danger of his kinsfolk, and had come to share their fate.

“Save him, sheriff!” I cried; “save him! He is a Christian. His mother was English.”

And I rushed forward myself, and saw that the poor lad had already been brought on his knees by more than one fell stroke.

I held up the crucifix, which hung at my girdle, on high; I threw my arm over his head, and abjured them under the name of Christ, and as they feared the curse of the Church, to forbear. My brethren all aided me.

Sullenly they dropped their weapons, and the sheriff, coming forward, seconded me, although in a very contemptuous manner.

“Let him have the lad for his share of the night’s work,” he said.

And so God gave me the poor lad’s life.

I had scarcely time to lay him on a sloping bank, where the light which shone so luridly from his burning home might fall upon him, when my brother Elfwyn appeared on the scene with a score of his men.

He recognised us by our habits, and came and looked with me at the orphan as he lay on the bank. The boy had received no serious wound, but was exhausted, as much I thought by the violence of his emotions as by his injuries. He was wet through; his clothes were torn with brambles, for he had followed a straight path through six miles of tangled forest, from Aescendune.

They had unfortunately given him a bed in a chamber which looked towards his home: he had chanced to wake, had looked from the window, seen the flames, and had started thither at once, swimming the moat when he could not cross the drawbridge–suspecting, doubtless, that he was surrounded by treachery.

I had already poured a rich cordial down his throat, and he was coming to himself, my brother aiding me, when the sheriff, grand in his robe and chain of office, came up.

“Good day, or rather night, to you, Thane of Aescendune,” said he to Elfwyn; “we have had a fair night’s work, and destroyed a big wasp’s nest; have you come for your share in the spoil?”

“I only ask permission to preserve life; your work has been of an opposite nature.”

“Yes, we have been obedient to our king, and avenged him this night of his enemies, who are also, I should have thought, the enemies of the Church.”

“God will not bless midnight murder,” said I.

“Murder! it is not murder to slay heathen Danes; had they been Christians it would, of course, have been a different thing.”

“He hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth,” I replied.

“The good prior wishes me to talk theology. Unfortunately I have much work to do; you will hear tidings soon of other Danish holds than this. The land may rejoice, freed from her oppressors, and they who blame our work will praise its results.”

“That remains to be seen,” we both replied.

We had, meanwhile, placed Alfgar, now partially recovered, on a palfrey; and, supported by my brother and me, one on each side, we led him homewards. Arrived at the castle, we gave him to the care of Osred, the domestic physician. He looked at the patient, and pronounced a favourable opinion, saying that with time and care all would be well. But his left arm was broken, and he had received a slight blow on the head. Fever was the leech’s chief apprehension; if he could keep that off, he said he doubted not all would be well.

St. Andrew’s Day.–

Our patient has lain some time in a state of delirium, whereat no one could wonder. In his ravings he was incessantly acting over the scenes through which he had passed during the dreadful night which followed St. Brice’s Day. But, thanks to a good constitution, today he has taken a favourable turn, and seems likely to recover from a blow which would have hopelessly shattered a frailer frame.

I was seated by his couch when he seemed to awake out of sleep, and I saw his bright dark eyes fixed inquiringly on me.

“Where am I?” he inquired.

“In the Hall of Aescendune; you have been very ill here.”

“Indeed! I have had such dreadful dreams!–but were they all dreams?”

“Your mind has been wandering for days, my dear son. You must not talk too much.”

He was silent, but evidently pondered more.

December 25, Christmas Day, 1003. {iv}–

All the household has given itself up to joy and gladness; even poor Alfgar, who has been released today from the confinement of his chamber, has entered into the general joy, although ever and anon relapsing into sadness.

He knows all now: a day or two agone, when all the household had gone to hunt in the woods, I was alone with him in his chamber, and thought that at last I must discharge the painful task of telling him the truth.

“My boy,” I said, “you have not lately inquired about your father.”

He looked at me very sadly.

“I know all,” he said, “that you would tell me. I have no father, no mother, no kinsfolk.”

“Some of our people have told you then?”

“No. At first the events of that fearful night seemed all like a dream, and mingled themselves with the strange spectres which haunted me in delirium; but afterwards the real separated itself from the unreal, and I knew that my father and all his friends, my Danish uncles amongst them, had perished with the whole household assembled there that fatal day. I also remembered, but faintly, how I came here. Did not you save me from the murderers?”

I briefly explained the whole circumstances to him, adding such words of consolation as I could think of, and telling him that he must always look upon Aescendune as his home. At length he rose. He had not replied.

“Pardon me, my father,” he said, “but may I retire to my chamber? I wish to say much, but I am too weak now.”

“Meanwhile, you will not leave us?”

“I have no other home.”

And he retired to his little chamber, from which he emerged no more today.

Feast of the Epiphany.–

This day my catechumen Alfgar was baptized in the priory church. It seemed useless to delay longer, as he was fully prepared both intellectually and spiritually, nay, has been so for some time, only the tragic event which deprived him of his Danish kinsfolk had distracted him for a time from spiritual things. Nay, had he not been surrounded by real Christians and loving friends here at Aescendune, I fear the Church would have lost him altogether. Such a commentary was the massacre of St. Brice on the Christian doctrine of love and forgiveness! He felt it grievously at first, but he was able at length to distinguish between men that say they are of Christ, and are not, and those who really set the example of that Lord and his Saints before them. He is now one of ourselves; a sheep safe in the fold, and the dying wish of his sainted mother is fulfilled. My brother intends to adopt him as a son, and as his family is small, the proposal meets my approbation. Bertric and Ethelgiva already love him as a brother.


Up to this period we have availed ourselves of extracts from the Diary of Father Cuthbert; but the events of the following four years, as recorded in that record, although full of interest for the antiquarian or the lover of monastic lore, would possess scant interest for the general reader, and have also little connection with the course of our tale; therefore we will convey the information they contain, which properly pertains to our subject, in few words, and those our own, returning occasionally to the Diary.

The melancholy history of the times may be compressed, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources, in a few paragraphs.

Burning with revenge–for his own sister had fallen in the massacre on St. Brice’s night–Sweyn returned to England the following year (1003). He landed in Devonshire, took Exeter by storm, and returned to his ships laden with the spoil. Then he sailed eastward, landed again and ravaged Dorset and Wiltshire. Here the ealdorman Elfric met him with a large English army; but when he saw the foe he fell sick, or feigned to be so; and then the old proverb came true, “When the general fails, the army quails.” So the English looked on with fear and trembling, while Sweyn burnt Wilton and Salisbury, whence he returned to the sea laden with wealth and stained with blood; yet was not his revenge satisfied.

The following year East Anglia suffered as Wessex had suffered the year before. Ulfketyl, the ealdorman, gave them much money, hoping to buy peace from the merciless pagans. The result was as he might have expected. They took the money, laughing at his simplicity, and three weeks afterwards pillaged Thetford, and burnt it. Then Ulfketyl, who was a brave man, got an East Anglian army together, and fought the Danes, giving them the uncommon chastisement of a defeat, so that they escaped with difficulty to their ships.

The following year a famine so severe visited England, that even the Danes forebore to ravage so poor a land; but in 1006, the next year, they overspread Wessex like locusts. Here the action of our tale is resumed.

During this interval of four years in Aescendune there had been peace. Alfgar had been domesticated as one of the family, and was reported well of in all the neighbourhood. Diligent in the discharge of his religious duties, he was equally conspicuous in all warlike sports and exercises and in the chase, while he afforded much help to Elfwyn the thane in the management of the estate. In short, he had won his way to the hearts of all the family; and perhaps the report that he was the accepted suitor of the fair daughter of Aescendune, Ethelgiva, was not without foundation.

Ethelgiva was nearly his own age, and was a perfect type of that beauty which has ever distinguished the women of the Anglo-Saxon race. Her fair hair, untouched by artificial adornment, hung like a shower of gold around her shoulders, while her eyes were of that delicate blue which seemed to reflect the deep summer sky; but the sweet pensive expression of her face was that which attracted nearly all who knew her, and made her the object of general regard.

Bertric was now about sixteen–a handsome, attractive boy, full of life and fire, yet still possessing that devotion which Father Cuthbert had remarked in him as a boy of twelve. As the heir to the lands of Aescendune, and the only son, he would have been in much danger of being spoiled had he been less genuine and manly than he was. He and Alfgar were inseparable; they seemed to revive again the traditional love of Nisus and Euryalus, or Orestes and Pylades.

The famine, which had made Wessex too poor even to serve as a bait for the Danes, had also afflicted Mercia, but not nearly so severely, and the generosity of the family of Aescendune had been exerted to the utmost on behalf of the sufferers.

But the spring of the year 1006 bade fair to atone for the past. It was bright and balmy. May was just such a month as the poets love to sing, and June, rich in its promise of fruit, had passed when the events we are about to relate occurred. At this time there was some hope amongst the people that God had at length heard the petition breathed so often in the penitential wail of the Litany–“From the cruelty of our pagan enemies, good Lord, deliver us”–and they forgot that the massacre on St. Brice’s night yet cried for vengeance.

It was a fine summer’s evening towards the end of the month of July, and the sun was slowly setting behind the wood-crowned range of hills in the west, where the forest terminated the pastures of Aescendune; the cattle were returning to their stalls; the last load of hay was being transferred from the wain to the rick, and all things spoke of the calm and rest of a sweet night, fragrant with the breath of honeysuckle and wild brier, when nature herself seems to court luxurious repose.

The priory bell was tolling for compline, and thither many of the people, released from their labour, were wending their way. The Thane and his children, accompanied by Alfgar, paused on their homeward road, and when the drowsy tinkling ceased, deep silence seemed to fall over the landscape, while the night darkened–if darkness it could be called when the moonbeams succeeded to the fiercer light of the glowing orb of day.

The Lady Hilda was at the window of her bower, slightly indisposed; she had not gone down to the priory, but sat inhaling the rich fragrance of the night as the gentle breeze wafted it from a thousand flowers. Star after star peeped out; one sweet-voiced nightingale began her song, trilling through the air; another enviously took up the strain. Hilda thought the earth had never seemed so much like heaven, and she imagined the tuneful birds sang their vesper song in union with the monks, whose solemn and plaintive chant awoke the echoes of the priory church. Her heart was full of solemn yet not sad thoughts; peace, sweet peace, was the subject of her meditations, and she thought with gratitude of Him who had hitherto preserved Mercia from the foe, who had indeed for nearly two years ceased to molest England.

But as she gazed, her attention was attracted to a light on the opposite hills. It was a fire of some kind, and rose up more and more fiercely each moment. It was but a bonfire in appearance, yet it marred both the landscape and the meditative rest of the gazer.

The party from the hall were returning home from the church.

“Father,” said Bertric, “look at that light! Is it not singular? I never saw one there before.”

But even while they looked another fire appeared in an opposite direction, and Bertric saw his father turn grave.

“It is the beacon fire,” said he seriously.

“Yes it is, and see it is answered from the hills to the north,” said Alfgar.

Then they were silent, and Bertric felt his spirits sink with a vague kind of apprehension. They said no more till they reached home, and the whole family met, much later than usual, at the evening meal.

“You are late,” said Hilda to her lord.

“We were returning home from the meadows on the water, whence the last load of hay has been carried, and we tarried for the compline at the priory. The bell sounded as we were passing.”

“Did you see the bonfire on the hills? It must be a large one.”

“I did; and it made me uneasy.”

“Why so, my Elfwyn?”

“You forget that when the last invasion of our pagan foes was over, it was agreed in the Witan that a set of beacons should be prepared, in readiness to fire, on the tops of the hills, and that if the Danes appeared again, they should be fired everywhere, in which case Mercia was to hold herself in readiness to come to the aid of Wessex or East Anglia, whichever the foe might be harrying.”

“But then that was eighteen months agone.”

“Still the beacon piles remain or did remain. I saw one at the summit of the hills which the trackway crosses between our county and Oxfordshire, when I last returned form Beranbyrig {v}, and I think that one gives the present alarm. It means the Danes are again in the land.”

“Now, God forbid!” said Hilda, with clasped hands.

“Amen say we all; but I fear me such will be the case, unless some poor fool has set the pile blazing for amusement. I fancied I saw it answered away north and west. We will go and see anon.”

Supper being ended, Elfwyn rose to go out, and his example was followed by Alfgar and Bertric, and several of the serfs, who from the lower end of the ample board had heard with much alarm the previous conversation.

Ascending the hill, they directed their steps towards the highest point, where an old watchtower had once been reared, composed of timber, and overlooking the forest.

From the summit the party gazed over three or four counties lying dimly beneath them in the still moonlight.

The mist, slowly rising from the river and forest, partially obscured the immediate view, and hid the valley beneath in smoke-like wreaths; but the distant hills rose above. There three large fires immediately caught the eye, and confirmed the apprehensions. One was on the summit of the range culminating on the spot now known as Edgehill, lying about ten miles south; but on the west Malvern Heights had caught the flame, and on the far north the Leicestershire hills sent forth their reddening fire in more than one spot.

“The country has taken the alarm,” said the Thane.

“What must we do, father?”

“Summon and arm all our vassals, and await the sheriff’s orders; the king will communicate to us through him. We know not yet where the danger is.”

“Perhaps it is only a false alarm,” said Bertric.

“God grant it; but I dare not hope as much.”

Alfgar was very silent. Well he might be. The enemy dreaded was his own kith and kin; and although all his sympathies were with his English friends, from whom he had received more kindness and love than he had ever known elsewhere, yet he seemed to feel compromised by the deeds of his kindred, whose savage cruelty no Christianity had as yet softened.

While they yet remained on the hill, fire after fire took up the tale and reddened the horizon, until a score of those baleful bonfires were in sight. Sighing deeply, Elfwyn led the way down the hill.

“What have you seen?” was the inquiry of the Lady Hilda.

“The hills flame with beacons.”

“Alas for poor Wessex!”

“Alas for England! I have a foreboding that we shall not always be exempt from the woes which affect our neighbours. Wessex scarcely tempts the plunderer now; neither does East Anglia. Northumbria is half Danish, and kites do not peck out kites’ eyes. No; on Mercia, poor Mercia, the blow must sooner or later fall.”

“And how to avert it?”

“There is but one way; we must fight the foe in Wessex. Now we must rest, to rise early, and await the sheriff’s summons.”

It was silent, deep night; the whole house was buried in slumber, when Alfgar dreamed a strange dream. He thought he stood amidst the ruins of his home, the home of his father Anlaf, and that he heard steps approaching from the forest. Soon a solitary figure emerged, and searched anxiously amongst the fallen and blackened walls, uttering one anxious ejaculation, “My son! I seek my son!” and Alfgar knew his father. Their eyes met, recognition took place, and he awoke with such a keen impression of his father’s presence that he could not shake it off for a long time.

“Do the dead indeed revisit earth?” he said. “Nay, it was but a dream.”

He went to the narrow window of his chamber, and looked out. The dawn was already breaking in the east, and even as he gazed upon the purpling skies the birds began their matin songs of praise, and the valley awoke. The priory bell, beneath, by the riverside, now tolled its summons to matins, and Alfgar arose and dressed.

Never did the household of Aescendune begin the day without religious observance, and the first thing that they did on this, as on every day, was to repair to the priory church, where Father Cuthbert said mass; after which he and his brother the Thane were closeted together for a long time.

The rest of the party returned home to break their fast, and conversed about the warnings of the preceding night.

While they were still at their meal, Bertric, who sat near a window, cried out, “I see a horseman coming from Warwick.”

The panting steed was soon reined up in front of the drawbridge, which was down as usual; and, passing beneath the arched gate, the rider dismounted in the courtyard.

All the household were soon assembled to hear his news. He bore a sealed missive addressed to the Thane; but he gave the secret of the night’s alarm in a few words.

“They are in Wessex, plundering, murdering, and burning. The forces are all to meet at Dorchester as soon as man and horse can get there.”

“Where did they land?”

“The great fleet came to Sandwich, and they are advancing westward as fast as they can come.”

“Are they merciless as ever?”


“The fiends!” said Bertric bitterly; and then seeing Alfgar’s saddened face, said, “Oh, I beg pardon,” which made matters worse.

“You are not a Dane, Alfgar; you are a Christian; no one thinks of you as one.”

Shortly Elfwyn returned from the priory, and received the messenger. The sealed packet only contained a formal summons to the general rendezvous of the forces, which was to take place at Dorchester, the episcopal city of the great Midland diocese, and situated in a central position, where Wessex and Mercia could easily unite the flower of their youth.

All the necessary preparations for departure were shortly made–the theows and ceorls were collected together, beasts of burden selected to carry the necessary baggage, the wallets filled with provisions.

Before the third hour of the day all had been done which the simple habits of the time required, and only the sorrowful leave takings remained. Husbands had to bid the last goodbye–it might be the very last–to their spouses, sons to their aged parents, fathers to their children. And then there was hurrying to and fro, as of people only half conscious of what they did; while the warriors strove to smile and preserve their fortitude.

But alas! there were no traditions of victory to encourage them; only gloomy remembrances of defeat; and, but for the stern call of duty which bade them, as men and Christians, go to the succour of their brethren, the majority would have preferred to remain at home and abide the worst, although they knew full well that submission utterly failed to mitigate the ferocious cruelty of their oppressors, who slew alike the innocent babe and the grey-haired grandsire.

Alfgar had volunteered to share the perils of his adopted lord, but was kindly told that it would be inexpedient. Indeed, by many he would have been suspected of treachery.

“Nay, Alfgar, remain at home; to you I commend the protection of my home, of the Lady Hilda, and our children,” said Elfwyn.

Neither were Bertric’s prayers to be allowed to share his father’s perils any better received. He was bidden to remain where he was, and to be a good son to his mother–not that he had ever been otherwise.

And so the last sad words of adieu were spoken as bravely as might be, and the little troop, about fifty in number, departed from the hall. They crossed the rude wooden bridge, and took the southern road.

Their loved ones watched them until the last. They saw their warriors cast many a longing lingering look behind, and then the woodland hid them from sight; and a dread quiet came down upon Aescendune, as when the air is still before the coming hurricane.


It was a long time before any news of the warriors reached home; for in those days the agony of suspense had always to be endured in the absence of posts and telegrams; but after a few weeks a special messenger came from the army. He was one of the Aescendune people, and his was the great privilege of embracing wife and family once more ere returning to the perils of the field.

His news was brief. The forces of Mercia had been placed under the command of Edric, formerly the sheriff of the county in which Aescendune lay, but long since returned to court, where his smooth tongue gained him great wealth and high rank. Gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence, he had obtained a complete ascendency over the mind of the weak Ethelred, while he surpassed even that treacherous monarch in perfidy and cruelty.

Under his direction that unhappy king had again and again embrued his hands in innocent blood. This very year they had both given a proof of these tendencies worth recording.

Edric had conceived a hatred against the Ealdorman Elfhelm, which he carefully concealed. He invited that unfortunate lord to a banquet at Shrewsbury, where he welcomed him as his intimate friend. On the third or fourth day of the feast he took him to hunt in a wood where he had prepared an ambuscade, and while all the rest were engaged in the chase, the common hangman of Shrewsbury, one Godwin “port hund,” or the town’s hound, bribed by Edric to commit the crime, sprang from behind a bush, and foully assassinated the innocent ealdorman. Not to be behind his favourite in cruelty, Ethelred caused the two sons of the unfortunate Elfhelm to be brought to him at Corsham, near Bath, where he was then residing, and he ordered their eyes to be put out.

Such was the man to whom the destinies of the English army were now confided, and such the king who ruled the unhappy land–cruel as he was cowardly.

Under such leaders it is no marvel that the messenger Ulric had no good news to tell. The army had assembled, and had marched after the Danes, whose policy for the present was to avoid a pitched battle, and to destroy their enemies in detail. So they were continually harassing the English forces, but avoiding every occasion of fair fight. Did the English march to a town under the impression the Danes were about to attack it, they found no foe, but heard the next day that some miserable district at a distance had been cruelly ravaged. Did they lie in ambush, the Danes took another road. Meanwhile the English stragglers were repeatedly cut off; and did they despatch a small force anywhere, it was sure to fall into an ambush, and be annihilated by the pagans.

Their repeated disasters weakened every man’s heart, and gave rise to a well-founded belief that there was treachery in their midst, and that plans decided even in their secret councils were made known to the Danes. What wonder, then, that they grew dispirited, and that murmurs arose on all hands, while the army could scarcely keep together for want of provisions?

The war was at present raging in the southern counties, but ever and anon the marauders made a forced march, and sacked some helpless town remote from the seat of war.

There was no prospect, Elfwyn said, of the campaign coming to an end; the harvest must take care of itself or the women and children must reap it. The men were all and more than all, wanted in Wessex.

There were loving messages for wife and children, and Alfgar was not forgotten.

But there was one piece of information contained in the letter which made Alfgar very uneasy, and reminded him of his dream.

One Boom, a retainer of Elfwyn, had been taken prisoner by the Danes, and by a very uncommon piece of good fortune had escaped with life from his ferocious captors. He stated that he had been closely examined concerning his home, character of the population, and their means of defence, especially as to the events of St. Brice’s night. Although he strove to evade their questions, yet he incautiously, or through fear of torture, revealed that he came from Aescendune.

The name evoked immediate interest, and he was asked several further questions about the destruction of Anlaf’s house, and what became of his son. He tried to baffle their inquiries, and thought he had succeeded.

These facts the Lady Hilda thought of sufficient importance to justify their communication to Alfgar. They caused her some anxiety.

The messenger returned to the army. Weeks passed away, and the women and children, as well as the old men, were all busy in getting in the bounteous harvest with which this year God had blessed the earth. Alfgar and Bertric worked like the theows themselves, and slowly the precious gifts were deposited in the garners.

Alfgar had one source of consolation in the love he bore to Ethelgiva, a love which was fully returned. Their troth had been pledged to each other with the full consent of Elfwyn and the Lady Hilda; and on those fine August nights, as they walked home after the labours in the field, or the service in the priory, they forgot all the misery of the land, and lived only for each other.

Happy, happy days! How often they looked back to them afterwards!

A second messenger came during harvest time from the camp, now on the borders of Sussex. His news was no better than before. The Danes were harassing the army on every side, but no decisive battle had been fought. The enemy still seemed to know all the plans of the English beforehand; and the booty they had gained was enormous, while a deep distrust of their leaders was spreading amongst the defenders of the soil.

Elfwyn expressed his intention of seeking an early leave of absence should events justify him in paying a short visit home. This delighted the hearts of his wife and children, and they were happy in anticipation.

It was a fine day in September when the thankful people of Aescendune were called to raise the song of “Harvest Home”–for the fruits of the earth had indeed been safely gathered in ere the winter storms by the hands of women and children. Such joy as befitted the absence of their lords was theirs, and Alfgar and Bertric, not to waste the holiday, agreed to have a day’s hunting in the forest, rich with all the hues of autumn, while the feast was preparing at home.

The day was delightful. Two young theows, whose fathers had gone to the war, but who had been left behind as being too young to share its dangers, although in the flush of early youth, accompanied them, and were soon loaded with the lighter game their masters had killed, while a deer they had slain was hung in the trees, where a wolf could not reach it, and where wayfarers were not likely to pass until the sportsmen should return for their own. Onward they wandered until the sun was declining, and then, having some few miles of forest to thread, and the deer to send for, they turned on their homeward way.

No thought of any danger was on their minds that day. The Danes were too far distant. They were more than a hundred miles from the seat of war, and a hundred miles in those days meant more than five hundred would mean now.

About the hour of five they rested and bathed in a tributary of the Avon. Bertric’s spirits were very high: he laughed and talked like one whose naturally ardent temperament was stimulated by the bracing atmosphere and the exercise. His active and handsome frame, bright with all the attractions of youth, was equal to any amount of woodland toil; and Alfgar, who was, as we have said, deeply attached to his companion, felt proud of his younger brother, as he delighted to call him, and Bertric loved to be called so. Alfgar trusted some day to have a yet better claim to the title.

Leaving the bathing place while there was yet time to reach home before dark, they came at last to a ford across the stream, the only spot where it could be safely forded, and as such known to the natives of the vicinity; when their dogs began to whine, and to run with their noses to the ground, as if they had found something unusual to attract their attention.

The two theows who were in front paused at the ford till their lords came up, and then pointed to the ground with a terrified aspect. Alfgar gazed and started, as did Bertric. There were the footmarks of a large number of horses, evidently belonging to a body of horsemen who must have crossed the ford since they passed it in the morning.

“Can my father have returned unexpectedly?” said Bertric. “He said he should get an early leave of absence.”

Alfgar did not answer for a moment. He was evidently very much alarmed.

“Look,” he said, “at the footmarks, where some have dismounted.”

Bertric looked, and comprehended the terror of his companion. The armed heels, which had sunk deeply into the mud, had left traces utterly unlike the marks to which they were accustomed in similar cases.

The stories they had both heard of predatory bands of Danes who had wandered far from their main body, and had sought gratification for their lust for plunder and blood in remote spots where the inhabitants dwelt in fancied security, came to their minds, and also the inquiries which had been made in the Danish camp concerning their home and the circumstances of St. Brice’s fatal night.

“Still, it may be our father and his men; they may have worn the spoils of the enemy.”

The spoils generally went the other way, Alfgar thought, but did not say.

They crossed the ford in silence, intent only on reaching home. For a long time they could follow the trail of the horsemen.

“Who can lead them?” said Bertric, as they bounded onward. “They seem to know the country.”

A sad and harrowing suspicion had filled Alfgar’s mind, that these men might be deputed to avenge the fiery death of his father–and to avenge it, probably, on the very people who would have died to prevent it.

But the one desire uppermost in the minds of the whole party was to hasten home. They feared every moment that they might see the bright flame through the trees, or that the wind might bring them the tidings that they were all too late–too late to save those whom they loved from outrage and death.

So they continued running, or walking when breath failed, at the utmost speed they could command, and just as the sun set they arrived at the crest of a hill, from which they could see the hall.

“Thank God, it yet stands!” said they both.

They descended, and plunged again into the wood which lay between them and the goal; their theows, less perfectly trained, and perhaps less ardent, fell slightly behind. They came upon the spot where they had left the deer, not, however, with any intention of encumbering themselves with the burden, as may be imagined. They looked, however, at the tree where they had hung the carcase, and their eyes met each other’s.

“It is gone,” said Alfgar, with bated breath.

They said no more, but continued their headlong course, until they had reached an open glade by the side of a small stream. Here their dogs became uneasy, and uttered low threatening growls.

The lads paused, then advanced cautiously, looking before and around.

Turning a corner round some thick underwood, they came suddenly upon a sight which justified all their previous alarm.

A huge fire burned by the side of a brook, over which was roasting the deer which they had killed. The light shone out in the gathering darkness, and illumined the recesses of the bushes around, and the faces of a large body of men reclining on the bank, or engaged in the task of sharpening their arms while their supper was roasting. A momentary glance told that they were Danes, thus advancing under the shadow of the forest, to take their foes unawares. Their horses were picketed around, and sentinels were evidently posted, to give the first alarm of any danger.

Alas! they had seen the poor lads before they could withdraw into the woods which fringed the path, and instantly prepared for pursuit. Three or four jumped upon their horses, two or three more plunged into the wood to cut off the retreat. It was all-important to their plans that their presence should not be discovered; and these manoeuvres were executed in perfect silence.

They had not seen the theows behind, but fixed all their attention on Bertric and Alfgar, who, on their part, comprehending their danger, turned at right angles into the wood, and ran for life. The boys were fleet of foot, and would probably have distanced their pursuers, but an arrow from some ambush on their left hand pierced Alfgar’s thigh, wounding an important muscle, and he could run no farther.

“Leave me, leave me, Bertric,” he cried; “you are in more danger than I.”

Poor Bertric would not leave his friend. He tried to assist him, and turned a deaf ear to all solicitations for the few moments that they could have availed. It was soon too late, and the heavy hands of the Danish warriors were laid upon them.

Shuddering at the contact, they yet yielded without useless and unmanly resistance, and were at once led to the side of the fire.

It was a scene Salvator Rosa would have loved to paint: the firelight bringing out in strong relief the huge limbs of the oak trees, the bronzed faces of those dread warriors, which no pitiful or tender feelings ever seemed to visit.

The theows had fortunately, being behind, taken the alarm in time, and escaped unnoticed by the Danes.

A large athletic warrior, but yet a man of some age, rose from his seat by the fire, and scrutinised the captives. Alfgar knew him. It was Sidroc, an old fellow warrior of his father, who had often visited their home near Aescendune, and he was at no loss now to comprehend the object of their enterprise.

The warrior gazed upon him fixedly, and then spoke aloud.

“Whence your name and lineage? Your face is not of the hue of the faces of the children of the land. Speak! who art thou?”

“Alfgar, the son of Anlaf.”

“Thor and Woden be praised! We had learned that you yet lived. Boy, thou art the object of our search. Thou, the descendant of kings, mayst not longer dwell with slaves. Thy father is at hand.”


“Yes. Didst thou not know that he escaped on St. Brice’s night, baffling his would-be assassins, and yet lives? He thought thee dead, and only sought vengeance, when he heard from the captured prisoner of Elfwyn’s band that thou wert yet alive, and he is come to seek thee.”

Poor Alfgar!


For a few minutes Alfgar sat like one stunned by the intelligence. Joy and fear were strangely mingled together; well did he remember Sidroc’s frequent visits to his father’s English home, and that the warrior had more than once taken him in his infancy upon his knee and sung to him war songs, telling him that he too must be a warrior some day.

He was roused from his reverie by the voice of Sidroc.

“Who is your companion?”

“Bertric, the son of Elfwyn of Aescendune; oh! you will see that no wrong is done to him, will you not? his people saved my life.”

“That they might make you a Christian, knowing that your father would sooner you had expired in the flames which consumed his house.

“No,” he added sternly; “he is doomed, he and his alike.”

Alfgar uttered a piteous cry, and appealed so earnestly that one might have thought he would have moved a heart of stone, yet all in vain.

“Does the eagle mourn over the death of the dove, or heed what pangs the kid may suffer which writhes beneath its talons? If you are of the race of warrior kings, act like one.”

While this was going on the warriors had been selecting some light and sharp arrows and stringing their bows.

“You have but one target, not two,” cried Sidroc, “and scant time wherein to use it.”

“Then you shall have two, for I will die with him,” cried Alfgar, comprehending at once that the death by which Saint Edmund of East Anglia, and many a martyr since, had glorified God, was destined for his companion, his brother.

He snatched at a weapon, and rushed to the tree to which the victim was bound, as if he would save him or perish in the attempt, but a grasp like iron was thrown around him, and he struggled in vain.

“Bind him, but do him no harm,” said Sidroc, “and detain him where he may see all, and strengthen his nerves for future occasions.”

Against the tree leaned Bertric, pale, yet strangely composed; the bitterness of death seemed to be past, so composed were his youthful features. The lips moved in earnest, fervent prayer. Once he glanced with a look of affection, almost of pity, upon Alfgar, and when the latter made the vain attempt to deliver him, he cried, “Do not grieve for me, dear Alfgar, you cannot save me; you have done your best; pray for me, that is all you can do.”

His patient courage, so unexpected in one so young, touched his captors, as nothing else would have touched them, and Sidroc approached him.

“Bertric of Aescendune, thou mayst save thy life on one condition; dost thou wish to live?”

The thought of home and friends, of his mother, awoke in his breast, and he replied:

“Yes, for the sake of those who love me.”

“I know nought of them, neither must thou henceforth, but thou mayst live if thou wilt join our nation and renounce thy Christianity; for I, who have no son, and seek one, will even adopt thee.”

“I cannot deny my faith.”

“Dost thou not fear the pain, the sharp arrows with which they will pierce thee?”

“I fear them, but I fear eternal death more; God help me!”

He repeated these last words over and over again, as if the struggle were very sore.

“Decide,” said Sidroc.

“I have decided–‘In manus tuas, Domine,'” he breathed out, “‘commendo spiritum meum.'”

“Let fly,” cried the chieftain, “and let the obstinate young fool know what death is.”

Arrow after arrow sped through the air and pierced the legs and arms of the martyr boy, for it was the cruel amusement of the Danes to avoid the vital parts in their living target. The frame of the sufferer quivered with agony, while the lip seemed striving to form the holy name, which has given strength to thousands of martyrs, whether at the stake, beneath the ferocious beast, or in whatsoever manner it has pleased God to make His strength perfect in weakness.

Then Alfgar saw what was the marvellous power of Christianity, and beheld a heroism utterly beyond the fierce excitement which nerved his countrymen for their scenes of carnage and blood; not one of his pagan friends could have suffered as calmly, as patiently–it seemed easier for the sufferer to bear than for Alfgar to look on; once or twice the latter gave audible vent to his emotions, but the look which Bertric turned upon him spoke volumes, and he restrained himself lest he should add to the pain of the victim. He knew not then that the example before him would nerve him in moments of severest trial, then fast approaching, that the one accusation urged against the Christians, which he had felt most keenly, that of cowardice, was answered in the weak yet valiant boy, who found strength in the name of Christ to endure all for His sake; neither did his fierce countrymen know that they were preparing a disappointment for the pagan Anlaf, and for all those of his house and lineage.

We cannot enter more closely into the secret which gave the martyr his strength; we know not the visions of heavenly joy which may have overpowered the present pain, we know not whether He who gave this elaborate framework of flesh and blood, nerve and sinew, miraculously suspended the full operation of His laws, as is elsewhere recorded of other martyrs. Certain it is, that sooner than relinquish Him, Bertric, like Saint Edmund nearly two centuries earlier, yielded his life to the rage of the enemies of His Lord {vi}.

The struggle was sharp but short, for Sidroc, to the surprise, and we must add the disgust, of his compatriots, seized a bow and sent an arrow straight to the heart. One nervous shudder passed through the limbs, and all was still; they had killed the body, and had no more that they could do.