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stories which we owe to our Celtic forefathers, let us see what the Saxons brought us from over the sea.

Almost the oldest Anglo-Saxon book that we have is called Beowulf. Wise men tell us that, like the tales of Arthur, like the tales of Ossian, this book was not at first the work of one man, but that it has been gradually put together out of many minstrel songs. That may be so, but what is sure is that these tales are very old, and that they were sung and told for many years in the old homes of the English across the sea before they came to Britain and named it Angleland.

Yet, as with the old Gaelic and Cymric tales, we have no very old copy of this tale. But unlike these old tales, we do not find Beowulf told in different ways in different manuscripts. There is only one copy of Beowulf, and that was probably written in the tenth or eleventh century, long years after the English were firmly settled in the land.

As Beowulf is one of our great book treasures, you may like to hear something of its story.

Long ago, in the time when Queen Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. sat upon the throne, there lived a learned gentleman called Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. He was an antiquary. That is, he loved old things, and he gathered together old books, coins, manuscripts and other articles, which are of interest because they help to make us understand the history of bygone days.

Sir Robert Cotton loved books especially, and like many other book lovers, he was greedy of them. It was said, indeed, that he often found it hard to return books which had been lent to him, and that, among others, he had books which really ought to have belonged to the King.

Sir Robert’s library soon became famous, and many scholars came to read there, for Sir Robert was very kind in allowing other people to use his books. But twice his library was taken from him, because it was said that it contained things which were dangerous for people to know, and that he allowed the enemies of the King to use it. That was in the days of Charles I., and those were troublous times.

The second time that his library was taken from him, Sir Robert died, but it was given back to his son, and many years later his great-great-grandson gave it to the nation.

In 1731 the house in which the library was took fire, and more than a hundred books were burned, some being partly and some quite destroyed. Among those that were partly destroyed was Beowulf. But no one cared very much, for no one had read the book or knew anything about it.

Where Sir Robert found Beowulf, or what he thought about it, we shall never know. Very likely it had remained in some quiet monastery library for hundreds of years until Henry VIII. scattered the monks and their books. Many books were then lost, but some were saved, and after many adventures found safe resting-places. Among those was Beowulf.

Some years after the fire the Cotton Library, as it is now called, was removed to the British Museum, where it now remains. And there a Danish gentleman who was looking for books about his own land found Beowulf, and made a copy of it. Its adventures, however, were not over. Just when the printed copies were ready to be published, the British bombarded Copenhagen. The house in which the copies were was set on fire and they were all burned. The Danish gentleman, however, was not daunted. He set to work again, and at last Beowulf was published.

Even after it was published in Denmark, no Englishman thought of making a translation of the book, and it was not until fifty years more had come and gone that an English translation appeared.

When the Danish gentleman made his copy of Beowulf, he found the edges of the book so charred by fire that they broke away with the slightest touch. No one thought of mending the leaves, and as years went on they fell to pieces more and more. But at last some one woke up to the fact that this half-burned book was a great treasure. Then it was carefully mended, and thus kept from wasting more.

So now, after all its adventures, having been found, we shall never know where, by a gentleman in the days of Queen Elizabeth, having lain on his bookshelves unknown and unread for a hundred years and more, having been nearly destroyed by fire, having been still further destroyed by neglect, Beowulf at last came to its own, and is now carefully treasured in a glass case in the British Museum, where any one who cared about it may go to look at it.

And although it is perhaps not much to look at, it is a very great treasure. For it is not only the oldest epic poem in the Anglo-Saxon language, it is history too. By that I do not mean that the story is all true, but that by reading it carefully we can find out much about the daily lives of our forefathers in their homes across the seas. And besides this, some of the people mentioned in the poem are mentioned in history too, and it is thought that Beowulf, the hero himself, really lived.

And now, having spoken about the book and its adventures, let us in the next chapter speak about the story. As usual, I will give part of it in the words of the original, translated, of course, into modern English. You can always tell what is from the original by the quotation marks, if by nothing else.


HROTHGAR, King of the Spear Danes, was a mighty man in war, and when he had fought and conquered much, he bethought him that he would build a great and splendid hall, wherein he might feast and be glad with his people.

And so it was done. And when the hall was built, there night by night the thanes gathered and rejoiced with their King; and there, when the feast was over, they lay them down to sleep.

Within the hall all was gladness, but without on the lone moorland there stalked a grim monster, named Grendel, whose dark heart was filled with anger and hate. To him the sound of song and laughter was deep pain, and he was fain to end it.

“He, the Grendel, set off then after night was come to seek the lofty house, to see how the Ring Danes had ordered it after the service of beer. He found them therein, a troup of nobles sleeping after the feast. They knew not sorrow, the wretchedness of men, they knew not aught of misfortune.

“The grim and greedy one was soon prepared, savage and fierce, and in sleep he seized upon thirty of the thanes, and thence he again departed exulting in his prey, to go home with the carcases of the slain, to reach his own dwelling.

“Then was in the morning twilight, at the breaking of day, Grendel’s war-craft revealed to men. Then was lamentation upraised after the feast, a great noise in the morning.

“The mighty prince, a noble of old goodness, sat unblithe; the strong in armies suffered, the thanes endured sorrow, after they beheld the track of the hated one, the accursed spirit.”

But in spite of all their grief and horror, when night came the thanes again lay down to rest in the great hall. And there again the monster returned and slew yet more thanes, so that in horror all forsook the hall, and for twelve long years none abode in it after the setting of the sun.

And now far across the sea a brave man of the Goths, Beowulf by name, heard of the doings of Grendel, and he made up his mind to come to the aid of King Hrothgar.

“He commanded to make ready for him a good ship; quoth he, he would seek the war-king over the swan’s path; the renowned prince since he had need of men.

“The good chieftain had chosen warriors of the Geátish people, the bravest of those who he could find. With fifteen men he sought the sea-wood. A warrior, a man crafty in lakes, pointed out the boundaries of the land.

“The time passed on, the ship was on the waves, the boat beneath a mountain, the ready warriors stept upon the prow. The men bore into the bosom of the bark bright ornaments, their ready warlike appointments.

“The men shoved forth the bounden wood, the men upon the journey they desired.

“The likest to a bird the foam-necked ship, propelled by the wind, started over the deep waves of the sea, till that about one hour of the second day, the wreathed prowed ship had sailed over, so that the traveller saw the land.

“Then quickly the people of the Westerns stepped upon the plain. They tied the sea-wood, they let down their shirts of mail, their war-weeds. They thanked God because that the waves had been easy to them.”

And now these new-come warriors were led to King Hrothgar. He greeted them with joy, and after feasting and song the Danes and their King departed and left the Goths to guard the hall. Quietly they lay down to rest, knowing that ere morning stern battle would be theirs.

“Then under veils of mist came Grendel from the moor; he bare God’s anger. The criminal meant to entrap some one of the race of men in the high hall. He went under the welkin, until he saw most clearly the wine hall, the treasure house of men, variegated with vessels. That was not the first time that he had sought Hrothgar’s home. Never he, in all his life before or since found bolder men keepers of the hall.

“Angry of mood he went, from his eyes, likest to fire, stood out a hideous light. He saw within the house many a warrior sleeping, a peaceful band together. Then his mood laughed. The foul wretch meant to divide, ere day came, the life of each from his body.”

Quickly then he seized a warrior and as quickly devoured him. But as he stretched forth his hand to seize another, Beowulf gripped him in his awful grasp.

Then began a terrible combat. The hall echoed with cries and sounds of clashing steel. The Goths awoke, joining in the fight, but all their swords were of no avail against the ogre. With his bare hands alone Beowulf fought, and thought to kill the monster. But Grendel escaped, though wounded to death indeed, and leaving his hand, arm, and shoulder behind in Beowulf’s grip.

When morning came there was much rejoicing. Hrothgar made a great feast, at which he gave rich gifts to Beowulf and his friends. The evening passed in song and laughter, and when darkness fell the Danes lay down to rest in the hall as of old.

But the evil was not over. Grendel indeed was slain, but his mother, an ogre almost as fierce as he, was ready to avenge him. So when night fell she hastened to the hall, and carried off Hrothgar’s best loved thane.

“Then was there a cry in Heorot. Then was the prudent king, the hoary warrior, sad of mood, when he learned that his princely thane, the dearest to him, no longer lived. Quickly was Beowulf fetched to the bower, the man happy in victory, at break of day.”

And when Beowulf heard the mournful tale he comforted the King with brave and kindly words, and quickly he set forth to the dreadful mere, the dwelling of the water-witch, Grendel’s mother. And here he plunged in ready to fight.

“Soon did she, who thirsting for gore, grim and greedy, for a hundred years had held the circuit of the waves, discover that some one of men, some strange being, was trying from above the land. She grappled then towards him, she seized the warrior in her foul claws.”

Then beneath the waves was there a fierce struggle, but Beowulf in the end conquered. The water-witch was slain, and rejoicing, the hero returned to Hrothgar.

Now indeed had peace come to the Danes, and loaded with thanks and rewards, Beowulf returned homeward.

Many years passed. Beowulf himself became king in his own land, and for fifty years he ruled well, and kept his folk in peace. Then it fell that a fearful Fire-Dragon wasted all the land, and Beowulf, mindful of his deeds of old, set forth to slay him.

Yet ere he fought, he bade farewell to all his thanes, for he knew well that this should be his last fight.

“Then greeted he every one of the men, the bold helm bearer greeted his dear comrades for the last time. I would not bear sword or weapon against the worm if I knew how else I might proudly grapple with the wretch, as I of old with Grendel did. But I ween this war fire is hot, fierce and poisonous; therefore have I on me shield and byrnie. . . . Then did the famous warrior arise beside his shield, hard under helmet he bare the sword- shirt, under the cliffs of stone, he trusted in the strength of one man; nor is such an expedition for a coward.”

Fiercely then did the battle rage between hero and dragon. But Beowulf’s sword failed him in his need, and it was like to go ill with him. Then, when his thanes who watched saw that, fear fell upon them, and they fled. One only, Wiglaf was his name, would not forsake his liege lord. Seizing his shield and drawing his sword, he cried, “Come, let us go to him, let us help our chieftain, although the grim terror of fire be hot.”

But none would follow him, so alone he went: “through the fatal smoke he bare his war helmet to the assistance of his lord.”

Fierce was the fight and long. But at length the dragon lay dead. Beowulf had conquered, but in conquering he had received his death wound. And there, by the wild seashore, he died. And there a sorrowing people buried him.

“For him, then did the people of the Geáts prepare upon the earth a funeral pile, strong, hung round with helmets, with war boards and bright byrnies as he had requested. Weeping, the heroes laid down in the midst their dear lord.

“Then began the warriors to awake upon the hill the mightiest of bale-fires. The wood smoke rose aloft, dark from the foe of wood. Noisily it went mingled with weeping. . . .

“The people of the Westerns wrought then a mound over the sea: it was high and broad, easy to behold by the sailors over the waves, and during ten days they built up the beacon of the war- renowned, the mightiest of fires. . . . Then round the mound rode a troupe of beasts of war, of nobles, twelve in all. They would speak about their King, they would call him to mind. They praised his valor, and his deeds of bravery they judged with praise, even as it is fitting that a man should extol his friendly lord, should love him in his soul, when he must depart from the body to become of naught.

“Thus the people of the Geáts, his hearth comrades, mourned their dear lord. They said that he was of the kings of the world, the mildest and gentlest of men, the most gracious to his people, and the most jealous of glory.”


Stories of Beowulf, by H. E. Marshall. Beowulf, translated by W. Huyshe.


ALTHOUGH there are lines of Beowulf which seem to show that the writer of the poem was a Christian, they must have been added by some one who copied or retold the story long after the Saxons had come to Britain, for the poet who first told the tale must have been a heathen, as all the Saxons were.

The Britons were Christian, for they had learned the story of Christ from the Romans. But when the Saxons conquered the land they robbed and ruined the churches, the Christian priests were slain or driven forth, and once more the land became heathen.

Then, after many years had passed, the story of Christ was again brought to England. This time it came from Ireland. It was brought from there by St. Columba, who built a church and founded a monastery on the island of Iona. And from there his eager, wandering priests carried the story far and wide, northward to the fortress of the Pictish kings, and southward to the wild Saxons who dwelt amid the hills and uplands of Northumbria.

To this story of love and gentleness the wild heathen listened in wonder. To help the weak, to love and forgive their enemies, was something unthought of by these fierce sea-rovers. Yet they listened and believed. Once again churches were built, priests came to live among the people, and the sound of Christian prayer and praise rose night and morning from castle and from hut.

For thirty years and more St. Columba, the passionate and tender, taught and labored. Many monasteries were founded which became, as it were, the lighthouses of learning and religion. There the monks and priests lived, and from them as centers they traveled out in all directions teaching the heathen. And when at last St. Columba closed his tired eyes and folded his weary hands, there were many more to carry on his work.

Then, also, from Rome, as once before, the story of Christ was brought. In 597, the year in which St. Columba died, St. Augustine landed with his forty followers. They, too, in time reached Northumbria; so, side by side, Roman and Celt spoke the message of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

The wild Saxon listened to this message, it is true. He took Christianity for his religion, but it was rather as if he had put on an outer dress. His new religion made little difference to his life. He still loved fighting and war, and his songs were still all of war. He worshiped Christ as he had worshiped Woden, and looked upon Him as a hero, only a little more powerful than the heroes of whom the minstrels sang. It was difficult to teach the Saxons the Bible lessons which we know so well, for in those far-off days there were no Bibles. There were indeed few books of any kind, and these few belonged to the monks and priests. They were in Latin, and in some of them parts of the Bible had been translated into Latin. But hardly any of the men and women of England could read or understand these books. Indeed, few people could read at all, for it was still the listening time. They learned the history of their country from the songs of the minstrels, and it was in this way, too, that they came to learn the Bible stories, for these stories were made into poetry. And it was among the rugged hills of Northumbria, by the rocky shore where the sounding waves beat and beat all day long, that the first Christian songs in English were sung. For here it was that Caedmon, the “Father of English Song,” lived and died.

At Whitby there was a monastery ruled over by the Abbess Hilda. This was a post of great importance, for, as you know, the monasteries were the schools and libraries of the country, and they were the inns too, so all the true life of the land ebbed and flowed through the monasteries. Here priest and soldier, student and minstrel, prince and beggar came and went. Here in the great hall, when work was done and the evening meal over, were gathered all the monks and their guests. Here, too, would gather the simple folk of the countryside, the fishermen and farmers, the lay brothers and helpers who shared the work of the monastery. When the meal was done the minstrels sang, while proud and humble alike listened eagerly. Or perhaps “it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turn.”

But when, at the monastery of Whitby, it was agreed that all should sing in turn, there was one among the circle around the fire who silently left his place and crept away, hanging his head in shame.

This man was called Caedmon. He could not sing, and although he loved to listen to the songs of others, “whenever he saw the harp come near him,” we are told, “he arose out of shame from the feast and went home to his house.” Away from the bright firelight out into the lonely dark he crept with bent head and lagging steps. Perhaps he would stand a moment outside the door beneath the starlight and listen to the thunder of the waves and the shriek of the winds. And as he felt in his heart all the beauty and wonder of the world, the glory and the might of the sea and sky, he would ask in dumb pain why, when he could feel it touch his heart, he could not also sing of the beauty and wonder, glory and might. [68]

One night Caedmon crept away as usual, and went “out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the horses that night. He there composed himself to rest. A person appeared to him then in a dream and, calling him by name, said, ‘Caedmon, sing some song to me.’

“He answered, ‘I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment and retired to this place, because I cannot sing.’

“The other who talked to him replied, ‘However, you shall sing.’

“‘What shall I sing?’ rejoined he.

“‘Sing the beginning of created things,’ said the other.

“Whereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus:–

‘Now must we praise the guardian of heaven’s kingdom, The creator’s might and his mind’s thought; Glorious father of men! as of every wonder he, Lord eternal, formed the beginning.
He first framed for the children of earth The heaven as a roof; holy Creator!
Then mid-earth, the Guardian of mankind, The eternal Lord, afterwards produced; The earth for men, Lord almighty.’

“This,” says the old historian, who tells the story in Latin, “is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep. For verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally (that is word for word) translated out of one language into another without losing much of their beauty and loftiness.”*

*Bede, Ecclesiastical History.

Awakening from his sleep, Caedmon remembered all that he had sung in his dream. And the dream did not fade away as most dreams do. For he found that not only could he sing these verses, but he who had before been dumb and ashamed when the harp was put into his hand, could now make and sing more beautifully than could others. And all that he sang was to God’s glory.

In the morning, full of his wonderful new gift, Caedmon went to the steward who was set over him, and told him of the vision that he had had during the night. And the steward, greatly marveling, led Caedmon to the Abbess.

The Abbess listened to the strange tale. Then she commanded Caedmon, “in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream and repeat the verses that they might all give their judgment what it was and whence his verse came.”

So the simple farm laborer, who had no learning of any kind, sang while the learned and grave men listened. And he who was wont to creep away in dumb shame, fearing the laughter of his fellows, sang now with such beauty and sweetness that they were all of one mind, saying that the Lord Himself had, of His heavenly grace, given to Caedmon this new power.

Then these learned men repeated to Caedmon some part of the Bible, explained the meaning of it, and asked him to tell it again in poetry. This Caedmon undertook to do, and when he fully understood the words, he went away. Next morning he returned and repeated all that he had been told, but now it was in beautiful poetry.

Then the Abbess saw that, indeed, the grace of God had come upon the man. She made him at once give up the life of a servant which he had been leading, and bade him become a monk. Caedmon gladly did her bidding, and when he had been received among them, his brother monks taught to him all the Bible stories.

But Caedmon could neither read nor write, nor is it at all likely that he ever learned to do either even after he became a monk, for we are told that “he was well advanced in years” before his great gift of song came to him. It is quite certain that he could not read Latin, so that all that he put into verse had to be taught to him by some more learned brother. And some one, too, must have written down the verses which Caedmon sang.

We can imagine the pious, humble monk listening while another read and translated to him out of some Latin missal. He would sit with clasped hands and earnest eyes, intent on understanding. Then, when he had filled his mind with the sacred story, he would go away by himself and weave it into song. Perhaps he would walk about beneath the glowing stars or by the sounding sea, and thank God that he was no longer dumb, and that at last he could say forth all that before had been shut within his heart in an agony of silence. “And,” we are told, “his songs and his verse were so winsome to hear, that his teachers themselves wrote and learned from his mouth.”

“Thus Caedmon, keeping in mind all he heard, and, as it were, chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse; and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers.

“He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis; and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ.”

As has been said, there are lines in Beowulf which seem to have been written by a Christian. But all that is Christian in it is merely of the outside; it could easily be taken away, and the poem would remain perfect. The whole feeling of the poem is not Christian, but pagan. So it would seem that what is Christian in it has been added long after the poem was first made, yet added before the people had forgotten their pagan ways.

For very long after they became Christian the Saxons kept their old pagan ways of thought, and Caedmon, when he came to sing of holy things, sang as a minstrel might. To him Abraham and Moses, and all the holy men of old, were like the warrior chieftains whom he knew and of whom the minstrels sang. And God to him was but the greatest of these warriors. He is “Heaven’s Chief,” “the Great Prince.” The clash and clang of sword and trumpet calls are heard “amid the grim clash of helms.” War filled the greatest half of life. All history, all poetry were bound up in it. Caedmon sang of what he saw, of what he knew. He was Christian, he had learned the lesson of peace on earth, but he lived amid the clash of arms and sang them.


ONE of Caedmon’s poems is call The Genesis. In this the poet begins by telling of how Satan, in his pride, rebelled against God, and of how he was cast forth from heaven with all those who had joined with him in rebelling.

This story of the war in heaven and of the angels’ fall is not in the Bible. It is not to be found either in any of the Latin books which the monks of Whitby may have had. The story did not come from Rome, but from the East. How, then, did Caedmon hear it?

Whitby, we must remember, was founded by Celtic, and not by Roman monks. It was founded by monks who came from Ireland to Iona, and from thence to Northumbria. To them the teaching of Christ had come from Jerusalem and the East rather than from Rome. So here again, perhaps, we can see the effect of the Celts on our literature. It was from Celtic monks that Caedmon heard the story of the war in heaven.

After telling of this war, Caedmon goes on to relate how the wicked angels “into darkness urged them their darksome way.”

“They might not loudly laugh,
But they in hell-torments,
Dwelt accursed.
And woe they knew
Pain and sorrow,
Torment endured
With darkness decked,
Hard retribution,
For that they had devised
Against God to war.”

Then after all the fierce clash of battle come a few lines which seem like peace after war, quiet after storm.

“Then was after as before
Peace in heaven,
Fair-loving thanes,
The Lord dear to all.”

Then God grieved at the empty spaces in heaven from whence the wicked angels had been driven forth. And that they might at last be filled again, he made the world and placed a man and woman there. This to the chief of the fallen angels was grief and pain, and his heart boiled within him in anger.

“Heaven is lost to us,” he cried; “but now that we may not have it, let us so act that it shall be lost to them also. Let us make them disobey God,
“Then with them will he be wroth of mind, Will cast them from his favor,
Then shall they seek this hell
And these grim depths,
Then may we have them to ourselves as vassals, The children of men in this fast durance.”

Then Satan asks who will help him to tempt mankind to do wrong. “If to any followers I princely treasure gave of old while we in that good realm happy sate,” let him my gift repay, let him now aid me.

So one of Satan’s followers made himself ready. “On his head the chief his helmet set,” and he, “wheeled up from thence, departed through the doors of hell lionlike in air, in hostile mood, dashed the fire aside, with a fiend’s power.”

Caedmon next tells how the fiend tempted first the man and then the woman with guileful lies to eat of the fruit which had been forbidden to them, and how Eve yielded to him. And having eaten of the forbidden fruit, Eve urged Adam too to eat, for it seemed to her that a fair new life was open to her. “I see God’s angels,” she said,

“Encompass him
With feathery wings
Of all folk greatest,
Of bands most joyous.
I can hear from far
And so widely see,
Through the whole world,
Over the broad creation.
I can the joy of the firmament
Hear in heaven.
It became light to me in mind
From without and within
After the fruit I tasted.”

And thus, urged by Eve, Adam too ate of the forbidden fruit, and the man and woman were driven out of the Happy Garden, and the curse fell upon them because of their disobedience.

So they went forth “into a narrower life.” Yet there was left to them “the roof adorned with holy stars, and earth to them her ample riches gave.”

In many places this poem is only a paraphrase of the Bible. A paraphrase means the same thing said in other words. But in other places the poet seems to forget his model and sings out of his own heart. Then his song is best. Perhaps some of the most beautiful lines are those which tell of the dove that Noah sent forth from the ark.

“Then after seven nights
He from the ark let forth
A palid dove
To fly after the swart raven,
Over the deep water,
To quest whether the foaming sea
Had of the green earth
Yet any part laid bare.
Wide she flew seeking her own will, Far she flew yet found no rest.
Because of the flood
With her feet she might not perch on land, Nor on the tree leaves light.
For the steep mountain tops
Were whelmed in waters.
Then the wild bird went
At eventide the ark to seek.
Over the darling wave she flew
Weary, to sink hungry
To the hands of the holy man.”

A second time the dove is sent forth, and this is how the poet tells of it:–

“Far and wide she flew
Glad in flying free, till she found a place On a gentle tree. Gay of mood she was and glad Since she sorely tired, now could settle down, On the branches of the tree, on its beamy mast. Then she fluttered feathers, went a flying off again, With her booty flew, brought it to the sailor, From an olive tree a twig, right into his hands Brought the blade of green.

“Then the chief of seamen knew that gladness was at hand, and he sent forth after three weeks the wild dove who came not back again; for she saw the land of the greening trees. The happy creature, all rejoicing, would no longer of the ark, for she needed it no more.”*

*Stopford Brooke

Besides Genesis many other poems were thought at one time to have been made by Caedmon. The chief of these are Exodus and Daniel. They are all in an old book, called the Junian MS., from the name of the man, Francis Dujon, who first published them. The MS. was found among some other old books in Trinity College, Dublin, and given to Francis Dujon. He published the poems in 1655, and it is from that time that we date our knowledge of Caedmon.

Wise men tell us that Caedmon could not have made any of these poems, not even the Genesis of which you have been reading. But if Caedmon did not make these very poems, he made others like them which have been lost. It was he who first showed the way, and other poets followed.

We need not wonder, perhaps, that our poetry is a splendor of the world when we remember that it is rooted in these grand old tales, and that it awoke to life through the singing of a strong son of the soil, a herdsman and a poet. We know very little of this first of English poets, but what we do know makes us love him. He must have been a gentle, humble, kindly man, tender of heart and pure of mind. Of his birth we know nothing; of his life little except the story which has been told. And when death came to him, he met it cheerfully as he had lived.

For some days he had been ill, but able still to walk and talk. But one night, feeling that the end of life for him was near, he asked the brothers to give to him for the last time the Eucharist, or sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

“They answered, ‘What need of the Eucharist? for you are not likely to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in perfect health.’

“‘However,’ said he, ‘bring me the Eucharist.’

“Having received the same into his hand, he asked whether they were all in charity with him, and without any enmity or rancour.

“They answered that they were all in perfect charity and free from anger; and in their turn asked him whether he was in the same mind towards them.

“He answered, ‘I am in charity, my children, with all the servants of God.’

“Then, strengthening himself with the heavenly viaticum,* he prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked how near the time was when the brothers were to be awakened to sing the nocturnal praises of our Lord.

*The Eucharist given to the dying.

“They answered, ‘It is not far off.’

“Then he said, ‘Well, let us wait that hour.’ And signing himself with the sign of the cross, he laid his head on the pillow, and falling into a slumber ended his life so in silence.”

Thus his life, which had been begun in silence, ended also in silence, with just a few singing years between.

“Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to His presence, leaving the world by a quiet death. And that tongue which had composed so many holy words in praise of the Creator, uttered its last words while he was in the act of signing himself with a cross, and recommending himself into His hands.”*

*Bede, Ecclesiastical History

At Whitby still the ruins of a monastery stand. It is not the monastery over which the Abbess Hilda ruled or in which Caedmon sang, for in the ninth century that was plundered and destroyed by the fierce hordes of Danes who swept our shores. But in the twelfth century the house was rebuilt, and parts of that building are still to be seen.


WHILE Caedmon was still singing at Whitby, in another Northumbrian village named Jarrow a boy was born. This boy we know as Bede, and when he was seven years old his friends gave him into the keeping of the Abbot of Wearmouth. Under this Abbot there were two monasteries, the one at Jarrow and the other at Wearmouth, a few miles distant. And in these two monasteries Bede spent all the rest of his life.

When Bede was eight years old Caedmon died. And although the little boy had never met the great, but humble poet, he must have heard of him, and it is from Bede’s history that we learn all that we know of Caedmon.

There is almost as little to tell of Bede’s life as of Caedmon’s. He passed it peacefully, reading, writing, and teaching within the walls of his beloved monastery. But without the walls wars often raged, for England was at this time still divided into several kingdoms, whose kings often fought against each other.

Bede loved to learn even when he was a boy. We know this, for long afterward another learned man told his pupils to take Bede for an example, and not spend their time “digging out foxes and coursing hares.”* And when he became a man he was one of the most learned of his time, and wrote books on nearly every subject that was then thought worth writing about.

*C. Plummer.

Once, when Bede was still a boy, a fearful plague swept the land, “killing and destroying a great multitude of men.” In the monastery of Jarrow all who could read, or preach, or sing were killed by it. Only the Abbot himself and a little lad were left. The Abbot loved services and the praises of the church. His heart was heavy with grief and mourning for the loss of his friends; it was heavy, too, with the thought that the services of his church could no longer be made beautiful with song.

For a few days the Abbot read the services all alone, but at the end of a week he could no longer bear the lack of singing, so calling the little lad he bade him to help him and to chant the responses.

The story calls up to us a strange picture. There stands the great monastery, all its rooms empty. Along its stone-flagged passages the footsteps of the man and boy echo strangely. They reach the chapel vast and dim, and there, before the great altar with its gleaming lights, the Abbot in his robes chants the services, but where the voices of choir and people were wont to join, there sounds only the clear high voice of one little boy.

That little boy was Bede.

And thus night and morning the sound of prayer and praise rose from the deserted chapel until the force of the plague had spent itself, and it was once more possible to find men to take the places of those singers who had died.

So the years passed on until, when Bede was thirty years of age, he became a priest. He might have been made an abbot had he wished. But he refused to be taken away from his beloved books. “The office,” he said, “demands household care, and household care brings with it distraction of mind, hindering the pursuit of learning.”*

*H. Morley, English Writers.

Bede wrote many books, but it is by his Ecclesiastical History (that is Church history) that we remember him best. As Caedmon is called the Father of English Poetry, Bede is called the Father of English History. But it is well to remember that Caedmon wrote in Anglo-Saxon and Bede in Latin.

There were others who wrote history before Bede, but he was perhaps the first who wrote history in the right spirit. He did not write in order to make a good minstrel’s tale. He tried to tell the truth. He was careful as to where he got his facts, and careful how he used them. So those who came after him could trust him. Bede’s History, you remember, was one of the books which Layamon used when he wrote his Brut, and in it we find many of the stories of early British history which have grown familiar to us.

It is in this book that we find the story of how Gregory saw the pretty children in the Roman slave market, and of how, for love of their fair faces, he sent Augustine to teach the heathen Saxons about Christ. There are, too, many stories in it of how the Saxons became Christian. One of the most interesting, perhaps, is about Edwin, King of Northumbria. Edwin had married a Christian princess, Ethelberga, sister of Eadbald, King of Kent. Eadbald was, at first, unwilling that his sister should marry a pagan king. But Edwin promised that he would not try to turn her from her religion, and that she and all who came with her should be allowed to worship what god they chose.

So the Princess Ethelberga came to be Queen of Northumbria, and with her she brought Paulinus, “a man beloved of God,” as priest. He came to help her to keep faithful among a heathen people, and in the hope, too, that he might be able to turn the pagan king and his folk to the true faith.

And in this hope he was not disappointed. By degrees King Edwin began to think much about the Christian faith. He gave up worshipping idols, and although he did not at once become Christian, “he often sat alone with silent lips, while in his inmost heart he argued much with himself, considering what was best to do and what religion he should hold to.” At last the King decided to call a council of his wise men, and to ask each one what he thought of this new teaching. And when they were all gathered Coifi, the chief priest, spoke.

“‘O King,’ he said, ‘consider what this is which is now preached to us; for I verily declare to you, that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I. And yet there are many who receive greater favors from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for anything, they would rather forward me, who have been more careful to serve them. It remains, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now preached to us, better and more efficacious, we immediately receive them without delay.’

“Another of the King’s chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added: ‘The present life of man, O King, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, while the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from whence he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.'”

Others of the King’s wise men and counselors spoke, and they all spoke to the same end. Coifi then said that he would hear yet more of what Paulinus had to tell. So Paulinus rose from his place and told the people more of the story of Christ. And after listening attentively for some time Coifi again cried out, “‘I advise, O King, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them.’

“In short, the King publicly gave his license to Paulinus to preach the Gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ. And when he inquired of the high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols with the enclosures that were about them, Coifi answered, ‘I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshiped through ignorance, for an example to all others through the wisdom which has been given me by the true God?’

“Then immediately, in contempt of his former superstitions, he desired the King to furnish him with arms and a stallion. And mounting the same he set out to destroy the idols. For it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms or to ride upon any but a mare.

“Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with a spear in his hand, he mounted the King’s stallion and proceeded to the idols. The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted. But he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held. And rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire.”*

*Dr. Giles’s translation of Ecclesiastical History.

One of the reasons why I have chosen this story out of Bede’s History is because it contains the picture of the sparrow flitting through the firelit room. Out of the dark and cold it comes into the light and warmth for a moment, and then vanishes into the dark and cold once more.

The Saxon who more than thirteen hundred years ago made that word-picture was a poet. He did not know it, perhaps, he was only speaking of what he had often seen, telling in simple words of something that happened almost every day, and yet he has given us a picture which we cannot forget, and has made our literature by so much the richer. He has told us of something, too, which helps us to realize the rough life our forefathers lived. Even in the king’s palace the windows were without glass, the doors stood open to let out the smoke from “the good fire in the midst,” for there were no chimneys, or at best but a hole in the roof to serve as one. The doors stood open, even though “the storms of snow and rain prevailed abroad,” and in spite of the good fire, it must have been comfortless enough. Yet many a stray bird might well be drawn thither by the light and warmth.

Bede lived a peaceful, busy life, and when he came to die his end was peaceful too, and his work ceased only with his death. One of his pupils, writing to a friend, tells of these last hours.*

*Extracts are from a letter of Cuthbert, afterwards Abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow, to his friend Cuthwin.

For some weeks in the bright springtime of 735 Bede had been ill, yet “cheerful and rejoicing, giving thanks to almighty God every day and night, yea every hour.” Daily, too, he continued to give lessons to his pupils, and the rest of the time he spent in singing psalms. “I can with truth declare that I never saw with my eyes, or heard with my ears, any one return thanks so unceasingly to the living God,” says the letter. “During these days he labored to compose two works well worthy to be remembered besides the lessons we had from him, and singing of psalms: that is, he translated the Gospel of St. John as far as the words, ‘But what are these among so many,’ into our own tongue for the benefit of the church, and some collections out of the Book of Notes of Bishop Isidor.

“When the Tuesday before the Ascension of our Lord came, he began to suffer still more in his health. But he passed all that day and dictated cheerfully, and now and then among other things said, ‘Go on quickly, I know not how long I shall hold out, and whether my maker will not soon take me away.’

“But to us he seemed very well to know the time of his departure. And so he spent the night awake in thanksgiving. And when the morning appeared, that is Wednesday, he ordered us to write with all speed what he had begun. . . .

“There was one of us with him who said to him, ‘Most dear Master, there is still one chapter wanting. Do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?’

“He answered, ‘It is no trouble. Take your pen and make ready and write fast. . . .’

“Then the same boy said once more, ‘Dear Master, there is yet one sentence not written.’

“And he said, ‘Well, then write it.’

“And after a little space the boy said, ‘Now it is finished.’

“And he answered, ‘Well, thou hast spoken truth, it is finished. Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing my holy place, where I was wont to pray, that I may also, sitting, call upon my Father.'”

And sitting upon the pavement of his little cell, he sang, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” “When he had named the Holy Ghost he breathed his last, and departed to the heavenly kingdom.”

So died Bede, surnamed the Venerable.

We have come to think of Venerable as meaning very old. But Bede was only sixty-two when he died, and Venerable here means rather “Greatly to be honored.”

There are two or three stories about how Bede came to be given his surname. One tells how a young monk was set to write some lines of poetry to be put upon the tomb where his master was buried. He tried hard, but the verse would not come right. He could not get the proper number of syllables in his lines.

“In this grave lie the bones of

he wrote. But he could not find an adjective that would make the line the right length, try how he might. At last, wearied out, he fell asleep over his task.

Then, as he slept, an angel bent down, and taking the pen from the monk’s tired fingers, wrote the words, “the Venerable,” so that the line ran, “In this grave lie the bones of the Venerable Bede.” And thus, for all time, our first great historian is known as The Venerable Bede.


The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, by Bede, translated by Dr. Giles.


WHILE Caedmon sang his English lays and Bede wrote his Latin books, Northumbria had grown into a center, not only of English learning, but of learning for western Europe. The abbots of Jarrow and Wearmouth made journeys to Rome and brought back with them precious MSS. for the monastery libraries. Scholars from all parts of Europe came to visit the Northumbrian monasteries, or sent thither for teachers.

But before many years had passed all that was changed. Times of war and trouble were not yet over for England. Once again heathen hordes fell upon our shores. The Danes, fierce and lawless, carrying sword and firebrand wherever they passed, leaving death and ruin in their track, surged over the land. The monasteries were ruined, the scholars were scattered. A life of peaceful study was no longer possible, the learning of two hundred years was swept away, the lamp of knowledge lit by the monks grew dim and flickered out.

But when sixty years or more had passed, a king arose who crushed the Danish power, and who once more lit that lamp. This king was Alfred the Great.

History tells us how he fought the Danes, how he despaired, and how he took heart again, and how he at last conquered his enemies and brought peace to his people.

Alfred was great in war. He was no less great in peace. As he fought the Danes with the sword, so he fought ignorance with his pen. He loved books, and he longed to bring back to England something of the learning which had been lost. Nor did he want to keep learning for a few only. He wanted all his people to get the good of it. And so, as most good books were written in Latin, which only a few could read, he began to translate some of them into English.

In the beginning of one of them Alfred says, “There are only a few on this side of the Humber who can understand the Divine Service, or even explain a Latin epistle in English, and I believe not many on the other side of the Humber either. But they are so few that indeed I cannot remember one south of the Thames when I began to reign.”

By “this side of the Humber” Alfred means the south side, for now the center of learning was no longer Northumbria, but Wessex.

Alfred translated many books. He translated books of geography, history and religion, and it is from Alfred that our English prose dates, just as English poetry dates from Caedmon. For you must remember that although we call Bede the Father of English History, he wrote in Latin for the most part, and what he wrote in English has been lost.

Besides writing himself, Alfred encouraged his people to write. He also caused a national Chronicle to be written.

A chronicle is the simplest form of history. The old chronicles did not weave their history into stories, they simply put down a date and something that happened on that date. They gave no reasons for things, they expressed no feelings, no thoughts. So the chronicles can hardly be called literature. They were not meant to be looked upon as literature. The writers of them used them rather as keys to memory. They kept all the stories in their memories, and the sight of the name of a king or of a battle was enough to unlock their store of words. And as they told their tales, if they forgot a part they made something up, just as the minstrels did.

Alfred caused the Chronicle to be written up from such books and records as he had from the coming of the Romans until the time in which he himself reigned. And from then onwards to the time of the death of King Stephen the Saxon Chronicle was kept. It is now one of the most useful books from which we can learn the history of those times.

Sometimes, especially at the beginning, the record is very scant. As a rule, there is not more than one short sentence for a year, sometimes not even that, but merely a date. It is like this:–

“Year 189. In this year Severus succeeded to the empire and reigned seventeen winters. He begirt Britain with a dike from sea to sea.

“Year 190.

“Year 199.

“Year 200. In this year was found the Holy Rood.”

And so on it goes, and every now and again, among entries which seem to us of little or no importance, we learn something that throws great light on our past history. And when we come to the time of Alfred’s reign the entries are much more full. From the Chronicle we learn a great deal about his wars with the Danes, and of how he fought them both by land and by sea.

The Saxon Chronicle, as it extended over many hundred years, was of course written by many different people, and so parts of it are written much better than other parts. Sometimes we find a writer who does more than merely set down facts, who seems to have a feeling for how he tells his story, and who tries to make the thing he writes about living. Sometimes a writer even breaks into song.

Besides causing the Chronicle to be written, Alfred translated Bede’s History into English. And so that all might learn the history of their land, he rebuilt the ruined monasteries and opened schools in them once more. There he ordered that “Every free-born youth in the Kingdom, who has the means, shall attend to his book, so long as he have no other business, till he can read English perfectly.”*

*Preface to Boethius’ Pastoral Care, translated into English by Alfred.

Alfred died after having reigned for nearly thirty years. Much that he had done seemed to die with him, for once again the Danes descended upon our coasts. Once again they conquered, and Canute the Dane became King of England. But the English spirit was strong, and the Danish invasion has left scarcely a trace upon our language. Nor did the Danish power last long, for in 1042 we had in Edward the Confessor an English king once more. But he was English only in name. In truth he was more than half French, and under him French forces began already to work on our literature. A few years later that French force became overwhelming, for in 1066 William of Normandy came to our shores, and with his coming it seemed for a time as if the life of English literature was to be crushed out forever. Only by the Chronicle were both prose and poetry kept alive in the English tongue. And it is to Alfred the Great that we owe this slender thread which binds our English literature of to-day with the literature of a thousand years ago.


“William came o’er the sea,
With bloody sword came he.
Cold heart and bloody sword hand
Now rule the English land.”
The Heimskringla

WILLIAM THE NORMAN ruled England. Norman knights and nobles filled all the posts of honor at court, all the great places in the land. Norman bishops and abbots ruled in church and monastery. The Norman tongue was alone the speech in court and hall, Latin alone was the speech of the learned. Only among the lowly, the unlearned, and the poor was English heard.

It seemed as if the English tongue was doomed to vanish before the conquering Norman, even as the ancient British tongue had vanished before the conquering English. And, in truth, for two hundred years it might have been thought that English prose was dead, “put to sleep by the sword.” But it was not so. It slept, indeed, but to awake again. For England conquered the conqueror. And when English Literature awoke once more, it was the richer through the gifts which the Norman had brought.

One thing the Normans had brought was a liking for history, and soon there sprang up a whole race of chroniclers. They, like Bede, were monks and priests. They lived in monasteries, and wrote in Latin. One after another they wrote, and when one laid down his pen, another took it up. Some of these chroniclers were mere painstaking men who noted facts and dates with care. But others were true writers of literature, who told their tales in vivid, stirring words, so that they make these times live again for us. The names of some of the best of these chroniclers are Eadmer, Orderic Vitalis, and William of Malmesbury.

By degrees these Norman and Anglo-Norman monks became filled with the spirit of England. They wrote of England as of their home, they were proud to call themselves English, and they began to desire that England should stand high among the nations. It is, you remember, from one of these chroniclers, Geoffrey of Monmout (see chapter vi.), that we date the reawakening of story-telling in England.

As a writer of history Geoffrey is bad. Another chronicler* says of him, “Therefore as in all things we trust Bede, whose wisdom and truth are not to be doubted: so that fabler with his fables shall be forthwith spat out by us all.”

*William of Newbury.

But if Geoffrey was a bad writer of history, he was good as “a fabler,” and, as we have seen in chapter vii., it was to his book that we owe the first long poem written in English after the Conquest.

The Norman came with sword in hand, bringing in his train the Latin-writing chroniclers. But he did not bring these alone. He brought minstrels also. Besides the quiet monks who sat in their little cells, or in the pleasant cloisters, writing the history of the times, there were the light-hearted minstrels who roamed the land with harp and song.

The man who struck the first blow at Hastings was a minstrel who, as he rode against the English, sang. And the song he sang was of Roland, the great champion of Charlemagne. The Roland story is to France what the Arthur story is to us. And it shows, perhaps, the strength of English patriotic spirit that that story never took hold of English minds. Some few tales there are told of Roland in English, but they are few indeed, in comparison with the many that are told of Arthur.

The Norman, however, who did not readily invent new tales, was very good at taking and making his own the tales of others. So, even as he conquered England by the sword, he conquered our literature too. For the stories of Arthur were told in French before they came back to us in English. It was the same with other tales, and many of our old stories have come down to us, not through their English originals, but through the French. For the years after the Conquest are the poorest in English Literature.

From the Conquest until Layamon wrote his Brut, there was no English literature worthy of the name. Had we not already spoken of Layamon out of true order in following the story of Arthur, it is here that we should speak of him and of his book, The Brut. So, perhaps, it would be well to go back and read chapter vii., and then we must go on to the Metrical Romances.

The three hundred years from 1200 to 1500 were the years of the Metrical Romances. Metrical means written in verse. Romance meant at first the languages made from the Latin tongue, such as French or Spanish. After a time the word Romance was used to mean a story told in any Romance language. But now we use it to mean any story of strange and wonderful adventures, especially when the most thrilling adventures happen to the hero and heroine.

The Norman minstrels, then, took English tales and made them into romances. But when the English began once more to write, they turned these romances back again into English. We still call them romances, although they are now written in English.

Some of these tales came to us, no doubt, from the Danes. They were brought from over the sea by the fierce Northmen, who were, after all, akin to the Normans. The Normans made them into French stories, and the English turned them back into English.

Perhaps one of the most interesting of these Metrical Romances is that of Havelok the Dane.

The poem begins with a few lines which seem meant to call the people together to listen:–

“Hearken to me, good men,
Wives, maidens, and all men,
To a tale that I will tell to
Who so will hear and list thereto.”

We can imagine the minstrel as he stands in some market-place, or in some firelit hall, touching his harp lightly as he sings the words. With a quick movement he throws back his long green cloak, and shows his gay dress beneath. Upon his head he wears a jaunty cap, and his hair is long and curled. He sings the opening lines perhaps more than once, in order to gather the people round him. Then, when the eager crowd sit or stand about him, he begins his lay. It is most probably in a market-place that the minstrel stands and sings. For Havelok the Dane was written for the people and not for the great folk, who still spoke only French.

“There was a king in byegone days
That in his time wrought good laws, He did them make and full well hold,
Him loved young, him loved old,
Earl and baron, strong man and thane, Knight, bondman and swain,
Widows, maidens, priests and clerks And all for his good works.”

If you will compare this poetry with that of Layamon, you will see that there is something in it quite different from his. This no longer rests, as that does, upon accent and alliteration, but upon rhyme. The English, too, in which it is written, is much more like the English of to-day. For Havelok was written perhaps a hundred years after Layamon’s Brut. These are the first lines as they are in the MS.:–

“Herknet to me gode men
Wiues maydnes and alle men
Of a tale pat ich you wile telle
Wo so it wile here and yerto dwelle.”

That, you see, except for curious spelling, is not very unlike our English of to-day, although it is fair to tell you that all the lines are not so easy to understand as these are.


THE good king of whom we read in the last chapter was called Athelwold, and the poet tells us that there were happy days in England while he reigned. But at length he became sick unto death. Then was he sore grieved, because he had no child to sit upon the throne after him save a maiden very fair. But so young was she that she could neither “go on foot nor speak with mouth.” So, in this grief and trouble, the King wrote to all his nobles, “from Roxburgh all unto Dover,” bidding them come to him.

And all who had the writings came to the King, where he lay at Winchester. Then, when they were all come, Athelwold prayed them to be faithful to the young Princess, and to choose one of themselves to guard her until she was of age to rule.

So Godrich, Earl of Cornwall, was chosen to guard the Princess. For he was a true man, wise in council, wise in deed, and he swore to protect his lady until she was of such age as no longer to have need of him. Then he would wed her, he swore, to the best man in all the land.

So, happy in thought that his daughter should reign after him in peace, the King died, and there was great sorrow and mourning throughout the land. But the people remained at peace, for the Earl ruled well and wisely.

“From Dover to Roxburgh
All England of him stood in awe,
All England was of him adread.”

Meanwhile the Princess Goldboru grew daily more and more fair. And when Earl Godrich saw how fair and noble she became, he sighed and asked himself:–

“Whether she should be
Queen and lady over me.
Whether she should all England,
And me, and mine, have in her hand. Nay, he said,
‘I have a son, a full fair knave, He shall England all have,
He shall be king, he shall be sire.'”

Then, full of his evil purpose, Godrich thought no more of his oath to the dead king, but cast Goldboru into a darksome prison, where she was poorly clad and ill-fed.

Now it befell that at this time there was a right good king in Denmark. He had a son named Havelok and two fair daughters. And feeling death come upon him, he left his children in the care of his dear friend Godard, and so died.

But no sooner was the King in his grave than the false Godard took Havelok and his two sisters and thrust them into a dungeon.

“And in the castle did he them do
Where no man might come them to,
Of their kin. There they prison’d were, There they wept oft sort,
Both for hunger and for cold,
Ere they were three winters old.
Scantily he gave them clothes,
And cared not a nut for his oaths, He them nor clothed right, nor fed,
Nor them richly gave to bed.
Thane Godard was most sickerly
Under God the most traitorly
That ever in earth shapen was
Except the wicked Judas.”

After a time the traitor went to the tower where the children were, and there he slew the two little girls. But the boy Havelok he spared.

“For the lad that little was,
He kneeled before that Judas
And said, ‘Lord, mercy now!
Homage, Lord, to you I vow!
All Denmark I to you will give
If that now you let me live.'”

So the wicked Earl spared the lad for the time. But he did not mean that he should live. Anon he called a fisherman to him and said:–

“Grim, thou wist thou art my thral, Wilt thou do my will all
That I will bid thee?
To-morrow I shall make thee free, And give thee goods, and rich thee make, If that thou wilt this child take
And lead him with thee, to-night, When thou seest it is moonlight,
Unto the sea, and do him in!
And I will take on me the sin.”

Grim, the fisherman, rejoiced at the thought of being free and rich. So he took the boy, and wound him in an old cloth, and stuffed an old coat into his mouth, so that he might not cry aloud. Then he thrust him into a sack, and thus carried him home to his cottage.

But when the moon rose, and Grim made ready to drown the child, his wife saw a great light come from the sack. And opening it, they found therein the prince. Then they resolved, instead of drowning him, to save and nourish him as their own child. But they resolved also to hide the truth from the Earl.

At break of day, therefore, Grim set forth to tell Godard that his will was done. But instead of the thanks and reward promised to him, he got only evil words. So, speeding homeward from that traitor, he made ready his boat, and with his wife and three sons and two daughters and Havelok, they set sail upon the high sea, fleeing for their lives.

Presently a great wind arose which blew them to the coast of England. And when they were safely come to land, Grim drew up his boat upon the shore, and there he build him a hut, and there he lived, and to this day men call the place Grimsby.

Years passed. Havelok lived with the fisherman, and grew great and fair and strong. And as Grim was poor, the Prince thought it no dishonor to work for his living, and he became in time a cook’s scullion.

Havelok had to work hard. But although he worked hard he was always cheerful and merry. He was so strong that at running, jumping, or throwing a stone no one could beat him. Yet he was so gentle that all the children of the place loved him and played with him.

“Him loved all, quiet or bold,
Knight, children, young and old,
All him loved that him saw,
Both high men and low,
Of him full wide the word sprang
How he was meek, how he was strong.”

At last even the wicked Godrich in his palace heard of Havelok in the kitchen. “Now truly this is the best man in England,” he said, with a sneer. And thinking to bring shame on Goldboru, and wed her with a kitchen knave, he sent for Havelok.

“Master, wilt wed?” he asked, when the scullion was brought before him.

“Nay,” quoth Havelok, “by my life what should I do with a wife? I could not feed her, nor clothe her, nor shoe her. Whither should I bring a woman? I have no cot, I have no stick nor twig. I have neither bread nor sauce, and no clothes but one old coat. These clothes even that I wear are the cook’s, and I am his knave.”

At that Godrich shook with wrath. Up he sprang and began to beat Havelok without mercy.

“And said, ‘Unless thou her take,
That I well ween thee to make,
I shall hangen thee full high
Or I shall thrusten out thine eye.'”

Then seeing that there was no help for it, and that he must either be wedded or hanged, Havelok consented to marry Goldboru. So the Princess was brought, “the fairest woman under the moon.” And she, sore afraid at the anger and threats of Godrich, durst not do aught to oppose the wedding. So were they “espoused fair and well” by the Archbishop of York, and Havelok took his bride home to Grimsby.

You may be sure that Havelok, who was so strong and yet so gentle, was kind to his beautiful young wife. But Goldboru was unhappy, for she could not forget the disgrace that had come upon her. She could not forget that she was a princess, and that she had been forced to wed a low-born kitchen knave. But one night, as she lay in bed weeping, an angel appeared to her and bade her sorrow no more, for it was no scullion that she had wed, but a king’s son. So Goldboru was comforted.

And of all that afterward befell Havelok and Goldboru, of how they went to Denmark and overcame the traitor there, and received the kingdom; and of how they returned again to England, and of how Godrich was punished, you must read for yourselves in the book of Havelok the Dane. But this one thing more I will tell you, that Havelok and Goldboru lived happily together until they died. They loved each other so tenderly that they were never angry with each other. They had fifteen children, and all the sons became kings and all the daughters became queens.

I should like to tell you many more of these early English metrical romances. I should like to tell you of Guy of Warwick, of King Horn, of William and the Werewolf, and of many others. But, indeed, if I told all the stories I should like to tell this book would have no end. So we must leave them and pass on.


The Story of Havelok the Dane, rendered into later English by Emily Hickey. The Lay of Havelok the Dane, edited by W. W. Skeat in the original English.


BESIDES the metrical romances, we may date another kind of story from this time. I mean the ballads.

Ballad was an old French word spelt balade. It really means a dance-song. For ballads were at first written to be sung to dances–slow, shuffling, balancing dances such as one may still see in out-of-the-way places in Brittany.

These ballads often had a chorus or refrain in which every one joined. But by degrees the refrain was dropped and the dancing too. Now we think of a ballad as a simple story told in verse. Sometimes it is merry, but more often it is sad.

The ballads were not made for grand folk. They were not made to be sung in courts and halls. They were made for the common people, and sometimes at least they were made by them. They were meant to be sung, and sung out of doors. For in those days the houses of all but the great were very comfortless. They were small and dark and full of smoke. It was little wonder, then, that people lived out of doors as much as they could, and that all their amusements were out of doors. And so it comes about that many of the ballads have an out-of-door feeling about them.

A ballad is much shorter than a romance, and therefore much more easily learned and remembered. So many people learned and repeated the ballads, and for three hundred years they were the chief literature of the people. In those days men sang far more and read and thought far less than nowadays. Now, if we read poetry, some of us like to be quietly by ourselves. Then all poetry was made to be read or sung aloud, and that in company.

I do not mean you to think that we have any ballads remaining to us as old as the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century, which was the time in which Havelok was written. But what I want you to understand is that the ballad-making days went on for hundreds of years. The people for whom the ballads were made could not read and could not write; so it was of little use to write them down, and for a long time they were not written down. “They were made for singing, an’ no for reading,” said an old lady to Sir Walter Scott, who in his day made a collection of ballads. “They were made for singing an’ no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an’ they’ll never be sung mair.”

And so true is this, that ballads which have never been written down, but which are heard only in out-of-the-way places, sung or said by people who have never learned to read, have really more of the old-time feeling about them than many of those which we find in books.

We cannot say who made the ballads. Nowadays a poet makes a poem, and it is printed with his name upon the title-page. The poem belongs to him, and is known by his name. We say, for instance, Gray’s Elegy, or Shakespeare’s Sonnets. But many people helped to make the ballads. I do not mean that twenty or thirty people sat down together and said, “Let us make a ballad.” That would not have been possible. But, perhaps, one man heard a story and put it into verse. Another then heard it and added something to it. Still another and another heard, repeated, added to, or altered it in one way or another. Sometimes the story was made better by the process, sometimes it was spoiled. But who those men were who made and altered the ballads, we do not know. They were simply “the people.”

One whole group of ballads tells of the wonderful deeds of Robin Hood. Who Robin Hood was we do not certainly know, nor does it matter much. Legend has made him a man of gentle birth who had lost his lands and money, and who had fled to the woods as an outlaw. Stories gradually gathered round his name as they had gathered round the name of Arthur, and he came to be looked upon as the champion of the people against the Norman tyrants.

Robin was a robber, but a robber as courtly as any knight. His enemies were the rich and great, his friends were the poor and oppressed.

“For I never yet hurt any man
That honest is and true;
But those that give their minds to live Upon other men’s due.

I never hurt the husbandmen
That used to till the ground;
Nor spill their blood that range the wood To follow hawk or hound.

My chiefest spite to clergy is
Who in those days bear a great sway; With friars and monks with their fine sprunks I make my chiefest prey.”

The last time we heard of monks and priests they were the friends of the people, doing their best to teach them and make them happy. Now we find that they are looked upon as enemies. And the monasteries, which at the beginning had been like lamps of light set in a dark country, had themselves become centers of darkness and idleness.

But although Robin fought against the clergy, the friars and monks who did wrong, he did not fight against religion.

“A good manner then had Robin;
In land where that he were,
Every day ere he would dine,
Three masses would he hear.

The one in worship of the Father,
And another of the Holy Ghost,
The third of Our Dear Lady,
That he loved all the most.

Robin loved Our Dear Lady,
For doubt of deadly sin,
Would he never do company harm
That any woman was in.”

And Robin himself tells his followers:–

“But look ye do not husbandman harm That tilleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeoman
That walketh by green wood shaw, Nor no knight nor no squire
That will be good fellow.

These bishops and these archbishops, Ye shall them beat and bind,
The high sheriff of Nottingham,
Him hold ye in your mind.”

The great idea of the Robin Hood ballads is the victory of the poor and oppressed over the rich and powerful, the triumph of the lawless over the law-givers. Because of this, and because we like Robin much better than the Sheriff of Nottingham, his chief enemy, we are not to think that the poor were always right and the rulers always wrong. There were many good men among the despised monks and friars, bishops and archbishops. But there were, too, many evils in the land, and some of the laws pressed sorely on the people. Yet they were never without a voice.

The Robin Hood ballads are full of humor; they are full, too, of English outdoor life, of hunting and fighting.

Of quite another style is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. That takes us away from the green, leafy woods and dells of England to the wild, rocky coast of Scotland. It takes us from the singing of birds to the roar of the waves. The story goes that the King wanted a good sailor to sail across the sea. Then an old knight says to him that the best sailor that ever sailed the sea is Sir Patrick Spens.

So the King writes a letter bidding Sir Patrick make ready. At first he is pleased to get a letter from the King, but when he has read what is in it his face grows sad and angry too.

“Who has done me this evil deed?” he cries, “to send me out to sea in such weather?”

Sir Patrick is very unwilling to go. But the King has commanded, so he and his men set forth. A great storm comes upon them and the ship is wrecked. All the men are drowned, and the ladies who sit at home waiting their husbands’ return wait in vain.

There are many versions of this ballad, but I give you here one of the shortest and perhaps the most beautiful. “The king sits in Dumferling toune
Drinking the blude reid wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor, To sail this schip of mine?’

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt kne:
‘Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor That sails upon the se.’

The king has written a braid letter, And signed it wi his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence, Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red, A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick red, The teir blinded his ee.

‘O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed don to me,
To send me out this time o’ the yeir, To sail upon the se?

‘Mak hast, mak hast, my merry men all, Our guid schip sails the morne.’
‘Oh, say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.

‘Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone, Wi the auld moone in her arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master, That we will cum to harme.’

O, our Scots nobles wer richt laith To weet their cork-heild schoone;
Bot lang owre a’ the play wer played Thair hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang, may their ladies sit, Wi their fans into their hand,
Or eir they see Sir Patrick Spence Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang, may the ladies stand, Wi their gold kaims in their hair,
Waiting for their ain deir lords, For they’ll see them na mair.

Haf ower, haf ower to Aberdour,
It’s fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence. Wi the Scots lords at his feit.”
And now, just to end this chapter, let me give you one more poem. It is the earliest English song that is known. It is a spring song, and it is so full of the sunny green of fresh young leaves, and of all the sights and sounds of early summer, that I think you will like it.

“Summer is a-coming in,
Loud sing cuckoo;
Groweth seed and bloweth mead,
And springeth the wood new,
Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleateth after lamb,
Loweth after calf the cow;
Bullock starteth, buck verteth,*
Merry sing cuckoo.

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singeth thou cuckoo, Thou art never silent now.
Sing cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,
Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!”

*Turns to the green fern or “vert.” Vert is French for “green.”

Is that not pretty? Can you not hear the cuckoo call, even though the lamps may be lit and the winter wind be shrill without?

But I think it is prettier still in its thirteenth-century English. Perhaps you may be able to read it in that, so here it is:–

“Sumer is ycumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu;
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wde nu,
Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu.

Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu cuccu, Ne swike thu naver nu.
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!”*

*Ritson’s Ancient Songs.


Stories of Robin Hood, by H. E. Marshall. Stories of the Ballads, by Mary Macgregor. A Book of Ballads, by C. L. Thomson. Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (Everyman’s Library).


DURING the long years after the Norman Conquest when English was a despised language, it became broken up into many dialects. But as time went on and English became once more the language of the educated as well as of the uneducated, there arose a cultured English, which became the language which we speak to-day.

In the time of Edward III England was England again, and the rulers were English both in heart and in name. But England was no longer a country apart, she was no longer a lonely sea-girt island, but had taken her place among the great countries of Europe. For the reign of Edward III was a brilliant one. The knightly, chivalrous King set his country high among the countries of Europe. Men made songs and sang of his victories, of Creçy and of Calais, and France bowed the knee to England. But the wars and triumphs of the King pressed hardly on the people of England, and ere his reign was over misery, pestilence, and famine filled the land.

So many men had been killed in Edward’s French and Scottish wars that there were too few left to till the land. Then came a terrible disease called the Black Death, slaying young and old, rich and poor, until nearly half the people in the land were dead.

Then fewer still were left to do the work of the farms. Cattle and sheep strayed where they would, for there were none to tend them. Corn ripened and rotted in the fields, for there were none to gather it. Food grew dear as workers grew scarce. Then the field laborers who were left began to demand larger wages. Many of these laborers were little more than slaves, and their masters refused to pay them better. Then some left their homes and went away to seek new masters who would be willing to pay more, while others took to a life of wandering beggary.

The owners of the land had thought that they should be ruined did they pay the great wages demanded of them. Now they saw that they should be ruined quite as much if they could find no one at all to do the work. So laws were made forcing men to work for the same wages they had received before the plague, and forbidding them to leave the towns and villages in which they had been used to live. If they disobeyed they were imprisoned and punished.

Yet these new laws were broken again and again, because bread had now become so dear that it was impossible for men to live on as little as they had done before. Still many masters tried to enforce the law, and the land was soon filled not only with hunger and misery, but with a fierce class hatred between master and man. It was the beginning of a long and bitter struggle, and as the cry of the poor grew louder and louder, the hatred and spirit of revolt grew fiercer.

But the great of the land seemed little touched by the sorrows of the people. While they starved and died, the King, surrounded by a glittering court, gave splendid feasts and tournaments. He built fair palaces and chapels, founded a new round table, and thought to make the glorious days of Arthur live again.

And the great among the clergy cared as little for the poor as did the great among the nobles. Many of them had become selfish and worldly, some of them wicked, though of course there were many good men left among them too.

The Church was wealthy but the powerful priests kept that wealth in their own hands, and many of the country clergy were almost as miserably poor as the people whom they taught. And it was through one of these poor priests, named William Langland, that the sorrows of the people found a voice.

We know very little about Langland. So little do we know that we are not sure if his name was really William or not. But in his poem called The Vision of Piers the Ploughman he says, “I have lived in the land, quoth I, my name is long Will.” It is chiefly from his poem that we learn to know the man. When we have read it, we seem to see him, tall and thin, with lean earnest face, out of which shine great eyes, the eyes that see visions. His head is shaven like a monk’s; he wears a shabby long gown which flaps in the breeze as he strides along.

Langland was born in the country, perhaps in Oxfordshire, perhaps in Shropshire, and he went to school at Great Malvern. He loved school, for he says:–

“For if heaven be on earth, and ease to any soul, It is in cloister or in school. Be many reasons I find For in the cloister cometh no man, to chide nor to fight, But all is obedience here and books, to read and to learn.”

Perhaps Langland’s friends saw that he was clever, and hoped that he might become one of the great ones in the Church. In those days (the Middle Ages they were called) there was no sharp line dividing the priests from the people. The one shaded off into the other, as it were. There were many who wore long gowns and shaved their heads, who yet were not priests. They were called clerks, and for a sum of money, often very small, they helped to sing masses for the souls of the dead, and performed other offices in connection with the services of the Church. They were bound by no vows and were allowed to marry, but of course could never hope to be powerful. Such was Langland; he married and always remained a poor “clerk.”

But if Langland did not rise high in the Church, he made himself famous in another way, for he wrote Piers the Ploughman. This is a great book. There is no other written during the fourteenth century, in which we see so clearly the life of the people of the time.

There are several versions of Piers, and it is thought by some that Langland himself wrote and re-wrote his poem, trying always to make it better. But others think that some one else wrote the later versions.

The poem is divided into parts. The first part is The Vision of Piers the Ploughman, the second is The Vision Concerning Do Well, Do Bet, Do Best.

In the beginning of Piers the Ploughman Langland tells us how

“In a summer season when soft was the sun, I wrapped myself in a cloak as if I were a shepherd In the habit of a hermit unholy of works, Abroad I wandered in this world wonders to hear. But on a May morning on Malvern Hills
Me befell a wonder, a strange thing. Methought, I was weary of wandering, and went me to rest Under a broad bank by a burn side.
And as I lay, and leaned, and looked on the waters I slumbered in a sleeping it sounded so merry.”