The Rival Heirs being the Third and Last Chronicle of Aescendune by A. D. Crake

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  • 1882
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Being the Third and Last Chronicle of Aescendune; by Rev. A. D. Crake.































This little volume, now presented to the indulgence of the reader, is the third of a series intended to illustrate the history and manners of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers, whom a great historian very appropriately names “The Old English:” it does not claim the merit of deep research, only of an earnest endeavour to be true to the facts, and in harmony with the tone, of the eventful period of “The Norman Conquest.”

The origin of these tales has been mentioned in the prefaces to the earlier volumes, but may be briefly repeated for those who have not seen the former “Chronicles.” The writer was for many years the chaplain of a large school, and it was his desire to make the leisure hours of Sunday bright and happy, in the absence of the sports and pastimes of weekdays.

The expedient which best solved the difficulty was the narration of original tales, embodying the most striking incidents in the history of the Church and of the nation, or descriptive of the lives of our Christian forefathers under circumstances of difficulty and trial.

One series of these tales, of which the first was Aemilius, a tale of the Decian and Valerian persecutions, was based on the history of the Early Church; the second series, on early English history, and entitled “The Chronicles of Aescendune.”

The first of these Chronicles described the days of St. Dunstan, and illustrated the story of Edwy and Elgiva; the second, the later Danish invasions, and the struggle between the Ironside and Canute; the third is in the hands of the reader.

The leading events in each tale are historical, and the writer has striven most earnestly not to tamper with the facts of history; he has but attempted to place his youthful readers, to the best of his power, in the midst of the exciting scenes of earlier days–to make the young of the Victorian era live in the days when the Danes harried the shires of Old England, or the Anglo-Saxon power and glory collapsed, for the time, under the iron grasp of the Norman Conqueror.

Sad and terrible were those latter days to the English of every degree, and although we cannot doubt that the England of the present day is greatly the better for the admixture of Norman blood, nor forget that the modern English are the descendants of victor and vanquished alike,–yet our sympathy must be with our Anglo-Saxon forefathers, in their crushing humiliation and bondage.

The forcible words of Thierry, in summing up the results of the Conquest, may well be brought before the reader. He tells us that we must not imagine a change of government, or the triumph of one competitor over the other, but the intrusion of a whole people into the bosom of another people, broken up by the invaders, the scattered community being only admitted into the new social order as personal property–“ad cripti glebae,” to quote the very language of the ancient acts; so that many, even of princely descent, sank into the ranks of peasants and artificers–nay, of thralls and bondsmen–compelled to till the land they once owned.

We must imagine, he adds, two nations on the surface of the same country: the Normans, rich and free from taxes; the English (for the term Saxon is an anachronism), poor, dependent, and oppressed with burdens; the one living in vast mansions or embattled castles, the other in thatched cabins or half-ruined huts; the one people idle, happy, doing nought but fight or hunt, the other, men of sorrow and toil–labourers and mechanics; on the one side, luxury and insolence; on the other, misery and envy,–not the envy of the poor at the sight of the riches of others, but of the despoiled in presence of the spoilers.

These countries touched each other in every point, and yet were more distinct than if the sea rolled between them. Each had its language: in the abbeys and castles they only spoke French; in the huts and cabins, the old English.

No words can describe the insolence and disdain of the conquerors, which is feebly pictured in the Etienne de Malville of the present tale. The very name of which the descendants of these Normans grew proud, and which they adorned by their deeds on many a field of battle–the English name–was used as a term of the utmost contempt. “Do you think me an Englishman?” was the inquiry of outraged pride.

Not only Normans, but Frenchmen, Bretons–nay, Continentals of all nations, flocked into England as into an uninhabited country, slew and took possession.

“Ignoble grooms,” says an old chronicler, “did as they pleased with the best and noblest, and left them nought to wish for but death. These licentious knaves were amazed at themselves; they went mad with pride and astonishment, at beholding themselves so powerful–at having servants richer than their own fathers had been {i}.” Whatever they willed they deemed permissible to do; they shed blood at random, tore the bread from the very mouths of the famished people, and took everything–money, goods, lands {ii}. Such was the fate which befell the once happy Anglo-Saxons.

And it was not till after a hundred and forty years of slavery, that the separation of England from Normandy, in the days of the cowardly and cruel King John, and the signing of Magna Carta, gave any real relief to the oppressed; while it was later still, not till after the days of Simon de Montfort, when resistance to new foreigners had welded Norman and English into one, that the severed races became really united, as Englishmen alike. Then the greatest of the Plantagenets, Edward the First, the pupil of the man he slew at Evesham, was proud to call himself an Englishman–the first truly English king since the days of the hapless Harold; and one of whom, in spite of the misrepresentations of Scottish historians and novelists, English boys may be justly proud: his noble legislation was the foundation of that modern English jurisprudence, in which all are alike in the eyes of the law.

Not long after came the terrible “hundred years war,” wherein Englishmen, led by the descendants of their Norman and French conquerors, retaliated upon Normandy and France the woes they had themselves endured. Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt avenged Hastings; the siege of Rouen under Henry the Fifth was a strange Nemesis. During that century the state of France was almost as sad as that of England during the earlier period; it was but a field for English youth to learn the arts of warfare at the expense of the wretched inhabitants.

But these events, sad or glorious, as the reader, according to his age, may consider them, were long subsequent to the date of our tale; they may, however, well be before the mind of the youthful student as he sighs over the woes of the Conquest.

Two remarks which the writer has made in the prefaces to the former Chronicles he will venture to repeat, as essential to the subject in each case.

He has not, as is so common with authors who treat of this period, clothed the words of his speakers in an antique phraseology. He feels sure that men and boys spoke a language as free and easy in the times in question as our compatriots do now. We cannot present the Anglo-Saxon or Norman French they really used, and to load the work with words culled from Chaucer would be simply an anachronism; hence he has freely translated the speech of his characters into the modern vernacular.

Secondly, he always calls the Anglo-Saxons as they called themselves, “English;” the idea prevalent some time since, and which even finds its place in the matchless story of Ivanhoe, or in that striking novelette by Charles Mackay, “The Camp of Refuge,” that they called themselves or were called “Saxons,” is now utterly exploded among historians. It is true the Welsh, the Picts, and Scots called them by that designation, and do still; {iii} but they had but one name for themselves, as the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle make manifest–“Englishmen.” Nor did their Norman conquerors affect to call them by any other title, although in their mouths the honoured appellation was, as we have said, but a term of reproach {iv}.

The author has chosen his two heroes, Wilfred and Etienne, if heroes they can be called, as types of the English and Norman youth of the period, alike in their merits and in their vices. The effects of adversity on the one, and of success and dominant pride on the other–happily finally subdued in each case beneath the Cross on Calvary–form the chief attempt at “character painting” in the tale.

It is not without a feeling of regret that he sends forth from his hands the last of these “Chronicles,” and bids farewell to the real and imaginary characters who have seemed to form a part of his world, almost as if he could grasp their hands or look into their faces.

They are interwoven, too, with many treasured remembrances of past days, of the listening crowd of boys, now scattered through the world, and lost to the sight of the narrator, but who once by their eager interest encouraged the speaker, and at whose request the earliest of these tales was written. Happy indeed would he be, could he hope the written page would arouse the same interest, which the spoken narrative undoubtedly created, or the tales had never been published.

And now the writer must leave his tale to speak for itself, only taking this opportunity of assuring old friends, whose remembrances of a vanished past may be quickened by the story, how dear the memory of those days is to him; and to show this, however feebly, he begs leave to dedicate this tale to those who first heard it, on successive Sunday evenings, in the old schoolroom of All Saints’ School, Bloxham.

A. D. C.


It was the evening of Thursday, the fifth of October, in year of grace one thousand and sixty and six.

The setting sun was slowly sinking towards a dense bank of clouds, but as yet he gladdened the woods and hills around the old hall of Aescendune with his departing light.

The watchman on the tower gazed upon a fair scene outspread before him; at his feet rolled the river, broad and deep, spanned by a rude wooden bridge; behind him rose the hills, crowned with forest; on his right hand lay the lowly habitations of the tenantry, the farmhouses of the churls, the yet humbler dwellings of the thralls or tillers of the soil; the barns and stables were filled with the produce of a goodly harvest; the meadows full of sheep and oxen–a scene of rich pastoral beauty.

On his left hand a road led to the northeast, following at first the upward course of the river, until it left the stream and penetrated into the thick woodland.

Just as the orb of day was descending into the dense bank of cloud afore mentioned, the watchman marked the sheen of spear and lance, gilded by the departing rays, where the road left the forest. Immediately he blew the huge curved horn which he carried at his belt; and at the blast the inhabitants of the castle and village poured forth; loud shouts of joy rent the air–the deeper exclamations of the aged, the glad huzzas of children–and all hastened along the road to greet the coming warriors.

For well they knew that a glorious victory had gladdened the arms of old England; that at Stamford Bridge the proud Danes and Norwegians had sustained a crushing defeat, and been driven to seek refuge in their ships, and that these warriors, now approaching, were their own sons, husbands, or fathers, who had gone forth with Edmund, Thane of Aescendune, to fight under the royal banner of Harold, the hero king.

Who shall describe the meeting, the glad embraces, the half-delirious joy with which those home-bred soldiers were welcomed? No hirelings they, who fought for mere glory, or lust of gold, but husbands, fathers of families–men who had left the ploughshare and pruning hook to fight for hearth and altar.

“Home again”–home, saved from the fire and sword of the Northman, of whom tradition told so many dread stories–stories well known at Aescendune, where a young son of the then thane fifty years agone had died a martyr’s death, pierced through and through by arrows, shot slowly to death because he would not save himself by denying his Lord {v}.

At that dismal period the whole district had been devastated with fire and sword, and there were old men amongst the crowd who well remembered the destruction of the former hall and village by the ferocious Danes. And now God had heard their litanies: “From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us,” and had averted the scourge through the stout battle-axes and valiant swords of these warrior peasants and their noble leaders, such as Edmund, son of Alfgar.

Amidst all this joy the Lady Winifred of Aescendune stood upon the steps of the great hall to receive her lord, fair as the lily, a true Englishwoman, a loving wife and tender mother.

And by her, one on each side, stood her two children, Wilfred and Edith. He was an English boy of the primitive type, with his brown hair, his sunburnt yet handsome features, the fruit of country air and woodland exercise; she, the daughter, a timid, retiring girl, her best type the lily, the image of her mother.

And now the noble rider, the thane and father, descended from his war steed, and threw himself into the arms of the faithful partner of his joys and sorrows, who awaited his embrace; there was a moment of almost reverential silence as he pressed her to his manly breast, and then arose a cry which made the welkin ring:

“Long life to Edmund and Winifred of Aescendune!”

The bonfires blazed and illuminated the night; the bells (there were three at S. Wilfred’s priory hard by) rang with somewhat dissonant clamour; strains of music, which would seem very rough now, greeted the ears; but none the less hearty was the joy.

“The comet–what do you say of the comet now?” said one.

“That it boded ill to the Northmen,” was the reply of his neighbour.

They referred to that baleful visitor, the comet of 1066, which had turned night into day with its lurid and ghastly light, so that the very waves of the sea seemed molten in its beams, while the beasts of the field howled as if they scented the coming banquet of flesh afar off. Well might they stand aghast who gazed upon this awful portent, which had seemed to set the southern heavens on fire.

The banquet was spread in the great hall, and the returned warriors supped with their lord ere they retired to gladden their own families. Little was said till the desire for eating and drinking was appeased. But the minstrels sang many a song of the glories of the English race, particularly of the thanes of Aescendune, and of the best and noblest warrior amongst them–Alfgar, the companion of the Ironside, the father of the present earl, who had been borne to his grave full of years and honour amidst the tears of his people, in the very last year of the Confessor.

But when the boards were removed, the thanks rendered to the God who had given all, the huge fire replenished, the wine and mead handed round, then Edmund the Thane rose amidst the expectant silence of his retainers.

“The health of Harold, our noble king, elected to that post by the suffrages of all true Englishmen! Nobler title no king on earth may claim.”

It was drunk with acclamation.

“The memory of our brethren who went forth with us from Aescendune, and have left their bones at Stamford Bridge. Weep not for them, they have fallen in no unjust war, but for hearth and altar, for their country and their God; and this I swear, that while I rule at Aescendune, their souls shall never lack a mass at St. Wilfred’s altar, nor their widows and orphans food and shelter.”

This toast was drunk in solemn silence, and Edmund continued:

“Our toils are not yet over; we have one more battle to fight, and that may serve to free us from further need of fighting for the rest of our lives. William the Norman landed with sixty thousand men in Sussex, as many of you already know, while we were in Northumbria, or I trow he had never landed at all. The day after tomorrow we don our harness again to meet this new foe, but it will be child’s play compared with that which is past. Shall we, who have conquered the awful Harold Hardrada, the victor of a hundred fights, fear these puny Frenchmen? They have come in a large fleet; a fishing boat will be too roomy to take them back; their bones will whiten and enrich the fields of Sussex for generations.”

“The day after tomorrow!–start again the day after tomorrow, oh, my lord!” said a gentle, pleading voice.

“It must be so, my love; but why doubt that the God who has already given us such an earnest of victory will protect us still, and preserve us to each other?”

All the charm of the banquet was gone to the devoted wife, but young Wilfred pressed to his father’s side.

“Thou wilt take me this time, father.”

“Why, my boy, thou art barely fifteen, not old enough or strong enough yet to cope with men.”

“But these Normans are hardly men.”

“I fear me too much for thy tender age.”

“Oh, father, let me go.”

“Nay, thy mother needs thy care.”

“But I must begin some day, and what day better than this? I can fight by thy side.”

“There is really little danger, my wife,” he said, in reply to the pleading looks of the mother; “I would not take him to meet the Danes, but there is less danger in these dainty Frenchmen. The grandson of Alfgar should be encouraged, not restrained, when he seeks to play the man, even as we repress not, but stimulate the first feeble attempts of the young falcon to strike its prey.”

The Lady Winifred said no more at the time, for the duties of a host demanded her lord’s care. The moon was high in the heavens ere the last song was sung, the last tale told, and the guests dismissed with these parting words:

“And now, my merry men all, your own homes claim your presence. One day ye may safely give to rest; the day after tomorrow we march again; for Harold will complete his levies on the 10th, and we must not be behind. Goodnight! Saints and angels guard your well-deserved rest.”

The brief period of rest passed rapidly away, and the last night came–the last before departure for the fatal field of Senlac. Oh, how little did the Englishmen who left their homes with such confidence dream of the fatal collapse of their fame and glory which awaited them! They fell into the fatal error of underestimating their foe. Had it been otherwise, a host had assembled which had crushed the foreign invader; whereas there were few thanes in the midlands, and scarce any in the northern shires, who thought it worth while to follow Harold to Sussex.

So there were many who cried, “We have defended the northern shores and beaten the Danes; let the men of Sussex take their turn with these puny Frenchmen; we will turn out fast enough if they be beaten.”

Alas! it was too late to “turn out” when the only Englishman whose genius equalled that of William lay dead on the fatal field, and there was no king in Israel.

Amidst the general confidence begotten of the victory at Stamford Bridge there were some upon whom the dread shadow of the future had fallen, and who realised the crisis; foremost amongst these was the patriot king himself. He knew the foe, and was perhaps the only man in the country who did; he knew that civilisation had only sharpened the genius of the descendants of Rollo, without abating one jot of their prowess; that they were more terrible now than when they ravaged Normandy, two centuries earlier.

Yet he flinched not from the struggle.

And amidst all the confidence of her dependants, some such shadow seemed to have fallen on the Lady Winifred. An unaccountable presentiment of evil weighed upon her spirits. She could not leave her husband one moment while he was yet spared to her; ever and anon she was surprised into tender words of endearment, foreign to the general tenor of her daily life, which partook of the reserve of an unemotional age.

She begged hard that Wilfred might remain at home, but only prevailed so far as to obtain a promise that he should not actually enter the battle, and with this she was forced to rest content, to the great delight of the boy.

That last night–how brief it seemed! How frequent the repetition of the same loving words! How fervent the aspiration for the day of their happy reunion, the danger over!–how chilling the unexpressed, unspoken doubt, whether it would ever take place! Yet it seemed folly to doubt, after Stamford Bridge.

The supper, ordinarily, in those times, the social meal of the day, was comparatively a silent one. The very tones of the harp seemed modulated in a minor key, contrasting strongly with the jubilant notes of the previous night; and at an early hour, the husband and wife retired to their bower, to sit long in the narrow embrasure of the window, looking out on the familiar moonlit scene, her head on his breast, ere they retired to rest.

“Dear heart, thou seemest dull tonight, and yet thou wert not so when we parted for the last fight. Thou didst thy best then to cheer thy lord.”

“I know not why it is, but a chill foreboding seems to distress my spirits now, my Edmund; it must be mere weakness, but I feel as if I should never sit by thy dear side again.”

“We are in God’s hands, my dear one, and must trust all to Him. I go forth at the call of duty, and thou couldst not bid me to stay at home that men may call me ‘niddering.'”

“Nay, nay, my lord, forgive thy wife’s weakness; but why take Wilfred too?”

“He will be in no danger; he shall tarry with old Guthlac by the stuff. There will be many present like him, and whatever may chance to me or others, there can be no danger to them, for victory must follow our Harold. Hadst thou seen him at the Bridge thou couldst not doubt; he is the Ironside alive again, and as great as a general as a warrior.

“And now, dearest, a faint heart is faithlessness to God; let us commit ourselves in prayer to Him, and sleep together in peace.”

The eastern sky was aglow with the coming dawn when they arose. Soon all was bustle in the precincts, the neighing of horses, the clatter of arms; then came the hasty meal, the long lingering farewell; and the husband and father rode away with his faithful retainers; his boy, full of spirits, by his side, waving his plumed cap to mother and sister as they watched the retiring band until lost in the distance.

They retired, the Lady Winifred and her daughter Edith, to the summit of the solitary tower, which arose over the entrance gate of the hall; there, with eyes fast filling with tears, they watched the departing band as it entered into the forest, then gorgeous with all the tints of autumn, the golden tints of the ash and elm, the reddish-brown of the beech–all combining to make a picture, exceeding even the tender hues of spring in beauty.

But all this loveliness was the beauty of decay, the prelude to the fall of the leaf; the forests were but arrayed in their richest garb for the coming death of winter.

Into these forests, prophetic in their hues of decay, glided the brilliant train of Edmund, the last English lord of Aescendune.

Farewell, noble hearts! Happier far ye who go forth to die for your country than they who shall live to witness her captivity.


It was the evening of Saturday, the 14th of October, in the year of grace 1066.

All was over; the standard–the royal standard of Harold–had gone down in blood, and England’s sun had set for generations on the fatal field of Senlac or Hastings.

The orb of day had gone down gloomily; had it but gone down one hour earlier, all might yet have been well; it but lingered to behold the foe in possession of the hill where the last gallant Englishmen died with Harold, not one who fought around the standard surviving their king.

The wind had arisen, and was howling in fitful gusts across the ensanguined plain of the dead; dark night gathered over the gloomy slopes, conquered at such lavish waste of human life–dark, but not silent; for in every direction arose the moans of the wounded and dying.

On the fatal hill, where the harvest of death had been thickest, the Conqueror had caused his ducal pavilion to be reared, just where Harold’s standard had stood, and where the ruined altar of Battle Abbey stands now. They had cleared away the bodies to make room for the tent, but the ground was sodden with the blood of both Englishman and Norman.

The sounds of revelry issued from beneath those gorgeous hangings, and mocked the plaintive cries of the sufferers around.

“O Earth, Earth, such are thy rulers!” exclaimed a solemn voice. “To gratify one man’s ambition, this scene disfigures thy surface, and mocks the image of God in man.”

So spake a good monk, Norman although he was, who had followed Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, into England as his chaplain, selected because he could speak the English tongue–that warrior prelate, who in conjunction with Odo of Bayeux blessed the Conqueror’s banners, and ministered in things sacred to the “pious” invaders.

He wandered, this good brother, from one dying sinner to another, absolving the penitent, and ministering to the parched lips of many a sufferer. His own long brown garment was stiff at the extremities with gore, but he heeded it not.

And at last, when he came to a heap of slain just where the Normans had first hewn their way through the English entrenchments, after the sham retreat had drawn away so many of their defenders, he was attracted by the sound of convulsive weeping.

There, kneeling beside the body of an English warrior, he saw a boy of some fourteen years, sobbing as if his young heart would break, while he addressed the slain one with many a plaintive cry.

“Father, wake; speak but once more to me; thou canst not be dead. Oh my father, only once more speak to thy son.”

“Alas! my poor boy, he will speak no more until the earth gives up her dead, and refuses to cover her slain; but we will comfort his soul with masses and prayers. How didst thou come hither, my poor child?”

“I followed him to the battle, and he bade me tarry by the stuff; but when all was lost Guthlac ran away, and I came hither to die with him if need should be. Oh my father, would God I had died for thee.”

“Father, good father, what clamour is this?” said a deep voice, “some English lad mourning a sire?”

“Even so, my Lord of Blois. The poor child mourns his father.”

“There be many mourners now. William Malet, with a lady whom Harold loved, and two good monks of Waltham, have just found the body of the perjured usurper. The face was so mangled, that no man might know him, but she recognised him by a mark on his body. So they have carried it away by the duke’s command to bury it by the shore which he strove so vainly to guard.”

“Oh may I but bear his body home to my poor mother,” moaned the lad.

“We will ask the Conqueror to grant thy petition, poor mourner,” said the sympathising monk.

“William will not refuse his prayer, father, if thy superior, the Bishop of Coutances, urges it; he is all-powerful just now,” said Eustace of Blois. “The poor boy shall plead himself. Come, my lad, to the pavilion; there shalt thou ask for and obtain the poor boon thou cravest.”

The unhappy Wilfred–for our readers have of course recognised the young heir of Aescendune–repressed his sobs, strove to wipe away his tears, as if he felt them unmanly, and followed his conductors, the knight and the monk, towards the ducal tent.

There William, attended by all his chief officers–by Odo of Bayeux and Geoffrey of Coutances, by Hugh de Bigod and Robert de Mortain, and some few others of his mightiest nobles, was taking the evening meal, served by a few young pages, themselves the sons of nobles or knights, who learnt the duties of chivalry by beginning at the lowest grade, if to wait on the Conqueror could be so considered.

Speaking to the sentinel, the good chaplain was allowed to enter, and whisper low in the ear of the bishop.

“I can refuse thee nought after thy good service,” said the courtly prelate. “Thou say’st the poor boy has a boon to crave–the body of his sire, and begs through me–I will out, and speak to him.”

“Thy name, my son?” said Geoffrey to Wilfred.

“Wilfred, son of the Thane of Aescendune, in Mercia.”

“Hast thou been in the battle?”

“Only since all was over, or I had died by his side.”

“The saints have preserved thee for better things than to die in a cause accursed by the Church. Nay, my son, I blame thee not, thou art too young to know better.”

And truly the boy’s face and manner, winning though suffused with tears, might have softened a harder heart than beat beneath the rochet of the Bishop of Coutances, warrior prelate though he was.

So, without any further delay, he led the boy into the presence of the mighty Conqueror.

“Who is this stripling? an English lad, my lord of Coutances?”

“He has come to beg permission to carry away the body of his sire. Bend thy knee, my lad, and salute thy future king.”

“Nay, thy present one; coronation will but put the seal on accomplished facts,” said Eustace.

But young though Wilfred was, he had his father’s spirit in him, and spoke in broken sentences.

“My lord,” he said, “I cannot own thee as my king. My father would not have me abjure all he taught me before his body is yet cold. I but ask thee as a kind enemy, who wars not with the dead, to give me leave to remove him from this fatal spot–to take him home. Thou wilt not deny an English lad this poor boon, mighty duke as thou art.”

William understood English well, and was touched by the boyish spirit of the address, by the absence of fear.

“Thou dost not fear me then?” he said.

“He who lies dead on yon field for his country’s sake taught me to despise fear.”

“Thou art verily a bold youth, and were there many like thee, England might yet be hard to win. A noble father must have begotten so brave a son.”

Then turning to his guests:

“But I hope yet,” he added, “to win the hearts of such as he. They loved Canute, although he conquered them. Am I less a foreigner than he? and may not I win their love as he did?”

“Begin then thy reign with an act of clemency, my royal son,” said the bishop.

“I do; the lad shall have the protection he needs, and the assistance of our people, so far as our power yet extends.”

The tears started once more into Wilfred’s eyes.

“I thank thee, my Lord Duke, for my dead father’s sake, and for my living mother, and will pray the saints to forgive thee the bloodshed of this day.”

It was a curious ending to his speech, especially as the bloodshed was supposed to be on account of the saints, over whose bones the ill-fated Harold had taken his famous oath; but William had respect for courage and outspoken truthfulness, and more than once promoted men to high office in Church or State, who had withstood him in the face.

He only added, “When we meet again, my son, thou mayst judge thy king differently.”

Wilfred left the ducal tent; the authority of Count Eustace speedily procured the assistance of some Norman camp followers, and the body was reverently removed from the heap of slain, and placed upon a litter. Wilfred slept in the tent of Eustace, and in the morning commenced his homeward journey, with the funeral cortege.

It is unnecessary to enter further into the details of that most sad journey. Suffice it to say that he was able to transfer the precious burden from Norman to English hands, and that he arrived home in safety, whither Guthlac had preceded him, with the tidings that all save himself had perished alike.

Therefore the return of Wilfred was like that of one dead and alive again, lost and found; and the poor widow felt she had yet something besides her daughter Edith to live for.

The immediate effects of the conquest were not felt for some few weeks in the central parts of Mercia, and nought interfered with the solemn function customary at funerals in those ages.

The second morning after the return of Wilfred was fixed for the burial of the deceased thane, in the priory church which his father had built in the place of an earlier structure burnt by the Danes in 1006.

It was a noble pile for those early days, built chiefly of stone, which was fast superseding wood as a material for churches, dedicated to St. Wilfred. The lofty roof, the long choir beyond the transept, gave magnificence to the fabric, which was surrounded without by the cloisters of the priory, of which it was the central feature.

In the south transept–for it was a cruciform church–was a chapel dedicated especially to St. Cuthbert, where the ashes of the deceased thane’s forefathers reposed in peace beneath the pavement. There lay Ella of Aescendune, murdered by a Dane named Ragnar; his two sons, Elfric, who died young, and Alfred, who succeeded to the inheritance. There, as in a shrine, the martyr Bertric reposed, who, like St. Edmund, had died by the arrows of the heathen Danes, there the once warlike Alfgar, the father of our thane, rested in peace, his lady Ethelgiva by his side {vi}.

The body lay in the great hall, where he had so recently feasted his retainers after the return from Stamford Bridge. Six large tapers burned around it, and watchers were there both by day and night.

There his people crowded to gaze upon the sternly composed features for the last time; there knelt in prayer his disconsolate widow, her son and daughter: they scarcely ever left the hallowed remains until the hour came when, amidst the lamentations of the whole population, the body of the gallant Edmund was borne to the tomb in that chapel of St. Cuthbert, where those gallant ancestors whose story we have told in former chronicles awaited him–“earth to earth, and dust to dust.”

It was a touching procession. The body was borne by the chief tenants yet living, and surrounded by chanting monks, whose solemn “Domine refugium nostrum” fell with awful yet consoling effect upon the ears of the multitude. The churls and thralls, sadly thinned by the sword, followed behind their lady and her two children, Wilfred and Edith.

They placed the bier before the high altar while the requiem mass was sung, six monks kneeling beside it, three on each side, with lighted tapers. Then the coffin was sprinkled with hallowed water, perfumed with sweet incense, and borne to its last resting place in the chapel of St. Cuthbert, where they laid him by the side of his father, Alfgar the Dane.

“Ego sum resurrectio et vita, dixit Dominus–I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord.”


It was a feature peculiar to the Norman Conquest, that while its real injustice and disregard of moral right could hardly be surpassed in the annals of warfare, the conquerors strove to give to every act of violence and wrong the technical sanction of law and the appearance of equity.

This was easily done: first, by assuming that William was the lawful successor of Edward the Confessor, and that all who had opposed him were therefore in the position of conquered rebels; and secondly, since the Pope had excommunicated Harold, and sanctioned the invasion, by treating all his aiders and abettors as heretics or schismatics.

Generally these harsh doctrines were pushed to their legitimate consequences in cruel wrong inflicted upon an innocent people, and the Anglo-Saxon thanes and nobles who survived the first years of conquest were reduced to serfdom or beggary; but there were exceptions. William doubtless intended at first to govern justly, and strove to unite the two nations–English and Norman; therefore, when the occasion offered, he bade his knights and barons who aspired to an English estate marry the widows or daughters of the dispossessed thanes, and so reconcile the conflicting interests. Hence the blood of the old Anglo-Saxon lords flows in many a family proud of its unblemished descent from the horde of pirates and robbers, whom a century and a half in France had turned into the polished Normans.

Alas! the varnish was often only skin deep.

“Scratch the Norman, you will find the Dane,” said the old proverb–none the less ruthless and cruel because of the gloss of a superficial civilisation.

Within a few weeks after the fatal day of Senlac, all resistance on the part of the disunited English, left without a recognised leader, became hopeless; and William was crowned on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey, which on the previous feast of the Epiphany, in the same year, as we reckon time, had witnessed the coronation of his hapless rival. There he swore to be a just ruler to English and Normans alike, and, doubtless, at the time he was sincere; but history records how he kept his oath, and the course of our story will illustrate it.

The lands of all who fought on Harold’s side at Hastings were announced to be forfeited; hence the widow and son of Edmund were liable to be ejected from their home and possessions at Aescendune.

But the conduct of Wilfred on the night after the battle had won him friends, and they pleaded for the youngster whose gallant bearing had made an impression on the mighty Conqueror himself, who felt a passing interest in the brave boy.

Still he would only interpose to stay the execution of the unjust law, and to keep off the greedy Norman nobles, who were already prowling around the fair manor, on one condition: the lady of Aescendune must marry a Norman knight, recommended by himself; in which case, the right of succession after the death of his stepfather should rest with Wilfred, who by that time would doubtless have become Norman in all but lineage–so thought the Duke.

At first poor Lady Winifred utterly refused to consent; but when the prior of St. Wilfred reminded her that, in that case, she would lose all power of protecting her tenantry–the widows and orphans of those who had died around her husband, and that by refusal of the terms she threw away Wilfred’s inheritance, and consigned herself and children to beggary–then she wavered, and after many a painful scene gave way, and consented to become the bride of Hugo de Malville, the earliest applicant for her hand and estate, when the year of mourning for her lost Edmund should have elapsed.

“I may give my hand,” she said, “but can never give my heart.”

The good Bishop of Coutances saw that the preliminaries were fairly arranged, for Hugo de Malville came from his diocese, where, if the truth be told, he had not borne an exemplary character, and the bishop would fain have found a better father for the young Wilfred; only the Conqueror was peremptory, and would brook no interference with his arrangements.

Therefore, all the good prelate could do was to see that the marriage contract was fairly drawn up by clerkly hands–that Wilfred stood next in succession. There was need of this, for Hugo had a son of the same age, a hopeful youth, named Etienne, the only being on earth whom he was known to love.

This lad was named next in order of succession to Wilfred, failing issue from the new marriage.

The morning sun was shining brightly one October day, in the year of grace 1067, on the old moated manor of Aescendune, on its clear river and its deep woods, now bright with all the gorgeous tints of autumn.

All the good people of that well-known neighbourhood–well-known we mean to the readers of the former Chronicles–were gathered together in crowds on the green between the castle and the venerable priory of St. Wilfred, founded, as related in the first of these veritable family legends, by Offa of Aescendune.

Many a group of friends and kinsfolk had formed itself, some in eager but not loud discussion, in which the guttural tones of that English, so unlike our own, yet its direct progenitor in language, contrasted sharply with an occasional shout in Norman French from some marshal of the ceremonies, bent on clearing the course for the passage of the coming procession.

A deep gloom sat on many a brow–on nearly every aged one; for many of the youngsters were merry enough.

From the main archway of the old hall issued the bridal procession–whence the funeral of Edmund had but emerged one year before: she, surrounded by such friends and neighbours as yet lived and were permitted to hold their lands up to this time in peace, while he came from a neighbouring castle, newly erected, where he had spent the night with great pomp and state, preceded by heralds with their trumpets, and surrounded by all the knightly robbers who had been already successful in grasping manors and estates round Aescendune.

The Bishop of Coutances, vested in white stole, received them at the door of the priory church, attended by the English prior.

“Hugo,” said he, “wilt thou receive Winifred, here present, as thy wedded wife, according to the rites of our Holy Mother the Church?”

“I will,” he replied, in firm tones.

“Winifred, wilt thou receive Hugo, here present, as thy wedded husband, according to the rites of our Holy Mother the Church?”

She faltered, trembled, then said: “I will,” but all present must have marked her hesitation.

The bishop continued:

“I join you in matrimony in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Then he sprinkled them both with hallowed water, and afterwards blessed the ring, praying that she who should wear it might ever be faithful to her spouse, and that they might live in the peace of God and in mutual charity.

Hugo placed the ring on her cold, shuddering finger, she trembling like an aspen leaf; after which the bishop led the way to the high altar, where the customary mass “pro sponso et sponsa” was said.

Forth they now issued, the heralds first with their trumpets; then the men-at-arms with all the pomp of Norman array; then the principal tenants of the estate, looking more like prisoners than guests; then another troop of Norman men-at-arms; then each on his own horse, his squire by his side; the neighbouring barons, who had already built their castles and strengthened themselves in the land; then, preceded and attended by pages in sumptuous tunics of linen, fringed and girded with cloth of gold, the happy pair, he on his war steed, she on her white palfrey–he dark as the raven, she fair as the lily.

Wilfred and Etienne were walking side by side in the procession, and it was impossible to help being struck by the contrast in their appearance–the one supple and lithe in every limb, with dark, restless eyes, and quick, nervous temperament; the other, the English boy, with his brown hair, his sunburnt, yet handsome features–the fruit of country air and exercise–far stouter and sturdier than his foreign rival.

They were expected, of course, to be very friendly; but any keen observer would have noted a certain air of distrust which showed itself from time to time in their glances, in spite of the awkward advances they made to each other.

How could it be otherwise? Could they forget the deadly feud between their races? Could they forget that each was a claimant of the lands of Aescendune–the one by birth, the other by the right of conquest?

And now the bridal train reached the gates of the Hall amidst the plaudits of the Normans and the deep silence of the Englishmen–many of whom would sooner far have seen the fair Winifred in her grave than the wife of Hugo de Malville.

“What thinkest thou, Sexwulf, of this most outlandish wedding?”

“What can I think, Ulf, but that the good widow has lost her senses through grief at the death of her lord, the noble Edmund, else would the dove never mate the black crow.”

“Yea, she was pale as death as she entered the church.”

“Well she may be; she liketh not the match, only she would save the estates for her boy’s sake.”

“Will she be able to save them?”

“So the Conqueror hath promised. Wilfred, our young lord, is to inherit if he live; and if he die, then that dark young French lad–a true cub of the old wolf.”

“If he live. Well, I would not wager much upon his chance of a long life in that case.”

“Nor I; but we must not say so, if we value our ears, or our necks even.”

Long and loud was the revelry in the castle of Aescendune that night; as it is written in the old ballad of Imogene:

“The tables groaned with the weight of the feast, And many and noble were the guests.”

But no spectral form sat beside the bride, although there were not wanting those who half imagined the dead Edmund might appear–roused even from the grave, to see the seat he had occupied so many years in honour and worth, filled by this dark-browed Norman stranger.

“Let us drink,” said the courtly bishop, “to the health and happiness of Norman lord and English lady, and may their union be a type of the union betwixt the two people, who, forgetting that they met as worthy foes at Senlac, may live as brethren under the noblest king in Christendom.”

The toast was drunk with acclamations; even the English guests thought they meant it in the delirium of the jovial scene, and fancied for a moment that Englishman and Norman might yet live in peace.

“Is it not sweet?” said the good prior to one of the English guests. “It reminds me of the happy time when it is said the wolf shall lie down with the lamb.”

“Methinks the lamb is likely in this case to lie down inside the wolf, especially if he be a Norman wolf.”

But the speaker, whose attendance was compulsory, or he had not been there, had few sympathisers at the moment.

“Let us hope for the best. Sir Hugo will not, cannot forget the solemn covenant he has made today, to love and to cherish, till death part him and his bride.”

“I hardly think, good father, that day is far off, judging by her looks.”

The wax tapers cast a sweet, soft light over the pale, sad features of Winifred of Aescendune, daughter of Herstan {vii} of Clifftown, on the Thames, who had but lately, full of years, gone to his rest, spared the sad days of the Conquest–days utterly unanticipated by those who died while Edward the Confessor yet reigned in peace, ere Harold visited the Norman court and swore over the holy bones.

She was but fulfilling a sad duty–at least she thought so–as she played her ill-omened part, sacrificing herself for her boy and her only daughter Edith. For what was the alternative? Was it not to go forth as fugitives and vagabonds on the face of the earth–a prey to every foreign noble–leaving her own dear people of Aescendune to the wolf, without intercessor or protector.

And thus it came to pass that Winifred of Aescendune married Hugo de Malville.


In the days of chivalry the first step towards the degree of knighthood was that of page. Boys of noble birth, about their twelfth year, were generally transferred from the home of their childhood to the castle of some gallant baron to learn the customs of war and peace at his hand, and to acquire habits of good order and discipline. These lads fared harder by far than modern boys do at our great schools; they slept on harder couches, rose earlier, and had less dainty food. They were forced to pay implicit obedience to their superiors; modesty in demeanour, as becoming their age, was strictly required before their elders; and they had to perform many offices which would now be deemed menial.

First they learned how to manage their horses with ease and dexterity; next how to use the sword, the bow, and the lance. They had to attend upon their lords in hunting–the rules of which, like those of mimic war, had to be carefully studied. The various blasts of the horn, indicating when the hounds were slipped, when the prey was flying, and when it stood at bay, had to be acquired, as also the various tracks of the wild animals–the fox, the wolf, the bear, the wild boar. Nights and days were frequently spent in the pathless woods, and the face of the country had to be carefully studied, while pluck and address were acquired by the necessity of promptitude when the wild beast stood at bay.

And when the deer or hart was slain they had to “brittle,” or break him up, with all precision, and during the banquet they had frequently to carve the haunch or chine, and to do it with some gracefulness.

All these arts were being acquired at the castle of Aescendune by Etienne de Malville, Louis de Marmontier, Pierre de Morlaix, and Wilfred of Aescendune, all of the age of fifteen or sixteen, but more advanced physically than boys of such years would be now; and, sooth to say, the boys had a stern preceptor in Hugo de Malville.

They slept in a common dormitory in one of the towers, on beds resembling boxes, stuffed with straw, with the skins of the wolf or bear for coverlets. They sprang out when the morning horn blew the reveille. First they attended the early mass in St. Wilfred’s monastic church, said at daybreak–for the Normans were very exact in such duties–after which they fenced, rode, or wrestled, and in mimic war gained an appetite for breakfast.

They ate dried meats, as a rule, with their cakes of bread, and washed them down with thin wine or mead, much diluted, and then the forest was generally the rendezvous.

On winter evenings, or when the weather was very bad, the chaplain was expected to teach them a little reading or writing in Latin or Norman French–never in English; and this was almost all the learning they acquired, in the modern sense of the word.

But they knew a hundred things modern boys know nothing at all about, and every muscle and nerve was braced to be steady and true, whether for fight or sport. Our young pages could find their way in the deep woods by observing the moss on the trees, or the sides on which the oaks or elms threw their branches the most freely; and when benighted they could sleep with patience on a couch of withered leaves, and not suffer with a cold in the head the next day. They feared neither wolf nor bear, nor, for that matter, anything save disgrace.

The imputation of cowardice, or of any mean vice, such as lying, was only to be avenged by bloodshed. No gentleman could bear it and retain his claim to the name. But there were higher duties inculcated wheresoever the obligations of chivalry were fully carried out: the duty of succouring the distressed, or redressing wrong–of devotion to God and His Church, and hatred of the devil and his works.

Alas! how often one aspect of chivalry alone, and that the worst, was found to exist; the ideal was too high for fallen nature. Our youthful readers will be able to judge which aspect was uppermost at Aescendune under its first Norman lords.

Nought was changed in the outward aspect of the scene, save that a stern Norman castle, with its dungeons and towers, was rising in the place of the old hall, doomed to destruction because it was ill adapted for defensive warfare.

Such defect had hardly been appreciated in the days of the old English thane, for England had enjoyed half a century of comparative peace, and her people had begun to build like those who sat at peace beneath their own “vine and fig tree,” ere the Normans brought the stern realities of war into the unhappy land, or rather of serfdom, oppression, and slavery, only varied by convulsive struggles for liberty–always, alas! destined to be made in vain.

The four pages were one day wandering in the outskirts of the forest, clothed in light hunting dresses–tunics, confined by broad belts and edged with fur; while leggings protected the feet and ankles from thorns. They each had hunting spears and bows, which were borne by young thralls, with sheaves of arrows strung to their backs, while they held dogs by leashes of leather.

He who bore the air of the leader of the party was tall and dark, of slender build, but with all those characteristics which denoted the conquering race; the fearless eye, the haughty air of those born to command. A second, our readers would have recognised as a typical English boy; his nut-brown hair and blue eyes contrasted strongly with the features of his companions, so marked then were those differences which have long since vanished–vanished, or at least have become so shared amongst the English people, that none can say which is of Anglo-Saxon, which of Norman blood, by the cast of the face.

And this English lad, whose dress in no wise distinguished him from his companions, was evidently ill at ease amongst them; from time to time he reddened as Etienne, Pierre, or Louis called the unhappy thralls “English swine,” “young porkers,” or the like, and bestowed upon them far more kicks than coins.

“You forget, Etienne, that I am English.”

“Nay, my brother Wilfred, thou wilt not allow me to do that, but of course in thy case ‘noblesse oblige.'”

These last words were uttered with a most evident sneer, and the other lads laughed aloud; whereupon the English lad reddened, then his fists clenched, and a looker-on would have expected an immediate outbreak, when suddenly a change passed over his features, as if he were making a violent effort at self composure.

“Thou hast dropped an arrow, thou young porker,” cried Etienne, the while he struck a violent blow with his switch across the face and eyes of one of his attendants; “dost thou think there are so few of thy fellow swine to shoot, that arrows are useless in these woods! Ah! look at that sight there, and take timely warning.”

The sight in question was a gallows, from which rotted, pendant, the corpse of an unhappy Englishman, hanged for killing a deer.

“If every oak in Aescendune woods bore such acorns, civilised folk might soon be happy.”

Wilfred uttered a deep malediction, which he could not suppress, and, leaving the party, disappeared from sight in the woods.

One of the Norman lads looked after him with some little appearance of sympathy, and when he had gone, said:

“Is it like gentlemen to torment each other thus?”

“Not each other, certainly!”

“He is your brother in a way, the son of your stepmother, the lady of Aescendune.”

“He is in a way, but some brothers would be better out of the way than in it, besides–why does he not show fight? A Norman would with half the provocation.”

“You could not fight with him,” said Louis de Marmontier, who was the youngest of the pages who were learning “chivalry” at the castle of Aescendune, in company with Etienne and Wilfred, under the fostering care of the baron.

“I don’t know,” said the fierce young Norman, and, breaking off the conversation, switched savagely at the head of a thistle close at hand, which he neatly beheaded.

The others quite understood the action and the bitterness with which he spoke, for they knew that he considered himself defrauded of the lands of Aescendune by the arrangements Bishop Geoffrey had effected in favour of Wilfred.

Meanwhile, plunging into a thicket, and crossing a brook, Wilfred arrived by a shorter route first at the hall, and made his way to his mother’s bower, situated in a portion of the ancient building not yet destroyed, although doomed to make way for Norman improvements.

The lady of Aescendune sat lonely in her bower; her features were pale, and she seemed all too sad for one so highly born, and so good a friend to the suffering and the poor; her gaze was like that of one whose thoughts are far away–perhaps they had strayed into Paradise in search of him whose loss was daily making earth more like a desert to her.

Wilfred came and stood beside her, and her hand played with his flowing hair until she felt that he was sobbing by her side.

“What is the matter, my dear boy?”

“Matter! I cannot bear it any longer. I must break the promise thou hast forced me to give.”

“Break thy promise, Wilfred? What would thy sainted father say, did he hear thee? And how dost thou know that he does not hear?”

“If he were here he would exact no such promise, I am sure; he would not at least make me appear as a coward in outlandish eyes, and cringe before these proud Frenchmen.”

Wilfred used the word Frenchmen with the greatest scorn. He knew that the Normans scorned the name as much as they did the name Englishmen, of which their descendants lived to be so proud.

What was this promise which bound the poor lad as in a chain of iron?

Not on any account to let himself be drawn into a quarrel with Etienne.

“Thy father would feel as I do, dear son, were he in our place. Dost thou not see that we poor English only hold our own by sufferance, and that any pretext upon which they could seize would be used ruthlessly against us? Yes, thy death might be the result of any ill-timed quarrel, and thou mightest leave thy mother alone. Nay, dear, dear son, at least while thy mother lives.”

“Oh, how can I?”

“Bear as a Christian, then, if thou canst not as an Englishman. The time will not be long that I shall live to implore thee.”

“Nay, dear mother, surely thou art not ailing.”

“Sick unto death, Wilfred, I fear; nay, but for thee I should say, I hope; for shall I not then rejoin thy dear father in a land where war and violence are unknown? But for thy sake, dear son, I would fain live.”

Poor Wilfred was sobbing by her side, overcome by the blank vision thus opening before him. What would the world be to him, left alone amidst fierce and hateful foreigners, who had slain his father, and would willingly slay him?

“Mother, I cannot live without you. If you die–” and he could say no more, for it shamed his manhood to weep, as he would have said, “like a girl.”

Poor lad, we must excuse him.

“Now, my dear Wilfred, wilt thou not renew thy promise, and pray God for help to keep it?”

“Yes, by God’s help, at least while you live; but dost thou think thou art so ill, dear mother?–it is but fancy.”

“Nay, I feel I am daily, hourly, drawing nearer my end, as if the lamp of life were burning more and more dimly. Morning after morning I rise weaker from my bed, and mortal strength seems slowly and surely forsaking me. But it will be but a short parting; thou must pray that we may live for ever together. God will grant it for His dear Son’s sake.”

And the mother and son knelt down to pray.

It was too true, the English lady of Aescendune was slowly declining–passing away, drawing nearer daily to the bright land where her lost Edmund had gone before.

It was a complaint which no one understood, although a Jewish physician, whom her husband in his anxiety consulted, prescribed a medicine which he said would ensure her recovery in a few weeks. This medicine the baron–for to such rank had Hugo de Malville been raised, on his accession to the lands of Aescendune–this medicine he would always administer with his own hand. Sometimes Wilfred was standing by, and noticed that, dropped in water, it diffused at first a sapphire hue, but that upon exposure to the air, that of the ruby succeeded.

Oh, those days of anxiety and grief–those days when the loved patient was so manifestly loosing her hold upon life, although sometimes there would come a tantalising change for the better, and bring back hopes never to be realised.

The boyish reader will easily imagine what Wilfred had to bear all this time from his Norman companions, from whose society there was no escape–with whom he had to share not only the very few hours allotted to study, but those of recreation also. Study, indeed, meant chiefly the use and practice of warlike weapons, the learning of the technical terms of chivalry, and the acquirement, it may be, of sufficient letters to spell through a challenge.

So thoroughly was war the Norman instinct, that every occupation of life was more or less connected with it; and the only recreation which varied the hours of fencing, jousting, tilting, etc., was the kindred excitement of the chase, pursued with the greatest avidity amongst the wooded hills around Aescendune.

Wilfred was not backward either in mimic war or in love of the chase; but he was growing taciturn and sullen, scarcely ever speaking, save when spoken to, and even in the latter case he generally replied with brief and curt words.

Hence it may be easily guessed that he was not popular.

For this he cared little; all his leisure was spent by the bedside of his dying mother, whom he felt he was so soon about to lose, and when with her and his sister Edith he felt that home–the home of his happy childhood–was not yet a mere remembrance of the vanished past.

But the sad day, so long foreseen, at length arrived.

She was in her chamber, with her son and daughter–the three were together for the last time on earth. They had been talking of the happy days when the husband and father was yet alive, before the fatal day of Senlac. Alone with her children, she felt far more at peace than usual; it seemed, she said, like the dear old times.

But this evening the presentiment of the coming end seemed strong upon her, and she spoke to her darling boy of the duties which would devolve upon him when she was gone, bidding him be obedient and loyal to his Norman stepfather, that he might have the more power to protect the poor oppressed people of Aescendune, and to shield his dear sister from harm in a world of wrong and violence. She bade him look forward to a better world, where parents and children, separated by death, would meet together never to part, and to live as a Christian man should, that he might not lose so dear a hope. The sun was slowly sinking in the west, amidst gorgeous clouds, and she gazed into the glowing depths, as if she saw the gate of Paradise therein.

It was but a few moments, while they yet lingered in conversation, that her children observed a deadly paleness, a strange gray hue, come over her face; suddenly she extended her arms, and fell back upon her couch.

Wilfred ran for help. Even the Norman servants loved their mistress, and hurried to her chamber; baron, priest, all were there; she lay as if insensible, but when Father Elphege, the prior, arrived, and began the litany for the dying, she raised her head and strove to follow.

That morning she had received the Holy Communion at his hands; and of the familiar rites prescribed by the Church of those days for the comfort of the dying, only the last anointing, after the example of Him, whose body was anointed for His burial, remained, and with humble faith she received the holy rite.

This done, she made signs for her children to approach; she threw her arms fondly around them in turn, but could not speak.

The priest bade them all kneel down, and he recommenced the litany for the dying. Soon he came to the solemn words:

“Per Crucem et Passionem Tuam,
Libera eam Domine {viii}.”

She strove to make the holy sign of our redemption, and in making it, yielded her chaste soul to the hands of her merciful Father and loving Redeemer. She had gone to rejoin her own true love, and her poor children were orphans in a world of violence and wrong.

They laid her by the side of Edmund, and the same solemn rites we have described before were yet once more repeated. There were many, many true mourners, all the poor English who felt that her intercession alone had interposed between them and a cruel lord–and the very foreigners themselves, whom her meekness and gentle beauty had strangely touched–all mourned the lily of Aescendune.

But her children!–Who shall describe the sense of desolation which fell upon them as they stood by the open grave?

“Comfort them, O Father of the fatherless,” prayed the good prior; “comfort them and defend them with Thy favourable kindness as with a shield.”


After the last sad rites were paid to the Lady Winifred, a deep gloom fell upon Wilfred, and his sorrow was so great that it won respect from his Norman companions, at least for a time.

He was indeed alone, for the baron had sent his sister Edith to a convent for her better education, as he said, and as Wilfred had none of his own kith and kin about him, he avoided all company, save when the routine of each day forced him into the society of his fellow pages.

Such was the case one fine morning in early spring, a few months after the loss of his mother.

The four pages were in the tilt yard, where there stood a wooden figure, called a “quintain,” which turned round upon an axis, and held a wooden sword in one hand and a buckler in the other.

It was the duty of each of the athletes to mount his horse, and strike the buckler full in the centre with his lance, while riding by at full speed, under certain penalties, which will soon be perceived.

Etienne rode first, and acquitted himself with remarkable dexterity; after him Wilfred was invited by the maitre d’armes to make the trial, but he was comparatively unaccustomed to the game.

“Let Pierre or Louis try next,” said he.

The two boys, thus called upon, went through the trial fairly, striking the very centre of the shield, as befitted them. And then our Wilfred could not refuse to make the attempt. He rode, but his horse swerved just before meeting the mock warrior; he struck the shield, therefore, on one side, whereupon the figure wheeled round, and, striking him with the wooden sword, hurled him from his horse on to the sward, amidst the laughter of his companions.

He rose, not very much hurt in body, but sadly out of temper, and, unable to bear the jeers of his companions, and their sarcastic compliments on his “graceful horsemanship,” he left the yard.

He was trying very hard to learn such feats, and yet could not gain the dexterity for these novel exercises; and, poor boy, he was quite weary of being laughed at, so he went and wandered pensively about in the forest.

He had, indeed, to chew the cud of bitter reflection, for his position was not at all a happy one. Few lads could have more to bear–cutting sarcasm, biting contempt, not openly or coarsely expressed, but always implied plainly enough–constant abuse of his nation, and even of his own immediate ancestors, on whose fair domains these Norman intruders were fattening.

“Oh! it is too hard to bear,” thought the poor lad.

And then he saw the unfortunate thralls of his father, ground down by the tyranny of these Norman lords and their soldiery, forced to draw stone and timber, like beasts of burden, for the purpose of building towers and dungeons for their oppressors, urged on with the lash if they faltered.

Since the death of their good lady, all this had been, of course, much worse.

And then, those forest laws, so vilely cruel. Wilfred saw men blind with one eye, or wanting a hand; and why? Because they had killed a hare or wounded a deer; for it would have been a hanging matter to kill the red hart.

Meanwhile he was growing in mind and body; he had now passed his seventeenth birthday, and was beginning to think himself a man; but where were the vassals whose leader and chieftain he was born to be?–where?

The people of Aescendune were diminishing daily–the English people thereof, we should say, for the places of those who fled their homes, and went no one knew whither, were filled by Normans, French, Bretons, or other like “cattle,” as Wilfred called them in his wrath.

Everywhere he heard the same “jabbering” tongue, that Norman French–French with a Danish accent, and he liked it little enough. Good old English was becoming rare; the strangers compared it to the grunting of swine or the lowing of cattle, in their utter scorn of the aborigines.

Were the descendants of Hengist, Horsa, Ella, Cerdic, Ercenwin, Ida, Uffa, and Cridda to bear this? and more especially was he, Wilfred, the grandson of the heroic Alfgar, whose praises as the companion in arms of the Ironside had been sung by a hundred minstrels, and told again and again at the winter’s fire in the castle hall–was he to bear this contumely? He could not much longer.

And then that scowling, dark, frowning, old Baron–there was a world of deadly mischief in his dark eye, which looked like light twinkling at the bottom of a black well. Once when Etienne was uttering some polished sarcasm at Wilfred’s expense, the English lad caught the father’s look, and there was something in it which puzzled him for a day or two.

Wilfred knew the baron did not like him, and felt that the hatred was all the more deadly for never being expressed. He sometimes thought that his stepfather wished him to quarrel with Etienne, in the full belief that Norman skill must prevail, in case of a combat.

Single combat. Well, the pages were always talking about it. Etienne knew a brave knight who took his stand on a bridge, horse and all complete, and when any one came by of equal rank, this strange bridge warden had two questions to ask; first:

“Wilt thou acknowledge the Lady Adeliza of Coutances to be the most peerless beauty in the world?”

Supposing the newcomer not to be in love, and to be willing to admit the superiority of the fair charmer, then to him the bridge warden further added:

“Wilt thou admit that I am a better knight than thou–better with horse, sword, and lance?”

If the newcomer said “Yes,” he might pass without further toll; if not he must fight, yea, even to the death. And this our Norman pages thought the grandest thing in chivalry.

As yet they had kept from such direct insult as would necessitate an appeal to sword or lance in Wilfred’s case, which, indeed, pages could not resort to without the permission of their feudal superiors; but how long would this last?

The promise the poor lad had given to his beloved and lost mother had made him patient for a time; but his patience had been tried to the uttermost.

He looked on the woods which had once echoed to his father’s horn: for miles and miles they extended in trackless mazes of underwood, swamp, and brake; and report already credited them with being the haunt of outlaws innumerable.

“Where were all the fugitives from Aescendune?” thought our Wilfred; “did the woods conceal them?”

Well, if so, the day might come when he would be glad to join them.

While he was thus musing, the sun rose high in the heavens, and he heard the horns summon the hunters–he heard the loud baying of the hounds, but he heeded not–he loathed society that day, and satisfying his hunger with a crust of bread, obtained at the hut of a thrall, he wandered deeper into the forest.

The day was hot, and he grew tired. He lay down at the foot of a tree, and at length slept.

How long that slumber lasted he knew not, but he dreamt a strange and gruesome dream. He thought his ancestors–the whole line of them–passed before him in succession, all going into the depths of the wood, and that as each spectral form passed it looked at him with sorrow and pointed into the forest.

At length, in his dream, his father came and stood by him, and pointed to the woods likewise.

Meanwhile a lurid light was rising in the woods behind him, and a sense of imminent danger grew on the sleeper when strange outcries arose from the wood.

He was on the border land, twixt sleeping and waking, and the outcries were not all imaginary. There was the voice of one who besought for mercy, and the laughter and scornful tones of those who refused it; and these, at least, were real, for they awoke the sleeper.

The cry which aroused young Wilfred from his sleep was uttered in a tone of distress, which at once appealed to his manhood for aid.

And it was a familiar voice–that of his own foster brother, the son of his old nurse, with whom, in the innocent days of childhood, he had sported and romped again and again; for distinctions of rank were far less regarded amongst the old English than amongst the Normans–they were “English all.”

The poor peasant lad had been so unfortunate as to bring down a hare with a heavy stick. The animal had risen just before him; the weapon was ready; the temptation too great. Forgetful of all but the impulse of the moment, he had flung the stick, and the hare fell. He was just rushing to seize his prize, when the three Norman pages came suddenly on the scene.

“Here is a young English lout, killing a hare,” shouted Etienne; “lay hold of him.”

And before the astonished Eadwin could fly, the son of his lord fulfilled his own command, and seized the culprit by the collar.

“How didst thou dare, thou false thief, to kill one of our hares? Dost thou not know the penalty?”

The unhappy lad stammered out faint excuses, in broken English; “he had not meant to do it–the thing rose up so suddenly”–and the like. But in the first place his captors did not understand his language sufficiently to make out the excuses, neither were they in the mood to receive any.

“What is the law?” said Etienne; “does it not say that he who slays a hare shall lose the hand that did the deed; and here is a poacher taken red handed. Louis, where is thy hunting knife?”

“We need not trouble to take him to the castle; off with his hand, and let him go.”

Their hunting knives, with which they were accustomed to “break up” the deer, were in their girdles, and, shame to say, the other two youths at once assented to Etienne’s proposal to execute the law themselves.

So they dragged their intended victim to a stump, and Etienne prepared to execute the cruel operation which he had witnessed too often not to know how to do it.

Poor Eadwin appealed in vain for mercy. They were laughing at his fright, and indeed there was so little sympathy between Norman lord and English thrall, that pity found no place to enter into the relations between them: it was the old Roman and his slave over again.

But an unexpected deliverer was at hand.

Just as the young “noble” was about to execute the threat; when the poor wrist was already extended by force on a rude stump; when the knife was already drawn from its sheath, Wilfred appeared on the scene, and, in a tone the Norman lads started to hear from him, exclaimed:

“Let him go; touch him if you dare; he is my foster brother; my thrall, if anybody’s.”

“Like cleaves to like,” said Etienne, sarcastically; “but, my fair brother, thou wilt hardly interfere with the due course of the law.”

“Law! the law of butchers and worse than butchers–devils. Let him go.”

“Hadst thou not better try to rescue him? Thou hast not yet found an opportunity to show thy prowess.”

Wilfred lost all control, sprang at Etienne, struck him in a downright English fashion between the eyes, and knocked him down. The knife fell from his hand, and Wilfred seized it before the other youths could recover from their astonishment, and flung it into a pond close at hand.

Etienne rose up.

Now my young readers will probably anticipate a bout at fisticuffs; but no such vulgar a combat commended itself to the proud young Norman, even thus suddenly humiliated; neither did he, under these very trying circumstances, lose his self command.

Yet his hatred was none the less, nor did he cherish a less deadly design.

“Let the young brute go,” said he, as he arose, pointing to Eadwin. “There is something more important to be settled now than the question whether the young porker shall retain his cloven hoof or not. Wilfred, dost thou know thou hast struck a gentleman?”

“I have struck a young butcher.”

“Thanks; churls fight with words; knights, and would-be knights, with swords. Draw, then, and defend thyself; Pierre and Louis will see fair play.”

“Nay,” said the other two lads with one voice, “it were a sin and shame to fight thus, and we should have our knighthood deferred for years did we permit it. Pages may not fight to the death without the permission of their liege lord. The baron must give permission.”

“Wilfred, dost thou accept my challenge? I honour thy base blood in making it.”

“My ancestors were as noble as thine; nay, they ruled here while thine were but pirates and cutthroats. I do accept it.”

“Let us separate, then; we meet here at daybreak tomorrow.”

“But the permission of our lord?”

“I will answer for that,” replied his hopeful son.

The party separated: Wilfred took his foster brother, who had not made the least attempt to escape from the scene, trusting to the love of his young lord for protection, and no sooner were they alone than the poor lad overwhelmed his deliverer with thanks, in which tears were not unmixed, because he knew that a price had yet to be paid, and that his beloved master was in danger.

“Nay, nay, Eadwin, I shall do very well–if not, there is not much left to live for now–only you must take care of yourself, or they may avenge themselves on you; indeed, when the baron hears the tale, I doubt not that he will send for you, and then I may not be able to save you–you must fly.”

“Not till I know–“

“Yes, this very night–thou knowest the Deadman’s Swamp?”


“The Normans could never find thee there, and thou and I have threaded its recesses a hundred times; go to the hollow tree where we have slept before now in our hunting days. I will seek thee tomorrow, if I live. If I do not appear before midday, you had better seek our people, whom these tyrants have driven to the greenwoods.”

“I know where to find them, but you will come; why not fly to the woods with me now?”

“Honour prevents. And after all, you had better say goodbye at once to those at home, and be off: perhaps I had better say goodbye for thee–it will be safest.”

A few more parting instructions, and they separated; the young thrall actually kneeling and kissing his young lord’s hand with that devoted love nought save such obligations could give.

Wilfred was returning to the castle, when he met Pierre, who was evidently seeking him.

“Wilfred,” he said, “I have come to offer you my services for tomorrow; you will want the offices of a friend.”

“Art thou my friend?”

“Yes, since I see thou art not a coward. While I saw thee suffering insult after insult without ever resenting them, I thought thee craven, and could not speak thee fair; now thou art as one of us.”

“Thou art not like other Normans, then.”

“I am not Norman, but Breton, and perhaps we do not love the Normans over much in Brittany; at least, I can feel for one in thy position.”

“Thanks,” was all that Wilfred could stammer out.

These were almost the first kind words he had heard since his mother’s death, save in those stolen moments when he had been alone amidst his English thralls and churls, and they had been but few.

“Thou art not so skilled in fencing as Etienne; I should advise an hour or two in the tilt yard, and I can tell thee of some of his feints, which are not a little dangerous.”

“Thanks, I shall not have too much time.”

“Dost thou think the baron will give leave?”

“Yes; he hates me in his heart. Were I the better swordsman, he might not consent.”

“I agree with thee–wert thou dead, Etienne would be heir of Aescendune. At all events, thou wilt go to confession and get thy soul in order–betake thyself to thy holy gear–men fight none the worse for a clear conscience. And I would ask the intercession of St. Michael–men speak well of him in Brittany, and tell how he fought a combat a outrance with Satan, wherein the latter came off none the better man.”

“I shall see Father Elphege tonight–we are not heathen, we English.”

“Ah! here comes Louis. Well, what news dost thou bring?”

“Good ones. Our lord permits the fight. You should have seen how stark and stern he looked when he saw his son’s eyes. Wilfred, thou hast a fist like a smith. Wilt thou do as well with the sword?”

“Tomorrow will show.”

“Well, it is quite right of thee to fight for thine own serfs; I would have fought for mine at Marmontier–none should have come between me and them. And I am glad we did not hurt the poor knave. Etienne will be a hard lord for thy people, if anything happens to thee.”

Oh, how the memory of his mother and her counsels came before the poor orphan.

Still, how could he help it? He had done rightly, he felt sure; and he knew that his father would say so were hecums alive.

“And so would my grandfather,” thought he, “once the friend of the Ironside, of whose wondrous exploits he often told me in olden days around our winter fire. Would his spirit were with me now, and a little of his skill in arms.”

And thus musing, he arrived at the castle and betook himself, with Pierre, to the tilt yard. Louis went off to seek Etienne, whose second he was to be.


The night was growing dark when Wilfred approached the priory, with the intention of seeking Father Elphege, and putting, as Pierre had said, “his spiritual gear in order.”

As we have remarked in other pages, men then attached no notion of sin to the mere act of fighting–there could not be a duty clearer to Christians of that strange epoch than to fight with each other whensoever the exigencies of society demanded–the very institution of knighthood was bound up with the idea.

So he had no anticipation that the good father would say, “Don’t fight.”

But when he approached the great door of the priory, with the venerable figure of the patron saint bending over the archway, a messenger–a lay brother–issued forth.

It was almost dark, but the man recognised Wilfred.

“Is it thou, Wilfred of Aescendune, in the flesh?”

“I am he.”

“Then I am glad to see thee, for thus my limbs are saved the toil of seeking thee, and my rheumatics make me dread the night air.”

“Seeking me?”

“Yes, verily; the good prior desireth thee earnestly, and adjured me to fetch thee without delay; and lo! Saint Cuthbert hath sent thee.”

What could the prior want of him? thought the lad; had he heard of the quarrel, through young Eadwin, and did he disapprove of it?

At all events, he would be saved the trouble of many words; and he entered.

He passed along the cloister, with its ceiling of carved wood and its rude wooden crucifix at the end thereof; he looked out at the little green square of grass, enclosed by the quadrangle, wherein reposed in peace the monks of former generations. Once the thought flashed over him, that a similar little grassy hillock might, ere a few hours were over, be raised above his own earthly remains; but that did not shake his purpose.

He ascended a spiral staircase and entered the prior’s own cell.

“What, Wilfred! and so soon? Sooth to say, my messenger hath sped.”

“He met me just outside the gate, father.”

“By the blessing of heaven, my son.”

“But why hast thou sent for me, and why this haste?”

“A dying man wishes to see thee–nay, do not start! he has a sad confession to make–one it will harrow thy blood to hear, and he cannot die in peace without thy forgiveness.”

“My forgiveness! How has he injured me? He is a Norman, I suppose?”

“Nay, he belongeth not to the proud race of our oppressors; he is an old serf of thy house. Dost thou remember Beorn the woodman?”

“Who slew the deer and sold them in secret, and when the deed was discovered, fled?”

“The same; it is he.”

“But what harm hath he done so great that he should come here to ask forgiveness? ‘Twas a small matter; at least, it seems so now.”

“My son, that is not the matter he hath to confess.”

“What is it, then?”

“Prepare thyself, my dear child; now be composed; you must resign yourself to God’s will.”

“Tell me, father, and end this suspense. What is amiss?”

“Nay, he must do that; I wanted to prepare thee; but tis about thy mother.”

Wilfred turned pale at once and trembled, for the one passion which divided his soul with hatred to the Normans was love for the memory of his parents. What had the man got to say about his mother?

“But this is not constancy and firmness–thou quakest like an aspen leaf.”

“Tell me, was aught amiss in my mother’s death?”

“Didst thou ever suspect it?”

“Yes, but I put the thought away, as though it came from Satan.”

“Well, poor child, thou wilt know now, and God help thee to bear it rightly.”

Trembling and astonished, Wilfred followed the prior into an adjoining cell, where, propped up by cushions, lay the attenuated form of a dying man–the death sweat already on his brow, standing thereon in beads–the limbs rigid as a recent convulsion had left them.

Any one conversant in the signs which immediately precede death could have told that he had but a short time to live. The good monk, who was supporting him and breathing words of Christian hope into his ears, left him as the prior and Wilfred entered.

The prior took the monk’s place, and supported the head of the penitent.

“Look,” he said, as he raised him upon his arm, “Wilfred of Aescendune, the son of thy late lord.”

The poor wretch groaned–such a deep hollow groan.

“Canst thou forgive me?” he said.

“Forgive thee what?”

“Tell him all, my son, and ease thy burdened mind.”

The thrall then spake, in words interrupted by gasps and sighs, which we must needs omit as we piece his narrative together for the benefit of our readers.

“It is five years since I fled thy father’s face, fearing his wrath, for I had slain his red deer and sold them for filthy lucre.