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    Ch. 4 - Athelstan and the Six Boy-Kings

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    Chapter 4
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    ATHELSTAN, the son of Edward the Elder, succeeded that king. He
    reigned only fifteen years; but he remembered the glory of his
    grandfather, the great Alfred, and governed England well. He
    reduced the turbulent people of Wales, and obliged them to pay him
    a tribute in money, and in cattle, and to send him their best hawks
    and hounds. He was victorious over the Cornish men, who were not
    yet quite under the Saxon government. He restored such of the old
    laws as were good, and had fallen into disuse; made some wise new
    laws, and took care of the poor and weak. A strong alliance, made
    against him by ANLAF a Danish prince, CONSTANTINE King of the
    Scots, and the people of North Wales, he broke and defeated in one
    great battle, long famous for the vast numbers slain in it. After
    that, he had a quiet reign; the lords and ladies about him had
    leisure to become polite and agreeable; and foreign princes were
    glad (as they have sometimes been since) to come to England on
    visits to the English court.

    When Athelstan died, at forty-seven years old, his brother EDMUND,
    who was only eighteen, became king. He was the first of six boy-
    kings, as you will presently know.

    They called him the Magnificent, because he showed a taste for
    improvement and refinement. But he was beset by the Danes, and had
    a short and troubled reign, which came to a troubled end. One
    night, when he was feasting in his hall, and had eaten much and
    drunk deep, he saw, among the company, a noted robber named LEOF,
    who had been banished from England. Made very angry by the
    boldness of this man, the King turned to his cup-bearer, and said,
    'There is a robber sitting at the table yonder, who, for his
    crimes, is an outlaw in the land - a hunted wolf, whose life any
    man may take, at any time. Command that robber to depart!' 'I
    will not depart!' said Leof. 'No?' cried the King. 'No, by the
    Lord!' said Leof. Upon that the King rose from his seat, and,
    making passionately at the robber, and seizing him by his long
    hair, tried to throw him down. But the robber had a dagger
    underneath his cloak, and, in the scuffle, stabbed the King to
    death. That done, he set his back against the wall, and fought so
    desperately, that although he was soon cut to pieces by the King's
    armed men, and the wall and pavement were splashed with his blood,
    yet it was not before he had killed and wounded many of them. You
    may imagine what rough lives the kings of those times led, when one
    of them could struggle, half drunk, with a public robber in his own
    dining-hall, and be stabbed in presence of the company who ate and
    drank with him.

    Then succeeded the boy-king EDRED, who was weak and sickly in body,
    but of a strong mind. And his armies fought the Northmen, the
    Danes, and Norwegians, or the Sea-Kings, as they were called, and
    beat them for the time. And, in nine years, Edred died, and passed

    Then came the boy-king EDWY, fifteen years of age; but the real
    king, who had the real power, was a monk named DUNSTAN - a clever
    priest, a little mad, and not a little proud and cruel.

    Dunstan was then Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, whither the body of
    King Edmund the Magnificent was carried, to be buried. While yet a
    boy, he had got out of his bed one night (being then in a fever),
    and walked about Glastonbury Church when it was under repair; and,
    because he did not tumble off some scaffolds that were there, and
    break his neck, it was reported that he had been shown over the
    building by an angel. He had also made a harp that was said to
    play of itself - which it very likely did, as AEolian Harps, which
    are played by the wind, and are understood now, always do. For
    these wonders he had been once denounced by his enemies, who were
    jealous of his favour with the late King Athelstan, as a magician;
    and he had been waylaid, bound hand and foot, and thrown into a
    marsh. But he got out again, somehow, to cause a great deal of
    trouble yet.

    The priests of those days were, generally, the only scholars. They
    were learned in many things. Having to make their own convents and
    monasteries on uncultivated grounds that were granted to them by
    the Crown, it was necessary that they should be good farmers and
    good gardeners, or their lands would have been too poor to support
    them. For the decoration of the chapels where they prayed, and for
    the comfort of the refectories where they ate and drank, it was
    necessary that there should be good carpenters, good smiths, good
    painters, among them. For their greater safety in sickness and
    accident, living alone by themselves in solitary places, it was
    necessary that they should study the virtues of plants and herbs,
    and should know how to dress cuts, burns, scalds, and bruises, and
    how to set broken limbs. Accordingly, they taught themselves, and
    one another, a great variety of useful arts; and became skilful in
    agriculture, medicine, surgery, and handicraft. And when they
    wanted the aid of any little piece of machinery, which would be
    simple enough now, but was marvellous then, to impose a trick upon
    the poor peasants, they knew very well how to make it; and DID make
    it many a time and often, I have no doubt.

    Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was one of the most sagacious
    of these monks. He was an ingenious smith, and worked at a forge
    in a little cell. This cell was made too short to admit of his
    lying at full length when he went to sleep - as if THAT did any
    good to anybody! - and he used to tell the most extraordinary lies
    about demons and spirits, who, he said, came there to persecute
    him. For instance, he related that one day when he was at work,
    the devil looked in at the little window, and tried to tempt him to
    lead a life of idle pleasure; whereupon, having his pincers in the
    fire, red hot, he seized the devil by the nose, and put him to such
    pain, that his bellowings were heard for miles and miles. Some
    people are inclined to think this nonsense a part of Dunstan's
    madness (for his head never quite recovered the fever), but I think
    not. I observe that it induced the ignorant people to consider him
    a holy man, and that it made him very powerful. Which was exactly
    what he always wanted.

    On the day of the coronation of the handsome boy-king Edwy, it was
    remarked by ODO, Archbishop of Canterbury (who was a Dane by
    birth), that the King quietly left the coronation feast, while all
    the company were there. Odo, much displeased, sent his friend
    Dunstan to seek him. Dunstan finding him in the company of his
    beautiful young wife ELGIVA, and her mother ETHELGIVA, a good and
    virtuous lady, not only grossly abused them, but dragged the young
    King back into the feasting-hall by force. Some, again, think
    Dunstan did this because the young King's fair wife was his own
    cousin, and the monks objected to people marrying their own
    cousins; but I believe he did it, because he was an imperious,
    audacious, ill-conditioned priest, who, having loved a young lady
    himself before he became a sour monk, hated all love now, and
    everything belonging to it.

    The young King was quite old enough to feel this insult. Dunstan
    had been Treasurer in the last reign, and he soon charged Dunstan
    with having taken some of the last king's money. The Glastonbury
    Abbot fled to Belgium (very narrowly escaping some pursuers who
    were sent to put out his eyes, as you will wish they had, when you
    read what follows), and his abbey was given to priests who were
    married; whom he always, both before and afterwards, opposed. But
    he quickly conspired with his friend, Odo the Dane, to set up the
    King's young brother, EDGAR, as his rival for the throne; and, not
    content with this revenge, he caused the beautiful queen Elgiva,
    though a lovely girl of only seventeen or eighteen, to be stolen
    from one of the Royal Palaces, branded in the cheek with a red-hot
    iron, and sold into slavery in Ireland. But the Irish people
    pitied and befriended her; and they said, 'Let us restore the girl-
    queen to the boy-king, and make the young lovers happy!' and they
    cured her of her cruel wound, and sent her home as beautiful as
    before. But the villain Dunstan, and that other villain, Odo,
    caused her to be waylaid at Gloucester as she was joyfully hurrying
    to join her husband, and to be hacked and hewn with swords, and to
    be barbarously maimed and lamed, and left to die. When Edwy the
    Fair (his people called him so, because he was so young and
    handsome) heard of her dreadful fate, he died of a broken heart;
    and so the pitiful story of the poor young wife and husband ends!
    Ah! Better to be two cottagers in these better times, than king
    and queen of England in those bad days, though never so fair!

    Then came the boy-king, EDGAR, called the Peaceful, fifteen years
    old. Dunstan, being still the real king, drove all married priests
    out of the monasteries and abbeys, and replaced them by solitary
    monks like himself, of the rigid order called the Benedictines. He
    made himself Archbishop of Canterbury, for his greater glory; and
    exercised such power over the neighbouring British princes, and so
    collected them about the King, that once, when the King held his
    court at Chester, and went on the river Dee to visit the monastery
    of St. John, the eight oars of his boat were pulled (as the people
    used to delight in relating in stories and songs) by eight crowned
    kings, and steered by the King of England. As Edgar was very
    obedient to Dunstan and the monks, they took great pains to
    represent him as the best of kings. But he was really profligate,
    debauched, and vicious. He once forcibly carried off a young lady
    from the convent at Wilton; and Dunstan, pretending to be very much
    shocked, condemned him not to wear his crown upon his head for
    seven years - no great punishment, I dare say, as it can hardly
    have been a more comfortable ornament to wear, than a stewpan
    without a handle. His marriage with his second wife, ELFRIDA, is
    one of the worst events of his reign. Hearing of the beauty of
    this lady, he despatched his favourite courtier, ATHELWOLD, to her
    father's castle in Devonshire, to see if she were really as
    charming as fame reported. Now, she was so exceedingly beautiful
    that Athelwold fell in love with her himself, and married her; but
    he told the King that she was only rich - not handsome. The King,
    suspecting the truth when they came home, resolved to pay the
    newly-married couple a visit; and, suddenly, told Athelwold to
    prepare for his immediate coming. Athelwold, terrified, confessed
    to his young wife what he had said and done, and implored her to
    disguise her beauty by some ugly dress or silly manner, that he
    might be safe from the King's anger. She promised that she would;
    but she was a proud woman, who would far rather have been a queen
    than the wife of a courtier. She dressed herself in her best
    dress, and adorned herself with her richest jewels; and when the
    King came, presently, he discovered the cheat. So, he caused his
    false friend, Athelwold, to be murdered in a wood, and married his
    widow, this bad Elfrida. Six or seven years afterwards, he died;
    and was buried, as if he had been all that the monks said he was,
    in the abbey of Glastonbury, which he - or Dunstan for him - had
    much enriched.

    England, in one part of this reign, was so troubled by wolves,
    which, driven out of the open country, hid themselves in the
    mountains of Wales when they were not attacking travellers and
    animals, that the tribute payable by the Welsh people was forgiven
    them, on condition of their producing, every year, three hundred
    wolves' heads. And the Welshmen were so sharp upon the wolves, to
    save their money, that in four years there was not a wolf left.

    Then came the boy-king, EDWARD, called the Martyr, from the manner
    of his death. Elfrida had a son, named ETHELRED, for whom she
    claimed the throne; but Dunstan did not choose to favour him, and
    he made Edward king. The boy was hunting, one day, down in
    Dorsetshire, when he rode near to Corfe Castle, where Elfrida and
    Ethelred lived. Wishing to see them kindly, he rode away from his
    attendants and galloped to the castle gate, where he arrived at
    twilight, and blew his hunting-horn. 'You are welcome, dear King,'
    said Elfrida, coming out, with her brightest smiles. 'Pray you
    dismount and enter.' 'Not so, dear madam,' said the King. 'My
    company will miss me, and fear that I have met with some harm.
    Please you to give me a cup of wine, that I may drink here, in the
    saddle, to you and to my little brother, and so ride away with the
    good speed I have made in riding here.' Elfrida, going in to bring
    the wine, whispered an armed servant, one of her attendants, who
    stole out of the darkening gateway, and crept round behind the
    King's horse. As the King raised the cup to his lips, saying,
    'Health!' to the wicked woman who was smiling on him, and to his
    innocent brother whose hand she held in hers, and who was only ten
    years old, this armed man made a spring and stabbed him in the
    back. He dropped the cup and spurred his horse away; but, soon
    fainting with loss of blood, dropped from the saddle, and, in his
    fall, entangled one of his feet in the stirrup. The frightened
    horse dashed on; trailing his rider's curls upon the ground;
    dragging his smooth young face through ruts, and stones, and
    briers, and fallen leaves, and mud; until the hunters, tracking the
    animal's course by the King's blood, caught his bridle, and
    released the disfigured body.

    Then came the sixth and last of the boy-kings, ETHELRED, whom
    Elfrida, when he cried out at the sight of his murdered brother
    riding away from the castle gate, unmercifully beat with a torch
    which she snatched from one of the attendants. The people so
    disliked this boy, on account of his cruel mother and the murder
    she had done to promote him, that Dunstan would not have had him
    for king, but would have made EDGITHA, the daughter of the dead
    King Edgar, and of the lady whom he stole out of the convent at
    Wilton, Queen of England, if she would have consented. But she
    knew the stories of the youthful kings too well, and would not be
    persuaded from the convent where she lived in peace; so, Dunstan
    put Ethelred on the throne, having no one else to put there, and
    gave him the nickname of THE UNREADY - knowing that he wanted
    resolution and firmness.

    At first, Elfrida possessed great influence over the young King,
    but, as he grew older and came of age, her influence declined. The
    infamous woman, not having it in her power to do any more evil,
    then retired from court, and, according, to the fashion of the
    time, built churches and monasteries, to expiate her guilt. As if
    a church, with a steeple reaching to the very stars, would have
    been any sign of true repentance for the blood of the poor boy,
    whose murdered form was trailed at his horse's heels! As if she
    could have buried her wickedness beneath the senseless stones of
    the whole world, piled up one upon another, for the monks to live

    About the ninth or tenth year of this reign, Dunstan died. He was
    growing old then, but was as stern and artful as ever. Two
    circumstances that happened in connexion with him, in this reign of
    Ethelred, made a great noise. Once, he was present at a meeting of
    the Church, when the question was discussed whether priests should
    have permission to marry; and, as he sat with his head hung down,
    apparently thinking about it, a voice seemed to come out of a
    crucifix in the room, and warn the meeting to be of his opinion.
    This was some juggling of Dunstan's, and was probably his own voice
    disguised. But he played off a worse juggle than that, soon
    afterwards; for, another meeting being held on the same subject,
    and he and his supporters being seated on one side of a great room,
    and their opponents on the other, he rose and said, 'To Christ
    himself, as judge, do I commit this cause!' Immediately on these
    words being spoken, the floor where the opposite party sat gave
    way, and some were killed and many wounded. You may be pretty sure
    that it had been weakened under Dunstan's direction, and that it
    fell at Dunstan's signal. HIS part of the floor did not go down.
    No, no. He was too good a workman for that.

    When he died, the monks settled that he was a Saint, and called him
    Saint Dunstan ever afterwards. They might just as well have
    settled that he was a coach-horse, and could just as easily have
    called him one.

    Ethelred the Unready was glad enough, I dare say, to be rid of this
    holy saint; but, left to himself, he was a poor weak king, and his
    reign was a reign of defeat and shame. The restless Danes, led by
    SWEYN, a son of the King of Denmark who had quarrelled with his
    father and had been banished from home, again came into England,
    and, year after year, attacked and despoiled large towns. To coax
    these sea-kings away, the weak Ethelred paid them money; but, the
    more money he paid, the more money the Danes wanted. At first, he
    gave them ten thousand pounds; on their next invasion, sixteen
    thousand pounds; on their next invasion, four and twenty thousand
    pounds: to pay which large sums, the unfortunate English people
    were heavily taxed. But, as the Danes still came back and wanted
    more, he thought it would be a good plan to marry into some
    powerful foreign family that would help him with soldiers. So, in
    the year one thousand and two, he courted and married Emma, the
    sister of Richard Duke of Normandy; a lady who was called the
    Flower of Normandy.

    And now, a terrible deed was done in England, the like of which was
    never done on English ground before or since. On the thirteenth of
    November, in pursuance of secret instructions sent by the King over
    the whole country, the inhabitants of every town and city armed,
    and murdered all the Danes who were their neighbours.

    Young and old, babies and soldiers, men and women, every Dane was
    killed. No doubt there were among them many ferocious men who had
    done the English great wrong, and whose pride and insolence, in
    swaggering in the houses of the English and insulting their wives
    and daughters, had become unbearable; but no doubt there were also
    among them many peaceful Christian Danes who had married English
    women and become like English men. They were all slain, even to
    GUNHILDA, the sister of the King of Denmark, married to an English
    lord; who was first obliged to see the murder of her husband and
    her child, and then was killed herself.

    When the King of the sea-kings heard of this deed of blood, he
    swore that he would have a great revenge. He raised an army, and a
    mightier fleet of ships than ever yet had sailed to England; and in
    all his army there was not a slave or an old man, but every soldier
    was a free man, and the son of a free man, and in the prime of
    life, and sworn to be revenged upon the English nation, for the
    massacre of that dread thirteenth of November, when his countrymen
    and countrywomen, and the little children whom they loved, were
    killed with fire and sword. And so, the sea-kings came to England
    in many great ships, each bearing the flag of its own commander.
    Golden eagles, ravens, dragons, dolphins, beasts of prey,
    threatened England from the prows of those ships, as they came
    onward through the water; and were reflected in the shining shields
    that hung upon their sides. The ship that bore the standard of the
    King of the sea-kings was carved and painted like a mighty serpent;
    and the King in his anger prayed that the Gods in whom he trusted
    might all desert him, if his serpent did not strike its fangs into
    England's heart.

    And indeed it did. For, the great army landing from the great
    fleet, near Exeter, went forward, laying England waste, and
    striking their lances in the earth as they advanced, or throwing
    them into rivers, in token of their making all the island theirs.
    In remembrance of the black November night when the Danes were
    murdered, wheresoever the invaders came, they made the Saxons
    prepare and spread for them great feasts; and when they had eaten
    those feasts, and had drunk a curse to England with wild
    rejoicings, they drew their swords, and killed their Saxon
    entertainers, and marched on. For six long years they carried on
    this war: burning the crops, farmhouses, barns, mills, granaries;
    killing the labourers in the fields; preventing the seed from being
    sown in the ground; causing famine and starvation; leaving only
    heaps of ruin and smoking ashes, where they had found rich towns.
    To crown this misery, English officers and men deserted, and even
    the favourites of Ethelred the Unready, becoming traitors, seized
    many of the English ships, turned pirates against their own
    country, and aided by a storm occasioned the loss of nearly the
    whole English navy.

    There was but one man of note, at this miserable pass, who was true
    to his country and the feeble King. He was a priest, and a brave
    one. For twenty days, the Archbishop of Canterbury defended that
    city against its Danish besiegers; and when a traitor in the town
    threw the gates open and admitted them, he said, in chains, 'I will
    not buy my life with money that must be extorted from the suffering
    people. Do with me what you please!' Again and again, he steadily
    refused to purchase his release with gold wrung from the poor.

    At last, the Danes being tired of this, and being assembled at a
    drunken merry-making, had him brought into the feasting-hall.

    'Now, bishop,' they said, 'we want gold!'

    He looked round on the crowd of angry faces; from the shaggy beards
    close to him, to the shaggy beards against the walls, where men
    were mounted on tables and forms to see him over the heads of
    others: and he knew that his time was come.

    'I have no gold,' he said.

    'Get it, bishop!' they all thundered.

    'That, I have often told you I will not,' said he.

    They gathered closer round him, threatening, but he stood unmoved.
    Then, one man struck him; then, another; then a cursing soldier
    picked up from a heap in a corner of the hall, where fragments had
    been rudely thrown at dinner, a great ox-bone, and cast it at his
    face, from which the blood came spurting forth; then, others ran to
    the same heap, and knocked him down with other bones, and bruised
    and battered him; until one soldier whom he had baptised (willing,
    as I hope for the sake of that soldier's soul, to shorten the
    sufferings of the good man) struck him dead with his battle-axe.

    If Ethelred had had the heart to emulate the courage of this noble
    archbishop, he might have done something yet. But he paid the
    Danes forty-eight thousand pounds, instead, and gained so little by
    the cowardly act, that Sweyn soon afterwards came over to subdue
    all England. So broken was the attachment of the English people,
    by this time, to their incapable King and their forlorn country
    which could not protect them, that they welcomed Sweyn on all
    sides, as a deliverer. London faithfully stood out, as long as the
    King was within its walls; but, when he sneaked away, it also
    welcomed the Dane. Then, all was over; and the King took refuge
    abroad with the Duke of Normandy, who had already given shelter to
    the King's wife, once the Flower of that country, and to her

    Still, the English people, in spite of their sad sufferings, could
    not quite forget the great King Alfred and the Saxon race. When
    Sweyn died suddenly, in little more than a month after he had been
    proclaimed King of England, they generously sent to Ethelred, to
    say that they would have him for their King again, 'if he would
    only govern them better than he had governed them before.' The
    Unready, instead of coming himself, sent Edward, one of his sons,
    to make promises for him. At last, he followed, and the English
    declared him King. The Danes declared CANUTE, the son of Sweyn,
    King. Thus, direful war began again, and lasted for three years,
    when the Unready died. And I know of nothing better that he did,
    in all his reign of eight and thirty years.

    Was Canute to be King now? Not over the Saxons, they said; they
    must have EDMUND, one of the sons of the Unready, who was surnamed
    IRONSIDE, because of his strength and stature. Edmund and Canute
    thereupon fell to, and fought five battles - O unhappy England,
    what a fighting-ground it was! - and then Ironside, who was a big
    man, proposed to Canute, who was a little man, that they two should
    fight it out in single combat. If Canute had been the big man, he
    would probably have said yes, but, being the little man, he
    decidedly said no. However, he declared that he was willing to
    divide the kingdom - to take all that lay north of Watling Street,
    as the old Roman military road from Dover to Chester was called,
    and to give Ironside all that lay south of it. Most men being
    weary of so much bloodshed, this was done. But Canute soon became
    sole King of England; for Ironside died suddenly within two months.
    Some think that he was killed, and killed by Canute's orders. No
    one knows.
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