Charles Dickens.

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had eaten much and drunk deep, he saw among the company a
noted robber named Leof, who had been banished from Eng-
land. Made very angry by the boldness of this man, the kin,;
turned to his cup bearer, and said : " There is a robber sitiirr.;
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 away.

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 bo}', 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 re-
ported 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 ^olian 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 favor 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
l)een too poor to support them. For the decoration of the
chapels where they prayed, and for the comfort of the refecto-
ries 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
liow 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 ^t 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
thereto 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 ; where-
upon, 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-condi-
tioned priest, who, having loved a young lady himself before he
became a sour monk, hated all love now, and everything be-
longing 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
T^v^^. The Glastonbury abbot fled to Belgium (very narrowly
scaping some pursuers who were sent to put out his eyes, as

2g A CmiD'S msTOky OF ENGLAND.

you will wish they had, when you read what follows), and his
abbey was .;i\en 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
pitted 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 dread-
ful 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 t

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 Bene-
dictines. He made himself archbishop of Canterbury for his
greater glory ; and exercised such power over the neigliboring
British princes, and so collected them about the king, that once,
when the king held the 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 dehght 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 oflf 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 with-
out 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 favorite 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, suspected 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 had 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 favor him, and he made Edward king. The boy was hunl-
ing 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 hav'e made in riding here." Elfrida, goiii^in
to bring the wine, whispered to 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
coursie 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, an 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 give him the nick-
name 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 mon-
asteries to expiate her guilt. As if a church with a steeple
reaching to the very stars would have been any sign of true re-
pentance 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 in !

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 connection with him, in
this reign of Ethelred, made a great noise. Once he was pres-
ent at a meeting of the Church, when the question was dis-



cussed 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 St. 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 j 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 1002, 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 13th 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
Vheir neighbors. Young and old, babies and soldiers, men and



women — every Dane was killed. No doubt there were among
them many Terocious men, who had done the English great
wrong, and whose pride and insolenc in swaggering in the
houres of the English, and insulting the.: wives and daughters,
had L.come unbearable ; but, no doubt, there were also among
whem many peaceful. Christian Danes, who had married English
wome'.i, and become like P!^nglish men. They were all slain,
oven to Gunhilda, the sister, of the King of Denmark, married
to an En-^hsh 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 nor 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 lliai dread 13th of No
vember, when his countrymen and countrywomen, and t'.c
little children whom diey loved, were killed by fire and swor;i
And so the sea-kitigs came to England in many great ships,
each bearing the flag of its own commander. Golden eagle-.,
ravens, dragons, dolphins, beasts of prey, threatened Englaiu:
from the prows of those ships, as they came onward througli
the water ; and were reflected in tlie sliining shields that huiig
upon their sides. The ship tljat bore the standard of the king
of the sea-kings 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
is. and theirs. In remembrance of the Black November night
vv'hen the Danes were murdered, wheresoever the invaders
came, they made the Saxons prepare and spread for them great
''easts \ 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 entertamers, and marched on. For six
long years tiiey carried on this war ; burning the crops, farm-
houses, barns, mills, granaries ; killing the laborers in the
fields ; preventing the seeds from being sown in the ground ;
causing famine and starvation : leaving only heaps of ruin and
»moking ashes, where they had found rich towns. To crown



this misery, English officers and men deserted ; and even the
favorites of Ethelred the Unready, becoming traitors, seized
many of the English ships, turned pirates againc: 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, wh©
was true to his country and the feeble '^ing. He was r. priest,
and a brave one. For twenty days the Archbishop of Canter-
bury defended that city against its Danish besiegers ; and when
a traitor in the town threw ^he gates open, and admitted them,
he said, in chains, " I wi'l 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 pur-
chase 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-

" 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 :haggy beards against the
walls, where men were mounted on tables and forms to see
him over the heads of otherr, — and he knew that his time was

"I have no gold," said he.

" Get it, bishop ! " they all thundered.

** That I have often told you I wdll 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 the corner of the
hall, where fragments had been rudely throv/n at dinner, a
great .^x-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 baptized (willing, ?.z I hope
for the sake of that soldier's sonl, to shorten the sufferings of
the good man) struck him dead with his battle-axe.

If Ethelred had had the heart to emulat the courage of
this noble archbishop, he might have dene something yet.
But he paid the Danes iLorty-eight thousand pounds, instead ;
and gained so little by the cowardly act. thr.t Sweyn soorv
afterwards came over to subdue 2a.< England, ou broken was
the attachment of the English people by this timCj to :heir m-
capablc King and their forlorn countr)'-; which could not pro-
ject tli^m, that t'l-:' welcf med Sweyn on ali sides as a deUv-


erer. London faithfully stood out as long as the king was
within its walls ; but when he sneaked away, it also welcomed
tlie 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 children.

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 him-
self, 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 Un-
ready died. And I know oi 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 king-
dom, — 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 be-
came 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.




Canute reigned eighteen years. He was a merciless king
at first. After he had clasped the hands of the Saxon chiefs,
m token of the sincerity with which he swore to be just and
good to them in return for their acknowledging him, he de-
.^.ounced and slew many of them, as well as many relations of
the late king. " He who brings me the head of one of my ene-
mies," he used to say, " shall be dearer to me than a brother."
And he was so severe in hunting down his enemies, that he
must have got together a pretty large family of these dear
brothers. He was strongly inclined to kill Edmund and Ed-

Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 3 of 38)