Charles W. (Charles Watts) Whistler.

A prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex online

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go again to their own places after some little service
there, but Owen and I were of those to whom the
court was home altogether. Owen was the king's
marshal now, and I was in command of the house-
carles, and had been so for a year or more. It was



no very heavy post, nor responsible after all, for
Ina's guard was the love of his people, and beyond
these warriors from the freemen who served as
palace guard and watch, were the athelings of the
household, from whose number I had been chosen
for this post by right of longest service more than
for any other reason, as I think. I knew all the ins
and outs of every house where Ina went, and had
nothing fresh to learn in the matter. Still, if the
men under me were few, the post had its own
privileges, and was always held to lead to somewhat
higher, and I was more than content therewith, for
it kept me near Owen and the king, whom I loved
next to my foster-father.

I do not think that by this time any one knew,
save the king, that I was not Owen's own son. I
was wont to call him father always, and I cannot
be blamed, for he was foster-father and god-father
to me, and well did he take the father's place to
the orphan whom he had saved. And I had
forgotten Eastdean, save as one keeps a memory
of the home where one was a child. I never
thought of it as a place that should have been
mine, for neither the king nor Owen ever spoke
to me concerning it. Sometimes, in remembrances
of my father, I would wonder into whose hands the
manors had passed, but rather in hopes that some
day those who owned them now would suffer me to
see that the grave where he lay was honoured, rather
than as a matter which at all concerned me in any
closer way.

For, since I was but a child, the court had been
my home, with Owen as my father, and Ina the


king as the loved guardian for whom I would gladly
give my life in need. All my training and thoughts
were centred here, not as what one calls a courtier
at all, but as one of the household who feared the
king and queen no more than Owen himself, and yet
reverenced all three as those to whom all homage
was due since he could remember.

Thus things were with us at the end of the tenth
year after we left Aldhelm at Malmesbury, and now
the court was at Glastonbury in fair Somerset,
keeping the Christmas-tide there in the place that is
the holiest in all England by reason of the coming
thither of Joseph of Arimathea, and the first preach-
ing of the Gospel in our land by him. It was not
by any means the first time I had been in the place,
and here I had some good friends indeed ; for Ina
loved the vale of Avalon well, and often came
hither with a few of us, or with the whole court, to
the house which he had made that he might watch
the building of the wondrous church which he was
raising- over the very spot where the little chapel of
the saint had been in the old days.

Fair is the place indeed, for it lies deep among
green hills, and from the westward slope where the
church stands, at their foot stretch great meres to
lesser hills toward the sunset beyond. Very
pleasant are the trees and flowers of the rich
meadows of the island-valley, and the wind comes
but gently here even at Yuletide, hardly ruffling the
clear waters that have given the place its name,
" Inys Vitryn," and " Avalon " men called the place
before we Saxons came, by reason of those still
meres and the wondrous orchards which fear no


frost among the hills that shelter them. The
summer seems to linger here after it has fled from
the uplands.

There was a goodly company gathered in Ina's
hall for the twelfth night feasting. Truly, the
hall was not so great as that in the palace at
Winchester, but it was all the brighter for that
reason. It was hard to get that great space well
lighted and warmed at times, when the wind blew
cold under eaves and through narrow windows ; but
here all was well lit and comfortable to look on and
to feel also, as one sat and feasted with the sweet
sedges of the mere banks deep under foot on the
floor and the great fire in the hall centre near
enough to every one. I think that this hall in
Glastonbury was as pleasant as any that I know in
all Wessex.

There was a great door midway in the southern
side of the hall, and as one entered, to right and
left along that wall ran the tables for the house-
carles and other men of the lower ranks, and for
strangers who might come in to share the king's
hospitality and had no right to a higher place.
Then at either end of the hall were cross tables,
where the thanes and their ladies had their places
in due order, above the franklins whose cross tables
were next to those of the house-carles. And then,
right over against the south wall and across the fire
on the hearth, was the longest table of all, and in
the midst of that was the high place for the king
and queen and a few others. That dais was the
only place where the guests did not sit on both
sides of the tables, for the king's board stood open


to the midst of the hall on its three low steps that
he might see and be seen by all his guests, and be
fitly served from in front.

On the hearth a great yule log burnt brightly,
and all round the wall were set torches in their
sconces, so that the hall was very bright. On the
walls were the costly hangings that we took every-
where with us, and above them shone the spare
arms and helms and shields of the house-carles,
mixed with heads of boar and stag and wolf from
the Mendips and Quantocks where Ina hunted, each
head with its story. Up and down in the spaces
between the tables hurried the servants who tended
the guests, so that the hall was full of life and
brightness from end to end. There was peace in
all Wessex at this time, and so here was a full
gathering of guests to the little town. Ina and
Ethelburga the queen were on the high place, and
to their left was Herewald, the Somerset ealdorman,
who lived in Glastonbury, and was a good friend of
mine, as will be seen, with his fair daughter Elfrida,
and on the right of the king was Nunna, his cousin,
and his wife. Owen was next to Herewald, at one
end of the high place, and at the other end was
Sigebald, the Dorset ealdorman, under whom I had
fought not so long ago. There were many others
of high rank in the west to the right and left of
these again at the long tables. Indeed, there was
but one whom I missed in all the gathering. My
old friend Aldhelm was gone. He died in the last
year, after having been Bishop of Sherborne for a
little while. I missed him sorely, as did every man
who knew him.


I do not think that if one searched all England
through there could have been found a more noble
looking group than that at Ina's high table. It is
well known that our king and queen were beyond
all others for royalty of look and ways, and I will
venture to say that neither of the ealdormen had
their equals, save in Nunna, anywhere. But it is
not my word only, for it was a common saying, that
Owen seemed most royal next to the king himself.
Grave he always was, but with a ready smile and
pleasant, in the right place, and though he was now
about five-and-forty he had changed little to my
eyes from what he was twelve years ago, when he
saved me from the wolves. He was one of those
men who age but slowly.

One other on the high place I have not mentioned
in this way. That was Elfrida, the Somerset
ealdorman's daughter, of whom it was said that she
was the fairest maiden in all Wessex. Certainly at
this time I for one would have agreed in that
saying. She was two years younger than I, if I
dare say it, and it seemed to me that in the last
three years she had suddenly grown from the child
that I used to play with to a very stately lady, well
fitted to take the place of her mother, who used to
be kind to me when I first came here as the queen's
somewhat mischievous page, and had but died a
year or so ago. I think that this feast was the first
Elfrida and her father had been present at since
then, and at least, that was the reason I heard given
for her presence on the high place.

Now I must say where my place was in the hall,
for it may make more plain what happened here-


after. The young nobles of the court who had no
relatives present sat at one of the cross tables
at the king's right hand, and at the head of
these tables was my seat by reason of my post as
captain of the house-carles. So I sat with my back
to the long chief table, with its occupants just
behind me, and to my left was the open space in
the centre of the hall, so that if I was needed, or
had to go out for the change of guard or other
house-carle business, all that I had to do, being at
one end of the bench, was to get up and go my
way without disturbing any one. At the same
time I could see all the hall before me, and a half
turn of the head would set my eyes on the king

The door of the hall was closed when the king
entered from his own chambers and took his place,
so that the cold, and the draughts which might eddy
the smoke of fire and torches about the guests too
much, was kept out. But it was closed against
weather only, for any man might crave admittance
to the king's hall at the great feast, whether as
wayfarer or messenger or suppliant, so that he had
good reason for asking hospitality. Several men
had come in thus as the feast went on, but none
heeded the little bustle their coming made, nor so
much as turned to see where they were set at the
lower tables, except myself and perhaps Owen.
There was merriment enough in the hall, and room
and plenty for all comers, even as Ina loved to
have it.

Now there is no need to tell aught of that feast,
until the meat was done and the tables were cleared


for the most pleasant part of the evening, when the
servants, whether men or women, sat down at their
tables also, and the harp went round, with the cups,
and men sang in turn or told tales, each as he was
best able to amuse the rest. There was a little
bustle while this clearance went on, and men
changed their seats to be nearer friends and the like,
for the careful state of the beginning of the feast
was over in some degree ; but at last all was ready,
and the great door, which had been open for a few
minutes as the servants took out into the courtyard
the great cauldrons and spits, was closed, and then
there fell a silence, for we waited for a custom of
the king's.

Here at Ina's court we kept up the old custom
of drinking the first cup with all solemnity, and
making some vows thereover. This cup was, of
course, to be drunk by the host, and after him by any
whom he would name, or would take a vow on him.
In the old heathen days this cup was called the
" Bragi bowl," and the vows were made in the
names of the Asir, and mostly ended in fighting
before the year was over. We kept the old name
yet, but now the vows were made in the name of all
the Saints, and if Ina or any other made one it was
sure to be of such sort that it would lead to some
worthy deed before long, wrought in all Christian
wise. Maybe the last of the old pattern of vow was
made when Kentwine our king swore to clear the
Welsh from the Parrett River to the sea, and
did it.

So when the time came we sat waiting, each with
his horn or cup before him, brimming with ale or


cider or mead, as he chose, and men turned in their
seats that they might see the pleasant little
ceremony at the high place the better. As for me,
I just turned in my bench end so that my feet were
clear of the table, on which my arm and cup rested,
and faced right down the hall, with, of course, no one
at all between me and the steps of the high place.
For now all had taken their seats except one
cupbearer, who waited at the lowest step with the
king's golden cup in one hand, and in the other a
silver flagon of good Welsh wine to fill it withal.
One would say that this was but a matter of chance,
but as it happened presently it was well that I

Now, in the hush was a little talk and laughter
among those who were nearest the king, and then
I saw the queen smile and speak to Elfrida, who
blushed and looked well pleased, and then rose and
came daintily round the end of the king's board.
There a thane who sat at the table at the foot of the
steps rose and handed her down them to where the
servant waited. Ina had asked her to hand him the
cup after the old fashion, she being the lady of the
chief house in Glastonbury next his own. There she
took the cup from the man's hand, and held it while
he filled it needfully. A little murmur that was all
of praise went round the hall, and her colour rose
again as she heard it, for it was not to be mistaken,
and from the lower tables the voices were outspoken
enough in all honesty.

Then she went up the steps holding the cup, and
the king smiled on her as she came, and so she stood
on the dais before the table and held out the wine,


and begged the king to drink the " Bragi bowl " from
her hands in her father's town.

The king bowed and smiled again, and rose up
to take the cup from this fair bearer, and at that
moment there was a sort of scuffle, unseemly enough,
at the lower end of the hall near the door, and gruff
voices seemed to be hushed as Ina glanced up with
the cup yet untouched by his hand.

Then a man leapt from the hands of some who
tried to hold him back, and he strode across the hall
past the fire and to the very foot of the high place
as rough and unkempt a figure as ever begged for
food at a king's table, unarmed, and a thrall to all
seeming. And as he came he cried

" Justice, Ina the king ! Justice ! "

At that I and my men, who had sprung to our
feet to hinder him, sat down again, for a suppliant
none of us might hinder at any time. I did not
remember seeing this man come in, but that was the
business of the hall steward, unless there was trouble
that needed the house-carles.

Ina frowned at this unmannerly coming at first,
but his brow cleared as he heard the cry of the man.
He signed to Elfrida to wait for a moment, and looked
kindly at the thrall before him.

" Justice, Lord," the man said again.

" Justice you shall have, my poor churl," answered
the king gently. " But this is not quite the time
to go into the matter. Sit you down again, and
presently you shall tell all to Owen the marshal, and
thus it will come to me, and you shall see me again
in the morning."

" Nay, but I will have justice here and now," the


P. 69.


man said doggedly, and yet with some sort of
appeal in his voice.

" Is it so pressing ? Well, then, speak on. May-
be the vow that I shall make will be to see you

And so the king sat down again, and the lady
Elfrida waited, resting one hand on the table at the
end of the dais farthest from me, and holding the
golden cup yet in the other.

" What shall be done to the man who slays my
brother ? " the thrall cried.

And the king answered

" If he has slain him by craft, he shall die ; but if
in fair fight and for what men deem reason, then he
shall pay the full weregild that is due according to
my dooms."

Then said the man, and his voice minded me of
Owen's in some way

" But and if he slew him openly in cold blood, for
no wrong done to himself? "

" A, strange doing," said the king, " but he should
die therefor."

The king leant forward, with his elbow on the
table to hear the better, and the man was close to
the lowest step to be near him. It seemed that he
was very wrath, for his right hand clutched the front
of his rough jerkin fiercely, and his voice was harsh
and shaking.

"It is your own word, Ina of Wessex, that the
man who has slain my brother in this wise shall die.
Lo, you ! I am Morgan of Dyvnaint and thus "

There flashed from under the jerkin a long knife
in the man's hand, and at the king he leapt up the


low steps. But two of us had seen what was coming,
and even as the brave maiden on his left dashed
the full cup of wine in the man's face, blinding him,
I was on him, so that the wine covered him and my
tunic at once. I had him by the neck, and he
gripped the table, and his knife flashed back at me
wildly once, but I jerked him round and hurled him
from the dais with a mighty crash, and so followed
him and held him pinioned, while the cups and platters
of the overturned table rolled and clattered round us.

Then rose uproar enough, and the hall was full of
flashing swords. I mind that I heard the leathern
peace-thongs of one snap as the thane who tried to
draw it tugged at the hilt, forgetting them. Soon
I was in the midst of a half ring of men as I held
the man close to the great fire on the hearth with his
face downward and his right arm doubled under him.
He never stirred, and I thought he waited for me to
loose my hold on him.

Then came the steady voice of Ina

" Let none go forth from the hall. To your seats,
my friends, for there can be no more danger; and
let the house-carles see to the man."

Two of my men took charge of my captive, even
as he lay, and I stood up. Owen was close to me.

" The man is dead," he said in a strange voice.

" I doubt it," I answered, looking at him quickly,
for the voice startled me. Then I saw that my
foster-father's face was white and drawn as with some
trouble, and he was gazing in a still way at the man
whom the warriors yet held on the floor.

" His foot has been in the fire since you hove him
there, yet he has not stirred," he said.


Then I minded that I had indeed smelt the sharp
smell of burning leather, and had not heeded it. So
I told the two men to draw the thrall away and
turn him over. As they did so we knew that he
was indeed dead, for the long knife was deep in his
side, driven home as he fell on it. And I saw that
in the hilt of it was a wonderful purple jewel set in
gold. It was not the weapon of a thrall.

That Ina saw also, and he came down from the
high place, and stood and looked in the face of this
one who would have slain him, fixedly for a minute.
Then he said, speaking to Owen in a low voice

"Justice has been done, as it seems to me.
Justice from a higher hand than mine, moreover."

Then he went back to his place, and standing
there said in the dead hush that was on us all

" It would seem that this man thought that he had
somewhat against me indeed, but I do not know him,
or who his brother may have been. Nor have I slain
any man save in open field of battle at any time, as
all men know, save and except that I may be said
to have done so by the arm of the law. Yet even
so, our Wessex dooms are not such as take life but
for the most plain cause, and that seldom as may be.
Is there any one here who has knowledge of this
man who calls himself Morgan of Dyvnaint? It
seems to me that I have heard the name before."

Now Owen had gone back to his place, and while
one or two thanes came forward and looked in the
face of the man, whom they had not yet seen plainly,
he spoke to the king, and Ina seemed to wonder
at what he heard. Then Herewald the ealdorman


" That is the name of one of the two Devon princes
of the West Welsh, cousins of Gerent the king. We
have trouble with their men, who raid our homesteads
now and then.'

At that a big man with a yellow moustache and
long curling hair rose from among the franklins and
said loudly, in a voice which was neither like that of
a Briton nor a Saxon at all

" Let me get a nearer look at him, and I will soon
tell you if he is what he claimed to be."

And with no more ceremony he came to where I
and the two house-carles yet stood, and looked and
laughed a little to himself as he did so.

" He is Morgan the prince, right enough," he said.
" And I can tell you all the trouble. Your sheriff
hung his brother, Dewi, three months since for cattle
lifting and herdsman slaying on this side Parrett
River, somewhere by Puriton, where no Welshman
should be. I helped hunt the knaves at the time.
The sheriff took him for a common outlaw like his
comrades, and it was in my mind that there would
be trouble. So I told the sheriff, and he said that
if the king himself got mixed up with outlaws and
cattle thieves he must even take his chance with the
rest. And thereon I said "

" Thanks, friend," said Ina. " The rest shall be
for to-morrow. Bide here to-night, that you may tell
all at the morning."

The man made a courtly bow enough, and went
back to his seat, and then Ina bade Owen see to his
lodgment, and after that the thralls carried out the
body. I went quietly and walked along the lower
tables, bidding my men see if more Welshmen were


present, but finding none, and then I found the hall
steward wringing his hands, with an ashy face, at
the far end of the hall.

" Master Oswald," he said, almost weeping, " how
that man came in here I do not know. I saw him
not until he rose up. None seem to have seen him
enter, but men have so shifted their places that it
seemed not strange to any near him that they had
not seen him before."

" Had you seen him you could not have turned
him away," I said. " He came as a suppliant, and
the king's word is strict concerning such at these
times. Good Saxon enough he spoke too, in the
way of many of our half -Welsh border thralls.
I do not think that you will be blamed. Most
likely he slipped in as the tables were cleared just
now. There was coming and going enough, and we
have many strangers here. Who is the yellow-
haired man ? "

" A chapman from the town. Some shipmaster
whom the ealdorman knows."

Now, after I was back in my place and the bustle
was ended, there fell an uneasy silence, for men
knew not if the feast was to go on. Many of the
ladies had gone, with the queen, and Elfrida was
there no longer. But Ina stood up with a fresh
cup in his hand, and he smiled and said, while the
eyes of all were on him

" Friends, we have seen a strange thing, but
you have also seen the deeds of a brave maiden
and a ready warrior to whom I am beholden for
my life, as is plain enough. Yet we will not let
the wild ways of our western neighbours mar the


keeping of our holy tide. Maybe there is more to
be learnt of the matter, but if so that can rest.
Think now only of these two brave ones, I pray
you, for I have yet the Bragi bowl to drink, and
it is not hard to say whom I should pledge

Then he looked round for Elfrida, not having
noticed that she had gone with the queen.

" Why," he said, " it was in my mind to pledge
the lady first, but I fear she has been fain to leave
us. So I do not think that I can do better
than pledge both my helpers together, and then
Oswald can answer for the lady and himself at

He rose and held the cup high, and I rose also,
not quite sure if I were myself or some one else, with
all the hall looking at me.

" Drinc hael to the lady Elfrida, bravest and
fairest in all the land of Somerset ! " he cried.
" Drinc hael, Oswald the king's thane thane by
right of ready and brave service just rendered ! "

Then he drank with his eyes on me, and there
went up a sort of cheer at his words, for men love
to see any service rewarded on the spot if it may
be so. Now I was at a loss what to say, and the
lady should have been here to bring the cup to me
in all formality. Maybe I should have stood there
silent and somewhat foolish, but that the ealdorman,
her father, helped me out. " Come and do homage
for the new rank, lad," he said in a low voice. He
was at the lower table near me now, for the high
table had been broken and the king stood alone
on the dais.


So I went to the steps, and bent one knee at
their top, and kissed the hand of the king, and
then held out the hilt of my sword, that he might
seem to take it and give it me again. But he
bade me rise, and so he took off his own sword,
which was a wondrous one, and the token of the
submission of some chief on the Welsh border
beyond Avon, and he girt it on me with his own

" You nigh gave your life for me, my thane," he
said. " That man's knife was perilously near

He touched my tunic with his hand, and I looked.
Across it where my heart beat was a long slit
that I had not found out yet, where the knife

Online LibraryCharles W. (Charles Watts) WhistlerA prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex → online text (page 4 of 25)