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From Early English Romances: Done Into Modern English by Edith Rickert: Romances of Friendship, Chatto and Windus: London, Duffield & Co.: London, 1908; pp. 67-84, 175-177.
NOW these four were messengers bearing letters, who chanced to meet in a forest by a cross that stood on the 68 highway under a linden-tree. And, as the story tells, each man came from a different part; so, for love of their meeting, they bound them truly to be sworn brethren for evermore.
The eldest of them was called Athelston, and he came of royal blood, being own cousin to the king, an uncle’s son. And when his kinsman died he was the next to be crowned with clear gold.
Now as soon as he was made king, he sent for his three brethren and gave them high honours. The eldest he made Earl of Dover, and lord of towns and towers, that so he might recover him from his poor estate. The next, whose name was Egeland,2 he made Earl of Stane, and with great affection gave him his own sister, Dame Edith,3 to be his wedded wife. The last brother was a cleric, wise in the workings of God, whose name was Alryke;4 and as the See of Canterbury was vacant, and had fallen into the king’s hands, he made bishop there that noble cleric who could so read in books that there was none like him in the world. Thus by the grace of God he advanced his brethren, and he himself was a good and powerful king.
Now Sir Egeland, Earl of Stane, who was a true man, as ye shall hear, got upon his countess two knave children. Time passed until the one was fifteen years old and the other thirteen, and their peers could not be found in all the world, lily-white and rose-red, and gay as briar-blossoms.
“He was . . . . . . . . . crowned with clear gold.”
This earl and his lady the king loved as his own life, and also their two sons; and often he called them to bower and hall to give counsel.
Of that, Sir Wymound,5 the earl of Dover, had great envy, and was sore at heart. He devised a means to slander them so as to bring them to death at the stake; and bethought himself: “So may their love not long endure, and the fame of our doing may be spread abroad through the world.”
He bade his men make them yare6 to go to London, for he would speak with the king. When he came thither and met with him, said Athelston: “Welcome, my dear friend!” And anon he asked by what way the earl had come: “Comest thou at all by Canterbury, where clerks sing merrily, early and late? How fares that noble cleric who is so wise in the workings of God? Knowest thou aught of his estate? And camest thou at all by the dwelling of that worthy lord, the Earl of Stane? Didst thou perchance go that way? How fares that noble knight, and his goodly sons, and my sister — knowest thou?”
“Sire,” he answered, “indeed I passed through Canterbury and there spoke with that friend. The noble cleric, who is so wise in the ways of God that his peer is not in the world, sends fair greeting to thee. Also, I took my way by Stane, and spake with Egeland and his lovely countess. They fare well, to speak truth, and likewise both their 70 sons.” Thereof the king was fain, and in his heart made glad cheer.
“Sire,” said the earl further, “if it be thy will, let us go to thy chamber to take counsel. I shall tell thee such tidings as came not in the land these hundred years!”
Although the king’s heart was heavy because of the words of that traitor, they went forth together; and when they were in the chamber, he began smooth lies against his dear sworn brother.
“Sire,” he began, “as I hope to thrive, woe were me to see thee dead! For by Him that won all this world, thou hast made me a man! Sire, in thy land is a false traitor who would do thee much shame and would rob thee of thy life! He would slily poison thee so that, by Christ’s five wounds, thou shouldst come to a sudden end!”
Then said the king: “Prosper thee, do I know that man when I see him? Tell me his name.”
“Nay,” said the traitor, “that will I not for all the gold ever wrought! Nay, by Mass-book and bell, save thou plight troth never to betray him that tells thee the tale!”
Then the king stretched up his hand, and made oath to that false man, who was no less than a devil of hell!
“Sire,” he said, “thou didst make me a knight, and now thou hast pledged me to keep our counsel. Verily, it is none other than Egeland, thy sworn brother. He would thou wert slain; and gives thy sister to know that he would be king of this land, and thus he begins to mislead 71 her. By Him that suffered pain, he means slily to poison thee so that thou shouldst die a sudden death!”
Then the king swore by Cross and Rood: “I will not touch meat or drink till he be slain, he and his wife and their two sons! They shall no longer live in England!”
“Nay,” said the traitor, “so prosper me, I would not see my brother dead; but do as thou thinkest best.” So he took his leave and went to Dover — God send him a shameful death!
Now as soon as the traitor was gone, the king sent for a messenger (as it chanced, he was a foundling and bare his own name, Athelston7), and made out for him letters that he should bear to Stane, to fetch the earl and his two sons, and also the fair countess, Dame Edith. And in his letter the king said that he would make both the earl’s sons knights; and thereto he set his seal.
The goodly messenger without delay took horse and rode away, and hied him a good speed. He found the earl in his hall, and put the letter into his hands and bade him read it. “Sir,” he said, “this letter ought to make thee dub both thy sons knights. I counsel thee, be merry, and ride to London, and bring thy fair wife to see that sight.
Then said the earl: “My wife is great with child, and I doubt whether she may leave her chamber to speak with any of her kin till she be delivered.”72
However, they went into the chamber to read the letters to that gracious lady and to tell her the tidings. Thereupon she said: “So may I thrive, I will not stay till I be there, to-morrow ere noon! I will not tarry longer to see my dear sons knights. Christ reward my lord the king who hath promised to dub them. My heart is well glad!”
The earl bade his men make them yare, and he and his wife rode fast to London. At Westminster, where the king dwelled, they found him who had sent for them.
Straightway the good earl was seized and fettered fast, and likewise his two sons. The countess cried aloud: “Good brother, mercy! Why will ye slay us? What have we done against you that you should put us to death! Methinks you are our foe!”
The king was like a madman in that place, and garred8 his sister be led to prison, for all his heaviness of heart.
Then a squire who was the countess’s friend, went to the queen and told her the tidings. She cast aside garlands of cherries and hastened into the hall, long ere noon: “Sire, I am come before thee, great with child, whether daughter or son; therefore grant me my boon that I may stand surety for my brother and sister till to-morrow and free them out of their bitter pains, that we may know by common accord in full parliament . . .”73
“Dame,” he cried, “away! Know that thy prayer shall not be granted. For by Him that wore the crown of thorns, they shall be drawn and hanged to-morrow, if I be king of this land!”
When the queen heard this, she wept as if she had been beaten with a rod. Verily, I tell you, she fell down on her bare knees, and prayed still for them all.
“Hah, dame,” he cried, “now hast thou broken my command. Thou shalt abide it dear!” And he did not spare to strike at her with his foot, as she knelt, so that she swooned away among them all.
Ladies and maidens then carried her to her chamber, and there was woe enough; for presently, within a little space, a knave child was born as bright as briar-blossom, but dead of the blow struck by his own father.
Thus may a traitor raise trouble, and make many a man full ill at ease, and yet himself not laugh in the end.
But the queen, as ye shall hear, called a messenger, and bade him take a letter and ride to Canterbury, where clerks sing merrily Mass and evensong: “Take this letter to the bishop, and pray him for God’s sake to come and release them from their bonds. The king will do more for him, I know, than for me, though I be queen. Now I have an earldom in the land of Spain,9 and I promise truly to seise it all in thy hand, besides giving thee an hundred 74 bezants10 of red gold. Thou mayest save them from death if thy horse be good.”
“Madam, keep thy morning-gift11 as long as thou livest — I have no right thereto; but for thy gold and goods, Christ in heaven reward thee! I will be there to-night. Madam, I have ridden thirty miles of rough road since daybreak, and travailed sore; and now to ride another fifty, methinks, is a hard thing. And, madam, it is nearhand prime,12 and it behoveth me to eat and drink; but as soon as I have dined, I will go, and may God recover them from their care ere I sleep a wink!”
When he had dined he rode his way upon a noble horse, as fast as he might, by Charing Cross, and thence into Fleet Street, and so through London. And soon he came to London Bridge and so from Stone,13 without turning, straight to Steppingbourne,14 sparing not for mire or moss. And then he went his way from Ospring15 to the Blean, whence he might see the noble town of Canterbury, wherein dwelled that powerful bishop of great renown. When they rang the undern-bell, he was in London and not yet ready; and yet he won to Canterbury long ere evensong, riding fifty miles.
He would not abide, but rode straight to the bishop’s 75 palace, where he was right welcome, being come from the fair queen, and himself of noble kin. Forthwith he gave the bishop his letter, saying, “Sir bishop, have this and read,” and bade him come with him. And ere the bishop had read half the letter, his heart bled for grief, and tears fell upon his chin. He commanded to saddle his palfrey, saying: “Bid my men make them yare as fast as may be, and go ye before to my manors on the way — spare nothing — and look at the end of each five miles I find a fresh horse, not bare but shod, for I shall never be blithe until I see my sworn brother, and recover him out of his care.”
On nine palfreys the bishop sprang ’twixt evensong and daybreak, as we read in romance; and verily, on London Bridge, the messenger’s horse dropped dead. “Alas,” he cried, “that I was born! Now is my brave beast done for, good at every need; and but yesterday he was worth an hundred pounds as he stood, and worthy to bear any knight!”
Then spake the bishop, our ghostly father under God, to the messenger: “Let be lamenting for thy horse, and think upon our great stress, while we tarry here. For if I may free my brother and bring him out of his muckle care, thou shalt be glad thereof; and I shall give thee warison16 and goods to live on for a hundred years.
The bishop would no longer abide, but pricked his horse and rode on swiftly to Westminster, unattended 76 by squire or knight; and the messenger came after on foot.
On that morrow, the king arose and went to the kirk in great state, and with him followed priests and clerics that were wise in the workings of God, to pray for the right. When he came thither, he fell on his knees before the Rood: “God that sits in Trinity grant my prayer. Lord, as Thou didst harrow hell, if they be guiltless that lie in my prison, doomed to lamentation — if they be clean of this sin, grant it be revealed in those that garred them dwell in that place.”
When he had ended his prayer, he looked up into the choir, and saw the archbishop standing there. He was a-wondered of that chance, and went to him apace, and took him by the hand.
“Welcome,” he said, “archbishop, our ghostly father under God!”
Then Alryke swore by the living God: “Brother, speed thou well, for I had never so muckle need since I took cross in hand! Good sworn brother, now turn thy counsel, and do not thine own blood to death, for His sake that weareth the crown of thorns! Let me borrow17 them till the morning, when we may inquire and wit all by common accord in full parliament who is worthy to be doomed. And, but ye will grant my prayer, it shall rue some of us, by God that all things sendeth!”77
Then the king wax as wroth as the wind — an angrier man might not be found than he began to be. He swore oaths by the sun and the moon:18 “They shall be drawn and hanged ere nones,19 and thou shalt see it with thine own eyes! Lay down thy cross and staff, thy mitre and the ring that I gave thee, and flee out of my land. Hie thee fast out of my sight, for wherever I meet thee thy death is foreordained; nor shall it be otherwise.”
Then spake that archbishop, our ghostly father under God, smartly to the king: “Well I wot thou gavest me the cross and the staff, the mitre and eke the ring. Now thou bereavest me my bishopric, and I forbid thee christendom! No priest shall sing, no child, or maid, or knave shall be christened! I will bring thee into care! I will gar cry through every town, so that the churches shall be destroyed and choked with thorns; and thou thyself shalt lie in an old ditch like an heretic, and curse the day thou wert born! When thou diest — and may I live to see the day! — thou shalt never be assoiled, and so shalt thy soul dwell in tribulation! And I shall go into a foreign country and get me strong men-at-arms to rescue my brother! And I shall bring upon thy land fierce hunger and thirst, cold, drought, and other suffering! And I shall not leave thee the right to beg or borrow as much as is worth the gloves on thy hand!”78
By that, the bishop’s men were come, so he took his leave; and they all said: “Sire, have good day!”
He entered into Fleet Street, and there came upon a goodly array of the lords of England, who kneeled down on their knees, and prayed him of his benison; but he nicked them with nay.20 Nor could they perceive anything of his cross or ring. A knight then began with mild speech: “Sir, where is thy ring? Where is thy cross? Is it ta’en from thee?”
Then he said: “Your cursed king hath reft me of all my things — all my worldly goods; and I have interdicted England. Here shall no priest sing Mass, and no child be christened, but if he grant me that earl with his wife and fair children; for he would slay them unjustly!”
The knight answered: “Bishop, turn again. We are full fain of thee, and shall yet save thy brother. For but he grant us our boon, his prison shall be broken and himself brought into muckle care. We shall pull down his halls and bowers, and his towered castles shall lie low and hollow. Though he be king and wear crown, we shall set him in a deep dungeon, and we shall keep our Christian faith.”
Even as they were speaking of these things, came two knights from the king, and said: “Stay, bishop, and take again thy cross and thy ring, and be welcome as long as thou wilt. Lo, the king grants thee the knight and his 79 wife and fair children. Ride back again, I rede thee; he prays thee, par charité, that he may be assoiled, and all England, far and wide.”
Thereof the bishop was full fain, and turned his bridle and rode back, together with the barons, unto the broken cross of stone.21 Thither came the king right soon, and there stayed him and kneeled down on his knees, and prayed the bishop of his benison; and the bishop gave it him at that time, and with holy water and prayer assoiled him and all England, far and wide.
Then said the king anon: “Here I grant thee that knight and his noble sons and my sister, gracious in hall. Thou hast saved all their lives — blessed mayst thou be!”
But the bishop said as quickly: “I shall give such judgment — with thine own eyes shalt thou behold — that if they be guilty of the deed, they may dread a sorrier doom than to show their shame to me.”
When he has so spoken, a great fire was made, as the romance tells us, the length of nine ploughshares22 end to end, blazing with gleeds, and set there that the truth might be revealed to men.
The king asked: “What may this mean?”
“Sire, if they be clear of guilt, they need not dread this doom.”
But good King Athelston said: “This is a hard doom! God grant us all well to speed!”80
They fetched forth that true man, Sir Egeland, before the blazing fire; and from him they took the scarlet-red, both hosen and shoon, and his knight’s garments. Nine times the bishop hallowed the way that his sworn brother should go at that time, and prayed God for the right; and when the lords saw that the earl was unblemished, foot and hand, they thanked God for His mercy. Then they offered him reverently at St. Paul’s high altar; and he fell upon his knees, and thanked God who harrowed hell, and eke His sweet Mother.
And then the bishop said: “Now shall the children go the way the father went. From them was taken the scarlet-red, seemly hosen and shoon, and all their worldly weeds. The fire glowed hideously, and the children swooned as they were dead; but the bishop went to them and gazed upon them with an anxious heart, and took them up by the hand, saying: “Children, have ye no fear.”
Thereupon they stood and laughed: “Sir, the fire is cold enough!” And they passed through it apace, unblemished foot and hand; and when the barons saw this, they thanked God for His mercy. They offered them reverently at St. Paul’s high altar, where this miracle was shown.
And again the bishop said: “Now shall the countess go the way the children went.”
They brought forth that gentle lady, great with child; 81 and when she came before the fire she had no dread, but she prayed to Jesus Christ of the bleeding wounds, that never should any foe of the king come out alive.
When she had made her orison, she was brought to the bright-burning fire. She went from one end a third of the way, and stood still in the fire, and called it merry and gay. But there hard pains seized her strongly, and when they had slackened and she had gone through that hideous pass, blood burst from her nose, but she was unblemished foot and hand. And when the barons saw this, they thanked God on the Rood.
Then command was given that she be led away, as was the law of the land, and ladies went to her: but she kneeled down upon the ground, and there was born that blessed child St. Edmund.23 As soon as he was born, he was brought into the Place,24 whole and hale; and in the sight of all men he was christened Edmund by the king and the noble bishop.
“Half my land,” said the king, “I give thee while I live, together with marks and pounds; and after my death all England to guide and counsel — blessed be this day!”
Then the bishop asked the king: “Sir, who made this great slander, and wrought all this sorrow?”
The king answered: “Prosper me, thou shalt never learn from me in bower or in hall! For I have sworn by 82 St. Anne never to betray him that told me the tale. They are saved by thy counsel; therefore let all this be dead and keep this secret utterly.”
But the bishop swore: “So may I thrive, as I have mine office now and power to assoil thee as clean as wert thou scarce lifted from the font-stone, trow thou trustily and have no doubt — I swear both by book and bell — save thou tell me his name, I shall deem a just doom, and though it ill beseems thee, thyself shall go the right way that thy brother went to-day!”
Then said the king: “Prosper me, I will tell it thee in shrift, though I am loth thereto! Certainly, none else than Wymound, our sworn brother — and It shall go ill with him.”
“Alas,” then said the bishop, “I weened he was the truest man that ever lived yet in life! If he may be attainted of this, he shall be hanged on three trees and drawn by five horses.”
When the bishop had heard of the lie that false man had made he called a messenger, and bade him wend to Dover to fetch Earl Wymound: “That traitor hath no peer! Tell him that Sir Egeland and his sons be dead, hanged and drawn; and that the countess is put in prison, and shall never come out save on her bier. Do as I teach thee.”
The messenger tarried not, but took horse as the bishop bade him, and rode till he came to Dover and found the 83 earl in his hall, and spared not in all haste to put the letter into his hand: “Sir Egeland and his sons be dead, both hanged and drawn — thou gettest that earldom. The comely countess is put into prison, and shall never come out or look again upon the sun or moon.”
The earl was blithe, and thanked God for the slander he had made: “It hath got me this earldom!”
To the messenger he said: “Fellow, well mayst thou thrive! Have here right plenty of bezants for thy hither-coming.”
But the messenger made moan: “Sir, lend me one of your good horses — grant me so much grace! For yesterday, as I came by the way, my noble steed died on this your errand.”
“My horses be fat and corn-fed, and I am afraid for thy life,” said the earl. “For if any horse of mine should kill thee, my lord the king would be full woe to lose such a man.”
Yet he brought the messenger a horse, one of the best at need that ever trod ground. Nimbly, with all haste, the messenger sprang upon this: “Sir,” he said, “have good day. Thou shalt come when thou canst, and I shall see to it that the king be at hand.”
He struck the horse with his spurs, and came a good speed to Gravesend, forty miles away. There he awaited the traitor, and both together they rode to Westminster. When they had dismounted before the Palace, they 84 entered the hall and there met with Athelston. The earl would have kissed his lord lovingly; but the king said: “Traitor — not yet! Let be! By God and St. John, for thy false slanders I slew mine heir that should have been king after my days were ended!”
There among his peers, he denied fast to the king that he had devised any such lie. The bishop took him by the hand, and they went forth together into the wide hall. Never by any craft or skill might he be shriven from that sin.
Then said good King Athelston: “Let him go to the fire to prove the truth of this.”
And straightway thereupon, a great fire was made, as we read in romance. It was built the length of nine ploughshares and blazing red, that men might know the case. Nine times the bishop hallowed the way the traitor should go, that he might speed the worse. He went forth from the end a third of the way, and down he fell amid the flames, for his eyes would no longer lead him.
The earl’s children were quickly aware, and rushed boldly upon that traitor and haled him out of the fire. And they swore by book and bell: “Ere thou die thou shalt say why thou hast made this slander!”
“Verily, I have no help; I know I am but dead. Right sorrowfully I tell you that there was no fault indeed, but that the king loved him too much and me too little, and therefore I had envy!”85
When the traitor had so spoken, five good horses were tied to him, in the sight of all men; and he was drawn through every street, and after, to the Elms,25 and there hanged full high. Was no man so bold that he durst cut down that false body — and this he had for his lie.
1 See Introduction, p. xi.
2 See note.
3 See note.
4 See note.
5 See note.
7 See note.
9 See note.
10 Gold coin of Byzantium, value 10s, 6d. to £1. In Edward III’s reign superseded by the noble.
11 Dowry. Ger. Morgengabe.
12 Six A.M.
13 See note.
13 See note.
13 See note.
15 Stand surety for.
16 See note.
17 Three P.M.
18 Make a negative sign.
19 See note.
20 See note.
21 See note.
22 Open square or market-place.
23 See note.
This romance (811 lines) was first printed by Zupitza (Englische Studien, xiii.), from the unique MS. in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. There is no good evidence of a French original.
p. 68. Egeland (or Egelan, both forms occur), Earl of Stane. The name seems to be a corruption of some Saxon word. In William of Malmesbury’s account of Athelstan, based upon popular traditions (cf. Introduction, p. xvii.), the victim is Edwin, the king’s half-brother. There are two small villages in Kent called Stone (Stane), one near Margate, one near Appledore; and there is also Staines in Middlesex, not very far from London; but the minstrel could not have been remembering his geography if he made any one of these, as he does, on the road from Dover to London.
p. 68. Dame Edith. King Athelstan had a sister of that name, but she married Charles the Simple of France.
p. 68. Alryke . . . of Canterbury. The name seems to be a corruption of Aelfric; but Archbishop Aelfric lived some fifty years later than Athelstan, dying in 1005.
p. 69. Wymound. A Saxon name, surviving in the name of the town Wymondham, Norfolk. It was also the pseudonym taken by Charlemagne in Rauf Coilzear.
p. 71. His own name, Athelston. This detail, more than any other in the romance, suggests confusion arising from imperfect knowledge of an old source. It is unreasonable to suppose that a minstrel would naturally introduce the same name a second time, with the further useless information that the bearer of it was a foundling.176
p. 73. An earldom in the land of Spain. This allusion is equally singular whether it be taken to apply to Athelstan’s queen or to the English queen of the minstrel’s own day. The last from Spain was Eleanor of Castile, who married Edward I. and died in 1290. But John of Gaunt’s second wife was Constance of Castile, and this fact may have suggested the detail. Moreover, the poem is assigned to this very period — the latter part of the fourteenth century.
p. 74. Stone . . . Steppingbourne, &c. No Stone seems to be on the way; Steppingbourne may be a confusion of Stepney and Sittingbourne, and is clearly intended for the last which is 41 miles from London; Ospring is 47 miles, and Blean is a forest about 51 miles from London. There is perhaps a faint suggestion of the Canterbury Pilgrimage in the attempt to describe the route. It is not necessary to suppose that the minstrel knew Chaucer; but his work was written more probably after than before the Canterbury Tales.
p. 77. By the sun and the moon. There is a reminiscence of paganism in this oath. Alexander (King Alisaunder, l. 1750), more appropriately, is represented as swearing by the sun.
p. 79. The broken cross of stone. As this, according to the poem, must have stood between Fleet Street and Westminster, it was perhaps Chester Cross, which was near the Strand, where Somerset House now is. It would have been an appropriate meeting-place, being fairly equidistant between the two places. Further, Stow says that in 1294, and on other occasions, the itinerant justices sat by the cross, or in the Bishop of Chester’s house adjoining. Possibly there was a suggestion of legal arbitration in this choice of a meeting-place?
p. 79. The length of nine ploughshares. A confusion of two ancient Germanic ordeals by which innocence or guilt was 177 judged: one was to pass unscathed through a fire, the other to walk along nine red-hot ploughshares In a line. this combination of the two seems to be peculiar to Athelston.
p. 81. St. Edmund. Historically, Edmund was Athelstan’s brother; but the mother of both was an Edith, hence, confused, doubtless, with Athelstan’s sister of that name. St. Edmund of East Anglia lived long before this time.
p. 85. The Elms. According to Stow, this was in West Smithfield between a pond called the Horse-pool and the Wells River or Turnmill Brook. It was so called because there had been many elm-trees there, of which in his time none remained. This had been the place of execution for offenders, but building was begun there in the sixth year of Henry V. (1419).