about 800 B.C.
THERE WAS ONCE A KING WITH THREE
daughters. Weary of responsibility, he decided
to lay aside his crown and divide his kingdom
between his daughters.
"Tell me," he said, calling them before him.
"How much do you love me?"
"More than emeralds or pearls or rubies,"
"More than any man on earth!" said Regan.
"And you, Cordeilla?" asked Leir of his third and favourite daughter.
"What have you to say?" "Nothing," said Cordeilla.
"I love you as-much as a daughter should," said the princess, declining to flatter the old man, "and I think you will find, Father, that the world respects a king because of his title. Give that up and the world may treat you more unkindly than it does now."
Leir was cut to the quick by her coldness, but he hid his hurt behind towering rage. "I had meant to give you the best and greenest part of my kingdom. But now I shall give you nothing, you unfeeling child — no, not even so much as a dowry or a place in my home!"
So the youngest princess, for speaking the truth, was banished over the sea to Gaul, and King Leir laid aside his crown, intending to spend the rest of his life enjoying himself with his friends. (He had a great many friends — 140 knights, in fact.) "I shall come to stay with each of you in turn," he told his two dutiful daughters.
But as Leir grew older and more frail, he discovered that Gonerilla and Regan did not love him quite as much as they had vowed. They turned his friends out of doors, told him they had house-room for only twenty-five, then only ten, then just one. Their husbands seized his last remaining lands, ignoring his ranting protests.
Realising the truth of Cordeilla's words, Leir set off, through storm and hardship, for Gaul, to ask for help. He must recover his crown and depose the villains who were devouring his country. On board the ship, dishevelled and frail, he was treated no better than a common vagrant by the crew. It was true, then, what Cordeilla had said: that it was the crown people respected and not the man wearing it. What kind of welcome would he receive from the daughter he had so wronged?
Cordeilla, however, had found real happiness. Aganippus, King of the Franks, had taken her for his wife, despite her lack of dowry, despite her banishment. He valued her for what she was, an honest, brave and virtuous woman. As Leir found, she had always loved him more than had either of the hypocrites Gonerilla or Regan. At a word, she and Aganippus mustered an army to wreak vengeance on the heartless sisters.
Gonerilla and Regan, too intent on squabbling with each other, could not hold out against the avenging wrath of the invading army, and died, along with their husbands. Leir was reinstated King of Britain, and for three happy years he reigned, a wiser and more humane king for his one disastrous mistake. When he died, Cordeilla buried him in a vault under the bed of the River Soar, and founded a city nearby — Leicester or Leir-under-the-Soar. She ruled in his place, tempered by hardship and injustice into the most tender and just of queens.
Come into our homes, O Lord,
and protect us with your love,
so that we may live in peace
and rejoice in the quiet beauty of your blessing.
The Resting Place AD 50
There was once a hill so clad in
magic that it attracted legends to
it like roosting birds. The Celts
called it the Island of Glass and in
winter it was ringed with
floodwater, so that it stood rooted in its own reflection. All around it
were lesser hills, like children
round their mother.
But this story begins on another hill, thousands of miles away. Joseph of Arimathea, as he stood on Golgotha Hill watching Jesus die on a wooden cross, was moved to offer his own tomb to Jesus's family so that they would have somewhere to lay His body. True, Joseph was a rich man and could afford to buy another grave, but a man does not lightly give up the resting place he has chosen for his mortal remains.
Within days, Joseph's tomb was restored to him, empty, vacated. Jesus had risen from the dead. But Joseph did not choose to reclaim his resting place. He was a disciple, now, a true believer, wandering the world, passing on to people the teachings of Jesus and the news that He had risen from the dead.
With a small band of friends, Joseph sailed for Albion. His ship navigated the Severn River, from where he travelled inland to the county called Summer Land and the cluster of hills round about the Island of Glass. The friends were all weary. Climbing a small hill for a better view, Joseph leaned heavily on his thorn-wood staff and christened the place Weary-All Hill. From the crest, the Island of Glass was clearly visible. What a long way he had come from Golgotha to reach this green place. Joseph drove his staff into the soft, damp, autumn ground, curled up in his cloak and went to sleep.
He dreamed of wings and of light, of
music and voices and ladders between
the sky and the hill. "Rest here, Joseph,"
said the Angel Gabriel, hovering on
kestrel wings. "Build here, Joseph."
On waking, Joseph told his followers,
"Here is where we shall live and work."
They were not looking at him. They were
staring at his staff. While they had slept,
its smooth shaft had grown a dozen
twiggy shoots, and small green nodules
were starting to form. By Christmas it
would be in blossom.
Weary-All Hill (though of God's making)
actually belonged to a local nobleman.
He was a busy man; he had no interest
in stories of miracle workers in far-off
lands, who died and came back from
the dead. Frankly, he did not believe a
word of it. But the hill was too steep to
farm, so he gave Joseph and his friends
permission to build.
Joseph built a church out of wattle and daub — a crude, draughty place, with few comforts. But the view was second only to Paradise, and the birdsong sweeter than the singing of angels. A little religious community grew up, converts to Christianity arriving one by two by three. Joseph was content. He had found his second resting place: a good place to pass eternity. He was buried somewhere on the hill: the exact spot was soon forgotten. The wattle-and-daub church fell into ruins. But one thing lasted, as fresh and new as on the day of its coming.
Each Christmas time, Joseph's thorn-wood staff would erupt into blossom — a miraculous sight. Soon people were making pilgrimage just to see the Holy Thorn. Some said it reminded them of Jesus's crown of thorns. Some said it put them in mind of life springing up new out of stark, thorny death.
Some also liked to think that Joseph had brought with him a treasure far more precious than a walking stick. It was rumoured that he had owned the room where Christ and His disciples ate their Last Supper together before the crucifixion. As the owner of the room, Joseph must, of course, have owned the crockery they used. And that meant he must have owned the cup from which Jesus drank, saying "Take, eat. This is my blood which is shed for you and for all Mankind."
What if Joseph had brought that cup with him to Weary-All Hill?
What if he had hidden it somewhere near the wattle-and-daub church? So began the greatest treasure hunt in the history of Britain — the quest for the Holy Grail: prize beyond price, wonder beyond magic, visible only to the pure of heart.
Five centuries later, in the days of King Arthur, legend claims that the Holy Grail was found by the best of Arthur's knights.
People often use fancy words when they pray.
But I often find it hard to think of the right words.
I know you know how I'm feeling and what I want to say.
And so since I can't find the words...
please listen to my heart.
Running towards Paradise
HIS SANDALLED FEET TROD THE MOSAIC floors
depicting all the Roman immortals, but Alban's mind
was filled by only one god a god so immense and
magnificent that He overflowed Alban's mind and
spilled out of him in a torrent of joy. But these were
times when the Roman army, in which Alban was a
soldier, was still dutiful to the gods of Rome. Though Alban and his fellow legionaries were born in Britain, they occupied and policed it on behalf of Rome, and were obliged to worship Roman gods - Neptune and Jupiter, Janus and Juno and Diana. Loyal Romans purged Christians like the lice in their uniforms.
When the search party came to the house of Amphibalus, a Christian priest fleeing persecution, they immediately arrested the man they found there. It was not until he was brought for judgement that they realised it was not Amphibalus at all, but it was a Roman in disguise. Alban of Verulamium had taken the priest's place to allow him time to escape.
The judge was incensed that Alban, who served under the Roman eagle, symbol of Jupiter, should so deny the Roman gods. "Make sacrifice to the true gods of Rome!" he demanded, but Alban refused. "I worship only the living and true God." Neither torture nor threats could break his resolve.
"Take him out and put an end to him!" raged the judge, and Alban was led away to die. A large crowd had gathered at the place of execution, on a hilltop beyond the river. They stood speculating on what Alban had done and why. Alban was so eager to keep his appointment with immortality that, instead of walking to the bridge, he hurried straight down to the riverbank. The tumbling water slid to a halt, evaporated, and was gone, leaving him a dry path to cross over. Minutes later he crested the hill and crossed as easily from life to death, his head slashed from his shoulders by a Roman sword.
"Let that set an example to any other Roman who thinks to abandon the gods of Olympus!" said the judge, watching from his window.
It did set one, too. For Alban was happy to die. Roman soldiers had always been ready to die for the Roman eagle, for Caesar, for their honour, but they had never loved their gods enough to die like that: fearless, happy, eager to set out on the road to paradise. Alban was Roman Britain's first martyr. And martyrs make for converts.
During the fourth century, Christianity swept
Roman Britain, until it was the predominant
religion. When the Roman Empire crumbled and
the Roman armies withdrew from Britain, they left
behind them a Christian country.
Then the Danes came, under their raven-banner. The Vikings and the Danes arrived in longships, burned down the monasteries, slaughtered the monks, stole the crucifixes and tore up the Gospels. They brought with them their own gods: Thor and Odin, Wotan and Freya — gods who admired bloodshed and awarded paradise only to warriors. The few Christians who survived the rout fled west into Wales and Ireland, leaving the stones of their churches to be re-used for pagan temples or swallowed up once more by primeval forest. Their villages were lived in now by the pagan, blond-haired, blue-eyed Angles.
We thank you that we live in a country where Christians, Muslims, Jews, sheiks - those of all faiths - can worship without fear.
We pray for those who suffer in your name all over the world, our brothers and sisters, who share in that same great gift of salvation through your Son, Jesus Christ but who face injustice, oppression and even death because of their faith in you.
Give them strength, courage, and protection from those who seek to harm them because they follow you;
Guidance and wisdom for when their path seems impossible to tread,
And hope for a future where they have the freedom to worship you without fear. In the name of Jesus. Amen
King Arthur and his Questing Knights
KING ARTHUR'S FABLED COURT AT CAMELOT stood on the fringes of the Summer Land, not far from the Island of Glass.
Raised and educated by the prophet-magician Merlin, and armed with a magical sword Excalibur, Arthur set about freeing his kingdom from evil and the forces of darkness. To that end, he assembled the finest knights in the land. So that they would not quarrel about which of them was the grandest or highest ranking, he seated them at a great round table.
Giants and dragons were slaughtered, maidens were rescued and quests were mounted. But the greatest quest of all was to find the Holy Grail.
An image of that cup, which Christ had used at the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimathea had brought to the Summer Land and hidden in a secret place, which none but the pure of heart would be allowed to find — showed itself one feastday to the knights of the Round Table.
Immediately the knights took it for a sign that they should go questing in search of the real thing.
Sir Gawain searched, but gave up. Sir Lancelot searched, but could not find it because his heart was not pure enough.
But Galahad his son, along with Sir Bors and Sir Perceval, came at last to the mysterious castle of Corbenic, where, in a radiance of light, Jesus Christ Himself appeared to them. Amid the sound of English birdsong, Christ gave them bread and wine, then entrusted them with the very cup from which they had just drunk: the Holy Grail.
The happiness of that moment broke Galahad's heart like a loaf of bread; Perceval devoted himself to a life of prayer, and Bors returned to recount the story to his fellow knights.
But the Golden Age of King Arthur was over within a few short years. In gathering together all the good knights, Arthur had driven the forces of evil to unite in a single, menacing army. The fate of Albion had to be settled by one last battle.
In the water-threaded Summer Lands, man by man, the knights of the Round Table fought and died. The black-armoured knights of treachery and sin and greed were all killed, but at terrible cost. Only the good Sir Bedivere was left standing and, lying wounded at his feet, Arthur, clenching the last minutes of his life like sand in his fist.
"Carry me to those woods," he told Bedivere. "There is something I must do before I die." A stretch of water glinted through the trees. Arthur was desperate to reach it, but his wounds were too deep. "Take my sword," he told Bedivere. "Take Excalibur, and throw it into the water." "Excalibur?" Bedivere was appalled.
He stood by the waterside, his feet in the soft, oozing black mud, and the sword in his hands. But the sheer beauty of that shining blade, that elaborate jewelled hilt, seemed far too marvellous to sink in fathomless muddy water.
He hid the sword and went back.
"What did you see when you threw it?" asked Arthur.
"I saw the moorhens run and the ripples spread," said Bedivere with a shrug.
"Then go back and take the sword from where you hid it and do as I commanded you!" raged the King, his eyes bloodshot with fury.
Bedivere meant to do it, he really did. He ran to the reeds and pulled out Excalibur. But the sword had such memories for him — such happy memories! Soon Arthur would be dead. Was there to be nothing left to show for the court of Camelot, the Golden Age? Again he hid the sword, and hurried back, fearful the King would die alone.
"What did you see?" whispered Arthur.
"I saw the fish scatter and the reeds shake."
"Villain! Traitor! Liar! Must I do the job myself?" Arthur tried to get up, but fell back in agony.
Bedivere took to his heels and ran — back to the waterside, scrabbling in among the reeds. Swinging the sword round his head, he flung it, letting fall a sob of effort and misery.
But just before the expected splash, a woman's hand rose from the heart of the lake and caught Excalibur by the hilt. Three times it brandished the blade, slicing the moonbeams. Then Arthur's sword sank, drawn down out of sight.
Arthur saw from Bedivere's face that his order had been carried out. his loan repaid to the Lady of the Lake. He sank into semi-consciousness, and Bedivere knelt over him, listening for the King's last breath.
Then the sound of oars behind him made him start to his feet. Through the trees came three women, veiled and with their hands drawn up inside their broad sleeves.
"So. It is time," they said to Bedivere. "He has earned his rest." They carried the King, with the greatest ease, aboard a low black craft moored among the reeds.
"Where are you taking him?" cried Bedivere distractedly. "Have some pity, won't you? Let him die in peace!"
"Die?" said the women. "He is sleeping. After such a life, is he not entitled to sleep? When Albion needs him, he will come back, never fear.' Then each woman took hold of an oar and they rowed away, into the veiling vapours which evening had drawn up from the sodden landscape.
And where did they take him? To Avalon. A land of magic.
But where is Avalon? Why, it is the Island of Glass, of course. Or if not that island, some place very like it.
When Bedivere retraced his steps, the battlefield still lay strewn with dead. But the Knights of Arthur were all gone -- all gone to Avalon to sleep alongside their king, heads pillowed on blossom petals from the Holy Thorn, sipping, in their dreams, from the Holy Grail, until their next summons to arms.
These days, the waters have drained away from the Island of Glass. But the hill is the same hill, the earth of the hill the same earth, the secrets of the hill the same well-kept secrets. Kestrels still hover, and the magic still clings.
Sometimes we don't understand why we are being asked to so something.
Sometimes we are asked to do something we don't want to do.
Sometimes we want to keep something that isn't ours.
Help us to make the right decisions and do the right thing.
The Kingly Martyr AD 869
INSTEAD OF WHITE GULLS, BLACK RAVENS WERE
flying that summer over the eastern coast: the
raven banners of Vikings. They swooped in across
the ocean and gorged on Christian blood. Monasteries
were sacked for the sake of their holy treasures, and
villages burned for the sheer pleasure of destruction.
Only King Edmund of East Anglia stood between his people
and the Vikings. But Edmund's faith burned within him like the candle in the sanctuary which, by day or night, never goes out. He did not believe for a moment that God would suffer the true religion of Christ to be snuffed out by pagans.
So, as the Viking cleavers sliced through the November air, and the banner of the cross fell to an unkindness of ravens, what thoughts passed through the King's mind? He was defeated. His knights lay dead around him. His own life was at the mercy of a Viking warlord.
The Viking leader eyed his prisoner like a bird of prey. His eyes were paler than water. He had a certain respect for the King of this flat, damp, fertile kingdom. "You fought well. You are not dishonoured by defeat, King Edmund. I may yet spare your life."
No change of expression crossed Edmund's battle-weary face, but a flicker of hope must have kindled painfully in his heart.
"Yes, you shall go free — why not?" said his captor, spreading his hands in
a gesture of generosity. "Just forswear that milksop religion of yours and honour the Norse warrior gods who overthrew you today."
Edmund's head dropped forward. "I will never renounce
my faith in Christ Jesus." The pale yellow moustache
rucked into a sneer, and the Viking slouched sideways
in his chair. "Take him out and let the archers put
him to some use."
Edmund was dragged roughly away, the guards
snatching off his cuirass and shirt as they went.
They tied him to a tree, and he saw the Viking
archers restringing their longbows. It was late
November: his bare limbs jumped with cold.
"There is still time to change banners!" called the man
with pale blue eyes. "What has he ever done for you,
this Christ? This Jesus Christ?"
"He has blessed my soul with bliss, as I pray He will one
day bless yours," said Edmund. "I forgive you this spilling
of my blood."
The Viking leader turned away with disgust and vexation.
As he went, he could hear the whisk of arrows through
the leaves, the thud of arrowheads sinking into the tree's
trunk. Then the archers found their distance, and began
to hit their mark. It gave him no satisfaction.
When the arrows had finally killed Edmund, his head was
cut off, and the Vikings moved on to lay waste to more
kingdoms. The King's followers reeling with horror, despair
and fatigue, emerged from hiding. But though they were able to cut down the body bristling with arrows, they could not find his head. For days they searched, but without success.
As they combed Eglesdane Wood one last time, a voice called out:
"Over here!" Everyone asked everyone else. "Was that you?"
Then the voice came again. "I am here! This way! Over here!" Their hair stood on end.
Following the voice, they came to a clearing.
Then a dozen men gasped and froze, their
hands on their sword hilts. There stood a
huge wolf, grey as winter, its front paws
straddling the bloody head, its lower jaw
resting on the pale forehead of the
martyr-king. They waited for it to spring,
but the wolf backed grudgingly away from its prize, as though it had merely been waiting for them to come. A page darted forward and grabbed up the head, but the wolf did not move to recapture it, nor to run away. Hastily the King's party beat back through the woods. Walking, they broke into a run as they realized the wolf was dogging their footsteps, keeping the scent of them in its nostrils, watching them with its yellow eyes. But they got back safely to the body of the dead King. Now he could be laid to rest.
They took him to Hoxne. And every time they looked back, the wolf was still following, loping along after the horses, melting into the trees if they reined in.
Word of Edmund's death was spreading — not of his defeat, but of his marvellous courage, his saintly faith. Edmund their king had gone to join the saints. Now there was one more saint in heaven to watch over the people of Anglia.
As the sorry remains, body and head, were lowered into the grave' uninvited guest stood watching from the church lych-gate. With watchful eyes, the wolf observed the laying to rest of the dead King. o Will did it turn and lope back into the forest whose trees, in the rising wind whispered a thousand prayers for the soul of St Edmund.
The name of Bury St Edmunds bears witness to the final place of the martyred king. His bones were moved there after a miracle cult grew up around his memory. He was probably about twenty-nine years old when he died.
Tradition has it that King Offa, who had no son of his own, adopted Edmund, the son of a Frankish king, to be his heir. Little else is known about him.
Even today there are people in this world who are persecuted, laughed at, scorned and even killed for their faith. They are people of all sorts of faiths. Cristians, muslims, sheik and others. We thank you that we live in a country of peace where we are free to follow our faith or have no faith.
Alfred and the Cakes AD 878
ALFRED THE GREAT OF WESSEX HAD FOR HIS ancestors three of the ancient Saxon gods: Woden, Sceaf and Geat. So when Saxon Britain began to fall, field by town, to the invading Danes, Alfred and his brother Aethelred went out to fight them. In 871, at the battle of
Ashdown, the marauders were routed for the first time.
It was a hard won victory. Though their muscles should have ached with exhaustion, success lent the Saxon troops new energy. They set about hewing and gouging the hillside nearby as they had hewn and gouged the Danes, carving out the shape of a gigantic white horse in the chalkstone, for future generations to see and remember.
By 878, things were going so badly that Alfred's pocket army was confined to the Isle of Athelney in the middle of the Summer Land. Their shelter was in turf cottages and their food was bread made from acorns grubbed from under the spreading oak trees.
But the Danes came back again and again. They killed Aethelred and cowed the Saxons to such an extent that they abandoned their king. Along with a few loyal men, Alfred alone held out against them, a mysterious figure living a shifting, ghostly life, haunting the countryside, emerging from hiding to attack the Danes.
Alfred sought shelter from a local man —
a cowherd — and asked whether he might
sleep a night or two at his house.
"By all that's holy, my little place ain no
fit shelter for a king, sire! But you'z
honour me and the wife past all speaking,
if you'z see fit to sleep under our roof!”
Denewulf was not exaggerating: his little turf-roofed house was mean and small and bare. But Alfred was simply glad to be out of the rain. He had no fear for his safety among these good people: they were all ready to lay down their lives for the Saxon cause. This cowherd, for instance. He would return the man's loyalty if ever it were within his power to do so.
With much bowing and blushing — "My wife — where is the silly woman? — she'll make you some food — prepare you up a bed" — Denewulf seated Alfred on a rush stool in front of the fire and dashed away again to try to find his wife and tell her the wonderful honour which had befallen them.
Alfred spread out his great swordsman's hands to warm them at the grate.
"What you'm doing in here soaking up th'heat?" asked an imperious voice behind him.
Alfred turned round and caught his first sight of the cowherd's wife. "Your husband said I might stay here for a while."
"Oh yes, that be typical of 'im, the lummock." The woman had never seen a king before. She did not see a king now — only some mud-stained, unkempt ragamuffin with leaves in his hair, sitting on her best rush stool. "Well, you'm best make yourself useful. Can you do that?" she snapped. "Shake the blankets? Sweep out the straw?"
The King had never been asked such a thing before. "I expect so."
Alfred was dog-tired, but he was also a gentleman. So he did as he was told, and thanked the lady when she brought him a bite of food. Her manners were not quite those of a royal valet, nor was bread and cheese exactly a banquet, but Alfred was used to less. He realised that the woman had no idea who he was.
He marvelled at the bareness of her existence — the few sticks of furniture, the empty store cupboard, the single cooking pot. But he marvelled, too, at the way she could whip up an egg, a spoon of flour and honey into a cake-mix, and set the little scones to bake on a griddle over a twig fire.
"Now you'm watch them cakes and
don't you'm take youz eyes off 'em,
or I'll have words to say!"
barked the woman. "I have to milk
the cows. Someone has to . . .
And no nibbling, you hear?" were her parting words.
Alfred smiled to himself, then settled down in front of the hearth, legs stretched out, and watched the cakes. Little bubbles rose up to the surface of each scone and popped with a sigh. They swelled, as if with Saxon pride . . .
As he sat, Alfred sank into thinking, remembering the bad times, remembering the good.
One day, in the forests, he had come across
a lady in blue standing very still in a downshaft
of sunlight. "Are you lost, lady?" he had asked.
But when she turned towards him, he had known
in an instant, with absolute certainty, that he
was looking at Mary, mother of Jesus, at the Holy..
Madonna herself. Speechless with awe, Alfred had done the only thing his wits would allow, and cast at her feet the most precious object he was carrying — his jewelled cloak pin. Before disappearing like a summer mirage, the lady had opened her lips and said . . .
''You goon! You great lazy, idle, good-for-nothing lummock! You let my cakes burn!" Alfred slipped off his stool in waking and peered around him: the hut was oddly dark. It seemed to be full of smoke. "You great hulking fool of a wet Wednesday! What you got for brains, frogspawn or mud?" Six smouldering little cakes reproached him from the griddle, as black and brittle as charcoal.
"I know what you be," the woman went on. "Anyone can see what you be! You be your mother's greatest shame and your father's worst mistake! You be a wet cloud looking for someone like me to rain on! What you be is...
"The King of Wessex," said a voice behind her. Her husband, the cowherd, stood in the doorway, paler than the pail of milk he was carrying. But it was not he who had spoken. It was one of the officers behind him, cloaks thrown back off their mail shirts, swords drawn. The woman's mouth froze in mid-word. "Son of Aethelwulf," the officer went on. "Kin to the gods Woden, Sceaf and Geat; Lord of Wessex. What shall I do with her, sire?"
The woman's mouth still spoke its small, silent "O". Her eyes filled with tears. Now she would be hanged, and her hut burned down, and her husband's cattle forfeit to the army. Now she would be cursed by her neighbours, remembered as the shrew who had bad-mouthed the greatest man in England. She fell to her knees and curled her body into a crouching bow. She could find no words to excuse her offence.
Alfred picked up a cake and burnt his fingers doing it. He smiled to himself and then at the others. "Why, help her to her feet, man! She's perfectly right! This good woman left me to mind her cakes, and I let them burn. She's quite right I am a fool! Shall I hang her for telling me the simple truth? Here, madam." He pulled out his purse. "Here's recompense for the cakes, and a little something for your . . . honest and fearless nature. Now gentlemen! Let's sit and discuss what can be done to pull England from the fire before she burns, shall we?"
It is unlikely that the White Horse at
Uffington was carved in celebration of
the victory at Ashdown. It probably
represents a Celtic god.
The Alfred Jewel, on the other hand, found near Athelney in 1693 and bearing the words (in Latin) "Alfred had me made", could well be the cloak pin referred to in the legend of the Virgin Mary.
Alfred's greatest success came at Ethandune,
when he defeated Guthrum the Dane. At the
Peace of Wedmore which followed, the Danes
agreed to withdraw to the other side of a line
formed by the River Thames and the old Roman
road Watling Street. All the land to the north of this line would be theirs (the Danelaw), while Alfred could keep Wessex and London. So England was now shared between Saxon and Dane.
Help us to learn from this story that we all have times of need whatever our role or position in life.
Help us to give help where it is needed and receive it with humility.
Dustin & the Devil about AD 980
THERE WAS A MAN WHO LIVED through the reigns of eight kings, and lent his advice to six of them. Small wonder that kings and nobles held no dread for him. St Dunstan was of the opinion that God was on his side, and that made him a dangerous man to cross. His enemies said he dabbled in the black arts — and that made him more dangerous still.
As a young man, he was by trade a blacksmith —
or perhaps it was merely a hobby of his, for later,
when King Edmund made him Abbot of Glastonbury,
he set up a forge in a little stone cell projecting
from the outer wall of the abbey and would go
there, by way of relaxation, to forge horseshoes
and pokers and scythes. Local people would call on
him and ask him, "Make me this, Father Abbot,"
or "Make me that."
One day an uncommonly pretty woman came and fluttered
her lashes at Dunstan, asking if he would make her
a toasting fork. While he worked, she moved about
the room — a flick of the hips, a flash of the eyes,
a smile. But Dunstan kept his eyes firmly on his work.
The hammer clanged down. Sparks exploded: there
was a smell of sulphur. The woman became still more
daring, brushing up against him, fingering his tonsure.
It was only as she stepped over a hammer on the floor
that her skirts lifted, and Dunstan glimpsed her feet.
Lifting his blacksmith's tongs red-h from the furnace, he reached out without them — and seized the woman by the nose!
How she shrieked and screamed. But Dunstan did not let go. How she altered into a mottled, bent old crone gripped in the lips of the red-hot pincers. But still Dunstan did not let go. Now she was not even female, but a sooty writhing fellow roaring and trumpeting in the grip of the tongs. But Dunstan still did not let go — no, not even when the Devil himself was dancing in front of Dunstan on his two cloven hooves.
"You should not have let me see your feet," said Dunstan smiling grimly. Then he threw the Devil out of the window, just as the bells rang for vespers.
The Devil was a fool, really, to approach Dunstan in the shape of a woman. For women were not a breed St Dunstan much cared for. In those days, it was the custom for certain orders of priests to marry and have families. But Dunstan thought the whole priesthood should stay unmarried. The arguments had been dragging on, bitter and unresolved, for many years when, one day, a meeting took place in an upstairs room at Calne in Wiltshire.
Opinions were equally split. It was hard to see how a final decision could be reached. Dunstan closed the proceedings. "We shall never agree, so I say, let the decision rest with Christ Jesus Himself!"
There was an ominous groaning of timbers. Then a large portion of the floor suddenly fell away, and the long central table listed and slid through the hole like a sinking ship, carrying with it everyone on one side of the room.
It was a long drop. In the room below, some lay trapped under the table or under fallen roofbeams. Some staggered ghostly white from the ruins, showered with plaster. Dunstan and his followers, however, were left in the upper room, like angels looking down on the chaos below.
Dunstan's enemies said he had sabotaged the floor. Dunstan said that God had taken a hand. And even if dry rot were really to blame, still Dunstan carried the day. Marriage was forbidden to the clergy.
Not that some monks cared what Dunstan said. Some monks did not give a fig for the holy life or their vows of poverty and virtue. The monks of Middle Fen, for instance. Their lives were as easy and pleasant as they could make them, and they never gave God or religion a thought from one day's end to the next. Their wives and children, sweethearts and friends all lived together in the abbey which stood on an island in the midst of Middle Fen — a rowdy, lawless rabble with wine-stains on their habits and money on their minds.
But Dunstan came down on them like the wrath of God. No sermons or penances. No fines or trials. He simply turned them into eels, every one, and emptied them into the rivers and dikes and ponds and marshes of the fenland. That's why the place is called Ely — the place of eels — and why Dunstan is better remembered than any of the kings he served.
Dunstan was, in his time, Abbot of Glastonbury,
Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and
Archbishop of Canterbury. His career
rick-racked between high power and obscurity
as a succession of rival kings either relied on
his advice or chased him out of the country.
As a young man he was banished for practising
unlawful arts which probably means he was an
When King Edward was murdered in 978 and Aethelred was crowned in his place, Dunstan's political career was over: Aethelred hated him. Dunstan died in isolation ten years later but obtained the ultimate honour of being made a saint.
It is sometimes difficult to know what it is you want us to do.
When this happens please help us to pray, to ask you your will and give us the wisdom to do the right thing.
London Bridge is Falling Down
AD 1013 and 1016
THE VIKINGS ARE COMING! THE VIKINGS are coming!"
The cry had echoed so often up the river reaches, and yet it never failed to terrify. London was the great prize in the game, and London was being captured and recaptured now like a carcass of meat wrangled over by lions.
In 1013, King Swayne the Dane had taken the city from King Ethelred, but Ethelred was determined to take it back. He enlisted the help of King Olaf of Norway, and sailed up the Thames estuary — more dragon-headed ships lunging upstream, more cries of "The Vikings are coming!"
Swayne was ready for them. His men were massed on London Bridge, at their feet lay huge cairns of rock for pelting the attacking ships. There were archers, too, and spear-wielders.
But Ethelred knew the river: it was his river. He had foreseen the blockade, and equipped Olaf's ships accordingly, each with a high platform rising from the foredeck.
"He thinks to shield his rowers from the rocks," thought Swayne, peering against the brightness of the river. "It is protection for the rowers.”
But as the dragon-prows nosed closer, Ethelred's and Olaf's men swarmed up on to the platforms so as to stand almost on a level with their opponents on the bridge. They stood in pairs, one holding a coil of rope tipped with a grappling hook, the other holding a shield with which to fend off the arrows, the stones, the spears.
Insanely, it seemed as if they would really moor up to the bridge, for they pitched their grappling irons at the bridge's wooden pilings.
Their faces were on a level with the bridge parapet: like sailors in two closing warships, both sides looked each other in the eye. There was a moment's silence, like a pause to draw breath. Then the men on the bridge were hurling, shouting, bloodying their hands on the large rocks in their haste to heave them over on to the ships beneath.
Six, a dozen, twenty of the men on the platforms were dislodged by stones and plunged into the river. Some fell stunned to the decking. But then the rowers swung their legs over the benches and faced the other way. The dragon-headed ships dropped back downstream, but between them and the bridge now ran a dozen stout ropes. "Heave!" cried Ethelred.
"Heave!" cried Olaf. And the rowers heaved till the muscles stood proud of their shoulders. The ropes twanged taut, spraying silver droplets into the air.
The grappling irons chewed on the wood of the
bridge; two broke free and splashed into the
river, but the rest held. The strain stirred the
wooden pilings of the bridge in their muddy
sockets in the river bed.
What with the great weight of stones amassed on the wooden planking and the great press of defenders, the bridge was already overladen. Now, as its pilings were dragged out from under it, London Bridge broke its wooden back.
For a moment it staggered drunkenly on its unsteady legs. Then down into the Thames fell stones and shields, timber and helmets and men. The dragon-headed longships rolled on the huge wave which washed down stream from the splash, and the rowers rested on their oars as silence fell over the wide, grey river.
Within three years another king held London — Edmund Ironside — and London Bridge had been built up again, too strongly for whole galleys of rowers to pull it down. But King Canute was a man who did not pit brawn against brawn. He brought the power of cunning to the problem of capturing London.
Arming his men with picks and shovels in place of swords, he had them dig. He had them dig a channel just a hand-span wider than the beam of his ships. It ran south from the Thames. Then west. It bypassed London, looping to the south, and, when flooded with Thames water from either end, it filled to a depth just a hand-span deeper than the draw of Canute's ships. Long chains of men, heaving like barge horses on cables of rope, hauled the entire navy of Canute round Edmund Ironside's London, and attacked from the west — from inland! — unexpected, unresisted, irresistible.
When King Swayne attacked England in 1013
he was accompanied by his son. A few years
later, that son had become king of Denmark,
an as Canute the Great came back to finish
the job. He was England's first Viking king,
capturing the country from Ethelred
(or Aethelred) "the Unready" in 1015 — all
except for London, which was held by
Ethelred's son and heir, Edmund Ironside.
Hence this masterly stroke of engineering
and military tactics.
Ultimately, Knut reached an agreement with
Edmund ironside to share the kingdom, but
Edmund died a month later and everything
fell to Knut. To strengthen his claim to the
throne, he set aside his so-called "northern
wife", Aelgifu, and married King Ethelred's
Help us not to be greedy. When we have plenty for ourselves help us to share with those who are less fortunate than ourselves. And when we see other people doing things that are wrong, that hurt other people help us to have the courage to speak out even if it will humiliate and embarrass us. Amen