The Good King Wamba
Long had the Goths been lords of Spain. Chief after chief had they chosen, king after king had they served; and, though it was young in time, Gothic Spain was growing old in years. It reached its golden age in the time of "Good King Wamba," a king of fancy as much as of fact, under whom Spain became a land of Arcady, everybody was happy, all things prospered, and the tide of evil events for a space ceased to flow.
In those days, when a king died and left no son, the Goths elected a new one, seeking their best and worthiest, and holding the election in the place where the old king had passed away. It was in the little village of Gerticos, some eight miles from the city of Valladolid, that King Recesuinto had sought health and found death. Hither came the electors,—the great nobles, the bishops, and the generals,—and here they debated who should be king, finally settling on a venerable Goth named Wamba, the one man of note in all the kingdom who throughout his life had declined to accept rank and station.
The story goes that their choice was aided by miracle. In those days miracles were "as plentiful as blackberries," but many of these seem to have been what we may speak of as "miracles made to order," designed by shrewd individuals to gain some personal or other advantage. St. Leo is said to have told the electors to seek a husbandman named Wamba, whose lands lay somewhere in the west, asserting that he did this under direction of the heavenly powers. However that be, scouts were sent through the land in search of Wamba, whom they found at length in his fields, driving his plough through the soil and asking for no higher lot. He was like Cincinnatus, the famous Roman, who was called from the plough to the sceptre.
"Leave your plough in the furrow," they said to him; "nobler work awaits you. You have been elected king of Spain."
"There is no nobler work," answered Wamba. "Seek elsewhere your monarch. I prefer to rule over my fields."
The astonished heralds knew not what to make of this. To them the man who would not be king must be a saint—or an idiot. They reasoned, begged, implored, until Wamba, anxious to get rid of them, said,—
"I will accept the crown when the dry rod in my hand grows green again,—and not till then."
The good old husbandman fancied that he had fairly settled the question, but miracle defeated his purpose. To his utter surprise and their deep astonishment the dry stick which he thrust into the ground at once became a green plant, fresh leaves breaking out on its upper end. What was the old man fond of his plough to do in such a case? He had appealed to Heaven, and here was Heaven's reply. He went with the heralds to the electoral congress, but there, in spite of the green branch, he again refused to be king. He knew what it meant to try and govern men like those around him, and preferred not to undertake the task. But one of the chiefs sprang up, drew his sword, and advanced to the old man.
"If you are still obstinate in refusing the position we offer you," he sternly said, "you shall lose your head as well as your crown."
His fierce eyes and brandished sword gave weight to his words, and Wamba, concluding that he would rather be a king than a corpse, accepted the trust. He was then escorted by the council and the army to Toledo, feeling more like a captive than a monarch. There he was anointed and crowned, and, from being lord of his fields, the wise old husbandman became king of Spain.
Such a king as Wamba proved to be the Goths had never known. Age had brought him wisdom, but it had not robbed him of energy. He knew what he had to expect and showed himself master of the situation. Revolts broke out, conspiracies threatened the throne, but one after another he put them down. Yet he was as merciful as he was prompt. His enemies were set free and bidden to behave themselves better in the future. One ambitious noble named Paul, who thought it would be an easy thing to take the throne from an old man who had shown so plainly that he did not want it, rose in rebellion. He soon learned his mistake. Wamba met him in battle, routed his army, and took him prisoner. Paul expected nothing less than to have his head stricken off, but Wamba simply ordered that it should be shaved.
To shave the crown of the head in those days was no trifling matter. It formed what is known as the tonsure, then the mark of the monastic orders. A man condemned to the tonsure could not serve as king or chieftain, but must spend the remainder of his days in seclusion as a monk. So Paul was disposed of without losing his life.
Wamba, however, did not spend all his time in fighting with conspirators. He was so just a king that all the historians praise him to the stars,—though none of them tell us what just deeds he did. He was one of those famous monarchs around whom legend loves to grow, as the green leaves grew around his dry rod, and who become kings of fancy in the absence of facts. About all we know is that he was "Good King Wamba," a just and merciful man under whom Spain reached its age of gold.
He made a great and beautiful city of Toledo, his capital. It had a wall, but he gave it another, stronger and loftier. And within the city he built a noble palace and other splendid buildings, all of which time has swept away. But over the great gate of Toledo the inscription still remains: Erexit fautore Deo Rex inclytus urbem Wamba. "To God and King Wamba the city owes its walls."
Alas! the end was what might be expected of such goodness in so evil an age. A traitor arose among those he most favored. There was a youth named Ervigio, in whose veins ran the blood of former kings, and whom Wamba so loved and honored as to raise him to great authority in the kingdom. Ervigio was one of those who must be king or slave. Ambition made him forget all favors, and he determined to cast his royal benefactor from the throne. But he was not base enough to murder the good old man to whom he owed his greatness. It was enough if he could make him incapable of reigning,—as Wamba had done with Paul.
To accomplish this he gave the king a sleeping potion, and while he was under its influence had him tonsured,—that is, had the crown of his head shaved. He then proclaimed that this had been done at the wish of the king, who was weary of the throne. But whether or not, the law was strict. No matter how or why it was done, no man who had received the tonsure could ever again sit upon the Gothic throne. Fortunately for Ervigio, Wamba cared no more for the crown now than he had done at first, and when he came back to his senses he made little question of the base trick of his favorite, but cheerfully enough became a monk. The remaining seven years of his life he passed happily in withdrawal from a world into which he had been forced against his will.
But the people loved him, the good old man, and were not willing to accept the scheming Ervigio as their king unless he could prove his right to the throne. So, in the year 681, he called together a council of lords and bishops at Toledo, before whom he appeared with a great show of humility, bringing testimony to prove that Wamba had become monk at his own wish, when in peril of death. To this he added a document signed by Wamba, in which he abdicated the throne, and another in which he recommended Ervigio as his successor. For eight days the council considered the question. The documents might be false, but Wamba was a monk, and Ervigio was in power; so they chose him as king. The holy oil of consecration was poured upon his unholy head.
Thus it was that Wamba the husbandman first became king and afterwards monk. In all his stations—farmer, king, and monk—he acquitted himself well and worthily, and his name has come down to us from the mists of time as one of those rare men of whom we know little, but all that little good.