Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The Rescue of the Princess of Cornwall

[HEREWARD the Wake, or Hereward the Watchful, headed in 1070 a revolt against the Norman rulers of the land.
The Editor. ]

FAT was the feasting and loud was the harping in the halls of Alef the Cornishman, King of Gweek. Savory was the smell of fried pilchard and hake; more savory still that of roast porpoise; most savory of all that of fifty huge squab pies, built up of layers of apples, bacon, onions, and mutton, and at the bottom of each a squab, or young cormorant, which diffused both through the pie and through the ambient air a delicate odor of mingled guano and polecat. And the occasion was worthy alike of the smell and of the noise; for King Alef, finding that after the Ogre's death the neighboring kings were but too ready to make reprisals on him for his champion's murders and robberies, had made a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, with Hannibal the son of Gryll, King of Marazion, and had confirmed the same by bestowing on him the hand of his fair daughter. Whether she approved of the match or not, was asked neither by King Alef nor by King Hannibal.

To-night was the bridal feast. To-morrow morning the church was to hallow the union, and after that Hannibal Gryll was to lead home his bride, among a gallant company.

And as they ate and drank, and harped and piped, there came into the hall four shabbily dressed men,—one of them a short, broad fellow, with black elf-locks and a red beard,—and sat them down sneakingly at the lowest end of all the benches.

In hospitable Cornwall, especially on such a day, every guest was welcome; and the strangers sat peaceably, but ate nothing, though there was both hake and pilchard within reach.

Next to them, by chance, sat a great lurdan of a Dane, as honest, brave, and stupid a fellow as ever lugged at oar; and after a while they fell talking, till the strangers had heard the reason of this great feast, and all the news of the country side.

"But whence did they come, not to know it already; for all Cornwall was talking thereof?"

"O, they came out of Devonshire, seeking service down west, with some merchant or rover, being seafaring men."

The stranger with the black hair had been, meanwhile, earnestly watching the princess, who sat at the board's head. He saw her watching him in return, and with a face sad enough.

At last she burst into tears.

"What should the bride weep for, at such a merry wedding?" asked he of his companions.

"O, cause enough"; and he told bluntly enough the princess's story. "And what is pore," said he, "the King of Waterford sent a ship over last week, with forty proper lads on board, and two gallant holders with them, to demand her; but for all answer, they were put into the strong house, and there they lie, chained to a log, at this minute. Pity it is and shame, I hold, for I am a Dane myself; and pity, too, that such a bonny lass should go to an unkempt Welshman like this, instead of a tight smart viking's son, like the Waterford lad."

The stranger answered nothing, but kept his eyes upon the princess, till she looked at him steadfastly in return.

She turned pale and red again; but after a while she spoke.

"There is a stranger there; and what his rank may be I know not; but he has been thrust down to the lowest seat, in a house that used to honor strangers, instead of treating them like slaves. Let him take this dish from my hand, and eat joyfully, lest when he goes home he may speak scorn of bridegroom and bride, and our Cornish weddings."

The servant brought the dish down; he gave a look at the stranger's shabby dress, turned up his nose, and pretending to mistake, put the dish into the hand of the Dane.

"Hold, lads," quoth the stranger. "If I have ears, that was meant for me."

He seized the platter with both hands; and therewith the hands both of the Cornishman and of the Dane. There was a struggle; but so bitter was the stranger's grip, that (says the chronicler) the blood, burst from the nails of both his opponents.

He was called a "savage," a "devil in man's shape," and other dainty names; but he was left to eat his squab pie in peace.

"Patience, lads," quoth he, as he filled his mouth. "Before I take my pleasure at this wedding, I will hand my own dish round as well as any of you."

Whereat men wondered, but held their tongues.

And when the eating was over and the drinking began, the princess rose, and came round to drink the farewell health.

With her maids behind her, and her harper before her (so was the Cornish custom), she pledged one by one each of the guests, slave as well as free, while the harper played a tune.

She came down at last to the strangers. Her face was pale, and her eyes red with weeping.

She filled a cup of wine, and one of her maids offered it to the stranger.

He put it back, courteously, but firmly. "Not from your hand," said he.

A growl about his bad manners arose straightway, and the minstrel, who (as often happened in those days) was jester likewise, made merry at his expense, and advised the company to turn the wild beast out of the hall.

"Silence, fools!" said the princess. "Why should he know our west-country ways? He may take it from my hand, if not from hers."

And she held out the cup to him herself.

He took it, looking her steadily in the face; and it seemed to the minstrel as if their hands lingered together round the cup-handle, and that he saw the glitter of a ring.

Like many another of his craft before and since, he was a vain, meddlesome vagabond, and must needs pry into a secret which certainly did not concern him.

So he could not leave the stranger in peace; and knowing that his privileged calling protected him from that formidable fist, he never passed him by without a sneer or a jest, as he wandered round the table, offering his harp, in the Cornish fashion, to any one who wished to play and sing.

"But not to you, Sir Elf-locks; he that is rude to a pretty girl when she offers him wine, is too great a boor to understand my trade."

"It is a fool's trick," answered the stranger at last, "to put off what you must do at last. If I had but the time, I would pay you for your tune with a better one than you ever heard."

"Take the harp, then, boor!" said the minstrel, with a laugh and a jest.

The stranger took it, and drew from it such music as made all heads turn toward him at once. Then he began to sing, sometimes by himself, and sometimes his comrades, "more Girviorum tripliciter canentes,"  joined their voices in a three-man-glee.

In vain the minstrel, jealous for his own credit, tried to snatch the harp away. The stranger sang on, till all hearts were softened; and the princess, taking the rich shawl from her shoulders, threw it over those of the stranger, saying that it was a gift too poor for such a scald.

"Scald!" roared the bridegroom (now well in his cups) from the head of the table; "ask what thou wilt, short of my bride and my kingdom, and it is thine."

"Give me, then, Hannibal Grylls, King of Marazion, the Danes who came from Ranald, of Waterford."

"You shall have them! Pity that you have asked for nothing better than such tarry ruffians!"

A few minutes after, the minstrel, bursting with jealousy and rage, was whispering in Hannibal's ear.

The hot old Punic blood flashed up in his cheeks, and his thin Punic lips curved into a snaky smile. Perhaps the old Punic treachery in his heart; for all that he was heard to reply was, "We must not disturb the good-fellowship of a Cornish wedding."

The stranger, nevertheless, and the princess likewise, had seen that bitter smile.

Men drank hard and long that night; and when daylight came, the strangers were gone.

In the morning the marriage ceremony was performed; and then began the pageant of leading home the bride. The minstrels went first, harping and piping; then King Hannibal, carrying his bride behind him on a pillion; and after them a string of servants and men-at-arms, leading country ponies, laden with the bride's dower. Along with them, unarmed, sulky, and suspicious, walked the forty Danes, who were informed that they should go to Marazion, and there be shipped off for Ireland.

Now, as all men know, those parts of Cornwall, flat and open furze-downs aloft, are cut, for many miles inland, by long branches of tide river, walled in by woods and rocks, which rivers join at last in the great basin of Falmouth harbor; and by crossing one or more of these, the bridal party would save many a mile on their road towards the west.

So they had timed the journey by the tides; lest, finding low water in the rivers, they should have to wade to the ferry-boats waist-deep in mud; and going down the deep hill-side, through oak and ash and hazel copse, they entered, as many as could, a great flat-bottomed barge, and were rowed across some quarter of a mile, to land under a jutting crag, and go up again by a similar path into the woods.

So the first boat-load went up, the minstrels in front, harping and piping till the greenwood rang, King Hannibal next, with his bride, and behind him spears-men and axemen, with a Dane between every two.

When they had risen some two hundred feet, and were in the heart of the forest, Hannibal turned, and made a sign to the men behind him.

Then each pair of them seized the Dane between them, and began to bind his hands behind his back. "What will you do with us?"

"Send you back to Ireland,—a king never breaks his word,—but pick out your right eyes first, to show your master how much I care for him. Lucky for you that I leave you an eye apiece, to find your friend the harper, whom, if I catch, I flay alive."

"You promised!" cried the princess.

"And so did you, traitress!" and he gripped her arm, which was round his waist, till she screamed. "So did you promise: but not to me. And you shall pass your bridal night in my dog-kennel, after my dog-whip has taught you not to give rings again to wandering harpers."

The wretched princess shuddered; for she knew too well that such an atrocity was easy and common enough. She knew it well. Why should she not? The story of the Cid's daughters and the Knights of Carrion; the far more authentic one of Robert of Belesme; and many another ugly tale of the early middle age, will prove but too certainly that, before the days of chivalry began, neither youth, beauty, nor the sacred ties of matrimony, could protect women from the most horrible outrages, at the hands of those who should have been their protectors. It was reserved for monks and inquisitors, in the name of religion and the Gospel, to continue, through after centuries, those brutalities toward women of which gentlemen and knights had grown ashamed, save when (as in the case of the Albigense crusaders) monks and inquisitors bade them torture, mutilate, and burn, in the name of Him who died on the cross.

But the words had hardly passed the lips of Hannibal, ere he reeled in the saddle, and fell to the ground, a javelin through his heart.

A strong arm caught the princess. A voice which she knew bade her have no fear.

"Bind your horse to a tree, for we shall want him, and wait!"

Three well-armed men rushed on the nearest Cornishmen, and hewed them down. A fourth unbound the Dane, and bade him catch up a weapon, and fight for his life.

A second pair were dispatched, a second Dane freed, ere a minute was over; the Cornishmen, struggling up the narrow path toward the shouts above, were overpowered in detail by continually increasing numbers; and ere half an hour was over, the whole party were freed, mounted on the ponies, and making their way over the downs toward the west.

"Noble, noble Hereward!" said the princess, as she sat behind him on Hannibal's horse. "I knew you from the first moment; and my nurse knew you too. Is she here? Is she safe?"

"I have taken care of that. She has done us too good service to be left here, and be hanged."

"I knew you, in spite of your hair, by your eyes."

"Yes," said Hereward. "It is not every man who carries one gray eye and one blue. The more difficult for me to go mumming when I need."

"But how came you hither, of all places in the world?"

"When you sent your nurse to me last night, to warn me that treason was abroad, it was easy for me to ask your road to Marazion; and easier too, when I found that you would go home the very way we came, to know that I must make my stand here or nowhere."

"The way you came? Then where are you going now?"

"Beyond Marazion, to a little cove,—I cannot tell its name. There lies Sigtryg, your betrothed, and three good ships of war."

"There? Why did he not come for me himself?"

"Why? Because he knew nothing of what was toward. We meant to have sailed straight up your river to your father's town, and taken you out with a high hand. We had sworn with an oath,—which, as you saw, I kept,—neither to eat nor drink in your house, save out of your own hands. But the easterly winds would not let us round the Lizard; so we put into that cove, and there I and these two lads, my nephews, offered to go forward as spies, while Sigtryg threw up an earthwork, and made a stand against the Cornish. We meant merely to go back to him, and give him news. But when I found you as good as wedded, I had to do what I could while I could; and I have done it."

"You have, my noble and true champion," said she, kissing him.

"Humph!" quoth Hereward, laughing. "Do not tempt me by being too grateful; it is hard enough to gather honey, like the bees, for other folks to eat. What if I kept you myself, now that I have got you?"


"O, there is no fear, pretty lady. I have other things to think of than making love to you,—and one is, how we are to get to our ships, and moreover, past Marazion town."

And hard work they had to get thither. The country was soon roused and up in arms; and it was only by wandering a three days' circuit through bogs and moors, till the ponies were utterly tired out, and left behind (the bulkier part of the dowry being left behind with them), that they made their appearance on the shore of Mount's Bay, Hereward leading the princess in triumph upon Hannibal's horse.

After which they all sailed away for Ireland, and there, like young Beichan,—

"Prepared another wedding,

With all their hearts so full of glee."

by Charles Kingsley

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