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

How King Edwin of Northumbria Became a Christian


[THE maiden Frideswide and her little brother Leofric, whose home was near the mouth of the Elbe, have been captured by the Britons and sold to the Saxons of Britain as slaves. It is Frideswide who is supposed to be telling the following story.
The Editor. ]

I WAS given to the Lady Ethelberga, the young queen of King Edwin of Northumbria,—his second wife, but lately married, and come into the North from her royal home in Kent,—to be her thrall. Leofric was still employed outside in tending the royal herds.

I might have been considered fortunate. The young queen was not unkind to me; and some of the ladies admired my cleverness, and my blue eyes, and abundant flaxen hair. But it seemed to me they petted me as they would a bird or a favorite hound; and my pride revolted from their caresses more than from the blows and rough words to which I had been used before.

Therefore, before long, I was allowed to pursue my duties unnoticed and unreproved. I learnt to embroider and to play on the lyre. But no threats or persuasions could induce me to sing. Should I profane the ballads of my people, learned from my mother's lips, by singing them to divert these strangers? My worst care, however, began to be for Leofric. His disposition, always gentler than mine, seemed to me to be losing all its fire, and I feared his very soul was growing to be a slave's soul.

Over this I shed many bitter tears.

Again, at King Edwin's court I came in contact with the Christian religion.

There was a tall monk from Italy residing in the palace, Bishop Paulinus. He had come from Kent with the queen.

He preached often concerning the faith; and also spoke in private to any one who would listen. But at first he did not make many converts. And I (God forgive me) hated the very name of Christianity. Was it not the religion of my captors? Had not the treasures of which we, the widow and fatherless, had been robbed been accepted on Christian altars? Moreover, the life of those monks seemed to me base and unmanly. I hated the sight of their smooth, long, foreign faces, and their shaven crowns. It seemed to me a miserable, slavish existence, for a man to glide in and out of houses clothed in a long robe like a woman's, and droning out prayers and psalms. I thought the stern virtues of my people nobler than these.

There was great pomp at King Edwin's court. The great hall and the queen's chamber were hung with tapestries; the floors were strewn every day with fresh rushes. The state dresses of the queen and her ladies were of silk from Asia, embroidered with gold; and both men and women wore jeweled necklaces and bracelets. The king, wherever he went, was preceded by standard-bearers flaunting the royal banners, or the Tufa—the globe fixed on the spear.

We were seldom long in one residence, but traveled from one royal house to another, for the king to administer justice and receive tribute.

We, the attendants, commonly went before, and hung the walls with silken hangings, and strewed the floors with fresh rushes, and set the tables with the golden and silver cups and dishes, in readiness for the arrival of the court.

Wherever we went, the Archbishop Paulinus had a Christian chapel, where he and the good deacon, Jacob, the beautiful singer from Rome, chanted the church services; and Edwin, the king, made his offerings to the old Saxon gods of our fathers in the temples;—to Thor, the Thunderer; to Frea, the Beautiful; and to Woden, the All-father, our royal forefather, and chief of all the gods.

At length a change came over the court. We were riving at the royal city on the Derwent, near the remains of an older city, Derventiona, built by the Romans. I liked to be there. It was a kind of bitter comfort to me to see the ruins of the old palaces and temples. I thought, "Why should we make such an ado? Not only men, but nations pass away. The palaces of yesterday will be folds for flocks to-morrow."

It was the holy Easter-tide, and Paulinus and the Christians had made such festival as they could in a heathen palace.

On that day the king also sat in all his pomp, to receive an embassy from the king of the West Saxons.

Suddenly we in the queen's apartment heard wild war-cries and a confused shouting from the hall where the king sat; and soon after the king himself appeared at the door, white and silent, and then a body was borne out covered. And we were told that the supposed ambassador was an assassin, who had been sent, armed with a poisoned dagger, from the West Saxon king; and that, to save his lord's life, Lilla, the brave nobleman, had made a buckler of his own body, receiving the fatal thrust in his breast. Then all the men had fallen on the assassin, till he sunk pierced with many wounds.

The king was saved, but Lilla, the noblest, was slain.

That night the young queen bore her first child, the Princess Eanfled.

The king gave thanks to the gods of his fathers—to Frea and to Woden; but Paulinus rendered praise to Christ, and told the king how he had prayed to Him for the queen's safety.

The king was moved, and vowed that in case God would grant him victory over the perfidious West Saxon king, he would forsake his old gods, and thenceforth serve and worship none but Christ.

The victory was given. King Edwin forsook Woden and Thor, but would not hastily adopt a faith of which he knew so little.

But the babe Eanfled was baptized with twelve others of the royal family. And among those was the royal maiden, Hilda, daughter of the king's nephew, who afterwards became the great Abbess Hilda.

At that time Pope Boniface sent letters to the king, exhorting him to become a Christian; and to "His illustrious daughter," the Queen Ethelberga, admonishing her to labor for her husband's conversion. With the letters came presents: to the king, a shirt, a golden ornament, and a garment of Ancyra; to the queen, a silver hand-mirror and a gilt ivory comb. To me these seemed presents little suitable to the dignity of the Northumbrian royalty. But from many expressions dropped by the Italian monks, I gathered that at Rome they look on us Saxons as a kind of rude and simple savages. As if not being able to read, like the monks, out of books, made men to be children, or prevented their knowing the world and the wisdom of the aged. For I deem that men were before books, and that those who can speak wise words of their own are wiser than those who can read or copy the wise words of other men.

It was not the Pope's letters which fixed King Edwin's purpose. It happened thus:—

Paulinus had been permitted to preach in public, and the deacon Jacob to chant his psalms. For many days the king had withdrawn much from his usual amusements and occupations, and had wandered moodily about the chambers, or sat alone, evidently pondering many things in his heart. At length his resolution was taken, and he summoned the Witenagemot—the great council of the wise men of his nation—to consider the great question of religion, to the end that if they were also of his opinion, they might all together be cleansed in Christ, the Fountain of Life.

Leofric was there among those that kept the door. What he saw and heard moved him much.

The king sat there in his oaken chair of state, with the elders of his people gathered around him, and Paulinus beside him. Not one among them but had heard of the new doctrine. King Edwin asked them one by one what they thought of it. He sought not the clamorous consent of a crowd, but the counsel of each one.

Coifi, chief of the priests of the old Saxon gods, answered at once:—

"O king, consider what this is that is now preached to us; for I verily declare to you that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of the gods than I; and yet there are many that receive more favors from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now, if the gods were good for anything, they would rather forward me, who have been more careful to serve them. It remains, therefore, that if, upon examination, you find these new doctrines which are now preached to us better and more efficacious, we immediately receive them, without any further delay."

But another of the king's chief men spoke more nobly and said: "The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room where you sit at supper in winter with your chief men and counselors, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow flying in at one door and out at the other, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he straightway vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter whence he came. So, this life of man appears for a short space; but of what went before, or what is to follow, we know nothing; if, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more sure, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

Then the Italian priest arose at the king's command, and spoke. A strange contrast with his audience. They, stalwart and large in form, with bearded faces and fair hair, with broad open brows and honest wondering blue eyes; he, tall and spare, with a slight stoop in his otherwise majestic figure, robed in a long black robe girded with a cord, his dark brilliant eyes flashing from the thin pallid face, like a visible triumph of the spirit over the flesh. And the contrast in his speech yet greater. The easy flow of his persuasive eloquence bore the hearts of the wise men with him; and when he ceased, Coifi the priest exclaimed that he had long known there was nothing in what they worshiped, but now he plainly saw that in this teaching were life and salvation, and eternal happiness. Therefore he counseled that those unprofitable altars where he had so long served in vain should be destroyed with fire, and proposed that he himself should be the first to light the pile.

This took place in the council-hall, and not long afterwards, before we heard what had passed, to their amazement the people beheld Coifi the priest violating all the customs of our race, armed with unpriestly arms, and mounted on one of the king's war-horses, ride forth from the palace to the ancient temple of Woden the All-father and Thor the Thunderer at Godmundham. There he launched the spear into the sacred precincts, desecrating them by the act. No vengeance followed; wherefore all the people said the gods were nothing; and Coifi and his men destroyed the temple and all its buildings with fire.

The flames burnt on into the night. Leofric and I gazed on the dread unnatural glare from a field near the palace, while he told me what he had heard in the council-hall.

"See, Frideswide," he said, "no avenging fire from heaven meets those fires of defiance from earth. Little cause have we to mourn the downfall of the gods who tempted my father on by false auguries, and then abandoned him to death and us to bondage."

"Yet," I said, "it seems to me ignoble to serve or to forsake the gods for such reasons. What king would care for loyalty such as this Coifi's, measured only by a calculation of his gifts! If the prince is good, and our  prince, I deem we should follow him, not only to victory, but to exile. If Woden and Thor are true gods, and our  gods, the fathers and lords of our race, though all the world abandoned them, I would not. The life of the gods is long, and their eyes see far into the past and the future, and how should I dispute their wisdom or their will?"

"But," answered Leofric, "if, as the other counselor said, any light is in this new faith which would show us what is beyond this life, it would be worth watching. For truly to us here this short space of life is no warmed and lighted hall of feasting, but cold and wintry as the world outside."

"That maybe," I said; "to me it matters little. What to me is any world beyond, unless our father and our mother are there? But as to the reasonings of this Coifi, I despise them in my heart. These are not the motives which move any brave men, any man with free blood in his veins. They are the wretched calculations of a hireling or a slave."

Great changes followed. All the nobility, after being instructed, were baptized with the king, and many of the common sort, on Easter Day, in the spring over which has been built since then the church at York. The national temples were destroyed, the national religion was changed.

By Mrs. Elizabeth Rundle Charles

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