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

The Stolen Boys

[About 590]

[THE interest which Pope Gregory the Great felt in Britain is said to have been due to his seeing some English captives in the Forum at Rome to be sold as slaves. According to the chronicler Ethelwerd, he had these boys baptized, and in later years, when St. Augustine was sent to England as a missionary, the boys were sent with him. Such is the foundation of the romance from which the following extract is taken.
The Editor. ]


THE three boys threw themselves on the grass, and in a minute they were fast asleep. They had not seen a long black boat, like some foul snake, creeping steadily down the Wharfe to its confluence. It was flat-bottomed and of unusual beam, but low in the water. The crew consisted of half a dozen villainous-looking ruffians, sent by a vessel anchored at the mouth of the Humber to Calcaria on pretense of selling some cloths, and the return cargo was to be stolen. They were sea-thieves and cutthroats. As they descended the Wharfe, they saw For-there and Sivel fishing on the bank and suspecting no evil. Four of them sprang on shore, and in a minute the lads were bound hand and foot, gagged, and thrown into the bottom of the boat. A few minutes afterwards they came in sight of the confluence, just in time to see Coelred, Porlor, and Hereric throw themselves on the grass by the opposite shore. Very stealthily the boat was brought under the bank Coelred and Hereric were overpowered and bound before they were half awake. Porlor, however, was aroused by the footsteps. He had time to draw his knife and make a desperate resistance, gashing the arm of one ruffian and stabbing another in the hand. But he was quickly overpowered. His two companions were thrown into the bottom of the boat, where, to their horror and astonishment, they found Forthere and little Sive] in like plight. Porlor was put across a thwart and given an unmerciful beating with a thong of leather, which, in the dialect of the cut-throats, was called a lorum.  His young friends were nearly mad with impotent rage as they heard the ferocious blows being showered on the child's body. At last he was thrown, bruised and bleeding, among the rest; but, bound as they were, they could do nothing to console or help him. It all seemed like a horrible dream; they scarcely knew where they were, and could do nothing but sob as they were roused at intervals from a half-dozing state.

Meanwhile the boat went swiftly down the Ouse with an ebb-tide. The villains kept a sharp look-out on either bank, and, when half a mile above Hemingborough, they saw a boy bathing, and swimming out boldly as the tide had slackened. Thinking no harm, he caught hold of one of the boat's oars to rest. In an instant his wrists were seized, he was bound hand and foot, and thrown into the bottom of the boat with the others. It was Oswith. He was quite naked, and one of the crew threw a coarse cloth over him. The grief of the rest of the kidnapped children was redoubled at the sight of their beloved friend, the fearless son of Guthlaf. He was as little able to understand what had really happened as they were, yet he tried to console them. He whispered that he would look out for chances of escape, and reminded them that at least they had the consolation of being together.

All through the night the boat kept her course down the Humber, with the tide against them during the first watch, but with a fair wind. Off the mouth of the Trent the sea-thieves stopped and made fast, until they were joined by another smaller boat coming down that river, which went alongside and passed another boy on board. In spite of their misery and discomfort, the kidnapped children were fast asleep while the boat was waiting in the mud, and they were aroused by another little boy being thrown amongst them. He said that he was Godric, the son of Ulchel, a thegn of the Gainas. He seemed to be as small as Sivel. After a time the seven forlorn children went fast asleep as the boat was rowed down the Humber, and finally came alongside the vessel whose leader had sent the thieves on their kidnapping errand.

This vessel was small, but suited for sea-voyages, and with much more beam than was allowed for an ordinary fighting ship. Her lines were indeed very unlike those of a dragon ship of the Vikings. For she was built primarily for trading, and in the second place for piracy, whenever the opportunity offered, and she had a capacious hold, now half full of merchandise. She was lying off Raven-spur, the site of the Roman station of Prxtorium, under the shelter of Y-kill, the Ocellum Promontorium, now Spurn Head. The seven boys were bundled out of the boat and into the ship's hold like so many bales of goods, and the boats were turned adrift. They had been stolen. The vessel then got under weigh and hoisted her single sail, shaping a southerly course, with a strong breeze which soon freshened into a gale. The stolen children nestled together and slept long, for they were quite worn out with anxiety and grief, to which three of them had added a day of intense excitement and fatigue. They awoke quite famished and were given some food, but throughout the voyage the poor children were treated with vile inhumanity, half-starved, and exposed to the seas which washed into the vessel during the gale. They could not have survived many more days of such treatment. Fortunately the wind was fair, and the voyage had been a short though a stormy one, when the piratical thieves anchored in the port of Amfleet. It is not known whence they came nor what land was disgraced by having bred them, nor does it matter. They were paid and employed by a trader with more humanity but as little conscience as themselves.


In his northern trade Mystacon employed agents to bring him valuable furs and amber, and even unicorns' horns, from the countries bordering on the Baltic, tin from Cornwall, and occasionally he paid sea-thieves to kidnap young children from the north, who fetched high prices in the markets of Rome and Constantinople. He had a shed at Ambleteuse where he received his northern merchandise, preferring that little port to the neighboring harbor of Gessoriacum (Boulogne), because a Frankish officer, from whom, his gifts had secured him favor and protection, was stationed there with a strong body of disciplined followers.

Mystacon had been several days at Ambleteuse, his merchandise was stored in the shed, and his servants had pack-horses ready to convey it southward along the old Roman road, when the vessel from the Humber anchored off the port and landed its cargo. The crew was composed of such dangerous villains that the merchant induced the Queen-Regent's officer to post armed men behind his shed before he ventured to confer with them. Besides a pile of beaver skins and other commodities, the seven boys were put on shore. They stood on the sandy beach close together, the little ones clinging to the three bigger lads. All were wet through, and looked half-starved and miserable. Porlor and little Godric were clinging to Coelred. Sivel had his arms round Forthere, and Hereric nestled under the sheltering arm of the son of Guthlaf. Oswith the fearless, who was nearly naked, with only a bit of sackcloth round his loins, alone maintained a defiant look. There was no longer any sign or token of Berserker rage among the rest.

The wily Greek came forward to look at them. He saw their great beauty and their value, but he also saw from their appearance that they had been cruelly treated. The sea-thieves demanded the payment he had promised, so much for each. "But they are not in good condition," he remonstrated; "the price must be reduced." A livid mark on Porlor's neck caught his quick, searching eye. He pulled down the boy's shirt, and saw that his back was covered with weals, the effect of the cruel flogging he had received. "Damaged goods," he said. Then, turning to his servants, he told them to take the boys into the shed, and to clothe and feed them. "I will only pay half-price for damaged goods," he repeated, turning to the spokesman of the sea-thieves. "That little wild-cat used his knife on one of us," the man answered, "and the flogging served him right." "What is that to me, my friend?" rejoined Mystacon, in a low but irritating voice. "You can please yourselves about damaging your goods, that is your business, but you cannot expect to get the same price as if they were not damaged. If a heavy bale was to fall and hurt one of you, of course it is open to you to cut and slash it if you please, and it may serve the bale right. That I do not dispute. But you must not expect the same price in the market as if the bale had not been cut and slashed. I can only pay you half-price for the boys."

The kidnappers could not follow the subtle argument of the Greek, but they began to look dangerous. The merchant retreated back a few paces. "Pay us what you promised, thou cursed cheat, or we will kill thee and the boys too." He retreated rapidly back and cried out for help, as the villains drew their long knives and rushed towards him. In another minute they were all overpowered and thrown on the ground by the Frankish guard. The officer came forward and suggested capital punishment, offering to hang them in a row. "It is the just and proper treatment," said Mystacon, "of those who try to extort full price for damaged goods from unwary traders. As soon as your laudable proposal has been carried into effect, I shall have pleasure in requesting your lordship to accept the large sum which the criminals refused." Another hour had not passed before twenty bodies were hanging from the branches of the stunted pines round Ambleteuse, and before the Frankish officer had an additional reason for extending his protection to the wily merchant.

Mystacon set out with his train of laden horses and attendants early next morning, following the old Roinan road by Amiens, Soissons, and Autun to Lyons: The boys had been warmly clothed and fed, and had slept well, nor were they prevented from having a morning bath in the sea. Two pack- horses were allowed them, so that they could ride by turns, while the rest trotted along on the road-side. They found that they could understand much that was said to them by the servants, and when Mystacon spoke the Frank dialect slowly and clearly, they could comprehend the meaning of nearly every word. For in those days there was little difference between the Frankish and other Teutonic dialects.

The journey across Picardy restored the health and strength, and revived the spirits, of the English lads. This limestone tract, with its keen fresh air, arable surface, and well-watered meadows, reminded them of the country round Calcaria. At Samarobriva, or Amiens, they rested, and Mystacon was allowed to store his goods against the wall of the town, and to encamp there by the Roman gate of the Twins, whereon was carved Romulus and Remus suckled by the wolf. This was the first opportunity the boys had found of collecting their thoughts, and holding a serious consultation. Even now they scarcely understood what had happened or where they were. Their first words, as they sat among the bales, were words of grief at the sorrow and anxiety of their relations, who would search high and low through the woods, until at last they gave them up as dead. "Alta will give them hope and courage," said Coelred. "She will know that we are together, and she knows that we shall return. For we are to die in battle, fighting for a righteous cause, and that cannot be anywhere but in England. She is praying now that the gods will watch over us, and her prayers are ever answered." These words, spoken with an air of conviction, comforted the rest. "We must suffer," said Oswith, "but that does not signify when we have such good reason for hope. Porlor has already suffered more than the rest of us." "At that I rejoice," said Porlor, whose little head had been teeming with ideas suggested by Mithras and the bull, ever since he gazed on the sculpture at York. "Through suffering we shall all win the rewards prepared for the true and brave; and the thong those niddering thieves called lorum is no word of bane to me, but of good luck." "Nay, then," said Hereric, smiling, "we must fasten it to thy name and call thee Porlorlorum." "Let it be so," answered the imaginative child; "it will remind me, and all of us, in the happy years that will surely come when this darkness has been turned to light, that we had to pass through suffering to happiness and home."


The Forum of Trajan was as yet uninjured. The noble row of buildings with colonnades, including the once well-stored library, still surrounded the large paved court, and in the center stood the beautiful column with its elaborate representation in bronze of the events of the Dacian war. Here important markets were held, and on one autumn morning of the year 583 several merchants, who had lately arrived, exposed many things for sale. Abundance of people resorted thither to buy. Mystacon had his wares arranged under a colonnade. He invited attention in a cringing attitude, seeking for purchasers. The English boys stood in a group quite naked, their eyes full of tears of shame and rage. Among the first people who stopped in front of them was a thin and emaciated ecclesiastic, accompanied by another, who was younger and of stouter build. The older man had an aquiline nose and hollow cheeks, bright piercing eyes, which had assumed a gentle expression and a somewhat commanding air. It was Gregory himself, then aged forty-four, and his secretary Peter. Mystacon bowed low before them. Gregory looked at the boys with admiration, and turning to the merchant, he remarked that their bodies were white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine. Mystacon bowed still lower. "From what country or nation were they brought?" he asked. The reply was that they came from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants are of that personal appearance. "Are these islanders Christians, or are they still involved in the errors of paganism?" was the next inquiry. He was told that they were pagans. Fetching a deep sigh, he exclaimed—"Alas! what pity that the Author of Darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances, and that, being remarkable for such graceful aspects, their minds should be void of inward grace. What," he demanded, "is the name of that nation?" The kidnapper replied that they were called "Angles." "Right," said Gregory, "for they have angelic faces, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven. What is the name," he proceeded, "of the province from which they are brought?" The reply was that the name of the province was Deira. "Truly are they De ira,"  said he, "withdrawn from wrath and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?" Mystacon said that his name was Ella; and Gregory, alluding to it as he walked on, observed to Peter that Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator, must be sung in those parts. Gregory was on his way to have an interview with the Pope, and on coming into his presence, he proposed that ministers should be sent to the English, by whom they might be converted to Christ; and, in his impulsive way, he declared that he was ready to undertake that work himself, by the assistance of God. Pelagius replied that he was willing to grant his request, but that the people would never consent to his departure. Gregory then entrusted to Peter the business of purchasing some of these "Angles," and sent him back to the market.

The boys did not understand a word of the remarks made by Gregory and by other passers-by who stopped to question Mystacon. Presently two patricians, advanced in years, followed by clients and attendants, walked into the Forum and stopped at the colonnade where the lads were still exposed. After gazing upon them, Symmachus Boethius observed to his companion Pamphronius that he had never seen such perfect symmetry and beauty except in ancient sculpture. "The works of Praxiteles are looked upon with disapproval by our good friends the priests, so I would fain ornament my villa with living forms that would be worthy of the chisel of the most gifted sculptor of antiquity." Pamphronius expressed his concurrence, and his desire to possess at least two of the young slaves. Calling Mystacon aside, they made various inquiries, and concluded bargains by which Symmachus Boethius became the owner of Coelred and Porlor, while Oswith and Sivel fell to Pamphronius. Their clients were instructed to complete the arrangement and pay the purchase-money, and the great men passed on. No sooner were they out of sight, than Peter arrived breathless to carry out the instructions of his master. Mystacon was delighted, for his troubles and anxieties were fully repaid. Peter agreed to his terms, and the Atheling Hereric, Forthere, and Godric became the property of the Deacon Gregory.

The boys were thus relieved from their shameful and degrading position, which they had looked forward to with such horror and dismay. Their clothes were restored to them, and they were told by signs to accompany the servants of the patricians and Peter, the road of all being the same, namely, that leading to the Celian Hill. Casting looks of vindictive hatred at Mystacon, they gladly accompanied their new acquaintances.

by Sir Clements R. Markham

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