Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of Alfred the Great by Eva March Tappan
In the Days of Alfred the Great by  Eva March Tappan

Ethelbald's Revolt

K ING CHARLES had no objections to bring forward. Offers of marriage from sovereigns were rare. England was in a troubled state, but in no worse condition than his own country. The consent of the girl herself was hardly asked, but at any rate, she showed no opposition. The betrothal was announced, and in three months the wedding was celebrated with all the pomp and splendor that even the Frankish court could command.

One thing the father of the bride had insisted upon—that she should be crowned queen of the Saxons. At that Ethelwulf hesitated. Long before this time the West Saxons had been aroused to wrathful indignation by the ill conduct of the wicked Queen Eadburga, and ever since the first year of the reign of King Egbert, father of Ethelwulf, it had been a law among them that no woman should be crowned. The royal consort was called the king's wife, not the queen, and she was forbidden to sit beside her husband on the royal seat. Then he remembered that Osburga had often been addressed as queen, and apparently no resentment had been aroused, and with his natural carelessness of ills that were in the future, he suffered the archbishop of Rheims to place the crown of the West Saxons on the head of Judith.

Alfred was very happy when he was told that Judith was to go home with him, but the matter of the marriage was something of a mystery, and when Wynfreda asked him:—

"Have you kissed your new mother?" and led him up to Judith, he said gravely:—

"Judith is my sister; she's my sister for always, and she says she won't ever go away from me as Ethelswitha did;" and Judith, the careless, trivial girl, who had willingly married a man four times her age that she might become a queen, forgot her new crown and her coronation robes, and gave her little stepson a kiss of genuine affection that promised well for her kindness to him, whatever her behavior to others might be.

The wedding festivities were hardly over when a message came to Ethelwulf from his faithful bishop. It was but these few words:—

"O king, if you would still have a kingdom, return to it." Judith, who had the curiosity of a child to see her new domain and an ambition which made her wiser than the king, urged their departure, and they set sail for England.

Some time before this, there had been a long conversation between Ethelbald and Alstan, the soldier bishop of Sherborne, who thirty years before had marched with Ethelwulf at the head of the army into Kent. It was perhaps chiefly owing to Alstan's good advice that Ethelwulf had been able to govern Kent in such a manner as to satisfy his father that he would be able to rule the West Saxons; and all through his reign, while he sought Swithin in religious matters, it was to Alstan that he turned with all questions of practical government. It is this old friend and adviser of the king who now sits in the council chamber of Ethelbald, his keen gray eyes bent upon the ground.

Ethelbald looked at him rather impatiently. Then he spoke:—

"Have you anything to say?"

"Much," said the bishop curtly. "You tell me that you, the eldest son of our king, you who have been trusted with the kingdom during his absence on a holy pilgrimage—"

"And haven't I ruled it well?" broke in Ethelbald, as the bishop hesitated for a moment.

"You have ruled your father's people well; but now you would be faithless to your trust, you would even by force of arms hold the kingdom regardless of the duty that you owe to your father and king."

"That's the speech of a priest," sneered Ethelbald; "that comes from the cloister and the cowl, and not from the man who has marched at the head of an army. I hold this kingdom. I have ruled it well. It is my birthright. One Judith made trouble enough in the land of the Franks. It is a fated name, and shall it come into this land to work misery and overthrow for us too? Shall I be thrust out of my birthright by children of this second marriage?"

"That could hardly be," said the bishop. "The church—"

"Yes, the church would do as it did in the Frankish land," said Ethelbald. "It would stand by the children of the second marriage. Lands that had even been already assigned to the older sons were taken back to make a patrimony for the child of the interloper, and the church had no word of protest."

"Your brothers—" began the bishop, but Ethelbald interrupted.

"Yes, I know all that. You would say that my brothers would stand by me. I know, too, that I am strongest of them all. Ethelbert and Ethelred would nod when I nodded. Alfred is a child. My father always loved him best. If it was not too deep a scheme for my father to have in hand, I should think that all this sending the boy to Rome and this foolishness of the anointing was meant to give him a hold on the kingdom before us who are older."

"I have it from those who were present that it was the Pope's own thought," said the bishop.

"I've nothing against the child," said Ethelbald, his voice softening a little in spite of himself, "and, moreover, if my father were to die to-night, I would take the boy, if I had to fight for him, and I would treat him well, and have him taught what a prince ought to know."

"To be false to his father?" said the bishop, looking fixedly into the young man's eyes.

"I tell you there's no falseness about it. I have in my hands what ought to come to me in a few years at most; and to prevent its being stolen from me I hold on to it. I'll tell you more, bishop. Three days ago, in the forest of Selwood, some forty people met. There were nobles, and there were even some of your own churchmen. Do you want to know what they did? I will tell you. Every man there, be he noble or priest, every man laid his hand on mine and swore by the cross at the hilt of my sword that he would stand by me in my rights. Take that and think upon it; and I'll tell you one thing more, I shall be at the head of this kingdom, and if you and your church want any care or protection from me in the days to come, do you stand by me now," and he strode away, leaving his guest to make his way out as best he might.

The bishop rode slowly away. The shadows began to lengthen; still he rode on, meditating, trying to think what was best to be done. He well knew the disposition of Ethelwulf, that with peace and freedom from care, he would be satisfied. He would give his life to prayer and penance. The loss of his kingdom might be to the gain of his soul. Then it was true that Ethelbald's rule in these months of his regency had been just, though severe. He had ruled by fear rather than with his father's gentle sway, but he had ruled justly and firmly. Was it not true that a king who had left his kingdom, who had taken the money needed in his own land and wasted it in Rome—but here the bishop checked his thought, crossed himself, and said:—

"He did not need to dally in the Frankish court. Save for that, all might have been well. Then too, he, the king, has broken the law of his kingdom. Since the days of the wicked woman whose name may not be spoken among us, no woman may be crowned queen of the West Saxons. There is reason—"

"If your reverence would only turn the horse a bit away from the tuft of grass, my setting of eggs would not be spoiled," said a shrill voice in a tone half-way between scolding and entreating; but it was too late. The bishop's horse had prevented a whole nestful of embryo chickens from ever taking their proper place in the world.

The bishop aroused himself. Where was he? He had wandered far from his road, and now it was late in the afternoon. He made his apologies to the woman who owned the eggs, and added weight to his words by the gift of a silver penny. She was volubly grateful, but he hardly heard her thanks, for he was thinking:—

"It is the hand of some saint that has led me out of my way. This hut is on the road to Winchester." He turned to the woman.

"Have you a stout son whom you could send to Sherborne to say that I am gone to Winchester?" he asked, for he had come to a sudden conclusion; he would go to Winchester and discuss this matter with Swithin; for warrior as he was, Alstan had much respect, even in worldly matters, for the unworldly simplicity of thought of his brother bishop.

It was late in the night when he reached Winchester. Swithin was keeping a vigil before the altar. With almost a touch of impatience, Alstan broke in upon his devotions:—

"It is good to pray, but the time has come when we must think and perhaps fight." Then he told him of his interview with Ethelbald.

"I feared," said Swithin, "that it would come to this, and ten days ago I sent a swift messenger to Ethelwulf. I cannot think that the king will delay longer. But come away to a place where we can be free from interruption, and discuss what is best to do for the church in this troublous time."

"We must plan not only for the good of the church," said the bishop who had been at the head of an army. "The weight of the best good of the kingdom and of the king is thrown upon us."

While this conversation was going on, Ethelwulf, Judith, and Alfred, and their train of warriors and nobles were on their way to England. Their retinue was even longer and more brilliant than it had been at Ethelwulf's first coming, for large numbers of the Frankish nobles followed them to the sea to do honor to the young princess and her royal husband.

The king was silent and troubled; he dreaded the responsibilities of the kingdom, and wished only for quiet and peace, and freedom from the cares that were so wearisome to him. Judith and Alfred were in high spirits, behaving like the two children that they were, until Judith would suddenly remember that she was queen of the West Saxons, and would demand that Alfred should show her the reverence due to a queen. Then Alfred would doff his little cap, and bending low before her with his fair hair blowing in the wind, would repeat the words that she had taught him:—


Then Alfred would doff his little cap, and . . . would repeat the words she had taught him.

"Fair lady, princess of the Franks and queen of the West Saxons, I do faithfully avow my—" but rarely would she allow him to go even so far, before the queen in her would vanish, and again they were two children playing together.

When they landed, there was a large company assembled to greet them. The rich waved banners, and the poor waved branches of oak or of evergreen. There were harps and horns and tabors and drums and trumpets; and best of all, there were great shouts of welcome. Alstan had thought it wiser to remain in Wessex to delay, if he could not prevent, any uprising of the party of Ethelbald; but Swithin was the first to greet the king as he stepped from the boat.

"Welcome, most royal king and master," said the bishop.

"Greeting to you, the beloved master and teacher of the king," said Ethelwulf.

The bishop bowed low before Judith and said:—

"A fitting welcome to the fair princess of the land of the Franks, the wife of our king."

"I am the queen of the West Saxons," said Judith, drawing herself up proudly.

The bishop's face paled. "May I beg in all humbleness—" he began, but Judith turned haughtily away.

Alfred would wait no longer to greet his old friend, and he whispered in the bishop's ear:—

"It's my Judith. She's going to be my sister and stay with me always."

Horses were in waiting, and the royal party rode to the king's palace. The shouts of welcome continued, and the long lines of people that followed them still waved their banners and their green branches; but Swithin was watching keenly, and here and there in the crowd he saw lips firmly set or a look of dull anger, or a stern and fixed gaze bent sullenly upon the king and his new wife, and once he heard a voice that said:—

"That gold would have rebuilt our city and protected us from the heathen;" and another responded:—

"It is not so hard to find a king that will keep the laws. One need not go far."

After the king had withdrawn into the palace, these speeches became more frequent. The bishop fancied that he could trace men going about in the crowd with a word to this man and to that. He fancied that brows became more lowering, and that an expression of dull, slow anger was spreading over many faces. He turned sadly toward the palace. A man mounted on a swift horse drew rein suddenly, peered into the bishop's face, flung himself from his horse, and said:—

"Bishop Swithin, the friends of Ethelbald and those that still remain loyal to the king are to meet in Saint Paul's to-morrow directly after the service."

And so, after Ethelwulf had offered up in the cathedral his thanks for his safe return, there was a meeting of men loyal to their king and men eager to keep Ethelbald on the throne. In spite of all the boasts of Ethelbald, he dared not defy the authority of the church; and the bishops, realizing that the complaint of the West Saxons had just cause, dared not defy the increasing power of Ethelbald. The end of it all was that the two bishops were sent to announce to Ethelwulf the decision of the council, that Wessex at least must remain in the hands of Ethelbald.

Swithin's eyes were fixed upon the king as Alstan told him that it was only by flame and bloodshed that he could hope to remain ruler of the West Saxons. Even the two bishops who had known Ethelwulf from his childhood were not prepared for what followed, for the king sank upon his knees and said:—

"I thank Thee that my prayer is answered, and that I may be free from the worldly anxieties of the ruler of a kingdom;" but Judith, who had insisted upon being present and sitting on the royal seat beside the king, stamped her foot in an almost childish rage and cried out:—

"But I am a queen, and I will not give up my kingdom. Fight! Kill those stupid men who would dare to hold it from me," and the child-queen burst into tears. Alfred had slipped in unnoticed.

"Don't cry, Judith," he pleaded. "If my brother Ethelbald has a kingdom, I'll ask him to let you be queen."

Ethelwulf was only too ready to compromise; indeed, he would have been glad to be rid of the kingdom altogether. It was settled that Ethelbald should remain ruler of the West Saxons, and that Ethelwulf should rule over Kent and the lands adjoining.

"And shall I be queen of Kent?" asked Judith, to whom the wide territories of Wessex and the rather scanty boundaries of the eastern districts were only a name.

The people of Kent had been ruled over by Ethelwulf in his youth, and they remembered and loved the gentle, kind-hearted king, and welcomed him most sincerely. They had no law against the king's wife being called the queen, so that for the time being Judith's ambition was satisfied. The king was even happier than he would have been in Rome, for now that he was really performing the duties of a sovereign, though on so small a scale as not to be wearisome, he had no haunting thoughts that he was neglecting the work that it belonged to him to do.

Never did king lose his kingdom so joyfully. He was free for long hours in the church. He could hear as much singing of psalms as he chose, and to the Anglo-Saxon taste, that was an almost unlimited amount. The singing of psalms in generous measure was an important part, not only of the church service, but also of private devotions. If a man was bound to fast for a day, he might instead sing the one hundred and nineteenth psalm six times. In return for Ethelwulf's gift of lands on his departure for Rome, the churches at Winchester and Sherborne were bound to sing fifty psalms every week "on the day of Mercury, that is Wednesday," for the good of the king's soul. Nor was this singing unaccompanied, for, if we may trust the old records, "Whole pipes of copper being winded by bellows, and furnished with proper stops and keys, sent forth a most loud and ravishing music that was heard at a great distance."

Ethelwulf was in a dream of happiness. He forgot that either Judith or Alfred had any claims upon him, and they were left to amuse each other as best they might. Alfred was fond of telling Judith of his brothers, especially of Ethelbald, who had so impressed his imagination because he was the only one of them that had seen a real battle.

One day there was a great winding of horns and a trampling of horses' feet on the road that led to the royal palace in Kent.

"It is the horn of King Ethelbald of the West Saxons," was whispered half timidly about the palace. Ethelwulf was at church, but Judith had quickly arrayed herself in her richest robes and had taken her place on the royal seat when Ethelbald was ushered in.

A tall man of large frame, with dark complexion and keen, dark eyes bowed half mockingly before her; then, after a quick glance at her face, he bent on one knee to kiss her hand, and said:—

"Ethelbald, king of the West Saxons, bows before the beautiful queen of the kingdom of Kent—and, by my faith, I never saw so fair a face," he added boldly. Judith manifested no anger at the impertinent familiarity. The boldness of Ethelbald was more to her taste than the quiet courtesy of Ethelwulf, and when he said, "Such beauty as this should rule over a wider realm than the narrow limits of Kent and Surrey, it would best grace a queen of the West Saxons, but there is no other face like it," even then she was not angry, but pleased that the stern Ethelbald had yielded so easily to her charms.

"Ethelbald likes Judith," said Alfred to his father. "He told her she ought to be queen of the West Saxons, but you won't let her go, will you?"

"No," said the king, absently; and added: "There is to be a course of one hundred psalms chanted to-morrow morning in the church for the welfare of the country. It may some day be deserted by men and beasts, and while we may, it is fitting that we should offer up sacrifices for it and for the many good men that have given their lives in its service. Will you bring Alfred to the church, Judith?"

"Yes," said Judith as absently, for her thoughts were far away with the man who had not only stolen his father's kingdom, but who, as he rode away, had dared to toss a kiss to the bride of his rightful king.

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