Addenda to Mercia
… before his death saw a book containing his sins, which was shown him by devils.
… there was a man in the province of the Mercians, whose visions and words, but not his manner of life, were of profit to others, though not to himself. In the reign of Cenred, who succeeded Æthelred, there was a layman in a military employment, no less acceptable to the king for his outward industry, than displeasing to him for his neglect of his own soul. The king diligently admonished him to confess and amend, and to forsake his evil ways, lest he should lose all time for repentance and amendment by a sudden death. But though frequently warned, he despised the words of salvation, and promised that he would do penance at some future time. In the meantime, falling sick he betook himself to his bed, and was tormented with grievous pains. The king coming to him (for he loved the man much) exhorted him, even then, before death, to repent of his offences. But he answered that he would not then confess his sins, but would do it when he was recovered of his sickness, lest his companions should upbraid him with having done that for fear of death, which he had refused to do in health. He thought he spoke very bravely, but it afterwards appeared that he had been miserably deceived by the wiles of the Devil.
The disease increasing, when the king came again to visit and instruct him, he cried out straightway with a lamentable voice, “What will you now? What are you come for? for you can no longer do aught for my profit or salvation.” The king answered, “Say not so; take heed and be of sound mind.” “I am not mad,” replied he, “but I now know the worst and have it for certain before my eyes.” “What is that?” said the king. “Not long since,” said he, “there came into this room two fair youths, and sat down by me, the one at my head, and the other at my feet. One of them drew forth a book most beautiful, but very small, and gave it me to read; looking into it, I there found all the good actions I had ever done in my life written down, and they were very few and inconsiderable. They took back the book and said nothing to me. Then, on a sudden, appeared an army of evil spirits of hideous countenance, and they beset this house without, and sitting down filled the greater part of it within. Then he, who by the blackness of his gloomy face, and his sitting above the rest, seemed to be the chief of them, taking out a book terrible to behold, of a monstrous size, and of almost insupportable weight, commanded one of his followers to bring it to me to read. Having read it, I found therein most plainly written in hideous characters, all the crimes I ever committed, not only in word and deed, but even in the least thought; and he said to those glorious men in white raiment who sat by me, ‘Why sit ye here, since ye know of a surety that this man is ours?’ They answered, ‘Ye speak truly; take him and lead him away to fill up the measure of your damnation.’ This said, they forthwith vanished, and two wicked spirits arose, having in their hands ploughshares, and one of them struck me on the head, and the other on the foot. And these ploughshares are now with great torment creeping into the inward parts of my body, and as soon as they meet I shall die, and the devils being ready to snatch me away, I shall be dragged into the dungeons of hell.”
Thus spoke that wretch in his despair, and soon after died, and now in vain suffers in eternal torments that penance which he failed to suffer for a short time with the fruits of forgiveness. Of whom it is manifest, that (as the blessed Pope Gregory writes of certain persons) he did not see these things for his own sake, since they did not avail him, but for the sake of others, who, knowing of his end, should be afraid to put off the time of repentance, whilst they have leisure, lest, being prevented by sudden death, they should perish impenitent. And whereas he saw diverse books laid before him by the good and evil spirits, this was done by Divine dispensation, that we may keep in mind that our deeds and thoughts are not scattered to the winds, but are all kept to be examined by the Supreme Judge, and will in the end be shown us either by friendly angels or by the enemy. And whereas the angels first drew forth a white book, and then the devils a black one; the former a very small one, the latter one very great; it is to be observed, that in his first years he did some good actions, all which he nevertheless obscured by the evil actions of his youth. If, contrarywise, he had taken care in his youth to correct the errors of his boyhood, and by well-doing to put them away from the sight of God, he might have been admitted to the fellowship of those of whom the Psalm says, “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.” This story, as I learned it of the venerable Bishop Pehthelm [bishop of Whithorn, Galloway], I have thought good to set forth plainly, for the salvation of such as shall read or hear it.Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum V, 13
Letter of Boniface, and other bishops, to King Æthelbald
To the dear lord, King Æthelbald, in the love of Christ to be put before all other kings, who wields the glorious sceptre of the empire of the English, Boniface, Archbishop, legate in Germany of the Roman Church, and Wera and Burgheard and Werberht and Abel and Willibald [and Hwita and Leofwine], fellow-bishops, send greetings of undying love in Christ. —
— We confess before God and the holy angels, that whenever we hear, through faithful messengers, of your prosperity and your faith in God and good works before God and men, then, rejoicing and praying of you, we return thanks to God, entreating and beseeching the Saviour of the world that He may long keep you safe, steadfast in faith and upright in good works before God to rule over Christian people. But when some harm has befallen you, either from the state of your kingdom or from the issue of wars, or when, as is worse, the news of the perpetration of some crime dangerous to the safety of souls had come to our ears, grief and sadness torture us: by the will of God we rejoice over your happiness and are saddened by your adversities.
We have heard that thou givest many alms, and upon this we congratulate thee, because those who bestow alms on the lowliest brethren in their need, by the truth of the Gospel will hear on the Judgment Day the merciful sentence of the Lord, saying; “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me: come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We have heard too that thou dost strongly check theft and iniquity, perjury and rapine, and art known to be a defender of widows and the poor and hast peace established in thy kingdom. And in this too, praising God we have rejoiced, because Truth itself and our peace, which is Christ, has said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, because they shall be called the children of God.”
But among these reports one rumour of evil character concerning your highness’ life has come to our hearing; we were cast down by it, and wish that it were not true. From many sources we have learned that thou hast never taken a wife in lawful marriage. But marriage was established by God from the very beginning of the world, and has been enjoined anew by the apostle Paul, who teaches: “Nevertheless to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” If thou hast determined to act thus because of chastity and abstinence, that thou mayst abstain from intercourse with a wife for the love and fear of God, and hast shown this to be something truly accomplished for God’s sake, we rejoice thereat; such a course deserves not blame, but praise. If, however, as many say – God forbid – thou hast never taken a lawful wife nor preserved a chaste abstinence for God’s sake, but, under the sway of lust, thou hast destroyed by licence and adultery thy glory and renown before God and men, we are greatly grieved: such conduct must be regarded as criminal in the sight of God and destructive of your reputation before men.
And what is worse, those who tell us this, add that this crime of deepest ignominy has been committed in convents with holy nuns and virgins consecrated to God. There can be no doubt that this is a twofold sin. How guilty, for instance, is the slave in the master’s house who violates the master’s wife! How much more guilty is he who has stained a spouse of Christ, the Creator of heaven and earth, with the defilement of his lust! As says the apostle Paul: “What! know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?” and elsewhere: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy: for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” And again when he mentions and enumerates the sins he joins adultery and fornication to the slavery of idolatry: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived; neither fornicators nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Among the Greeks and Romans the candidate, before his ordination, was asked particularly about this sin, as though any one guilty of it had committed blasphemy against God, and if found guilty of having had intercourse with a nun veiled and consecrated to God, was barred from every rank of the priesthood. For this reason, beloved son, it must be carefully considered how grievous this sin is judged to be in the eyes of the Eternal Judge. He who is guilty of it is to stand among the slaves of idolatry and to be cast from the divine service of the altar, even though he has already done penance and been reconciled to God. For our bodies, consecrated to God through the offering of our own vows and the words of the priest, are called in the Holy Scripture temples of God. And so those who violate them are to be regarded, according to the apostle, as sons of perdition. Saint Peter, to check the voluptuous from lust, says “For the time past may suffice,” and the rest. So it is written: “For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulterers will hunt for the precious life.” And elsewhere, “Men do not despise a thief if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry: but if he is found, he shall restore sevenfold: he shall give all the substance of his house. But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul.”
It would take too long to enumerate how many spiritual physicians denounced the dreaded poison of this sin and laid a terrible ban upon it. Fornication is more grave and repellant than almost any other sin and can truly be called a noose of death and a pit of hell and an abyss of perdition.
Wherefore, we beseech and appeal to thy clemency, beloved son, through Christ the Son of God and His coming and His kingdom, that if it be true that thou livest in this guilt, thou mayest correct thy life by repentance and amend it by purification. And thou wilt reflect how improper it is for thee to change by licence the image of God created in thee to the image and likeness of a devil malignant, and for thee, whom not thine own deserts, but the abundant goodness of God made king and ruler over many, to make thyself by self-indulgence a slave to the spirit of evil, since according to the words of the apostle whatsoever sin a man has committed, of this he is the servant.
Not only by Christians but even by pagans is this sin reckoned a disgrace and a shame. The very pagans who are ignorant of the true God, in this matter observe by instinct what is lawful and what God ordained from the beginning, because, while they preserve faithfully the tie of matrimony for their own wives, they punish fornicators and adulterers. In ancient Saxony if a virgin defiles her father’s house by adultery, or if a married woman, breaking the marriage-tie, commits adultery, at times they force the woman to hang herself by her own hand and so to end her life; and above the pyre on which she has been burned and cremated they hang her defiler. Or at times a multitude of women gathers, and the matrons lead the guilty woman bound through the village, beating her with sticks and cutting away her garments to the girdle; they cut and prick her whole body with their knives, and send her from house to house bloody and torn by the many wounds; new tormentors are always joining the band out of zeal for modesty and leave her dead or scarcely alive, so that others may have fear of adultery and wantonness. And the Wends, the most degraded and depraved race of men, observe the mutual love of the married state with such zeal, that a wife, when her husband dies, refuses to live; the wife is thought deserving of praise, who brings death with her own hand and burns on the one pile with her husband.
When, therefore, the Gentiles who, according to the word of the apostle, do not know God and have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law and “shew the work of the law written in their hearts,” it is now time that, thou, beloved son, who bearest in addition the name of Christian and of a worshipper of the true God, if in the flower of thy youth thou hast been defiled by the filth of licence and rolled in the mire of adultery and plunged in the sink of lust, as in a pit of hell, shouldst, mindful of thy Lord, escape from the snares of the devil and wash thy soul, stained by foul impurity. It is now time that, from fear of thy Creator, thou shouldst not presume to repeat such a sin and to defile thyself further. It is time that thou shouldst spare the multitude of perishing people, who, following the example of their erring ruler, fall into the pit of death. As many as we draw by good example to the life of the heavenly kingdom, or lead to perdition by bad example, for so many, beyond a doubt, we shall receive either punishment or reward from the Eternal Judge.
If indeed the race of the English – as is noised abroad through these provinces, and is cast up to us in Francia and in Italy, and made a reproach even by the heathen – spurn lawful wedlock and live a foul life in adultery and licence like the people of Sodom, from such intercourse with harlots, a people degenerate, unworthy, mad with lust, will be born, and in the end the whole nation, turning to lower and baser ways, will cease to be strong in war or steadfast in faith, or honourable before men or beloved of God, just as has happened to other peoples of Spain and Provence and Burgundy: who turned from God and yielded to lust, until the Omnipotent Judge of such crimes allowed avenging punishment to come and destroy them, through ignorance of the law of God, and through the Saracens.
And it must be noted that under this crime another terrible evil lies concealed, which is homicide; because when these harlots, whether in monasteries or in the world, have borne in sin children conceived in iniquity, they generally kill them; they do not fill the churches of Christ with adopted sons, but crowd graves with bodies and hell with wretched souls.
Besides, we have been told that thou hast violated many privileges of churches and monasteries, and taken from them many revenues. And this, if it be true, must be regarded as a great sin, on the testimony of Holy Scripture, which says, “Whoso robbeth his father or his mother and saith, it is no transgression, the same is the companion of a destroyer.” Our Father, without doubt, is God who created us, and our mother, the Church, which gave us spiritual regeneration in baptism. Wherefore, he who robs or plunders the moneys of Christ and the Church, will be judged a homicide in the sight of the Just Judge. Of him some one of the wise has said: “He who seizes the money of his neighbour commits a crime; but he who takes the money of the Church commits sacrilege.”
And it is said that thy prefects and ealdormen [comites] use greater violence and oppression towards monks and priests, than other Christian kings have ever done before. Wherefore, after the Apostolic Pope Saint Gregory sent preachers of the Catholic faith from the Apostolic See, and converted the race of the English to the true God, the privileges of the churches in the kingdom of the English remained untouched and unviolated up to the time of Ceolred, king of the Mercians, and Osred, king of the Deirans and Bernicians. At the suggestion of the devil these two kings showed, by their accursed example, that these two deadliest of sins could be committed publicly against the evangelical and apostolic precepts of our Saviour. And lingering in these sins, namely lust and adultery with nuns and the destruction of monasteries, condemned by a just judgment of God, they were cast down from their royal thrones in this life, and surprised by an early and terrible death; deprived of the light eternal they were plunged into the depths of hell and the bottom of the abyss. For while Ceolred, your worthy highness’ predecessor – as those who were present testify – was feasting splendidly among his nobles, an evil spirit, which by its persuasions had seduced him into the audacious course of breaking the law of God, suddenly turned him in his sin to madness; so that without penitence and confession, insane and distraught, conversing with the devils and cursing the priests of God, he departed from this light assuredly to the torments of hell. Osred, too, the spirit of licence drove to lust and the frenzied rape of consecrated virgins in the convents of nuns, until by a mean and contemptible death he lost his glorious kingdom, his young life and impure soul.
Wherefore, beloved son, beware the pit, in which thou hast seen others fall before thine eyes. Beware the darts of the old enemy, by which thou hast seen thine own relatives fall wounded before thee. Keep from the toils of him in ambush, in which thou has beheld thy friends and comrades strangled and lose both this life and the life to come. Do not follow the course of these to perdition. For such, according to the prophecies of Holy Scripture, are those that have afflicted the just and taken away their labours. On the Day of Judgment they will say: “We have erred from the way of truth and the light of justice hath not shined unto us, and the sun of understanding hath not risen upon us” and “The way of the Lord we have not known” and “What hath pride profited us; or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All those things are passed away like a shadow, and like a post that runneth on, and as a ship that passeth through the waves, whereof the trace cannot be found: Or as when a bird flieth through the air.” And a little later: “So we also being born, forthwith ceased to be: we are consumed in our wickedness. Such things as these the sinners said in hell: for the hope of the wicked is as dust which is blown away with the wind, and as a thin froth which is dispersed by the storm; and a smoke that is scattered abroad by the wind; and as the remembrance of a gust of one day that passeth by.” And elsewhere: “The number of the days of man at the most are a hundred years: as a drop of water of the sea are they esteemed.” All these things on the authority of Holy Scripture may very properly be compared. So too James, the brother of the Lord and an apostle, has declared concerning the unholy rich man: “As the flowers of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: as also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.” And Truth itself has set it forth in the gospel: “For what is a man profited, if he shall have the whole world and lose his own soul?”[*]
Wherefore, dear son, we beseech thee with fatherly and humble prayers, not to despise the counsel of thy fathers, who, for the love of God, wish to appeal to thy highness. For nothing is more beneficial for a good king than that such deeds when they are proven against him should gladly be amended, for, as is said through the mouth of Solomon: “Whoso loveth instruction, loveth knowledge.” And so, beloved son, putting forth just counsel, we beg and pray through the living God and through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, that thou mayst remember, how fugitive is this present life, and how short and momentary is the delight of the impure flesh, and how ignominious it is for a man with his short life to leave an evil example for ever to posterity. Begin, therefore, to order thy life by better laws and to correct the past errors of youth, so that here thou mayst have praise before men and for the future rejoice in glory eternal.
That thy highness may fare well and advance in good morals is our wish.
Addenda to Mercia (part two)
Eadburh, daughter of Offa
… the nation of the West Saxons does not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called “queen”, but only “king’s wife”; which hostility, nay infamy, the old persons of that land say arose from a certain headstrong and malevolent queen of the nation, who did all things so contrary to her lord and to the whole people that not only did the hatred which she brought upon herself bring to pass her exclusion from the queenly throne, but also entailed the same corruption upon those who came after her, since, in consequence of the extreme malignity of that queen, all the inhabitants of the land banded themselves together by an oath never in their lives to let any king reign over them who should bid his queen take her seat on the royal throne by his side. And because, as I think, it is not known to many whence this perverse and detestable custom first arose in Wessex [Saxonia], contrary to the custom of all the Germanic peoples, it seems to me right to explain it a little more fully, as I have heard it from my lord Alfred the truth-teller, king of the Anglo-Saxons, who still often tells me about it, as he also had heard it from many men of truth, indeed, for the most part, from those who remembered the event.
There was in Mercia in recent times a certain king, who was dreaded by all the neighbouring kings and states. His name was Offa, and it was he who had the great dyke made from sea to sea between Wales [Britannia] and Mercia. His daughter, named Eadburh, was married to Beorhtric, king of the West Saxons. The moment she had possessed herself of the king’s good will, and practically the whole power of the realm, she began to live tyrannically, after the manner of her father. Every man whom Beorhtric loved she would execrate, and would do all things hateful to God and man, accusing to the king all whom she could, thus depriving them insidiously either of life or of power. And if she could not obtain the king’s consent, she used to take them off by poison, as is ascertained to have been the case with a certain young man beloved by the king, whom she poisoned, seeing that she could not accuse him to the king. It is said, moreover, that King Beorhtric unwittingly tasted of the poison, though the queen had intended to give it, not to him, but to the young man; but the king took it first, and so both perished.
King Beorhtric therefore being dead, the queen, since she could no longer remain among the Saxons, sailed beyond sea with countless treasures, and came to Charles [i.e. Charlemagne], the most famous king of the Franks. As she stood before the dais, bringing many gifts to the king, Charles said to her: “Choose, Eadburh, between me and my son, who stands with me on this dais.” She, without deliberation, foolishly replied: “If I am to have my choice, I choose your son, because he is younger than you.” At which Charles smiled and answered: “If you had chosen me, you should have had my son; but since you have chosen him, you shall have neither me nor him.” However, he gave her a large convent of nuns, in which, having laid aside her secular habit, and assumed the dress worn by the nuns, she discharged the office of abbess for a few years. As she is said to have lived irrationally in her own country, so she appears to have acted much more so among a foreign people; for, being finally caught in illicit intercourse with a man of her own nation, she was expelled from the monastery by order of King Charles. Henceforward she lived a life of shame in poverty and misery until her death; so that at last, accompanied by a single slave boy – as I have heard from many who saw her – she begged her bread daily at Pavia, and so wretchedly died.Vita Alfredi §§13–15
Florence of Worcester exhibits the same two year error as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, so the following entry, which should be assigned to 821, appears s.a. 819:
St Cenwulf, king of the Mercians, after a life spent in good deeds, passed away to the everlasting joys of heaven, leaving his son St Kenelm, then seven years of age, the heir to his kingdom. But after the lapse of a few months, he was, through the traitorous contrivance of his sister, Cwenthryth, whose fierce mind was swayed by an outrageous lust for supreme power, and by the hand of his barbarous tutor Æscberht, cruelly and secretly slain under a thorn-tree, in a vast and darksome wood; but as heaven alone was witness to his murder, so heaven afterwards revealed the deed by means of a column of light. Milk-white in innocence, and pure as when born, fell the head of Kenelm; from it a milk-white dove, with golden pinions, soared to heaven. After his blessed martyrdom, Ceolwulf succeeded to the Mercian kingdom.
William of Malmesbury tells (GR II §211) a lengthier version of the story:
What shall my pen here trace worthy of St Kenelm, a youth of tender age? Cenwulf, king of the Mercians, his father, had consigned him, when seven years old, to his sister Cwenthryth, for the purpose of education; but she, falsely entertaining hopes of the kingdom for herself, gave her little brother in charge to a servant of her household, with an order to murder him. Taking out the innocent, under pretence of hunting for his amusement, he murdered him and hid him in a thicket. But strange to tell, the crime which had been so secretly committed in England, gained publicity in Rome, by God’s agency; for a dove from heaven bore a parchment scroll to the altar of St Peter, containing an exact account both of his death, and place of burial; but as it was written in the English language, it was vainly attempted to be read by the Romans and men of other nations who were present. Fortunately, however, and opportunely, an Englishman was at hand, who, translating the writing to the Roman people into Latin, gave occasion to the pope to write a letter to the kings of England, acquainting them with the martyrdom of their countryman. In consequence, in presence of a numerous assembly, the body of the innocent was taken up and removed to Winchcombe. The murderous woman [i.e. Cwenthryth] was so indignant at the vocal chant of the priests and loud applause of the laity, that she thrust out her head from the window of the chamber where she was standing, and, by chance, having in her hands a psalter, she came in course of reading to the psalm, “Oh God of my praise,” which, for I know not what charm, reading backwards, she thereby endeavoured to drown the joy of the choristers. At that moment, the witch’s eyes, torn by divine vengeance from their hollow sockets, scattered blood upon the verse which runs, “This is the work of them who defame me to the Lord, and who speak evil against my soul.” The marks of her blood are still extant, proving the cruelty of the woman, and the vengeance of God.[*] The body of the little saint is very generally reverenced, and hardly is there any place in England more venerated, or where greater numbers of persons attend at the festival; and this is due to the long-continued belief of his sanctity, and the constant exhibition of his miracles.
The earliest extant full version of this yarn is in a Latin ‘Life’ of St Kenelm written, quite possibly by Goscelin, round-about the 1070s. The ‘Life’ purports make use of material gathered by a monk of Worcester, called Wulfwine, who was a disciple of Oswald, archbishop of York (d.992). According to the tale, Cwenthryth died soon after losing her eyes, and “they say” that her body would not remain buried, and that the apparition of a “brilliantly shining child” ordered her to be thrown into a far-distant ditch.
Cenwulf did indeed have a daughter called Cwenthryth. She features, styled filia regis (daughter of the king), in the witness-list of a charter of his dated 811 (S165). She next appears in 824 (S1434), as abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (Kent), embroiled in the dispute over monastic ownership, begun by her father, with Wulfred, archbishop of Canterbury. She had clearly been abbess at Minster before Cenwulf’s death in 821, and it may well be that the reason she is not found in any of Cenwulf’s charters after 811 is because she was in the monastery from then onwards. St Kenelm is sometimes equated to a magnate named Cynehelm, who appears (titled dux or princeps) amongst the signatories to a number of charters between 803 and 811,[*] but this person could clearly not have been a seven year old boy when Cenwulf died in 821 (nor even in 811, when his subsequent absence from the record suggests he died).
There is usually a nugget of truth buried beneath the layers of fabulous elaboration lavished on legends such as the martyrdom of St Kenelm, but, in the absence of corroborating evidence for any aspect of this story, it is impossible to say quite where it lies.