Monday, April 22, 2013

King Edmund of East Anglia

From Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom:


I do not know if King Ed­mund was a saint. He was a fool, that was for sure. He had given the Danes refuge be­fore they at­tacked Eofer­wic, and giv­en them more than refuge. He had paid them coin, pro­vid­ed them with food, and sup­plied their army with hors­es, all on the two promis­es that they would leave East An­glia in the spring and that they would not harm a single church­man.

They kept their promis­es, but now, two years lat­er and much stronger, the Danes were back, and King Ed­mund had de­cid­ed to fight them. He had seen what had hap­pened to Mer­cia and Northum­bria, and must have known his own king­dom would suf­fer the same fate, and so he gath­ered his fyrd and prayed to his god and marched to do bat­tle. First he faced us by the sea, then, hear­ing that Ivar was march­ing around the edge of the great wa­tery wastes west of the Gewæsc, he turned about to con­front him.

Ub­ba then led our fleet up the Gewæsc and we nosed in­to one of the rivers un­til the chan­nel was so nar­row our oars could not be used, and then men towed the boats, wad­ing through waist­deep wa­ter un­til we could go no far­ther and there we left the ships un­der guard while the rest of us followed sog­gy paths through end­less marsh­land un­til, at long last, we came to high­er ground. No one knew where we were, on­ly that if we went south we had to reach the road along which Ed­mund had marched to con­front Ivar. Cut that road and we would trap him be­tween our forces and Ivar’s army.

Which is pre­cise­ly what hap­pened. Ivar fought him, shield wall against shield wall, and we knew none of it un­til the first East An­glian fu­gi­tives came stream­ing east­ward to find an­oth­er shield wall wait­ing for them. They scat­tered rather than fight us, we ad­vanced, and from the few pris­on­ers we took we dis­cov­ered that Ivar had beat­en them eas­ily. That was confirmed next day when the first horse­men from Ivar’s forces reached us.

King Ed­mund fled south­ward. East An­glia was a big coun­try, he could eas­ily have found refuge in a fortress, or else he could have gone to Wes­sex, but in­stead he put his faith in God and took shel­ter in a small monastery at Dic. The monastery was lost in the wet­lands and per­haps he be­lieved he would nev­er be found there, or else, as I heard, one of the monks promised him that God would shroud the monastery in a per­pet­ual fog in which the pa­gans would get lost, but the fog nev­er came and the Danes ar­rived in­stead.

Ivar, Ub­ba, and their broth­er, Half­dan, rode to Dic, tak­ing half their army, while the oth­er half set about paci­fy­ing East An­glia, which meant rap­ing, burn­ing, and killing un­til the peo­ple sub­mit­ted, which most did swift­ly enough. East An­glia, in short, fell as eas­ily as Mer­cia, and the on­ly bad news for the Danes was that there had been un­rest in Northum­bria. Ru­mors spoke of some kind of re­volt, Danes had been killed, and Ivar want­ed that ris­ing quenched, but he dared not leave East An­glia so soon af­ter cap­tur­ing it, so at Dic he made a pro­pos­al to King Ed­mund that would leave Ed­mund as king just as Burghred still ruled over Mer­cia.

The meet­ing was held in the monastery’s church, which was a sur­pris­ing­ly large hall made of tim­ber and thatch, but with great leather pan­els hang­ing on the walls. The pan­els were paint­ed with gaudy scenes. One of the pic­tures showed naked folk tum­bling down to hell where a mas­sive ser­pent with a fanged mouth sw­al­lowed them up.

“Corpserip­per,” Rag­nar said with a shud­der.


“A ser­pent that waits in Ni­fl­heim,” he ex­plained, touch­ing his ham­mer amulet. Ni­fl­heim, I knew, was a kind of Norse hell, but un­like the Chris­tian hell Ni­fl­heim was icy cold. “CorpseRip­per feeds on the dead,” Rag­nar went on, “but he al­so gnaws at the tree of life. He wants to kill the whole world and bring time to an end.” He touched his ham­mer again.

An­oth­er pan­el, be­hind the al­tar, showed Christ on the cross, and next to it was a third paint­ed leather pan­el that fas­ci­nat­ed Ivar. A man, naked but for a loin­cloth, had been tied to a stake and was be­ing used as a tar­get by archers. At least a score of ar­rows had punc­tured his white flesh, but he still had a saint­ly ex­pres­sion and a se­cret smile as though, de­spite his trou­bles, he was quite en­joy­ing him­self.

“Who is that?” Ivar want­ed to know.

“The blessed Saint Se­bas­tian.” King Ed­mund was seat­ed in front of the al­tar, and his in­ter­preter pro­vid­ed the an­swer. Ivar, skull eyes star­ing at the paint­ing, want­ed to know the whole sto­ry, and Ed­mund re­count­ed how the blessed Saint Se­bas­tian, a Ro­man sol­di­er, had re­fused to re­nounce his faith and so the em­per­or had or­dered him shot to death with ar­rows. “Yet he lived!” Ed­mund said ea­ger­ly.

“He lived be­cause God pro­tect­ed him and God be praised for that mer­cy.”

“He lived?” Ivar asked sus­pi­cious­ly.

“So the em­per­or had him clubbed to death in­stead,” the in­ter­preter fin­ished the tale.

“So he didn’t live?”

“He went to heav­en,” King Ed­mund said, “so he lived.”

Ub­ba in­ter­vened, want­ing to have the concept of heav­en ex­plained to him, and Ed­mund ea­ger­ly sketched its de­lights, but Ub­ba spat in de­ri­sion when he re­al­ized that the Chris­tian heav­en was Val­hal­la with­out any of the amuse­ments. “And Chris­tians want to go to heav­en?” he asked in disbelief.

“Of course,” the in­ter­preter said.

Ub­ba sneered. He and his two broth­ers were at­tend­ed by as many Dan­ish war­ri­ors as could cram them­selves in­to the church, while King Ed­mund had an en­tourage of two priests and six monks who all lis­tened as Ivar pro­posed his set­tle­ment. King Ed­mund could live, he could rule in East An­glia, but the chief fortress­es were to be gar­risoned by Danes, and Danes were to be grant­ed what­ev­er land they re­quired, ex­cept for roy­al land. Ed­mund would be ex­pect­ed to pro­vide hors­es for the Dan­ish army, coin and food for the Dan­ish war­ri­ors, and his fyrd, what was left of it, would march un­der Dan­ish or­ders. Ed­mund had no sons, but his chief men, those who lived, had sons who would be­come hostages to en­sure that the East An­glians kept the terms Ivar pro­posed.

“And if I say no?” Ed­mund asked.

Ivar was amused by that. “We take the land any­way.”

The king con­sult­ed his priests and monks. Ed­mund was a tall, spare man, bald as an egg though he was on­ly about thir­ty years old. He had pro­trud­ing eyes, a pursed mouth, and a per­pet­ual frown. He was wear­ing a white tu­nic that made him look like a priest him­self. “What of God’s church?” he fi­nal­ly asked Ivar.

“What of it?”

“Your men have des­ecrat­ed God’s al­tars, slaugh­tered his ser­vants, de­filed his im­age, and stolen his trib­ute!” The king was an­gry now. One of his hands was clenched on the arm of his chair that was set in front of the al­tar, while the oth­er hand was a fist that beat time with his ac­cu­sa­tions.

“Your god can­not look af­ter him­self?” Ub­ba en­quired.

“Our god is a mighty god,” Ed­mund declared, “the cre­ator of the world, yet he al­so al­lows evil to ex­ist to test us.”

“Amen,” one of the priests mur­mured as Ivar’s in­ter­preter trans­lat­ed the words.

“He brought you,” the king spat, “pa­gans from the north! Jere­mi­ah fore­told this!”

“Jere­mi­ah?” Ivar asked, quite lost now.

One of the monks had a book, the first I had seen in many years, and he un­wrapped its leather cov­er, paged through the stiff leaves, and gave it to the king who reached in­to a pock­et and took out a small ivory point­er that he used to in­di­cate the words he want­ed.“Quia malum ego,” he thun­dered, the pale point­er mov­ing along the lines,“ad­duco ab aquilone et con­tri­tionem mag­nam!”

He stopped there, glar­ing at Ivar, and some of the Danes, im­pressed by the force­ful­ness of the king’s words, even though none of them un­der­stood a sin­gle one of them, touched their ham­mer charms. The priests around Ed­mund looked re­proach­ful­ly at us. A spar­row flew in through a high win­dow and perched for a mo­ment on an arm of the high wood­en cross that stood on the al­tar. Ivar’s dread face showed no re­ac­tion to Jere­mi­ah’s words and it fi­nal­ly dawned on the East An­glian in­ter­preter, who was one of the priests, that the king’s im­pas­sioned read­ing had meant noth­ing to any of us.

“For I will bring evil from the north,” he trans­lat­ed, “and great de­struc­tion.”

“It is in the book!” Ed­mund said fierce­ly, giv­ing the vol­ume back to the monk.

“You can keep your church,” Ivar said care­less­ly.

“It is not enough!” Ed­mund said. He stood up to give his next words more force. “I will rule here,” he went on, “and I will suf­fer your pres­ence if I must, and I will pro­vide you with hors­es, food, coin, and hostages, but on­ly if you, and all of your men, sub­mit to God. You must be bap­tized!”

That word was lost on the Dan­ish interpreter, and on the king’s, and fi­nal­ly Ub­ba looked to me for help.

“You have to stand in a bar­rel of wa­ter,” I said, re­mem­ber­ing how Beoc­ca had bap­tized me af­ter my broth­er’s death, “and they pour more wa­ter over you.”

“They want to wash me?” Ub­ba asked, as­ton­ished.

I shrugged. “That’s what they do, lord.”

“You will be­come Chris­tians!” Ed­mund said, then shot me an ir­ri­tat­ed look. “We can bap­tize in the riv­er, boy. Bar­rels are not nec­es­sary.”

“They want to wash you in the riv­er,” I ex­plained to Ivar and Ub­ba, and the Danes laughed. Ivar thought about it. Stand­ing in a riv­er for a few min­utes was not such a bad thing, es­pe­cial­ly if it meant he could hur­ry back to quell what­ev­er trou­ble af­flict­ed Northum­bria. “I can go on wor­ship­ping Odin once I’m washed?” he asked.

“Of course not!” Ed­mund said an­gri­ly. “There is on­ly one God!”

“There are many gods,” Ivar snapped back, “many! Ev­ery­one knows that.”

“There is on­ly one God, and you must serve him.”

“But we’re win­ning,” Ivar ex­plained patient­ly, al­most as if he talked to a child, “which means our gods are beat­ing your one god.”

The king shud­dered at this aw­ful heresy.

“Your gods are false gods,” he said. “They are turds of the dev­il, they are evil things who will bring dark­ness to the world, while our god is great, he is all pow­er­ful, he is mag­nif­icent.”

“Show me,” Ivar said.

Those two words brought si­lence. The king, his priests, and his monks all stared at Ivar in ev­ident puz­zle­ment.

“Prove it,” Ivar said, and his Danes mur­mured their sup­port of the idea. King Ed­mund blinked, ev­ident­ly lost for in­spi­ra­tion, then had a sud­den idea and point­ed at the leather pan­el on which was paint­ed Saint Se­bas­tian’s ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing an archer’s tar­get. “Our god spared the blessed Saint Se­bas­tian from death by ar­rows,” Ed­mund said, “which is proof enough, is it not?”

“But the man still died,” Ivar point­ed out.

“On­ly be­cause that was God’s will.”

Ivar thought about that. “So would your god pro­tect you from my ar­rows?” He asked.

“If it is his will, yes.”

“So let’s try,” Ivar pro­posed. “We shall shoot ar­rows at you, and if you sur­vive then we’ll all be washed.”

Ed­mund stared at the Dane, won­der­ing if he was se­ri­ous, then looked ner­vous when he saw that Ivar was not jok­ing. The king opened his mouth, found he had noth­ing to say, and closed it again, then one of his tonsured monks mur­mured to him and he must have been try­ing to per­suade the king that God was sug­gest­ing this or­deal in or­der to ex­tend his church, and that a mir­acle would re­sult, and the Danes would be­come Chris­tians and we would all be friends and end up singing to­geth­er on the high platform in heav­en. The king did not look en­tire­ly con­vinced by this ar­gu­ment, if that was in­deed what the monk was pro­pos­ing, but the Danes want­ed to at­tempt the mir­acle now and it was no longer up to Edmund to ac­cept or refuse the tri­al.

A dozen men shoved the monks and priests aside while more went out­side to find bows and ar­rows. The king, trapped in his de­fense of God, was kneel­ing at the al­tar, pray­ing as hard as any man has ev­er prayed. The Danes were grin­ning. I was en­joy­ing it. I think I rather hoped to see a mir­acle, not be­cause I was a Chris­tian, but be­cause I just want­ed to see a mir­acle. Beoc­ca had of­ten told me about mir­acles, stress­ing that they were the re­al proof of Chris­tian­ity’s truths, but I had nev­er seen one. No one had ev­er walked on the wa­ter at Beb­ban­burg and no lep­ers were healed there and no an­gels had filled our night skies with blaz­ing glo­ry, but now, per­haps, I would see the pow­er of God that Beoc­ca had for­ev­er preached to me. Bri­da just want­ed to see Ed­mund dead.

“Are you ready?” Ivar de­mand­ed of the king.

Ed­mund looked at his priests and monks and I won­dered if he was about to sug­gest that one of them should re­place him in this test of God’s pow­er. Then he frowned and looked back to Ivar. “I will ac­cept your pro­pos­al,” he said.

“That we shoot ar­rows at you?”

“That I re­main king here.”

“But you want to wash me first.”

“We can dis­pense with that,” Ed­mund said.

“No,” Ivar said. “You have claimed your god is all pow­er­ful, that he is the on­ly god, so I want it proved. If you are right then all of us will be washed. Are we agreed?” This ques­tion was asked of the Danes, who roared their ap­proval.

“Not me,” Ravn said, “I won’t be washed.”

“We will all be washed!” Ivar snarled, and I re­al­ized he tru­ly was in­ter­est­ed in the out­come of the test, more in­ter­est­ed, in­deed, than he was in mak­ing a quick and con­ve­nient peace with Ed­mund. All men need the sup­port of their god and Ivar was try­ing to dis­cov­er whether he had, all these years, been wor­ship­ping at the wrong shrine. “Are you wear­ing ar­mor?” he asked Ed­mund.


“Best to be sure,” Ub­ba in­ter­vened and glanced at the fa­tal paint­ing. “Strip him,” he or­dered. The king and the church­men protest­ed, but the Danes would not be de­nied and King Ed­mund was stripped stark naked. Bri­da en­joyed that. “He’s puny,” she said. Ed­mund, the butt of laugh­ter now, did his best to look dig­ni­fied. The priests and monks were on their knees, pray­ing, while six archers took their stance a dozen paces from Ed­mund.

“We are go­ing to find out,” Ivar told us, stilling the laugh­ter, “whether the En­glish god is as pow­er­ful as our Dan­ish gods. If he is, and if the king lives, then we shall become Chris­tians, all of us!”

“Not me,” Ravn said again, but qui­et­ly so that Ivar could not hear. “Tell me what happens, Uhtred.”

It was soon told. Six ar­rows hit, the king screamed, blood spat­tered the al­tar, he fell down, he twitched like a gaffed salmon, and six more ar­rows thumped home. Ed­mund twitched some more, and the archers kept on shoot­ing, though their aim was bad be­cause they were half help­less with laugh­ter, and they went on shoot­ing un­til the king was as full of feath­ered shafts as a hedge­hog has spikes. And he was quite dead by then. He was blood­ied, his white skin redlaced, open­mouthed, and dead. His god had failed him mis­er­ably.

Nowa­days, of course, that sto­ry is nev­er told; in­stead chil­dren learn how brave Saint Ed­mund stood up to the Danes, de­mand­ed their con­ver­sion, and was mur­dered. So now he is a mar­tyr and a saint, war­bling hap­pi­ly in heav­en, but the truth is that he was a fool and talked him­self in­to martyrdom.

The priests and monks wailed, so Ivar ordered them killed as well; then he decreed that Earl Go­drim, one of his chiefs, would rule in East An­glia and that Half­dan would sav­age the coun­try to quench the last sparks of re­sis­tance. Go­drim and Half­dan would be giv­en a third of the army to keep East An­glia qui­et, while the rest of us would re­turn to sub­due the un­rest in Northum­bria. So now East An­glia was gone.

And Wes­sex was the last king­dom of England.

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