Michael Linton's Bayeux Tapestry: 1066 - A Medieval Mosaic and Puzzles
QUEENS OF ENGLAND
BEFORE THE NORMAN CONQUEST.
TAGGARD & THOMPSON,
This electronic edition
was prepared by
Michael A. Linton, 2007
QUEEN OF EDWY "THE FAIR."
Ethelgiva's relationship to the young Prince Edwy the Fair—Her extreme beauty—St. Dunstan's character and history—His contentions with the Devil; his temptations and triumphs—The fame of the Saint—St. Dunstan's mortification to find the young King married—The forced coronation—Flight of the King—Anger of the nobles—Rage of the Bishops—Discovery of the weeping Bride—Insults to Edwy and Ethelgiva—Passionate words of the Mother of the young Queen—Fury of Dunstan—Sympathy of the People for the Royal Pair—Ethelgiva refused the title of Queen—Edwy's dislike to the ambitious Prelate—The evil spirit at Glastonbury—Flight of Dunstan—His dangers from his enemies, the married priests—Security of the Royal Lovers—Seizure of Ethelgiva: horrible vengeance—She is sent to Ireland—Odo's representations to the King—His despair—His troubles—His brother Edgar—Recall of Dunstan—Divorce pronounced against Ethelgiva—Ex-communication of Edwy—Recovery of Ethelgiva, and attempt to return—Waylaid on her journey—Hamstrung and starved to death—Broken heart of Edwy—He dies—Buried at Winchester.
THE history of Ethelgiva's life is a sad episode, and presents a picture of crime, cruelty, and bigotry rarely equalled in the annals of any country. She must have been of royal blood, as she is said to be so nearly allied to her husband that the fact furnished a pretext for the injuries inflicted upon her by her ruthless enemies. No narrative can more strongly illustrate the extraordinary power of the Church, and the persistence of its servants, than the tale of Edwy's persecuted wife. She is represented as so remarkably beautiful, that Edwy, prior to his accession, had been unable to resist the fascination of her charms, and is supposed to have married her in secret. On this step all the after misfortunes of the enamoured pair seem to have depended. The monkish writers who have told her story are generally desirous to avert blame from St. Dunstan, through whom the misfortunes of Ethelgiva arose, and it is their object to prove that no marriage whatever took place between the lovers; that Ethelgiva, her mother, was of infamous character, and that the conduct of Prince Edwy was worthy of all reprehension. That there was imprudence in the connection there can be no doubt, and it is possible that they might have been within the forbidden degrees of relationship; but nothing could excuse the extreme and persevering cruelty with which their fault, admitting it to have existed, was punished by the severe and haughty churchman whose will was resisted by the young King.
Perhaps the bitterness of St. Dunstan to the unfortunate pair may be better understood when the circumstances of his own life are considered.
The tender feelings he had once himself experienced might have been expected to cause him to look with indulgence on the natural weakness of youth; instead of which the memory of his sacrifices seems to have rendered him fiercely severe and implacable in his resolution to root out every tendency to yield to the impulses of passion or affection. Whatever the failings of Edwy might be—and his subsequent conduct showed that he had many —the severity of St. Dunstan may be looked upon as having fostered instead of correcting them.
Dunstan was born of a noble Saxon family, at the beginning of the reign of Athelstan. [Turner, Vita S. Dunstani.] His precocious talents induced his parents to send him for instruction to a famous school at Glastonbury, where his remarkable genius soon developed itself. His bodily health was infirm, but his mental powers were extraordinary. Not only in abstruse learning was he soon distinguished, but in all the lighter literature, such as "heroic poetry, songs and ballads," which was then highly prized. His influential friend Wulfhelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, introduced him at the court of Athelstan; but his haughty and contemptuous bearing, as well as his superiority, gained him more enemies than friends, and the absurd charge of magic was brought forward against him by the jealous ignorance which could not comprehend his amazing information. He was waylaid and attacked by enemies, by whom he was maltreated and left for dead, having been cast into a bog. From this, however, he escaped, was received by a relative, the Bishop of Winchester, and counselled by him to devote himself to a monastic life.
But the world still had charms for the accomplished Dunstan, and he next appears living altogether in the society of, and protected by, a rich matron of royal descent, named Ethelflaed, cultivating the arts of music, painting, and sculpture, in all of which he excelled; [Bridferth, Osbern, &c. In Hickes there is an engraving from one of St Dunstan's drawings, representing the Saviour.] his works in metal, such as bells, crucifixes, and censers, were of admirable execution. His fame continued to increase, and reports of miracles performed by him became current. King Athelstan and his court came to visit Ethelflaed and her celebrated guest, and showed him great honour. A miracle he then performed was bruited abroad; it was asserted, that through his power, no sooner had the royal cupbearers poured out the mead from their vessels than they found them instantly filled anew.
At this time, it seems, the heart of the learned Dunstan became the prey of beauty, and he passionately loved a fair maiden from whom Wulfhelm, the Bishop of Canterbury, was anxious to separate him. His reason appears to have been disturbed by the struggles of his mind on this occasion, for his resistance to advice and entreaty was long and resolute. At length the Bishop had recourse to prayer, and implored Heaven that some worldly misfortune might cause him to see the path of duty with more clearness. The evil prayed for arrived, perhaps either in the death or infidelity of her he loved. Dunstan was seized with a dangerous fever, on recovering from which he had no longer any opposition to make to the proposal of his zealous relative; and, considering himself called to the holy state, he embraced a monastic life at Glastonbury. Here he began a career of austerity before unparalleled; [Lappenberg.] he built himself a cell too short to allow him to lie at length, and here he wrought at his forge, when not engaged in prayer: he slept little, and his food was almost too scanty to sustain nature. He believed that the Foul Fiend was always on the watch to surprise him, and he thought it necessary to be constantly on his guard against his attempts. Too much learning had no doubt made him mad, and fostered by his solitude, the malady became confirmed. All was, however, by his admiring and bigoted brethren imputed to him for holiness, and their wonder was daily fed by the miraculous tales they heard of devilish forms visiting the cell of Dunstan, and contending with that pious and holy recluse. The Fiend would sometimes thrust his head in at door or window, and insult his ears with profane and foul language. Once the Father of Ill ventured too far, and Dunstan, appearing not to observe him, waited until his tongs were red hot, when suddenly darting forward, he seized the tempter by the nose, who yelled so loud that the hideous noise was heard throughout the whole country. The solution of this mystery probably is, that the ignorant monks were alarmed at the noise made by the fire in his furnaces, as he prepared the metals on which he wrought.
Every year the fame of Dunstan increased, till at length he was drawn from his retreat, and took up his permanent place at court as chief minister to King Edmund, having been previously made Abbot of Glastonbury, with an enormous revenue. His influence from this time knew no bounds, and his will was paramount in all things. When young Edwy, therefore, came to the crown, it was not likely that he would allow his power to be disputed, or surprising that he should desire to sweep from his path those who dared to oppose him. Of course, when so young a man as Edwy held supreme power, Dunstan expected to have still more authority, and nothing could exceed his anger when he found himself thwarted on the very threshold by the discovery of the King's marriage without his sanction. His representations, that Edwy should separate from Ethelgiva, were unattended to, and nothing but murmurs attended his command that she should not be admitted to a share in the solemnity of the coronation.
The ceremony was performed at Kingston, on a raised platform, in sight of all the people, Archbishop Odo officiating on the occasion. Edwy was remarkable for his handsome person, from which he was called The Fair, and was at the time only in his seventeenth year, a circumstance which might have called for leniency. A magnificent banquet, befitting such an occasion, had been prepared for Edwy and the Saxon nobles; but while the latter were indulging in the rude and noisy merriment accompanying such entertainments, Edwy, watching his opportunity, escaped to society more congenial to his taste, perhaps rejoicing to be able thus to avoid the excessive drinking which was certain to form a feature at these festivals. The Saxon nobles, however, perceiving his absence, were indignant at their entertainer showing them so little courtesy, and loudly expressed the displeasure they felt at the young King's forgetfulness of their dignity. [Saxon Chronicle.] St. Dunstan and the prelate Kynsey were appointed by them "to bring the King back to the festive board." These two ecclesiastics, equally offended with the Saxon nobles, accepted the mission, and angrily leaving the scene of festivity, with a suspicion of the cause of Edwy's absence, not a little irritated and incensed by the disrespect shown to themselves as representatives of the Church, in common with the other guests, but more especially from his acting thus against their known and expressed disapproval of the alliance into which Edwy had entered,—sought the retreat of the imprudent host.
Entirely throwing aside all respect or consideration, the two prelates burst into the apartment of the King, whom they found, as they had expected, in the company of his young wife and her mother. The King, forgetting in the happiness of the moment all but his escape from an irksome ceremony, had taken off and laid on one side the crown of state, that crown which he had not yet been able to share with the woman whom he loved, and was caressing Ethelgiva with fondness, and soothing her mortification at not partaking in the splendour he did not prize alone,—when these rude intruders invaded his privacy.
A most strange and unbecoming scene ensued. With violent language they insisted on the King's returning to the banquet, loading Ethelgiva and her mother with the bitterest threats and reproaches, and heaping on them the most insulting and opprobrious epithets; and then, resolving to accomplish their purpose, forcibly replaced the diadem on the head of Edwy, whom they dragged from his seat, and literally compelled to return with them to the revellers in the banqueting-hall. [Malmesbury, Wallingford, &c.] This was no easy task; for the terrified women clung to him as to their protector, and force only constrained them to separate from him.
At this moment Ethelgiva, the mother of the young wife, turning her eyes on Dunstan, exclaimed in a burst of anger, "How unmeasurable must be the audacity of this man, who has thus ventured to intrude himself upon the privacy of a King! You have threatened me with death by strangulation, but I shall have you doomed to the mutilation of your limbs, and to perpetual banishment." [Osbern.]
These passionate words were fatal. Dunstan, enraged at the resistance and the confidence displayed, saw plainly that both the mother, and daughter had obtained an influence over the heart of the young Edwy, which the monk had intended to appropriate; and as the elder was the most likely to bias the King in favour of her own views, Dunstan's rage seems to have been peculiarly directed, at this time, against her. It is thought that Dunstan was really ignorant of Edwy's actual marriage to the daughter of Ethelgiva, which may palliate in some degree the violence of his conduct, anxious as he was to prevent the union. On the other hand, the existence of such a tie, and the circumstance of Ethelgiva being denied the usual honours of Queen—Consort, may excuse the ambitious and indignant mother the fury of her resentment. We are told by some chroniclers that he was not married, and that on the coronation-day Ethelgiva and her mother visited Edwy, it being the object of the latter to persuade the King to marry "one or the other of them;" [Bridferth, Osbern, and Eadmer.] but she probably desired him to proclaim his union to his subjects, and thus, without further delay, enable her daughter to wear the crown. [Those writers who assert that Ethelgiva was not lawfully united to Edwy are supported by several modern authors of the Roman Catholic persuasion, as Dr. Lingard, Dr. Milner, &c. Hallam blames Dr. Henry for calling her Queen and a lawful wife, without intimating that the nature of her tie with Edwy was at the least considered equivocal. Dr. Lingard divides the writers on Ethelgiva's history into two classes—those who wrote before, and those who wrote after the Conquest. Of the first were Bridferth of Romsey, who is followed by Osbern and Eadmer. Neither of these last had, it appears, seen an ancient Life of Odo, written in Anglo-Saxon, Cott. MSS., in British Museum (Nero E. 1 b.), which has formed the groundwork of the later Lives of that prelate, and is another authority quoted by Dr. Lingard. A second Life of Odo is another source, of which the author, supposed to be either Eadmer or Osbern, is doubtful: it describes the coronation scene from Bridferth, and then turns to the ancient Life of Odo, the words of which it seems almost to adopt. The additions in this seem like an attempt to reconcile the narrative in the Life of Odo with the account of Osbern, as if the pages of both the latter were open before the writer at the time the MS. was written Malmesbury wrote the story of Ethelgiva twenty or thirty years later.] Edwy might have been too much in dread of the ecclesiastical authorities to disclose the important fact, and hence his anxiety to pacify both his wife and her mother. The powerful individuals who headed the combination against Edwy's marriage, on finding the tie really did exist, and that it was impossible to be prevented, directed their fury against both the young Queen and her mother, vilifying them in the most atrocious manner.
The conduct of Dunstan meanwhile, instead of producing the results he expected enlisted sympathy for Edwy and his Queen, and the ancient enemies of the proud Abbot were not slow to take advantage of the occasion. Ethelgiva was accepted as the wife of the sovereign, and the star of the prelate declined. Availing herself of Edwy's unconcealed dislike of Dunstan, the young and injured Queen hastened to take revenge, and by his consent, constituted herself mistress not only of all the property and title-deeds belonging to the community of Glastonbury, but of the personal property of Dunstan also; and, at the same time, a decree of instant banishment was issued against him by the King, upon charges from which he was unable to clear himself. The monkish chronicler proceeds to state, that at the time the persons sent to drive the brethren from their monastery were superintending the inventory of the ecclesiastical goods and property subjected to confiscation, there was heard, on the western side of the church, the harsh, ringing laugh of a demon, "which sounded like the wheezy voice of a gleesome hag." It was heard by St. Dunstan himself, and he responded to it in these words: "Foe to mankind, do not rejoice so much; for however great may be thy joy now in seeing my departure, thy grief will be twice as great when God, to thy confusion, shall permit my return." Dunstan saw no safety, for the present, but in flight; but scarcely had the vessel proceeded three miles from land, being bound for Flanders, where the exiled monk meant to take refuge, when the emissaries of Queen Ethelgiva's mother appeared on the beach, resolved on the destruction of Dunstan, had he remained but a few moments more on shore.
Another abbot was chosen amongst the enemies of Dunstan, Elsy being appointed to Glastonbury, and the abbey was filled with married priests, a state which he had resolutely extirpated amongst the clergy, its former community being all displaced. The downfall of Dunstan took place in 956, and was followed by that of other members of the Church, who, despoiled of their property, were driven into banishment.
The reaction of so great a triumph appears to have been too great for the mind of the youthful monarch, who now, surrounding himself with evil counsellors, and feeling his power unlimited, gave way to excesses, which, perhaps, but for the imprudent and injudicious fury of Dunstan, might never have been either in his wish or his reach. Rapacious favourites, young like himself, inexperienced and unprincipled, urged him to the most dangerous and impolitic acts. He despoiled monasteries, and seized possessions, making powerful enemies on all sides; but his chief crime was his conduct to his venerable grandmother, Edgifa, whom he deprived of all her possessions, as has been before related in her life.
The King's marriage had been legal [The Charter, Cod. Dipl. No. 1201, which is in every respect an authentic document, mentions her as lfgyfa, the King's wife; and this in addition to herself was witnessed by her mother delgyfa, by four bishops, and by three principal noblemen of the court. "If (says Mr. Kemble [Kemble's Saxons in England]) that charter be not genuine, there is not one genuine in the whole Codex Diplomaticus, and I cannot see the shadow of a reason to question it, as Lingard has done."] as far as the actual ceremony, but it was contrary to Church laws, Edwy and his wife being too nearly related, or "too sib," as the Chronicle has it; and consequently, as the Church would not recognise their union, an open war ensued between Church and State, the successive contests of which occupy the whole of this short and troubled reign.
Carried away by the stream of success, neither Edwy nor Ethelgiva allowed themselves to fear, and held their former enemies in contempt; but the unrestrained license of the court, and the indulgence shown to profligate and exacting ministers, soon disgusted the country, and new troubles began. Odo, Archbishop of Canterbury, conducted the party of Dunstan, who, though in exile at Ghent, was fat from having abandoned the hope of ultimate triumph. The discontented clergy fomented the disaffection everywhere ripe; a rebellion broke out in Mercia and in the north, and Prince Edgar was proclaimed King, although only thirteen years of age.
The ill-fated Ethelgiva was alone in her palace in Wessex, her husband, being forced to absent himself in consequence of these accumulating troubles, considered her in perfect safety; but Bishop Odo's emissaries were on the watch, and a strong party of his troops surprised the place, when the Queen was seized upon, dragged forth, and a hideous vengeance accomplished. Her beautiful face was seared by a red-hot iron, and she was forced on board a vessel, which carried her off a prisoner to Ireland.
Odo, on this, immediately repaired to Edwy, and endeavoured to represent to him the necessity of yielding, doubtless concealing from him the extent of the punishment he had inflicted on the unfortunate Ethelgiva, which, however, he was not slow to learn, when his agony and rage may be conceived.
Mercia and Northumberland now rose to place Edgar on the throne, and Edwy, whom these events had forced to fly about from place to place, entered, at length, into an arrangement with his young brother, that the river Thames should form a boundary to divide their respective principalities. No sooner was this effected than Edgar, upheld by the priesthood, annulled all the acts which had been passed against them by Edwy, recalled Dunstan from his exile, and reinstated the Queen—Dowager in her former rank and dignity. It must have been a great triumph to the enemies of the ill-fated Ethelgiva, to behold Dunstan, on the death of Coenwalch, Bishop of Worcester, chosen his successor in that see, and consecrated by Archbishop Odo. A still greater was afforded by the solemn sentence of divorce pronounced between the King and herself, by Odo, on the plea of their too near relationship. [Saxon Chronicle.] The sentence was given by the Church A.D. 958.
The revengeful prelate had determined, at all costs, to uphold the canonical law of marriage, and his act proves how fully assured he was that violence or death alone could divide those who loved so tenderly as this ill-fated pair. Nor was this the last stroke of vindictive power exercised: Edwy himself underwent the sentence of excommunication,—a fact mentioned by Malmesbury alone, of all who have recorded the events of this most harshly-treated monarch's reign.
Some have supposed that it was the Queen's mother who was seared with the iron brand; but the object of the Archbishop was to destroy utterly that fatal beauty which had enslaved the King. The attempt was, however, fruitless: the effect of the searing-iron was in a few months entirely obliterated; and, restored to her former beauty, Ethelgiva, notwithstanding the sentence of perpetual exile issued against her, quitted Ireland, with the design of rejoining her beloved Edwy at Kingston. She was on her way thither when, at a short distance from Gloucester, she was intercepted by the spies of Odo, who once more obtained possession of their prisoner, retaining her until they could receive the orders of that prelate. Odo commanded that Ethelgiva should be tortured in the most horrible manner that could possibly be devised, and accordingly the frightful operation of hamstringing was put in force on her delicate limbs. This brutal sentence perpetrated, the young and beautiful Queen was left, without food or attendance, to linger on a bed of straw, till, at the end of a few days, death, more merciful than her heartless persecutors, released her from her sufferings. [Malmesbury.]
Edwy, as unfortunate as his hapless consort, whose greatest crime seems to have been fidelity to the last, was not long destined to survive the loss of one so dearly loved. A series of afflictions pursued and overwhelmed him; rebellion—a younger brother preferred before him—his divorce and excommunication, together with the reversion of every decree made against his own enemies and those of Ethelgiva,—all combined, were too much for his mind to support. He sunk into a state of extreme melancholy, which, at the end of his stormy reign of four years, terminated his existence. The remains of the broken-hearted sovereign were interred at Winchester, the favourite city of the West-Saxon monarchs.