The King’s Hall
Chapter 1/X1X (continued)
That was the beginning.
But for a very long time nothing that we can describe as a parish came
into being. For the number of clergy
was very limited. A few Bishops had to
divide the country among themselves, and, with the help of the clergy from one
or other monasteries that began to be built up and down England; they had to
arrange for religious services over miles of wild country to scattered groups
bishop must have been a hard-worked man in those rough days. The modern bishop [19th century
–early 20th] often has enough to do, and must jolt in a slow train through
difficult country, after a hard week’s work, to some outlying parish, or drive
over vile roads in his car when he would rather be seated comfortably at
home. Imagine his Anglo-Saxon
predecessor, with neither train or car, nor even a bad road to move over,
struggling on horse-back through swamp and forest to the same outlying village,
which he has never seen before, and in all probability will never see again,
and to which his coming is the event of a lifetime, for the villagers do not
often see a priest, nor speak of a bishop.
for a moment at this village, for it is its story from that far-away day to the
present  that I am going to tell.
It lies under the crest of the downlands, cut off from the world by
great wooded slopes where dwell the wolf and the boar: a little world in
straggling, rutted path runs between two rows of timber or wattle huts. There is a rough hedge around a cluster of
houses, and at each end of the village street a sort of gate that can be shut
at night to keep out night-prowling beasts and night-prowling men; for there
are men in the forest- Weahl, or Welshmen, the villagers call them- the
scattered remnants of those who once owned the village.
the houses lies the usual spread of ploughland, cut up into long strips that
wind serpent-wise across a huge field, for the clumsy wood plough will not cut
a neat straight furrow such as our modern farmer at Souls Farm shows us with
pride. We shall come to Souls Farm
again, later in our story. At present
the land where it lies is still virgin forest.
are thin small cattle grazing upon the wide pastures that lie beside the
ploughland, and thin fierce swine rooting in the forest, as the good Bishop has
cause to know, for, with a savage grunt, one of them runs at his horse. There is a sudden flurry as the startled
horse rears and backs, and the Bishop tumbles from the clumsy saddle upon the
muddy road. The pig grunts again,
stands shaking his wicked lean head, his little eyes agleam. Hastily the Bishop rises from his feet and
catches up his heavy staff. It is a
poor weapon, but he has nothing better.
Man and beast face each other for a moment.
crushing through the bushes comes a man, wild-eyed and panting. He is dressed in a course woollen tunic,
shod with soft hide sandals, and, since the day is cold, has a cloak of crudely
dressed skin wrapped about his body. He
whistles in a shrill, peculiar tone.
evil-looking boar turns on the whistle, and the man runs to him, cursing
fiercely, and kicks the brute’s thin ribs with his skin-shod foot. The pig, ludicrously crestfallen after his
late ferocity, squeals pitifully, though the kick cannot have hurt him, and scampers,
tail in the air, away into the forest.
The man falls on his knees before the Bishop, and begins to talk in
swift, guttural accents.
Bishop Elfwine brushes himself impatiently, for the road was muddy and none to
soft, and strives to catch a word of the swineherd’s harsh chatter. But the man might be a foreigner, for the
Bishop cannot understand a word of the local accent. He hopes that Thegn Alfric, at whose hall he is to sleep that
night, will speak more clearly. Meanwhile
this man is frightened, as well he may be, for Alric would scourge him well if word
of this mishap should reach him; and after all it is scarcely his fault – one man
could not possibly look after all that wild herd of pigs. How to make him understand he is forgiven?
man is a Christian of some sort, thinks Bishop Elfwine, so he raises his right
hand and chants a Latin blessing. Ulaf
the herd knows nothing of Latin, but he sees in the Bishop’s face that he is
forgiven, and bows his head, understanding in a dim way that he is to receive a
blessing. The Bishop remounts his thin
horse and continues his lonely way towards the village.
man who can leave his work is waiting at the entrance to the village street to
receive him. They are a rough, shaggy
crew, clad like the swineherd in course wool and skins. Their beards are shaggy and untrimmed, their
hands hard and grimed with toil, their faces stupid and shy, a typical crowd of
untaught rustics, cunning enough in all that concerns the soil whence they draw
their living, but without other interests.
much drinking of strong ale, too little else to cheer their lives,” thinks the
Bishop, as he watches them, and sighs deeply.
Bishop Elfwine is a truly good man, anxious not only that his flock
shall reach heaven at last, but that they shall have some of the decencies and
refinements of life on earth. And how shall
he provide for either-one solitary man with several hundred miles of territory
to look after, and but a few monks and a scattered priest or two to help him?
shall he report to the new Archbishop when he meets him in conference, as has
been commanded, some six months hence?
Theodore, the Greek, whom the Pope has sent to be Archbishop of
Canterbury, is said to be earnest and eager man, a man after Elfwine’s own
heart. Perhaps he may be able to
suggest something, coming as he does from the home of learning and culture.
Bishop breaks off his train of thought to great with upraised hand and chanted
benediction a tall soldierly man who has stepped forward to take his horse’s
bridle. This is Alric, Thegn of
Holsham, and his host. The man is dressed
much as his villagers, in tunic, skin cloak, and hide shoes. But his tunic, instead of a dirty grey is
dyed blue, and embroidered with course patterns, and the skin of his cloak and
shoes is softer and better tanned. He
wears upon his arm a twisted gold band of gold, and his hair and beard, though
long, are neatly trimmed.
him stand his two sons. The elder is as
tall as his father, fierce-eyed and strong of limb. The bare legs beneath the tunic are tense-muscled and brown by
exposure to sun and wind. A true son,
this, of the gallant old thegn. The
other is a slim boy, wiry and tough of frame, but lacking the robust strength
of his father and brother. He seems
slightly lame in one leg.
Bishop is lead by his host to the hall.
It is a low building of timber and thatch, just the one room for all
purposes. A rough wooden screen makes a
sort of cubicle at one end, where sleep the thegn and his wife. The rest of the inmates lie in the hall
itself, wherever they can. A great fire
blazes upon a stone heath, and the smoke curles lazily toward the roof. Bishop Elfwine has been much abroad lately in
the open air. He coughs a little as he
comes into the smoky atmosphere of the hall.
is ready, a huge meal of roughly dressed meat, bread, and beer. There are no vegetables. The only luxury is a jar of mead, sweet,
sticky, and powerful, brought out in honour of the guest. The Lady Elftryda is already waiting to wash
her guest’s hands and welcome him to her hall.
over, the good Bishop retired to rest, but not yet to sleep, for the lame
younger son of the thegn, Egbert, wanted to speak with him. Wearily the Bishop sat up to listen. Then suddenly his face brightened, for min
the boy’s stammering words he heard an answer to his prayers and musings.
am no hunter, Father,” the boy said, “nor does the life I must lead please me,
for I wont to know many things. I want
to know whence we come, whither we go, and why we are here at all? Perhaps you, Father, might know how I could
Bishop smiled. Here was material ready
to his hand: it but remained for him to mould it, and perhaps, even as this
boy, others would come seeking what he had to give. In a flickering glow of the fire the Bishop glanced at the
earnest face of the boy.
he said gently, “if your father consents you shall come with me and begin to
learn these things. And afterward I
have work for you to do. Now let us
commend ourselves to God, and sleep, for I have come far this day.”
next day was Sunday, when the Bishop was to say Mass in the village. There was no church- at least, nothing that
we would recognize as a church. There
was, it is true, near the thegn’s hall another rather smaller, a bare, bleak
room, at one end of which stood a great hewn stone. This had been removed long ago, and cast outside the village enclosure,
for here in days not so long past, sacrifice had been made to Odin and the
fierce blood-loving gods of the north. However,
here, in this bare place, the Bishop set up a small trestle table as an alter,
and sang Mass to the gaping congregation of villagers.
his own request Egbert, prompted by the Bishop if need be, answered “ Amen ” to
the celebrants chanting. The rest of
the people watched in dumb amazement something that they did not understand but
that filled them with awe, especially as the language of the service was
utterly unknown to them, giving it a flavour of magic and mystery that added to
finished, Bishop Elfwine talked long and earnestly to the old thegn. At first there was much head –shaking on the
thegn’s part. He loved his younger son,
little as he understood him, and had no wish that the boy should go from him.
urged the Bishop gently, “ he will come back.
That is part of my plan for him, that when he has learned what I can
teach him he shall come back here to his home and teach the poor folk her their
duty to God and the saints, which now, in ignorance, they sadly neglect.”
know little of God and the saints,” muttered the old thegn, “ I learned in my youth of Odin and
Thor. But this new God of yours seems
to have taken their place nowadays, and there is no Valhalla for the old fighting
men like me. Let the boy go, then;
perhaps I will listen when he returns with his wonderful tales of your new God
and the white Christ. I am old now, and
the world changes. Let him go, then,
but promise me he shall come back, for he is my son. He shall have provision for his living if he comes, from me, or
from Sigurd here if I am gone.
silent elder brother, who had been walking behind his father, his arm linked
with Egbert’s nodded.
He cannot hunt or fight, he growled, “ but by Od … by the saints, whoever they
may be, he can tell a tale that warms a man’s heart to hear. There shall be hall and provender for him as
long as he live, and I’ll learn your new faith to boot, if it pleases him, and
see that all my men learn it too.”
Bishop smiled, a little sadly, realizing how far apart were the ideas of these
rough, honest men and his own. Still he
had won his point, which was the main thing, and when he rode away from Holsham
Bishop Elfwine did not ride alone.
With him went Egbert, mounted on his father’s best mare, a bundle slung
before him containing food for the journey, and the best clothing that his
mother could provide for him. Behind
him, in the hall that lay hidden now beneath the crest of the ridge, lady
Elftryda sat weeping. Her husband comforted
her with rough sympathy.
will come home, wife, never fear,” he said, “and a learned man. But I’d rather he had been a fine hunter
like his brother here,” he continued beneath his breath, and strode to the door
to watch with puzzled eyes and drawn brow the gap among the trees that marked
the road along which his son had ridden away.
End of Chapter 1
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