Foxe's Book of Martyrs -- 24. KING ETHELSTAN


    Ethelstan, or Adelstan, after the death of Edward his father, began his reign in England, and was crowned at Kingston. He was a prince of worthy memory, valiant and wise in all his acts, nothing inferior unto his father Edward; in like worldly renown of civil government, joined with much prosperous success, in reducing this realm under the subjection of one monarchy. For he both expelled the Danes, subdued the Scots, and quieted the Welchmen, as well in North Wales as also in Cornwall. The first enemy against this Ethelstan was one Elfredus, who, with a faction of seditious persons, conspiring against the said Ethelstan at Winchester, incontinently, after the death of his father, went about to put out his eyes. Notwithstanding, the king escaping that danger, through the help of God, was at that time delivered. Elfred upon the same being accused, fled to Rome, there before the pope to purge himself by his oath. Who being brought to the church of St. Peter, and there swearing (or rather forswearing) himself to be clear, which indeed was guilty thereof, suddenly upon his oath fell down; and so being brought to the English house in Rome, within three days after departed. The pope sending word unto King Ethelstan, whether he would have the said Elfred buried among Christians or no? at length, through the persuasions of his friends and kinsfolks, it was concluded that he should be buried in Christian burial. This story, although I find it in no other writers mentioned, but only in the Chronicles of Guliel. lib. de Regib., yet forsomuch as it beareth the witness and words of the king himself, as testified in an old deed of gift, given to the monastery of Malmesbury, I thought the same the more to be of credit.

    In the second year of the reign of King Ethelstan, for a unity and a peace to be had between the king and the Danes of Northumberland, he married to Sithericus, their king, his sister, whereof mention is made before; but shortly after, within one year, this Sithericus died. After whose death King Ethelstan seized that province into his own hands, putting out the son of the foresaid Sithericus, called Alanus, who with his brother Godfridus fled, the one into Ireland, the other unto Constantine, king of the Scots. And when he had thus accorded with the Danes of Northumberland, he shortly made subject unto him Constantine, king of Scots. But the said Constantine conducted himself so lowly to the king, that he restored him to his former dignity, saying that it was more honour to make a king than to be a king.

    Not long after the said Constantine, king of Scots, did break covenant with King Ethelstan; wherefore he assembled his knights, and made towards Scotland, where he, subduing his enemies, and bringing them again unto due subjection, turned into England with victory. Here, by the way, in some story writers (who, forgetting the office of historians, seem to play the poets) is written and recorded for a marvel, that the said Ethelstan, returning out of Scotland into England, came to York, and so into the church of St. John of Beverley, to redeem his knife, which before he had left there for a pledge at his going forth. In the which place he praying to God, and to St. John of Beverley, that he might leave there some remembrance whereby they that came after might know that the Scots by right should be subdued to the English men, smote with a sword (they say) upon a great hard stone standing near about the castle of Dunbar, that with the stroke thereof the stone was cut a large ell deep (with a lie no less deep also than was the stroke in the stone). But of this poetical or fabulous story, albeit Polychronicon, Fabian, Jornalensis, and others more constantly accord in the same, yet in Guliel. and Henricus no mention is made at all. But peradventure he that was the inventor first of this tale of the stone was disposed to lie for the whetstone; wherefore in my mind he is worthy to have it.

    Of like truth and credit seemeth also to be this that foiloweth, about the same year and time, under the reign of King Ethelstan, being the eighth year of his reign, of one Bristanus, bishop of Winchester, who succeeded Frichstanus in the same see, and governed that bishopric four years. This Bristanus, being a devout bishop in prayer and contemplation, used much among his solitary walks to frequent late the churchyard, praying for the souls there, and all Christian souls departed. Upon a time the said Bristanus, after his wonted manner, proceeding in his devotions, when he had done, came to Requiescant in pace. Whereunto suddenly a great multitude of souls, answering together with one voice, said, Amen. Of this miracle, albeit I have not much to say, (hasting to other matters,) yet this question would I ask of some indifferent papist, which were not wilful, but of ignorance deceived; Whether this multitude which here answered Amen, were the souls of them buried in the churchyard or not? If yea, then how were they in purgatory what time they were heard in that place answering Amen? except we should think purgatory to be in the churchyard at Winchester, where the souls were heard then so many answering and praying, Amen. And yet this story is testified by the accord of writers of that time, Guilel., Polyebron., Hovedenus, Jornalensis, and others more. Much like miracles and prophecies also we read of Elphegus which succeeded him; but because we haste to other things let these fables pass.

    Ye heard a little before how King Ethelstan, after the death of Sithericus, king of Northumberland, seized that land or province into his own hand, and put out his son Alanus; who after, flying into Scotland, married one of the daughters of Constantine king of Scots. By whose stirring and exhortation he gathered a company of Danes, Scots, and others, and entered the mouth of Humber with a strong navy of six hundred and fifteen ships.

    Whereof King Ethelstan, with his brother Edmund, having knowledge, prepared his army, and at length joined in fight with him and his people at a place called Brimambruch, or Brimford; where he, fighting with them from morning till evening, after a terrible slaughter on both sides (as the like hath not been seen lightly in England) had the victory. In the which battle were slain five small and under-kings, with Constantine king of Scots, and twelve dukes, with the most part of all the strangers which at that time they gathered to them. Here also our writers put in another miracle in this battle, how King Ethelstan's sword miraculously fell into his sheath, through the prayer of Odo, then archbishop of Canterbury.

    After this victory thus obtained of the Danes and Scots, King Ethelstan also subdued (or at least quieted) the North Britons, whom he conventing together at Hertford, (or thereabouts,) forced them to grant unto him, as a yearly tribute, twenty pounds of gold, three hundred pounds of silver, and of heads of neat five and twenty hundred, with hawks and dogs, to a certain number. This done, he went to Exeter, and there likewise subduing the South Britons about Exeter and Cornwall, repaired the walls of Exeter with sufficient strength, and so returned.

    Among these victorious and noble acts of this king, one blot there is of him written and noted, wherein be is as much worthy to be reprehended as in the other before to be commended, (that is,) the innocent death and murder of his brother Edwin. The occasion thereof was this. King Edward afore named, their father, in the time of his youth, coming by a certain village or grange where he had been nursed and brought up of a child, thought of courtesy to go to see how his nurse did, where he, entering into the house, espied a certain young damsel, beautiful, and right seemly attired, Egwina by name. This Egwina before, being a poor man's daughter, had a vision by night, that of her body sprang such a bright light of the moon, that the brightness thereof gave light to the realm of England; by reason whereof she was taken into the foresaid house, and daintily brought up instead of their own daughter, for hope of some commodity to ensue thereby, as afterward it came to pass. For King Edward, (as is declared,) coming into the house, and ravished with the beauty of the maiden, begat of her the same night this Ethelstan. Wherefore the said Ethelstan, being thus basely born of Egwina, the first wife to Edward, (as is said,) before he was married to her, and fearing his next brother Edwin, which was rightly born, (especially being stirred thereunto through the sinister suggestion of his butler,) did cast such displeasure to the foresaid Edwin his brother, being yet but young, that (notwithstanding his innocent submission and purgation made against his accusers) he caused him to be set in an old rotten boat in the broad sea, (only with one esquire with him,) without any tackling or other provision to the same. Where the young; and tender prince, being dismayed with the rage of winds and of the floods, and now weary of his life, cast himself overboard into the sea, and so was drowned. Notwithstanding the esquire shifting for himself as he could, and recovering the body of his master, brought it to Sandwich, where it was buried.

{Illustartion: The death of Edwin 23}

    Which done, the king afterwards, coming to the remembrance of himself, was stricken with great repentance the space of seven years together, and at length was revenged of him that was the accuser of his brother. This accuser (as is said) was the king's cup-bearer, who (as God the righteous Judge of all things would have it) upon a certain solemn feast, bearing the cup unto the king, chanced in the middle of the floor to stumble with one foot, helping and recovering himself with the other, saying in these words Thus one brother (as you see) helpeth another. These words being thus spoken in the hearing of the king, so moved his mind, that forthwith he commanded the false accuser of his brother to be had out to execution. Whose just recompence I would wish to be a warning to all men, what it is to sow discord between brother and brother.

    King Ethelstan (besides his seven years' lamentation for this act) builded the two monasteries of Midleton and of Michlenes for his brother's sake, or (as the stories say) for his soul. Whereby it may appear what was the cause most special in those days of building monasteries, to wit, for releasing the sins both of them departed and them alive; which cause, how it standeth with the grace and verity of Christ's gospel, and of his passion, let the Christian reader try and examine with himself. This cruel fact of the king towards Edwin caused him afterward to be more tender and careful towards his other brethren and sisters left in his hands unmarried. Which sisters, as is partly in the chapter before declared, he richly bestowed in great marriages; as one to the king of Northumberland, Sithericus; another he gave unto Lewis, king of Aquitania; the third to Henricus, duke of Almaine, for his son Otho, who was the first emperor of the Germans. Whereby it is to be understood that the empire at this time began first to be translated from France (where it remained about one hundred years and a half) unto Germany, where it hath ever since continued.

    The fourth of his sisters being a virgin of singu lar beauty, Hugo the French king required to be given unto him, sending to King Ethelstan precious and sumptuous presents, such as were not before seen in England. Among the which presents and gifts, besides the rare odours of sundry savours and fine spices; and besides the precious and costly gems, namely, of smaragds of most redolent green; besides also many and great coursers and palfrey richly trapped; especially of one jewel, (as writers make mention,) which was a certain vessel finely and subtilly made of the precious stone onychinus, so radiantly wrought, that in it appeared the lively corn growing, and men's images walking, &c. Over and besides was sent also the sword of Constantine the Great, with the name of the possessor written in golden letters; where in the haft of the same, all beaten in gold, was one of the iron nails wherewith our Saviour on the cross was nailed, of the verity whereof I am not disposed at this present much to say what I suspect; but that this in the ecclesiastical story of Eusebius is evident, that two of the foresaid nails of Christ were spent on the bridle of Constantine, the third he cast into the sea in a raging tempest. Wherefore, if Christ were nailed with four nails, perhaps this nail might be one. If he were nailed but with three, I see not how this story can stand with other stories, neither how this fourth nail can stand with the truth. Among the rest moreover was the spear (as is reported) wherewith the side of our Saviour was opened, which also the said Constantine was wont to carry in the field against his enemies, with a portion likewise of the holy cross enclosed in crystal; also a part of the crown of thorn in like manner enclosed, &c. Of the which relics part was given to Winchester, part to the church of Malmesbury, where King Ethelstan was buried. As this king was endued and enlarged by the gift of God (the setter up and disposer of all kings) with great victories of worldly renown, having under his subjection both Scots and Britons, and the whole monarchy of the land; so he devised divers good and wholesome laws for the government of the same, as well concerning the state of the orders ecclesiastical, as also of the secular or lay people. Whereby it is to be understood, that the usurped power of the bishop of Rome did not then extend itself so largely, nor so proudly to derogate from the authority of kings and princes, but that every one in his own dominion had (under God, and not under the pope) the doing of all matters within the same his dominion contained, whether they were causes temporal or spiritual, as by the decrees and constitutions of this king (and also of other, as well before him as after him) may evidently be testified.

    The said Ethelstan besides prescribed other constitutions also, as touching tithes giving, where he saith and proclaimeth, I Ethelstan, king, charge and command all my officers through my whole realm to give tithes unto God of my proper goods, as well in living cattle as in the corn and fruits of the ground, and that my bishops likewise of their proper goods, and mine aldermen, and my officers and headmen, shall do the same. Item, this I will, that my bishops and other headmen do declare the same to such as be under their subjection, and that to be accomplished at the term of St. John the Baptist. Let us remember what Jacob said unto the Lord, Of all things that thou givest to me I will offer tithes unto the Lord, &c. Also what the Lord saith in the Gospel of St. Matthew, To him that hath it shall be given, and he shall abound. We must also consider how terrible it is written in books, that if we will not offer our tenths, from us nine parts shall be taken away, and only the tenth part shall be left us, &c.

    Among his other laws and ordinances, to the number of thirty-five, divers things he comprehended, pertaining as well to the spiritual as also to the temporal jurisdiction.

    Out of the laws of this king first sprang up the attachment of thieves, that such as stole above twelve-pence, and were above twelve years old, should not be spared.

    And thus much briefly concerning the history of King Ethelstan, and things in his time done; who reigned about the space of sixteen years. And because he died without issue, therefore after him succeeded his brother Edmund, the year of our Lord 940, who reigned six years.

Previous Next