I, Rhodri of Kernow, write this in remembrance of my patron, Bishop Asser. The good man loved the House of Wessex all his days and was friend and confidant to Ælfred, whom men now call the Great. Our King now is Athelstan, may The Good Lord and the Saints keep him, and Bishop Asser would have been full of joy to see it.
For surely there can have been few Kings his equal. Even Great Ælfred had faults that none could overlook. Athelstan is a man without peer. His appearance and demeanour are all regal and he has the love of all his people like none before him. Lest I be accused of courting favour, let it be known that I am a Briton of the West, not a Saxon. I have no great love for the people who stole our land these many years past. Nonetheless, I own Athelstan as my King.
I recall the King as a boy at his grandfather's knee. I had him in my charge for lessons. He was a beautiful child with hair like gold and eyes the grey of the winter sea. I remember him being sent into Mercia for protection. Many thought his father, the late King, sought his death from jealousy but I know not. Now that Edward is dead he does not want for detractors.
Just this past year King Athelstan came here to Mældubesburg. Although many years have passed, he knew me still and cried aloud for joy at seeing his old teacher. He has grown into a handsome man with flaxen hair - still shot through with the gold of his childhood. Although not much above middling height, his presence fills any room. He is soft-spoken, for a Saxon.
This tale I now recount was told to me by old Hereward of Middletun. He is nearly four score years now but still has a silver tongue when he minds to use it. I have had this story, too, from other men. It is so true of the King that no man should doubt it. I say this, even if it be a sin; it is good to write of the matters of men once in a while. May God forgive me, but the Lives of saints can be tedious work for the son of a bard!
Rhodri op Kernow
In the Year of Grace Nine Hundred and Thirty One
Athelstan is perhaps the most obscure of the old Saxon Kings. Even his origins are shrouded in mystery. He was the son of Edward the Elder, grandson of Ælfred the Great but his mother's identity is not known. She is described simply as a 'woman of Mercia'. The implication is clearly that she was not of any special significance and she died soon after Athelstan's birth.
There is a tradition that Ælfred intended Athelstan as his heir but the boy was only six years old when Ælfred died. Edward married after Athelstan's birth and produced a number of legitimate children. All of these were still minors at the time of Edward's death in 924 AD. Athelstan was elected King with the help of considerable Mercian support. He had been raised in Mercia following an attempt to blind him as a child and his Mercian mother ensured his popularity in that country.
Athelstan never married and, as far as we know, remained deliberately celibate to ensure that there was no dispute over the succession after his death. We are told that he only agreed to become King on the understanding that he was seen as holding the Country upon trust for his half-brothers, Edward's legitimate heirs. We cannot judge how true this is but it is clear that the succession was undisputed on his death and this was remarkable in Saxon times.
During his reign, he achieved total dominance over all of Britain. Both the Scots and Welsh Kings acknowledged him as overlord. There were still challenges to face in the shape of Scandinavian invaders but Athelstan went to great lengths to ensure that the Danelaw was fully integrated into the Kingdom and his Danish subjects fought at his side.
* * * * *
Athelstan's abhorrence of the death penalty is well recorded. One of the last of his laws passed before his death in 940 AD specifically forbade the execution of anyone under the age of sixteen. He also freely pardoned any criminals that repented and showed themselves willing to make amends. One very unusual aspect of his reign was his habit of moving the King's Court around the Country. He held meetings as far apart as Exeter and York and does not seem to have held Court in the same town any two years running.
Finally, a word about place names: Mældubesburg is Malmesbury, where Athelstan is buried. Grantanbrycg is modern day Cambridge and Colneceaster is Colchester in Essex.
Athelstan is, of course, an historical character. All the rest, and this entire story, are my own imaginings
This was to be the last year that Hereward of Middletun would take his place among the Witan, the King's Council. He was almost seventy-seven and although still spry, Athelstan's habit of moving the Council from one town to another was proving too much for the old man. Hereward had served three Kings now and he would plainly own that Athelstan was the easiest of the three to get along with. He had worshipped Ælfred, done his duty by Edward but he actually liked Athelstan, both as a man and a King.
This new King had none of Edward's arrogance nor had he Ælfred's impetuosity. Athelstan was warm, human, energetic and yet considered in his actions. 'If only he would stay in one place,' Hereward mused, 'I could serve him yet.' Athelstan, however, could not stay in one place. He would say it was his duty to bring the King to the people and not, as had been customary, for the people to attend the King. In this year of 931, the Witan had met at Wiltun, Kinges Wortig and, now, at Colneceaster in the Danelaw. Until Athelstan had taken the throne, it was unheard of for a Saxon King to enter Danelaw without an army at his back. Now the King was here together with the Witan and it promised to be an interesting session.
Athelstan intended to allow the Danish part of his Kingdom to follow their own laws and customs. He would not try to impose Saxon ways on the people beyond basic principles. The Danes had their own Moot, which they called a 'Vapnatak'. It was in the King's mind to see local government executed through these gatherings. Already in the seven years since Athelstan had come to the throne, the Danes of Danelaw regarded themselves as his subjects and he, in his turn, had admitted Danish Jarls to the Witan. There only remained the matter of the blood feud.
Men have said that was Athelstan was womanish in his law-making. Blood feuds had been outlawed in Saxon England. The Danes clung hard to this practice. If a man were to be killed, it was a sacred duty for his kin to avenge him. This led, in turn, to more killing. Hereward once said that it was not the killing that the offended Athelstan but the futility. Whatever the reason, the King's face was set against the ancient practice so when a young Dane was called before the King's Court, charged with pursuing a blood feud, everyone waited with bated breath to see what the King would do.
The accused was one Thori, a youth of some fifteen years from the Burgh of Grantanbrycg. The Court was full as the slim lad was marched in, almost hidden between four of the Thegn's men. The King's Magister was presiding and the case against young Thori was an easy one to judge. He didn't even deny that he had killed two Saxons, men of the same Thegn of Grantanbrycg. There was much chattering in the crowd as they debated whether the guilty man would die by hanging or stoning. No-one doubted that die he would. A sudden hush spread through the Hall. Athelstan had entered. He took a seat on a side bench without ceremony and settled down to listen with the rest.
The Magister was overcome with confusion. His place in Law was as the King's representative; yet here was the King himself, come to see his justice dispensed. The Magister's courage forsook him and he turned in deference to Athelstan.
"My Lord, you have come at an opportune time. I was just about to sentence this rascal to be stoned. Much better he should hear his doom from your lips."* * * * *
Athelstan arched a brow and rose. His appearance at this time was not accidental. He meant to use the opportunity to make it plain to all that the time of the blood feud was long past. " I will try the case, " he said and motioned to the Magister to step aside so that the King might take his place at the bench. All stood in honour of the King but Athelstan waved them away with a smile. He turned to the Thegn who had brought the charge.
"Shall we begin again?"
"As My Lord pleases."
"Just so. We will hear the evidence."
It was swiftly done. The Thegn's men recounted how the two dead men had accidentally killed a young Danish girl while out hunting. Such accidents happened and no malice or blame was found to attach to the hunters. Thori had refused to accept the verdict of his Thegn and sought out the men and killed them brutally and in coward's fashion, slaying them in their sleep. The young Dane remained silent. If anything he looked bored with the tale, having heard it so many times before. Athelstan, too, remained silent. He watched the speakers attentively and nodded encouragement for them to continue if they faltered. He appeared to pay no attention to Thori whatsoever. The Dane expected no more. He had heard the truth twisted and his honour slandered so many times now he had given up hope of better.
It was not that he was resigned to his fate. He admitted killing the men; was proud he had done so. Siggerith would rest easier knowing her killers had not survived her long. He had not expected justice from the Saxons. His Thegn was one of the old King Edward's men, put in place to keep the peace and remind the vanquished of the King's victories. Even Thori's own people chose to believe the calumnies. If he did not quite feel despair, he harboured a fatalistic resentment and cynicism. He was to die. What more was there to talk about?
As the story wound to it's conclusion Athelstan turned at last to look at the accused youth. Thori met the King's eyes defiantly. He was a warrior and the son of warriors. Let them say he killed by night. He knew the truth and he knew the justice of his cause. It was enough. It had to be enough. He was taken aback to see curiosity in the steady, grey gaze where he had expected condemnation.
"Thori of Grantanbrycg. You have heard the evidence of your Thegn and his sworn men. What say you to this matter?"
Thori thought for a moment and then shrugged. There seemed little point in argument. If the King sought to amuse himself by humbling a Dane, well, he could look elsewhere for sport. The King seemed to have read his mind for Athelstan smiled gently and, to his increasing wonderment, spoke to him in Danish:
"Come, Thori. There must be more to this matter than meets the eye. I cannot believe that a man would fight a blood feud for his honour's sake and then kill so dishonourably. Much as I abhor the feud, I recognise its roots lie deep within the soul of all true Danes."
The King then raised his voice and spoke again in Saxon to the Court.
"I am not satisfied with the evidence. Something strikes false in what we have heard. The Court is adjourned until I discover more of this matter. Bring Thori of Grantanbrycg to my rooms. We will have the truth before we have a death!"
And with this the King rose and swept from the Hall, leaving those behind to gape and chatter at the turn of events. Only the Thegn of Grantanbrycg looked ill at ease.
When Thori was brought into the King's chamber he was surprised to find Athelstan attended only by a priest and an old man. The King bade Thori be seated and courteously introduced the Old Man as Hereward, Ealdorman of Middletun and the priest as Fr Anselm, Athelstan's personal chaplain. Yet again he spoke in Danish and the others, too, added their greetings in Thori's own tongue. Thori was struck by how at ease they were in the King's company. The old Thegn was sprawled on a low couch and even the priest seemed relaxed and jovial.
"Now, " said Athelstan, "Perhaps you will be good enough to tell us here what you not say in Court? I am sure you have a tale of your own to tell. I cannot promise you less than justice but be assured. It shall be a King's justice. Beyond my writ you will doubtless answer to God but here on Earth you will surely answer to me." Thori hesitated. The old man made an encouraging motion with his hand. The priest, too, seemed eager to hear his story, only cautioning him that if he lied to his King, he lied also to his maker and would put his mortal soul in danger. With a shudder, Thori began.
" My Lord, I am the fourth of my line to bear the name Thori and the third to be born in this land. I am Thori Thorisson and live, as all now know, in the Burgh of Grantanbrycg. At this New Year I was betrothed to Siggerith the daughter of Aske, an old friend of my father's and a distant kinsman. Alas, Aske died soon afterwards and as Siggerith was alone in the world, my father welcomed her to our hearth. We were to wed this harvest, when I shall be sixteen. Siggerith was my younger by but a few days so it was time enough for us both.
"Some six weeks since, Siggerith was foully raped and murdered by two of the Thegn's men. I faced these men and killed them. Not, as they claim, in the coward's way but face-to-face and together. I used my father's dagger for I have none of my own beyond a belt-knife for the table. My Lord, it was not a blood feud but rather that Siggerith was denied justice. Her killers walked free, claiming a hunting accident. I saw the blood on her thighs. I saw the old arrow pushed into the knife wound to disguise the manner of her death. I went to the Thegn but he would not see me. I went to the Reeve but he sent me away. No one would help us, My Lord. I could not let the lie stand. I killed the murderers. I regret nothing save Siggerith's death. I loved her, you see."
Thori fell silent and the others could see the tears glistening in his eyes as he strove to master himself. Athelstan regarded the youth with a blank face. Whatever emotion the King was feeling was disguised by his wooden look. Not so Hereward, who was beside himself.
"By Cuthbert's Sainted Bones! My Lord, I know something of this boy's heart. My own betrothed was abducted by Mad Ivar. I swore vengeance on him and all his kin and had Great Ælfred's support in the enterprise. The lad is right. This wasn't blood feud but the search for justice!"
Athelstan smiled. "Hereward, I know your story - who does not. It was a thing of the stuff of sagas. But even you know that vengeance and justice are not one and the same. Does not the Bible tell us that vengeance is the province of God?" Fr Anselm nodded vigorously and recounted the verses in Latin until silenced by a look from Athelstan. The King turned again to Thori.
"There is much here for us to contemplate. Your tale puts matters in different odour but still I would know more. Did you witness the murder or the rape you claim?"
Thori shook his head unhappily. "No, My Lord. I believe there were those who did among the Thegn's men but none will speak for fear of their master. All in Grantanbrycg know that Siggerith was murdered but none dare say so. Even my father counselled caution and he loved her well. I am the last of his children living and his heir. He did not want me endangered; however much he wished himself for justice."
Athelstan nodded understanding and dismissed Thori with the promise that he would investigate further before reconvening the Court. After the Danish youth had left, Athelstan turned to his companions.
"What do you think, Hereward? You know these people as well as any man. Is he telling the truth?"
"I believe he is, My Lord, at least as far as he knows it."
"What do you mean, old friend?"
"There is something in this matter that makes me uneasy. If things happened as young Thori believes, I don't see the Thegn allowing his men to get off scot-free. At very least, even with an accident, there should have been an offer of wergild. And Thori does not strike me as a man who would pursue a blood feud if the girl had died through sheer mischance. Something is wrong here, Sire. I don't wish to cry 'stinking fish' but I like it not at all."
Athelstan nodded and turned to Fr Anselm. The priest had been silent throughout the interview with Thori and now he looked deep in thought.
" I agree with Hereward, My Lord. Some men have the guile to appear what they are not. I don't count Thori Thorisson among them. I take him to be a straight-forward sort of lad; proud of his people and jealous of their honour. Unless I'm much mistaken, I cannot see him killing by stealth in the night."
The King nodded solemnly. "I agree with you both," he said. "Now it only remains to decide what we shall do about it."
The three of them discussed the affair for some time. Eventually it was decided that Hereward would talk further to Thori while Fr Anselm would ride to Grantanbrycg and ask questions of the folk there, including the priests. In the meant time, Athelstan would adjourn the case for a week, pending the outcome of the investigations.
Two days later Hereward visited Thori. The accused had been lodged at the monastery, locked in a rough penitent's cell with a guard placed on the door. Hereward waved the guard away and entered. He was struck at once by the bleak and cynical look in Thori's eyes. Easing himself down onto the low, hard cot, Hereward smiled. He stretched and yawned mightily and then asked the boy in fluent, but accented, Danish:
"Not quite a Thegn's Hall, is it?"
"You would know, Lord, not I."
Hereward laughed aloud. "True, boy," he said. "True indeed. Forgive an old man's curiosity but I would know more of you and Siggerith."
"Call it a feeling, call it a whim, if you will. Let me first tell you my own story - the one about me and my Elfgirda and Mad Ivar - the one men called the Boneless. Perhaps you will see that we are not so different after all."
Thori shrugged as if it was a matter of total indifference to him. Hereward, undaunted, began his tale. He had not earned the name 'Hereward Silver-tongue' for nothing and it wasn't long before Thori was caught up in the story of the abduction and rescue of Elfgirda all those years ago. When Hereward had reached the climactic scene - the death of Ivar, swordless and drowning in the fen - Thori's eyes were shining. This was, just as the King had said, the stuff of sagas. Hereward finished his tale and turned his twinkling eyes on Thori.
"So you see, my boy, that I was much of an age with you when all this took place. I was not always a greybeard with a creaking back. So you tell me now of Siggerith."
" Well, Lord, where should I start?"
"I've always found the beginning to be a good place. How came you to know the maid?"
"I was ten years old. My father has a small farm outside the Burgh. He sent me into the town to take a message to his old friend Aske. I can remember it still - it was drilled into me until I was word perfect. 'Thori Thorisson - that's my father's name too - desires the company of Aske Ericsson at his home. We wish to celebrate my wife's name-day and no feast would be complete without so old and true a friend.' Well, I gave Aske the message and he smiled and took me into his house and fed me oatcakes. He introduced his only child, a daughter named Siggerith. His wife died some years before so there were just the two of them. Even then, at ten years, she was as pretty a lass as I ever saw. Her hair was red and her eyes green and her skin, sir, it was like, well, new milk. I sat there all tongue-tied and they teased me that I couldn't talk unless I had conned my speech beforehand. I felt myself burning with embarrassment to be such a loon before these people, but they were not unkind, you understand, just chaffing me.