Homepage Texts

The Royal Chase of Wareham

On the death of Edgar the Second, sirnamed the peaceable, England was distracted by the contentions of two adverse factions respecting the choice of a successor to the crown.

At the head of the most powerful party, distinguished by the name of the Dunstanites, was the famous Archbishop Dunstan,Some account of this celebrated statesman and ecclesiastic will be found in the Historical Summary. who supported the title of Edward the Atheling, or prince royal, the eldest son of the deceased monarch, by his first wife. The other faction called the Anti-Dunstanites, were the partisans of the queen dowager, the beautiful but wicked Elfrida, who was ambitious of placing her young son Ethelred on the throne, and governing in his name during a long minority. But while the whole nation was divided and involved in civil discord on this point, and the most deadly hatred agitated the minds of those who espoused the rival claims of the sons of Edgar, it is an interesting fact that the youthful princes, though only brothers by the half blood, were united in the tenderest bonds of love.

Edward, who had just completed his fourteenth year, had been named by his dying father as his successor. The right of primogeniture was his also, and in the Witenagemot or great national council, the eloquence and influence of the two archbishops, Dunstan and Oswald, obtained a formal recognition of those rights, and Prince Edward was, in conformity with the will of his deceased father, placed on the throne of the Anglo Saxons.

At the tender age of seven years the baleful passions of ambition had no place in the then guileless heart of the younger prince. Unconscious of the charms of royalty, of which he had as yet only experienced the restraints, the loss of a kingdom was not to him matter of either disappointment or regret. The only sorrow of which the decision of the Witenagemot was productive to him was his separation from that beloved elder brother, in whose affectionate bosom he had, from his earliest remembrance, been wont to repose his childish joys and griefs, and who had been his companion, his guide, and his own sweet familiar friend. Never were the soothing kindness and fond endearments he had been accustomed to receive from the princely Edward so much required by Ethelred as at this period, when all the evil passions of his haughty mother's nature had been roused and called into baleful activity during her late attempts to supplant her royal step-son: and having been foiled in her endeavours to usurp the royal authority in Ethelred's name, she vented her mortification and baffled rage on the unfortunate object of her maternal ambition and defeated machinations.

Weak in body and feeble in mind, Ethelred had evidently been designed by nature for a private station, and these constitutional defects frequently subjected him to the bitterest reproaches and most injurious treatment from the imperious Elfrida, whose unrestrained violence of temper rendered her at all times an object of terror to him, although occasionally experiencing the most pernicious indulgence from her when caprice inclined her to fondness.

Child as he was, Ethelred was only too painfully aware of the evil traits of his mother's character, and since he had been deprived by death of his natural protector, and afterwards separated from his affectionate brother, he seemed to tremble at the sound of her step, and sought at all times to avoid her presence, while he beheld with jealous displeasure the caresses she bestowed on her little cankered dwarf Wulstan, whose droll tricks and impish mischief occasionally possessed the power of diverting the black gloom that oppressed her, after she had been compelled to resign the gaiety and splendour of the court for a solitary residence in Corfe Castle, one of the royal demesnes in Dorsetshire, which had been the favourite hunting palace of her late husband King Edgar, who had been accustomed to spend much of his time there; and thither Elfrida had been allowed by her generous step-son to retire, with her son Prince Ethelred and a train suitable to the dignity of his father's widow. Instead of being moved by the kindness and forbearance of the young king, Elfrida continued in secret her treasonable practices against him. She had already sacrificed her first husband Ethelbald to her ambition, and she only waited a suitable opportunity of attemping the life of Edward. The Archbishop Dunstan was, however, fully aware of her cruel and perfidious disposition, and he strictly guarded his royal pupil from all her machinations and conspiracies against his person, and warned him perpetually against the imprudence of either admitting her to visit the court, or trusting himself in the vicinity of her abode. So implicitly had the cautions of Dunstan been attended to by those about the young king, that for a period of three years he had been prevented from holding the slightest intercourse with Elfrida and her son.

But the affectionate heart of Edward yearned towards his younger brother, whom he earnestly desired to embrace once more. The cares of royalty, the sceptre of a divided realm, and the severe restraints and self-sacrifices imposed upon him by his austere but faithful guardian Dunstan, were grevious to the youthful monarch, who, in addition to these, was compelled to submit to the stern discipline of a monastic education; and the mode in which learning was communicated in those days was equally fatiguing to the preceptor and painful to the pupil. Elementary books were not then written to facilitate the progress of education. There were not above three copies of a meagre dictionary in existence in England, and lessons were learned from dictation, till, by frequent repetition the student committed them to memory, or, according to the ancient phrase, "got them by heart."

These impositions were distasteful to the young king, and were often sadly contrasted by him with the pleasures and joyous freedom of his early years, before his accession to the regal dignity had burdened him with the heavy fetters of state and deprived him of the amusements of his age, and above all of the company of his brother Ethelred, his tenderly-beloved living plaything.

The royal manor and castle of Corfe had been, as I said before, the favourite residence of the deceased king his father, during whose reign it had been a constant scene of gaiety and festivity. The happy days of Edward's childhood had been spent there, and when he compared the gloomy routine and fatiguing employments of his present mode of life with the sweet remembrances of that pleasant time, he felt disposed to regard the demesne of the queen dowager as a sort of Eden, contrasted with which the rest of his kingdom was but an extensive wilderness.

This desire of revisiting the scenes of his infancy, "his home," as he emphatically styled Corfe Castle, became more pressing in proportion as it was resisted by his inexorable guardian and the rest of the wise counsellors by whose decision he, while a minor, was compelled to abide, and he secretly resolved to embrace the first opportunity that might occur for the gratification of his wish.

Meantime, unremitting application to the laborious studies and public duties which Dunstan enjoined, impatience of the restraints imposed upon him, and above all, his incessant pining for the beloved scenes and companion of his childhood, produced a visible change in his health. His fading cheek, heavy eye, and languid appearance, at length attracted the attention of Dunstan, who, in common with most ecclesiastics of that period, possessed a considerable knowledge of physic, and was desirous of administering to his royal pupil a medicine which he considered might be efficacious to him.

It is of no avail," said Edward, rejecting as he spoke the proffered cup, "it is not a nauseous compound of drugs that will restore me to health. It is the devertisements, the relaxations, and the companionships of my age that I require.

"Know you not, Oh! King, that as the lord of a mighty nation, you are called upon to put away childish things, and to employ your precious time in fitting yourself for the performance of the important duties which pertain to your exalted station?" said the archbishop.

"Ah! station full of sorrow!" exclaimed the young king, "how gladly would I exchange its gilded fetters for the healthful toils and envied freedom of a shepherd boy!"

"In the same sinful spirit of discontent and rebellion against the dispensations of the Most High, thou wouldst have coveted regal dignity, hadst thou been doomed to bear the hardships and privations of a herdsman's lot," replied the archbishop.

"I could endure them all patiently, yea joyfully, were I permitted to breathe the fresh free air of dale and down in liberty," rejoined the youthful monarch, "and to solace myself with the company of one dear familiar friend, were it but a day."

"Thou art a perverse boy, and knowest not the value of a real friend when thou hast found one," said Dunstan reproachfully. "Thou deemest me harsh, and my counsels bitter, because, instead of dissembling with thy folly, I labour to convince thee that a king is the property of the nation that permits his authority, and that it behoves him to sacrifice his dearest wishes where they interfere with the duty he owes to his people."

"Nay, but, my father," said Edward, "my present desire is so simple in its nature, that it concerneth no one beside myself, or I would not urge it."

"It is, I know, of no avail to reason with thy perversity to-day," said Dunstan impatiently. "What wouldst thou?"

"I would fain hunt the deer in my royal chase of Wareham," replied the king in a hurried voice, being awed by the stern manner of his preceptor into dissembling half his wish.

"Is that all?" demanded Dunstan, fixing his penetrating eye upon the varying cheek of the youthful king; "thou mightest well call thine a simple wish, and if thou hadst added foolish thou hadst not said amiss."

"I knew thou wouldst call it so, my Lord Archbishop," said the king, turning away.

"Nay, Edward, nay, this is mere childishness," resumed the archbishop, taking the feverish hand of his royal charge, "if hunting the deer be thy desire, far be it from me to withstand thee in such a trifle, especially as thou thinkest the fresh air and jocund exercise of following the hound horn will restore thy health and spirits; but why shouldst thou speak of the distant woods of Wareham for thy divertisement, when thou hast thy royal and wide extended forest and chase of Waltham so close to thy loving city of London, that thou mayest enjoy goodly pastime there this very day, with thy noble thanes, and earldormen and trusty burgesses for thy company and guards?"

"No," replied the king, "I love not to seek my game amidst such gaping crowds of idle followers, and I will not hunt at Waltham to-day."

"Thou shalt find goodly sport in the fair forests of Windsor, if thou wilt seek it there," said Dunstan, "or in thy chase at Sheen, or at Greenwich and the Black-heath."

"I do not incline to hunt at Windsor," replied the King, "nor yet at Sheen, nor Greenwich, nor the Black-heath, nor any where but at Wareham, where my royal father was wont to rouse the deer."

"Wareham is too near to Corfe Castle, the abode of the bold bad woman, thy guileful stepdame Elfrida," replied Dunstan. "It is a vicinity fraught with peril to thee, and thou shalt not go thither, Edward."

Edward was sad and sullen during the remainder of the day.

The next morning there was an evident access of the low fever that hung about the young king; he was languid and dispirited, and would neither attend to his studies, nor enter into any of the little plans laid out for his amusement by his courtiers at Dunstan's instigation.

When Dunstan perceived this, and observed that his royal pupil sickened and rejected his food from day to day, he said to him again, "Edward, what wouldst thou?"

"I told thee before," replied the youth, "but it was in vain, that I did but desire to breathe the sweet air of the Dorsetshire hills and downs, and to hunt the deer in my pleasant woods of Wareham, and lo! thou didst refuse me this little thing."

"Because I saw thou wert like a foolish bird, wilfully bent on falling into the snare of the cunning fowler," returned Dunstan, "and I know thou hast now only revealed a part of thy purpose, which is to visit Corfe Castle."

A deep blush overspread the pale cheek of the young king, as he protested that he had no such intention.

"I fear thou dost dissemble with thy true friend, King Edward," said the archbishop. "In troth, my son, it is only natural that thou shouldst desire to embrace thy brother Ethelred; but, give up this wild whim of thine, and I will send for the young prince to London when a convenient season shall befall."

A feeling of false shame withheld the king from acknowledging that he had not dealt candidly in the matter, and he redoubled his protestations that his whole desire was simply to spend a few days in hunting the game in Wareham forest, which he prayed the archbishop not to deny him.

"Thou shalt go," said Dunstan after a long pause, "but on condition that thou dost not visit Corfe Castle, nor hold any intercourse with the Queen Elfrida, nor any of her people."

Edward accepted the terms, but in the secret hope that accident would bring him to a sight of his brother without a direct violation of his promise.

"The word of a king ought to be an obligation more sacred than the oath of another man," said Dunstan when they parted; "as you observe yours, so be your speed, my son."

Indisposition, languor, and melancholy, were alike forgotten by Edward, when, with a gallant train of nobles and gentles, attended by jolly hunters and falconers, with hawks and hounds, he left London to follow the sylvan sports in the fair wolds and vales of Dorsetshire.

They set forth with merry blasts of horns, baying of hounds, prancing of steeds, waving of plumes and broidered scarfs and mantles, jingling of falcon bells and blithsome caroling of jocund voices, so that all who met them paused to admire their goodly array and sprightly cheer; but Dunstan beheld the departure of his royal charge with a sort of prophetic fear which he could neither repress nor hide.

"Thou goest, Edward," said he, when he bestowed his parting blessing upon him—"thou goest like a foolish bird from beneath its mother's wing ere it be fully fledged for flight; God grant that thou escape the jaws of the serpent that are even now expanded to devour thee."

Edward was touched, and indeed surprised, at the pathetic tenderness of his stern preceptor's solemn farewell; for Dunstan was an austere man, who, generally speaking, appeared dead to all human affections, and insensible to the softer emotions of the human heart. Yet now he folded the young king in his arms, and wept over him like a mother over the child of her bosom, who is about to be torn from her for ever.

Edward's purpose was shaken, and for a moment he felt disposed to forego his long-wished and eagerly anticipated journey, but the temptation was too strong to be thus easily resigned. It is a difficult matter for young people, especially princes, to know who are their real friends. The young king, who had always been accustomed in his childhood to receive deceitful flattery and caresses from Elfrida, could not prevail upon himself, notwithstanding her treasonable attempts to supplant him in the succession, to regard her as a personal enemy. He knew her to be ambitious, but he could not believe that she was wicked; on the contrary, he excused her conspiring to exclude him from the throne on the plea of her natural preference for her own son, and he secretly considered Dunstan's opinions respecting her as harsh and injurious, although he had never ventured in direct terms to tell him so. The archbishop, though tenderly attached to his pupil, and labouring incessantly to promote his interest, was of too stern and unbending a character to study to please him. He had a plain and uncompromising manner of reproving his faults and telling him unwelcome truths, which had the effect of wounding his self-love and offending his pride.

It is a correct observation, that people will sooner forgive a serious injury than overlook an affront, and Edward, although his step-mother had endeavoured to deprive him of a throne, was inclined to regard her more in the light of a friend than the man who had successfully vindicated his rights, and watched day and night for his weal. But then, Elfrida had flattered his foibles, and during his father's life had procured him a thousand improper indulgences; while Dunstan controled his inclinations wherever he considered it for his interest so to do, and subjected him to the restraints of a useful and virtuous education.

It was with feelings of the deepest regret that this faithful guardian consented to the departure of his royal pupil, especially as he considered it incompatible with his sacred calling, venerable age, and high vocation, to accompany the court on a hunting party. To the best of his power he provided against any imprudence on the part of the young king, by surrounding his person with a sufficient number of grave and incorruptible counsellors, whose wisdom and authority he hoped would restrain the vivacity and rash daring of that gay company.

The impression of his guardian's solemn warning and unwonted tears at parting, remained for some days on the mind of the young king, and strengthened his resolution of doing nothing in direct violation of his promise, though he continued to indulge a secret hope that some lucky chance might afford him the pleasure of an interview with Prince Ethelred and the Queen, for he certainly cherished a desire of seeing the guileful Elfrida as well as her son. Wareham Chase was only six miles distant from Corfe Castle, and, contrary to the advice of the sage monitors to whom the archbishop had delegated his trust, he continued to follow the game in that vicinity.

One day, when he had, as much by design as accident, outridden his train in pursuit of a white doe of peculiar beauty and fleetness, he perceived through a forest vista the towers of Corfe Castle rising in the distance, over wood and vale, like the gray crown of the richly-varied landscape.

At that sight a thousand sweet and pleasant remembrances of his early days, connected with that beloved spot, rushed to the mind of the young king, and filled his eyes with tears. The boisterous excitement of the chase was forgotten, and dropping his silken bridle on the neck of his gallant gray, he gave himself up to pensive and regretful feelings on the subject of its being denied him to revisit the home of his childhood.

"And thou, my fair-haired brother," said he, "who art now, perchance, tossing the ball in the castle court, or chasing the butterfly from flower to flower over the garden lawns and gay parterres, in the thoughtless glee of thine happy age, thou thinkest not, I ween, that the fond brother in whose bosom thou wert wont so oft to nestle when tired with playful gambols, is so near, if indeed thou dost still remember him."

While the young king was still indulging in these thoughts, a strange sharp cry near him caused him to look round, when, to his surprise, a grotesque little creature, that appeared neither like a child nor an animal, but something between both, sprang out of a thicket near him, and coiling itself up in the form of a ball, rolled down the hill before him. Edward's curiosity was excited, and he spurred his horse forward to overtake it, but when the creature perceived his intention, he bounded up, and erecting himself to his full height, which did not appear to be above two feet, he whirled his long lean arms aloft, and clapping his hands above his head, uttered a cry so long and shrill that it pierced the king's ears with a painful sensation, and was answered back by a thousand echoes from grot and hill, in the deep solitude of Wareham forest. The tales of malign faries and woodland imps was then in common belief, and the young king thought it possible that this singular creature, whom he had thus unexpectedly encountered, might be one of these mysterious beings of whom he had heard so much. But then he had also a shadowy remembrance of having seen in his early childhood a sprightly animal that bore a grotesque resemblance, both in form and face, to a diminutive man, which played a thousand antic tricks, and was greatly caressed by the queen and her ladies; but it had either been stolen or made its escape from the palace of Corfe in the neighbouring woods; and though a period of nine or ten years had elapsed since this event, King Edward was simple enough to believe that this was the veritable creature whose loss had been so deeply lamented by all the pages and females of the royal household, and he determined to overtake it, if possible, whether it were monkey, fairy, or imp.

But the object of his pursuit, however diminutive in person, was more than a match in swiftness of foot for the fleet hunter on which the king was mounted, and, like the goblin page in Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel, where Edward "rode one mile he ran four, yet with provoking subtlety he continued always to keep in sight, as if he enjoyed the race and wished to continue it. Sometimes, when he had climbed a hill, whose steep rugged ascent was scaled with difficulty by the royal steed, he paused on the brow, laughing with malicious glee, and swinging himself from bough to bough among the embowering trees, till the king was nearly upon him, then darting forward with the speed of an arrow, he resumed his flight, and in a few minutes distanced his pursuer. Sometimes, when Edward thought he had entirely lost all trace of the tantalizing elf, and was meditating how he should recover the track from which he had so widely deviated, he heard the same sharp shrill cry that had first announced his appearance close to his ear, and perceived a round rough head, covered with shaggy brown locks of tangled hair, through which peered a pair of small keen black eyes, peeping amidst the foliage or clustering ivy of some gnarled oak that wreathed its low fantastic arms across the path, from which, as soon as he perceived he was observed, he leaped with a sudden bound, and clapping his hands and shouting at the top of his voice, started away again down some opening glade of the forest, leaving horse and rider far behind. Both were now thoroughly hot and weary ; the young king, who had been on horseback ever since daybreak, and fasting withal, thought of giving up this unprofitable chase as a matter of necessity, on account of the jaded condition of his good steed, and his own fatigue and faintness. But the object of his pursuit appeared in still worse plight, limped as if lame, and sometimes rested on the green turf as if thoroughly exhausted weeping and uttering low moaning plaints, and King Edward thought he was now secure of his prize, especially as they had reached the farthest boundary of the forest, and were on the verge of an open park, towards which the urchin began to creep on all fours, occasionally rolling himself over and over at a great rate.

"This," thought the young king, "is his last effort, and I presently shall overtake him on the plain when once he loses the vantage of the underwood and thickets;" and lest he should alarm him into plunging amidst its tangled mazes once more, he followed him at a cautious distance till he emerged from the forest shades, and proceeded at a gentle pace across the park, the enclosure of which they had entered.

Edward had been led on from glade to glade through the green mead, in his eager pursuit of the wily urchin, without pausing to examine the scenery through which he rode, or he might possibly have recognized many objects familiar to him in days long past; nor was it till he had leaped the enclosure of the park, and looked around, that he discovered he was in the immediate vicinity, almost at the gates of Corfe Castle, which rose before him in all its well remembered regal grandeur, as in the days when his father, King Edgar, kept court there. The intermediate time, the important events that had since befallen the youthful monarch, the solemn warning of his guardian against his venturing near this much loved abode of his childhood, and his own promise not to do so, were alike forgotten by King Edward when he found himself so unexpectedly on the spot to which he had, in fact, been artfully lured by Wulstan, the queen's dwarf, the misshapen little elf, who had led him such a weary chase through the forest, and now, uttering an impish yell, fled down the broad avenue of oaks that led to the castle with the speed of a lapwing, and seizing the bugle that hung at the portal, blew a blast that drew all the inhabitants to the windows and balconies, to learn the meaning of the summons.

The king, perceiving that it would now be impossible for him to withdraw unobserved, considered that it would have a very mean appearance, if, after having been seen on the demesne of Queen Elfrida, he retreated without paying his respects to her; and by no means regretting that the rules of courtesy would afford an excuse to himself for departing from a promise which had been so reluctantly wrung from him, he advanced towards the castle.

The queen, who was perfectly aware of his approach, hastened to the gates to receive him, and offering him the homage of her knee, entreated him "to enter and partake of the banquet which she had prepared in anticipation of this visit, on hearing that he was hunting the deer in the neighbouring forest of Wareham."

Notwithstanding the fascinating sweetness of the queen's address, and the persuasive softness of her voice and language, there was an expression lurking in the sidelong glance of her large blue eye, and sometimes in the deceitful blandishment of her voice and manner, that, in spite of his partial opinion of her character, recalled the archbishop's impressive warning, and gave the king an idea that she meditated some sinister design.

This secret misgiving induced him to decline entering the castle, "on account," he said, "of the lateness of the hour, and the expediency of his returning immediately to Wareham, lest his court should take the alarm at his protracted absence."

"Thou art hot and weary, my royal lord," replied the queen, respectfully kissing the hand of the youthful monarch, "and thou wilt not surely depart till thou hast, at least, tasted a cup of spiced hippocras, if thou will not feast with me to-day."

Edward was not willing to offend the queen by declining this offer, especially as he was fatigued, and stood in need of refreshment, and was, moreover, too much inclined to linger near the much-loved abode of his childhood ; and while Elfrida took the silver goblet from her bower maiden, who stood holding it on a richly chased salver, he eagerly inquired for his young brother.

"Thy servant, Ethelred, is sick within the castle, or he had come with me to the gate to offer homage to his lord," replied the queen. "He hath long pined for thy presence, like a plant that hath been deprived of sunshine."

"Send quickly, my lady mother, and fetch him hither," exclaimed the king: "I also have panted to embrace him."

"Drink haelThe Saxon phrase for drinking health, from which expression that once general custom was derived, which means, "Wish health," or "I wish your health." first, my gracious lord," replied Elfrida, presenting the cup to the king.

He received it with a smile, and bowing courteously to the queen, repeated the accustomed salutation of "Waes hael," and raised it to his lips, but the same moment he felt the stab of an assassin's dagger from behind. He dropped the fatal goblet from his hand, and cast a look of keen but silent reproach on his perfidious step-mother; but ere he could recover his bridle reign, to turn his steed for flight, the deadly thrust was repeated, and his treacherous assailants closed about him to prevent his escape.

Indignation at the deep-laid iniquity of the snare into which he had suffered himself to fall thus easily, rendered the young king insensible for a moment to the smart of his wounds; but fully aware of the desperation of his situation, he struck the rowels into the side of his mettled gray, and the good steed as if equally conscious of his master's peril, with one gallant bound broke through the murderous circle, and dashed across the plain with the speed of an arrow just discharged from the bow, and presently distanced the pursuit of the traitors, who continued to trace the course the wounded king had taken by the red life-drops that tracked his path through the forest.

The last sound that fell on Edward's ear was the piercing cry of a child in mingled grief and terror, it was the voice of his brother Ethelred, who, on beholding the barbarous deed from a window of the castle, filled the air with his shrieks and lamentations. The assurances of his guilty mother, that it was for his sake, and to make him a king, that the crime had been perpetrated, instead of consoling him, increased his distress to such a passionate degree, that the queen, who considered that his tears a reproach to herself, becoming infuriated at what she styled his unseasonable sorrow, threw herself upon him, and beat him in so violent a manner"With a wax altar-taper;" say the Saxon chroniclers that being the first weapon that fell in the way of this furious and unreasonable woman. that it was for some time a matter of doubt to those about her whether she had not slain her own son in the ungovernable transport of her rage,—that son, for whose advancement she had the moment previous caused so deadly a crime to be perpetrated in her very presence.

The unfortunate Edward meantime, though he had succeeded in outstripping the pursuit of his ruthless enemies, was sensible of the approach of a foe whom he could neither resist nor flee from. Life ebbed apace from the unstanched wounds, the landscape reeled in confusion before his swimming eyes, he struggled with the deadly faintness that was stealing over him, and laboured to rally his failing powers; but the hand of death was heavy at his heart; the reigns dropped from his relaxing grasp, and he fell from the saddle to the ground.

It is related that his foot unfortunately catching in the stirrup, the body of the king, whether dead or living is not exactly known, was much mangled, in consequence of being dragged at a rapid rate along the ground by the terrified horse, which at length stopped of his own accord, at the gate of a blind woman's cottage. This lonely woman, notwithstanding the deprivation of sight under which she laboured, ascertained that some fatal accident had befallen the unfortunate youth, and though ignorant of his rank, she humanely carried the bleeding body into her humble dwelling, and laid it on her own bed, while she hastened to procure assistance. The wicked Elfrida, whose emissaries had tracked the horse to this place, sought to conceal her crime by causing the corpse of the murdered king to be thrown down a deep well; but there, in consequence of the evidence of the blind widow, it was presently discovered by his sorrowful friends, and her guilt was proclaimed to the whole world, by the indignant Archbishop Dunstan, at the coronation of her son Ethelred, and he then predicted that a crown so obtained could never prosper with the descendants of this bad woman.

The high rank of the queen protected her from the punishment due to her crime; but she was regarded with hatred and contempt by all mankind; and feeling herself an object of horror to her own son, for whose advancement she had perpetrated this barbarous deed, and above all, tormented by the fearful stings of her own accusing conscience, she retired to the gloomy shades of a convent, where she spent the residue of her days, vainly endeavouring, by constant penances and fasts, to expiate her crime.

Historical Summary

When Edward, the eldest son of Edgar the Peaceable, succeeded to his father's throne, under the guardianship, or regency, of Archbishop Dunstan, his dominions were exceeding prosperous ; besides swaying the sceptre of the united Saxon heptarchy, he was bretwalda, or emperor over the whole island of Great Britian, the kings of Scotland and Wales paying him vassal homage for their several domains; in short, he held the same rule that Edward Plantagenet the First afterwards endeavoured to obtain, and succeeded only in regard to Wales. The united wisdom of Edgar the Peaceable and his prime minister, Dunstan, established the English sceptre in peace and prosperity. During his reign the native Danes were kept in bounds, and the invading ones repelled. This desirable order of things was entirely subverted by the crime of Elfrida, the stepmother of King Edward; for, during the weak reign of her son and pupil, Ethelred, the Danes obtained the mastery of England, and inexpressible miseries ensued to the country, which Had a pause when Edward the Confessor succeeded to the throne, and were afterwards renewed, with tenfold horror, by the invasion of another set of Northmen, under William the Conqueror. The whole of this wretchedness may be traced to the personal wickedness of one woman.

Elfrida was the only child of the Earl of Devonshire, and was considered the greatest beauty and the richest heiress in England. The king, Edgar, who was then a widower, having lost his wife, Elfleda the Fair, the mother of his eldest son, Edward, thought that the heiress of Devonshire was worthy to be his consort; but, as she had been brought up in great retirement, and Edgar required beauty and grace in a queen, as well as riches, he thought that report might have exaggerated these qualities in Elfrida, and sent Ethelwold, his favourite, to visit Elfrida, and give him a true account of her claims to personal beauty. Ethelwold went accordingly, and found the young lady so charming that he fell in love with her, and wooed her for himself instead of his master, to whom he gave a false testimony, declaring that Elfrida had no charms but in her rich inheritance. Edgar immediately relinquished the design of marrying her, and his favourite observed, that although Elfrida was not qualified to be the wife of a great king, she was a wealthy match, and he should, if the king would permit him, marry her himself forthwith. King Edgar consented, and Ethelwold soon after wedded the fair heiress, who, being unconscious of the greater honour intended her, thought she had made a good match. In a little time the fair wife of Ethelwold began to be malcontent at finding that her husband kept her mewed up at her own castle, instead of bringing her to the capital, to share in the festivities of the most splendid court in Europe. At last a report reached Edgar's ears that he had been deceived, and after vainly questioning his favourite, why he never brought his bride to court, the king announced his intention of paying a visit to Ethelwold and his wife. Terrified at this information, Ethelwold went to his lady and confessed his deception, imploring her to appear as ugly and awkward as she could, and rather strive to disgust the king than otherwise; for if she seemed as lovely as nature had made her, the king would never forgive him the false witness he had borne. Elfrida promised all things, and as her husband thought he had her heart, he was a little calmed. Nevertheless, both the vanity and ambition of Elfrida being mortified, she was enraged at losing a crown, and still more so at having been so misrepresented. She did her utmost to charm King Edgar, who was enfuriated at the falsehood of Ethelwold. The unfortunate husband was soon after found murdered in a wood, when on a hunting party. Whether he was assassinated by the order of the king, or his wife, was never clearly understood ; but soon after Edgar made Elfrida his queen, and she became the mother of his youngest boy, Ethelred, who was seven years old when his father died.

At the death of Edgar the councils of the kingdom were divided into Dunstanites and Anti-Dunstanites. The partisans of Dunstan were the advocates of church government, as dependent on the pope; these supported the claims of Edgar's eldest son, Edward, and the opposite party set up those of Ethelred, the son of Elfrida. Between Dunstan and the queen the most implacable hatred subsisted, which was not abated when that great prelate and minister carried his point, and established his pupil and ward on the throne, which it is to be noticed, although hereditary in one family, was not confined to the eldest son, being rather elective in the royal family. Elfrida retired to the royal domain of Corfe Castle, and privately meditated mischief, which, owing to the vigorous government of Archbishop Dunstan, and his power with the Witenagemot, she was not, for three years able to carry into effect.

It is here desirable to inform the youthful reader the meaning of the word Witenagemot, more than once mentioned in this tale. The Saxon word Witenagemot signifies a "Meeting of the Wise." It was the name of the grand legislative assembly of the Anglo-Saxon empire, bearing some resemblance to the parliaments of the present day. It was originally composed of five estates, or ranks of men. The king was the first estate, and the head of the assembly. Next to him sat the clergy, which were bishops, abbots, and priests and monks, elected for their superior abilities from different dioceses; the clergy being the only learned men in the kingdom, and as knowledge is more powerful than strength, they took precedence of the nobles and warriors, and sat next the king: the clergy ranked as the second estate. The great earls, or heads of counties, then called aldermen, sat with the tributary princes of Scotland and Wales, with whom they ranked equally, and, like them, wore gold collars and caps of maintenance: these were the nobles, and were reckoned the third estate. They filled the station of the present house of lords, only they are mixed with the clergy, as our house of peers has bishops, or spiritual lords, among its members. The fourth estate was composed of thanes, or warriors, but, as well as warriors, they were obliged to be landowners. An East Anglian (or Norfolk and Suffolk thane) was obliged to possess forty hydes of land to enable him to sit in the Witan: but a thane from Wessex, or the south of England, only needed to possess five hydes (a hyde of land is one hundred acres). This fourth estate is similar to our knights of the shire, or members returned for counties. The fifth estate were farmers and tradesmen, called in the Saxon language churls and burgesses, or burghers; they stood at the lower end of the hall, and when a law or doom was passed, seldom said more than yea, yea, or nay, nay; these were elected by their neighbours from every town and village, four good men and the reeve, or manager of the parish money, from each. It is plainly to be seen that the fourth and fifth estate of the Witenagemot, united together, were the origin of our house of commons; but a century after the Norman Conquest, they turned out the farmers and peasants, and only kept the burgesses, or representatives of towns and cities. It is likewise to be noted, that the Witenagemot was held in one great hall, or on a heath or common, while the house of lords and the house of commons, in our days, sit in council in different halls, excepting they meet together when the king convenes or dismisses them.

Tradition says, that the Witan existed before the Saxons or Romans conquered Britain, and was held by our British ancestors at Stonehenge, that surprising circle of masses of stone which is still to be seen in the midst of Salisbury Plain. In the times of our Saxon ancestors, when a law passed in the Witan it was called a doom, instead of our modern phrase of act of parliament, or a statute.

In our days the kingdom of Sweden, which was partly the mother country of the Anglo Saxons, still retains the grand national tribunal of the five estates, and the last (the peasants) are a grave, venerable body, men of few words, but of great respectability, and not without power in the commonwealth.

It was the great council of the Witenagemot that confirmed the title of young Edward, and placed him under the tutelage and guardianship of Archbishop Dunstan, who was a most austere man, deserving the reprobation of posterity as a fanatic and persecutor; but during the short reign of Edward, and the long one of Edgar his father, he was a great statesman, and most able prime minister over a happy people and a flourishing country. Elfrida and her partisans were kept in awe by his vigorous administration; but that which public rebellion dared not attempt, accident and private malice effected. Edward and Ethelred, though their several parties might strive to render them enemies, were united by strong ties of brotherly affection. Edward chose to hunt the deer at Wareham, in the neighbourhood of Corfe Castle, in Dorsetshire, where Elfrida and Ethelred then resided. It is said that with youthful curiosity he was purposely allured to the castle by the tricks of Wulstan, the queen's little cankered dwarf, and he advanced alone to the lofty hall of his mother-in-law. She received him at the doorway, and kissed him. Before the king alighted, a cup was offered, and as he was quaffing the draught, one of Elfrida's attendants (some say herself) stabbed him. The wounded prince had yet strength enough to spur his horse, but fainting on the road, his body was dragged in the stirrup by the affrighted animal, who stopped at the cottage of a blind widow. Life was then extinct in the young king, whose bloody corpse was frightfully mangled by the rough road over which he had been hurried. Elfrida thus gained her wicked ends, for Ethelred, the younger son of Edgar, was then sole heir. So little did the boy exult in his mother's successful crime, that, when told of his brother's dreadful death, he wept most bitterly; this conduct enraged his violent mother to that degree, that she seized a wax taper and so belaboured her child with it that she almost killed him. This vile woman became afterwards abjectedly penitent; she built a convent on the spot where Edward's body was found, and ended her life in childish penances; among others, history records that her terror of the supposed approach of the evil one was so great, that she sought to evade his clutch by covering her body all over with little crosses. She died in extreme horror.

There are two terms that require explanation in this tale, the expressions Drink heal and Weas heal. They were the forerunners of a custom not entirely obselete among us, and simply meant an invitation to drink one's health, and the answer before drinking of "Wish health." A little after this time, when the lawless Danes filled the land with violence and treachery, and actions similar to this murder of Elfrida's became of daily occurrence in the land, the custom of pledging a companion when drinking was usual; and the phrase of "I pledge you," still in use in country places, meant originally, Your honour is pledged not to stab me while the cup is at my lips.

Ethelred, who seems to have had, naturally, kindly feelings, being brought up under the misrule of his violent, capricious mother, proved a weak and bad king, and his misgovernment laid the foundation of nearly three centuries of misery to his country, which might have been averted, if his brother Edward, a prince of great promise, and assisted by able ministers, had not been cut off by the murderous Elfrida.