William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England

BOOK 1 CHAPTER 2: Of the kings of the West Saxons [A.D. 495]

   The kingdom of the West Saxons, - and one more magnificent or lasting Britain never beheld, -- sprang from Cerdic, and soon increased to great importance. He was a German by nation, of the noblest race, being the tenth from Woden, and, having nurtured his ambition in domestic broils, determined to leave his native land and extend his fame by the sword. Having formed this daring resolution he communicated his design to Cenric his son, who closely followed his father's track to glory, and with his concurrence transported his forces into Britain in five ceols. This took place in the year of our Savior's incarnation 495, and the eighth after the death of Hengist. Coming into action with the Britons the very day of his arrival, this experienced soldier soon defeated an undisciplined multitude, and compelled them to fly. By this success he obtained perfect security in future for himself, as well as peace for the inhabitants of those parts. For they never dared after that day to attack him, but voluntarily submitted to his dominion. Nevertheless he did not waste his time in indolence; but on the contrary, extending his conquests on all sides, by the time he had been twenty-four years in the island, he had obtained the supremacy of the western part of it, called West Saxony. He died after enjoying it sixteen years, and his whole kingdom, with the exception of the Isle of Wight, descended to his son. This, by the royal munificence, became subject to his nephew, Withgar; who was as dear to his uncle by the ties of kindred, for he was his sister's son, as by his skill in war, and formed a noble principality in the island, where he was afterwards splendidly interred. Cenric moreover, who was as illustrious as his father, after twenty-six years, bequeathed the kingdom, somewhat enlarged, to his son Ceawlin.
   The Chronicles extol the singular valor of this man in battle, so as to excite a degree of envious admiration; for he was the astonishment of the Angles, the detestation of the Britons, and was eventually the destruction of both. I shall briefly subjoin some extracts from them. Attacking Ethelbert king of Kent, who was a man in other respects laudable, but at that time was endeavoring from the consciousness of his family's dignity to gain the ascendency, and, on this account, making too eager incursions on the territories of his neighbor, he routed his troops and forced him to retreat. The Britons, who, in the times of his father and grandfather, had escaped destruction either by a show of submission, or by the strength of their fortifications at Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath, he now pursued with ceaseless rancor; ejected them from their cities, and chased them into mountainous and woody districts, as at the present day. But about this time, as some unlucky throw of the dice in the table of human life perpetually disappoints mankind, his military successes were clouded by domestic calamity: his brother Cutha met an untimely death, and he had a son of the same name taken off in battle; both young men of great expectation, whose loss he frequently lamented as a sever blow to his happiness. Finally, in his latter days, himself banished form his kingdom, presented a spectacle, pitiable even to his enemies. For he had sounded, as it were, the trumpet of his own detestation on all sides, and the Angles as well as the Britons conspiring against him, his forces were destroyed at Wodensdike;(5) he lost his kingdom thirty-one years after he had gained it; went into exile, and shortly after died. The floating reins of government were then directed by his nephewas, the sons of Cutha, that is to say, Celric during six, Ceowulf during fourteen years: of these the inferior with respect to age, but the more excellent in spirit, passed all his days in war, nor ever neglected for a moment the protection and extension of his empire.
   After him, the sons of Celric, Cynegils and Cuichelm, jointly put on the ensigns of royalty; both active, both contending with each other only in mutual offices of kindness; insomuch, that to their contemporaries they were a miracle of concord very unusual amongst princes, and to posterity a proper example. It is difficult to say whether their courage or their moderation exceeded in the numberless contest in which they engaged either against the Britons, or against Penda, king of the Mercians: a man, as will be related in its place, wonderfully expert in the subtleties of war; and who, overpassing the limits of his own territory, in an attempt to add Cirencester to his possessions, being unable to withstand the power of these united kings, escaped with only a few followers. A considerable degree of guilt indeed attaches to Cuichelm, for attempting to take off, by the hands of an assassin, Edwin king of the Northumbrians, a man of acknowledged prudence. Yet, if the heathen maxim, "Who asks if fraud or force availed the foe?"(6) be considered, he will be readily excused, as having done nothing uncommon, in wishing to get red, by whatever means, of a rival encroaching on his power. For he had formerly lopped off much from the West Saxon empire, and now receiving fresh ground of offense, and his ancient enmity reviving, he inflicted heavy calamities on that people. The kings, however, escaped and were, not long after, enlightened with the heavenly doctirve, by the means of St. Birinus the bishop, in the twenty-fifth year of their reign, and the fortieth after the coming of the blessed Augustine, the apostle of the Angles. Cynegils, veiling his princely pride, condescended to receive immediately the holy rite of baptism: Cuichelm resisted for a time, but warded by the sickness of his boy not to endanger the salvation of his soul, he became a sharer in his brother's piety, and died the same year Cynegils departed six years afterwards, in the thirty-first year of his reign, enjoying the happiness of a long-extended peace.
   Kenwalk his son succeeded: in the beginning of his reign, to be compared only to the worst of princes; but, in the succeeding and latter periods, a rival of the best. The moment the young man became possessed of power, wantoning in regal luxury and disregarding the acts of his father, he abjured Christianity and legitimate marriage; but being attacked and defeated by Penda, king of Mercia, whose sister he had repudiated, he fled to the king of the East Angles. Here, by a sense of his own calamities and by the perseverance of his host, he was once more brought back to the Christian faith; and after three years, recovering his strength and resuming his kingdom, he exhibited to his subjects the joyful miracle of his reformation. So valiant was he, that he who formerly was unable to defend his own territories, now extended his dominion on every side; totally defeating in two actions the Britons, furious with the recollection of their ancient liberty, and in consequence perpetually meditating resistance; first, at a place called Witgeornesburg,(7) and then at a mountain named Pene;(8) and again, avenging the injury of his father on Wulfhere, the son of Penda, he deprived him of the greatest part of his kingdom: moreover he was so religious, that first of all his race, he built, for those times, a most beautiful church at Winchester, on which site afterwards was founded the episcopal see with still more skillful magnificence.
   But since we have arrived at the times of Kenwalk, and the proper place occurs for mentioning the monastery of Glastonbury, I shall trace from its very origin the rise and progress of that church as far as I am able to discover it from the mass of evidences. It is related in annals of good credit that Lucius, king of the Britons, sent to Pope Eleutherius, thirteenth in succession from St. Peter, to entreat, that he would dispel the darkness of Britain by the splendor of Christian instruction. This surely was the commendable deed of a magnanimous prince, eagerly to seek that faith, the mention of which had barely reached him, at a time when it was an object of persecution to almost every king and people to whim it was offered. In consequence, preachers, sent by Eleutherius, came into Britain, the effects of whose labors will remain forever, although the rust of antiquity may have obliterated their names. By these was built the ancient church of St. Mary of Glastonbury, as faithful tradition has handed down through decaying time. Morever there are documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places to the following effect: "No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ erected the church of Glastonbury." Nor is it dissonant from probability: for if Philip the Apostle preached to the Gauls, as Freculphus relates in the fourth chapter of his second book, it may be believed that he also planted the word on this side of the channel also. But that I may not seem to balk the expectation of my readers by vain imaginations, leaving all doubtful matter, I shall proceed to the relation of substantial truths.
   The church of which we are speaking, from its antiquity called by the Angles, by way of distinction, "Ealde Chirche," that is, the "Old Church," of wattle-work, at first, savored somewhat of heavenly sanctity even from its very foundation, and exhaled it over the whole country; claiming superior reverence, though the structure was mean. Hence, here arrived whole tribes of lower orders, thronging every path; here assembled the opulent divested of their pomp; and it became the crowded residence of the religious and the literary. For, as we have heard from men of old time, here Gildas, an historian neither unlearned nor inelegant, to obtain among other nations, captivated by the sanctity of the place, took up his abode for a series of years.(9) This church, then, is certainly the oldest I am acquainted with in England, and from this circumstance derives its name. In it are preserved the mortal remains of many saints, some of whome we shall notice in our progress, nor is any corner of the church destitute of the ashes of the holy. The very floor, inlaid with polished stone, and the sides of the altar, and even the altar itself above and beneath are laden with the multitude of relics. Moreover in the pavement may be remarked on every side stones designedly interlaid in triangles and squares, and figured with lead, under which if I believe some sacred enigma to be contained, I do no injustice to religion. The antiquity, and multitude of its saints, have endued the place with so much sanctity that at night scarcely anyone presumes to keep vigil there, or during the day to spit upon its floor: he who is conscious of pollution shudders throughout the whole frame: no one ever brought hawk or horses within the confines of the neighboring cemetery, who did not depart injured either in them or in himself. Within the memory of man, all persons who, before undergoing the ordeal of fire or water, there put up their petitions, exulted in their escape, one only excepted: if any person erected a building in its vicinity, which by its shade obstructed the light of the church, it forthwith became a ruin. And it is sufficiently evident that the men of that province had no oath more frequent, or more sacred, than to swear by the Old Church, fearing the swiftest vengeance on their perjury in this respect. The truth of what I have asserted, if it be dubious, will be supported by testimony in the book which I have written, on the antiquity of the said church, according to the series of years.
   In the meantime it is clear that the depository of so many saints may be deservedly styled a heavenly sanctuary upon earth. There are numbers of documents, though I abstain from mentioning them for fear of causing weariness, to prove how extremely venerable this place was held by the chief persons of the country, who there more especially chose to await the day of resurrection under the protection of the mother of God. Willingly would I declare the meaning of those pyramids, which are almost incomprehensible to all, could I but ascertain the truth. These, situated some feet from the church, border on the cemetery of the monks. That which is the loftiest and nearest the church is twenty-eight feet high and has five stories: this, though threatening ruin from its extreme age, possesses nevertheless some traces of antiquity, which may be clearly read though not perfectly understood. In the highest story is an image in a pontifical habit. In the next a statue of regal dignity, and the letters, Her Sexi, and Blisperh. In the third, too, are the names Pencrest, Bantomp, Pineegn. In the fourth, Bate, Pulfred, and Eanfled. In the fifth, which is the lowest, there is an image, and the words as follow, Logor, Peslicas, and Bregden, Spelpes, Highingendes Bearn. The other pyramid is twenty-six feet high and has four stories, in which are read, Kentwin, Hedda the bishop, and Bregored and Beorward. The meaning of these I do not hastily decide, but I shrewdly conjecture that within, in stone coffins, are contained the bones of those persons whose names are inscribed without. At least Logor is said to imply the person from whome Logperesbeorh formerly took its name, which is now called Montacute; Bregden, from whim is derived Brentknolle and Brentmarsh; Bregored and Beorward were abbats of that place in the time of the Briton; of whom, and of others which occur, I shall henceforward speak more circumstantially. For my history will now proceed to disclose the succession of the abbats, and what was bestowed on each. Or on the monastery, and by what particular king.
   And first, I shall briefly mention St. Patrick, from whome the series of our records dawns. While the Saxons were disturbing the peace of the Britons, and the Pelagians assaulting their faith, St. Germanus of Auxerre assisted them against both; routing the one by a chorus of Hallelujah,(10) and hurling down the other by the thunder of the Evangelists and Apostles. Thence returning to his own country, he summoned Patrick to become his inmate, and after a few years, sent him, at the instance of Pope Celestine, to preach to the Irish. Whence it is written in the Chronicles, "In the year of our Lord's incarnation 425, St. Patrick is ordained to Ireland by Pope Celestine." Also, "In the year 433 Ireland is converted to the faith of Christ by the preaching of St. Patrick, accompanied by many miracles." In consequence executing his appointed office with diligence, and in his latter days returning to his own country, he landed in Cornwall, from his altar,(11) which even to this time is held in high veneration by the inhabitants for its sanctity and efficacy in restoring the inform. Proceeding to Glastonbury, and there becoming monk and abbat, after some years he paid the debt of nature. All doubt of the truth of this assertion is removed by the vision of a certain brother who, after the saint's death, when it had frequently become a question, through decay of evidence, whether he really was monk and abbat there, had the fact confirmed by the following oracle. When asleep he seemed to hear some person reading, after many of his miracles, the words which follow - "this man then was adorned by the sanctity of the metropolitan pall, but afterwards was here made monk and abbat." He added, moreover, as the brother did not give implicit credit to him, that he could show what he had said inscribed in golden letters. Patrick died in the year of his age 111, of our Lord's incarnation 472, being the forty-seventh year after he was sent into Ireland. He lies on the right side of the altar in the old church: indeed the care of posterity has enshrined his body in silver. Hence the Irish have an ancient usage of frequenting the place to kiss the relics of their patron. Wherefore the report is extremely prevalent that both St. Indract and St. Briget, no mean inhabitants of Ireland, formerly came over to this spot. Whether Briget returned home or died at Glastonbury is not sufficiently ascertained, though she left here some of her ornaments; that is to say, her necklace, scrip and implements for embroidering, which are yet shown in memory of her sanctity, and are efficacious in curing divers diseases. In the course of my narrative it will appear that St. Indract, with seven companions, was martyred near Glastonbury, and afterwards interred in the old church.
   Benignus succeeded Patrick in the government of the abbey; but for how long remains in doubt. Who he was, and how called in the vernacular tongue, the verses of his epitaph at Ferramere express, not inaptly:

Beneath this marble Beon's ashes lie,
Once rev'rend abbat of this monastery:
Saint Patrick's servant, as the Irish frame
The legend-tale, and Beon was his name.

   The wonderful works both of his former life, and since his recent translation into the greater church, proclaim the singular grace of God which he anciently possessed, and which he still retains.
   The esteem in which David, archbishop of Menevia, held this place is too notorious to require repeating. He established the antiquity and sanctity of the church by a divine oracle; for purposing to dedicate it, he came to the spot with his seven suffragan bishops, and every thing being prepared for the due celebration of the solemnity, on the night, as he purposed, preceding it, he gave way to profound repose. When all his senses were steeped in rest, he beheld the Lord Jesus standing near, and mildly inquiring the cause of his arrival; and on his immediately disclosing it, the Lord diverted him from his purpose by saying, "That the church had been already dedicated by himself in honor of his Mother, and that the ceremony was not to be profaned by human repetition." With these words he seemed to bore the palm of his hand with his finger, adding, "That this was a sign for him not to reiterate what himself had done before. But that, since his design savored more of piety than of temerity, his punishment should not be prolonged: and lastly, that on the following morning, when he should repeat the words of the mass, 'With him, and by him, and in him,' his health should return to him undiminished." The prelate, awakened by these terrific appearances, as at the moment he grew pale at the purulent matter, so afterwards he hailed the truth of the prediction. But that he might not appear to have done nothing, he quickly built and dedicated another church. Of this celebrated and incomparable man, I am at a loss to decide whether he closed his life in this place, or at his own cathedral. For they affirm that he is with St. Patrick; and the Welsh, both by the frequency of their prayers to him and by various reports, without doubt confirm and establish this opinion; openly alleging that bishop Bernard sought after him more than once, notwithstanding much opposition, but was not able to find him. But let thus much suffice of St. David.
   After a long lapse of time, St. Augustine, at the instance of St. Gregory, came into Britain in the year of our Lord's incarnation 596, and the tradition of our ancestors has handed down that the companion of his labors, Paulinus, who was bishop of Rochester after being archbishop of York, covered the church, built, as we have before observed, of wattle-work, with a casing of boards. The dexterity of this celebrated man so artfully managed, that nothing of its sanctity should be lost, though much should accrue to is beauty: and certainly the more magnificent the ornaments of churches are, the more they incline the brute mind to prayer, and bend the stubborn to supplication.
   In the year of our Lord's incarnation 601, that is, the fifth after the arrival of St. Augustine, the king of Devonshire, on the petition of abbat Worgrez, granted to the old church which is there situated in the land called Ineswitrin, containing five cassates(12). "I, Maworn, bishop, wrote this grant. I, Worgrez, abbat of the same place, signed it."
   Who this king might be, the antiquity of the instrument prevents our knowing. But that he was a Briton cannot be doubted, because he called Glastonbury Ineswitrin, in his vernacular tongue; and that, in the British, it is so called, is well known. Moreover it is proper to remark the extreme antiquity of a church, which, even then, was called "the old church." In addition to Worgrez, Lademund and Bregored, whose very named imply British barbarism, were abbats of this place. The periods of their presiding are uncertain, but their names and dignities are indicated by a painting in the larger church, near the altar. Blessed, therefore, are the inhabitants of this place, allured to uprightness of life, by reverence for such a sanctuary. I cannot suppose that any of these, when dead, can fail of heaven, when assisted by the virtues and intercession of so many patrons. In the year of our Lord's incarnation 670, and the 29th of his reign, Kenwalk gave to Berthwald, abbat of Glastonbury, Ferramere, two hides, at the request of archbishop Theodore. The same Berthwald, against the will of the king and of the bishop of the diocese, relinquishing Glastonbury, went to govern the monastery of Reculver. In consequence, Berthwald equally renowned for piety and high birth, being nephew to Ethelred, king of the Mercians, and residing in the vicinity of Canterbury, on the demise of archbishop Theodore, succeeded to his see. This may be sufficient for me to have inserted on the antiquity of the church of Glastonbury Now I shall return in course to Kenwalk, who was of a character so munificent that he never refused to give any part of his patrimony to his relations; but with noble-minded generosity conferred nearly the third of his kingdom on his nephew [Cuthred]. These qualities of the royal mind, were stimulated by the admonitions of those holy bishops of his province, Agilbert, of whome Bede relates many commendable things in his history of the Angles, and his nephew Leutherius, who, after him was for seven years bishop of the West Saxons. This circumstance I have thought proper to mention, because Bede has left no account of the duration of his episcopacy, and to disguise a fact which I learn from the Chronicles, would be against my conscience; besides, it affords an opportunity for making mention of a distinguished man, who by a mind, clear and almost divinely inspired, advanced the monastery of Malmesbury, where I carry on my earthly warfare, to the highest pitch. This monastery was so slenderly endowed by Maildulph, a Scot, as they say, by nation, a philosopher by erudition, and a monk by profession, that its members could scarcely procure their subsistence; but Leutherius, after long and due deliberation, gave it to Aldhelm, a monk of the same place, to be by him governed with the authority then possessed by bishops. Of which matter, that my relation may obviate every doubt, I shall subjoin his own words.
   "I, Leutherius, by divine permission bishop supreme of the Saxon see, am requested by the abbats who, within the jurisdiction of our diocese, preside over the conventual assemblies of monks with pastoral anxiety, to give and to grant that portion of land called Maildulfesburgh, to Aldhelm the priest, for the purpose of leading a life according to strict rule; in which place, indeed, from his earliest infancy and first initiation in the study of learning, he has been instructed in the liberal arts, and passed his days nurtured in the bosom of the holy moth church; and on which account fraternal love appears principally to have conceived this request. Wherefore assenting to the petition of the aforesaid abbats, I willingly grant that place to him and his successors, who shall sedulously follow the lawas of the holy institution. Done publicly near the river Bladon;(13) this eighth before the kalends of September, in the year of our Lord's incarnation 672."
   But when the industry of the abbat was superadded to the kindness of the bishop, then the affairs of the monastery began to flourish exceedingly; then monks assembled on all sides; there was a general concourse to Aldhelm; some admiring the sanctity of his life, others the depth of his learning. For he was a man as unsophisticated in religion as multifarious in knowledge; whose piety surpassed even his reputation; and he had so fully imbibed the liberal arts, that he was wonderful in each of them and unrivaled in all. I greatly err, if his works written on the subject of virginity, than which, in my opinion, nothing can be more pleasing or more splendid, are not proofs of his immortal genius: although, such is the slothfulness of our times, they may excite disgust in some persons, not duly considered how modes of expression differ according to the customs of nations. The Greeks, for instance, express themselves impliedly, the Romans clearly, the Gauls gorgeously, the Angles turgidly. And truly, as it is pleasant to dwell on the graces of our ancestors and to animate our minds by their example, I would here, most willingly, unfold what painful labors this holy man encountered for the privileges of our church, and with what miracles he signalized his life, did not my avocations lead me elsewhere; and his noble acts appear clearer even to the eye of the purblind, than they can possible be sketched by my pencil The innumerable miracles which now take place at his tomb, manifest to the present race the sanctity of the life he passed. He has therefore his proper praise; he has the fame acquired by his merits. We proceed with the history.

. . . .

Notes:
5. Identified as Wansdike, in Wiltshire.
6. Virgil, Aenid, ii. 390.
7. Bradford on Avon. See The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 652.
8. Pen, in Somersetshire.
9. There is a Life of Gildas, written not long after this history, by Caradoc of Lancarvon, in which we are told that while he was residing at Glastonbury, a prince of that country carried off Arthur's queen and lodged her there; that Arthur immediately besieged it, but through the mediation of the abbat and of Gildas, consented, at length, ro receive his wife again and to depart peaceably.
10. St. Germanus drew up a body of his new converts in a valley surrounded on every side by mountains, and on the approach of their enemies, ordered that on a given signal, all should shout "Hallelujah." The sudden sound, being reverberated by the surrounding mountains, struck their foes with such a panic, that they instantly fled. See Bede, Ecclesiastical History, b.i.c. 20.
11. Patrick is said to have floated over from Ireland on an altar.
12. This is interpreted as an amount of land, as much as one plough could till, a measure also known as a hide.
13. The location of this river is uncertain. Malmesbury is also said to have been originally called Bladon.