Hereward, the Last of the English (Hereward the Wake), by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 27.

How They Held a Great Meeting in the Hall of Ely

There sat round the hall of Ely all the magnates of the East land and East sea. The Abbot on his high seat; and on a seat higher than his, prepared specially, Sweyn Ulfsson, King of Denmark and England. By them sat the Bishops, Egelwin the Englishman and Christiern the Dane; Osbiorn, the young Earls Edwin and Morcar, and Sweyn’s two sons; and, it may be, the sons of Tosti Godwinsson, and Arkill the great Thane, and Hereward himself. Below them were knights, Vikings, captains, great holders from Denmark, and the Prior and inferior officers of Ely minster. And at the bottom of the misty hall, on the other side of the column of blue vapor which went trembling up from the great heap of burning turf amidst, were housecarles, monks, wild men from the Baltic shores, crowded together to hear what was done in that parliament of their betters.

They spoke like free Danes; the betters from the upper end of the hall, but every man as he chose. They were in full Thing; in parliament, as their forefathers had been wont to be for countless ages. Their House of Lords and their House of Commons were not yet defined from each other: but they knew the rules of the house, the courtesies of debate; and, by practice of free speech, had educated themselves to bear and forbear, like gentlemen.

But the speaking was loud and earnest, often angry, that day. “What was to be done?” was the question before the house.

“That depended,” said Sweyn, the wise and prudent king, “on what could be done by the English to cooperate with them.” And what that was has been already told.

“When Tosti Godwinsson, ye Bishops, Earls, Knights, and Holders, came to me five years ago, and bade me come and take the kingdom of England, I answered him, that I had not wit enough to do the deeds which Canute my uncle did; and so sat still in peace. I little thought that I should have lost in five years so much of those small wits which I confessed to, that I should come after all to take England, and find two kings in it already, both more to the English mind than me. While William the Frenchman is king by the sword, and Edgar the Englishman king by proclamation of Danish Earls and Thanes, there seems no room here for Sweyn Ulfsson.”

“We will make room for you! We will make a rid road from here to Winchester!” shouted the holders and knights.

“It is too late. What say you, Hereward Leofricsson, who go for a wise man among men?”

Hereward rose, and spoke gracefully, earnestly, eloquently; but he could not deny Sweyn’s plain words.

“Sir Hereward beats about the bush,” said Earl Osbiorn, rising when Hereward sat down. “None knows better than he that all is over. Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar, who should have helped us along Watling Street, are here fugitives. Earl Gospatrick and Earl Waltheof are William’s men now, soon to raise the landsfolk against us. We had better go home, before we have eaten up the monks of Ely.”

Then Hereward rose again, and without an openly insulting word, poured forth his scorn and rage upon Osbiorn. Why had he not kept to the agreement which he and Countess Gyda had made with him through Tosti’s sons? Why had he wasted time and men from Dover to Norwich, instead of coming straight into the fens, and marching inland to succor Morcar and Edwin? Osbiorn had ruined the plan, and he only, if it was ruined.

“And who was I, to obey Hereward?” asked Osbiorn, fiercely.

“And who wert thou, to disobey me?” asked Sweyn, in a terrible voice. “Hereward is right. We shall see what thou sayest to all this, in full Thing at home in Denmark.”

Then Edwin rose, entreating peace. “They were beaten. The hand of God was against them. Why should they struggle any more? Or, if they struggled on, why should they involve the Danes in their own ruin?”

Then holder after holder rose, and spoke rough Danish common sense. They had come hither to win England. They had found it won already. Let them take what they had got from Peterborough, and go.

Then Winter sprang up. “Take the pay, and sail off with it, without having done the work? That would be a noble tale to carry home to your fair wives in Jutland. I shall not call you niddering, being a man of peace, as all know.” Whereat all laughed; for the doughty little man had not a hand’s breadth on head or arm without its scar. “But if your ladies call you so, you must have a shrewd answer to give, beside knocking them down.”

Sweyn spoke without rising: “The good knight forgets that this expedition has cost Denmark already nigh as much as Harold Hardraade’s cost Norway. It is hard upon the Danes, If they are to go away empty-handed as well as disappointed.”

“The King has right!” cried Hereward. “Let them take the plunder of Peterborough as pay for what they have done, and what beside they would have done if Osbiorn the Earl — Nay, men of England, let us be just! — what they would have done if there had been heart and wit, one mind and one purpose, in England. The Danes have done their best. They have shown themselves what they are, our blood and kin. I know that some talk of treason, of bribes. Let us have no more such vain and foul suspicions. They came as our friends; and as our friends let them go, and leave us to fight out our own quarrel to the last drop of blood.”

“Would God!” said Sweyn, “thou wouldest go too, thou good knight. Here, earls and gentlemen of England! Sweyn Ulfsson offers to every one of you, who will come to Denmark with him, shelter and hospitality till better times shall come.”

Then arose a mixed cry. Some would go, some would not. Some of the Danes took the proposal cordially; some feared bringing among themselves men who would needs want land, of which there was none to give. If the English came, they must go up the Baltic, and conquer fresh lands for themselves from heathen Letts and Finns.

Then Hereward rose again, and spoke so nobly and so well, that all ears were charmed.

They were Englishmen; and they would rather die in their own merry England than conquer new kingdoms in the cold northeast. They were sworn, the leaders of them, to die or conquer, fighting the accursed Frenchman. They were bound to St. Peter, and to St. Guthlac, and to St. Felix of Ramsey, and St. Etheldreda the holy virgin, beneath whose roof they stood, to defend against Frenchmen the saints of England whom they despised and blasphemed, whose servants they cast out, thrust into prison, and murdered, that they might bring in Frenchmen from Normandy, Italians from the Pope of Rome. Sweyn Ulfsson spoke as became him, as a prudent and a generous prince; the man who alone of all kings defied and fought the great Hardraade till neither could fight more; the true nephew of Canute the king of kings: and they thanked him: but they would live and die Englishmen.

And every Englishman shouted, “Hereward has right! We will live and die fighting the French!”

And Sweyn Ulfsson rose again, and said with a great oath, “That if there had been three such men as Hereward in England, all would have gone well.”

Hereward laughed. “Thou art wrong for once, wise king. We have failed, just because there were a dozen men in England as good as me, every man wanting his own way; and too many cooks have spoiled the broth. What we wanted is, not a dozen men like me, but one like thee, to take us all by the back of the neck and shake us soundly, and say, ‘Do that, or die!’”

And so, after much talk, the meeting broke up. And when it broke up, there came to Hereward in the hall a noble-looking man of his own age, and put his hand within his, and said —

“Do you not know me, Hereward Leofricsson?”

“I know thee not, good knight, more pity; but by thy dress and carriage, thou shouldest be a true Viking’s son.”

“I am Sigtryg Ranaldsson, now King of Waterford. And my wife said to me, ‘If there be treachery or faint-heartedness, remember this — that Hereward Leofricsson slew the Ogre, and Hannibal of Gweek likewise, and brought me safe to thee. And, therefore, if thou provest false to him, niddering thou art; and no niddering is spouse of mine.’”

“Thou art Sigtryg Ranaldsson?” cried Hereward, clasping him in his arms, as the scenes of his wild youth rushed across his mind. “Better is old wine than new, and old friends likewise.”

“And I, and my five ships, are thine to death. Let who will go back.”

“They must go,” said Hereward, half-peevishly. “Sweyn has right, and Osbiorn too. The game is played out. Sweep the chessmen off the board, as Earl Ulf did by Canute the king.”

“And lost his life thereby. I shall stand by, and see thee play the last pawn.”

“And lose thy life equally.”

“What matter? I heard thee sing —

‘A bed-death, a priest death,

A straw death, a cow death,

Such death likes not me!’

Nor likes it me either, Hereward Leofricsson.”

So the Danes sailed away: but Sigtryg Ranaldsson and his five ships remained.

Hereward went to the minster tower, and watched the Ouse flashing with countless oars northward toward Southrey Fen. And when they were all out of sight, he went back, and lay down on his bed and wept — once and for all. Then he arose, and went down into the hall to abbots and monks, and earls and knights, and was the boldest, cheeriest, wittiest of them all.

“They say,” quoth he to Torfrida that night, “that some men have gray heads on green shoulders. I have a gray heart in a green body.”

“And my heart is growing very gray, too,” said Torfrida.

“Certainly not thy head.” And he played with her raven locks.

“That may come, too; and too soon.”

For, indeed, they were in very evil case.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44