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

Chapter 35.

How Abbot Thorold was Put to Ransom.

Though Hereward had as yet no feud against “Bysshoppes and Archbysshoppes,” save Egelsin of Selsey, who had excommunicated him, but who was at the other end of England, he had feud, as may be supposed, against Thorold, Abbot of Peterborough, and Thorold feud likewise against him. When Thorold had entered the “Golden Borough,” hoping to fatten himself with all its treasures, he had found it a smoking ruin, and its treasures gone to Ely to pay Sweyn and his Danes. And such a “sacrilege,” especially when he was the loser thereby, was the unpardonable sin itself in the eyes of Thorold, as he hoped it might be in the eyes of St. Peter. Joyfully therefore he joined his friend Ivo Taillebois; when, “with his usual pompous verbosity,” saith Peter of Blois, writing on this very matter, he asked him to join in destroying Hereward.

Nevertheless, with all the Norman chivalry at their back, it behoved them to move with caution; for (so says the chronicler) “Hereward had in these days very many foreigners, as well as landsfolk, who had come to him to practise and learn war, and fled from their masters and friends when they heard of his fame; and some of them the king’s courtiers, who had come to see whether those things which they heard were true, whom Hereward nevertheless received cautiously, on plighted troth and oath.”

So Ivo Taillebois summoned all his men, and all other men’s men who would join him, and rode forth through Spalding and Bourne, having announced to Lucia his bride that he was going to slay her one remaining relative; and when she wept, cursed and kicked her, as he did once a week. After which he came to Thorold of Peterborough.

So on the two worthies rode from Peterborough to Stamford, and from Stamford into the wilderness, no man knows whither.

“And far they rode by bush and shaugh,

And far by moss and mire,”—

but never found a track of Hereward or his men. And Ivo Taillebois left off boasting how he would burn Torfrida over a slow fire, and confined himself to cursing; and Abbot Thorold left off warbling the song of Roland as if he had been going to a second battle of Hastings, and wished himself in warm bed at Peterborough.

But at the last they struck upon a great horse-track, and followed it at their best pace for several miles, and yet no sign of Hereward.

“Catch an Englishman,” quoth the abbot.

But that was not so easy. The poor folk had hidden themselves, like Israel of old, in thickets and dens and caves of rocks, at the far-off sight of the Norman tyrants, and not a living soul had appeared for twenty miles. At last they caught a ragged wretch herding swine, and haled him up to Ivo.

“Have you seen Hereward, villain?” asked he, through an interpreter.

“Nay.”

“You lie. These are his fresh horse-tracks, and you must have seen him pass.”

“Eh?”

“Thrust out one of his eyes, and he will find his tongue.”

It was done.

“Will you answer now?”

The poor wretch only howled.

“Thrust out the other.”

“No, not that! Mercy: I will tell. He is gone by this four hours. How have you not met him?”

“Fool! The hoofs point onward there.”

“Ay,”— and the fellow could hardly hide a grin — “but he had shod all his horses backwards.”

A storm of execration followed. They might be thrown twenty miles out of their right road by the stratagem.

“So you had seen Hereward, and would not tell. Put out his other eye,” said Taillebois, as a vent to his own feelings.

And they turned their horses’ heads, and rode back, leaving the man blind in the forest.

The day was waning now. The fog hung heavy on the treetops, and dripped upon their heads. The horses were getting tired, and slipped and stumbled in the deep clay paths. The footmen were more tired still, and, cold and hungry, straggled more and more. The horse-tracks led over an open lawn of grass and fern, with here and there an ancient thorn, and round it on three sides thick wood of oak and beech, with under copse of holly and hazel. Into that wood the horse-tracks led, by a path on which there was but room for one horse at a time.

“Here they are at last!” cried Ivo. “I see the fresh footmarks of men, as well as horses. Push on, knights and men at-arms.”

The Abbot looked at the dark, dripping wood, and meditated.

“I think that it will be as well for some of us to remain here; and, spreading our men along the woodside, prevent the escape of the villains. A moi, hommes d’armes!

“As you like. I will go in and bolt the rabbit; and you shall snap him up as he comes out.”

And Ivo, who was as brave as a bull-dog, thrust his horse into the path, while the Abbot sat shivering outside. “Certain nobles of higher rank,” says Peter de Blois, “followed his example, not wishing to rust their armor, or tear their fine clothes, in the dank copse.”

The knights and men-at-arms straggled slowly into the forest, some by the path, some elsewhere, grumbling audibly at the black work before them. At last the crashing of the branches died away, and all was still.

Abbot Thorold sat there upon his shivering horse, shivering himself as the cold pierced through his wet mail; and as near an hour past, and no sign of foe or friend appeared, he cursed the hour in which he took off the beautiful garments of the sanctuary to endure those of the battle-field. He thought of a warm chamber, warm bath, warm footcloths, warm pheasant, and warm wine. He kicked his freezing iron feet in the freezing iron stirrup. He tried to blow his nose with his freezing iron hand; but dropt his handkerchief into the mud, and his horse trod on it. He tried to warble the song of Roland; but the words exploded in a cough and a sneeze. And so dragged on the weary hours, says the chronicler, nearly all day, till the ninth hour. But never did they see coming out of the forest the men who had gone in.

A shout from his nephew, Sir Ascelin, made all turn their heads. Behind them, on the open lawn, in the throat between the woods by which they had entered, were some forty knights, galloping toward them.

“Ivo?”

“No!” almost shrieked the Abbot. “There is the white-bear banner. It is Hereward.”

“There is Winter on his left,” cried one. “And there, with the standard, is the accursed monk, Ranald of Ramsey.”

And on they came, having debouched from the wood some two hundred yards off, behind a roll in the lawn, just far enough off to charge as soon as they were in line.

On they came, two deep, with lances high over their shoulders, heads and heels well down, while the green tufts flew behind them, “A moi, hommes d’armes!” shouted the Abbot. But too late. The French turned right and left. To form was impossible, ere the human whirlwind would be upon them.

Another half-minute and with a shout of “A bear! a bear. The Wake! the Wake!” they were struck, ridden through, hurled over, and trampled into the mud.

“I yield. Grace! I yield!” cried Thorold, struggling from under his horse; but there was no one to whom to yield. The knights’ backs were fifty yards off, their right arms high in the air, striking and stabbing.

The battle was “à l’outrance.” There was no quarter given that day.

“And he that came live out thereof

Was he that ran away.”

The Abbot tried to make for the wood, but ere he could gain it, the knights had turned, and one rode straight at him, throwing away a broken lance, and drawing his sword.

Abbot Thorold may not have been the coward which Peter of Blois would have him, over and above being the bully which all men would have him; but if so, even a worm will turn; and so did the Abbot: he drew sword from thigh, got well under his shield, his left foot forward, and struck one blow for his life, and at the right place — his foe’s bare knee.

But he had to do with a warier man than himself. There was a quick jerk of the rein; the horse swerved round, right upon him, and knocked him head over heels; while his blow went into empty air.

“Yield or die!” cried the knight, leaping from his horse, and kneeling on his head.

“I am a man of God, an abbot, churchman, Thorold.”

“Man of all the devils!” and the knight lugged him up, and bound his arms behind him with the abbot’s own belt.

“Ahoi! Here! I have caught a fish. I have got the Golden Borough in my purse!” roared he. “How much has St. Peter gained since we borrowed of him last, Abbot? He will have to pay out the silver pennies bonnily, if he wishes to get back thee.”

“Blaspheme not, godless barbarian!” Whereat the knight kicked him.

“And you have Thorold the scoundrel, Winter?” cried Hereward, galloping up. “And we have three or four more dainty French knights, and a viscount of I know not where among them. This is a good day’s work. Now for Ivo and his tail.”

And the Abbot, with four or five more prisoners, were hoisted on to their own horses, tied firmly, and led away into the forest path.

“Do not leave a wounded man to die,” cried a knight who lay on the lawn.

“Never we. I will come back and put you out of your pain,” quoth some one.

“Siward! Siward Le Blanc! Are you in this meinie?” cried the knight in French.

“That am I. Who calls?”

“For God’s sake save him!” cried Thorold. “He is my own nephew, and I will pay —”

“You will need all your money for yourself,” said Siward the White, riding back.

“Are you Sir Ascelin of Ghent?”

“That am I, your host of old.”

“I wish I had met you in better company. But friends we are, and friends must be.”

And he dismounted, and did his best for the wounded man, promising to return and fetch him off before night, or send yeomen to do so.

As he pushed on through the wood, the Abbot began to see signs of a fight; riderless horses crashing through the copse, wounded men straggling back, to be cut down without mercy by the English. The war had been “à l’outrance” for a long while. None gave or asked quarter. The knights might be kept for ransom: they had money. The wretched men of the lower classes, who had none, were slain: as they would have slain the English.

Soon they heard the noise of battle; and saw horsemen and footmen pell-mell, tangled in an abattis, from behind which archers and cross-bowmen shot them down in safety.

Hereward dashed forward, with the shout of Torfrida; and at that the French, taken in the flank, fled, and were smitten as they fled, hip and thigh.

Hereward bade them spare a fugitive, and bring him to him.

“I give you your life; so run, and carry my message. That is Taillebois’s banner there forward, is it not?”

“Yes.”

“Then go after him, and tell him — Hereward has the Abbot of Burgh, and half a dozen knights, safe by the heels. And unless Ivo clears the wood of his men by nightfall, I will hang every one of them up for the crows before morning.”

Ivo got the message, and having had enough fighting for the day, drew off, says the chronicler, for the sake of the Abbot and his fellow-captives.

Two hours after the Abbot and the other prisoners were sitting, unbound, but unarmed, in the forest encampment, waiting for a right good meal, with Torfrida bustling about them, after binding up the very few wounded among their own men.

Every courtesy was shown them; and their hearts were lifted up, as they beheld approaching among the trees great caldrons of good soup; forest salads; red deer and roe roasted on the wood embers; spits of pheasants and partridges, larks and buntings, thrust off one by one by fair hands into the burdock leaves which served as platters; and last, but not least, jacks of ale and wine, appearing mysteriously from a cool old stone quarry. Abbot Thorold ate to his heart’s content, complimented every one, vowed he would forswear all Norman cooks and take to the greenwood himself, and was as gracious and courtly as if he had been at the new palace at Winchester.

And all the more for this reason — that he had intended to overawe the English barbarians by his polished Norman manners. He found those of Hereward and Torfrida, at least, as polished as his own.

“I am glad you are content, Lord Abbot,” said Torfrida; “I trust you prefer dining with me to burning me, as you meant to do.”

“I burn such peerless beauty! I injure a form made only for the courts of kings! Heaven and all saints, knighthood and all chivalry, forbid. What Taillebois may have said, I know not! I am no more answerable for his intentions than I am for his parentage — or his success this day. Let churls be churls, and wood-cutters wood-cutters. I at least, thanks to my ancestors, am a gentleman.”

“And, as a gentleman, will of course contribute to the pleasure of your hosts. It will surely please you to gratify us with one stave at least of that song, which has made your name famous among all knights,” holding out a harp.

“I blush; but obey. A harp in the greenwood? A court in the wilderness! What joy!”

And the vain Abbot took the harp, and said — “These, if you will allow my modesty to choose, are the staves on which I especially pride myself. The staves which Taillefer — you will pardon my mentioning him —”

“Why pardon? A noble minstrel he was, and a brave warrior, though our foe. And often have I longed to hear him, little thinking that I should hear instead the maker himself.”

So said Hereward; and the Abbot sang — those wondrous staves, where Roland, left alone of all the Paladins, finds death come on him fast. And on the Pyrenaean peak, beneath the pine, he lays himself, his “face toward the ground, and under him his sword and magic horn, that Charles, his lord, may say, and all his folk, The gentle count, he died a conqueror”; and then “turns his eyes southward toward Spain, betakes himself to remember many things; of so many lands which he conquered valiantly; of pleasant France; of the men of his lineage; of Charlemagne, his lord, who brought him up. He could not help to weep and sigh, but yet himself he would not forget. He bewailed his sins, and prayed God’s mercy:— True Father, who ne’er yet didst lie, who raised St. Lazarus from death, and guarded Daniel from the lions, guard my soul from all perils, for the sins which in my life I did! His right glove then he offered to God; St. Gabriel took it from his hand; on his arm the chief bowed down, with joined hands he went unto his end. God sent down his angel cherubim, and St. Michael, whom men call ‘del peril.’ Together with them, St. Gabriel, he came; the soul of the count they bore to Paradise.”

And the Abbot ended, sadly and gently, without that wild “Aoi!” the war-cry with which he usually ends his staves. And the wild men of the woods were softened and saddened by the melody; and as many as understood French, said, when he finished, “Amen! so may all good knights die!”

“Thou art a great maker, Abbot! They told truths of thee. Sing us more of thy great courtesy.”

And he sang them the staves of the Olifant, the magic horn — how Roland would not sound it in his pride, and sounded it at Turpin’s bidding, but too late; and how his temples burst with that great blast, and Charles and all his peers heard it through the gorges, leagues away in France. And then his “Aoi” rang forth so loud and clear, like any trumpet blast, under the oaken glades, that the wild men leaped to their feet, and shouted, “Health to the gleeman! Health to the Abbot Thorold!”

“I have won them,” thought the Abbot to himself. Strange mixture that man must have been, if all which is told of him is true; a very typical Norman, compact of cunning and ferocity, chivalry and poetry, vanity and superstition, and yet able enough to help to conquer England for the Pope.

Then he pressed Hereward to sing, with many compliments; and Hereward sang, and sang again, and all his men crowded round him as the outlaws of Judaea may have crowded round David in Carmel or Hebron, to hear, like children, old ditties which they loved the better the oftener they heard them.

“No wonder that you can keep these knights together, if you can charm them thus with song. Would that I could hear you singing thus in William’s hall.”

“No more of that, Sir Abbot. The only music which I have for William is the music of steel on steel.”

Hereward answered sharply, because he was half of Thorold’s mind.

“Now,” said Torfrida, as it grew late, “we must ask our noble guest for what he can give us as easily and well as he can song — and that is news. We hear naught here in the greenwood, and must throw oneself on the kindness of a chance visitor.”

The Abbot leapt at the bait, and told them news, court gossip, bringing in great folks’ names and his own, as often and as familiarly mingled as he could.

“What of Richilda?” asked Torfrida.

“Ever since young Arnoul was killed at Cassel —”

“Arnoul killed?” shrieked Torfrida.

“Is it possible that you do not know?”

“How should I know, shut up in Ely for — years it seems.”

“But they fought at Cassel three months before you went to Ely.”

“Be it so. Only tell me. Arnoul killed!”

Then the Abbot told, not without feeling, a fearful story.

Robert the Frison and Richilda had come to open war, and Gerbod the Fleming, Earl of Clueter, had gone over from England to help Robert. William had sent Fitz–Osbern, Earl of Hereford, the scourge and tyrant of the Welsh, to help Richilda. Fitz Osbern had married her, there and then. She had asked help of her liege lord, the King of France, and he had sent her troops. Robert and Richilda had fought on St. Peter’s day, 1071 — nearly two years before, at Bavinchorum, by Cassel.

Richilda had played the heroine, and routed Robert’s left wing, taken him prisoner, and sent him off to St. Omer. Men said that she had done it by her enchantments. But her enchantments betrayed her nevertheless. Fitz Osbern, her bridegroom, fell dead. Young Arnoul had two horses killed under him. Then Gerbod smote him to the ground, and Richilda and her troops fled in horror. Richilda was taken, and exchanged for the Frison; at which the King of France, being enraged, had come down and burnt St. Omer. Then Richilda, undaunted, had raised fresh troops to avenge her son. Then Robert had met them at Broqueroie by Mons, and smote them with a dreadful slaughter. 40 Then Richilda had turned and fled wildly into a convent; and, so men said, tortured herself night and day with fearful penances, if by any means she might atone for her great sins.

40 The place was called till late, and may be now, “The Hedges of Death.”

Torfrida heard, and laid her head upon her knees, and wept so bitterly, that the Abbot entreated pardon for having pained her so much.

The news had a deep and lasting effect on her. The thought of Richilda shivering and starving in the squalid darkness of a convent, abode by her thenceforth. Should she ever find herself atoning in like wise for her sorceries — harmless as they had been; for her ambitions — just as they had been; for her crimes? But she had committed none. No, she had sinned in many things: but she was not as Richilda. And yet in the loneliness and sadness of the forest, she could not put Richilda from before the eyes of her mind.

It saddened Hereward likewise. For Richilda he cared little. But that boy. How he had loved him! How he had taught him to ride, and sing, and joust, and handle sword, and all the art of war. How his own rough soul had been the better for that love. How he had looked forward to the day when Arnoul should be a great prince, and requite him with love. Now he was gone. Gone? Who was not gone, or going? He seemed to himself the last tree in the forest. When should his time come, and the lightning strike him down to rot beside the rest? But he tost the sad thoughts aside. He could not afford to nourish them. It was his only chance of life, to be merry and desperate.

“Well!” said Hereward, ere they hapt themselves up for the night. “We owe you thanks, Abbot Thorold, for an evening worthy of a king’s court, rather than a holly-bush.”

“I have won him over,” thought the Abbot.

“So charming a courtier — so sweet a minstrel — so agreeable a newsmonger — could I keep you in a cage forever, and hang you on a bough, I were but too happy: but you are too fine a bird to sing in captivity. So you must go, I fear, and leave us to the nightingales. And I will take for your ransom —”

Abbot Thorold’s heart beat high.

“Thirty thousand silver marks.”

“Thirty thousand fiends!”

“My beau Sire, will you undervalue yourself? Will you degrade yourself? I took Abbot Thorold, from his talk, to be a man who set even a higher value on himself than other men set on him. What higher compliment can I pay to your vast worth, than making your ransom high accordingly, after the spirit of our ancient English laws? Take it as it is meant, beau Sire; be proud to pay the money; and we will throw you Sir Ascelin into the bargain, as he seems a friend of Siward’s.”

Thorold hoped that Hereward was drunk, and might forget, or relent; but he was so sore at heart that he slept not a wink that night. But in the morning he found, to his sorrow, that Hereward had been as sober as himself.

In fine, he had to pay the money; and was a poor man all his days.

“Aha! Sir Ascelin,” said Hereward apart, as he bade them all farewell with many courtesies. “I think I have put a spoke in your wheel about the fair Alftruda.”

“Eh? How? Most courteous victor?”

“Sir Ascelin is not a very wealthy gentleman.”

Ascelin laughed assent.

“Nudus intravi, nudus exeo — England; and I fear now, this mortal life likewise.”

“But he looked to his rich uncle the Abbot, to further a certain marriage-project of his. And, of course, neither my friend Gilbert of Ghent, nor my enemy William of Normandy, are likely to give away so rich an heiress without some gratification in return.”

“Sir Hereward knows the world, it seems.”

“So he has been told before. And, therefore, having no intention that Sir Ascelin, however worthy of any and every fair lady, should marry this one; he took care to cut off the stream at the fountain-head. If he hears that the suit is still pushed, he may cut off another head beside the fountain’s.”

“There will be no need,” said Ascelin, laughing again. “You have very sufficiently ruined my uncle, and my hopes.”

“My head?” said he, as soon as Hereward was out of hearing. “If I do not cut off thy head ere all is over, there is neither luck nor craft left among Normans. I shall catch the Wake sleeping some day, let him be never so wakeful.”

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