“It was now my fortune to be born of a German princess; but a man-midwife, pulling my head off in delivering my mother, put a speedy end to my princely life.
“Spirits who end their lives before they are at the age of five years are immediately ordered into other bodies; and it was now my fortune to perform several infancies before I could again entitle myself to an examination of Minos.
“At length I was destined once more to play a considerable part on the stage. I was born in England, in the reign of Ethelred II. My father’s name was Ulnoth: he was earl or thane of Sussex. I was afterwards known by the name of earl Goodwin, and began to make a considerable figure in the world in the time of Harold Harefoot, whom I procured to be made king of Wessex, or the West Saxons, in prejudice of Hardicanute, whose mother Emma endeavored afterwards to set another of her sons on the throne; but I circumvented her, and, communicating her design to the king, at the same time acquainted him with a project which I had formed for the murder of these two young princes. Emma had sent for these her sons from Normandy, with the king’s leave, whom she had deceived by her religious behavior, and pretended neglect of all worldly affairs; but I prevailed with Harold to invite these princes to his court, and put them to death. The prudent mother sent only Alfred, retaining Edward to herself, as she suspected my ill designs, and thought I should not venture to execute them on one of her sons, while she secured the other; but she was deceived, for I had no sooner Alfred in my possession than I caused him to be conducted to Ely, where I ordered his eyes to be put out, and afterwards to be confined in a monastery.
“This was one of those cruel expedients which great men satisfy themselves well in executing, by concluding them to be necessary to the service of their prince, who is the support of their ambition.
“Edward, the other son of Emma, escaped again to Normandy; whence, after the death of Harold and Hardicanute, he made no scruple of applying to my protection and favor, though he had before prosecuted me with all the vengeance he was able, for the murder of his brother; but in all great affairs private relation must yield to public interest. Having therefore concluded very advantageous terms for myself with him, I made no scruple of patronizing his cause, and soon placed him on the throne. Nor did I conceive the least apprehension from his resentment, as I knew my power was too great for him to encounter.
“Among other stipulated conditions, one was to marry my daughter Editha. This Edward consented to with great reluctance, and I had afterwards no reason to be pleased with it; for it raised her, who had been my favorite child, to such an opinion of greatness, that, instead of paying me the usual respect, she frequently threw in my teeth (as often at least as I gave her any admonition), that she was now a queen, and that the character and title of father merged in that of subject. This behavior, however, did not cure me of my affection towards her, nor lessen the uneasiness which I afterwards bore on Edward’s dismissing her from his bed.
“One thing which principally induced me to labor the promotion of Edward was the simplicity or weakness of that prince, under whom I promised myself absolute dominion under another name. Nor did this opinion deceive me; for, during his whole reign, my administration was in the highest degree despotic: I had everything of royalty but the outward ensigns; no man ever applying for a place, or any kind of preferment, but to me only. A circumstance which, as it greatly enriched my coffers, so it no less pampered my ambition, and satisfied my vanity with a numerous attendance; and I had the pleasure of seeing those who only bowed to the king prostrating themselves before me.
“Edward the Confessor, or St. Edward, as some have called him, in derision I suppose, being a very silly fellow, had all the faults incident, and almost inseparable, to fools. He married my daughter Editha from his fear of disobliging me; and afterwards, out of hatred to me, refused even to consummate his marriage, though she was one of the most beautiful women of her age. He was likewise guilty of the basest ingratitude to his mother (a vice to which fools are chiefly, if not only, liable); and, in return for her endeavors to procure him a throne in his youth, confined her in a loathsome prison in her old age. This, it is true, he did by my advice; but as to her walking over nine plowshares red-hot, and giving nine manors, when she had not one in her possession, there is not a syllable of veracity in it.
“The first great perplexity I fell into was on the account of my son Swane, who had deflowered the abbess of Leon, since called Leominster, in Herefordshire. After this fact he retired into Denmark, whence he sent to me to obtain his pardon. The king at first refused it, being moved thereto, as I afterwards found, by some churchmen, particularly by one of his chaplains, whom I had prevented from obtaining a bishopric. Upon this my son Swane invaded the coasts with several ships, and committed many outrageous cruelties; which, indeed, did his business, as they served me to apply to the fear of this king, which I had long since discovered to be his predominant passion. And, at last, he who had refused pardon to his first offense submitted to give it him after he had committed many other more monstrous crimes; by which his pardon lost all grace to the offended, and received double censure from all others.
“The king was greatly inclined to the Normans, had created a Norman archbishop of Canterbury, and had heaped extraordinary favors on him. I had no other objection to this man than that he rose without my assistance; a cause of dislike which, in the reign of great and powerful favorites, hath often proved fatal to the persons who have given it, as the persons thus raised inspire us constantly with jealousies and apprehensions. For when we promote any one ourselves, we take effectual care to preserve such an ascendant over him, that we can at any time reduce him to his former degree, should he dare to act in opposition to our wills; for which reason we never suffer any to come near the prince but such as we are assured it is impossible should be capable of engaging or improving his affection; no prime minister, as I apprehend, esteeming himself to be safe while any other shares the ear of his prince, of whom we are as jealous as the fondest husband can be of his wife. Whoever, therefore, can approach him by any other channel than that of ourselves, is, in our opinion, a declared enemy, and one whom the first principles of policy oblige us to demolish with the utmost expedition. For the affection of kings is as precarious as that of women, and the only way to secure either to ourselves is to keep all others from them.
“But the archbishop did not let matters rest on suspicion. He soon gave open proofs of his interest with the Confessor in procuring an office of some importance for one Rollo, a Roman of mean extraction and very despicable parts. When I represented to the king the indecency of conferring such an honor on such a fellow, he answered me that he was the archbishop’s relation. ‘Then, sir,’ replied I, ‘he is related to your enemy.’ Nothing more passed at that time; but I soon perceived, by the archbishop’s behavior, that the king had acquainted him with our private discourse; a sufficient assurance of his confidence in him and neglect of me.
“The favor of princes, when once lost, is recoverable only by the gaining a situation which may make you terrible to them. As I had no doubt of having lost all credit with this king, which indeed had been originally founded and constantly supported by his fear, so I took the method of terror to regain it.
“The earl of Boulogne coming over to visit the king gave me an opportunity of breaking out into open opposition; for, as the earl was on his return to France, one of his servants, who was sent before to procure lodgings at Dover, and insisted on having them in the house of a private man in spite of the owner’s teeth, was, in a fray which ensued, killed on the spot; and the earl himself, arriving there soon after, very narrowly escaped with his life. The earl, enraged at this affront, returned to the king at Gloucester with loud complaints and demands of satisfaction. Edward consented to his demands, and ordered me to chastise the rioters, who were under my government as earl of Kent: but, instead of obeying these orders, I answered, with some warmth, that the English were not used to punish people unheard, nor ought their rights and privileges to be violated; that the accused should be first summoned — if guilty, should make satisfaction both with body and estate, but, if innocent, should be discharged. Adding, with great ferocity, that as earl of Kent it was my duty to protect those under my government against the insults of foreigners.
“This accident was extremely lucky, as it gave my quarrel with the king a popular color, and so ingratiated me with the people, that when I set up my standard, which I soon after did, they readily and cheerfully listed under my banners and embraced my cause, which I persuaded them was their own; for that it was to protect them against foreigners that I had drawn my sword. The word foreigners with an Englishman hath a kind of magical effect, they having the utmost hatred and aversion to them, arising from the cruelties they suffered from the Danes and some other foreign nations. No wonder therefore they espoused my cause in a quarrel which had such a beginning.
“But what may be somewhat more remarkable is, that when I afterwards returned to England from banishment, and was at the head of an army of the Flemish, who were preparing to plunder the city of London, I still persisted that I was come to defend the English from the danger of foreigners, and gained their credit. Indeed, there is no lie so gross but it may be imposed on the people by those whom they esteem their patrons and defenders.
“The king saved his city by being reconciled to me, and taking again my daughter, whom he had put away from him; and thus, having frightened the king into what concessions I thought proper, I dismissed my army and fleet, with which I intended, could I not have succeeded otherwise, to have sacked the city of London and ravaged the whole country.
“I was no sooner reestablished in the king’s favor, or, what was as well for me, the appearance of it, than I fell violently on the archbishop. He had of himself retired to his monastery in Normandy; but that did not content me: I had him formally banished, the see declared vacant, and then filled up by another.
“I enjoyed my grandeur a very short time after my restoration to it; for the king, hating and fearing me to a very great degree, and finding no means of openly destroying me, at last effected his purpose by poison, and then spread abroad a ridiculous story, of my wishing the next morsel might choke me if I had had any hand in the death of Alfred; and, accordingly, that the next morsel, by a divine judgment, stuck in my throat and performed that office.
“This of a statesman was one of my worst stages in the other world. It is a post subjected daily to the greatest danger and inquietude, and attended with little pleasure and less ease. In a word, it is a pill which, was it not gilded over by ambition, would appear nauseous and detestable in the eye of every one; and perhaps that is one reason why Minos so greatly compassionates the case of those who swallow it: for that just judge told me he always acquitted a prime minister who could produce one single good action in his whole life, let him have committed ever so many crimes. Indeed, I understood him a little too largely, and was stepping towards the gate; but he pulled me by the sleeve, and, telling me no prime minister ever entered there, bid me go back again; saying, he thought I had sufficient reason to rejoice in my escaping the bottomless pit, which half my crimes committed in any other capacity would have entitled me to.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50