William’s bolt, or rather inextinguishable Greek fire, could not have fallen into Ely at a more propitious moment.
Hereward was away, with a large body of men, and many ships, foraging in the northeastern fens. He might not be back for a week.
Abbot Thurstan — for what cause is not said — had lost heart a little while before, and fled to “Angerhale, taking with him the ornaments and treasure of the church.”
Hereward had discovered his flight with deadly fear: but provisions he must have, and forth he must go, leaving Ely in charge of half a dozen independent English gentlemen, each of whom would needs have his own way, just because it was his own.
Only Torfrida he took, and put her hand into the hand of Ranald Sigtrygsson, and said, “Thou true comrade and perfect knight, as I did by thy wife, do thou by mine, if aught befall.”
And Ranald swore first by the white Christ, and then by the head of Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, that he would stand by Torfrida till the last; and then, if need was, slay her.
“You will not need, King Ranald. I can slay myself,” said she, as she took the Ost–Dane’s hard, honest hand.
And Hereward went, seemingly by Mepal or Sutton. Then came the message; and all men in Ely knew it.
Torfrida stormed down to the monks, in honest indignation, to demand that they should send to William, and purge her of the calumny. She found the Chapter-door barred and bolted. They were all gabbling inside, like starlings on a foggy morning, and would not let her in. She hurried back to Ranald, fearing treason, and foreseeing the effect of the message upon the monks.
But what could Ranald do? To find out their counsels was impossible for him, or any man in Ely. For the monks could talk Latin, and the men could not. Torfrida alone knew the sacred tongue.
If Torfrida could but listen at the keyhole. Well — all was fair in war. And to the Chapter-house door she went, guarded by Ranald and some of his housecarles, and listened, with a beating heart. She heard words now incomprehensible. That men who most of them lived no better than their own serfs; who could have no amount of wealth, not even the hope of leaving that wealth to their children — should cling to wealth — struggle, forge, lie, do anything for wealth, to be used almost entirely not for themselves, but for the honor and glory of the convent — indicates an intensity of corporate feeling, unknown in the outer world then, or now.
The monastery would be ruined! Without this manor, without that wood, without that stone quarry, that fishery — what would become of them?
But mingled with those words were other words, unfortunately more intelligible to this day — those of superstition.
What would St. Etheldreda say? How dare they provoke her wrath? Would she submit to lose her lands? She might do — what might she not do? Her bones would refuse ever to work a miracle again. They had been but too slack in miracle-working for many years. She might strike the isle with barrenness, the minster with lightning. She might send a flood up the fens. She might —
William the Norman, to do them justice, those valiant monks feared not; for he was man, and could but kill the body. But St. Etheldreda, a virgin goddess, with all the host of heaven to back her — might she not, by intercession with powers still higher than her own, destroy both body and soul in hell?
“We are betrayed. They are going to send for the Abbot from Angerhale,” said Torfrida at last, reeling from the door, “All is lost.”
“Shall we burst open the door and kill them all?” asked Ranald, simply.
“No, King — no. They are God’s men; and we have blood enough on our souls.”
“We can keep the gates, lest any go out to the King.”
“Impossible. They know the isle better than we, and have a thousand arts.”
So all they could do was to wait in fear and trembling for Hereward’s return, and send Martin Lightfoot off to warn him, wherever he might be.
The monks remained perfectly quiet. The organ droned, the chants wailed, as usual; nothing interrupted the stated order of the services; and in the hall, each day, they met the knights as cheerfully as ever. Greed and superstition had made cowards of them — and now traitors.
It was whispered that Abbot Thurstan had returned to the minster; but no man saw him; and so three or four days went on.
Martin found Hereward after incredible labors, and told him all, clearly and shrewdly. The man’s manifest insanity only seemed to quicken his wit, and increase his powers of bodily endurance.
Hereward was already on his way home; and never did he and his good men row harder than they rowed that day back to Sutton. He landed, and hurried on with half his men, leaving the rest to disembark the booty. He was anxious as to the temper of the monks. He foresaw all that Torfrida had foreseen. And as for Torfrida herself, he was half mad. Ivo Taillebois’s addition to William’s message had had its due effect. He vowed even deadlier hate against the Norman than he had ever felt before. He ascended the heights to Sutton. It was his shortest way to Ely. He could not see Aldreth from thence; but he could see Willingham field, and Belsar’s hills, round the corner of Haddenham Hill.
The sun was setting long before they reached Ely; but just as he sank into the western fen, Winter stopped, pointing. “Was that the flash of arms? There, far away, just below Willingham town. Or was it the setting sun upon the ripple of some long water?”
“There is not wind enough for such a ripple,” said one. But ere they could satisfy themselves, the sun was down, and all the fen was gray.
Hereward was still more uneasy. If that had been the flash of arms, it must have come off a very large body of men, moving in column, and on the old straight road between Cambridge and Ely. He hastened on his men. But ere they were within sight of the minster-tower, they were aware of a horse galloping violently towards them through the dusk. Hereward called a halt. He heard his own heart beat as he stopped. The horse was pulled up short among them, and a lad threw himself off.
“Hereward? Thank God, I am in time!”
The voice was the voice of Torfrida.
“Treason!” she gasped.
“I knew it.”
“The French are in the island. They have got Aldreth. The whole army is marching from Cambridge. The whole fleet is coming up from Southrey. And you have time —”
“To burn Ely over the monks’ heads. Men! Get bogwood out of yon cottage, make yourselves torches, and onward!”
Then rose a babel of questions, which Torfrida answered as she could. But she had nothing to tell. “Clerks’ cunning,” she said bitterly, “was an overmatch for woman’s wit.” She had sent out a spy: but he had not returned till an hour since. Then he came back breathless, with the news that the French army was on the march from Cambridge, and that, as he came over the water at Alrech, he found a party of French knights in the fort on the Ely side, talking peaceably with the monks on guard.
She had run up to the borough hill — which men call Cherry Hill at this day — and one look to the northeast had shown her the river swarming with ships. She had rushed home, put on men’s clothes, hid a few jewels in her bosom, saddled Swallow, and ridden for her life thither.
“And King Ranald?”
He and his men had gone desperately out towards Haddenham, with what English they could muster; but all were in confusion. Some were getting the women and children into boats, to hide them in the reeds. Others battering the minster gates, vowing vengeance on the monks.
“Then Ranald will be cut off! Alas for the day that ever brought his brave heart hither!”
And when the men heard that, a yell of fury and despair burst from all throats.
Should they go back to their boats?
“No! onward,” cried Hereward. “Revenge first, and safety after. Let us leave nothing for the accursed Frenchmen but smoking ruins, and then gather our comrades, and cut our way back to the north.”
“Good counsel,” cried Winter. “We know the roads, and they do not; and in such a dark night as is coming, we can march out of the island without their being able to follow us a mile.”
They hurried on; but stopped once more, at the galloping of another horse.
“Who comes, friend or foe?”
“Alwyn, son of Orgar!” cried a voice under breath. “Don’t make such a noise, men! The French are within half a mile of you.”
“Then one traitor monk shall die ere I retreat,” cried Hereward, seizing him by the throat.
“For Heaven’s sake, hold!” cried Torfrida, seizing his arm. “You know not what he may have to say.”
“I am no traitor, Hereward; I have fought by your side as well as the best; and if any but you had called Alwyn —”
“A curse on your boasting. Tell us the truth.”
“The Abbot has made peace with the King. He would give up the island, and St. Etheldreda should keep all her lands and honors. I said what I could; but who was I to resist the whole chapter? Could I alone brave St. Etheldreda’s wrath?”
“Alwyn, the valiant, afraid of a dead girl!”
“Blaspheme not, Hereward! She may hear you at this moment! Look there!” and pointing up, the monk cowered in terror, as a meteor flashed through the sky.
“That is St. Etheldreda shooting at us, eh? Then all I can say is, she is a very bad marksman. And the French are in the island?”
“Then forward, men, for one half-hour’s pleasure; and then to die like Englishmen.”
“On?” cried Alwyn. “You cannot go on. The King is at Whichford at this moment with all his army, half a mile off! Right across the road to Ely!”
Hereward grew Berserk. “On! men!” shouted he, “we shall kill a few Frenchmen apiece before we die!”
“Hereward,” cried Torfrida, “you shall not go on! If you go, I shall be taken. And if I am taken, I shall be burned. And I cannot burn — I cannot! I shall go mad with terror before I come to the stake. I cannot go stript to my smock before those Frenchmen. I cannot be roasted piecemeal! Hereward, take me away! Take me away! or kill me, now and here!”
He paused. He had never seen Torfrida thus overcome.
“Let us flee! The stars are against us. God is against us! Let us hide — escape abroad: beg our bread, go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem together — for together it must be always: but take me away!”
“We will go back to the boats, men,” said Hereward.
But they did not go. They stood there, irresolute, looking towards Ely.
The sky was pitchy dark. The minster roofs, lying northeast, were utterly invisible against the blackness.
“We may at least save some who escape out,” said Hereward. “March on quickly to the left, under the hill to the plough-field.”
They did so.
“Lie down, men. There are the French, close on our right. Down among the bushes.”
And they heard the heavy tramp of men within a quarter of a mile.
“Cover the mare’s eyes, and hold her mouth, lest she neigh,” said Winter.
Hereward and Torfrida lay side by side upon the heath. She was shivering with cold and horror. He laid his cloak over her; put his arm round her.
“Your stars did not foretell you this, Torfrida.” He spoke not bitterly, but in utter sadness.
She burst into an agony of weeping.
“My stars at least foretold me nothing but woe, since first I saw your face.”
“Why did you marry me, then?” asked he, half angrily.
“Because I loved you. Because I love you still.”
“Then you do not regret?”
“Never, never, never! I am quite happy — quite happy. Why not?”
A low murmur from the men made them look up. They were near enough to the town to hear — only too much. They heard the tramp of men, shouts and yells. Then the shrill cries of women. All dull and muffled the sounds came to them through the still night; and they lay there spell-bound, as in a nightmare, as men assisting at some horrible tragedy, which they had no power to prevent. Then there was a glare, and a wisp of smoke against the black sky, and then a house began burning brightly, and then another.
“This is the Frenchman’s faith!”
And all the while, as the sack raged in the town below, the minster stood above, dark, silent, and safe. The church had provided for herself, by sacrificing the children beneath her fostering shadow.
They waited nearly an hour: but no fugitives came out.
“Come, men,” said Hereward, wearily, “we may as well to the boats.”
And so they went, walking on like men in a dream, as yet too stunned to realize to themselves the hopeless horror of their situation. Only Hereward and Torfrida saw it all, looking back on the splendid past — the splendid hopes for the future: glory, honor, an earldom, a free Danish England — and this was all that was left!
“No it is not!” cried Torfrida suddenly, as if answering her own unspoken thoughts, and his. “Love is still left. The gallows and the stake cannot take that away.” And she clung closer to her husband’s side, and he again to hers.
They reached the shore, and told their tale to their comrades. Whither now?
“To Well. To the wide mere,” said Hereward.
“But their ships will hunt us out there.”
“We shall need no hunting. We must pick up the men at Cissham. You would not leave them to be murdered, too, as we have left the Ely men?”
No. They would go to Well. And then?
“The Bruneswald, and the merry greenwood,” said Hereward.
“Hey for the merry greenwood!” shouted Leofric the Deacon. And the men, in the sudden delight of finding any place, any purpose, answered with a lusty cheer.
“Brave hearts,” said Hereward. “We will live and die together like Englishmen.”
“We will, we will, Viking.”
“Where shall we stow the mare?” asked Geri, “the boats are full already.”
“Leave her to me. On board, Torfrida.”
He got on board last, leading the mare by the bridle.
“Swim, good lass!” said he, as they pushed off; and the good lass, who had done it many a time before, waded in, and was soon swimming behind. Hereward turned, and bent over the side in the darkness. There was a strange gurgle, a splash, and a swirl. He turned round, and sat upright again. They rowed on.
“That mare will never swim all the way to Well,” said one.
“She will not need it,” said Hereward.
“Why,” cried Torfrida, feeling in the darkness, “she is loose. What is this in your hand? Your dagger! And wet!”
“Mare Swallow is at the bottom of the reach. We could never have got her to Well.”
“And you have —” cried a dozen voices.
“Do you think that I would let a cursed Frenchman — ay, even William’s self — say that he had bestridden Hereward’s mare?”
None answered: but Torfrida, as she laid her head upon her husband’s bosom, felt the great tears running down from his cheek on to her own.
None spoke a word. The men were awe-stricken. There was something despairing and ill-omened in the deed. And yet there was a savage grandeur in it, which bound their savage hearts still closer to their chief.
And so mare Swallow’s bones lie somewhere in the peat unto this day.
They got to Well; they sent out spies to find the men who had been “wasting Cissham with fire and sword”; and at last brought them in. Ill news, as usual, had travelled fast. They had heard of the fall of Ely, and hidden themselves “in a certain very small island which is called Stimtench,” where, thinking that the friends in search of them were Frenchmen in pursuit, they hid themselves among the high reeds. There two of them — one Starkwolf by name, the other Broher — hiding near each other, “thought that, as they were monks, it might conduce to their safety if they had shaven crowns; and set to work with their swords to shave each other’s heads as well as they could. But at last, by their war-cries and their speech, recognizing each other, they left off fighting,” and went after Hereward.
So jokes, grimly enough, Leofric the Deacon, who must have seen them come in the next morning, with bleeding coxcombs, and could laugh over the thing in after years. But he was in no humor for jesting in the days in which they lay at Well. Nor was he in jesting humor when, a week afterwards, hunted by the Normans from Well, and forced too take to meres and waterways known only to them, and too shallow and narrow for the Norman ships, they found their way across into the old Nene, and so by Thorney on toward Crowland, leaving Peterborough far on the left. For as they neared Crowland, they saw before them, rowing slowly, a barge full of men. And as they neared that barge, behold, ail they who rowed were blind of both their eyes; and all they who sat and guided them were maimed of both their hands. And as they came alongside, there was not a man in all that ghastly crew but was an ancient friend, by whose side they had fought full many a day, and with whom they had drunk deep full many a night. They were the first-fruits of William’s vengeance; thrust into that boat, to tell the rest of the fen-men what those had to expect who dared oppose the Norman. And they were going, by some by-stream, to Crowland, to the sanctuary of the Danish fen-men, that they might cast themselves down before St. Guthlac, and ask of him that mercy for their souls which the conqueror had denied to their bodies. Alas for them! they were but a handful among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mutilated cripples, who swarmed all over England, and especially in the north and east, throughout the reign of the Norman conquerors. They told their comrades’ fate, slaughtered in the first attack, or hanged afterwards as rebels and traitors to a foreigner whom they had never seen, and to whom they owed no fealty by law of God or man.
“And Ranald Sigtrygsson?”
None knew aught of him. He never got home again to his Irish princess.
“And the poor women?” asked Torfrida.
But she received no answer.
And the men swore a great oath, and kept it, never to give quarter to a Norman, as long as there was one left on English ground.
Neither were the monks of Ely in jesting humor, when they came to count up the price of their own baseness. They had (as was in that day the cant of all cowardly English churchmen, as well as of the more crafty Normans) “obeyed the apostolic injunction, to submit to the powers that be, because they are ordained,” &c. But they found the hand of the powers that be a very heavy one. Forty knights were billeted on them at free quarters with all their men. Every morning the butler had to distribute to them food and pay in the great hall; and in vain were their complaints of bad faith. William meanwhile, who loved money as well as he “loved the tall deer,” had had 1,000 (another says 700) marks of them as the price of their church’s safety, for the payment whereof, if one authority is to be trusted, they sold “all the furniture of gold and silver, crosses, altars, coffers, covers, chalices, platters, ewers, urnets, basons, cups, and saucers.” Nay, the idols themselves were not spared, “for,” beside that, “they sold a goodly image of our Lady with her little Son, in a throne wrought with marvellous workmanship, which Elsegus the abbot had made. Likewise, they stripped many images of holy virgins of much furniture of gold and silver.” 37 So that poor St. Etheldreda had no finery in which to appear on festivals, and went in russet for many years after. The which money (according to another 38) they took, as they had promised, to Picot the Viscount at Cambridge. He weighed the money; and finding it an ounce short, accused them of cheating the King, and sentenced them to pay 300 marks more. After which the royal commissioners came, plundered the abbey of all that was left, and took away likewise “a great mass of gold and silver found in Wentworth, wherewith the brethren meant to repair the altar vessels”; and also a “notable cope which Archbishop Stigand gave, which the church hath wanted to this day.”
37 These details are from a story found in the Isle of Ely, published by Dr. Giles. It seems a late composition — probably of the sixteenth century — and has manifest errors of fact; but valeat quantum.
38 Stow’s “Annals.”
Thurstan, the traitor Abbot, died in a few months. Egelwin, the Bishop of Durham, was taken in the abbey. He was a bishop, and they dared not kill him. But he was a patriot, and must have no mercy. They accused him of stealing the treasures of Durham, which he had brought to Ely for the service of his country; and shut him up in Abingdon. A few months after, the brave man was found starved and dead, “whether of his own will or enforced”; and so ended another patriot prelate. But we do not read that the Normans gave back the treasure to Durham. And so, yielding an immense mass of booty, and many a fair woman, as the Norman’s prey, ended the Camp of Refuge, and the glory of the Isle of Ely.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52