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

Chapter 39.

How Torfrida Confessed that she had Been Inspired by the Devil.

After a few days, there came down a priest to Crowland, and talked with Torfrida, in Archbishop Lanfranc’s name.

Whether Lanfranc sent him, or merely (as is probable) Alftruda, he could not have come in a more fit name. Torfrida knew (with all the world) how Lanfranc had arranged William the Norman’s uncanonical marriage, with the Pope, by help of Archdeacon Hildebrand (afterwards Pope himself); and had changed his mind deftly to William’s side when he saw that William might be useful to Holy Church, and could enslave, if duly managed, not only the nation of England to himself, but the clergy of England to Rome. All this Torfrida, and the world, knew. And therefore she answered:—

“Lanfranc? I can hardly credit you: for I hear that he is a good man, though hard. But he has settled a queen’s marriage suit; so he may very well settle mine.”

After which they talked together; and she answered him, the priest said, so wisely and well, that he never had met with a woman of so clear a brain, or of so stout a heart.

At last, being puzzled to get that which he wanted, he touched on the matter of her marriage with Hereward.

She wished it, he said, dissolved. She wished herself to enter religion.

Archbishop Lanfranc would be most happy to sanction so holy a desire, but there were objections. She was a married woman; and her husband had not given his consent.

“Let him give it, then.”

There were still objections. He had nothing to bring against her, which could justify the dissolution of the holy bond: unless —”

“Unless I bring some myself?”

“There have been rumors — I say not how true — of magic and sorcery! —”

Torfrida leaped up from her seat, and laughed such a laugh, that the priest said in after years, it rung through his head as if it had arisen out of the pit of the lost.

“So that is what you want, Churchman! Then you shall have it. Bring me pen and ink. I need not to confess to you. You shall read my confession when it is done. I am a better scribe, mind you, than any clerk between here and Paris.”

She seized the pen and ink, and wrote; not fiercely, as the priest expected, but slowly and carefully. Then she gave it the priest to read.

“Will that do, Churchman? Will that free my soul, and that of your French Archbishop?”

And the priest read to himself.

How Torfrida of St. Omer, born at Aries in Provence, confest that from her youth up she had been given to the practice of diabolic arts, and had at divers times and places used the same, both alone and with Richilda, late Countess of Hainault. How, wickedly, wantonly, and instinct with a malignant spirit, she had compassed, by charms and spells, to win the love of Hereward. How she had ever since kept in bondage him, and others whom she had not loved with the same carnal love, but only desired to make them useful to her own desire of power and glory, by the same magical arts; for which she now humbly begged pardon of Holy Church, and of all Christian folk; and, penetrated with compunction, desired only that she might retire into the convent of Crowland. She asserted the marriage which she had so unlawfully compassed to be null and void; and prayed to be released therefrom, as a burden to her conscience and soul, that she might spend the rest of her life in penitence for her many enormous sins. She submitted herself to the judgment of Holy Church, only begging that this her free confession might be counted in her favor and that she might hot be put to death, as she deserved, nor sent into perpetual imprisonment; because her mother-in-law according to the flesh, the Countess Godiva, being old and infirm, had daily need of her; and she wished to serve her menially as long as she lived. After which, she put herself utterly upon the judgment of the Church. And meanwhile, she desired and prayed that she might be allowed to remain at large in the said monastery of Crowland, not leaving the precincts thereof, without special leave given by the Abbot and prioress in one case between her and them reserved; to wear garments of hair-cloth; to fast all the year on bread and water; and to be disciplined with rods or otherwise, at such times as the prioress should command, and to such degree as her body, softened with carnal luxury, could reasonably endure. And beyond — that, being dead to the world, God might have mercy on her soul.

And she meant what she said. The madness of remorse and disappointment, so common in the wild middle age, had come over her; and with it the twin madness of self-torture.

The priest read, and trembled; not for Torfrida: but for himself, lest she should enchant him after all.

“She must have been an awful sinner,” said he to the monks when he got safe out of the room; “comparable only to the witch of Endor, or the woman Jezebel, of whom St. John writes in the Revelations.”

“I do not know how you Frenchmen measure folks, when you see them; but to our mind she is — for goodness, humility, and patience comparable only to an angel of God,” said Abbot Ulfketyl.

“You Englishmen will have to change your minds on many points, if you mean to stay here.”

“We shall not change them, and we shall stay here,” quoth the Abbot.

“How? You will not get Sweyn and his Danes to help you a second time.”

“No, we shall all die, and give you your wills, and you will not have the heart to cast our bones into the fens?”

“Not unless you intend to work miracles, and set up for saints, like your Alphege Edmund.”

“Heaven forbid that we should compare ourselves with them! Only let us alone till we die.”

“If you let us alone, and do not turn traitor meanwhile.”

Abbot Ulfketyl bit his lip, and kept down the rising fiend.

“And now,” said the priest, “deliver me over Torfrida the younger, daughter of Hereward and this woman, that I may take her to the King, who has found a fit husband for her.”

“You will hardly get her.”

“Not get her?”

“Not without her mother’s consent. The lass cares for naught but her.”

“Pish! that sorceress? Send for the girl.”

Abbot Ulfketyl, forced in his own abbey, great and august lord though he was, to obey any upstart of a Norman priest who came backed by the King and Lanfranc, sent for the lass.

The young outlaw came in — hawk on fist, and its hood off, for it was a pet — short, sturdy, upright, brown-haired, blue-eyed, ill-dressed, with hard hands and sun-burnt face, but with the hawk-eye of her father and her mother, and the hawks among which she was bred. She looked the priest over from head to foot, till he was abashed.

“A Frenchman!” said she, and she said no more.

The priest looked at her eyes, and then at the hawk’s eyes. They were disagreeably like each other. He told his errand as courteously as he could, for he was not a bad-hearted man for a Norman priest.

The lass laughed him to scorn. The King’s commands? She never saw a king in the greenwood, and cared for none. There was no king in England now, since Sweyn Ulfsson sailed back to Denmark. Who was this Norman William, to sell a free English lass like a colt or a cow? The priest might go back to the slaves of Wessex, and command them if he could; but in the fens, men were free, and lasses too.

The priest was piously shocked and indignant; and began to argue.

She played with her hawk, instead of listening, and then was marching out of the room.

“Your mother,” said he, “is a sorceress.”

“You are a knave, or set on by knaves. You lie, and you know you lie.” And she turned away again.

“She has confessed it.”

“You have driven her mad between you, till she will confess anything. I presume you threatened to burn her, as some of you did awhile back.” And the young lady made use of words equally strong and true.

The priest was not accustomed to the direct language of the greenwood, and indignant on his own account, threatened, and finally offered to use, force. Whereon there looked up into his face such a demon (so he said) as he never had seen or dreamed of, and said:

“If you lay a finger on me, I will brittle you like any deer.” And therewith pulled out a saying-knife, about half as long again as the said priest’s hand, being very sharp, so he deposed, down the whole length of one edge, and likewise down his little finger’s length of the other.

Not being versed in the terms of English venery, he asked Abbot Ulfketyl what brittling of a deer might mean; and being informed that it was that operation on the carcass of a stag which his countrymen called eventrer, and Highland gillies now “gralloching,” he subsided, and thought it best to go and consult the young lady’s mother.

She, to his astonishment, submitted at once and utterly. The King, and he whom she had called her husband, were very gracious. It was all well. She would have preferred, and the Lady Godiva too, after their experience of the world and the flesh, to have devoted her daughter to Heaven in the minster there. But she was unworthy. Who was she, to train a bride for Him who died on Cross? She accepted this as part of her penance, with thankfulness and humility. She had heard that Sir Hugh of Evermue was a gentleman of ancient birth and good prowess, and she thanked the King for his choice. Let the priest tell her daughter that she commanded her to go with him to Winchester. She did not wish to see her. She was stained with many crimes, and unworthy to approach a pure maiden. Besides, it would only cause misery and tears. She was trying to die to the world and to the flesh; and she did not wish to reawaken their power within her. Yes. It was very well. Let the lass go with him.”

“Thou art indeed a true penitent,” said the priest, his human heart softening him.

“Thou art very much mistaken,” said she, and turned away.

The girl, when she heard her mother’s command, wept, shrieked, and went. At least she was going to her father. And from wholesome fear of that same saying-knife, the priest left her in peace all the way to Winchester.

After which, Abbot Ulfketyl went into his lodgings, and burst, like a noble old nobleman as he was, into bitter tears of rage and shame.

But Torfrida’s eyes were as dry as her own sackcloth.

The priest took the letter back to Winchester, and showed it — it may be to Archbishop Lanfranc. But what he said, this chronicler would not dare to say. For he was a very wise man, and a very stanch and strong pillar of the Holy Roman Church. Meanwhile, he was man enough not to require that anything should be added to Torfrida’s penance; and that was enough to prove him a man in those days — at least for a churchman — as it proved Archbishop or St. Ailred to be, a few years after, in the case of the nun of Watton, to be read in Gale’s “Scriptores Anglicaniae.” Then he showed the letter to Alftruda.

And she laughed one of her laughs, and said, “I have her at last!”

Then, as it befell, he was forced to shew the letter to Queen Matilda; and she wept over it human tears, such as she, the noble heart, had been forced to keep many a time before, and said, “The poor soul! — You, Alftruda, woman! does Hereward know of this?”

“No, madam,” said Alftruda, not adding that she had taken good care that he should not know.

“It is the best thing which I have heard of him. I should tell him, were it not that I must not meddle with my lord’s plans. God grant him a good delivery, as they say of the poor souls in jail. Well, madam, you have your will at last. God give you grace thereof, for you have not given Him much chance as yet.”

“Your majesty will honor us by coming to the wedding?” asked Alftruda, utterly unabashed.

Matilda the good looked at her with a face of such calm, childlike astonishment, that Alftruda dropped her “fairy neck” at last, and slunk out of the presence like a beaten cur.

William went to the wedding; and swore horrible oaths that they were the handsomest pair he had ever seen. And so Hereward married Alftruda. How Holy Church settled the matter is not said. But that Hereward married Alftruda, under these very circumstances, may be considered a “historic fact,” being vouched for by Gaimar, and by the Peterborough Chronicler. And doubtless Holy Church contrived that it should happen without sin, if it conduced to her own interest.

And little Torfrida — then, it seems, some sixteen years of age — was married to Hugh of Evermue. She wept and struggled as she was dragged into the church.

“But I do not want to be married. I want to go back to my mother.”

“The diabolic instinct may have descended to her,” said the priests, “and attracts her to the sorceress. We had best sprinkle her with holy water.”

So they sprinkled her with holy water, and used exorcisms. Indeed, the case being an important one, the personages of rank, they brought out from their treasures the apron of a certain virgin saint, and put it round her neck, in hopes of driving out the hereditary fiend.

“If I am led with a halter, I must needs go,” said she, with one of her mother’s own flashes of wit, and went. “But Lady Alftruda,” whispered she, half-way up the church, “I never loved him.”

“Behave yourself before the King, or I will whip you till the blood runs.”

And so she would, and no one would have wondered in those days.

“I will murder you if you do. But I never even saw him.”

“Little fool! And what are you going through, but what I went through before you?”

“You to say that?” gnashed the girl, as another spark of her mother’s came out. “And you gaining what —”

“What I waited for for fifteen years,” said Alftruda, coolly. “If you have courage and cunning, like me, to wait for fifteen years, you too may have your will likewise.”

The pure child shuddered, and was married to Hugh of Evermue, who is not said to have kicked her; and was, according to them of Crowland, a good friend to their monastery, and therefore, doubtless, a good man. Once, says wicked report, he offered to strike her, as was the fashion in those chivalrous days. Whereon she turned upon him like a tigress, and bidding him remember that she was the daughter of Hereward and Torfrida, gave him such a beating that he, not wishing to draw sword upon her, surrendered at discretion; and they lived all their lives afterwards as happily as most other married people in those times.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56