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

Chapter 43.

How Deeping Fen was Drained.

Ill war and disorder, ruin and death, cannot last forever. They are by their own nature exceptional and suicidal, and spend themselves with what they feed on. And then the true laws of God’s universe, peace and order, usefulness and life, will reassert themselves, as they have been waiting all along to do, hid in God’s presence from the strife of men.

And even so it was with Bourne.

Nearly eighty years after, in the year of Grace 1155, there might have been seen sitting, side by side and hand in hand, upon a sunny bench on the Bruneswald slope, in the low December sun, an old knight and an old lady, the master and mistress of Bourne.

Much had changed since Hereward’s days. The house below had been raised a whole story. There were fresh herbs and flowers in the garden, unknown at the time of the Conquest. But the great change was in the fen, especially away toward Deeping on the southern horizon.

Where had been lonely meres, foul watercourses, stagnant slime, there were now great dikes, rich and fair corn and grass lands, rows of pure white cottages. The newly-drained land swarmed with stocks of new breeds: horses and sheep from Flanders, cattle from Normandy; for Richard de Rulos was the first — as far as history tells — of that noble class of agricultural squires, who are England’s blessing and England’s pride.

“For this Richard de Rulos,” says Ingulf, or whoever wrote in his name, “who had married the daughter and heiress of Hugh of Evermue, Lord of Bourne and Deeping, being a man of agricultural pursuits, got permission from the monks of Crowland, for twenty marks of silver, to enclose as much as he would of the common marshes. So he shut out the Welland by a strong embankment, and building thereon numerous tenements and cottages, in a short time he formed a large ‘vill,’ marked out gardens, and cultivated fields; while, by shutting out the river, he found in the meadow land, which had been lately deep lakes and impassable marshes (wherefore the place was called Deeping, the deep meadow), most fertile fields and desirable lands, and out of sloughs and bogs accursed made quiet a garden of pleasaunce.”

So there the good man, the beginner of the good work of centuries, sat looking out over the fen, and listening to the music which came on the southern breeze — above the low of the kine, and the clang of the wild-fowl settling down to rest — from the bells of Crowland minster far away.

They were not the same bells which tolled for Hereward and Torfrida. Those had run down in molten streams upon that fatal night when Abbot Ingulf leaped out of bed to see the vast wooden sanctuary wrapt in one sheet of roaring flame, from the carelessness of a plumber who had raked the ashes over his fire in the bell-tower, and left it to smoulder through the night.

Then perished all the riches of Crowland; its library too, of more than seven hundred volumes, with that famous Nadir, or Orrery, the like whereof was not in all England, wherein the seven planets were represented, each in their proper metals. And even worse, all the charters of the monastery perished, a loss which involved the monks thereof in centuries of lawsuits, and compelled them to become as industrious and skilful forgers of documents as were to be found in the minsters of the middle age.

But Crowland minster had been rebuilt in greater glory than ever, by the help of the Norman gentry round. Abbot Ingulf, finding that St. Guthlac’s plain inability to take care of himself had discredited him much in the fen-men’s eyes, fell back, Norman as he was, on the virtues of the holy martyr, St. Waltheof, whose tomb he opened with due reverence, and found the body as whole and uncorrupted as on the day on which it was buried: and the head united to the body, while a fine crimson line around the neck was the only sign remaining of his decollation.

On seeing which Ingulf “could not contain himself for joy: and interrupting the response which the brethren were singing, with a loud voice began the hymn ‘Te Deum Laudamus,’ on which the chanter, taking it up, enjoined the rest of the brethren to sing it.” After which Ingulf — who had never seen Waltheof in life, discovered that it was none other than he whom he had seen in a vision at Fontenelle, as an earl most gorgeously arrayed, with a torc of gold about his neck, and with him an abbot, two bishops, and two saints, the two former being Usfran and Ausbert, the abbots, St. Wandresigil of Fontenelle, and the two saints, of course St. Guthlac and St. Neot.

Whereon, crawling on his hands and knees, he kissed the face of the holy martyr, and “perceived such a sweet odor proceeding from the holy body, as he never remembered to have smelt, either in the palace of the king, or in Syria with all its aromatic herbs.”

Quid plura? What more was needed for a convent of burnt-out monks? St. Waltheof was translated in state to the side of St. Guthlac; and the news of this translation of the holy martyr being spread throughout the country, multitudes of the faithful flocked daily to the tomb, and offering up their vows there, tended in a great degree “to resuscitate our monastery.”

But more. The virtues of St. Waltheof were too great not to turn themselves, or be turned, to some practical use. So if not in the days of Ingulf, at least in those of Abbot Joffrid who came after him, St. Waltheof began, says Peter of Blois, to work wonderful deeds. “The blind received their sight, the deaf their hearing, the lame their power of walking, and the dumb their power of speech; while each day troops innumerable of other sick persons were arriving by every road, as to the very fountain of their safety, . . . and by the offerings of the pilgrims who came flocking in from every part, the revenues of the monastery were increased in no small degree.”

Only one wicked Norman monk of St. Alban’s, Audwin by name, dared to dispute the sanctity of the martyr, calling him a wicked traitor who had met with his deserts. In vain did Abbot Joffrid, himself a Norman from St. Evroult, expostulate with the inconvenient blasphemer. He launched out into invective beyond measure; till on the spot, in presence of the said father, he was seized with such a stomach-ache, that he went home to St. Alban’s, and died in a few days; after which all went well with Crowland, and the Norman monks who worked the English martyr to get money out of the English whom they had enslaved.

And yet — so strangely mingled for good and evil are the works of men — that lying brotherhood of Crowland set up, in those very days, for pure love of learning and of teaching learning, a little school of letters in a poor town hard by, which became, under their auspices, the University of Cambridge.

So the bells of Crowland were restored, more melodious than ever; and Richard of Rulos doubtless had his share in their restoration. And that day they were ringing with a will, and for a good reason; for that day had come the news, that Henry Plantagenet was crowned king of England.

“‘Lord,’” said the good old knight, “‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ This day, at last, he sees an English king head the English people.”

“God grant,” said the old lady, “that he may be such a lord to England as thou hast been to Bourne.”

“If he will be — and better far will he be, by God’s grace, from what I hear of him, than ever I have been — he must learn that which I learnt from thee — to understand these Englishmen, and know what stout and trusty prudhommes they are all, down to the meanest serf, when once one can humor their sturdy independent tempers.”

“And he must learn, too, the lesson which thou didst teach me, when I would have had thee, in the pride of youth, put on the magic armor of my ancestors, and win me fame in every tournament and battle-field. Blessed be the day when Richard of Rulos said to me, ‘If others dare to be men of war, I dare more; for I dare to be a man of peace. Have patience with me, and I will win for thee and for myself a renown more lasting, before God and man, than ever was won with lance!’ Do you remember those words, Richard mine?”

The old man leant his head upon his hands. “It may be that not those words, but the deeds which God has caused to follow them, may, by Christ’s merits, bring us a short purgatory and a long heaven.”

“Amen. Only whatever grief we may endure in the next life for our sins, may we endure it as we have the griefs of this life, hand in hand.”

“Amen, Torfrida. There is one thing more to do before we die. The tomb in Crowland. Ever since the fire blackened it, it has seemed to me too poor and mean to cover the dust which once held two such noble souls. Let us send over to Normandy for fair white stone of Caen, and let carve a tomb worthy of thy grandparents.”

“And what shall we write thereon?”

“What but that which is there already? ‘Here lies the last of the English.’”

“Not so. We will write — ‘Here lies the last of the old English.’ But upon thy tomb, when thy time comes, the monks of Crowland shall write — ‘Here lies the first of the new English; who, by the inspiration of God, began to drain the Fens.’”


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