Relics of the Reign of Cnut

Relics of the Reign of Cnut

(Olney and Deerhurst in Gloucestershire; Gloucester; Greenwich in Kent; Stratfield-Moritimer in Berkshire; Bosham, Selsey and Chichester in Sussex, etc.)

In 1016 A.D., King Cnut, the Dane, and King Edmund Ironside, the Englishman, met at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, and divided England between them. They were both chivalrous, high-spirited youths at the time eager to do the honourable thing; and though Cnut had just inflicted a crushing defeat on his rival, the latter had had the best of the earlier fighting, and had so won the respect of his opponent that the making of a handsome agreement between them, in which they swore a sort of brotherhood, was a gallant gesture fully to be expected of them.

The meeting-place was called Olney, that is to say the `ey` or Isle, of the `aln`, or elder tree, and was then an island amidst the marshes of the Severn Valley, but it is now a six-acre/2.4hs meadow known as the “Naight,” with the Severn on the one side and a tributary stream on the other. It is close to Deerhurst church, the village of Deerhurst being about four miles/6.4km by road from Tewkesbury.

For two centuries and more there had been a monastic settlement here, which had been founded in 804 A.D., by Aethelric, a Mercian nobleman, who was ultimately buried within its walls, and which had afterwards become rich and famous. The saintly Aelheah (Alphege) the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by the Danes in 1012 A.D., was once a monk here.

A freebooting body of pagan Viking Danes, under their chieftain, Thorkil, attacked and captured Canterbury in 1011 A.D., during the weak rule of Aethelred the Unready, and carried off this most celebrated of the sons of Deerhurst, with other great personages, to be held to ransom. They took them by ship round to their base at Greenwich, and there kept them for many months, until, on Palm Sunday, 1012 A.D., having failed to get the ransom, some of them dragged Aelfheah before their assembly, or `hustings,` (a Danish word still used in our language) and, in the absence of their leader, made him stand a mock trial for having so nobly refused to ask the impoverished members of his flock to raise money for his release.

They had just finished dinner, and, most of them being drunk, they began to pelt the gallant old gentleman with maet-bones from their tables, while presently the more boisterous of the rollicking crew went to the kitchen-spits where the beef had been roasted whole, and collected heavier missiles such as the hoofs, horns, and thighbones of the oxen, which they then flung at him.

The bestial fun was kept up for sometime, but at last a certain captain, a Christian convert, named Thrym, who afterwards become a high official under Cnut, and whose signature you may still see attached to some of the charters of that reign, took pity on the victims, and kind-heartedly put him out of his agonies by splitting his skull with an axe.

Next day, of course, everybody was very sorry and Thorkil on his return, handed the almost unrecognizable body to the shocked citizens of London, who buried it with great pomp in St. Paul`s. Four years later, at the time of the Deerhurst treaty, Cnut probably took the opportunity of paying his respects to the memory of the martyr; and in 1023 A.D., when the now venerated bones were removed to Canterbury, he and his Danes united with the English in hailing Aelfheah as a saint and in celebrating the translation of the remains by a most solemn and imposing ceremony.

Today several churches in England (there are two in London) are named after this Whilom abbot of Deerhurst, and in the Prayerbook you will see that his festival is still held on 19th April.

The abbey-church at Deerhurst, where once this St. Alphege used to worship, still stands, though a great part of it was rebuilt in the middle Ages. It is a beautiful building, rising in very stately manner from amidst the dark yews and fir-trees in the trim churchyard; and it is well worth a visit.

From the outside the only part whuch at once shows itselfto be of Anglo-Saxon date is the lower half of the tower, where the “herring-bone” masonry, typical of that age, is to be observed; and over the door there is a piece of original sculpture, now much defaced.

But, entering the building, the nave is at once seen to be Anglo-Saxon, in spite of the later arches at the sides; and the west wall has the Ninth Century windows. Originally there was a multangular apse at the east end, of which part of the foundations have been found; but this, being in ruins, was shut out by the existing east wall whn the building was reconstructed, and it is no longer to be seen, thougth the archway leading into it stands, blocked up in the present wall.

The Anglo-Saxon font, with its beautiful decorations, is also to be noticed, and seems to date to a period even earlier than that of the church. The top of it was found in a farmhouse in the village in 1845, and the lower part was discovered in a garden; and the two pieces were put together and replaced in the church about 1870.

A hundred yards/91.4m to the east of this building there is a little stone chapel built in 1056, that is to say some forty years after the meeting of Cnut and Edmund Ironside, and ten years before the Norman Conquest. It is attached to a Sixteenth Century farmhouse, which is still occupied, and was only identified and separated from it in 1885.

Here, in the adjacent orchard, an inscribed stone was found in 1675, which is now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, but a facsimile reads: “Earl Odda caused this readl building to be erected and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity for the good of the soul of his brother, Aelfric, which in this placed quitted the body. Bishop Aeldred dedicated it on 12th April in the 14th year of the reign of Edward, King of the English,” (i.e., Edward the Confessor, whose reign began seven years after the death of Cnut).

Odda and his brother, who was a monk, were related to the English royal house; and Odda himself in the end became a monk, and died at Deerhurst, being buried beside his brother at Pershore, a few monthes after the dedication of this chapel.

Ther was a Roman settlement somewhere in the neighbourhood, for there are traces of Roman materials to be seen in the masonry, and there is a beautiful little terra-cotta haed of the ram-horned Jupiter-Ammon, dating from the Third Century, now exhibited in Odda`s chapel, it having been found firth yards/45m away. Jupiter-Ammon, by the way, was the Romanised form of the ram-horned Egyptian god of Thebes, worshipped probably by Tutankhamen and the other Pharaohs; and probably there was a sacred grove and shrine dedicated to him at Deerhurst in Roman days, the memory of which may possibly be preserved in the name of the place, `-hurst` meaning a grove or clearing in the woods, and `deer` or `deor` being a word used for any powerful animal.

Gloucester, from which Deerhurst is but seven miles/11.2km as the crow flies, is also connected with the reign of Cnut. Here there was a monastery which had been founded in 681 A.D., by Osric, who afterwards became King of Northumbria; and when he died in 729 A.D., he was buried here. The establishment was deserted in 769 A.D., but was refounded over half a century later by King Boernwulf of Mercia in 823 A.D.

In 1022 Cnut sternly expelled the whole community for ill-living, and put in Benedictine monks in their place; but the monastery was afterwards burned to the ground, and was restablished in 1058, some 23 years after Cnut`s death. The bones of its canonised founder, St. Orric, survived these disasters, and were at last laid to rest in a tomb on the right side of the high altar in the great Cathedral which later rose upon the site; and there you may see it today, with its Sixteenth Century effigy of the saint.

In the church at Stratfield Mortimer, Berkshire, close to the ancient Roman-British city of Silchester there is the cover of a stone sarcophagus, inscribed with the name of Aegelpard, son of Kypping, who is perhaps to be identified with Aedelward or Aethelwerd, a Hampshire nobleman and historian mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, who was killed in battle against the Danes in 1001 A.D. The inscription is here stated to have been written at the order of Toki, afterwards one of Cnut`s important men.

This Aethelwerd wrote a history of Britain in the form of a letter dedicated to his relative Matilda, daughter of Otho the Great, Emperor of Germany, by his first wife Edgitha or Editha, sister of King Aethelstan. This history may now be read in an English translation: it was written in Latin.

The picturesque little village of Bosham (pro-nounced Boz`m) near Chichester in Sussex, which stands beside a creek filled by the sea at high tide, is another place having connections with the reign of Cnut. The church here dates from the early Anglo-Saxon age, if not from Roman times. The foundations of a building which may have been a Roman-British basilica-church of the Fourth Century have been found under the existing church; and the bases of the chancel arch are thought by some to be of Roman date.

Bishop Wilfred of York and Hexham, of whom he has been spoken of before, came down to these parts in 681 A.D., when he had been turned out of Northumbria, and found here at Bosham a small colony of Irish monks, who, if this church is really as old as is supposed, no doubt were using it as the centre of their mission.

Wilfred founded his espiscal church on Selsey Bill, close to Bosham; and all this part of Sussex came to be of considerable importance in Saxon times. There is a tradition that Cnut had a palace at Bosham; and a persistent local tradition that he had a daughter who died in childhood, and was buried beside the chancel arch in Bosham church, led the vicar, in 1865, to examine the spot indicated, and, sure enough, he found there a rough and uninscribed stone coffin containing the skeleton of a child.

He caused the spot to be marked, as the visitor may see, by a tile bearing the Danish raven upon it; but of course it is not certain that the bones were those of Cnut`s daughter, or indeed that the King ever had such a daughter, for history does not mention her. Still, the probability is that the tradition was correct; and a nameless mediaeval effigy of a recumbent female figure now to be seen in the chancel may have been placed there later in memory of the little princess, for the villagers state that so their forefathers have always explained the figure.

The ruins of the Cathedral-church at Selsey now lie beneath the water far out at sea, for the land all around the Bill has been eaten away by the waves; but fragments of typical decorated stone-work of the Anglo-Saxon period have been found at Selsey, and the seal used by the early bishops after the new cathedral had been erected further inland, at Chichester, seems to have been brought from Selsey, and certainly bears a representation of the earlier building.

In the time of Cnut, the Bishop of Selsey was a certain Aethelric; and we learn from hte Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that this man was so devoted to Aethelnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, that he prayed God to be allowed to die at the same time that he did. This actually happened, Aethelric dying within a week of his friend; and the two men were buried together in Canterbury Cathedral.

In 1891 some 25 ancient charters were found in a concealed drawer in an old oak table in Chichester Cathedral; and amongst these were documents dating before and after the reign of Cnut. The most important was a charter of the year 780 A.D., recording grants made by Oslac, ruler of the South Saxons; and on the back of this deed, King Offa of Mercia gives his approval of the transaction.

There are, of course, several other places, such as Ely and Winchester, closely connected with Cnut, one that is well worth mentioning here, is the well-known tale of Cnut`s command to the waves of the incoming tide to rise no further. We generally think of this legend as meaning that Cnut, in his vanity, thought that even the waves would obey his behests; but the original tale has an opposite significance. The King, wishing to rebuke his nobles for their flattery, showed them the limitations of his power by demonstrating his inability to control the most ordinary natural events, such as the rising of the tide; and after pointing to the oncoming waves, he said to them: “Vain and trumpery is the power of kings, and indeed nobody is worthy of the name of King except God to whom sky, land and sea are obedient by fixed law.” The people of Bosham say that the occurrence took place in that locality; but Southampton, where Cnut sometimes lived, is also claimed as the place, and a public house there, now called “Canute Castle,” is stated to mark the exact spot. But this, of course, is fanciful.

Lady Godiva and her famous ride through Coventry naked on a horse, who wasthis lady behind this legend.

Lady Godiva was married to the `grim` Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, Leofric a man of great power and importance, the son of the Ealderman of the Hwicce. The Chronicler Florence of Worcester mentions Leofric and Godiva, but does not mention her famous ride, and there is no firm evidence connecting the rider with the historical Godiva.

In 1043 A.D., the Earl and Countess founded a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St. Osburg`s Nunnery, which had been destroyed by the Danes in 1016 A.D. The monastery was dedicated by Edsi, Archbishop of Canterbury, to God, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Osburg and All Saint`s. During the dedication ceremony. Earl Leofric lai his founding charter upon the newly consecrated altar, which not only granted the foundation, but also gave him lordship over 24 villages for the maintenance of the house. Lady Godiva endowed the monastery with many gifts on honour of the Virgin Mary. She is supposed to have had all her gold and silver melted down and made into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace her favoured house of God.

Leofric died in 1057 A.D., and was buried with great ceremony in one of the porches of the Abbey church, Lady godiva survived her husband by ten years and is also said to have been buried in the church although this has not yet been proven.

On her deathbed, she gave a heavy gem-encrusted gold chain to the monastery, directing that it should be place around the neck of the image of the Virgin. Those who came to pray, she said, should say a prayer for each stone in the chain.

The remains of the subsequent 13th Century Church monastery, Coventry`s first cathedral, can now be seen in the Priory Row.

The Godiva Legend

So what is the truth behind the story of Lady Godiva`s ride through Coventry? Why would a ladyof great standing in the town do such a thing? The lagend has been handed down over many years, so the line between fact and fiction has become more than a little blurred.

The earliest surviving source for the legend is the chronical of Roger of Wendover for the year 1057 A.D. He wrote that Godiva pleaded with her husband to relieve the heavy burden of taxes he had imposed on the citizens of Coventry.

Weary of her persistence Leofric said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the town. The rest of the story is not documented at all, but it is said that so great was her compassion for the people of Coventry that Godiva overcame her horror of doing their windows and doors barred. Loosening her long hair to cover her as a cloak, she mounted her waiting horse. Then she rode through the silent streets unseen by the people, who had obeyed her command because of their respect for her.

Only one man, called Tom, was unable to resist the temptation to peep at the countess (hence the term `Peeping Tom`) He unbarred his window, but before he could satisfy his gaze he was struck blind.

Her ordeal completed, Godiva returned to her husband who fulfilled his promise to abolish the heavy taxes. According to Ranulf Higden`s Polychrinicon, Leofric freed the town from all tolls, save those on horses. An inquiry made in the reign of Edward I shows that indeed, at that time, no tolls were paid in Coventry except on horses.

A pageant is held annually in Coventry to re-enact Lady Godiva`s original route through the town.