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CHAPTER VI.

ETHELFLEDA, “THE LADY OF THE MERCIANS."

THERE are many quiet country places in England and Ethelfeda. Wales which a traveller might unconcernedly pass by, although, as Cicero happily and eloquently observed,' a history was beneath his feet. If by accident, or out of mere curiosity, he observed any peculiarities in the natural or artificial features in the vicinity of these places, no doubt his observations would not arouse any recollections of the past, or excite his imagination to conjure up and clothe again the crowd of beings who once took a prominent part in the affairs of the country. In such a case the mind of the observer would be deprived of food for reflection, if not for guidance and instruction,

Not a few of these places are connected in some way or other with Ethelfleda. It must be borne in mind that in her time only a small part of the country was cultivated. A great part of it was forest, jungle, or bog. A forest extended, with occasional open spaces, from the borders of Wales to the North Sea. In these open spaces forts were erected. And around these forts clustered a certain number of huts. A ditch with a palisaded mud wall protected fort and huts, which collectively were called a Burgh or Bury by the AngloSaxons.

In the time of the Romans these forests and desolate places afforded refuge to the Britons. Within their

Quacunque enim ingredimur in aliqua historia vestigia ponimus.

helfleda. gloomy depths they were at liberty to enjoy their civil

and religious rights. Under the shadow of the oak were enacted the mysterious solemnities of Druidism, whilst the surrounding trees echoed the shrieks of the victims of this gory superstition, or the neighbouring stream wafted along its waters their dying sobs. In after time these forests were the abode of the Saxon wolf-head, and the ever restless Celt-men who rivalled the wolf in ferocity and unbending hostility.

Several Burghs were built in various parts of the country by the Lady of the Mercians. It will be recollected that upon the death of Bertric of Wessex, the Witan decreed that for the future the wives of their Kings were not to be called queens, nor were they to share their thrones. This fact may explain the term "Lady" as applied to the wife of Ethered, Sub-king of Mercia. In many respects she was a really wonderful person. She was the delight of her brother's subjects, and the dread of his enemies. And we are further informed that she was a woman of a comprehensive spirit of wonderful prudence, and eminent for her just and virtuous life, and also for her firm and equitable government of Mercia.

Unlike the daughter of Offa, she carefully nurtured the youths brought up at her husband's court. Like the empress-countess," she drained to the very dregs the evils connected with a divided rule, and the horrors of a civil war. Unlike the “She-wolf of France," she both honoured and loved her husband. Like the possessor of the “ tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide,” Ethelfleda, she levied armies, led men, won battles, but never experienced a repulse. Unlike the youthful Jane, she did not fall a victim to the ambition of a renegade father-in-law. Unlike the mates of the grim-visaged and grim-souled foreigner, she did not experience the agonies inflicted by a morbid, jealous, thwarted, disappointed heart. Unlike the foundress of our navy and colonies, she despised the fawning and sickening flattery of a court. Like the present "Lady” of England, she wept over the untimely death of her husband, and her presence was ever welcomed by all who met her.

1 This term was applied to those who had been outlawed on account of some grievous crime. 2 Will. of Malmesbury.

3 Florer.ce of Worcester. + Matilda, wife of the Emperor Henry V., and of Count Geoffrey of Anjon.

6 Isabella, wife of Edward II.

Ethelfleda was a great help to her brother Edward, who became King upon the death of his father in 901. His right to the throne was disputed by his cousin Ethelwald, who was helped by the Danes and the people of East Anglia and Northumbria. After fighting for some years, Ethelwald was killed in battle by his cousin.

In the year 913 Ethelfleda built a fortress at Bridg- $13. north, and three years later, -ere Germany had hailed its first king in the person of Henry the Fowler ;5 while Rollo, the Conqueror's ancestor, was laying the foundation of a permanent hold upon the soil of northwest France, and while Berenger, the grandson of Charlemagne, was contending in the north of Italy with the numerous descendants of the Sorcerer of the

Margaret, wife of Henry VI. 2 The Lady Jane Grey, daughter-in-law of Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. 3 Queen Mary.

1

* Queen Elizabeth. Carlyle's Frederic II. · The Hungarians: they came from Scythia ; their object was devastation itself; by some they were looked upon as the Gog and Magog of Scripture; and to others their approach betokened the end of tiine.Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

6

6 Matt. of West.

Ethelfleda, North and his wolfish dame, barbarians of barbarians,

who had vanquished both Greeks and Teutons, and in the south of Italy with the blood-stained and impetuous followers and propagators of the Crescent,her forces advanced still further west, and penetrating the great forest, they marched through its marshy thickets as far as the place now known as Chirbury, in Shropshire, and there a Burgh was erected. And the hollow thud of the axe as it fell upon the trees, and the loud talk of the workman, succeeded the ringing of battle-axes and the shouts or groans of the combatants as they struggled on or fell in the combat. The Mercians must have worked armed, or with their weapons close at hand, and companions on the watch, for they knew full well the perils of their position, as it was upon the very threshold of Wales. It must have been with an anxious and careful gaze that the sentinels scanned the surrounding country at the close and breaking of each day. Ethelfleda no doubt visited the armed host which her husband commanded before the fortress of Buttington in 894, and the royal navy which, under the charge of her father, had sailed up the Severn, and assisted in cutting off all succour from Hastings. While there she might have accompanied some of the various foraging parties which were sent forth to procure the necessary provisions during the lengthened blockade. And it is highly probable she visited Chirbury on one of these expeditions. If so, the eye, which afterwards looked upon so many battle-fields and fortified positions, must have perceived the importance of its situation in a military point of view; and the mind which afterwards planned so many successful arrangements, no doubt even then formed

916.

designs which after years were to see realised. Chir- Ethelleda. bury was excellently situated to keep the Welsh in check.

In the year 916, shortly after Christmas, when its vicinity was subject to down-pouring showers, or when it was closely gripped by the unrelenting king frost, trees were felled, trenches dug, mounds thrown up, and a fortress, burgh or bury, with its rugged but strong wooden walls, was raised, and stood alone amidst the sylvan desert, with its stout occupants who were appointed to guard this perilous quarter, and to drive back the Celtic bands that endeavoured to make their way either to the site of their former capital or to the city of Hereford. It also barred the way if the Northern rovers should attempt to repeat their visit of 890 to the town of Montgomery, or to rebuild the fort which had given shelter to the most famous of their Sea-kings. Ethelfleda's object in raising fortresses along the whole course of her dominions, from the banks of the Severn to those of the Welland," and from Runcorn in the north to Canterbury in the south, was to overawe the neighbouring districts, and to check the almost incessant depredations of the Danes. With places of defence to shelter and protect them, the Saxons took heart, and were able to hold their own against the wild cavalry raids of the North-men.

Ethelfleda continued to build towns, found monasteries, restore cities, and erect forts. To a certain degree she became to Athelstan what Judith had been to Alfred. The influence these ladies had over their pupils was not long lived, but it was productive of many

Henry of Huntington: Saxon Chronicle. 2 Shrewsbury. 3 Buttington.

4 Matthew of Westminster.

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