Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

How England Became Christian (continued)

But how about the "Angels" of Deira, for Deira was a long way from Ethelbert's kingdom of Kent?

Many years—nearly fifty from the day when the three fair-haired boys stood in the market-place of Rome—were to pass before they heard the good news of the Saviour Christ. King Ella, whose name had made Gregory think of the word Alleluia, died about three years before Augustine came to England. He left a son, Edwin by mime, but this son did not succeed him in his kingdom, which was seized by a powerful noble of the land. Edwin had to fly for his life, and took refuge at the court of a certain Redwald, King of East Anglia. This was more than twenty years after his father's death. Redwald was, in a way, a Christian; perhaps King Ethelbert, who was his over-lord, had compelled him to make a profession of belief. But he was not single-hearted, for he still kept the temples of the false gods open. The usurping King of Deira sent messengers to Redwald, with promises of reward if he would give up Edwin to him, and threats of war if he should refuse. Redwald was almost persuaded either to kill his guest or to give him up to his enemies. Edwin knew the danger he was in. A friend had told him what the King was thinking of, and had promised to tell him of a safer place of refuge. But Edwin would not listen to him. He said that he did not believe that King Redwald would betray him; "if he is minded to do so," he went on, "I would sooner die than wander about any more." The friend then left him, and Edwin sat in front of King Redwald's palace till it grew dark, thinking how unhappy he was. Suddenly he became aware that a stranger was standing by him; and looking up he saw a man in a strange dress, whose face he did not know.

"Why sit you here?" said the stranger.

EDWIN.  "It matters little where I sit."

STRANGER.  "I know your name, and the cause of your trouble. What will you give me if I turn King Redwald's heart to befriend you?"

EDWIN.  "All that I have."

STRANGER.  "And what, if I give you victory in battle, and the kingdom that is yours of right?"

EDWIN.  "I will give you myself. But who are you?"

STRANGER.  "That cannot yet be known. But remember your promise, when you next feel this sign."

And the stranger put his hand upon Edwin's head, and so vanished out of his sight.

Almost at the same moment Edwin's friend came out of the palace, and told him that King Redwald had changed his mind, and was now resolved not to give up his guest, even if by so doing he should bring war upon his kingdom.

And indeed war did follow. The usurper was defeated, and Edwin came into his father's kingdom of Deira.

Nine years afterwards, King Edwin sent envoys to Eadbald, son of Ethelbert of Kent, asking for his sister Ethelburga to wife. At first Eadbald would not consent, for Edwin was yet a Pagan. Afterwards, remembering, it may be, how his own mother, Bertha, had helped to bring Ethelbert his father to the faith, he let her go. Only he took Edwin's promise that she should be suffered to worship God according to her conscience, and he sent a certain Paulinus with her. This Paulinus had been sent by Gregory some twenty years before to help Augustine.

The next year Edwin was nearly slain by a murderer, sent by the King of Wessex. The man struck at the King with a poisoned dagger, but a faithful servant that was standing by threw himself between, was pierced by the dagger, and so died in his master's stead. So the King escaped, but he well-nigh lost his wife that same day—it was Easter Day in the year 626—so frightened was she by what had happened to her husband. However, both she and her baby lived. When the King began to thank his gods for this mercy, thinking that it was of their giving, Paulinus told him that it was not so, but of the mercy of the Saviour Christ, to whom he had prayed, he said, for the Queen's life. "Let me punish this wicked King of Wessex," said Edwin, "and I will myself follow Christ." And to show that he meant what he said, he suffered Paulinus to baptize the child. She was christened the next Whitsunday, by the name of Eanfled.

The King of Wessex was punished for his wickedness; but Edwin still delayed to declare himself a Christian. At last Paulinus came to him, and laying his hand upon his head, as the stranger had done ten years before, asked him whether he remembered the sign, and bade him, seeing that he had received all according to his desire, fulfil his promise. After this Edwin lingered no more; only he would call a council of his chiefs, and lay the thing before them, so that, if it might be, all the nation might turn to the true God and to His Christ, together with their King. So the priests and nobles met in council.

First there rose in the assembly one Coifi, who was the chief of the priests, and spake in this fashion: "The gods to whom we give our prayers and our sacrifices give us, it seems to me, nothing in return. No one of all the people has been more diligent in worship than I, yet many have been more happy and more prosperous. If this new doctrine promises us more, I say that we should follow it."

After him rose another, an ancient chief, and said: "The soul of man, O King, seems to me like unto a bird that flies into some room where you and your lords are sitting at supper. Out of the darkness it flies, and for a brief space sees the light and feels the warmth, then it passes into the darkness again and is seen no more. So it is with the soul. It comes out of the dark, we know not whence; for a few years it tarries among the things we know; then it goes again into the dark, we know not whither. If the new doctrine gives us light about the things unseen, I will leave all to follow it."

At last the King said, "Who will profane the temples of the gods?"

[Illustration] from English History Stories - I by Alfred J. Church


Coifi the priest answered, "None is fitter for this task than I, who have served them these many years." Then he mounted a horse, and took a spear in his hand—both things unlawful for a priest—and tilting at the idol of the chief temple overthrew it.

On Easter Day in the year following King Edwin was baptized, and multitudes of the people followed him, till it seemed as if all Deira and the rest of the North country was turned to Christ.

But there was trouble to come. Penda, King of Mercia, who was a heathen, leagued himself with a British king, and these two meeting Edwin in battle, overthrew him and slew him. Then all the land seemed to turn away from the faith of Christ and to become heathen again. As for Paulinus, he fled to Kent by sea, taking with him Queen Ethelburga and her children.

But the light was not put out for long. Only when it began to shine again, it came from another place. The year after Edwin's death, Oswald, son of that same usurper whom Redwald and Edwin had overcome and slain, came back to his father's kingdom. He had been an exile in Scotland for these seventeen years, and had there learnt to follow the Christian faith. He sent therefore for some one who should teach his people. First came a certain Cormac, but he was a man of a harsh temper, and could do nothing. Going back to those that sent him, he said, "These English are so stubborn and barbarous that it is useless to teach them." "Nay," said one of those that heard him, Aidan by name, "you did not follow the Apostles' command, and feed the babes with milk, but would give them strong meat, which they could not bear." Aidan, therefore, was sent in his place, and with the help of King Oswald brought again all the North country to the faith of Christ. So, after some sixty years, Gregory's hopes for the "Angels" of Deira were accomplished.