Stories from English History - Hilda Skae

The Boy Captives

Five hundred years had passed.

Long ago the Romans had left Britain; and another people had come from across the sea to conquer the country and drive its inhabitants to take refuge in Wales and Cornwall.

Britain had now become England. The English in these days were very fierce heathens, who loved fighting, and were never at peace. The country was divided into a number of little kingdoms, which were always at war with one another, for each king wanted to be more powerful than any other in the land.

While England was in this state of continual warfare, the kingdom of Deira in the north was invaded by a band of raiders from a neighbouring kingdom called Bernicia. Not finding any one at hand to resist them, the Bernicians began to lay waste the country as they passed. All the men of that neighbourhood seemed to be absent that day; and there was no one to give the alarm as the invaders destroyed the young crops and killed or drove away the cattle which were grazing upon the waste land.

Presently the party came upon a little village, lying peacefully nestled on the hill-side. It was evening, and the smoke was rising tranquilly into the air, while the men and boys were driving the cows home for the evening milking.

Little did the raiders care about the quiet beauty of the scene. With a shout, they bore down upon the village. The inhabitants did their best to defend themselves; but being unprepared and armed for the most part only with clubs and ploughshares, they were quickly overpowered. Some escaped to the woods, while those who were not active enough to run away were either slain or made prisoners.

Angle boys kidnapped by slavers


Soon flames were bursting from the walls and roofs of the cottages, which their destroyers had set on fire after removing everything that was worth carrying away.

When the captives were brought in, they were found to be mostly old people, together with some trembling children, whose parents were lost or slain.

"Those," said the leader, pointing to the white-haired men and woman, "are no good. What do we want with old folk? —But these," he added, pointing to the children, "you may keep. They will grow into fine strong men by and by."

The children were bound hand and foot to prevent them from running away; and after posting sentries to keep a lookout, the raiders sat down to feast upon some of the slaughtered cattle, which they had roasted before the flames of the burning houses.

Suddenly one of the outposts called out to say there was something in the distance which looked like a band of armed men.

"Ay, ay," said the leader; "time we made the best of our way homeward. Our big bonfire is bright enough to bring the whole countryside upon us."

Hastily collecting their spoil, the raiders looked about for their horses. Each prisoner was made to mount beside one of his captors, and soon the whole band was trotting away in the gathering darkness.

It was in vain that the boys strained their eyes to look behind. Either they had not yet been missed, or else their rescuers had not found out the direction which the spoilers had taken.

The few people whom they passed, wood cutters or cow-herds on their way home from the day's work, only looked on helplessly as the troop swept by, band were unable to do anything. Once, seeing a man whom he knew, one of the boys cried out for help, but his captor roughly bade him be silent.

In a little while they were in the land of the Bernicians, and the children were handed over to the families of their captors, to work in the house and in the fields.

They were not unkindly treated, and after a while they began to feel less unhappy. Often when they met together in the evening, after the day's work was done, they would make plans for running away as soon as they should be grown up, and returning to their own old home in Deira.

But they were never to see their native village again.

One day a rich merchant came to Bernicia, a man who traded with the far-away countries of Gaul and Italy, and the children were brought for him to see.

The merchant looked at the rosy faces and strong limbs of the boys.

"They"ll do," he said; "I"ll take the lot. One of my ships is just starting for Italy, and they can go on board. The Roman ladies like fine boys like these to wait upon them. It is waste to keep such lads to work in our rough homesteads when we can get gold for them from the Romans."

A large sum of money was handed over to the owners of the children; and then the boys had to follow their new master to the seashore, where a vessel was in waiting.

No kind parents or friends were near, to bid good-bye to these poor children as they embarked. They were led on board and given into the charge of the captain and seamen of the vessel. Presently the sails were unfurled, and the vessel left the shore, the men singing as they worked. No one paid any attention to the poor children as they stood on deck and sorrowfully watched the shores of England grow farther and farther away, until they became lost in the distance.

The little captives felt very sad indeed. Had they known that they were about to become the means of bringing happiness and peace to their native land, perhaps they might not have felt so desolate as they did.

After what seemed to them a very long voyage, they were taken to the great slave-market in Rome.

The children clung together in confusion and fear as they looked around at the bewildering scene.

Groups of buyers and sellers were there, talking in an unknown language. There were many other slaves for sale; men, women, and children; white, black, and brown; brought together from many parts of the world. People in strange bright dresses were always passing; some coming to buy slaves, some to meet their friends, and others out of mere curiosity. In all the careless, chattering crowd there was not one face that seemed friendly towards the poor strangers from across the sea.

Presently the boys remarked among the gay throng an old man who seemed quite different from the rest. He wore a plain dark gown, with sandals on his feet. A long silvery beard flowed nearly to his girdle; and the boys liked his face, with its kind, benevolent expression.

This was the monk Gregory, who was loved by all the people of Rome for his simple goodness of heart.

As the old man passed through the hall he looked pityingly at the poor people who were waiting to be sold. When he came to the English boys he paused, struck by their beautiful rosy faces, fair hair, and rounded limbs.

"Who are these children?" he asked the trader who was standing beside them.

"They are Angles," replied the trader.

"Surely not Angles, but angels," said Gregory; "for they have the faces of angels."

He looked at them again very thoughtfully, and asked the trader whether these children were Christians.

"No, sir," replied the merchant; "the Angles are heathens, and have a very cruel religion."

"What a pity, what a pity!" said the good monk. "What is the name of their country?"

"They come from a place called Deira," said the trader.

"Ira" is the Latin word for wrath; and Gregory seemed to find a meaning in all the names connected with these angel-faced children.

"De ira," he said; "ay, from the wrath of God they shall be called to Christ's mercy.—And what is the name of their King?" he inquired.

"Ella," replied the merchant.

"Ella!" cried the monk; "Alleluia shall be sung in Ella's land"; and he passed on his way with a silent vow that one day he would find a means of teaching the English people to become Christians.

Here the history of these children ends, so far as we know it. The old writer who tells us of the meeting of the monk Gregory with the captive children does not say what became of them after this. Surely they found good masters and happy homes; for it was through them that the Good News was brought to their native land, and that the people learned to live peaceably in a united country.

After he left the slave-market the thought of these fair-faced boys followed Gregory wherever he went. He thought of many plans, and at last he resolved, old as he was, to undertake the long journey to the savage country of England and to teach the true religion to its inhabitants. But when the Roman people found that he was going to leave them, they begged Gregory so hard to stay that he made up his mind that he could not go away into a heathen country while he was so badly needed by his own people at home.

Still he had no rest when he thought that the English were living and dying as heathens. About four years after the meeting with the boys, he was made Pope, and then he saw that his opportunity was come.

A band of forty monks, with an Abbot of the name of Augustine at their head, was chosen by Pope Gregory for the conversion of England.

In those days the journey from Rome to England was a long and perilous one. Slowly the monks made their way through Italy and Switzerland, staying sometimes at the monasteries on their way. At last they were in Gaul, and were able to gain some information about the fierce and warlike people whom they had been sent to convert.

In an abbey near Paris they were kindly received by the monks, who were glad to meet the brave missionaries who had been sent to bring Christianity to the heathen inhabitants of England.

"Perhaps your task will be easier than you expect," said a monk who had been listening very attentively while the travellers told their tale.

All turned to look at the speaker.

"Do you not remember," he said, "that Ethelbert, King of Kent, married Bertha, the daughter of our good King? Bertha is Christian, and surely her husband will not harden his heart towards those who are of the religion of his good wife."

The monks were greatly cheered at this news. Messengers were sent to Ethelbert to prepare him for the coming of Augustine, an a few days later the leader and his party landed on the island of Thanet in Kent.

When Ethelbert heard that the missionaries had actually set foot in his dominions, he felt uneasy.

"The Christians are very good folk," he aid; "my wife is one, and I've given her little church of her own to do as she likes n; still, I'm not very sure about them; I think some of them are too fond of meddling with magic."

Still, after consulting with his wise men, he consented to meet the Romans and to hear what they had to say, provided that the meeting should take place out of doors, for he believed that the magic spells would have less power in the open air.

Thrones were placed for him and Bertha on the hillside, and the band of monk approached, bearing a silver cross, and chanting a hymn, with Augustine at their head.

Ethelbert listened attentively as Augustine told him about the Christian religion, and invited him to forsake the cruel bloodthirsty gods of the English.

"Your words," he said, when the abbot ad finished, "are fair; but what you tell and is new and strange. I cannot leave all at once what I and my English folk have believed for so long. But let me think over what yo say; and if any of my folk will believe what you believe, I will not hinder them."

The monks were overjoyed at the King's answer. Bearing their silver cross in front of them, they entered the town of Canterbury.

"Turn from this city, O Lord," they sang, "Thy wrath and anger."

Then in joy and thankfulness they sang "Alleluia" in the streets, while the people looked on and wondered.

Ethelbert gave the missionaries a church to preach in, and he and his people often came to listen to them. So well did the good monks speak that after a little while the king consented to become a Christian, and was baptized, and many of his men with him; and Kent thus became the first Christian kingdom of England.

Many years afterwards, Ethelbert's daughter was given in marriage to Edwin, King of Northumbria. Edwin was a good and wise man; but he vas a heathen. Among the people who accompanied the young queen to her northern home was her chaplain Paulinus, and it was the great wish both of Paulinus and of the queen that through their means Edwin might become converted to Christianity.

All that winter Edwin listened to the words of his queen and of Paulinus, and pondered them very deeply.

In the spring he called his wise men together, and asked them to advise him.

Paulinus, the Roman chaplain, tall, thin and stooping, with black hair falling round his dark, eager face, spoke to the stout, ruddy English, and told them about his religion.

The wise men listened very thoughtfully; and they asked Paulinus many questions.

After a while an old man rose up.

"So seems the life of man, O king," he said, "as a sparrow's flight through the hall when one is sitting at meat in the winter-tide. The warm fire is lighted on the hearth; the torches are blazing; and the hall is bright and warm.

"But without the snow is falling, and the winds are howling.

"Then comes a sparrow and flies into the hall, and passes out by the other door. She comes in at one door and goes out by the other; and passes from winter to winter. For a moment she has rest; for a moment she is in the light and warmth, she feels not the storm nor the cheerless winter weather.

"But the moment is brief.

"The short time of rest and warmth is soon over, and she is out in the storm again and has passed from our sight.

"So it is with the life of man; it, too, is but for a moment, what has gone before, and what will come after it, we do not know, and no man has yet told us.

"If, then, these strangers can tell us aught of what is beyond the grave—if they can tell us whence man comes and whither he goes, let us give ear to them and think over what they say."

A murmur went round the hall as the old man showed them by this story that the new religion told them of a life beyond this world, while their own did not.

Then up started Coifi, the chief priest of the heathen gods whom the king and his people had worshipped.

"O king," cried the priest, "there is no man in this hall has served the gods more faithfully than I, but they have never done anything for me."

When the wise men had made an end of speaking, the king rose up and said, "Let us worship the God of Paulinus, and follow his ways."

Then he called aloud and said, "Who will be the first to throw down the altar of these false gods and destroy their temple."

"I will be the first, O king," shouted Coifi the priest. "Give me a horse and weapons, and I will overthrow the temple of the false gods. Follow me, O thanes, and let us see if the gods can defend their own altars."

Then, snatching a sword, the high priest rushed from the hall and sprang upon the king's war-horse.

The king and his wise men followed; and on their way they were joined by a number of people who left their work or the cattle they were tending, and followed, shouting as they ran, "Coin the high priest is mad!"

Soon they arrived at the temple. Here the people hung back, afraid to enter, but the priest burst open the door with a blow of his spear, and rode into the wooden building.

The king and his wise men followed, but the others remained outside, wondering what dreadful thing would happen to the mad priest.

Before them was the dark interior of the temple with the altar at the farther end, and the great wooden figure of the god rising above it; a monstrous thing painted in gaudy colours, with a fierce, cruel grin on its ugly face; and the madman was riding his war-horse in the building.

Surely the god was about to take some terrible vengeance!

A great crash resounded through the temple as the priest hurled his sword at the wooden figure.

Some of the people ran away; others remained huddled at the door, too terrified to move.

But nothing happened.

There was the figure of the god still grinning down upon the people as before, without a change in its face. No thunder came down from heaven to destroy the rash priest and his followers who had insulted the temple.

"The gods are not4able to defend themselves," shouted the wise men. "The gods of the English are false gods"; then rushing into the temple, they pulled the idol from its place and dragged it out of doors, while the people threw themselves upon the temple and pulled it to pieces. After that they tore up the hedge that surrounded the temple; and with the hedge and the ruins of the temple they made a bonfire whose flames rose high in the air and were seen far and wide, while in the middle of the fire the idol was burned to ashes.

Then the people went home, and were baptized by Paulinus.