In the Days of Alfred the Great - E. M. Tappan

Queen Judith

The next two years were the happiest period of Ethelwulf's life since his coronation. The people of Kent had welcomed him and had found no fault with his marriage. His delight in being free to give his time to the church was intensified by the happiness of those around him. He had all the pleasures of a king and almost none of the responsibilities. He could occupy himself in planning generous gifts to the church and in signing charters to enrich some monastery. He could entertain holy pilgrims and rejoice in their promises that many prayers should be offered for the benefit of his soul. He need not take the king's place at the head of the army, for Ethelbald's energetic measures and his reputation, which had spread even to Denmark, had given the land a respite from her tormentors. At his son's usurpation of the kingdom, Ethelwulf felt not the slightest indignation. He looked upon it rather as a providential event by which he was enabled to give his life to what would bring him most enjoyment and most profit; and he greeted Ethelbald with the utmost cordiality, and even invited him to listen to a special course of psalms to be sung for his benefit when the king of the West Saxons came to Kent with some paper that he thought his father's signature might make more binding on the priests, or on those nobles who, though silent for fear of Ethelbald's strong hand, were still loyal to the rightful king.

Judith had been free to introduce into the court whatever she chose of form and ceremony. The people of Kent were as fascinated as Alfred with the sparkling beauty of their queen and her alternate merriment and stateliness, and criticised nothing that she did. Some of them felt that it was an honor to be allied with the Frankish kingdom; and others remembered that Ethelwulf's bride had been won while he was on his return from a holy pilgrimage, and even fancied that this gave an additional shade of sacredness to the marriage. Osburga had been little known in Kent, so comparisons were never made between her unvarying gentleness and Judith's occasional waywardness. Ethelwulf gladly left much of the royal power in her hands. When the thegns came to consult the king, it was often the fair Judith who met them, heard their story, and decided matters as best suited her whim for the moment. The thegns never knew what to expect from her, but they were sure that she would let no man leave her dissatisfied with her treatment. When one claimed that his neighbor had encroached upon his boundaries, this new judge pacified him with the gift of a golden dish worth thrice the value of the disputed land, and he went away content.

For some time the novelty of her position and her freedom of sway afforded her all the amusement that she could ask; but after Ethelbald's first visit, she seemed restless.

"Is the realm of the West Saxons larger than this?" she asked of the king.

"Much larger," said he. "It is a fertile land, and it has wealth and wide boundaries, and its army can command twenty men to one of the land of Kent. It is a sad burden for a man to rule the kingdom of the West Saxons."

"Is the king's palace finer than this?" continued Judith.

"It is a great house," broke in Alfred, who had been eagerly listening, "and there were very many dishes of gold, and red and blue stones were around the edges; and the high seat in the hall was covered with purple and gold, and the pictures on the tapestries were of men and horses and water and boats; and the nixyman lives in the brook, and if you stop to look, he pulls you down; and the smith puts a rune on the sword when he likes his lord, and the flowers grow all around—" but the child stopped for want of breath.

"You remember well," said the king, smiling at his little son. "But do you not remember the church, too, Alfred, where the psalms were chanted every morning? But I have taught the singers here to chant as they do in Rome, Judith. The land of the West Saxons is a fair country, but the chanting is much better here. I am sure that you would like this land better."

Judith hardly heard his last words. She was gazing absently to the westward, and as if she had beckoned him to come, a rider appeared at the turn of the way. He came up slowly and was admitted into the palace. He bowed with deference to the king, then turned to the queen and said:—

"My lord the king of the West Saxons bade me bring you this." He glanced quickly at the king, and made his farewells as rapidly as possible. He had presented Judith with a little silken package bound with a slender gold chain. She held it silently for a moment and glanced at Ethelwulf. His face was calm and peaceful. She slipped off the gold chain and unfolded the silk. There lay a most exquisitely wrought mirror of polished silver set with clusters of amethysts. Under the mirror was a bit of parchment, and on it was written:—

"To the fairest of queens from one who admires her and would willingly—" That was all. Judith's face flushed scarlet, but King Ethelwulf was apparently much pleased.

"My son is a man of many interests," he said. "I suppose he could not stay with his scribe, and the lad forgot the rest of the message. He must have meant to write 'would willingly be his own messenger.' It is a pleasant courtesy, and we will send men to him with our thanks and a return gift before many days have passed."

But the first messenger that was sent to Ethelbald bore the sad tidings that the gentle old king was sick unto death. Judith, repenting the folly of her thought, was his most devoted attendant. The king was calm and happy. He had before this made his will, arranging for what he had no doubt was for the best good of his kingdom. Judith's kindness to Alfred assured him of the child's comfort, and he died peacefully without a shadow of unrest.

His will had been signed by some of the most powerful men among the West Saxons in token of their satisfaction with its provisions. He left Kent and the eastern district to Ethelbert, his second son, while Wessex, the most valuable part of the kingdom, was to remain in the hands of Ethelbald. If Ethelbald died leaving no children, Wessex was to come to Ethelred and then to Alfred. There was provision made for various deeds of charity for the benefit of his soul, and especially that one poor man in every ten of those living on his lands should be supplied with "meat, drink, and clothing," be he a native or foreigner—a rare bit of liberality in those times. This gift was to be continued by his successors "until the Day of Judgment, supposing, however, that the country should still be inhabited by men and cattle, and should not become deserted."

A long procession of truly sorrowing people followed the bier of Ethelwulf to his grave in Winchester cathedral. Then Judith and Alfred returned to the palace in Kent. Judith was sincerely grieved at the death of the kind-hearted old king, who had been to her a father rather than a husband, and she was even more kind than ever to her little stepson.

Ethelbert had taken his position as ruler of Kent. He was a gentle, quiet man, with all his father's sincerity, but he held quite different ideas of the duty of a king to his people. Ethelwulf had been contented if he heard no complaint; Ethelbert meant to see for himself that there was no ground for complaint. The result was that there were no more decisions made after the manner of Judith, for Ethelbert held the reins of his little kingdom gently but firmly, and he himself looked into all matters of dispute. The house of the noble and the straw-thatched cottage of the noble's workingman were both familiar to him, and in both was he equally welcome. His people felt for him the same love that they had felt for Ethelwulf, and they had a much greater confidence in his judgments, feeling that he knew his people as Ethelwulf had never known them.

Alfred was allowed to remain in Kent, much to Ethelbert's pleasure, but a little to his surprise.

Ethelbald had at first declared that the child should live with him, his lawful guardian; but suddenly he had checked himself, glanced at Judith, and yielded the point, saying:—

"As I am the boy's guardian, I shall pay him frequent visits."

Before many weeks, Judith's natural gayety and restlessness of disposition began to show itself. There seemed no place for her in the court of Ethelbert. He was kind and courteous, and apparently glad of her presence, but her taste of power had made her more restless than ever. She began to think that she would go back to her father's court, when her thoughts were suddenly turned back into an old channel from which they had seemed to have made their escape.

She was wandering about the skirts of the forest one day in early summer, Alfred her attendant as usual.

"I am tired," said Judith. "We'll sit down on this log, and I'll make you a crown of buttercups."

"Hilda made me a crown," said Alfred, "and then the robbers came, and they tied Hilda and hurt her; but they let me go, and didn't hurt me—"

"Oh!" exclaimed Judith, in a startled tone. Then quickly recovering herself, she said with her most dignified air:—

"Do you wish anything of the queen of Kent?"

An old woman bowed humbly before her. She wore a robe of dark brown or gray, so like the color of the trunks of the trees that she had wound her way among them without being seen until she was very near the queen and Alfred.

"The queen of Kent shall have a larger kingdom," she muttered in a low monotone, while her eyes were apparently gazing far away and she was making strange motions in the air with her fingers. The light and the dark did not strive; but the dark won, and the dark shall win."

There was something so uncanny in the woman's manner that for once Judith was really frightened. She arose and turned toward the palace, as if to summon aid. When she looked back again, the woman had gone as mysteriously as she had come.

Alfred had sat motionless during the interview, which indeed had lasted scarcely three minutes. He said:—

"I do not like that woman, Judith. I want to go home." They went toward the palace, both silent; but a spot of red burned on Judith's cheeks, as little by little the possible meaning of the old woman's speech came to her. From the secret place where she kept her treasures, she drew forth the bit of parchment and read:—

"One who admires her and would willingly—" Should she remain in Kent, or return to her own land—or should she defy the law of the church and the law of the land and become the queen of the West Saxons? She stood gazing at the bit of parchment when Alfred came to her.

"How does it say anything, Judith? Those queer marks haven't any sound. How does it talk? Won't you tell me how to hear it?"

"Yes, I will," said Judith. "I'll teach you to read and to write, and we'll begin now," for she was glad to have the matter out of her mind for even a little while.

From that time on for many days Alfred had his lesson in reading and writing every morning. There is a fine old English poem called "Judith," and it has been suggested that perhaps it was written in honor of this Judith's coming to England, and that maybe this was the book from which Alfred learned to read. It is the old story of Judith and Holofernes, captain of the Assyrians. Holofernes has subdued all the other people of the west country. He is now besieging the town of the Israelites and has gotten possession of their fountains of water. The Israelites agree to wait five days for help, and then, if the Lord does not aid them, they are determined to surrender. Judith sends for the leaders of the people and tells them that they must not limit God to five days, but must trust Him to save them. Something in her manner gives them confidence, and when she hints that she has thought of a way of salvation, they ask no questions, but go away begging her to pray for them.

Judith puts on her finest apparel and all her jewels and makes her way to the camp of the heathen. Holofernes is charmed with her beauty, and vows that he will carry her home to be the wife of his king; but at night, after a drunken revel, he falls into a stupor, and Judith and her maid draw aside the curtain of his tent, and Judith smites "twice upon his neck"; and the next morning, when as usual they leave the camp of the heathen to go out to pray, the maid carries in a basket the head of Holofernes.

Great is the rejoicing when the people on the walls of the beleaguered town see coming toward them "the maid of the Lord." They rush forth to meet her; and possibly these are the very lines whose complicated black letters and beautifully illuminated capitals Alfred's childish fingers may have traced in his efforts to "hear what the marks say."

The army rejoiced,

The people pressed to the fortress gate,

Women and men together; in crowds,

In multitudes, masses, they surged and they thronged,

Old men and young men running by thousands,

To meet the maid of the Lord; and the heart

Of every man in the city rejoiced

That Judith had come again to her homeland.

Straightway they flung wide the gates and gave welcome,

With reverence they bade her to enter the city.

Ethelbert was not quite sure that it was wise for his little brother to learn to read and write, for his father had known how to read, and had he not lost his kingdom? but the child pleaded so earnestly, and Judith's argument that a king ought to be able to sign his name to state documents was so convincing, that he yielded, and Alfred went on happily, to Judith's pleasure as well as his.

But the question that was weighing so heavily upon Judith returned again and again, and at last one who knew of it might have guessed from the touch of recklessness in her manner that it had been decided, even before Ethelbald came to her for his brief and determined wooing.

A stronger man than Ethelbald would have followed the right way; a weaker man would have had many misgivings. Ethelbald was not strong enough to do right, and he was not weak enough to hesitate. In this, as in everything else, he carried matters with a high hand. Before he came to Judith, he had had a stormy interview with one of his bishops. As he had raised the prelate to his present position, the king had no doubt of his ability to control his priest. With coat of mail and sword he strode into the chamber of the bishop.

"I propose to wed Judith, queen of Kent," he said bluntly.

"Such a marriage is against the custom of the land and the law of the church," said the bishop firmly.

"Then I'll marry her without the custom of the land and the law of the church," said Ethelbald.

"It was for breaking the law that your father lost his kingdom," said the bishop.

"My father lost his kingdom because he was not strong enough to hold it," said Ethelbald.

"Think you," asked the bishop quietly, "that the king of the Franks would permit his daughter to wed without the blessing of the church?"

"The king of the Franks has all that he can do to remain king of the Franks," sneered Ethelbald. "He will not interfere with the land of the West Saxons. But you talk of breaking the laws of the church. Was it not breaking her laws for a man to draw back after he had begun to be a priest?"

"Your father had the dispensation of the Pope because of the unforeseen needs of the kingdom," said the bishop.

"Very well," said Ethelbald, "get as many dispensations as you like, and pay the price; endow a church if you choose. One never knows what whim a woman may take into her head, and if the fair Judith fancies a dispensation instead of a jewel, it is the same to me; only it will be a day late, for if the queen of Kent agrees, she shall be queen of the West Saxons within a month, and you shall say the words that make her my wife."

"Never," said the bishop firmly.

The king drew his sword. "Do you know that if I take your life this moment, there is not one man in my kingdom who will dare call me to account?"

"The life of the priest is at the service of the church," said the bishop, glancing indifferently at the drawn sword.

"So that's it, is it?" said Ethelbald. "Then the priest may have his life, but he shall not have his church. Promise me here upon the cross that when I bring to you her who is to be queen of the West Saxons, you will say over us the words that make her my wife and that you will pronounce upon us the blessing of the church. Refuse, and I swear to you here by my sword that before the next coming of the new moon there shall not be a church standing in the land of the West Saxons. Choose." The bishop paled.

"I know whereof I speak," said Ethelbald. "There are men in my pay who would burn a church as willingly as a heap of brushwood." The bishop knew that this was true.

"Choose," thundered Ethelbald. The bishop sank trembling upon a bench.

"I yield," he said. "I will say the words that make you man and wife. The sin be mine; the churches are saved. Other men have given their lives for the church; I have given my soul."

"You will pronounce the blessing of the church?" persisted Ethelbald mercilessly.

"I will," said the bishop, as a deathly pallor spread over his face.

"Here's your pay," said the king, tossing him a bag of gold coins, a rarity in the Saxon kingdom. It fell upon the floor. The bishop roused himself and gave the little bag a most unbishoply kick out of the open door.

"Thy gold perish with thee," he whispered sharply, as he sank back again on the bench. Ethelbald laughed.

"I like your pluck," said he. "It's a pity that you had to give in, but I really don't see that you had any way out of it."

As soon as the proposed marriage was known over the kingdom, there was a stern wrath and indignation manifested that would have warned a man far less keen than the king that the utmost which even he dared attempt was a quiet ceremony with none of the customary feasting and rejoicing.

Alfred was broken-hearted at losing Judith, and at last Ethelbert sent for Swithin to try to comfort him. The bishop told him as clearly as he could tell a child of nine years that Judith had done what was wrong.

"You do not wish to live with a woman who would teach you to do wrong, do you, Alfred?" the bishop questioned gently.

"No," said Alfred, "but I want my Judith. I do want my Judith."