Aldred pulled the battered manuscript out of his bag. He had carried it a long time, never had a chance to read it properly. The Latin was difficult, the thought deep, too much for Aldred to tackle while managing the community’s estates and traipsing around the countryside with the bishop.
Now he was not going anywhere much. His body, he reflected ruefully, could no longer take the hardships of travel. And the roads, he was reminded by recent visitors to the safe haven of Chester-le-Street, were not safe with more vikings arriving and the Wessex King Æthelred unready to take them on. His friend and bishop, Ælfsige, was still going strong, always the abler body, although a few years older. Aldred had pushed himself throughout his adult life, like Martha, dealing with everything from land disputes to liturgical rites to educating novices, poring over manuscripts while on the road. He thought back longingly to the intense four years he devoted to working on one book, glossing the Gospels. Could he settle into that simple life of reading and contemplation, sitting like Mary at the feet of Jesus?
Turning his thought outward, he saw the turmoil surrounding Chester-le-Street and throughout Northumbria. There were no safe places even for a hermit, assuming Ælfsige would let him imitate blessed Cuthbert and retreat to an off-shore island. His inner eye turned to Lindisfarne, their ancient monastic home. Could he escape there?
Not really. His whole life serving his community and homeland had been one of upheaval. Now he would end his days, a faithful servant ofSt. Cuthbert, keeping the shrine’s lamps lit in the midst of a dark world.
He opened the manuscript and slowly read the first poem. It sounded like the psalmist, weeping over ill fortune and wondering where God is. The author, a Roman named Boethius, bemoans his premature aging, locked in prison unjustly. The last line brought Aldred up short, it so neatly expressed his feeling of insecurity: qui cedidit, stabili non erat ille gradu. The one who has fallen, never stood secure.
His thought traveled back in time, to when he had first seen a copy of this book, but in English….
He was 19, a young man caught in the middle of a battle he did not understand. He was at Heysham, a fine monastery at one time and perhaps again in the future. Right now it had been temporarily abandoned by its community, for reasons unclear to Aldred arriving unexpectedly, traveling from Northumbria in search of books.
The book in his hands was in the West Saxon dialect, and its opening clearly attributed its production to the great King Alfred. Aldred had found it in an otherwise empty cupboard in the cloister, its plain brown leather cover without ornament blending into the dark recesses of the wood. Typical of soft bound volumes, the loose extra folds of leather were tied across to protect the pages. The parchment was good, though, and the scribe’s hand easy to read. Although he would love to acquire a Latin copy of the book to ponder, the English version was a valuable addition to their library.
Aldred skimmed through the preface and stopped at the line hliste se þe wille. He decided he was willing to listen. He shoved the book into his bag and set off back through the corridors to where Owen waited.
“Hurry. They could be on the march any moment.”
Aldred regarded his cousin warily. Owen, his father’s sister’s son, was a year older, well-armed and already battle-scarred. He fought in the fyrd of the Strathclyde king, allied with the Scots king Constantine. Until today, Aldred had never met him and knew of him only from family history recounted by his mother and her brother, Uncle Tilred. His father’s sister had married a Cumbrian warrior living north of Carlisle and had four sons. After his father’s death in the battle of Corbridge fighting with the Scots and Northumbrians against the viking Ragnall, they had not heard from his father’s siblings.
Now it appeared that a coalition of Scots, Strathclyde Cumbrians, and vikings from Dublin, as well as a band of York vikings, were prepared to fight against the Wessex King Athelstan in what could prove to be an epic battle for control in the North. And Aldred had in his bag a book belonging to Athelstan’s grandfather Alfred written in the speech of the West Saxons.
Owen was trying to hurry him out of the abandoned building, Aldred thought, to escort him to safer ground before the two armies collided nearby. Where that safer ground might be was questionable.
“Neither side should harm an unarmed man of God,” Aldred had protested. “I am under the protection of St. Cuthbert.”
“That remains to be seen,” Owen replied grimly. Whether he meant that God and St. Cuthbert would not be able to protect him from either side, or was questioning which side St. Cuthbert—or Aldred—favored was unclear. In any case, Owen assured him that it was no consolation for the victim if the archer discovered afterward that his target was a non-combatant.
From the church’s perch on the Heysham headland, they saw across the green peninsula to the south ships in the wide estuary of the Lune disgorging men and equipment. From the south, rumors and, slightly less reliably, spies, had brought news that Athelstan and his brother Edmund, with Mercians joining them, were heading north. The space between would be the battlefield where many were fated to die.
For Aldred now to flee eastward on his planned journey home over the Pennines to Northumbria would mean passing through chaos. He knew from story and experience that battles were not just about two groups of warriors lined up against each other on a field. Scattered in their wake and surrounding their camps swirled lordless and landless warriors, disreputable sellers of dubious wares, and displaced villagers whose animals and food reserves had been commandeered by the warband. And in their midst, wily thieves took advantage of unwary travelers.
Once again Owen urged him to take up arms and join them. “You are young and strong, not yet a priest. You must have some skill with sword, spear, or bow.” Owen could not imagine a warrior’s son without such basic training, even if destined for the church.
Aldred nervously took several quick breaths and tried unsuccessfully to pray. His voice a bit unsteady, he answered “No, my cousin.” He paused, searching for the right words to express his confused thoughts about the kind of man he might become. “I cannot take up arms in this or any fight. My skills are with pen and parchment. I can read you stories of past battles or set into record the deeds of others, but I do not make them.”
Owen looked disappointed—perhaps he wanted a kinsman friend beside him. Aldred persisted, though, with some of his doubts. “Nor can I choose sides when Christian fights Christian. I can, however, pray God’s mercy on our souls.” He did not add his true thoughts: that it was a sad day when Christians allied with pagans against brothers. On the other hand, he was torn over the rightness of Wessex’s claims to control his Northumbrian homeland, despite the generous gifts of King Athelstan to the patrimony of St. Cuthbert at his home church at Chester-le-Street, just three years ago.
Owen sighed. “Then I will have to take you with me, willing or unwilling.”
Aldred was startled. Was this a request or a command?
“I was ordered to take hostage any religious I found at Heysham. Reports are that Wessex spies have used this place as a refuge.”
“Surely you do not think I would betray…” Aldred’s voice trailed off. No wonder the monks had temporarily abandoned the site. Owen had found Aldred on the road approaching Heysham from Heversham, the old monastery his uncle Tilred had once overseen as abbot. Aldred was on a book pilgrimage, traveling to Cumbrian churches in search of manuscripts. All he had was a baggage donkey and his loyal servant Leáf, both of whom stood nervously apart from the two cousins.
Aldred wavered uncertainly for the space of several minutes, seemingly lost, but his spirit within was rebelling against God. His prayer ran something along the lines of the psalmist, “Why, Oh Lord, do you abandon me to the evildoer?” An impulse to fight rippled through his arms: should he shove away this accidentally met cousin? Or join him in combat? The old restlessness that sent him out on the road made his legs want to run, and run some more as he did as a youth. He loved to run even now, galloping around fields and hedges, undignfied as it may seem for a cleric in training.
Aldred swayed but stood still, then turned to look north across the wide flat sands of Morecambe bay. Stories of Saint Cuthbert were told all around this region, how in life he traveled bringing the gospel to these shores and in death brought his bier-carrying followers to this bay, as they chased after the lost reliquary holding the Gospelbooks.
He sensed Owen’s restlessness beside him, the man’s hand clutching his sword hilt, rocking on his feet, ready to do battle.
“Well, let us go.” His concession to Owen brought relief to the young man’s face. Eager as he was for battle, he did not like the idea of tackling an unarmed man, a relative at that.
Owen had his own horse and men at the entrance to the headland. Aldred was fortunate that his cousin had initially allowed him to come up into the monastery and check its cupboards for books while the men searched the outbuildings. Fortunate, that is, that they had exchanged full names, each recognizing their kinship: Aldred son of Alfred son of Brihtwulf; Owen son of Dunmail and Byrhtgifu, daughter of Brihtwulf.
Now the two young men walked down to the small band of guards, trailed discreetly by Leáf with the donkey.
When they reached his men, Owen hesitated. He should make Aldred ride behind one of the lesser men, but his mixture of guilt and relief at having Aldred come along peaceably caused him to pause indecisively. Instead, he said loudly enough for the men to hear, “ride with me, cousin.” To Aldred, he said, “Your man will have to ride the donkey and keep up as best he can.”
Aldred nodded to Leáf, who looked dubiously at the heavily laden animal. “My books….” Aldred said, less concerned about the food supplies.
Impatiently, Owen ordered one of his men to take one layer of bags off the donkey and sling it onto one of their horses, while he hauled Aldred up behind him on his horse. And then they were off, a sharp October wind blowing from the sea pushing them into a canter.
Thus it was that Aldred found himself in a tent amidst one of the largest gatherings of warriors the isle of Britain had seen since the adventus saxonum, the arrival of his own Saxon ancestors four centuries ago. Owen had led them from Heysham eastward about four miles, then south another four miles along the Roman road to Galgate, where the northern allies were massing for a southward attack into Athelstan’s territory.
Unknown to Aldred, six weeks earlier, a large force of Norse Dubliners headed by Anlaf Guthfrithson had landed at the Lune south of the Heysham headland, and begun harrying southward into Athelstan’s territory of Amounderness, drawing the Wessex king’s attention to this insecure borderland with Cumbria, a land caught betwixt and between, peopled by the indigenous Strathyclyde Britons, Northumbrian Anglians, and recently settled Vikings. Now Scots King Constantine and Strathclyde King Owain, with whom the Dublin viking leader Anlaf had reconnoitered over the summer, had come south from Carlisle to their pre-arranged site of Galgate. The viking ships Aldred and Owen had seen in the Lune were merely delivering more supplies to an already fortified army of allies.
News of Athelstan’s troops moving northward on the west, Aldred realized, must have reached the allies at least two weeks ago, setting in motion their plans. Aldred himself left Carlisle a month ago, and although he had felt the uneasiness of folk hiding and hoarding their food, signs of impending battle, he had seen no troops on the march. The combined forces must have gone past him through the Eden valley while he was holed up at Heversham reading books last week. Aldred had moved at a leisurely pace, unaware of the terrible storm on his heels…until now.
There were other clergy at the allies’ camp, but he found them busy with masses and prayers for the warband leaders and impatient with one stray nineteen year old whom some of them thought should be arming himself for battle. None of them were of St. Cuthbert’s community or even Northumbrian—a few were local Cumbrian priests and others from Scotland, and one was a high-born monk from Ireland who had crossed the sea with the Norse band of Anlaf. Finn was the most sympathetic to Aldred’s plight and agreed to help him store his books in an iron-bound chest, although he eyed some of them greedily as they joined his own treasured volumes. Aldred knew that look in the eye of a scholar, the desire for book flesh, and wondered if he would see any of his books again. On the other hand, perhaps he would get a look at Finn’s and they could do some copying—if there was a calm during this storm for scribes.
He still had King Alfred’s Boethius in his bag, along with his writing kit. So in a tent while his kindred prepared themselves for battle against Alfred’s grandson, Aldred began to read, not knowing whether he was a prisoner of one side, soon to be the prisoner of the other, or would simply be killed in the battle whether he fought or not. Owen had apparently made some account to his lord when they arrived midday and left Aldred and Leáf to fend for themselves in the camp. They had set up their tent away from the warriors, near the clergy and servants, found some food, and settled in for the evening.
Leáf sat near him leaning toward the light of the lantern by which Aldred read. He was mending the strap of his bag that had come loose, his nimble fingers weaving the frayed leather straps into a stronger rope.
“Read to me, master.” Leáf had been a servant in his mother’s household, twenty years old when Aldred was born. When in fulfillment of her vow, she sent Aldred at age 7 to Hexham for schooling, she sent Leáf along with other gifts to help support the struggling monastic community. Leáf was his connection to home—to his mother and sister whom he loved dearly and missed during his years away, although he visited whenever he could and wrote to them regularly, once he had learned to write, letters that Leáf delivered.
Leáf—his name recalling both the green leaves of trees and the white parchment pages of books—was often curious about the materials Aldred studied and in turn Aldred found it helped him to understand the text if he explained it to an illiteratus. Perhaps, Aldred thought, I might someday become a scholar and master of schoolboys.
“This book opens with a poem that tells the story of Boethius. He was a noble Roman scholar imprisoned by Theodoric, a Gothic king who laid aside true faith in Christ for the false teaching of Arius. Arius was a heretic who taught a lesser view of our Lord Jesus, God Incarnate,” Aldred added from his small storehouse of church history.
“Boethius was a truthful straightforward man in a court full of crookedness and lies. He was falsely accused of bad faith toward the king. Before he was excecuted, he wrote this book.” Aldred did not add that it was translated by King Alfred, considering their position here.
“In these verses, Boethius laments: why do the good suffer for doing good, and the evil prosper?”
Leáf nodded, agreeing that this is the way of men.
“In the second poem, the outcast Boethius is weeping like the psalmist over his own turn of fate: “See how before I sang with joy many songs gladly; now I shall, sighing, weighed down with weeping, a grieving wretch, sing sorrow-speech.”
Leáf glanced up at his young master. He could hear Aldred adopting the voice of Boethius and see in his face the temptation to feel sorry for himself. The boy always had a flair for drama, acting out parts from stories, putting himeself into other people lives.
Aldred read with feeling, “Ah, in how grim and how endless a hole struggles the darkened mind when the strong storms of world-busyness beat it.” He sighed, “it is, as Boethius says, hard to remember joyous times when you are suffering evil.”
“Our place is not yet so bad, master Aldred. You are young, unlike this Boethius, and not a prisoner condemned to death but a hostage of a kinsman.”
Aldred reflected: yes their sitiuation was not so dire, except that at least Boethius had lived a full life leaving healthy sons, while Aldred was just starting out on life, yet to reach fruition in the sacramental role of priest.
“But why,” he continued to Leáf, “does God allow fate (wyrd) to favor evil? I agree with Boethius that it does seem like God lets fate control men’s lives, rather than justice, and hence many do not have faith in God.”
Leáf waited as Aldred’s face contorted into various expressions of grief and anger over the injustices of the world. He knew Aldred’s mod and need to work through these feelings lest he act wrongly. Leáf was a more cautious and patient man, who learned as a servant to keep his face blank no matter what his eyes saw or his ears heard.
After his master’s face settled into a faraway look, he asked, “What answer does this Boethius offer in his book?”
Aldred looked back down at the volume. “The curious thing is that Boethius does not have any answers.” Neither did he. Aldred took on his didactive voice, “The book is a dialogue, like master and student in the formula “tell me,” using verses and prose to guide the reader. It is a being called Wisdom who speaks to Boethius’ mod, leading him on a path of reason to divine understanding.” For a moment, Aldred wished that God would send such a one to him. Quickly he realized that God had, indeed, given him this book and his faithful Leáf for just such a time.
“And what is the first step on this path?” Leáf asked. He had finished weaving the strap and took up a bone needle to sew it onto the skin bag.
Aldred read the next section, his lips moving quickly, and then he stopped.
“What is it?” Leáf asked.
“Wisdom says that we have lost our birth home, strayed from our father’s country, we are wanderers, exiles of our own making, and that is why we are sorrowful.”
“True enough, but is this Wisdom offering a way home for us?” Leáf had adopted the first person plural of Aldred’s summary.
“Who am I and where do I belong?” Aldred said aloud, not quite intending to.
“You are Aldred, son of Alfred and Tilwif, born at Easington—I was there,” Leáf reminded him. “And you belong to God and St. Cuthbert,” he added, “at least by your mother, my mistress’s, account.”
Aldred pondered this. Am I a collection of circumstances of birth and accidents of life, the will of his mother, the sum total of the events of his first nineteen years? Or was he something in himself, a Mind that lived in but also apart from these circumstances? If all were taken away from him right now—his books, his family, his community, even his life—what would he be or to what community would he belong?
“I am only a half formed man. I do not know yet what I will become, if I live.”
Though his servant, Leáf as a man twenty years his senior could say to Aldred, “True, you are not yet a man. You do not seem to know your own mind and heart. Does the book tell you who owns you?” To Leáf, all men are owned by someone.
Aldred returned to the book. “Wisdom offers a riddle: Tell me, what end does each beginning want?”
After a pause, his needle in the air, Leáf offered, “Well, if you know the beginning of something, then is that not also a clue to its end? If I own a ewe and see it birth a lamb, I know that the lamb will grow not into a wolf but into a sheep, its wool for our warmth, its flesh for our food, its skin for your parchment.”
Aldred knew the higher truth Leáf meant. “If the creator made me, then my end is found in the hands of the All-Shaper to use for his purposes.” Aldred reflected silently, it still begs the question of what God made him to be, since Aldred did not know either the beginning or the end of his life, only the present moment. No one remembers their own birth, and Aldred had only his family’s memories of his dedication to God as an infant. Would he not know truly who he was until the end, looking back? Fearfully, his heart sank, how we stumble forward into the dark!
Leáf finished his sewing and put away his tools. “We must sleep, for who knows what the new day holds?” By now it was late night, all of the sounds of war preparation silenced as men went to rest.
Before Leáf put out the lantern flame, Aldred skimmed to the end of the first book, afraid he would not be able to read much more after this. He was caught by one line: “you must let go of fear” to experience the light of faith. He had faith, he thought, but why then was he afraid?
He missed the community bedtime (Compline) psalms, prayers, and hymns calling on God’s light amidst darkness—he longed for his own Northumbrian brothers but did not want to join the clerics here in their warlike mood. Instead, he knelt and recited in Latin a penitential psalm of confession and then 3 psalms for times of trouble They provided a measure of comfort in knowing that the psalmist also struggled with fear and faith, trying to recall the goodness of God in the midst of tribulation. He ended with the Lord’s prayer in English, so Leáf could join him, as was his custom.
His heart heavy with doubt, Aldred rolled himself up in his cloak, Leáf nearby.
The older, and sadly wiser, Aldred sighed at the memory of the battle of Brunanburh and the fate of Leáf. The book before him confirmed his long, hardwon experience since that terrible day: because our main duty in serving God is to oppose the wicked, we are tossed about by many evils in our pilgrimage voyage through life. In theory, while others fight over things of no value, those devoted to God’s kingdom laugh at them from above, safe from their fury and defended by a strength against which their aggressive folly cannot prevail.
In truth, even after more than four decades, Aldred could not—would not—laugh at the folly of Brunanburh and its aftermath. So many lives lost, so much grief. He had heard the verses sung about the battle and could only shake his head at the way kings and poets are able to turn a chaotic tragedy for all sides to their own glory, as if good had somehow triumphed over evil in this one event, when in reality all of the competing factions continued to pursue their own interests in shifting alliances with or against Wessex. The court poets made it seem as if Athelstan and his family were natural rulers by birthright and their enemies fated to die, a view of fate Boethius questioned, rightly so. It did not seem fateful or even providential to Aldred on that day, given his own accidental—and inconsequential—role in the events.
Despite his decades since then of service in a Northumbrian religious community generously supported by the Wessex victors, the battle left a bitter taste in Aldred’s mouth. Fields dark with men’s blood, the poet triumphantly records. But Aldred had seen, touched, and smelt that blood, drenching the edge of his clerical robe as he stood amid the dead and dying.
At that nightmarish moment, Aldred had consecrated himself to a celibate life of service to God. Better the blood of Jesus, shed for men’s sins, on his hands than this. Besides, what sense in having a wife lamenting the loss of husband and sons in battle? Better to serve an eternal family in a spiritual community, administering God’s kingdom in this world. And ironically like Boethius, he had become an administrator of temporal lands, in his case lands bound together by the spirit and memory of St. Cuthbert. He was still left wondering in old age at the value of earthly things—land, wealth, and rank—for which men’s blood was spilt, over and over again.
He also had to admit, though, that his battlefield turn was also a way for him to retreat into another type of material good for which he was prepared to make many sacrifices—books. Philosophia chastises Boethius, the mature Aldred now read in the Latin book, arguing that she did not need a library but just a place in his mind. Yet Aldred had always been a lover of books for the words they contain, which is what led him to be in the middle of that bloody field. In fact, it was the English version of this book he held at the battle that kept his spirit alive in that dark time, so Philosophia knew even then what his mind needed. Good fortune deceives, adverse fortune teaches, Aldred pondered, was it worth it—couldn’t one acquire wisdom without suffering?
The young Aldred started reading the second book of Boethius’s treatise soon after dawn. He had not slept well, slipping in and out of dark dreams filled with harsh sounds of metal on metal, hoarse shouts of angry and frightened men, and the high pitched wails of grieving women. Underneath it all was the short breathless cries of a newborn, matched by his own rapid breathing.
He was awakened by the sounds of battle preparation, Leáf already alert and wary. It appeared Anlaf and Constantine were determined to move their men south to an open area where they could meet Athelstan’s forces early on the following day, if their scouts’ reports were reliable.
Aldred discovered it was useless in all the turmoil trying to find the tent where masses had begun, but also he could not bring himself to pray to increase this battle fervor. His spirit was torn and troubled. Then he recalled that today [12 October] was the feast of St. Wilfrid, the fiery and controversial seventh century Northumbrian bishop (his bishopric much disputed) and founder of the Hexham monastery where Aldred trained. Not everyone in Northumbria celebrated him, at least not with the fervor they devoted to his much more popular contemporary Cuthbert. Remembering the divisive saint did not improve Aldred’s mood or hopes for peace between northerners and southerners.
So, while Leáf, safely mingling with other servants, went out to hunt for food and supplies, Aldred stayed in his tent, out of sight and out of mind, he hoped, and read by the new day’s light as long as he could..
Wisdom was once again addressing the Mind of Boethius, trying to explain to him that the happiness he thought he had was based on worldly desires—woruldgidsunga—and therefore inevitably temporary. Lif was laene, as the poets say, often urging men to enjoy what they had while they could. But Wisdom in Boethius suggested a different view of material and temporal goods: that their loss is the same as their gain, not a true basis for peace and security.
Aldred thought about times when he had been happy: with his mother and sister on their estate, at the Chester-le-Street church on feastdays, sitting in a cloister with a good book, or even better, pen in hand writing out texts. What did they have in common that made him feel joy? Peaceful activities, productive days of provision. Then there are times like now, full of conflict and uncertainty. Of course he would choose the former, not the latter, wouldn’t anyone? So why do men choose to fight? Probably to gain or preserve the peace and productivity he prized as the source of happiness.
Aldred returned to the book. Wisdom seemed to be counseling Boethius away from happiness based on prosperity and material pleasures because their loss proves their unworthiness as a source of joy. Moreover, such good fortune is only lent to us, he read. Instead, Wisdom offers to take Mind above the storms of life on the back of a soaring eagle.
Here Aldred stopped. The image of a soaring eagle comforted him, reminding him of the words of the prophet Isaiah: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint. He thought of the Evangelist John whose symbol is the eagle, as he was portrayed in the great Gospelbook from Lindisfarne. How did one achieve such lofty flights of the mind, in the midst of this world’s turmoil?
Indeed, turmoil was all around him, interrupting his reading. The men were lining up in formation, ready to march southward to a site Constantine and Anlaf had picked as a favorable place to meet Æthelstan’s forces. Aldred hoped to be left behind.
Alas, Owen returned to get his cousin, and standing behind him was Aldred’s own lord, the earl of Bamburgh, sometime king of Northumbria. Tall, well-armed, and a muscular man, Oswulf’s presence here with Constantine king of Scots and Owain king of Strathclyde was, to Aldred’s mind, curious, but he did not have time until later to think about what it meant.
He bowed to the earl, murmuring “my lord,” and then glanced up to see that Oswulf was looking at him keenly. He seemed to recognize Aldred from his earlier visit to Lindisfarne, just across the water from Bamburgh’s fortified hill. But the earl said nothing.
Owen was offering Aldred basic armor, a leather jerkin and metal-bound helmet, along with a spear. “Now, then, here is your own lord, for whom you may fight with loyalty.” Aldred knew this gear was a costly loan and not one to be taken unless he would go into battle. He had some skill with spear throwing in the hunt, better than with the bow given his short-sightedness more suited to book work. Despite his noble birth, he had not been trained for war but for prayer.
Aldred looked at Oswulf directly, and saw the earl’s eyes waver, glancing down at the book Aldred still held in his hand.
“What do you read, young cleric?”
Aldred hesitated, and then gave the book’s name, “A Book of Consolation by the Roman Boethius.” He did not mention that it was in West Saxon from the hand of King Alfred.
“A fitting book for a time of war?” the earl asked.
“My lord, it says that our wyrd, good or evil, is governed by God’s Providence.”
“How then shall we act, young Aldred, when good and evil cannot be distinguished?”
Now Aldred was sure. Oswulf was caught between the same competing loyalties as Aldred, but unlike a young cleric, the earl was a warrior who could not refuse to use his God-given arms to fight. Which side? Oswulf’s predecessor Eadred was at Eamont Bridge in 927, swearing agreement along with the Scots and Strathclyde kings to Wessex King Athelstan. But in Athelstan’s 934 invasion of the north, ostensibly to reinforce the northern kings submission to Wessex, where was Oswulf? Aldred thought back three years: Bamburgh remained intact, and the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, heir to Lindisfarne, received great treasures from the Wessex king.
Owen, taking the earl’s philosophical query as a question to be decided here and now, urged Aldred to mount up.
Owen was impatient, making it clear that he could not be left here and if he would not fight, he would have to stay with the serving men coming behind in carts and on donkeys. Aldred chose the lowly position, much to his cousin’s chagrin, who would now look foolish for protecting this hapless relative.
But the earl, standing back, merely nodded at him, and said, “Then I ask that you say prayers to God and St. Cuthbert for my soul.”
Aldred could only answer, “Of course, my lord,” while wondering about the man’s fate.
The servants, including his own Leáf, were waiting for the fighting men to start off, then they could pack up what was needed from the camp to support the warriors during and after the battle. Aldred used this brief waiting period to read ahead, skimming the words of Prose 6 rapidly under the pressure of impending battle, looking for something to hold him steady.
Boethius was still feeling unmoored and unmanned, as Aldred was. Wisdom assures him, contrary to the evidence, that his anchor holds secure. What anchor? Faith, love, and hope in eternal life. But like Boethius, Aldred could not find security in something so intangible. He wanted something he could grab hold of with his hands, not just a thought to hold in the inner treasurehoard in his breast.
Think of yourself as an exile from your true homeland. This is not your life, your life is somewhere else that you will return to eventually. Would thinking like that make it easier to die or to kill? But Aldred did not want to be in a battle at all, he would prefer exile.
In prison or in exile, though, no one, Wisdom assured him, could take from him that which belonged to him as the source of true joy: gesceadwisnes, reason. Unless he lost his mind—or his self-control—no one on this battlefield could take from him what he knew in his heart to be true, despite what they might do to his body. In fact, as Wisdom reminded him, the martyrs even longed for death or punishment in order to prove the true joy of eternal life.
Aldred was just getting to the end of the following poem when he saw Leáf approaching. The last line he caught from Wisdom’s verses encouraged him to construct the house of his mind on the sturdy rock of humility: work himself up then, to see his mod’s house, where he may find it, fastened on the humble-stone, rock-steady on a firm foundation.
After packing his book bag, Aldred joined Leáf and the others loading the carts with provisions—food and water, bandages and ointments for the wounded. Aldred began to rehearse in his mind prayers for the last rites. He might be the closest thing to a priest some of the dying may have. May God forgive them. May God forgive us all.
Aldred thought back to what happened next, pondering whether he could have acted differently and what would have come of it. As he read through the end of the second book of Philosophia’s Consolation, he was drawn to the closing verses: Love rules and binds all together. Oh, if only that love ruled our souls and men’s lives! His own pitiful efforts at peacemaking fell far short of divine love.
As Aldred trudged beside the cart with Leáf, he tried to think of a way out of this place. Cowardice it might be, but he did not want to be at or near this battleground. Who would notice if they fled from the baggage train? Catching Leáf’s eye, he nodded toward an upcoming crossroads on the winding tree-lined road. The hedges of this side road indicated an eastward path into the fells, where they could easily get themselves lost and not found by anyone. They could take refuge in a church, but they would have no bags or goods with them except what they were carrying, some water and food, his one book and writing tools. Their donkey had been recommissioned to pull a cart and their supplies stored in another…including Aldred’s collection of books in Finn’s chest!
“The naked wayfarer dreads nothing,” Aldred whispered to Leáf. The proverb was one that probably Wisdom recommended to Boethius. They would need to travel light and not be thought a valuable target for thieves. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where vermin destroy and thieves break in and steal, the Savior warned.
Slipping away proved harder than they thought. It required stopping by the side of the road to adjust their bags, letting the cart they were ostensibly guiding go forward. Then as more carts and servants passed them, they mingled in and out, then ducked behind an opening in the hedge as if going to relieve themselves. Once the long train of servants and baggage had passed, they made their way along the side of the path, staying off the road as much as possible until they were far from the crossroad.
A good thing they did, since not a half mile from where they left the footmarch, they heard a lone horseman coming from that direction, and they ducked behind some trees. Aldred was able to look up onto the road briefly and saw a well-armed man ride by, he could swear it looked like Earl Oswulf, but he said nothing to Leáf.
Turning aside, they struck a different path and found themselves wandering northeastward around lakes along the river Wyre for several hours, grateful for the water but unsure of where they might find a refuge.
They stopped to rest when they found a small set of homes and tended fields. Curiously, as they approached they saw no women and children, but a few men who would not meet their eyes. Aldred’s robe, stained as it was, should indicate his clerical status, but no one hailed them as they drew close to the first home. Just as Aldred began to feel uncomfortable, he saw the cause too late to move out of sight: five armed men on horseback coming between the second and third buildings.
The tallest one, or at least the one on the biggest horse, rode forward and looked down at Aldred and Leáf. In a thick Wessex accent, he asked
“You came from the west?” pointing on the winding road they had just arrived on.
Aldred nodded, but spoke no word in his Northumbrian accented English, seemingly out of breath.
“Did you see armed men coming from the north?”
Aldred looked at Leáf, who pretended to be a witless servant (a trick they had used in previous tight situations).
He sighed and answered in Latin that he was a lector and scribe from Lindisfarne. The man was illiterate but he recognized the nouns lector, scribe, and Lindisfarne that identified Aldred as a man in clerical orders.
The Wessex scout asked if they had been at Heysham on the coast and what they had seen along the way. Here Aldred paused. Could he pretend to be a member of that community who were thought to be Wessex spies? Did the scouting party already know about Constantine and Anlaf’s southward march with Owain, or would he be giving away his kinsmen’s position if he answered this man’s questions? Clearly their scouts could not have missed such a large movement of men in the area.
He decided to bluff. In English, he said, “In such matters, I must speak with my superiors.”
The lead man smiled, with what Aldred thought were wolfish-looking teeth, and said, “then I will take you to them.” Aldred’s heart sank. What Wessex churchmen might be at King Athelstan’s camp and what should he tell them?
Once again he found himself slung behind an armed man on a warhorse and taken to a military camp. Their path led through the rocky fells south and somewhat eastward at first. Clearly Athelstan had sent small groups of scouts along various byways rather than the main road, hoping to pick up an informant, willing or not, like Aldred.
After a bumpy and winding ride, they arrived at the site where King Athelstan had pitched his tent as headquarters for the coming battle [north of Broughton? eastward area around Goosnargh or Stump Cross?]. The lead scout, whose name he overheard was Wulf, appropriately enough Aldred thought, left him with the man on whose horse Aldred had ridden and then reported to the king’s tent where his councillors were gathered to receive and weigh news of their enemy’s movements. Evidently Wulf had more to tell than just picking up one stray cleric because it was quite awhile before a man came out to fetch Aldred.
The tent was crowded. King Athelstan sat in the midst of his counselors, clergy on his left and lords on his right. He held upright before him in his right hand a bejeweled sword whose unsheathed blade reflected the sunlight coming from the open sides of the tent. Behind the king stood what must be his brother, Prince Edmund.
As Aldred made his way through his eyes darted around the clerical side, looking for anyone he knew or who might know him. None that he could tell.
Once he stood before the king, however, he cast his eyes downward, a prayer on his moving lips.
Athelstan did not speak. Rather, a well dressed layman to his right, evidently a leading Mercian magnate, questioned Aldred.
“Wulf says that you claim to be a Lindisfarne cleric. Are you a Northumbrian?”
Aldred raised his eyes. “I am Aldred, son of Alfred, a valiant man who died at the battle of Corbridge against Ragnall just before my birth near twenty years ago.” He carefully omitted his grandfather’s name, lest Brihtwulf’s associations bring up his Strathclyde cousins. He hoped the mention of Corbridge as a heroic battle agains the viking Ragnall let by Scots King Constantine did not also suggest he now sided with Constantine against Athelstan—odd, he reflected later, that Constantine was now conspiring with former viking Dublin allies of Ragnall. And given Oswulf’s presence on the other side, at least temporarily, he dare not say he served the Northumbrian earl.
He went on, “My mother Tilwif dedicated me at birth to the community of St. Cuthbert.”
At the mention of St. Cuthbert, eyes turned to the king, but Aldred also noticed several men glancing at a cleric off to the side. Curious. He did not recognize the man.
The king then spoke. “St. Cuthbert is my patron and you are his servant, are you not?”
“Then you are also in my service.” The logic of lordship prevailed: the higher ranking king bowing before the saint should command the lower ranking service of one of the saint’s clerics. Aldred suspected that Athelstan thought of himself as the patron, considering the king’s lavish gifts to the community. But he was fairly certain from stories about the saint that Cuthbert would take a different view of spiritual and temporal swords.
The king then pressed him, “Speak. You were at Heysham. What is your estimate of the forces mustering north of here and their plans.”
“My lord, I was looking for books at Heysham, deserted when I arrived. I was taken hostage by scouts to their camp, but was not privy to their counsels. I and my servant escaped from the baggage train in the fells and never saw the extent of their troops.” He prudently omitted the details about his cousin and Earl Oswulf.
Athelstan answered, “So, you are my servant but not my spy.”
“True, my lord.” Aldred, his fast beating heart making his breath short, bowed and remained silent, waiting to see how the king would respond.
Prince Edmund spoke, “Are you someone else’s spy, though?”
“No, my lord. I am a lowly lector and scribe, seeking books and parchment.”
“Where are the tools of your trade, then,” the prince asked.
Aldred panicked momentarily. Would they take his books? Then he realized they were probably looking for written messages a foolish spy might carry.
“Here, my lord,” said the warrior who had brought Aldred on his horse. The man unslung Aldred’s bag and turned its contents onto the ground. Aldred was not surprised to see Leáf’s bag also emptied onto the floor beside it, although his servant was no where in sight.
“Not many books,” the Mercian lord who had first questioned him remarked, picking up the one book from Aldred’s bag and handing it to King Athelstan.
“A priest in the other camp took the rest and stored them. I doubt I will see them again.”
King Athelstan, with gleaming confidence, said, “We will get them back when we win this battle.”
The king was holding in his hands the Old English version of Boethius’ Consolation. This might be Aldred’s salvation, if Athelstan recognized it.
“Hmm.” He showed it over his shoulder to his brother, who nodded, as Athelstan continued, “Our grandfather’s translation of Boethius. I recognize this copy as one I gave to the monks at Heysham. I am sorry they sought fit to abandon it.”
Aldred was about to explain how he found it in the dark recesses of a cupboard where it might have easily been missed by a fleeing group of monks, but the king went on, “I hereby gift it to the community of St. Cuthbert. You may take it to Chester-le-Street on my behalf, once this battle is won.” The Mercian lord took it from the king and handed it back to Aldred.
At a signal to the man who had escorted him in, Aldred was led away, with barely time to collect his things. Clearly the king and his councillors had much to discuss of greater importance to the battle, to which Aldred had little to contribute. He was just glad to be alive, if now held in the same uncomfortable position he had on the other side, not trusted.
Once outside the tent, he saw that the time for Vespers was drawing near and some of the clergy were moving toward a tent set aside for services. Once again feeling torn about the inevitable militant suffrages, prayers said for kings and battles, he was looking for a way of escape.
The man escorting him was replaced by the cleric who had attracted notice at the mention of St. Cuthbert. He was older than Aldred and dressed as a priest, so presumably at least 30. He took Aldred’s arm and steered him away from the prayer tent and toward a campfire off to the side.
“I am Seaxhelm, also a servant of St. Cuthbert.” Aldred looked doubtful. He recalled no one of that name at Chester-le-Street or its scattered dependant houses. The man’s accent was clearly West Saxon not Northumbrian, a fact noted with disfavor in Aldred’s northern prejudice.
Sensing Aldred’s discomfort, he said, “Come, sit with me here and tell me news of our Lindisfarne brethren.” He steered Aldred to a fireside seat.
After a moment of silence, Aldred began, “I was last at Chester-le-Street in the spring, just after Pentecost. Bishop Wigred,” here he glanced at Seaxhelm beside him to see if he acknowledged the name, but the cleric’s face was unreadable in the shadows, “sent me to visit various of the Lindisfarne churches to see how they fared and what books were preserved and bring back any that could be spared.”
He did not add that the latter purpose of his journey was his own, while the main goal of the bishop was to have some account of what clergy remained in some of the more contentious areas of Northumbria and Cumbria where St. Cuthbert’s people found themselves. As yet, Seaxhelm had not identified himself with any particular religious community.
“My servant and I went north to Bede’s church at Jarrow, then through Hexham to Carlisle.” Aldred did not mention going further north to Lindisfarne, but he had been there recently enough to have caught the eye of Earl Oswulf of Bamburgh.
“From Carlisle we traveled south following Cuthbert’s path.”
By this he meant the journey of the saint’s body that ultimately brought his faithful followers to Chester-le-Street, but did not name the sites he and Leáf had visited. He could not tell whether Seaxhelm knew the route and wanted to leave out details to see if Seaxhelm could fill them in, which might tell Aldred what the man knew about the communities and lands identified with the saint he claimed. If Seaxhelm were from one of those communties, he would know those whom Aldred had met.
On the other hand, if Seaxhelm was a friendless one, a wandering exile pretending kinship, he would not try to claim any of the places Aldred had visited but would want to glean as much as he could from someone knowledgeable in order to fill out his own story. The roads were full of such wanderers. Aldred, like all well-connected folks, was cautious about claims of kinship. An imperfect system of identification, but who you are depended on where you were from and who you knew. Of course, Seaxhelm could very well be trying to figure out the same about Aldred, perhaps at King Athelstan’s behest.
Aldred finished, “When we arrived at Heysham, we found the church empty, the clerks recently gone. Unfortunately at that point, a small northern warband arrived and took us with them as possible spies.” Not wanting to add any more information without hearing more from Seaxhelm, he stopped by saying, “you know the rest as I reported it to King Athelstan.”
Seaxhelm then spoke, “I am sorry to hear of your troubles, my brother. I will certainly pray for you in your travels. I myself have journeyed these last ten years from my home near Winchester in the service of King Athelstan. I spent time in seclusion on St. Cuthbert’s isle at Lindisfarne. On his triumphant visit to the north three years ago, the king found me living as a hermit and appointed me to serve as St. Cuthbert’s priest in his camp.”
This was very strange, to Aldred’s ears. King Athelstan had visited Chester-le-Street three years ago, giving great gifts. If he had wanted a priest of St. Cuthbert’s, he would certainly have requested one from Bishop Wigred. That would be the appropriate thing to do.
On the other hand, Seaxhelm’s reference to wanderings over the last ten years put him in the north around the time King Athelstan invaded Northumbria and brought into submission—at least temporarily—the kings of the Scots, Gwent, and Strathclyde, as well as the earl of Northumbria, Oswulf’s predecesor Ealdred. The resulting treaty had been set just north of here, at Eamont Bridge, 10 years ago. Perhaps Seaxhelm was an agent of King Athelstan in the north, spying on Bamburgh from Lindisfarne?
From the tent nearby, they heard the murmer of Vespers beginning, God, come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me. Both of them should be in the tent praying, but neither of them were. Aldred knew why on his part, but was not sure about Seaxhelm. Suddenly, Aldred realized he wanted more to be praying with his brothers in the tent—regardless of political stance—than talking with this sly man.
Aldred gestured toward the tent, and said, “perhaps we should join our brethren?”
Seaxhelm hesitated, then agreed. Clearly he wanted to find out more about Aldred, more than Aldred wanted to find out about him.
They moved into the tent and joined the Vespers hymn and prayer for light, as dusk was drawing in.
Aldred could follow the service well, knowing the psalms by heart, but dreaded the endless suffrages, prayers for benefactors, that were common in the king’s retinue. Prayers for the king, the queen, the bishops, all Christian people, the infirm, the recently departed, penitents, travelers (including themselves), and even adversaries.
Here Aldred listened carefully. Each of these short prayers had been delivered by various clergy assigned to pray for a specific need. Then a bishop stood and delivered a prayer for the king and his success on the battlefield, with just so Bible stories likening him to Moses against Pharaoh, Joshua against the Caananities, and King David against Goliath.
Aldred’s seething heart was evident to Seaxhelm. Aldred could feel the cleric’s eyes on him, though he tried to keep his chest from heaving.
Athelstan a new King David? The king of the Scots a gigantic Goliath, Anlaf a foreign pharoah, and the northerners a godless people to be wiped out and replaced by God’s chosen English? Misguided though his kinsmen might be in their alliance with vikings, Aldred could not pray for the Wessex king’s slaughter of them as in obedience to a command of God. On the other hand, if he were still in the northern camp hearing such a prayer, he would be likewise heavy hearted.
After the service, Aldred tried to slip away from Seaxhelm and find Leáf, but Seaxhelm stayed right with him.
“Come, you will need a place to sleep tonight. I can give you space in my tent and a blanket.” He saw Aldred hestitate. “Two other brethren also will be in our tent, so we will be warm enough,” Seaxhelm added, as if to reassure Aldred that he would not be alone with him.
“I must find my servant, Leáf.”
“Ah, do not be concerned. He is with the other servants, preparing supplies for the battle.”
Aldred did look concerned, but could not find much reason to leave Seaxhelm, who clearly had some purpose, assigned or not, in watching Aldred. Neither Leáf or he had any supplies of their own to share and were dependant on whatever they were offered here.
So Aldred found himself in Seaxhelm’s tent, which was empty at the moment, the other clerics not yet returned. Seaxhelm signaled a nearby servant to bring them food, for which Aldred was grateful. He and Leáf had not eaten since morning. The steaming bowl of stew was rich, to Aldred’s tastes, and the bread not too stale given this was an army on the move.
After they had finished their meal and handed their bowls back to the servant, Seaxhelm leaned back against his bag in the tent and remarked, “So you must be a scribe of some skill and a scholar.”
Aldred wasn’t sure how to reply to this compliment. Obviously Seaxhelm had seen his writing tools when his bag was emptied. Did he want something written out for him?
“God is gracious and has given me opportunity to learn His Word,” Aldred replied eventually.
“Like you, I learned Latin at a young age, but was not trained as a scribe.” Seaxhelm did not seem troubled by this lack. “Latin is for me a language to be spoken and sung in God’s presence. It is a holy language.”
Although his delight was in the written word, Aldred agreed, “Yes, Latin is the third of the three holy tongues with Hebrew and Greek. Still, our native speech has its beauties. Think of Caedmon turning God’s stories into English.”
Seaxhelm did not acknowledge this reference, causing Aldred to wonder how well read Seaxhelm was if he did not know the Venerable Bede’s account of the shy Caedmon who, ashamed of his lack of song, retreated from the hall to avoid dishonor. There in a barn he received the gift from God to turn the Hebrew tales into English.
However, Aldred’s comment did seem to turn the conversation in a direction Seaxhelm wanted, for he exclaimed, “Yes, King Alfred, our great King Athelstan’s grandfather, had many books turned into English, not to dishonor Latin but to lift our tongue up to new heights.”
A pause. And then, unsurprising to Aldred at this point, “You have such a book with you, do you not?”
Reluctantly, since it was clear this was what Seaxhelm was after, he brought out the Boethius.
“May I?” Seaxhelm asked, but reaching out his hand.
Aldred handed the leather-wrapped volume to the cleric.
As he opened it, Seaxhelm asked, “How much of it have you read?”
“I am in the midst of the second book of five. It is a complex argument.”
Seaxhelm nodded as he looked over a few pages, “I see.” Aldred wondered if Seaxhelm was familiar with the book. If he had been at Winchester and with King Athelstan, surely he knew of it?
“And what have you learned?”
“That wyrd is in God’s hands and works for our good, despite appearances to the contrary.”
“And so you believe that God has brought you here to this battle and to the side of King Athelstan for a good reason?”
Aldred could not answer his question honestly without being treacherous, so he merely said, “I do not think I have much of a role to play in such great deeds. I only wish to serve God in some quiet way.”
Seaxhelm smiled, “A wise thought for such a young man.”
The other two clerics returned at this point. Both were Mercians, deacons apparently, in the retinue of the Mercian lord. They were politely interested in the book Seaxhelm still held, but seemed more intent on settling into sleep.
It was up to Seaxhelm as the eldest and priest to suggest Compline prayers in their tents before bed. He led them first in a hymn to light, which Aldred recognized as one assigned for summer but perhaps used by some priests on weekdays all year. After the Our Father, three psalms, and the credo, he closed with a short and appropriate collect.
Then they rolled up in their cloaks and prepared to sleep.
As he lay awake pondering this curious man, Aldred reflected that Seaxhelm knew the basics of the daily office so must have been trained in a community of priests, but perhaps not vowed monks. His Latin was certainly delivered competently, indicating some time in the priesthood. Something foreign about his accent in Latin bothered Aldred, but he couldn’t identify what it was. Perhaps he had learned from one of the Frankish teachers? He fell asleep hearing in his head the priest’s voice reciting the closing prayer, translated into English as he dreamed, oddly still in Seaxhelm’s Wessex accent: Lord God Almighty, who parts light from darkness, watch over us during the night and bring us rejoicing as we arise into the dawn of a new day.
Aldred thought back on his early encounter with Seaxhelm. A decade after the fateful battle at Brunanburh, Seaxhelm somehow got himself appointed bishop of St. Cuthbert’s community at Chester-le-Street, despite a sketchy history as an itinerant priest. Mostly he relied on his association with King Athelstan and his half-brothers who reigned after him, Edmund and Eadred, and probably served as a northern spy for them as well.
But Seaxhelm was a thief. Aldred was not there when it happened—he did not move to Chester-le-Street until three years later—but he was not surprised when he heard the news. Only two months after his installation as bishop replacing Bishop Uhtred, the community was in an uproar. Seaxhelm took valuable cups and patens with him when he traveled to other churches, ostensibly to use in the service of the mass as befits a bishop, but unaccountably these treasures did not return with him. Coins also disappeared from the treasury box, kept locked in the bishop’s outer room, with only the bishop and sacrist having keys. Bitter recriminations followed, as did a period of austerity given the lack of means to purchase supplies. Many of the people of St. Cuthbert who relied on the generosity of the saint’s keepers cried out to their patron for relief from their increasing poverty, as more of the goods produced by the church’s lands seemed to disappear.
Some blamed the sacrist, who claimed that he had tried to remove as much as he could from the direct control of the bishop during his frequent absences. If the sacrist hid items, no one knew where and he died rather suddenly and suspiciously, to some people.
Soon, though, St. Cuthbert responded to the cries of his people and visited nightmares on his successor. The saint was well known in the community’s histories for having little tolerance for those who would exploit his patrimony. Seaxhelm apparently was terrified by these dreams—others heard him cry out three nights in a row, begging St. Cuthbert to have mercy. After the first night, Seaxhelm claimed to have had a miraculous vision with Cuthbert confirming his episcopacy. After the second night terrors, in which his screams were louder, he told the brothers he must undertake a penitential journey following the path of St. Cuthbert, but made no plans to leave. But after the third night of sleeplessness for the bishop and those around him, he became so ill he thought he might die and yet also insisted that he must leave immediately for York. So the brothers put him in a cart—rather ignomiously but he was unable to ride—and sent him off with an embarrassingly small escort of two servants. Apparently he recovered once he arrived in York but sent word back with the servants that he must resign the bishopric. A more worthy successor, Aldred’s namesake and godfather, took his place.
Thinking of Saint Cuthbert’s revenge on this man who falsely claimed the saint’s name, Aldred mused, “where is Seaxhelm now?” If he was still alive, he would be over 70 winters, a ripe age, but often the wicked seemed to survive better than the righteous, as Boethius noted. Last time Aldred heard the name Seaxhelm, he was at Malmesbury, where his patron King Athelstan was buried, a community richly endowed by the king. Perhaps Seaxhelm had wormed his way into that community for his own benefit, undetected. That was not charitable of Aldred. Perhaps the man repented of his thefts.
Seaxhelm was a thief, but clever. Aldred realized the next morning that the priest had abandoned him, despite promising to reunite him with Leáf. When he awoke in the tent, he found Seaxhelm and his baggage gone. The two Mercian clerics had no idea where he might have gone and claimed not to really know who or what he was.
So after a quick set of morning prayers, Aldred went in search of Leáf on his own. However, he found it impossible: warriors arming for battle, men saddling their horses, and captains shouting orders to line up troops of men, headed for a field of battle nearby, at Brunanburh where the king was intent on meeting his adversaries. The clergy present surrounded the king and his magnates with hymns and prayers.
Aldred managed to avoid drawing attention to himself simply by rushing around like everyone else rather than idling suspiciously. Finally he found the baggage wagons guarded by servants. He asked several busy men, and some women, “have you seen a Northumbrian called Leáf, a man of mid-age, sandy hair, a bit shorter and broader than myself?” But no one knew who Leáf was or how to find him.
Aldred began to panic. He wanted to slip away as they had from the other side of the battle, but he could not leave his faithful servant. Full of youthful anger at injustice, he wanted to act, to run, even to fight, but was unable to reconcile himself to a course of action. He had no one he could trust to ask advice.
He thought of his mother and sister, safely, he hoped, at their home in Easington far from here. He longed to pour out his troubles to them, as he often did in person or in letters. His mother had great wisdom gained from suffering as a widow through the troubles. His older sister, Bega, named after the saintly Irish woman who fled with his parents across the Pennines and assisted at her birth, had, like her namesake, the gift of compassion for all living things and was often his comforter when he was lost or hurt. He would not wish them here in this place of warring men, but he vainly wished God would transport him back over the Pennines to Northumbria, out of this double mindedness he felt.
Instead he went to the now empty prayer tent, got down on his knees, and attempted to pray, but no psalms stuck in his mind. Was he a coward? he asked himself. Why did he prefer kneeling here to grabbing a sword and plunging it into an enemy’s heart? Perhaps it was because he had a hard time seeing any other human being as an enemy, in part his sister’s influence. He thought of the Lord Jesus’ instructions on the mountain, to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Did that apply to war? Surely the Old Testament was full of divinely ordered battles against heathens. But who was the heathen now?
He opened the Consolation book. The next part where he had left off argued that power was not good by nature, but goodness—or evil—resided in the one who wielded it. A good king used power for good, but there are less of them then there are those who use it with evil will. Was Athelstan good and therefore his use of power good? Did that make his enemies evil?
Aldred read on into the next chapter. A king must have servants to rule: prayer men, army men, and work men, and the land to sustain them with food, clothes, and the tools of their work, gifts of the king. Wisdom pointed out the smallness of man’s domain on the earth—even the mighty Roman Empire—and the variety of peoples beyond them with different languages and customs that disagree with one another. Therefore every person ought to be content to be liked in his own land. Though he should look for more, he cannot achieve even that, since it is seldom that one thing pleases many people.
He looked up from the book. It occurred to him that men do not fight merely for things like land, they fight for an idea, or perhaps against an idea. Clearly Athelstan King of the West Saxons saw himself as the bishop prayed yesterday, in the mold of the great Israelite king David heroically uniting the land God promised his people. Did Athelstan believe that as king of the English God ordained him to be king of all Britain, every inhabitant to the north, Scots, Cumbrian, Northumbrian, and viking? Or was he over-reaching beyond into other peoples’ lands? And what of Constantine, king of Scots, allied with his neighbor the Strathclyde king—was it good for them to also ally with the pagan Anlaf?
Aldred at least sent up a prayer for Earl Oswulf, wherever he ended up. A Northumbrian proud of their ancient Christian heritage, Aldred imagined that Oswulf wrestled with the idea of a southern king as lord of all the isle from sea to sea. Yet, Aldred reflected, the earl probably realized that the alliance of northerners resisting this idea was fated to fail and perhaps should never have been undertaken by the Scots king Constantine in alliance with the Dublin vikings.
Aldred had no great love for vikings, not just because of the violent death of a father he never knew, but for the rape and pillage he had seen and heard in his short lifetime. Men who took what they wanted and then expected to settle down peaceably afterward, even becoming Christians. Why should they be rewarded for their violence? What punishment of God were they carrying out against God’s people and how should they be reconciled?
The history of St. Cuthbert’s community was full of the saint’s revenge against those who violated his people and lands. But Aldred felt in his bones that God and St. Cuthbert were not on either side in this coming battle. And so, neither should he, if he would be under the protection of St. Cuthbert.
Aldred realized that he had been wrestling with God for over an hour at least, and the sounds of battle preparation had died away. He was alone, and yet the battle carried on in his head. What was the right and the wrong of this war and what should he do about it?
As he paused over this question, he heard in his mind an answer in his sister’s voice, something she said before he left on his travels, remember the good Samaritan, who stopped to care for the man by the roadside. He should help anyone in need, whatever side they may be on. He thought of the helplessness of a wounded and powerless man, facing his death. Should not Aldred, if he were to become any kind of priest, offer consolation to such a man?
With some will, if not confidence, to act, he left the prayer tent and began to follow the well-beaten path the warriors had taken, hoping at least to come upon the servants and wagons used for the supplies and injured.
Instead, that wretched Seaxhelm found him. Aldred had gone about a mile and heard the sounds of battle ahead, enough to make him turn onto the nearest path leading away from such a scene, when Seaxhelm moved out from behind a hedge. Startled, Aldred was suddenly reminded of the slithering movements of a snake in the grass.
“Hwæt!” he exclaimed, and backed away.
“Hush,” Seaxhelm replied, “there are spies here and there.” Surely, Aldred thought, Seaxhelm was one of them, although he undoubtedly thought the same of Aldred, both of them as they were, slinking around on the edges of the battle.
Pulling him aside, the priest added “I need you to help me reach the other side.” A fine mare was tethered nearby. Aldred saw a gleam of sword under Seaxhelm’s cloak, not something a priest should carry except in great necessity.
Seeing Aldred’s look of suspicion, Seaxhelm explained, “I have an errand from the King to perform. I cannot explain, but I must reach the Northumbrian earl of Bamburgh.” Aldred was not convinced. Why, now the battle was begun, would Athelstan want to treat with one of his opponents? Or did he know something about Oswulf’s loyalites? Which side did Oswulf, descendant of Northumbrian kings, choose? Aldred thought about the figure he had seen riding away through the fells. Perhaps Oswulf had escaped the battle altogether, returning to Northumbria. In that case, Aldred and Leáf should have joined him—and they would not be unsafe and separated as they were now.
“I can get you around the battle and to the other side, isn’t that what you want?” Seaxhelm argued persuasively. He did not mention Leáf, and Aldred did not ask this untrustworthy man what had become of his servant. If Seaxhelm were himself a man of loyalty he would know that Aldred would not so easily abandon his servant.
“Ride with me and read from your book, its voice of Wisdom may guide us.” It was more a command, given by one armed and horsed against an unarmed man on foot.
Seaxhelm mounted his horse and hauled Aldred up behind him. Aldred reluctantly pulled the book from his bag and tried to read passages from it as they jogged along, while keeping an eye on where Seaxhelm guided them.
He began to read woodenly from the book in his right hand, each word delivered into Seaxhelm’s right ear. “Adverse fate (wiðerweard wyrd) is for everyone more beneficial than favorable fate.” True, Aldred hoped, given his present position. “Favorable things lie and lead away from true happiness, while adversity teaches.”
Seaxhelm grunted, whether in approval or disapproval, Aldred could not tell. He was guiding the horse around a side trail away from the main road. In the distance off to their right they could hear the clanging sound of metal on metal and hoarse voices shouting taunts at their enemies.
Aldred decided to skip ahead to the next poetic section of the book, since it looked more promising in its focus on God. “There is one creator without any doubt….” The poem listed the things seen and unseen by human eyes that God ruled, as well as God’s rules for human conduct.
“The Almighty has curbed all creatures with his bridle.” Sexahelm reined in the horse, and commented, “as I do now with this beast, eager for battle.” They were closer to the combat than Aldred was comfortable with, but he kept on reading as they bumped along a rocky side path on to which Seaxhelm had steered the horse, its eyes wild from the smell of blood.
He came to the passage where the Almighty one relaxes the reins, the bridle of men’s selfwill. Then, Wisdom says, people immediately give up love and peace, the harmony of their fellowship.
“Why would God do so,” Aldred asked, not expecting an answer from the armed priest.
Seaxhelm commented, though, as the sounds of battle grew louder, “to bring the end of all things.” Indeed, the nearby clash was beginning to sound like the end of the world.
Aldred held onto hope, and read to the end of the poem, how God also brings people together through friendship, marriage, peace and love.
“The Craftsman also firmly unites communities so that they keep forever their friendship, undoubting faith, harmonious peace.” Aldred paused as he read ahead, and then: “Stop.”
His loud command, unexpected, caused Seaxhelm to glance over his shoulder at Aldred’s red face. Then he guided the horse into a thicket.
“What,” he demanded, “we must reach the other side if there is to be peace.”
Aldred slid off the horse, although Seaxhelm tried to stop him. “Here is a prayer we should say for this bloody day.” Seaxhelm stared down at him as Aldred read in a loud voice: “God of victories, this human race would be greatly blessed if their minds could be securely controlled and organized through that strong power just as other worldly creatures are. How pleasant it would be then among human beings if it could be so.”
The words hung in the air between them.
Seaxhelm said softly, “remount my friend, you must guide me to your Earl Oswulf.”
Seaxhelm remained silent and motionless, then with a sudden movement, he reached down and grabbed the book out of Aldred’s hands, “I will take this as my token to enter the other side—I wager someone there will recognize it and your name.” Then his voice turned vicious as
Aldred backed away from the now rearing horse. “ In payment, I will tell you this, I sent into the battle in your place that foolish servant of yours.” With that, the priest gave the horse its lead and galloped off onto the main road, leaving Aldred standing in the dust, stunned.
It was midmorning and from the sounds he was close to the heaviest fighting midfield. He was unarmed and could not safely enter the fray and be of much help. If he went forward after Seaxhelm, he would get tangled in the priest’s tricks. Going back, he could circle around to the servants’ wagons for assisting the wounded on Athelstan’s side and might be able to find Leáf.
He stuck to the far edge of the road away from the battle, ready to hide in the thick bushes on that side. Nonetheless, as he came around one turn a wounded man crashed across the road in front of him, staring at him wild-eyed and then dove into the thickets on the other side and disappeared, leaving a trail of blood. Aldred thought about trying to help the man, but he seemed intent on putting distance between himself and the battle.
He went on, trying to recall psalms and prayers for protection on the road, but his heart was beating fast and his eye was watching the sides of the road. Eventually the sounds of battle lessened and he began looking east for signs of the battle wagons.
He heard them first, the moans and screams of the injured and dying. Aldred stopped. Going on towards that dreadful sound was the hardest thing he had ever done.
His first sight was one of chaos, like a sheepfold recently attacked by a pack of wolves. Men lay everywhere in no seeming order, some where they fell, others carried on make-shift litters placed in whatever shade the open-sided tents offered. Servants moved among them, trying to assess their wounds but also the class of person, looking for nobles, particularly any with usable weapons for others to take up, or in some cases those lightly wounded enough to patch up and get back on their feet into the battle.
A woman tending a pale man with many wounds caught sight of him. “You there, priestling, come pray over this one for he is close to death.”
As Aldred stepped up, she moved on to another man, leaving Aldred standing uncertainly, gazing at the blood still oozing through the bandages wrapped around his trunk, his leather jerkin with metal rings unable to turn away the carefully aimed spear point to his vital organs. Aldred knelt beside the man’s head, helmet now removed. He had taken no major blow to the head, fortunately, but his blood was almost gone. Aldred made the sign of the cross on his forehead while murmuring the trinitarian formula. His eyes fluttered open, bright blue as the sky, and Aldred realized then that he was a young man about his own age.
Locking his eyes on the young man’s, he asked, “do you have aught to confess?” It was in some sense a stupid question, as every person has sins to confess. The man’s lips moved but no sound came forth, except a disturbing wheezing sound from his lungs, perhaps punctured by a spear. Aldred leaned nearer, and it seemed to him that he whispered a name, perhaps Gytha, a loved one?
Aldred then began the prayer of confession, rushing it as the man’s eyes drifted into a distant stare. “Omnipotent God, who promises to hear and forgive the sins of those who confess, remit the sins of this man and lead him into eternal life.”
He pulled out his small flask of holy water, wet his fingers with the few remaining drops, and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. He left his hand resting on the dying man’s matted hair. He began to chant the one last rites prayer he knew, from having been at the bedside of the dying with his mother as well as brothers at the monastery.
The man’s eyes stared upward at the matching blue sky, as Aldred’s Latin words flowed over him, “Go forth, O soul, from this world, in the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you, in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, who suffered for you, in the Name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out on you, in the name of angels and archangels….” Aldred had always loved to chant the names of all of the ranks of angels and heroes of the faith, martyrs and patriarchs. It made him feel part of a larger world of souls, living and dead. He hoped the man was able to see that spiritual hierarchy around God’s throne.
“Free, O Lord, the soul of your servant from all the perils of hell and from the snares of sin and from all tribulations. Free, O Lord, this soul as you freed Noah from the flood….” Now came the heroes of the Old Testament saved from evil by God, along with Peter and Paul, freed from prison.
“God, with whom all those dying are alive, for in dying our bodies do not perish but are changed for the better, we humbly ask that your angels take this soul into the bosom of Abraham to be raised at the Last Judgment. Mercifully cleanse and forgive whatever evil by the devil’s wiles he may have contracted in this mortal region.” Aldred looked at the man, did he understand? The eyes flickerd ocassionally, but the breathing was now labored.
Aldred chanted more quickly. “Receive, O Lord, the soul of your servant, returning to you; clothe him with a heavenly garment and wash him in the holy spring of eternal life…” The man took two tortured breaths and then ceased, his eyes still focused on the blue sky.
Aldred waited a minute, his hand still on the man’s head. Without reason, he turned his own head to stare at the sky where the man was looking, as if he thought he might see what the man saw as he passed from death to life. Solid blue, no cloud to shape an image.
His stillness was broken by a rough voice, a priest calling to him from a tent a few feet away—“hie, you there, young deacon are you? Come.”
He made his way through bodies of writhing men, looking at each to see if one was Leáf.
The priest at the tent, eying him to judge his age, queried him in Latin, “do you at least have the rank of exorcist to cleanse and bless water and salt?”
“Yes, I am able to do so, sacerd,” he answered in Latin.
“Good,” he switched to English. “These boys have brought water from a mudhole, but it will have to do. Pour it through this sieve into the basin and bless it.” He bustled away, carrying a cross and a box with reserved sacraments for the dying.
Aldred glanced at the boy holding the jug of water. No more than twelve, his eyes look dazed as if he had seen too much already this day. Aldred remembered being twelve, not that long ago.
Gently, Aldred asked him, “what is your name, boy?”
“Folcwin,” he stammered.
“So, Folcwin, may you be a joy to your people,” Aldred played on his name, “why don’t you hold the sieve, while I pour the water.” He thought the boy’s hands too unsteady to pour, so he took the jug from him and let the boy hold the sieve lined with fine cloth over the basin set on a small table beside them.
As he poured, Aldred began to chant, “Exorcizo te, aque, in nomine Dei patris omnipotentis….”
When he was done with the exorcism prayer, timed with the pouring of the water, he set the jug down and motioned the seive away. Then he began the benediction of water, “Deus qui ad salutem humani generis maxima…,” asking God to purify the water with his divine grace so that wherever it be used, it would bring cleansing and healing, freedom and protection.
The boy watched him with awe. The water was now still and clear, the sieve having removed the debris and any remaining impurities sunk to the bottom of the basin.
Through the whole procedure, it seemed that Aldred and the boy had stepped for a few minutes into another world. The sound of Aldred’s voice cancelled that of moaning men, the water running and pooling seemed peaceful and comforting. The two of them remained motionless for several minutes, staring at the water.
It seemed silly, in some ways, to take such slow care over this procedure, while men were dying all around them. And yet, God was there in the water. It had the power to cool the heat of battle and quench men’s spiritual thirst.
Then Aldred broke the spell, looking around for flasks in which to place the holy water. Folcwin, tearing his eyes from the basin, retrieved a blue glass one from the busy priest, who directed him to a box inside the tent where he had set other empty flasks of various sizes and shapes. Aldred carefully dipped each one into the basin, the boy watching the air bubbles surface as each vial filled with water. He held them up to allow any excess water to drip back into the basin, before setting it on a cloth on the table. The boy put corks in the tops with care, his hands now steady.
Folcwin reverently lifted the blue one and returned it to the priest, who thanked him somewhat gruffly and moved off to the next man. The priest had the power to offer the body and blood of Jesus to the dying. An older and experienced cleric, he must have consecrated a large quantity before the battle began.
Aldred briefly considered that the boy Folcwin with his gentle spirit might benefit from a monastic life, but was not sure it was his place to say so to the priest.
“Thank you, Folcwin, for your service to God. May you be blessed.” The boy seemed pleased, but just then a woman, perhaps his mother, called him over to help with delivering bandages to the healers tending to the wounded.
Aldred refilled his empty flask with the last of the cleansed water and began to move through the bodies, searching for Leáf, but obliged to stop and assist the healers or simply to say a blessing over those who were suffering. It was a painful process, his heart longing to find his faithful servant, but his spirit telling him that he must meet the need in front of him. And more kept coming, faster than the healers and priest could reach the ones they had.
He lost count of how many men he blessed with the holy water, some who hung on until he came, just to die with his prayer, others continuing to suffer even as he tried to ease their pain with his words of comfort. Midday came and went, without prayers or food. He did gulp some watery wine from a skin bag the boy brought him, but reserved most of it to quench the thirst of the men.
Oddly, he forgot the battle and the source of the terrible wounds on their bodies. He only saw before him a suffering human, someone’s loved one, it could be him. Many of them stared directly into his eyes as he chanted, as if searching for something outside of their pain—some sign, some vision. He found himself trying to disappear, to become transparent, to allow them to see through him to that eternal reality hanging behind them all. He became numb, a vessel of words and gestures performed by his body while his heart and will retreated into some secret place within his breast. God, how do we endure?
Hours, it seemed, went by as the sun started to reach the hills. Less men were brought in, the sounds of battle retreated, as Aldred became more conscious of his surroundings. Who was winning?
Finally he stood and looked back to the tents and saw that the priest was gone. The healers seemed to be directing men to move bodies into groups—the dying versus the dead.
Aldred turned the other direction, from which the bodies had come. Warily he started toward the field of battle. No clashing sounds remained, just moans and cries—and in the distance the sound of clergy singing the Te deum as they processed through the battlefield with the victorious king and his loyal warband, honoring their fallen heroes and celebrating their God-given prowess. Aldred avoided them.
He still carried his flask of holy water, often refilled, but did not stop as he picked his way through the living and the dead strewn on the field, once more looking for Leáf.
His heart burned within him once more with anger at Seaxhelm for sending his servant into the battle in his place. He had no great hope of finding him alive, because he knew his servant had little training in arms.
The bodies grew thicker, the blood more copious, the appaling gore of men’s heads broken open by swords and inner organs spilling out of their bodies. Already bloodstained from holding and helping the wounded, he did not notice the blood now saturating the hem of his robe as he waded through the field. He stumbled aimlessly for awhile, until it occured to him to look among the slaughtered foot soliders, avoiding the gleam of armor.
Finally he came to a pile of men’s bodies, heaped as they fell, seemingly all northerners with no Wessex standard marking them. He must have wandered far enough to reach the middle of the slaughter. His eyes looked up to the other side and saw an unbelievable number of dead and dying in that direction, virtually impassable, far more than he had walked through from the Wessex side.
Turning his eyes downward, he recognized under the piled limbs a gleam of gold, a neck band he recognized. He had ridden behind it, just two days ago. Crouching down, he pulled the man over and saw his cousin Owen’s dead face. So eager to fight, so young to die, Aldred thought bitterly. What consolation from Wisdom for such a fate? Power is meaningless.
Then below Owen’s body, Leáf. How had he come here? He held no weapon, but his body gaped with spear wounds. Not from Owen’s sword, bloodied and notched but still in his hand. Aldred imagined in his mind what might have happened: Leáf, forced onward into the battle, meeting Owen, would not slay his master’s kinsman—may have even tried to protect him—so the Wessex men with him slew him first, then Owen, who collapsed over the faithful man.
At least that imagined scene gave him some comfort, to believe that both Owen and Leáf had died with honor. He took the vial of holy water from his bag and annointed both of them, chanting a prayer for the dead in short sobs.
That was the day he decided to become not only a priest, but a celibate one vowed to God alone. The heartbreak—not just his own, but watching wounded and grieving men stare at their lifeless comrades and kinsmen, then women and families arriving to search for their loved ones—burned within him. All his kin would be spiritual kin from now on, even his mother and sister. Words, letters on pages, these lasted longer than the bodies of men. He would devote his life to the Everlasting Word.
He had written the news to his mother and sister from Dublin. Taken captive yet again, this time by the fleeing Anlaf, he was befriended by the Irish priest Finn who returned his books and allowed him to copy Irish texts at his monastery before helping him return to Northumbria the following spring. His letter arrived only just before him, telling them of the heroic death of Leáf and his intention to honor their friend by dedicating himself to God and St. Cuthbert. They greeted him with tears and yet joy. The son and brother had turned his heart in the same direction as theirs, his calling sure. His mother had no concerns about the lack of an heir to his father, if this son dedicated to God at birth would serve God’s people the rest of his life. She was a good woman.
The aged Aldred finally finished Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. One question remained, why does the mind burn with such desire to discover the hidden aspects of truth and yet remains unable to grasp the simplicity of Providence amid the fates of men? And the only answer given, the same as that to Job, is to contemplate the eternity of God.