(being the first book of a work in progress
concerning the English Civil War)
years of Personal Rule, King Charles called a Parliament to fund his
campaign against the Scots. Parliament failing to cooperate, Charles
dissolved it – the Short Parliament – but soon called another – the Long
Parliament. A tumultuous year followed that saw the impeachment and
execution of Charles’s minister, the Earl of Strafford. Charles and
Parliament eventually reached impasse over control of the local
militias. Both raised armies, Parliament naming the Earl of Essex
(Dev-Ex for short) as its commander-in-chief. The scene opens the
morning of Oct. 26, 1642, three days after the Battle of Edgehill in
Warwickshire, the first great contest between Charles’s and Parliament’s
main armies. Dev-Ex has summoned his council of war.
Our Captain-General, Robert Devereux1,
Earl of Essex and Eu in Normandy
(the third of that prized title’s eighth creation,
and thus the twentieth holder ab origine),
Viscount Hereford and Baron Ferrers
of Chartley, Baron Bourchier and Lovaine,
Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire and Yorkshire,
and lately of Montgomeryshire in Wales,
a discharged Privy Councillor and Lord
Chamberlain with his own suite in Whitehall –
His Oxcellency to the ill-affected –
stood at the head of the bare polished table
whose latter end vanished into the twilit
cavern of Warwick Castle’s rebuilt hall.
A fire of logs burned on the vast hearth,
whose meek flames lit nothing but themselves.
With pouchy countenance, oppressed with
yet gilded by the rising sun in the window
that overlooked the still enshaded Avon,
where divers fed, swans floated, and a heron
peered beneath the river’s wrinkled skin,
he eyed the faces of his twelve commanders,
half lit by the early glare and half obscured –
the sons of light facing the sons of darkness.
Such various emotions troubled him,
they scarcely could be called by their right names,
so interfused was grief with gratitude,
relief with shame, dread with submissive pity.
He nodded to the cleric at his elbow,
Mr. Marshall, his regimental chaplain2,
“SM” of the Smectymnuus controversy,
who lifted his eyes vaultwards, where the sunlight
lit up a skein of blue tobacco smoke
collecting overhead, and spoke this prayer:
“Almighty God, we offer thanks and praise.
It is Your way, O Lord, to exalt the weak,
as when You ransomed Israel from Egypt,
baptizing Your own folk while drowning Pharaoh,
and when, over the numberless Midianites,
You gave three hundred men the victory,
armed with only trumpets, lamps, and jars.
It is Your way to turn his foul designs
against the old Serpent who rules the world,
as when, just now, when Charles’s ministers3,
wheeling to crush the Lord General’s cohorts
before he could conduct our full force forward,
You dispersed both wings of the prince’s horse4,
who roared abroad, drunk from the Whore’s cup,
leaving their foot to welter under our arms.
“Your angels tip the
vials of Your wrath,
Your storms and plagues afflicting Your own people,
as here Your faithful saints faint from their hurts –
but we sing Hallelujah, harp in hand,
and praise the judgments of our living God,
for every vial that grieves and purges Your Church
incurably weakens and wounds the Beast…”
prayer, Dev-Ex further expounds the mercies granted to the Parliamentary
army at Edgehill. He urges that they rest the army rather than promptly
“None here will
doubt my willingness,” said Dev-Ex,
“condemned as the chief traitor by our foes,
to shed my blood, and yours, and all our soldiers’,
at equal hazard, perish or prevail,
for liberty and the true Protestant cause.
But who knows Our Lord’s mercy, must show mercy.
All night, after the harsh Red Horse fight –
you know this, you were there, but some were not –
all through the frosty hours, hurt men groaned,
or cried out, or whimpered, where they lay –
our own and our malignant adversaries’ –
hacked or smashed or punctured or dislimbed,
nearby or in far ditches, paths, and meadows.
“None who heard will
ever forget such pity,
a night of grief crowning our day of grace.
Some will never walk again. We mourn them.
Others will march soon. But all our men,
all who fought, and I count myself among them,
after six weeks on the march and in the field,
after such a clash as few have known,
are worn to a nub, even to a feeble shadow.
Our army is the image of the kingdom:
we will not triumph by its ruination.
Nor will we drive our men like beasts or slaves.
We will not, sirs. We’ll tarry some few days,
recovering our heart for the trials to come.”
Dev-Ex paused. Sir
John was primed to take
his part, should any present disagree.
Meyrick was Dev-Ex’ sergeant-major-general
and president of his council of war.
For seven years they’d fought across the sea:
they’d seen their soldiers starve at Frankenthal5,
poor ghosts neglected by their distant masters,
at Rees, at Marienboom, and die of plague6
by scores. We will not, sirs. We’ll tarry here.
Hunger, disease, exhaustion: that was war.
Dev-Ex brings his army to London and finds the city in a ferment of fear
at the approach of Charles’s plundering regiments. When Charles
concentrates his forces at Hounslow Heath west of the city, Dev-Ex
assembles his at Turnham Green to bar Charles’s attack. Rather than test
Dev-Ex’s superior numbers, Charles withdraws, leaving the metropolis to
Too numerous to
name, the regiments
that formed up on Turnham Green that morning7,
some twenty of which had fought, or fled, at Edgehill.
These thus comprised his corps of veterans,
both men who’d brooked the terror of the field,
and men who’d found it unendurable.
Another nine had not been present there,
foot regiments under Barclay, Holborne, Holmstead,
and Langham (these new-raised for Warwick’s army),
as well as under Bulstrode, Carey-Rochford,
Sir Richard Onslow, Stapley, and Mainwaring8.
Together with eight regiments of trained
six from London, Southwark’s, and Westminster’s,
short several companies for home defense,
the Commons having sent them to the trenches,
well-trained and well-accoutered as they were,
they formed an element in Dev-Ex’ army,
say sixteen, seventeen regiments or so,
yet more uncertain than his veterans,
wherefore he sought to hedge the novices round
with men less apt to flee at the first onset.
The Holy Spirit, called the Comforter,
alone would choose the victor of this field.
The minutes passed.
Dev-Ex looked with dread
on Rupert’s mounted troopers, reassured
by their inability to flank him,
with hedgerows and enclosures north and south.
Grimly he considered Charles’ refusal
even to answer the Houses’ plea to hold fire.
This was his answer: twenty regiments
in arms against his people – Brentford skinned –
to show how he would scourge the “faithless” city9.
The morning passed.
Dev-Ex and his council,
Pudsley holding his steed, stood fast and watched,
Dev-Ex through his brass perspective-tube,
as the ill-affected took up their positions.
The Houses’ legions shivered in the chill,
inadequately fed by commissaries
and patriots who brought them bread and beer.
Two horsemen appeared, under a white flag.
Dev-Ex, Meyrick, Percy-N, Rich-Holland,
Robartes, Balfour, Stapleton, and Hampden
regarded them with varying emotions
ranging from hope to hatred, gloom to joy,
but generally expected Charles to grant,
after Brentford, where he’d drawn his sword,
the much-solicited ceasefire and treaty.
One was “Dorset”
White, MP for Rye
and secretary to the Earl of Dorset,
who’d taken part in peace talks back in August.
The other carried the flag, his trumpeter.
A veteran of the German war, like Dev-Ex,
but zealous for the king’s prerogative,
Sackville-Dorset advocated peace
in Charles’s council. Dev-Ex read the letter,
and flushing to his eyebrows, every feature
reading consternation, passed it to Percy.
Upriver, at that moment, guns thundered:
the Rs at Syon House. A day-old message.
No answer to the plea for a cessation.
Instead, Charles would receive terms at Brentford.
A mockery. First let me peel this town
and massacre your soldiers. Then we’ll treat.
Dev-Ex turned away, and turned again,
told White he would have him shot as a spy,
then sent him back to London as a prisoner.
Charles meant to fight. If Dev-Ex’ forces
as Edgehill and now Brentford gave him cause
to fear, not to revisit Powick Bridge,
Rupert’s horse would surge over London’s trenches,
filled with well-drilled, but grass-green infantry.
The court would have the pick of men’s estates,
like Naboth’s vineyard, or poor Nathan’s lamb.
Not that the third earl would live to see it.
At best, he’d meet his father on the block10.
He aimed his
telescope at Charles’s lines,
some five hundred yards from where he stood.
Hampden11 and Meyrick shouldered into his view,
with Balfour, Meldrum, and his quartermaster,
John Dalbier. “My Lord General,” Hampden said,
“we propose to hit the enemy’s rear
by way of Acton.” Balfour said, “My lord,
this movement you already have rejected,
as when you ordered Ramsey here instead
of sending him across the bridge at Kingston.”
we one and all are tempted to attack,
somehow to end this dreadful waiting time,
this miserable bout of sweating blood.
We pray for strength, not that the cup may pass.
You ought not take this as equivocation.
Aye, we want to concentrate our forces.
But a swift flanking motion may discourage
Charles from seeking battle on this ground.
Hampden, take two regiments of horse
and four of foot. You know the countryside.
Your strong sweep may be but a demonstration.
Move out with expedition, and expect
an order just as swiftly to return.”
They scattered, save Meyrick. Sir John frowned
in disagreement with his cherished lord.
They heard Hampden
go, and musket fire
rattled in the hedgerows below Mill Hill.
Then Charles’s mixed artillery cut loose
as if to launch his host before P flankers
could strike his left or reach his pregnable rear.
But the Rs’ shot flew harmlessly overhead,
their gunners foiled by slightly higher ground,
and Dev-Ex’ greeners learned the sounds of terror,
shaking heaven and earth as if to crush them,
did not necessarily threaten instant death,
though some few fled with some frightened onlookers.
Dev-Ex waited, sick with dread, for Rupert’s
onslaught of abandoned, ravening horse,
who did not halt their charge to fire their pistols
but slammed into the foe at a full gallop –
another lesson from his Swedish service.
He ordered Meyrick’s gunners to reply.
They did, with slight but bloody execution.
Marshall at his elbow.
The preacher bided the Apocalypse,
wherein the godly soldiers of the Lord
would conquer Antichrist and all his limbs
for God, His Church, and true Christian freedom.
Dev-Ex thought of Turnus, fetched from the field
against his will, by Juno, and of Paris,
the wife-stealer, spared from punishment
by Juno’s foe, disastrous Aphrodite,
who snatched the wretch from Menelaus’ sword.
Neither Dev-Ex’ late mother, Frances Walsingham,
then Sidney, then Devereux, then de Burgh,
Countess of Clanricarde and St. Albans,
nor his late grandmother, Countess of Leicester,
Laetitia Knollys, then Devereux, then Dudley,
would ravish him to Staffordshire, or Ireland.
Meyrick and dispatched him
to counterorder Hampden’s march, contrary
to Meyrick’s own advice and other colleagues’.
Peering again at Charles’s lines he saw
horsemen riding forward. Bless our arms,
he prayed, if thus begins the bloody play.
His colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants,
his ensigns and his cornets, had their orders,
he could only – through his glass – he could only –
wait, it was not even a whole troop,
an honor guard, no, a dishonor guard.
On they came across the Green, within
a hundred yards of Dev-Ex’ lines, then cut,
arresting their attack, across his front,
firing and shouting taunts at Dev-Ex’ soldiers.
Ten times the Rs
thus tried and failed to tempt
Dev-Ex’ weary, chilled, and anxious men
to quit their defensive stance and break formation.
Truly, his men craved to indulge their rage,
requite R crimes, and purge their pressing fears.
But praise the Lord, good discipline prevailed:
his sorely tested soldiers did not charge.
The grey light
dimmed as the invisible sun,
presumably, bore towards the western ocean,
or the western shore ramped upwards to the sun.
MPs and peers who were not of Dev-Ex’ council
and even London notables bare of arms
imperceptibly drew nearer to him,
out of earshot but where they all could see him,
like sailors eyeing an approaching storm
or reapers seeking a broad tree for shelter.
It could yet come. Through his trunk-spectacle,
he saw that Charles was drawing in his wings,
contracting his whole front from north and south,
as if to form an unshatterable phalanx,
a wedge to drive through Dev-Ex’ wall of men
to London, triumph, and unchecked dominion.
At last the sun emerged beneath the cloud,
exploding in the eyepiece of the glass,
blinding, stunning Dev-Ex, who recoiled
in pain as if struck by a Norman arrow,
a dagger in the eye like Rodomont,
benighted like the apostle by the highway12.
He sank to his knees, one hand on Meyrick’s arm,
breathing hard as the wave of pain receded.
“My lord,” said Meyrick. Dev-Ex stood again.
The sun had set. Tears ran chill on his cheeks.
He raised the trunk again. Charles’ host was gone.
exposition of action in the other theaters, the poem addresses the
activities of contemporary poets in the war.
Where were our
poets? Abraham Cowley,
a Cambridge man, as yet a minor fellow,
as yet unousted from his alma mater,
Trinity College, Henry the Eighth’s creation,
mocked our Captain-General’s “powerless words,”
his “dull and tedious” speech, and “liveless sentence.”
He mocked our admiral as a “public pirate,”
and mocked our men as “slaves,” comparing thus
Charles’ claimed small loss at Edgehill with the Houses’:
“One honest man for ten such slaves as they.”
He mocked our soldiers’ “black tainted blood,”
spilled for liberty, our laws, and Christ’s Own Church,
and Sandys’ “tainted blood” shed at Powick Bridge –
Sandys, the grandson-namesake of York’s archbishop
who joined in making Parker’s Bishops’ Bible;
son-namesake of the great MP and statesman,
a friend of Hooker’s, who helped found Virginia;
and nephew of the Englisher of Ovid.13
And how the poet glories in the carnage
Brooke’s and Holles’ regiments endured
in the hard fight at Brentford, told above:
our soldiers “in thy streets fell groveling down.”
Or this, for a blasphemous rhymed couplet:
“Witness the Redcoats weltering in their gore
and dyed anew into the name they bore.”
Or this: “Thou Thames who wast amazed to see
men madly run to save their lives in thee,
in vain.” Because Rs shot them as they drowned!
God save our verse from spouting such injustice.
He passes over Turnham Green in silence.
George Wither led a troop of Surrey horse
to Scotland in Charles’s first Bishops’ War,
and was again commissioned by the Houses,
Pro rege, lege, grege on his cornet,
along with naked pen and sword, he says,
under Sir Richard Onslow, MP.
Appointed to command at Farnham Castle,
he lacked the men and money to defend it,
was ordered up to London with his troop,
then hurried back to manage the withdrawal.
Sheriff Sir John Denham took possession,
the R, the poet, and the noted gambler,
whose allies plundered Wither’s house and stock.
Wither’s troop was sent to garrison Kingston,
from whence they were dispatched to Turnham Green,
where Wither witnessed God Almighty’s mercy.
From Jonson on, the courtiers have scorned him,
though James rewarded his religious songs
and James’ Elizabeth, his nuptial praise.14
Our sweet, prolific Quarles remained in
its “Chronologer,” as Jonson once had been,
despite the obstinate and outspoken part
he took for Charles, in person and in print,
pretending to the character of a statesman.
Like Wither, in his youth he served the princess,
now Bohemia’s exiled queen. Unlike Wither,
he fought the civil war with just his pen.
A Cambridge man, his B.A. from Christ’s College.15
May was another Cantabrigian,
who had his bachelor’s style from Sidney Sussex.
Our English Lucan, nay, our ultra-Lucan,
he too waged more-than-civil war in prose,
a politician counseling Parliament.16
Long-time Commoner Edmund Waller raised
no troop of horse or company of foot,
but stayed on, favoring Charles and moderation
long after other Rs had left the House.
A cousin of Hampden’s, and of Captain Cromwell’s,
he was admitted to King’s College, Cambridge.
Would he had confined himself to verse
instead of plotting an assault on London,
for which two men were hanged and he was banished!17
Suckling schemed to
seize the Tower for Charles,
awe London, and redeem the Earl of Strafford
with hired swords now known as “Sucklingtons.”
Foiled, Sir John fled abroad and died there.
He was a veteran of the Swedish service,
said to have spent twelve thousand pounds to outfit
a hundred horse for Charles’ First Bishops’ War.
Like “Sophy” Denham, a notorious gambler.
Like Blake elected MP in April.
Matriculated Cambridge, Trinity.18
Lovelace likewise served with Charles in
As Charles’ and Rupert’s army rolled towards London,
Lovelace, stuck here on restricted leave
from his imprisonment by Parliament,
contrived to send money and men to allies.
Cambridge incorporated him M.A.
based on his Oxford master’s (Gloucester Hall).
He too descended from Archbishop Sandys.19
his Albovine to the infamous Robert Carr.
He was a friend of Hyde’s and Habington’s,
his plays and masques applauded by the court.
Indicted for conspiring with Suckling
and several others to appall the Houses
by bringing south the grumbling northern army,
when his friends posted bail, he fled to France.20
Another Cambridge man, the champion
of reformed church government, John Milton,
(in this, like Greville-Brooke, as noted supra)
had scriven noble numbers in years past,
e.g., a masque performed at Ludlow Castle,
the ancient stronghold of the Duke of York.
He lived at Aldersgate and schooled his nephews.
The Smectymnuan Thomas Young was his old tutor.
From St. Paul’s School he went to Christ’s at Cambridge,
where he graduated magister artium.21
Last and least we
come to Philip Meadowe,
an Emmanuel man, like Warwick and Lord Feilding,
like the MPs Evelyn, Pierrepont, Grimston,
and Mr. Marshall, the Smectymnuan,
him who accompanied the Houses’ army.
While cannons thundered in the Red Horse Vale,
or rather, Caesar dum magnus ad altum
fulminat Euphraten bello, thus Virgil,
Meadowe studied controversiae (mornings),
Eclogae and Georgicon (afternoons),
plowing towards the dusk of his second year
under the mastership of Richard Holdsworth.
We claim no special merit for this poet,
Suffolk born and bred, in Chattisham,
except that he alone, apparently,
was called to celebrate God’s Providence,
His mercy and His power and His glory,
in leading His people, id est, His Church,
senatum populumque anglicorum,
through roiling discord and severe chastisements,
to final victory on land and sea.22
Meadowe leaves off reading and discusses the poem with his superior in
the office of secretary to the Council of State, John Milton.
After a pregnant
silence, his bold voice
reverberating in the shadowy closet,
the glow of one candle lighting his papers
though scarcely touching the reposeful features
of his impassive hearer, Meadowe said,
“The great campaigns and mercies of our time
are surely just as worthy of heroic
verse as storied wars of Greek and Roman,
the counterfeited fights of Charlemagne,
or Godfrey’s conquest of Jerusalem.
Why not record the deeds of living men,
men whom friends and family remember?
But most importantly, who but the living
can witness to the promptings of His Spirit
in living men pursuing His designs?
‘Tis best to live a saint and praise His works
with every breath and act of our brief lives,
but we can serve our godly Commonwealth,
His Church, as well, by singing of the men
that He inspired with love of truth and law.”
“You know my mind on this,” said Mr.
“but I won’t say you’ve absolutely failed
to render it a hair less absolute.
I do applaud your ban on rhyming couplets,
which tend to exalt the author’s wit above
his matter, and at length become distasteful.
You censure Cowley for hyperbole
in reckoning Parliamentary casualties,
yet seem to excuse the ten-to-one proportion
our generals advertised to Londoners.
‘Tis you, as much as he, our ‘would-be Lucan,’
though Pompey’s war took place a hundred years
before the poet wrote. You’ve waited ten?
His Highness you describe as ‘Captain Cromwell’;
our General-at-Sea as ‘Captain Blake.’”
“I commenced this poem stunned by His great
vouchsafed to us when the Rs surrendered Oxford,
for three years Charles’s war-time capital,
after Sir Thomas Fairfax’ western victories,
Plymouth, Dartmouth, Torrington, and others,
after Chester fell, after Stow-on-the-Wold.
Where was our Virgil for this vast convulsion,
where our Drayton or our Samuel Daniel?
Cowley had abandoned, an admission
his purpose was to spur on Charles’s cause,
not glorify Our Father’s Providence.
And now what further bounties do we see?
Penruddock’s men surrounded at South Molton,
England at peace, Venables and Penn
en route to strike at Spanish Caribee,
and the hero of the siege of Lyme Regis
commanding an English fleet in Mare Nostro.”23
“This feeblest outburst
yet by the malignants,”
said Milton, “will inure to our advantage,
as men admit the security of our state,
discouraging our many enemies.
But here’s one thing I noted of your poets.
Wither, Denham, Suckling, Waller, May,
your ‘sweet prolific Quarles,’ all were lawyers,
trained at either Lincoln’s Inn or Gray’s.
Nor I, nor Cowley, of the men you mention.”
“Cowley, in my judgment, missed the mark,”
said Meadowe, “an embellished chronicle,
that scants the deeds of men and of Our Lord.
Fisher had not declared himself a poet,
yet serving as an officer in Ireland
before he joined the R garrison at Carlisle.24
But Wither also gave us all too little,
save this, which I will leave with you in parting:
“‘Let valiant Essex, Warwick, Manchester,
stout Fairfax, Waller, Robartes, Brooke, and Grey,
(who forward for the public safety were)
be crowned with a never-dying bay.
So crowned be Skippon, Meyrick, Stapleton,
with Hampden, Massey, Brereton, and Gell,
the English and the Scottish Middleton,
my noble, and my valiant, colonel.
Remembered be, with an heroic fame,
Balfour and Ramsey, Cromwell and Dalbier,
the Meldrums, and he chiefly of that name
whose worth did in relieving Hull appear.
Let mentioned be with honorable men
much daring Luke and Haselrig the bold,
Aldrich, Browne, Barclay, Holborne, Harvey, Venn,
Brooke, Norton, Springate, Morley, Moore, and Gould.
To all of good desert, unknown to me,
of whom there are, I hope, some thousands moe,
whose memory shall never be forgot.’
Finis libri primi. Until tomorrow.”25
Robert Devereux 1590/1-1646.
2. Stephen Marshall 1594-1655.
3. Edgehill, Warks, Oct 23, 1642.
4. Prince Rupert of the Rhine 1619-1682, Charles’s nephew.
6. 1621, 1626
7. Nov 13, 1642
8. Col Henry Barclay; Col James Holborne; Col John Holmstead; Col Henry
Bulstrode 1578-1643; Col John Carey, Viscount Rochford; Col Sir Richard
Onslow MP 1601-1664; Col Anthony Stapley MP 1590-1654/5; Col Randall
forces had overrun and plundered Brentford the day before, on Nov. 12,
Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, executed Feb. 25, 1600/1.
11. John Hampden
MP; Sir John Meyrick MP; Lt-gen Sir William Balfour; Col Sir John
Meldrum; Qtr-mr Gen John Dalbier ob 1648.
12. K. Harold II
1022-1066; Orlando Furioso c 46; Acts 9:9.
13. Abraham Cowley
1618-1667, The Civil War.
14. Capt. George Wither
16. Thomas May
1594/5-1660; Pharsalia tr. 1626-27; 1630
17. Edmund Waller MP 1605/6-1687
18. Sir John Suckling 1608/9-1641
19. Richard Lovelace 1617-1657
20. Sir William Davenant 1608-1674
21. John Milton 1608-1674
22. Philip Meadows 1625/6-1718
Col John Penruddock 1619-1655; S Molton,
Dev; Col Robert Venable 1613-1687; Adm William Penn 1621-1670; Robert
24. Capt-Lt Payne
Dev-Ex; Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick 1587-1658; Edward Montague, Lord
Mandeville 1602-1671; Sir Thomas Fairfax 1612-1671; Col Sir William
Waller MP ob 1668; Col John Lord Robartes 1606-1687; Robert Greville,
Lord Brooke 1608-1642/3; Henry Grey, Earl of Stamford ob 1673; Sgt-maj-gen
Philip Skippon ob 1659/60; Lt-gen of Ordnance Sir John Meyrick MP ob
1659; Col Sir Philip Stapleton MP ob 1647; Col John Hampden MP ob 1643;
LC Edward Massey 1619-1671; Sir William Brereton MP 1604-1661; Sir John
Gell 1593-1671; Sir Thomas Myddelton MP 1586-1666; Col John Middleton
(Scot) ob 1674; Lt-gen Sir William Balfour ob 1660; Comm-gen Sir James
Ramsey; Capt Oliver Cromwell MP 1599-1658; Qtr-mr Gen John Dalbier ob
1648; Col Sir John Meldrum ob 1645; Lt John Meldrum ob 1644; Capt Sir
Samuel Luke MP 1603-1670; Capt Sir Arthur Haselrig MP ob 1660/1; Lt-col
Edward Aldrich; Col Sir Richard Browne 1602-1669; Col Henry Barclay; Col
James Holborne ob 1687;
Capt Edmund Harvey ob 1673; Col John Venn
1586-1650; Col Sir William Brooke ob 1643;
Lt Richard Norton 1615-1691;
Col William Springate 1621/2-1644;
Col Herbert Morley 1616-1667;
Col John Moore
Capt William Gould 1615-1644.
to Poems Menu
Alfred and his thanes
fight their way to the stables. Ealhswith prepares to
take the children to Frome. The surviving guests flee across the Avon,
Alfred turns back to confirm Ealhswith’s escape. He and a small band
hurry to Frome. At the abbey they are spotted by Danes and pursued.
King Alfred wrestled on his
coat of mail
and joined the Somersetan in the doorway.
Pale smoke blanketed the yard,
transpierced by flames gleaming in blades and helms
like fallen stars buried in deep water.
Amid the murk, the Athulfing discerned
a straggling palisade of Wiltshire spearmen
anchored on his mailed household guards.
The crash of arms and cries of pain and hatred,
perhaps because the darkness shrank the scene,
conjured in Alfred’s mind the Roman folk
drunk on the liquor spilled in the arena.
“My God,” he said. But now
was not the time
to ask what sin, what vicious satisfaction,
had blinded him and his to an obvious peril.
“Caput porcinum!” the monarch cried.1
his thane repeated,
“for our Lord’s feast! Arm, you novice miners!
We’ll drive a bloody shaft to the king’s stables!”
“Not so, Lord,” a
rumbled below the shouts and clanking iron.
Old Cyma spoke, King Athulf’s Wiltshire thane,2
seconded by Ealhstan and Mildred.
“We claim the precedence,” asserted Cyma.
Into the smoking flood the gray thanes plunged,
then Athelnoth and two of Addi’s guardsmen,
succeeded by young Alfred and his bishop.3
The other guests, who dreaded lest their dryhten4
should die alone, now exited the hall,
while overhead the flame-cheeked billows shrouded
the moonless tomb of the Lord’s festal night.
1. Boar's head formation (L).
2. K. Athelwulf d. 858.
3. Athelheah 9th bp. of Sherborne.
4. lord (oe).
“For Athelwulf and Christ!”
Lord Cyma called,
a wisp of mist dissolving at his lips.
A hundred Saxon throats threw back the slogan,
but twenty score invaders bellowed, “Har!”
another name for Grim, the hooded one.
Thrusting himself among the thronging Danes,
beating his feet against the frozen floor,
the elder penetrated several steps
before the devils landed one good hit.
Shoving with his shield, the Wiltshireman
parted a pirate’s windpipe with his tip
and nimbly blocked and hacked at arms and limbs
deployed to check or hinder his attack,
till, staggered by an axe-blow to the helm
and a bold stroke that unhinged his jaw,
the warrior forgot to ward the oar
a steersman swung straight at his naked neck.
His arms hung from his
hands, his lean legs failed,
but Mildred rushed his shield against the sailor,
bore the man down, and drove through several more,
as Ealhstan and Athelnoth, his flankers,
bustled to blunt the blades the thane thrust past.
The thread of Wiltshiremen and royal guards,
now blown and bloody, cautiously backed in
to point and push the boar’s rooting snout,
the cleft between their folding wings now filled
with clerks and ladies gripping glinting flames.
Marshaled by Mildred’s banging boss and brand,
the band of Saxons bit into the body
more like an auger gnawing round its nib
than the keen edge of a maul-walloped wedge.
A slipping sailor stabbed his outstretched sword
through Mildred’s foot, fixing him where he flailed.
The thane gave back a
but mangled mail clung to searching steel,
the veteran could not retract his blade,
and the burst brigand, buckling as he bowed,
drew the guþrinc over his nailed shoe.5
A sudden sidestroke sundered hand from wrist,
and the gore poured as Mildred, in a muddle,
brusquely covered the cursing northerner.
5. war-man (OE)
Ealhstan flung forward, but
could not fend off the flash that freed his friend’s
illustrious headdress from his prostrate trunk.
The last of Athulf’s Wiltshire ministers
piloted his point at eyes and ears
and twiddled teeth and noses with his shield
before a foreign oarsman speared his side.
Down he drooped and doused
the iron ground,
but Athelnoth and Alfred understood,
hustling to advance the Saxon sally,
the aged thanes had carved the corridor
that Athelnoth designed full half the way
to Alfred’s burning barn, from which, they hoped,
their coursers might spirit them from this hell.
The king had grunted “Lord” at every blow
he dealt and every buffet he endured.
A miracle it was to have come so far.
“We need another miracle,” he muttered.
As Godrum saw from where he
sat, his stallion
stalled in the stogged, vociferating mob,
his mass of warriors could not get at
an enemy thus crushed among their friends.
Contented that the newborn moon had set
as forecast, scurrying abaft the sun,
he glimpsed only a string of bobbing helms
slithering through the chop of smoke and steel.
Meanwhile, monks and women hurled themselves
into the gallery that gaped before them,
stumbling on unseen, unstiffened corpses,
sluicing their shoes in uncongealed grume,
one hand gripping a neighbor’s fur-clad elbow,
the other brandishing a one-edged blade.
Inimical to law and love and form,
it seemed a feast or liturgy of nothing,
the next-to-nothing out of which our Father
concocted all good things in earth and heaven.
The last to leave the hall,
old Bishop Tunbert,6
whose lifting hairs flared with the rooftop’s fire,
lingered to sing a hymn to Christ the King,
who’d parted this flood of fiends with his arm
as once he spread the waves to rescue Moses.
6. Tunbert 19th bp. of Winchester; Wini 1st bp. cons. 662.
“The Lord,” he intoned, “is
a man of war—”7
Wigred and Wulfred, thanes Wulfheard had charged8
to bring the bishop safely home to Hampshire,
grappled his gaunt bones and bore him onward.
Behind their backs, a Wiltshire soldier toppled.
From where he lay in pain, the beorn saw9
a bear-cloaked lord, framed by the hall’s dark doorway,
clasping a black, shapeless mass to his chest.
In town, the royal offspring sat on horseback,
each curtained by a guardsman’s mailed arms.
Oppressed, the king’s lady, Ealhswith,
raised her rushlight to examine Edward,
then beamed assurance into the dazed eyes
of Athelgeofu and little Elfthryth10
and hardness into the eyes of their young warders.
She peered with fear at steadfast Athelflaed,
her eldest, and the eldest of her girls.
Hearing a shout go up beyond the houses,
which instantly a roaring answer whelmed,
she turned to see a raft of ugly smoke
sprawling and bulging over Athulf’s lodge,
its nether parts inflamed by glaring thatch.
“Let’s go,” said Addi,
tapped to head this band,
“at this point we can only save ourselves.”
The lady held her dim wand to his chin.
Hand in hand, they’d scrambled from the hall,
evaded Godrum’s gathering heathen horde,
and roused the cubs and Hilda at the inn.
Her other hand rose to her breast and touched
the chain from which her silver sieve had fallen.
“Shall I abandon Alfred?”
“For all I know, the Danes have slain my kinfolk,
and he and these poor lambs are all my flesh.”
The bearded hoard-guard
said, “I too, dear lady,11
would rather fight and fall by my lord’s side.
It shames a scealc to be sent away.”12
He cast a glance that compassed her five children.
“I’ve never seen him
fight,” said Ealhswith.
“The next time we embrace, we shall be changed.”13
. . .
7. Ex. 15:3.
8. ald. of Hampshire.
9. hero (oe).
10. her youngest daughters.
11. hlæfdige (oe).
12. soldier (oe).
13. 1 Cor. 15:51.
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