But that was seldom, for only the poorest widows went about in public on the roads, such as they were after the imperial Roman engineers and army had left the country and nobody knew quite how to repair them.
A footsore, itinerant scop with a harp and a ready stock of verses about heroes and their deeds, known to the Franks across the sea as a minstrel, could stop and receive a bowl of barley or wheat porridge (puls)t and maybe carrot stew and a place to lay his head if he needed rest, but there would be no asking him to play and sing his naughty verses--that was for kings and courtiers who did not follow the Way so dilligently.
Poetry was written and even translated in the monastery, but only the Psalter was sung by the monks, and not with saucy tunes and meter but with simple, strong, slow measure--the same measure by which the monastery itself conducted its holy life year after year.
Whatever his rank, great or low, the passer-by had probably seen monks’ habitations of this pattern before, and this was nothing so out of the ordinary that it would have raised praise to anyone’s lips.
Unadorned, practical, thick-walled and looking much like the earth in color from which its stones were quarried, Wearmouth-Jarrow excited no eye yet that was perhaps its chief defense against the dangerous, outer world. Indeed, why bother to sack so unassuming a place.
To the outward eye, it couldn’t possibly hold any great treasure. Yet it did hold great treasure--of the sort no screaming, ax-swinging Viking Northman sailing up tghe Tyne to pounce on the unwary could possibly value--being treasure of heavenly things revealed only to eyes of great saintliness.
Eyes of one monk in particular, Bede the Venerable, beheld such heavenly treasures, and then, at the end of a long life, he would behold things that even he could not believe at first sight, they were so marvelous and strange.
Bede’s labors with the pen had earned him fame, and his name had gone out to far lands. Gifts and letters came from well-wishers--even rare pepper from a prince of Byzantium into whose hands a wonderful book on poetics written by Bede’s own hand had happened to come. But he had also written on science, chronology of Anglo-Saxon kings and their deeds, ecclesiastical matters, and the Scriptures, many writings that earned him a following of thousands the world over. If only the monastery were not so far from the great cities of the Continent, the road would have been filled with those coming hastily to pay their last repsects--but as it was, it was quite empty as usual--a shepherd and his son driving his flock, a churl with two goats on a ribboned halter going to market--that was it for that day.
The continual ministering in the bookish room, that sought to bring cheer and solace to his last hours on earth, testified that this monk was not only good and famous but much loved.
The monks and scribes that came and went from the bedside had vowed not to show feelings in his presence, but it proved impossible at times. Since it was approaching Easter but the mornings were still quite chill, they brought coals in an iron bucket to warm him. Wine, milk, stew were also brought. Bread and cheese too--but he had ceased eating anything solid. Evenso, he continued instructing his pupils from his bed, interspersing his instructing with the singing of the Psalter and the dictating of two new books, a translation of the Gospel of John and a collection of his notes on Isidore of Seville--a man learned in many subjects just as Bede was.
It was hours since the coals had been brought in, and their fire had sunk so low that they were nearly cold, dead ash--the same lifelessness, in fact, that was presently gripping the old monk by the hands and feet and wrapping long, pale fingers round his heart. Yet he insisted on working, hour after hour, without rest. Old Bede began breathing short and shallow breaths, and those watching over him saw he was leaving them. It was Tueday, before Ascension Day. If only he would lay aside dictation and rest! But no, Bede was all for work until his last drawn breath!
“Quickly,” the dying one urged his young scribe, Cuthbert, a former plowboy who had shown excellent skill with lettering. Together they labored on the translation into English tongue the Gospel of John. Bede had spent the night wakeful, while Cuthbert seized a few hours sleep. Then begun immediately at the break of day. “Quickly,” Bede said again, “I do not know how long I shall hold out and whether my Maker will not soon remove me.”
Cuthbert, hardly able to keep his grief-swollen eyes from weeping onto the pages, pressed on, word after word, line after line with his quill pen and inkhorn and stock of vellum.
The monk paused in the afternoon at three, allowing Cuthbert to eat and rest, and took the time to distribute his few possessions--the pepper, some incense, a little linen he had in a chest. As for the books, they belonged to the monastery, whether he had written them or not. Then he asked for prayers and Masses in return.
That evening Cuthbert turned to the sinking figure in the bed, which had lost so much strength there was scarcely a whisper left of his voice. “Dear master, there is one sentence that I have not written.”
Summoning his spirit to complete the translation of John into the mother tongue, Bede groaned out the words, and Cuthbert took them down immediately. The Gospel was done, and Cuthbert said so.
“You have said well, all is finished,” commented the master.
The writing was dried over the candle flame, then carefully put with the other sheaves. The Master lay utterly exhausted and speechless, and apparently not breathing.
Alarmed, Cuthbert and the monks bent close over the silent form, their eyes full of the same question, “Is he gone?”
At that moment, wind got in somehow and blew upon the bedside candle flame, and it nearly went out, but suddenly it straightened, and burned tall and true.
Bede drew a breath, then his eyes opened wide, and he stared out into space, his wonderment amazing to behold.
“I was dreaming just now,” Bede said to his beloved friends and brothers. “Marvelous things! Cuthbert! Cuthbert!”
“Yes!” cried the scribe. “Can’t you see me, master? I am right here, looking into your very face!”
The dying man’s eyes seemed to falter in focus, from the far to the near, and then his face smiled faintly. “Yes, I see you now. It was just that I--I--”
“Take rest, dear brother!” a voice groaned out, unable to take the pain of losing a beloved friend. “Don’t weary yourself!”
Bede’s eyes widened. His mouth worked as if he wanted to say something but could not. His fingers gripped the woolen blanket.
“No!” he gasped. “The Lord has given me dreams, and they must be written, or they will be lost for long ages--lost until there is someone else who will listen and write them down from the mouth of God.”
Dismayed beyond words, the monks hardly knew what to do. Everyone knew it was too late, beyond the hour for scribal duties, and their prayers needed to be said and then they were directed by Benedict’s Rule to retire to their own cells. Knowing the Rule well, Cuthbert, in anguish, looked around for direction, and when Bede would not be dissuaded, he was given sign to take his quill and ink once again.
“Wait, dear brothers, first we shall sing ‘How lovely is your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts.’”
Obliging the dying man’s apparent last wish, a man who had lived nearly his whole life in the Lord’s holy courts and cloisters, they began falteringly, then gathering strength just as the candleflame had gathered strength in the breath of Wind. Amazing everyone, Bede sang with them the 84th Psalm.
My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the
swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young--
even your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God...
It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon, descending upon the mountains of Zion; thee the Lord commanded the blessing--life forevermore.
The psalming over, Cynewulf and Aelfstan and the other monks stared at the miracle as the dying man dictated to Cuthbert with renewed vigor. By now all the monastery was roused by the singing and had come to find out what was happening. Wrapped in a blanket from his bed, Abbot Biscop had also come out from his chamber, and a chair was put for him at the door, so that he could view the proceedings after being informed what God had wrought.
The abbot made no sign that they were to interfere, and the dictation continued as Bede’s dreams unfolded and were inscribed on vellum, page after page.
It sounded to everyone like a dynastic king list, with scholarly notes, but, otherwise, they could not make anything of it, for no one recognized the names. Certainly, except for the ones with which he started, they were the names of strange peoples and unknown monarchs.
“Is he seeing the future like John the beloved of the Lord, sire?” Cynewulf inquired of the abbot, who shook his head and said he could not tell.
“Suffer the departing soul to write whatever he wishes, if the whole night is taken this way!” the abbot added. “We owe him this brotherly and Christian patience at the last for all he has given us and the Lord!”
Whether they were dreams spun of a dying brain or true visions, how could they tell? They had to wait, and pray, to see the truth of the matter.
Many kings were noted, the expiring monk turned seer on his deathbed describing them each in turn. Soon the royal houses of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy merged into one, which house after a time was lost to foreigner barbarians and pagans, but the throne continued, with the kingdoms bearing one name, “England,” which later was changed to “Great Britain” after other kingdoms in the same isles, those of the Welsh and the Scots and Picts, as well as “East Indians” and “Canadians” and “Australians” and “South Africans” were added as the kingdom expanded into a world-wide dominion. Then a bizarre thing happened. The kingship split in twain and became two rulers who walked, not abreast, but one in back of the other, though they remained paired. Once or twice the king or the queen succeeded in becoming the sole ruler, but one king’s head was taken, and that was stopped. From then on the kings remained small, with the larger commoner firmly in first place. Yet the commoners were not described in Bede’s strange chronicles--it was the little, shrunken kings that were being described, passing from one royal house to another until a dynasty of noble rulers and outright nincompoops called “Windsor” occupied the throne in London.
How very strange it seemed to the sleepy monks, as the seemingly tireless monk and his amanuensis labored on into the wee hours! Would it ever end? some found reason to wonder. And the wickedness of the kinglets and queenlets! It was enough to make the simple, unworldly monks blush before the eye of the good abbot! Indeed, though the present Christian kings were sinners, lapsing into pagan practices at the festivals and even at court, they were not nearly so shameless as the latter kings seemed to be--shameless beyond repentance. Even Bede, the ecclesiastical chronicler who had observed the grave moral lapses and downfalls of character and judgment of many a prince and king in his wider acquaintance with the world through his readings, paused at times, seemingly loath to describe all he saw lest it offend the tender, childlike consciences around him. There was even a petty princedom created to co-reign with the monarchy, and a prince of the royal family was deemed "Prince of Wales," though he appeared more hare than man in the vision he had of him.
princeling charming to the eye, he danced and took free-handed his loves
like witless churls gulp common mead--this drink, that drink, discarding afterwards the dregs.
Finally, one drink drank the drinker, and he was
hers--to the forfeit of his Crown. Beside this commoner, who was
another man’s wife, he thought nothing else mattered, and so he wandered the
Western World, arm in arm with fatal liquor who never once let him drink too
much of her--and so kept him to the last drop and the trap-door’s spring.
his erring brother, the shy and stuttering, tender man found life must be lived out against grain.
Steeling all resolve--not near enough. Christian faith must fill the gap. Stoic too of old Roman stamp,
helped to keep the lip and chin firm in glaring light. Storm and wind cutting without (hordes of
warriors assailed the land, and the land’s chief tower), storm and cold wind ripping within,
the struggle and the cost, daily, of kingship. Yet he endured it well as king and stoic cnicht,
at the end sinking, sinking. Oh! Still sinking?
enough deadly herb-bane applied to his open vein, probably thought mercy for the dying man,
and thought necessary for the waiting nation, but actually a final smothering crush from
Edward’s spurned crown.
she too was thrust into the crucible alive. For this she was more prepared, her
character gold upon a neck chain, with father, mother, engraved within,
the same who mentored her in royal craft, the art of royal service, composed face,
while self and secret heart inward writhe, or at least wait and wait and wait--
Fidelity itself. Unioned to a handsome prince, a man of wit and mind,
who played the game as it was handed him,
Elisabeth made reigning seem the thing that she was destined to, but offspring came, and
they grew up, each pulling from the parents’ hold. Unruly, each in turn brought trouble to
the royal house, and the queen’s sister too caused pain-- this man, then another yet.
But children grown to public sins will turn a mother’s heart to pain the most.
She watched them mount upwards in folly-- Uncle Edward pulling puppet strings?
But hopes were set, the people’s too, on Eldest Son to wear her Crown.
Inside the heart-shaped neck-jewel smiled his engraved face,
a lad with promise who looked a prince in his prince’s gown and sword.
he was named a prince of Welsh. He was crowned as his mother, Elizabeth,
set it on his brow in Caenarvon by the sea. It was the same place where his uncle
once looked sissy to receive that crown.
made, unchosen by the Snowdon’s Mount but blessed by the Monarch his mother.
He pled fealty to her, then all went home to the royal palace, the princeling to his own
heart’s sore. Never joined at any school for princes,
for where could peers to to him be found? Big eared too, he was the butt of cruelty and
many pranks. Tender eyes, bequeathed by George,
and shyness too, no doubt, again the sawing heart and soul to bleeding pulp,
eyes staring everywhere he went. Bolting from the wide, rude world,
the prince found one who shared his pain--but not the one he found his wife.
royal nest, chosen by the councilors and the Queen.
All credentials were quite good, and beauty almost covered pain.
But signs there were--seen but ignored? Her father’s rupture in his love,
half-way down his course of life, left his daughter and a son
high and dry in untutored loss. Though commoner,
schooled in the high-born way, alone, far off from both parents,
Diana, eldest, fought for him, the brother who was all she had.
From this life she stepped into fame, instantly a royal princess now.
How to act? How to speak? The Cow Bird in her rose to it.
But this other thing--Crown Prince’s wife? She must learn.
one more prince beside. But this other duty--loving Charles?
A faithful wife who stays at home? Vows at the church were one thing,
life was another, she found out. Charles had his comfort holed--
a married woman “with a heart” who had a heart for Hare alone,
divorced her husband--and for what? Diana swallowed down her rage,
and found her comfort too like Hare. Charity and alms for the poor and very ill,
two growing sons to tend, were all she knew of life’s good things.
Prince and Princes went their severed ways. Each had life to live, they thought.
One was wrong, it was quite over. The Cow Bird died, carried to her
sudden end by a racing palanquin, overturned and crushed--
The foolish may yet make a saving choice, may yet escape the White Throne’s wrath.
Thus they heard of Hope in Westminster, choiring One who died cross-beamed,
to pardon sins that plague and doom. Now that was Grace in freezing dark
(which Dark I see now gape on Bede!), though the Giver goes begging still,
a pauper prince, a Lazarus at the gate, while rich men dine at
groaning tables. Rose windows bleed colors
on the fallen Cow Bird. Diana, dead, cannot rest, not while
thousands grieve the people’s Princess. The Hare has nothing more to say.
Her people take her away from the the Windsors
and put her safe upon an isle flowered bank to bank.
But what of William, next in line?
a pale, guiding hand?
Old Abbot Biscop, mercifully, had fallen asleep in his chair. Monks sat all around, too weary to stand the night through, and only Cuthbert, his plowboy strength still holding somehow, was bravely at his post taking the chronicles of the End-Time down. Fortunately, that was the warmest part of the monastery, being constructed over the brick ovens of the kitchens, which were never damped down for the night because of all the bread being baked for the two hundred souls of the monastery, besides what was needed for the distressed, wandering poor, whose number they could never guess the day before!
“This will be the last of the latter rulers,” announced Bede, and a great sigh broke from Cuthbert, heedless of his rudeness because he was so bone-weary.
Here the account fixed on a wild star. The world changed course, and the kings were put on a long-boat and cast into seas of frozen shadow beyond Ultima Thule, with a commoner, a great Usurper, stepping forward onto the world stage as its chief ruler. His throne set in London, he commanded the entire world to bow to his authority. “Chillingsworth” was this tyrant’s name, and he was cruel and heartless without measure, despising the sovereignty of Almighty God and His Universal Church beyond any ruler before him.
The abbot, coming awake at this point, heard the chronicle from first to last, and he was thoroughly appalled. He nearly broke in, he wanted to stop the horror, but he restrained himself, seeing that a dying man’s words should not be lightly treated. After all, he might be the oracle of God, and then what excuse could the abbot muster before the Lord?
Wisely, he waited until Bede signalled that he had no more to dictate, and Biscop gave instructions for Cuthbert to retire at once and other monks would see to the invalid.
As the chronicles were being assembled in one bundle, Cuthbert returned unbidden, and he knelt at the abbot’s feet.
“Your Grace, forgive me!” he pleaded. “You must not let these terrible writings live!”
Scandalized at the thought of destroying any of Bede’s precious writings, the abbot sent the scribe off at once.
Yet as he himself went to bed he thought the lad was perhaps right. Who in Christendom would accept such an account as Bede had given of the End-time? An entire world ruled by this evil “Chillingsworth,’ a monster of a man? And how the world turned backwards and became overtaken by barbarians, all light vanishing from men as the earth fell sinking into great darkness--who would believe that this was in store for humankind? Then, bursting upon the darkness, various champions who would battle the evil forces? Each bore a golden letter emblazoned on his shield and body armor, and together they would recover all that had been lost? Then the glorious Parousia, the Second Coming of the Lord! The Last Judgment of the Wicked, and the Recompense of the Righteous!
Indeed, no one would believe Bede’s account, he decided. It seemed to agree with the Revelation of St. John the Divine, but, in some particulars, it took a different, circuitous course to the ultimate destiny of mankind.
When the good abbot was awakened later, he was told that the good monk’s spirit had flown at last to heavenly rest--his departing words being, “Farewell, beloved brothers in Christ!”
But the abbot was not left in peace to grieve the passing of this good and exceptionally gifted man. What to do with the last writings? Not the Gospel of John or the commentaries on Isidore--they were good and proper books, to be sure. But these strange End-time chronicles starting with the kings and ending with the Beast of the World, “Chillingsworth,” and the concluding, lettered Champions?
Disturbed, he went to Bede’s cell, not only to pay his final respects and conduct a Mass but to dispose of the last chronicles.
He found Cuthbert leaping aside from the doorway just as he came to it.
“What are you doing?” the abbot exclaimed, surprised out of his holy presence of mind and manner for a moment.
The scribe, terrified, sank to his knees. “Forgive me, Your Grace! I have sinned greatly.”
The lad began to weep bitterly.
The abbot, amazed, went into the room, and found the body of Bede properly laid out beneath a blazing white shroud no one remembered putting in the linen closet, and candles lit for the Mass.
Cuthbert, in anguish behind him, drew his attention back outside.
“What is it, my son?” the abbot inquired. “What sin have you committed here? I find nothing amiss.”
The scribe’s face showed total bewilderment and shock. “I--I--it didn’t burn, and I--”
Slowly, the abbot got out the whole story. Cuthbert, unable to sleep, had returned and tried to burn the chronicles, but though he held them in the flame long, none would burn. Not one! Finally, he realized what a sin he was committing since the Lord was preserving the writings against the flame in such a manner, and he was struck with mortal terror.
It was then he saw the angel in the room, and he couldn’t move one inch as the angel reached out and took the chronicles from him. Then heaven’s emissary vanished!
The good abbot reached out and patted Cuthbert’s cheek.
“There! There! It’s been a long, hard night of work, and the over-work went to thy brain like an ague, poor lad!” the abbot comforted him. “Retire at once to the dispensary and have them fix a poultice of healing herbs for thy brow, and then lie down until I call for you.”
“No, Father, I saw the angel. He really did take the chronicles from my hand! He--”
The abbot went back in the cell, looked for the chronicles, and because the room was filled with books and the latest manuscripts, he thought he would have to call for help in determining that poor Cuthbert had lost his wits. An angel, indeed! Bede had been a most devout follower of the holy Rule, but attended by angels? Not even abbots could claim an angelic entourage.
The abbot called for help, and help came. Aelfstan and Cynewulf were two good men, and they set to work at once in seach of the missing articles. Later, they reported back to the abbot.
“Your Grace, the lad must be telling the truth. We sifted through everything, top to bottom, in his cell.. The venerable chronicles are gone!”
The abbot’s face and heart fell a full straight Roman mile. Could there be a sneaking thief within the holy walls? No, he knew every soul in his charge, and even Cuthbert, who had contemplated a rash deed, wouldn’t think to steal from brethren who loved and nurtured him in the Lord.
So where had the chronicles gone?
He could not imagine, unless the boy really had seen an angel.
The tale, by this time, had escaped into the whole monastic community, and before long the cells were buzzing with the news.
The abbot, hard put to conduct his usual duties with serenity, had to do something or Benedict’s Rule of Silence was severely jeopardized.
Taking his gilded crookstaff of office, he conducted a tour, and to one and all he gave his solemn word of command that the Rule must be obeyed on the matter. Nothing must be said from that time on concerning the incident. Nothing! They must not speak of it among themselves, nor to laity outside the walls, especially the unbaptised and heathen. The chronicles their brother had dictated at the last, they were lost somehow, whether by angelic agency or by some other means. And now they were to be forgotten, excommunicated, as if they had never been.
Charging them thusly, the abbot did as his duty dictated as head of the monastery. But later, when he was quiet in his own chamber, he could not get the matter out of his thoughts. Later, when he lay abed on his white, embroidered pillow he dreamed the whole thing, over and over. The abbot, the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, and especially Cuthbert, were never quite the same after that.
Poor, half-baked Cuthbert! The last chronicles incident unnerved him. Apparently he forgot all his vows to Christ and his plans to become a deacon. He ran off from the monastery one day. Bad news has a way of coming back. A travelling spice merchant recalled him and said he had gone off to sea on a dragon-headed Danish long-boat, joining a band of heathen adventurers, idolatrous Vikings, to seek fame and fortune as an oarsman.
The abbot too fell ill about then, and joined Bede the Chronicler in paradise, where, perhaps, they found opportunity to discuss the very accounts that had created such a stir at Wearmouth-Jarrow.
Only many years later, the aged, broken Cuthbert crept back a meek prodigal. He begged the monks’ forgiveness and prayer, and only asked for a blanket and some bread, but his name was still remembered along with the Venerable Bede’s and he was kindly reinstated in the monastery. Made a helper in the kitchens and the gardens, since his voyages and frightful deeds in service to the Danes had ruined his writing ability, the poor wight found peace at last within the holy walls of the black-robed Benedictines.