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A Story of Old Britannia

I have undertaken to post here an essay written a year ago upon a subject which continues to interest me greatly to this day. I thought it might serve well as a blog, posted as we move daily toward the beginning of a new year. For those whom it may interest, you will see me reference Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples, Churchill's The Birth of Britain, and C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image, as well as referrals to both Dante and the Aenied of Virgil. I hope that you enjoy this story as much as I do.

Where Does the Sparrow Fly?

The history of the so called Middle Ages of this world, were once a time as nebulous and shadowed to me as the name they have been given- the dark ages. A small name for a thousand years stretching from A.D. 500 to 1500- nearly half of the distance between Christ and the modern day. It seems that with one phrase, we cover an entire era with a cloak of intellectual and physical poverty. I think that we have, with this term, grossly misrepresented an essentially foundational era in the building of the world as we know it today. This was a time that was vibrantly alive and writhing with the birth of the western world as we know it today following the collapse of the great Roman empire which had knitted the globe together for hundreds of years before. Yes, a time of plague, and war, and shifting societies. But also, a time of growth, expansion, and the light of new Faith. A time when gold was rescued from the ashes of fallen kingdoms and woven into art- spun out into the history of people and place. The plague of modern necessity had not touched them; what was rich was beautiful. Utilitarianism and the curse of “originality” did not drive them, and so, in the midst of suffering and pain sprung wells of beauty and truth which remain even to this day. This example of the differing though of the modern world is illustrative to my point: the idea of ‘space’ or the universe to the modern mind, inspires feelings of awe and vague bewilderment as we consider a vast wilderness of stars and planets, but to the medieval mind, the universe was awesomely huge, and yet satisfyingly harmonious- everything working under common guidance. C.S. Lewis covers this in length in his excellent work titled The Discarded Image; he writes there that Dante “is like a man being conducted through an immense cathedral, not like one lost in a shoreless sea.” (Dante, or course, is essential to an understanding of medieval cosmology as his Divine Comedy is formed around it.) Perhaps, when looked at in this way, we are the ones in the dark age? And so, in order to study Medieval history, we must, as C.S. Lewis writes similarly concerning Spencer’s Faerie Queene, stoop in humility to enter the low door of this cathedral. We must look at it not with our post-enlightenment lens of degeneration, but with the eyes of one honestly seeking to know. And there is no better way to meet a time on it’s own footing, than through a story. Thus I propose the take a look at the Anglo Saxon king Edwin, and from thence examine the early days of Britannia.

Darkness had fallen over the palace of Redwald- the powerful king of the East-Angles; the shadows of the walls had stretched ever forward in the red of the dying light until they consumed the structure in night, and likewise a growing shadow had fallen over the mind of the exiled prince Edwin- the successor to the throne of Northumbria. Edwin, driven away by the persecution of his predecessor, the King Ethelfrid, had, after wandering in exile for some great time, found sanctuary in the halls of Redwald, with whom he swore an oath of protection. This man, who would become not only the most powerful king in Britain at the time, but also the gateway through which the light of Christianity would filter openly into Northern England, now sat outside the palace walls seemingly at the end of the road and with nowhere to turn; he found himself in a pit which he could not scale. The Jonathan to this very David of the Anglo Saxons, had come to warn Edwin that Redwald had agreed- whether because of threats of war or hefty bribes- to hand him over to the emissaries of Ethelfrid. In the words of the historian Bede, Edwin sat “tossed upon conflicting tides of thought and not knowing what to do or where to turn.” And yet, there came to him a grace. Stepping into the dark night of his soul and drawing him up in Justice. For Justice reaches down and brings up. Just so, Edwin found his gaze pulled up to encounter the approaching form of a man. The stranger came up to Edwin and greeted him, asking him why he should be sitting outside so late at night. To which Edwin asked what concern it was of his. The stranger then told Edwin that he knew very well what trouble he was in and why he sat outside, and in true fairytale form asked him three questions. If a man promised him a kingship, crushed his enemies, and gave him power greater than any king before him, and if this same man could offer him wiser guidance and salvation than any that his people had ever know, would he obey him? Edwin exclaimed that he certainly would. The stranger reached out and placed his right hand heavily on Edwin’s head telling him that when he should see this sign again, it would be time to fulfill his promise. Then, he vanished, and Edwin thought he had been thus parleying with a spirit. He was still pondering over the matter- being a wise and thoughtful man- when the same loyal friend returned to tell him that Redwald had encountered a change of heart and that all was now safe. It is rumored that is was Redwald’s honourable wife who had caused this change in him with her sage advice. Regardless, Redwald not only refused to hand Edwin over, he then raised a war host and marched with Edwin to reclaim his kingdom and set him on the throne. With this powerful ally, Edwin soon won his way, step by step, into the foremost position in England; reigning over nearly everything except Kent and Winston Churchill in his history The Birth of Britain, records that the confederation founded by Edwin was the first to foreshadow the kingdom of all England that was to take place under the kings of Mercia; a reign of peace and prosperity. In the year A.D. 625 Edwin then took a wife; a princess from Kent who brought with her a strong faith in Christ as well as the newly appointed bishop Paulinus- who had come to England in the time of St. Augustine twenty-four years earlier. This, the first envoy of the Roman church to take his ministry to the North of England, came as an assurance that the princess’ faith would remain protected, but that did not mean he would neglect to attempt a conversion of the Northumbrians.

At first it seemed that Paulinus labored but in vain, for the King of the Northumbrians, though by no means hostile to the faith, was at once also hesitant, and deliberated long upon which religion to follow. Rightly so, I think, for that which he chose would shape the whole of his life and actions. Paulinus, while kneeling in prayer concerning this one day, received an instruction from the Lord, and coming to the King Edwin, laid his right hand atop his head and enquired as to whether he remembered this sign. Oh, that we all would recognize the right hand laid upon our own heads! Paulinus told Edwin that it had been the work of the Lord which had delivered him from the hand of his enemies- just as the armies of the lord had marched before the ancient king David into battle. Edwin immediately summoned a council of his advisors and lords, including the Chief Priest of their ancient religion- named Coifi. They, all of them, wished to be instructed in this new faith. The reputed statement of one of his advisors, remains shining throughout history, inspiring the thoughts of many-including the poet Wordsworth (see his sonnet entitled Persuasion). And it is from this, so very human and honest plea, that the title for this essay is contrived. The advisor spoke saying: “…when we compare the present time of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter snow or rain are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through the other. While he is inside he is safe from the winter storm; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.” This question, asked by every generation of man since the fall from Eden, was answered that day in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. For behold, a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. In the year 627 A.D., Ewin was baptized and his chief priest himself, now road throughout the kingdom armed with a sword and setting the shrines of their former gods on fire, so that they too were thrown down in a blaze of light. Edwin thus became the first powerful Anglo Saxon patron of the faith, and a great victory was won that day. Edwin’s reign only lasted six years longer, for in the year 633, he was overthrown in a battle at Doncaster, by the combined forces of King Penda of the Mercians, and Cadwallon, a British king of North Wales. However, the roots that Edwin planted would continue to spread, and the slow growth of Christianity in England continued.

The story of King Edwin takes place just after the breaking of a long period of England’s history which remains hidden from view. Even Bede, skips over this shadowed hundred years or so, to pick up his narrative again with the pope Gregory, but what we do know is that it was during this time that the Anglo Saxon invaders finalized their move to this new island- prompted of course by the barbarian invasions which caused Rome to leave the Island to itself by the year 410 A.D., and by around 450 A.D. we hear that the Saxons are driving the Britons to desperation, and then the curtain drops. Not much is known about the following years, except that they were largely violent ones, with perhaps a brief stint of piece in the region West of Southampton and Chester, which Churchill theorizes remained Britain; this peace, it is thought, was largely due to the efforts of some unnamed king, who won a great victory over the Saxons on Badon Hill between 490 and 503 A.D. Some have ventured to suggest that this is even the source of the mythic king Arthur. Churchill again suggests that if this man was a Roman Briton (hypothetically the last) and if he had gathered even a small company of plate-armoured men, he could easily defeat the light infantry of the Saxon people. So, the story and peace of King Edwin emerges from a period of darkness and his swallowed again in violence, with the Welsh King Cadwallon and his allies who defeat Edwin. (Churchill compares this somewhat to the revenge of the earlier celt Boadicea) However, this next violence does not overthrow the beacon of hope which had been given to the Saxon people, which would shine even unto the day in Churchill’s own time, when the English people would face a great and looming threat. Britain as we know it was baptized in fire.

In many ways we live in a much easier and more comfortable time than that of King Edwin. But, we also live in a time in which the minds of mankind are closed and empty, and we find ourselves facing again the collapse of ways which have always been known. We have misplaced our faith and thrown aside our strength for the glory of man’s achievement and an ever-receding horizon. Where once we thought to find lofty rooms, now we only find interminably long and narrow passages, forever turning this way and that. We have become so far advanced that we have come full circle again. Perhaps we are the ones in the dark ages? “O mind of man that does not know the end or future fates, nor how to keep the measure when we are fat with pride at things that proser!” We are so certain of ourselves, that we have thought to lay aside the need for anything like divine aid. Like those in the time of King Edwin, we ask where the sparrow flies, but we refuse the truth that is set before us and close ourselves off from the light that seeks to win our hearts. C.S. Lewis writes in explanation of the Medieval mind behind their model (once again in The Discarded Image) that to a medieval man, what was seen was but a hint and a guide to what was unseen. So all of creation was a map, so to speak, of the Creator Himself. So everything pointed back to His glory. In the Modern day, we have accustomed ourselves to the belief that all that we see, is all that there is. That what is real is only what is around us. We stuck in a pit of “reality”, and thinking ourselves quite reasonable indeed, we shove away the only answer to the question we, each and every one of us ask in our hearts, where does the sparrow fly? We long for something not on this earth, says Lewis, obviously because we are not made for this earth. The studying of medieval history is the opening of a window onto a rich and variegated scene. A time so vibrantly alive, that it still breathes down the neck of our own- if often quietly. Such an intertwining of beauty and brokenness, as not been shown anywhere more visibly than in the Middle Ages. And so, we each ask with Edwin’s advisor: ‘where does the sparrow fly?’

-Addison Hornstra @Tendingthesoulart

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