Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anglo-Saxon England: The Raising of the Stone #4

From a Roman Slave market to Glastonbury Tor
Anglo-Saxon England: The Raising of the Stone #4
By: Donna Fletch Crow

The vigor of the Anglo-Saxon half millennium is the stuff of legends that still ring today in every English school child’s history book and in the hearts of all who love England. It is, after all, the period when Britain became England— Angleland— beginning with Pope Gregory’s famous pun:

            Aelfric stood in the Roman slave market, the sun beating on his head. Dust from the dirt-filled spaces in the broken tiles of the forum clogged his eyes. The stench of animal droppings and unwashed, unhealthy bodies in the crowds of strange, idle people, who eyed him suspiciously, clogged his nose. A cacophony of cackling chickens, bleating goats, and babbling voices murmuring, arguing, and shouting in strange languages clogged his ears.
            Aelfric and Wulfnoth, who had been kidnapped from the sheepfold of an English steading on a horror-filled night many weeks ago, stood at the end of a long row of ragged slaves as almost equally ragged bidders haggled over the human merchandise for hours. The only word Aelfric had heard in his native English tongue all morning was from Tullus, the trader who knew enough languages to dicker with all who came to Rome— whether slave or free. “Stand straight!” “Show your teeth!” “Hold out your hands!” he would shout at his wares whenever a prospective buyer strolled by.
            Tullus’s limited vocabulary had conveyed the dismal situation only in broad outlines: Rome was a city long abandoned by the emperor, its former glory faded and crumbled like the broken tiles, pillars, and statues of the forum around him; its near-starving population was overtaxed, disease-ridden, and living in constant fear of attack from their enemies the Lombards.
            The Eternal City had become a huddle of hills covered with scraggly vineyards, massive ruins, and tiny, miserable human dwellings interspersed with larger but no more wealthy churches and monasteries— all looking down on their muddy, stinking river. The only hope for the city and its inhabitants lay in the newly proclaimed Pope Gregory.
            Aelfric shook his head. Whatever a Pope was— something like a king, he supposed— it looked like an impossible task. No wonder the slave trade was so slow— starving men could not afford slaves.
            “Back straight!” “Eyes open!” Tullus’s sharp prod announced the approach of a possible buyer. Aelfric jerked to attention with a surge of hope that this ordeal might at last be ending. Then he looked at the figures before him, and his heart sank. Not a farmer, miller, or merchant— but two emaciated-looking, black-robed monks. Why had Tullus bothered to prod him up for them?
            The older monk said something to Tullus, and Aelfric heard Tullus reply, “Angli.” The older monk’s reply brought laughter from Tullus and the younger monk as if he had told a joke.                      Aelfric frowned. He could not imagine anything about this circumstance that could be a laughing matter. Tullus stood respectfully aside, more deferentially than Aelfric had ever seen him behave before, while the monks conferred.
            Then he stepped over to Aelfric and Wulfnoth. “Look as intelligent as you can, you worthless curs. Ye have the honor to be observed by His Holiness, Pope Gregory.”                           “It seems he found us amusing.”                                                                                                        “Ah, the Domine asked the race of such tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed men. I told him you were Angles.  
            “‘ Surely, you do not mean Angles, but angels,’ he said.”
            Tullus clearly showed that his amusement had been a sign of respect for the eminent man, not agreement with the sentiment. “He asked whether ye be heathen or Christian. I told him as heathen as any I’d met— worse than those barbarian Lombards with their Arian heresy.”

And with that begins Pope Gregory’s passion to send missionaries to the far-off, heathen England which resulted in St. Augustine’s mission to Canterbury, a direct answer to the prayers of the faithful Queen Berthe who, with her ladies and chaplain, had prayed every day for 30 years for the conversion of her adopted land.
But Queen Berthe’s story is for another day, as is that of Augustine’s mission across the land to Glastonbury where, to his amazement, he discovered the rudiments of an ancient Christian faith and a tiny, holy church some said, built by our Lord’s own hands and dedicated to his mother.

As are the other stories of the Anglo-Saxon times, a time of great building and rebuilding: King Ine whose queen ordered a pig put in his bed and the royal hall littered with refuse to show him the ephemera of all earthly things— and led him to build a great addition to the church at Glastonbury; Alfred the Great who walked among his people disguised as a simple minstrel and burnt a peasant woman’s cakes— but then won a great victory over the heathen Guthram; St. Dunstan, so despised by his fellow courtiers as a young man that they threw him into the slough— long before he became one of the greatest abbots of Glastonbury.

And a simple Welsh bard brings to Dunstan the story that had almost been forgotten:

            But Dunstan’s mind pictured not the New Jerusalem of which he had asked the bard to sing, but his own beloved land ruled by a tall, russet-haired warrior in a flaring cloak wafting a golden-hilted sword beneath a red-dragoned banner.
            Then, perhaps because Dunstan had so recently celebrated mass, the king in his vision placed his sword before a crude wooden altar, much like the one in the Old Church in Glastonbury, and partook of the Eucharist from a golden grail. Then, as Dunstan looked again, it was not a cup of gold, but one of simple carved olive-wood. . .

And so we say: The Holy Grail lies somewhere in Glastonbury!

Two millennia of history and legend intertwine around Glastonbury’s broken arches.  And through it all— through ages ancient and modern— the faithful have sought to answer the same question that rings through time:  Where is the Holy Grail?           

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 40 books, mostly novels dealing with British history. Besides the award-winning Glastonbury, Donna is also the author of The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave  and A Darkly Hidden Truth, as well as the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the romantic suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries.

Donna and her husband live in Boise, Idaho.  They have 4 adult children and 11 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener. To read more about all of Donna’s books  and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to:

Twitter: @DonnaFletchCr

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