Benebalcrag, May 7th 794
by Robert Westall
Part 1 of 2
The Lord is just; Northumbria has done evil, and Northumbria has been punished. Now we have suffered greatly, perhaps the lord will turn His face towards us again. Certainly, He has answered our prayers, for which His Name be praised.
I blame myself. I saw the evil coming, and did not lift up my voice against it, for fear of the Kings. Though I am Prior of a great monastery, I was afraid. Now I have learnt not to be afraid, things may get better.
It all began just over a year ago. On the surface, the Kingdom prospered. Never had Northumbria possessed so many noble monasteries, written so many holy books, offered up so many masses to God.
But we were a whited sepulchre. The Royal Family fought within itself, brother seeking to kill brother and gain the throne. Kings had been killed by their own body guard; those who had sworn on holy books and relics to protect their lord’s body with their own. There was no loyalty left in the land.
Too many young warriors sat idle, because the farms of their birthright had been given to the church; by pious fathers, in exchange for the hope of salvation. The best of these youths went to hire out their swords to foreign princes overseas. The worst stayed to plot and murder.
The Church’s farms paid no taxes to the king, so the burden fell ever more heavily on the nobles. They, to avoid tax, founded religious houses that were shams, where the Lord was not known. The young monks and nuns in them sat around all day dressed in unbecoming finery, and without labour or prayer to occupy their minds. As a result it was difficult to tell such monasteries from brothels, and, so all monasteries fell into ill-repute; even the innocent, like our own at Tyne-mouth.
I closed my eyes to all these things, seeking consolation in our own band of brothers, and trying to forget the rest.
But the Omens would not let us forget. Thunderstorm followed thunderstorm, in the very midst of winter. Hailstones fell as big as men’s fists, and fiery dragons were seen flying overhead. A lamb with two heads was born out of season at Whitley, and boats were seen out at sea in the mist, sailing against the wind. Many wondered if the End of the World was coming. I took to walking around out estates daily to see if all were well. The exercise kept my mind from brooding.
One night fall, late in January, I found myself at our furthest village, the one called Priest-tun or Priests’-fort. While I was talking to the steward, a sudden cry from the watch-tower brought us all running to the ramparts.
A small party were approaching slowly, and carrying a long heavy load on their shoulders.
“A funeral! At this time of night. Who’s died?” I shook my head, for I had the illusion that the distant men were not villagers but monks. I didn’t know whether to blame the state of my eyes or the state of my mind.
“They’re priests, black priests” a man shouted hysterically. “Priests come to bury a priest”.
At that, my eyes focussed as if by a miracle. I saw thirteen monks, saw fear and defeat in the droop of their shoulders, in the mud on their habits. I saw the jewelled cross carried one-handed, head down and plastered with clay. I saw the clay on the jewelled coffin, and I knew something terrible had happened at Lindisfarne. I pulled the gate bars down myself, and ran to meet them. They laid down the casket reverently, and collapsed in the dirt of the road. I recognised their leader, Edmund the Sacristan of Holy Island. The others were all ordinary brothers.
“Edmund, what are you doing here. Where’s Prior John?” “Dead”.
“And the Abbott? The sub-prior?”
“Dead, All dead.”
“What – of the plague?”
“Worse. We would not have fled for plague. It was Vikings.”
I stared stupidly. “Are you sure?”
“I was there. Six dragon-ships with striped sails. They cut down the Abbott on the high altar. We were at the Mass”. I couldn’t believe it. Lindisfarne has been our safe place, since Northumbria was a kingdom. The sons of Ida fled thither from the British. Cadwallon could not conquer it, nor the murderous Penda. Besides, it was protected by the bones of the saints, Aidan, Oswald and Cuthbert. And it sat within five miles of the royal capital of Bamburgh, with its thousand warriors, and the Northumbrian fleet drawn up upon the beach, The king’s watchmen overlooked it night and day.
“The King. . “,
Edmund shook his head wearily.
“The ships from Bamburgh had to row against the wind. They came too late”.
“Cuthbert . . ?”
Edmund gestured towards the casket, and spoke in low tines, as if something living dwelt therein. “We bear him with us, and the head of Aidan, and the hand of Oswald Fairhand. He will no longer stay on Lindisfarne. He comes to us in visions when we sleep, and drives us on Southward.”
“We at Tynemouth would be honoured . . . “ Edmund gave me a wry smile.
“Nothing would suit us better brother Prior, but there is no arguing with … him”.
“Did not the Norsemen take the casket?”
“They tried to prise it open, but their leader fell dead in a fit. That was when they left, setting fire to the buildings. I was lying feigning death nearby, and saw all. The Vikings will hold we Northumbrians in scorn now. No one is safe. We will be next.”
“You have your problem brother.”
We gave them lodging for the night, and they left next day for the ford of Tyne at Monkchester.
* * * *
All that year, the Northmen did not return. There were those who preferred to forget Lindisfarne, but I was not one. I persuaded King Ethelred to set a coast-watch with fast horses, so we should have warning. I repaired the ditch and stockade across the narrow neck of Benebalcrag. I took every man and young boy from among my people, and trained them to fight, to enlarge my war-band or Fryd. Women and children tilled the fields alone that year, and many were hungry. Especially as the following winter was bitter and hard, and all our charity-money had gone on new spears and shields. For what greater charity is there than to kill the murderous heathen? My monks had all been warriors before they took the vow, and such they became again. Chastity and obedience are as becoming to warriors as to monks.
I arranged a speedy way of gathering my scattered army from the farms, when the Vikings came. I would send monks out with the war-arrow to the nearer farms. If the farmer was there, they gave it to him. If he was away, it was left sticking in the ground by his door. Then the arrow was carried by that farmer to his neighbour, and so on, to the ends of our estate. Then, all would run to the stockade.
As I said before, the winter was bitterly cold, and we had to keep great fires of logs burning, which filled the hall with smoke and stung the eyes. When it was over, when the ice on the Tyne broke, and the swallows came flying back from over the sea, I was not surprised to see the coast watch messenger come galloping into the courtyard on a blown horse. The striped sails had been sighted, sailing down the coast from Bamburgh. The war arrow went round. Then there was nothing else to do but wait, so I held a shortened service of Nones. My brothers looked odd, chanting their responses in chain-mail. They were excited and it was hard to slow the service down to a decent pace. You can, with difficulty, teach Saxons how to love God. Love of a fight comes to them with their mother’s milk.
I thought the Norse war-leader might be a fool. When he finally cam in view, he would have been sailing in sight of the coast for forty miles. Didn’t he know a horse can gallop faster than a ship can sail? Perhaps in Norway the coast is too rocky for a horse to gallop along.
The fryd and the people came hurrying in their hundreds, with cattle and horses, food and bedding. We made them lie hidden within the stockade where they could not be observed from the sea. I made the Tynemouth villagers walk among their huts, and keep their fires burning, as if all were normal. It was possible that this Viking might be such a fool that he would think he had caught us by surprise, as at Lindisfarne. If he thought this, we might catch him in a trap.
You see, there are two landing beaches at Tynemouth, one either side of our crag. The northerly one is backed by steep cliffs, the southerly only by gentle slopes. He would not see the southerly one until he had sailed past the crag. If he thought he had achieved surprise, he might risk landing on the north beach, and then we could line the cliffs, and kill him at our leisure. On the other hand, we had not enough men to hold the gentle southern slopes, and we would lose at least the village if he came that way.
We counted the striped sails from the church tower, as they came into view. There were twenty of them. My heart sank. A dragon ship can carry sixty warriors. We were outnumbered three to one. We could not hold that number, even behind out stockade, for more than half a day. Only on the cliffs of the North Bay could we hold them, or twice their number.
Silently the great fleet approached, turning neither left no right but still heading straight for the crag. It was a clear day with a blue sea and a gentle north-east wind. We could see the great dragon-heads painted blue and red, the rows of gleaming shields along the ships’ sides and the glitter on the horn helmets and weapons. Soon they must turn, or they would come onto the rocks at the bottom of our crag.
“Pray, brothers, pray. Pray that God will make them mad.” My hands told my beads, but my mind could think of nothing but battle.
End of Part One