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Are we still ruled by superstition….?

Above are the Venerable Bede and King Cnut, who are concerned in the following extract from Medieval Man by Frederick Harrison:-

“…Only Bede wrote about such subjects as astronomy and geography; and his knowledge of these was conditioned by the teaching of the Church. As time went on, as much reliance was placed on charms as on prayer and the skill of the leech. The need was met by the creation of the order of exorcists, which, in the third century A.D., was added to the other orders conferred by the Church. At certain periods of the year, evil spirits that were regarded as the cause of bodily or mental disorders were exorcised by the appointed ministers of the Church. The ministry was no sinecure, for the demand for it was great. Using his book of exorcisms, the exorcist would bid the evil spirit depart by invoking the Name of the Trinity.

“Side by side with the exorcist there lived and worked in Anglo-Saxon England the wizard, the witch and the “medicine man”, all of whom were ready to sell their skill in even such obscure and troublesome problems as unrequited love, to which end drugged beer and ale could work wonders.”

“…With the belief in witchcraft went a belief in elves, who were supposed to live on high land, in woods or near water. Anyone who suffered from the disease of the water-elf, one symptom of which was manifested by livid finger-nails and watery eyes, could be cured only by the used of certain herbs and incantations. There was a kind of hiccup known as the elf-hiccup. Dwarfs were shunned as workers of evil and as being in league with the devil. Their fabled power to make themselves invisible by wearing the “hell-cap” or “hell-clothing” made them specially fearsome. Storms and tempests and even death were caused by witches and wizards. An attempt was made by King Cnut to put a stop to these superstitious practices; his actual words are worth quoting as revealing his enlightened nature:

“…and we forbid earnestly every heathenship, that a man reverence idols, that is, that a man reverence heathen gods, the sun or the moon, fire or flood, waterwylls or stones, trees of the wood of any sort, or love witchcraft, or perform underhand work in any wise, either by way of sacrifice or divining, or perform any act of such delusions…

“Yet even Bede believed that storms could be raised by witches. He records that the ship in which Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, were voyaging home was driven out of its coursed by demons, who, however, dispersed when the two holy men bade them, in the Name of the Trinity, depart. Then the storm ceased.” Extract ends.

Cnut was indeed enlightened by the standards of his day, and although we smile when we hear the story of how he ordered the sea to retreat, he was actually teaching those around him a very wise lesson. Not that many were prepared to learn from it. And Bede not only believed in witches, but accepted that issuing orders in the Name of the Trinity would send demons packing. Why did it never occur to him that if that was all it took, how come the demons kept coming back for more?

For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer protects against evil, and is uttered in the Name of the Trinity, yet through the centuries, right until now, a great many continue to believe in witches, the black arts and Satanism.

In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer writes:

“…The word which best sums up the medieval attitude to the Devil, miracles and everything in between, is superstition.” How true. There were all sorts of stories, such as so-and-so saw the Devil enter the local church, or in the dairy, souring the milk. Yet, a national disaster, which you might expect to be laid at Beelzebub’s door, would be taken as a sign of the Almighty’s displeasure with, say, wicked Londoners, or even humankind in general. One cannot help but wonder what Cnut might have had to say about the giant hailstones that fell during a terrible storm in 1360, killing many men and horses. How enlightened might he have been then?

Yet for all belief in witches, there were, apparently, no more than a dozen cases of supposed witches being executed for the whole period between the Norman Conquest and the Reformation, and most of these had been involved in plots against the monarch or his friends. (See Hibbert, The English – a Social History – 1066-1945, p.261) Witch-hunts and all that vile hysteria came to England in the Seventeenth Century.

So, what conclusion can be drawn from the above? Perhaps that for all their superstition and general gullibility, the people of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval England were more tolerant than those of Seventeenth Century. Witches appear to have mingled with the general populace, and been treated with a reasonably healthy respect. And yet, in 1487, came the Malleus Maleficarum. http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/ Hardly a friendly treatise on witchcraft! Yet we are told there were only twelve executions of witches.

I don’t know what Cnut would have made or it all, because I’m darned if I know what even I think! Was witchcraft dreaded? Is it still dreaded? Does that uncertainty mean that beneath my modern veneer, I’m just as superstitious as my forebears?

Excuse me while I cross my fingers behind my back….

 

 

A year of anniversaries

shakespeare

2016 has been the 1000th anniversary of Edund Ironside’s accession and death, also of the death of his father Ethelred Unraed and the double accession of Cnut of Denmark. It has also been the 950th anniverary of the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings, being the end of the House of Wessex after its interruption.
Four centuries ago, St. George’s Day to be exact, marks the death of Shakespeare and possibly his 1564 birth. Opinion is still divided as to whether, in Richard III’s case among others, he merely embroidered what passed for history during his lifetime or invented many of the significant events he wrote about. At least we can precisely date his death better than we can his birth and we can, ironically, rely on the flow of his plays relating accurately to the culture of his own time, such as Cordelia’s execution, which could not have happened in Richard’s own century.

In March, Helen Castor marked the anniversary on Channel Four by investigating the fate of the Bard’s own remains in this documentary. It transpires that, having been buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church with his family and a forbidding epitaph(1), GPR investigations show that his skull is probably missing, just like Morton’s at Canterbury Cathedral. Richard, of course, was intact except for his feet. It seems that not everyone over the years heeded the curse:

(1) Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be Middle English the.svg man Middle English that.svg spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he Middle English that.svg moves my bones

Edmund Ironside

Edmund II (Ironside) is a curiosity among English Kings. He reigned for barely seven months, succeeding his father Ethelred II (Unraed) on St. George’s Day 1016 but dying “in suspicious circumstances” on St. Andrew’s Day the same year. He was the half-brother of Edward the Confessor and grandfather of Edgar the Atheling, thus the ancestor of every English monarch from 1154. As the grandfather of St. Margaret of Wessex, second wife of Malcolm III, he was the ancestor of every Scottish monarch from 1093 (except Donald Bain, Malcolm’s brother).

Edmund’s reign began from a bad position as the northern part of England was occupied by the Danes. Sveyn Forkbeard, their King, had temporarily supplanted Ethelred in 1013 but he died the following year and Ethelred’s authority was restored. Edmund, Ethelred’s third but eldest surviving son, fought alongside him and continued the struggle after his death, raising an army and defeating the Danes, under Sveyn’s son Cnut, at least twice near London until he suffered a reverse at Assandun in October 1016 and re-divided England with Cnut. He died the following month, possibly poisoned by Eadric Streona, his brother-in-law, and Cnut became King of all England. In any event, Cnut had Eadric executed at Christmas the following year.

Assessing Edmund as a King and commander is, therefore, even more difficult than with Richard III, his descendant. Another connection is that a play from c.1590, reputedly written by Shakespeare, is named Edmund Ironside, heavily featuring Cnut and Eadric. A sequel, Hardicanute, named for Cnut’s son and successor but one, is now lost.

Why lineage still matters in battle

The crown of England, among others, has often been claimed in battle or by other forceful means. However, to exercise such a claim, it is necessary to persuade a challenger’s military followers that he has a dynastic claim of sorts, even when this is greatly exaggerated or totally spurious.

Thus William I, the Conqueror or Bastard, was the great-nephew of Emma of Normandy, wife of two earlier English kings ( Ethelred II and Cnut) and there was arguably no suitable adult male from the House of Wessex. Stephen (of Blois) was Henry I’s cousin when the latter had died without a legitimate male heir. Henry IV wrested the crown from Richard II when the latter was childless with a pre-pubescent second wife, whilst the Mortimer who was Richard’s heir had died the previous year allowing his young son to be leapfrogged. Edward IV was the senior Mortimer descendant and thus Richard II’s heir, whilst Henry VII’s claim is far more difficult. Jane (Grey), supported by her father and father-in-law, was nominated in Edward VI’s will, even though Henry VIII’s legislation trumped this, preferring Mary I. William III was both nephew and son-in-law to James VII/II before he caused the latter to lose his nerve completely and flee.

Two of these cases deserve further scrutiny. At his 1413 death, Henry IV must have thought he had accomplished his mission. He left four healthy sons and he could reasonably have expected them to have families of their own but two of these lines failed completely, a third possibly had two children legitimised and the fourth left a baby to reign as Henry VI. The mental instability and total unsuitability of the latter to his royal duties would not have been a problem in a larger legitimate family but it was. By the time that he and his son died in 1471, the House of Lancaster proper (descended from Blanche, Duchess in suo jure and Henry IV’s mother) was extinct save for the mainly foreign offspring of its heiresses.
So, in the absence of any true Lancastrian heirs in England, the claim somehow devolved upon the great-grandson of the first Earl of Somerset, conventionially recorded as Henry IV’s half-brother, who was also the grandson of Henry V’s widow. The future Henry VII’s royal descent has been open to question on two counts recently. It was certainly inferior to that of the House of (Mortimer) York and to the Portuguese royal house of the time. There is no doubt, however, that he, his father and uncle were Lancastrian-inclined in a political sense whatever their lineage and that this thin or non-existent lineage was spun continually, representing him as a son of Henry VI at one stage.
Ironically, the 13th Earl of Oxford, the commander to whom Henry owes his victory, was of unquestionable royal ancestry – through Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I.

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