Sunday, October 30, 2011

THE WITCH OF BERKELEY: A 12th century shiver tale for Halloween

mid 15thC witches
take to the air!
I thought in the spirit of the season, I'd post a witchy story told in The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum) by William of Malmsbury circa 1125. (The monk responsible for the Historia Novela, dedicated to Robert of Gloucester and a chronicle pro the Angevin cause during the anarchy).   It's an anecdotal account, but William presents it as being just as true as the details of the kings whose lives he is chronichling. It's fascinating to look at primary source beliefs, folk rituals, and political slants on matters - enjoy!


... At this time and event occurred in England which was not a celestial miracle, but an infernal wonder. I am sure none of my listeners will doubt the story, although they might in fact wonder at it. I heard of these events from a distinguished man who swore he had seen them for himself, and I will be ashamed not to believe him…
… In Berkeley there was a woman who, so it was later said, was accustomed to wickedness and to the practice of ancient methods of augury and soothsaying. She was a creature of immodesty, who indulged her appetites. She had taken no heed scandal throughout her life but she was beginning to grow old and fearful of the battering footsteps of death. One day, as she was dining, a little crow which she kept as a pet uttered a cry that sounded like human speech. This startled her so much that she dropped her knife. Groaning sorrowfully, her face suddenly grown pale, she said: ‘Today my plough has turned its final furrow. I am about to hear and undergo great sorrow.’ At that moment, a messenger arrived, and hesitantly gave her the news of the death of her son, and the catastrophic annihilation of all her family's hopes.
            Wounded to the very heart, the woman took to her bed and, pained by a deadly sickness, summoned her remaining children, a monk and a nun. In a gasping voice, she said: ‘My children, I have enslaved myself to the artifice of the devil and have been the mistress of forbidden things. But despite my evil doings, I have always been accustomed to hope that my miserable soul might be eased in the end by the comforts of your religion. In my desperate straits, I always thought of you both as my champions against the demons, and my guardians against the most savage enemy. Now, as I end my life, I am likely to face the prospect of being tortured and punished by those very beings who used to be my advisers in sin. I implore you, therefore - I who brought you into the world and suckled you - to do all that you can from faith and pity to alleviate my coming torment. I do not expect that you can deflect the true judgement from my soul, but perhaps you can help me by attending to my body in the following way. Sew me up in the hide of a deer, and then place me face upwards in a stone sarcophagus, the lid sealed with lead and iron. Bind the stone with three heavy iron chains, and let there be 50 Psalms sung each night, and masses said each day to lessen the ferocious attacks of my enemies When I have lain secure in this way for three nights, bury me on the fourth day - although so grave are my sins, I fear the Earth itself might refuse to receive me to it's warming bosom.’
            All was done as she directed, her children attending the matter with great zeal and affection. But such had been her wickedness that no amount of piety and prayer availed against the violence of the devil. On the first and second night in vigil when choirs of clerics had gathered to sing melodious psalms around her bier, demons pulled apart the outer edges of the door of the church, which had been bolted with an iron bar, although the central part of the door which was of a more elaborate construction held fast). On the third night, around cock-crow, the enemy arrived making the most terrible noise, and all of the monastery was shaken to its foundations. One demonic creature larger and more terrible than the others, threw down the entrance door which was shattered into fragments. The priests stood rigid with dread, hair on end and voices stopped in their throats as the creature approached the sarcophagus with an arrogant swagger. The creature called the woman by name and ordered her to rise up, to which the reply came she was unable to do so because of the chains that bound the sarcophagus. ‘By the power of your sins you will be unbound,’ said the demon, and at once pulled apart the iron chain as though it were no more than a cord of flax. The coffin lid was thrown off, and the woman was seized and dragged out of the church before the horrified gaze of the observers. Outside the portals of the church a fierce black horse stood neighing with iron barbs protruding from along the length of its back. Onto these hooks the woman was placed, and the entire demonic retinue quickly disappeared from sight, although their cries of triumph and the woman's pleas for mercy could be heard up to 4 miles away.
            These events will not be thought incredible by anyone who has read the dialogues of the blessed Pope Gregory, who tells of the wicked man who was buried in a church and who was then passed out of it by demons. Among the French also the story is often told of Charles Martel, a man of such great prowess during his life that he forced the Saracens to retreat to Spain after their invasion of Gaul. Ending his days, he was buried in the church of St Denis, but because he had plundered the estates of almost all the monasteries of Gaul to pay his soldiers, his body was snatched from his tomb, and has never been seen since. This was later revealed by the Bishop of Orleans and the story has become widely known…

Thursday, October 13, 2011

EDWARD OF SALISBURY: A look at an unknown player who survived 1066



 That is what I would like to know too because he is a man almost completely overlooked by historians and novelists, and yet his unknown and untold story begs to be brought to light.

While researching my novels The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion about the great William Marshal,  knight, courtier and regent extraordinaire of the Anglo Norman realm in the 12th and 13th centuries,  I came across William’s great grandfather – Edward and discovered that he was an Englishman, not a Norman, and that prior to the Conquest he had held extensive territories in Wiltshire – 35 manors at a rough count as well as other in neighbouring counties including Somerset and Hampshire.  He was high sheriff of Wiltshire during the reigns of William the Conqueror, William Rufus, and continued in office under Henry I until 1105, also serving as one of Henry’s chamberlains. He had the custody  of what is now the site of Old Sarum castle where there was once an extensive royal palace.
We know very little about Edward’s background and what we do have is obscure and muddled.   He was  possibly the son of a woman who appears as Wulfwyn in the Domesday Book for Wiltshire but no one can say for certain.  He was, however, of  English extraction, and had held land of King Edward. He not only survived the takeover at the top, he flourished.  It is thought that he married a Norman lady, but no one is sure of her name – possibly Matilda.
Whereas other English noblemen who survived the battle and the initial political upheaval, then went on to fall by the wayside ( Earl Waltheof of Huntingdon for example and the brothers Eadwin and Morcar of Mercia ), Edward of Salisbury enjoyed a full and rewarding career under his new Norman overlords, witnessing charters and being the man of the county.  His son Walter in his turn prospered, further bonding with the Norman aristocracy when he married one Sybilla de Chaworth.  Their daughter, also called Sybilla, married the royal marshal, John FitzGilbert and their second son William went on to rule England as Regent from 1216-1219.  Among Walter and Sybilla’s other children, Hawise was to marry first a French count and then a French prince. Walter’s son Patrick was granted an Earldom by the Empress Matilda.
What particularly fascinates me about Edward is how he managed to survive those early conquest years.  His lands lay in Godwin dominated territory.  He would have been foolish not to toe the party line and surely would not have survived long if he had shown signs of dissent because the Godwins could be ruthless to their enemies. We don’t know if he fought at Stamford Bridge or at Hastings.  However, if he did, (on the English side)  it doesn’t seem to have put him at a disadvantage with his new overlords – a state of affairs that is almost unique as an English aristocratic experience at this time.  If he fought for the Normans, then how did he manage to stay alive until it was safe to declare his interest?  What kind of man would have the ability to wind his way through the changing and treacherous politics of this period, hold onto his lands and prosper when all around him his countrymen were falling?  He’s an unknown and his story is not helped by Victorian historians who have mixed up his family tree with a totally different Norman one.  
 One of these days I would love to go and do some proper digging and find out just how he managed to survive and prosper.  It certainly seems to me that he passed his amazing ability to ride the waves, down the genes to his rather better known great grandson!

Photo of Josh Beaumont of the Conroi de Vey  by Rosemary Watson