Read KING SIGEBERT OF ESSEX, OR A FRIEND AT NEED of Legends of the Saxon Saints , free online book, by Aubrey de Vere, on

Sigebert, King of Essex, labours with Cedd the Bishop for the conversion of his people; but he feasts with a certain impious kinsman; and it is foretold to him that for that sin, though pardoned, he shall die by that kinsman’s hand. This prophecy having been accomplished, Cedd betakes himself to Lastingham, there to pray with his three brothers for the king’s soul. His prayer is heard, and in a few days he dies. Thirty of Cedd’s monks, issuing from Essex to pray at his grave, die also, and are buried in a circle round it.

’At last resolve, my brother, and my friend!
Fling from you, as I fling this cloak, your Gods,
And cleave to Him, the Eternal, One and Sole,
The All-Wise, All-Righteous and Illimitable,
Who made us, and will judge.’ Thus Oswy spake
To Sigebert, his friend, of Essex King,
Essex once Christian. Royal Sebert dead,
The Church of God had sorrow by the Thames:
Three Pagan brothers in his place held sway:
They warred upon God’s people; for which cause
God warred on them, and by the Wessex sword
In one day hewed them down. King Sigebert,
Throned in their place, to Oswy thus replied:
’O friend, I saw the Truth, yet saw it not!
’Twas like the light forth flashed from distant oar,
Now vivid, vanished now. Not less, methinks,
Thy Christ ere now had won me save for this;
I feared that in my bosom love for thee,
Not Truth alone, prevailed. I left thy court;
I counselled with my wisest; by degrees,
Though grieving thus to outrage loyal hearts,
Reached my resolve: henceforth I serve thy God:
My kingdom may renounce me if it will.’
Then came the Bishop old, and nigh that Wall
Which spans the northern land from sea to sea
Baptized him to the God Triune. At night
The King addressed him thus: ’My task is hard;
Yield me four priests of thine from Holy Isle
To shape my courses.’ Finan gazed around
And made election Cedd and others three;
He consecrated Cedd with staff and ring;
And by the morning’s sunrise Sigebert
Rode with them, face to south.
The Spring, long checked,
Fell, like God’s Grace, or fire, or flood, at once
O’er all the land: it swathed the hills in green;
It fringed with violets cleft and rock; illumed
The stream with primrose tufts: but mightier far
That Spring which triumphed in the monarch’s breast,
All doubt dispelled. That smile which knew not cause
Looked like his angel’s mirrored on his face:
At times he seemed with utter gladness dazed;
At times he laughed aloud. ‘Father,’ he cried,
’That darkness from my spirit is raised at last:
Ah fool! ah fool! to wait for proof so long!
Unseal thine eyes, and all things speak of God:
The snows on yonder thorn His pureness show;
Yon golden iris bank His love. But now
I marked a child that by its father ran:
Some mystery they seemed of love in heaven
Imaged in earthly love. ’With sad, sweet smile
The old man answered: Pain there is on earth
Bereavement, sickness, death.’ The King replied:
’It was by suffering, not by deed, or word,
God’s Son redeemed mankind.’ Then answered Cedd:
’God hath thee in His net; and well art thou!
That Truth thou seest this day, and feelest, live!
So shall it live within thee. If, more late,
Rebuke should come, or age, remember then
This day-spring of thy strength, and answer thus,
“With me God feasted in my day of youth:
So feast He now with others!"’
Years went by,
And Cedd in work and word was mighty still,
And throve with God. The strong East Saxon race
Grew gentle in his presence: they were brave,
And faith is courage in the things divine,
Courage with meekness blent. The heroic heart
Beats to the spiritual cognate, paltering not
Fraudulent with truth once known. Like winds from God
God’s message on them fell. Old bonds of sin,
Snapt by the vastness of the growing soul,
Burst of themselves; and in the heart late bound
Virtue had room to breathe. As when that Voice
Primeval o’er the formless chaos rolled,
And, straight, confusions ceased, the greater orb
Ruling the day, the lesser, night; even so,
Born of that Bethlehem Mystery, order lived:
Divine commandments fixed a firmament
Betwixt man’s lower instincts and his mind:
From unsuspected summits of his spirit
The morning shone. The nation with the man
Partook the joy: from duty freedom flowed;
And there where tribes had roved a people lived.
A pathos of strange beauty hung thenceforth
O’er humblest hamlet: he who passed it prayed
‘May never sword come here!’ Bishop and King
Together laboured: well that Bishop’s love
Repaid that royal zeal. If random speech
Censured the King, though justly, sudden red
Circling the old man’s silver-tressed brow
Showed, though he spake not, that in saintly breast
The human heart lived on.
In Ithancester
He dwelt, and toiled: not less to Lindisfarne,
His ancient home, in spirit oft he yearned,
Longing for converse with his God alone;
And made retreat there often, not to shun
Labour allotted, but to draw from heaven
Strength for his task. One year, returning thence,
Deira’s King addressed him as they rode:
’My father, choose the richest of my lands
And build thereon a holy monastery;
So shall my realm be blessed, and I, and mine.’
He answered: ’Son, no wealthy lands for us!
Spake not the prophet: “There where dragons roamed,
In later days the grass shall grow the reed”?
I choose those rocky hills that, on our left,
Drag down the skiey waters to the woods:
Such loved I from my youth: to me they said,
“Bandits this hour usurp our heights, and beasts
Cumber our caves: expel the seed accurst,
And yield us back to God!"’
The King gave ear;
And Cedd within those mountains passed his Lent,
Driving with prayer and fast the spirits accurst
With ignominy forth. Foundations next
He laid with sacred pomp. Fair rose the walls:
All day the March sea blew its thunder blasts
Through wide-mouthed trumpets of ravine or rift
On winding far to where in wooden cell
The old man prayed, while o’er him rushed the cloud
Storm-borne from crag to crag. Serener breeze,
With alternation soft in Nature’s course,
Following ere long, great Easter’s harbinger,
Thus spake he: ’I must keep the Feast at home;
My children there expect me.’ Parting thence,
He left his brothers three to consummate
His work begun, Celin, and Cynabil,
And Chad, at Lichfield Bishop ere he died.
Thus Lastingham had birth.
Beside the Thames
Meantime dark deeds were done. There dwelt two thanes,
The kinsmen of the King, his friends in youth,
Of meanest friend unworthy. Far and wide
They ravined, and the laws of God and man
Despised alike. Three times, in days gone by,
A warning hand their Bishop o’er them raised;
The fourth like bolt from heaven on them it fell,
And clave them from God’s Church. They heeded not;
And now the elder kept his birthday feast,
Summoning his friends around him, first the King.
Doubtful and sad, the o’er-gentle monarch mused:
’To feast with sinners is to sanction sin,
A deed abhorred; the alternative is hard:
Must then their sovereign shame with open scorn
Kinsman and friend? I think they mourn the past,
And, were our Bishop here, would pardon sue.’
Boding, yet self-deceived, he joined that feast:
Thereat he saw scant sign of penitence:
Ere long he bade farewell.
That self-same hour
Cedd from his northern pilgrimage returned;
The monarch met him at the offenders’ gate,
And, instant when he saw that reverend face,
His sin before him stood. Down from his horse
Leaping, he told him all, and penance prayed.
Long time the old man on that royal front
Fixed a sad eye. ’Thy sin was great, my son,
Shaming thy God to spare a sinner’s shame:
That sin thy God forgives, and I remit:
But those whom God forgives He chastens oft:
My son, I see a sign upon thy brow!
Ere yonder lessening moon completes her wane
Behold, the blood-stained hand late clasped in thine
Shall drag thee to thy death.’ The King replied:
’A Sigebert there lived, East Anglia’s King,
Whose death was glorious to his realm. May mine,
Dark and inglorious, strengthen hearts infirm,
And profit thus my land.’
A time it was
When Christian mercy, judged by Pagan hearts,
Not virtue seemed but sin. That sin’s reproach
The King had long sustained. Ere long it chanced
That, near the stronghold of that impious feast,
A vanquished rebel, long in forests hid,
Drew near, and knelt to Sigebert for grace,
And won his suit. The monarch’s kinsmen twain,
Those men of blood, forth-gazing from a tower,
Saw all; heard all. Upon them fury fell,
As when through cloudless skies there comes a blast
From site unknown, that, instant, finds its prey,
Circling some white-sailed bark, or towering tree,
And, with a touch, down-wrenching; all things else
Unharmed, though near. They snatched their daggers up,
And rushed upon their prey, and, shouting thus,
’White-livered slave, that mak’st thy throne a jest,
And mock’st great Odin’s self, and us, thy kin,
To please thy shaveling,’ struck him through the heart;
Then, spurring through the woodlands to the sea,
Were never heard of more.
Throughout the land
Lament was made; lament in every house,
As though in each its eldest-born lay dead;
Lament far off and near. The others wept:
Cedd, in long vigils of the lonely night,
Not wept alone, but lifted strength of prayer
And, morn by morn, that Sacrifice Eterne,
Mightier tenfold in impetrative power
Than prayers of all man’s race, from Adam’s first
To his who latest on the Judgment Day
Shall raise his hands to God. Four years went by:
That mourner’s wound they staunched not. Oft in sleep
He murmured low, ‘Would I had died for thee!’
And once, half-waked by rush of morning rains,
Why saw I on his brow that fatal sign?
He might have lived till now!’ Within his heart
At last there rose a cry, ’To Lastingham!
Pray with thy brothers three, for saints are they:
So shall thy friend, who resteth in the Lord
With perfect will submiss, the waiting passed,
Gaze on God’s Vision with an eye unscaled,
In glory everlasting.’ At that thought
Peace on the old man settled. Staff in hand
Forth on his way he fared. Nor horse he rode
Nor sandals wore. He walked with feet that bled,
Paying, well pleased, that penance for his King;
And murmured ofttimes, Not my blood alone!
Nay, but my life, my life!’
Yet penance pain,
Like pain of suffering Souls at peace with God,
Quelled not that gladness which, from secret source
Rising, o’erflowed his heart. Old times returned:
Once more beside him rode his King in youth
Southward to where his realm his duty lay,
Exulting captive of the Saviour Lord,
With face love-lit. As then, the vernal prime
Hourly with ampler respiration drew
Delight of purer green from balmier airs:
As then the sunshine glittered. By their path
Now hung the woodbine; now the hare-bell waved;
Rivulets new-swoll’n by melted snows, and birds
’Mid echoing boughs with rival rapture sang:
At times the monks forgat their Christian hymns,
By humbler anthems charmed. They gladdened more
Beholding oft in cottage doors cross-crowned
Angelic faces, or in lonely ways;
Once as they passed there stood a little maid,
Some ten years old, alone ’mid lonely pines,
With violets crowned and primrose. Who were those,
The forest’s white-robed guests, she nothing knew;
Not less she knelt. With hand uplifted Cedd
Signed her his blessing. Hand she kissed in turn;
Then waved, yet ceased not from her song, ’Alone
‘Two lovers sat at sunset.’
Every eve
Some village gave the wanderers food and rest,
Or half-built convent with its church thick-walled
And polished shafts, great names in after times,
Ely, and Croyland, Southwell, Medeshamstede,
Adding to sylvan sweetness holier grace,
Or rising lonely o’er morass and mere
With bowery thickets isled, where dogwood brake
Retained, though late, its red. To Boston near,
Where Ouse, and Aire, and Derwent join with Trent,
And salt sea waters mingle with the fresh,
They met a band of youths that o’er the sands
Advanced with psalm, cross-led. The monks rejoiced,
Save one from Ireland Dicul. He, quick-eared,
Had caught that morn a war-cry on the wind,
And, sideway glancing from his Office-book,
Descried the cause. From Mercia’s realm a host
Had crossed Northumbria’s bound. His thin, worn face
O’er-flamed with sudden anger, thus he cried:
’In this, your land, men say, “Who worketh prays;”
In mine we say, “Well prays who fighteth well:”
A Pagan race treads down your homesteads! Slaves,
That close not with their throats!’
Advancing thus,
On the tenth eve they came to Lastingham:
Forth rushed the brethren, watching long far off,
To meet them, first the brothers three of Cedd,
Who kissed him, cheek and mouth. Gladly that night
Those foot-worn travellers laid them down, and slept,
Save one alone. Old Cedd his vigil made,
And, kneeling by the tabernacle’s lamp,
Prayed for the man he mourned for, ending thus:
’Thou Lord of Souls, to Thee the Souls are dear!
Thou yearn’st toward them as they yearn to Thee;
Behold, not prayer alone for him I raise:
I offer Thee my life.’ When morning’s light
In that great church commingled with its gloom,
The monks, slow-pacing, by that kneeler knelt,
And prayed for Sigebert, beloved of God;
And lastly offered Mass: and it befell
That when, the Offering offered, and the Dead
Rightly remembered, he who sang that Mass
Had reached the ‘Nobis quoque famulis,’
There came to Cedd an answer from the Lord
Heard in his heart; and he beheld his King
Throned ’mid the Saints Elect of God who keep
Perpetual triumph, and behold that Face
Which to its likeness hourly more compels
Those faces t’ward It turned. That function o’er,
Thus spake the Bishop: ‘Brethren, sing “Te Deum;"’
They sang it; while within him he replied,
‘Lord, let Thy servant now depart in peace.’

A week went by with gladness winged and prayer.
In wonder Cedd beheld those structures new
From small beginnings reared, though many a gift,
Sent for that work’s behoof, had fed the poor
In famine time laid low. Moorlands he saw
By cornfields vanquished; marked the all-beauteous siege
Of pasture yearly threatening loftier crags
Loud with the bleat of lambs. Their shepherd once
Had roved a bandit; next had toiled a slave;
Now with both hands he poured his weekly wage
Down on his young wife’s lap, his pretty babes
Gambolling around for joy. A hospital
Stood by the convent’s gate. With moistened eye,
Musing on Him Who suffers in His sick,
The Bishop paced it. There he found his death:
That year a plague had wasted all the land:
It reached him. Late that night he said, ‘’Tis well!’
In three days more he lay with hands death cold
Crossed on a peaceful breast.
Like winter cloud
Borne through dark air, that portent feared of man,
Ill tidings, making way with mystic speed,
Shadowed ere long the troubled bank of Thames,
And spread a wailing round its Minsters twain,
Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s. Saint Alban’s caught
That cry, and northward echoed. Southward soon
Forlorn it rang ’mid towers of Rochester;
Then seaward died. But in that convent pile,
Wherein so long the Saint had made abode,
A different grief there lived, a deeper grief,
That grief which part hath none in sobs or tears
Which needs must act. There thirty monks arose,
And, taking each his staff, made vow thenceforth
To serve God’s altar where their father died,
Or share his grave. Through Ithancestor’s gate
As forth they paced between two kneeling crowds,
A little homeless boy, who heard their dirge
(Late orphaned, at its grief he marvelled not),
So loved them that he followed, shorter steps
Doubling ’gainst theirs. At first the orphan went
That mood relaxed: before them now he ran
To pluck a flower; as oft he lagged behind,
The wild bird’s song so aptly imitating
That, by his music drawn, or by his looks,
That bird at times forgat her fears, and perched
Pleased on his arm. As flower and bird to him
Such to those monks the child. Better each day
He loved them; yet, revering, still he mocked,
And though he mocked, he kissed. The westering sun
On the eighth eve from towers of Lastingham
Welcomed those strangers. In another hour,
Well-nigh arrived, they saw that grave they sought
Sole on the church’s northern slope. As when,
Some father, absent long, returns at last,
His children rush loud-voiced from field to house,
And cling about his knees; and they that mark
Old reaper, bent no more, with hook in hand,
Or ploughman, leaning gainst the old blind horse
Beholding wonder not; so to that grave
Rushed they; so clung. Around that grave ere long
Their own were ranged. That plague which smote the sire
Spared not his sons. With ministering hand
From pallet still to pallet passed the boy,
Now from the dark spring wafting colder draught,
Now moistening fevered lips, or on the brow
Spreading the new-bathed cincture. Him alone
The infection reached not. When the last was gone
He felt as though the earth, man’s race yea, God
Himself were dead. Around he gazed, and spake,
‘Why then do I remain?’
From hill to hill
(The monks on reverend offices intent)
All solitary oft that boy repaired,
From each in turn forth gazing, fain to learn
If friend were t’wards him nighing. Many a hearth
More late, bereavement’s earlier anguish healed,
Welcomed the creature: many a mother held
The milk-bowl to his mouth, in both hands stayed,
With smile the deeper for the draught prolonged,
And lodged, as he departed, in his hand
Her latest crust. With children of his age
Seldom he played. That convent gave him rest;
Nor lost he aught, surviving thus his friends,
Since childhood’s sacred innocence he kept,
While life remained, unspotted. When mature
Five years he lived there monk, and reverence drew
To that high convent through his saintly ways;
Then died. Within that cirque of thirty graves
They laid him, close to Cedd. In later years,
Because they ne’er could learn his name or race,
Nor yet forget his gentle looks, the name
Of Deodatus graved they on his tomb.