- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004


By Michael Evans

Hambledon & London, $29.95, 289 pages, illus.


Every British schoolchild, along with quite a few American ones, learns the story of Canute (or Cnut), the 11th-century Viking king of England who sat on his throne by the seashore and commanded the waves to stop advancing, only to discover that his royal power did not extend to natural phenomena. The story, however, is almost certainly not true, as it appears in writing for the first time in a chronicle written by the Lincolnshire priest Henry of Huntingdon a full century after Canute’s death.

Michael Evans, a British medievalist who has taught history at Christ Church College in Canterbury and the University of Reading, notes that English medieval history abounds with such stories, particularly stories dealing with the death of kings. The stories typically appear in the dozens of chronicles, histories, and biographies of kings that appeared during the English Middle Ages.

Their authors were usually clerics or monks who wrote in Latin, and they attempted to produce history on a grand scale, imitating ancient models such as Josephus and Suetonius, who filled their histories of the Jews and the Caesars with colorful and lurid anecdotes. Medieval chroniclers such as Henry of Huntingdon, Ralph of Coggeshall, Gerald of Wales, Walter Map, Matthew Paris, and others freely mixed documented incidents and rank gossip about the monarchs who were their subjects, and in so doing wrote down dramatic, unforgettable stories, like that of Canute and the waves.

Those stories worked their way not only into school textbooks (as Mr. Evans notes, they are the stuff of W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman’s famous 1930 parody of potted English history, “1066 and All That”), but into works of literature such as the history plays of Shakespeare.

Whether these stories are true is anybody’s guess. Did King Harold Godwinson, supposedly killed by William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, actually survive his reported death as some chroniclers said? Was the reportedly homosexual Edward II really gruesomely murdered in 1327 by having a red-hot poker shoved into his bowels, as the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker narrated?

Was the feckless 15th-century monarch Henry VI really a saint, as some believed? Did Richard III really have the two little princes, the sons of Richard’s predecessor Edward IV, smothered by pillows in the Tower of London as Shakespeare so poignantly wrote? We don’t know.

Mr. Evans’ point, however, is that incidents such as these, which have a folkloric quality and a strong moral element, tell us a great deal, not necessarily about their subjects, but about how the medieval chroniclers, their readers, and the public at large regarded the monarchy during the period between the Norman Conquest and the accession of England’s first “modern” kings, the Tudors, in 1485.

To the chroniclers, the sudden death of a king was usually a sign of God’s judgment. When they reported that William II (William Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, died in a hunting accident in 1100 with no opportunity to confess his sins or receive the last rites, that was a reflection on William’s reputation for blasphemy and contempt for the church.

The assassination of a king (not uncommon) could turn the dead monarch into a royal martyr whose tomb might be the site of reported miracles. Thus, Henry VI, who was probably murdered in 1471 as a prisoner of his successor, Edward IV, rose to the stature of a saint in the eyes of many of his contemporaries. So did Edward II — which may surprise those of us who know only the simpering ephebe of Christopher Marlowe’s play “Edward II” and Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”

These morally freighted but perhaps fictional events and character embellishments were what Mr. Evans, quoting Sellar and Yeatman, says “makes history ‘memorable’” — true in a deeper sense than the literal. They are powerful figural evocations of the limits of even a king’s moral worth in the eyes of God and of the capacity of personal innocence to transcend the foulest of deeds. As Mr. Evans writes of Canute and the waves: “It is not a true story, but its power as a metaphor has made it the only reason for Cnut’s name being remembered by anyone except historians of the eleventh century.”

The death of kings generated legends and had special meaning for medieval Englishmen because kings themselves, their very bodies, had a sacral character in their subjects’ eyes. This was a character that the kings themselves assiduously cultivated, borrowing from the French Capetian kings the practice of being anointed like Old Testament monarchs before their coronations — a practice that has persisted right up to the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952.

Kings were believed to have the power to cure by touch the disease of scrofula, a swelling of the face and hands — hence, the disease was known as “King’s Evil.” A saint-king such as Edward the Confessor, who died in the year of the Conquest, 1066, and was the first English king to cure a case of scrofula, would be blessed, according to the chroniclers, with a body that did not decay after death.

By contrast, the chroniclers enjoyed detailing the disgusting things that befell the bodies of sinful kings. William the Conqueror, they wrote, became notoriously fat in his later years (obesity and gluttony were associated with lechery), and, after he died as a result of a wound to his abdomen while campaigning in Nantes in 1087, his swollen bowels burst at the funeral, creating a violent stench.

The body of William’s third son, Henry I, who died in 1135, probably of food poisoning, similarly stank and leaked black fluid in the church. When the blasphemous William Rufus died without the sacraments, several chroniclers noted that his mouth belched smoke and fire.

Chroniclers who wished to emphasize a king’s martyr-status took pains to emphasize the gruesome nature of his death, the extent of his sufferings, and the general pathos of the event. Such was the case with the death of Edward II, graphically narrated by Geoffrey le Baker, down to Edward’s piercing scream.

The problem was, as Mr. Evans points out, that death by impalement was a popular medieval literary motif associated with tyranny (as his name might indicate, it was Vlad the Impaler’s favorite mode of execution). Indeed, about a century after Edward’s death, several chroniclers told exactly the same grisly story, including the red-hot spit and the screams, about the 1447 death of “good” Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the popular uncle of Henry VI.

Similarly, while it is almost certain that young Edward V and his brother, Richard, the two “princes in the Tower,” were murdered in some fashion in 1483 by their usurper-uncle Richard III, smothering by featherbed was a common literary motif, and it appears that no one really knew how the princes died.

“The Death of Kings,” which includes a chapter on queens, can sometimes read ploddingly, as the author works his way through the themes relating to monarchical deaths that he has chosen. Yet, as he himself reminds us, the tendency to invest royal figures with moral and martyrological meaning remains alive even in our own democratic day. Think of the saints’ cult — and also the anti-cult of lurid gossip — that has flourished around the dead Princess Diana.

Charlotte Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”

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