Historic Girls/Edith of Scotland

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EDITH OF SCOTLAND

THE GIRL OF THE NORMAN ABBEY.

[Afterward known as the "Good Queen Maud" of England]
A.D. 1093.

On a broad and deep window-seat in the old Abbey guest-house at Gloucester, sat two young girls of thirteen and ten; before them, brave-looking enough in his old-time costume, stood a manly young fellow of sixteen. The three were in earnest conversation, all unmindful of the noise about them—the romp and riot of a throng of young folk, attendants, or followers of the knights and barons of King William's court.

For William Rufus, son of the Conqueror and second Norman king of England, held his Whit-suntide gemót, or summer council of his lords and lieges, in the curious old Roman-Saxon-Norman town of Gloucester, in the fair vale through which flows the noble Severn. The city is known to the young folk of to-day as the one in which good Robert Raikes started the first Sunday-school more than a hundred years ago. But the gemót of King William the Red, which was a far different gathering from good Mr. Raikes' Sunday-school, was held in the great chapter-house of the old Benedictine Abbey, while the court was lodged in the Abbey guest-houses, in the grim and fortress-like Gloucester Castle, and in the houses of the quaint old town itself.

The boy was shaking his head rather doubtfully as he stood, looking down upon the two girls on the broad window-seat.

"Nay, nay, beausire[1]; shake not your head like that," exclaimed the younger of the girls. "We did escape that way, trust me we did; Edith here can tell you I do speak the truth—for sure, 't was her device."

Thirteen-year-old Edith laughed merrily enough at her sister's perplexity, and said gayly as the lad turned questioningly to her:

"Sure, then, beausire, 't is plain to see that you are Southron-born and know not the complexion a Scottish mist. Yet 't is even as Mary said. For, as we have told you, the Maiden's Castle standeth high-placed on the crag in Edwin's Burgh, and hath many and devious pathways to the lower gate, So when the Red Donald's men were swarming up the steep, my uncle, the Atheling, did guide us, by ways we knew well, and by twists and turnings that none knew better, straight through Red Donald's array, and all unseen and unnoted of them, because of the blessed thickness of the gathering mist."

"And this was your device?" asked the boy, admiringly.

"Ay, but any one might have devised it too," replied young Edith, modestly. "Sure, 't was no great device to use a Scotch mist for our safety, and 't were wiser to chance it than stay and be stupidly murdered by Red Donald's men. And so it was, good Robert, even as Mary did say, that we came forth unharmed, from amidst them and fled here to King William's court, where we at last are safe."

"Safe, say you, safe?" exclaimed the lad, impulsively. "Ay, as safe as is a mouse's nest in a cat's ear—as safe as is a rabbit in a ferret's hutch. But that I know you to be a brave and dauntless maid, I should say to you——"

But, ere Edith could know what he would say, their conference was rudely broken in upon. For a royal page, dashing up to the three, with scant courtesy seized the arm of the elder girl, and said hurriedly:

"Haste ye, haste ye, my lady! Our lord king is even now calling for you to come before him in the banquet-hall."

Edith knew too well the rough manners of those dangerous days. She freed herself from the grasp of the page, and said:

"Nay, that may I not, master page. 'T is neither safe nor seemly for a maid to show herself in baron's hall or in king's banquet-room."

"Safe and seemly it may not be, but come you must," said the page, rudely. "The king demands it, and your nay is naught."

And so, hurried along whether she would or no, while her friend, Robert Fitz Godwine, accompanied her as far as he dared, the young Princess Edith was speedily brought into the presence of the king of England, William H., called, from the color of his hair and from his fiery temper, Rufus, or "the Red."

For Edith and Mary were both princesses of Scotland, with a history, even before they had reached their teens, as romantic as it was exciting. Their mother, an exiled Saxon princess, had, after the conquest of Saxon England by the stern Duke William the Norman, found refuge in Scotland, and had, and had there married King Malcolm Canmore, the son of that King Duncan whom Macbeth had slain. But when King Malcolm had fallen beneath the walls of Alnwick Castle, a victim to English treachery, and when his fierce brother Donald Bane, or Donald the Red, had usurped the throne of Scotland, then the good Queen Margaret died in the gray castle on the rock of Edinburgh, and the five orphaned children were only saved from the vengeance of their bad uncle Donald by the shrewd and daring device of the young Princess Edith, who bade their good uncle Edgar, the Atheling, guide them, under cover of the mist, straight through the Red Donald's knights and spearmen to England and safety.

You would naturally suppose that the worst possible place for the fugitives to seek safety was in Norman England; for Edgar the Atheling, a Saxon prince, had twice been declared king of England by the Saxon enemies of the Norman conquerors, and the children of King Malcolm and Queen Margaret—half Scotch, half Saxon—were, by blood and birth, of the two races most hateful to the conquerors. But the Red King in his rough sort of way—hot to-day and cold to-morrow—had shown something almost like friendship, for this Saxon Atheling, or royal prince, who might have been king of England had he not wisely submitted to greater power of Duke William the Conqueror and to the Red William, his son. More than this, it had been rumored that some two years before, when there was truce between the kings of England and of Scotland, this harsh and headstrong English king, who was as rough and repelling as a chestnut burr, had seen, noticed, and expressed a particular interest in the eleven-year-old Scottish girl—this very Princess Edith who now sought his protection.

So, when this wandering uncle boldly threw himself upon Norman courtesy, and came with his homeless nephews and nieces straight to the Norman court for safety, King William Rufus not only received these children of his hereditary foeman with favor and royal welcome, but gave them comfortable lodgment in quaint old Gloucester town, where be held his court.

But even when the royal fugitives deemed themselves safest were they in the greatest danger.

Among the attendant knights and nobles of King William's court was a Saxon knight known as Sir Ordgar, a "thegn,"[2] or baronet, of Oxfordshire; and because those who change their opinions—political or otherwise—often prove the most unrelenting enemies of their former associates, it came to pass that Sir Ordgar, the Saxon, conceived a strong dislike for these orphaned descendants of the Saxon kings, and convinced himself that the best way to secure himself in the good graces of the Norman King William was to slander and accuse the children of the Saxon Queen Margaret.

And so that very day, in the great hall, when wine was flowing and passions were strong, this false knight, raising his glass, bade them all drink: "Confusion to the enemies of our liege the king, from the base Philip of France to the baser Edgar the Atheling and his Scottish brats!"

This was an insult that even the heavy and peace-loving nature of Edgar the Atheling could not brook. He sprang to his feet and denounced the charge:

"None here is truer or more leal to you, lord king," he said, "than am I, Edgar the Atheling, and my charges, your guests."

But King William Rufus was of that changing, temper that goes with jealousy and suspicion. His flushed face grew still more red, and, turning away from the Saxon prince, he demanded:

"Why make you this charge, Sir Ordgar?

"Because of its truth, beausire," said the faithless knight. "For what other cause hath this false Atheling sought sanctuary here, save to use his own descent from the ancient kings of this realm to make head and force among your lieges? And, eldest kinsgirl here, the Princess Edith, hath she not been spreading a trumpery story among the younger folk, of how some old wyrd-wif[3] hath said that she who is the daughter of kings shall be the wife and mother of kings? And is it not further true that when her aunt, the Abbess of Romsey, bade her wear the holy veil, she hath again and yet again torn it off, and affirmed that she, who was to be a queen, could never be made a nun? Children and fools, 't is said, do speak the truth, beausire; and in all this do I see the malice and device of this false Atheling, the friend of your rebellious brother, Duke Robert, as you do know him to be; and I do brand him here, in this presence, as traitor and recreant to you, his lord."

The anger of the jealous king grew more unreasoning as Sir Ordgar went on.

"Enough!" he cried. "Seize the traitor,—— or, stay; children and fools, as you have said, Sir Ordgar, do indeed speak the truth. Have in the girl and let us hear the truth. 'Not seemly'? Sir Atheling," he broke out in reply to some protest of Edith's uncle. "Aught is seemly that the king doth wish. Holo! Raoul! Damian! sirrah pages! Run, one of you, and seek the Princess Edith, and bring her here forthwith!" And while Edgar the Atheling, realizing that this was the gravest of all his dangers, strove, though without effect, to reason with the angry king, Damian, the page, as we have seen, hurried after the Princess Edith.

"How now, mistress!" broke out the Red King, as the young girl was ushered into the banquet-hall, where the disordered tables, strewn with fragments of the feast, showed the ungentle manners of those brutal days. "How now, mistress! do you prate of kings and queens and of your own designs—you, who are but a beggar guest? Is it seemly or wise to talk,—nay, keep you quiet, Sir Atheling; we will have naught from you,—to talk of thrones and crowns as if you did even now hope to win the realm from me—from me, your only protector?"

The Princess Edith was a very high-spirited maiden, as all the stories of her girlhood show. And this unexpected accusation, instead of frightening her, only served to embolden her. She looked the angry monarch full in the face.

"'T is a false and lying charge, lord king," she said, "from whomsoever it may come. Naught have I said but praise of you and your courtesy to us motherless folk. 'T is a false and lying charge; and I am ready to stand test of its proving, come what may."

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"'T IS A FALSE AND LYING CHARGE."

"Even to the judgment of God, girl?" demanded the king.

And the brave girl made instant reply: "Even to the judgment of God, lord king." Then, skilled in all the curious customs of those warlike times, she drew off her glove. "Whosoever my accuser be, lord king," she said, "I do denounce him as foresworn and false, and thus do I throw myself upon God's good mercy, if it shall please him to raise me up a champion." And she flung her glove upon the floor of the hall, in face of the king and all his barons.

It was a bold thing for a girl to do, and a murmur of applause ran through even that unfriendly throng. For, to stand the test of a "wager of battle," or the "judgment of God," as the savage contest was called, was the last resort of any one accused of treason or of crime. It meant no less than a "duel to the death" between the accuser and the accused or their accepted champions, and, upon the result of the duel hung the lives of those in dispute. And the Princess Edith's glove lying on the floor of the Abbey hall was her assertion that she had spoken the truth and was willing to risk her life in proof of her innocence.

Edgar the Atheling, peace-lover, though he was, would gladly have accepted the post of champion for his niece, but, as one also involved in the charge of treason, such action was denied him.

For the moment, the Red King's former admiration for this brave young princess caused him to waver; but those were days when suspicion and jealousy rose above all nobler traits. His face grew stern again.

"Ordgar of Oxford," he said, "take up the glove!" and Edith knew who was her accuser. Then the King asked: "Who standeth as champion for Edgar the Atheling and this maid, his niece?"

Almost before the words were spoken young Robert Fitz Godwine had sprung to Edith's side.

"That would I, lord king, if a young squire might appear against a belted knight!"

"Ordgar of Oxford fights not with boys!" said the accuser contemptuously.

The king's savage humor broke out again.

"Face him with your own page, Sir Ordgar," he said, with a grim laugh. "Boy against boy would be a fitting wager for a young maid's life." But the Saxon knight was in no mood for sport.

"Nay, beausire; this is no child's play," he said. "I care naught for this girl. I stand as champion for the king against yon traitor Atheling, and if the maiden's cause is his, why then against her too. This is a man's quarrel."

Young Robert would have spoken yet again as his face flushed hot with anger at the knight's contemptuous words. But a firm hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a strong voice said:

"Then is it mine, Sir Ordgar. If between man and man, then will I, with the gracious permission of our lord the king, stand as champion for this maiden here and for my good lord, the noble Atheling, whose liegeman and whose man am I, next to you, lord king." And, taking the mate to the glove which the Princess Edith had flung down in defiance, he thrust it into the guard of his cappe. line, or iron skull-cap, in token that he, Godwine of Winchester, the father of the boy Robert, was the young girl's champion.

Three days after, in the tilt-yard of Gloucester Castle, the wager of battle was fought. It was no gay tournament show with streaming banners, gorgeous lists, gayly dressed ladies, flower-bedecked balconies, and all the splendid display of a tourney of the knights, of which you read in the stories of romance and chivalry. It was a solemn and sombre gathering in which all the arrangements suggested only death and gloom, while the accused waited in suspense, knowing that halter and fagot were prepared for them should their champion fall. In quaint and crabbed Latin the old chronicler, John of Fordun, tells the story of the fight, for which there is neither need nor space here. The glove of each contestant was flung into the lists by the judge, and the dispute committed for settlement to the power of God and their own good swords. It is a stirring picture of those days of daring and of might, when force took the place of justice, and the deadliest blows were the only convincing arguments. But, though supported by the favor of the king and the display of splendid armor, Ordgar's treachery had its just reward. Virtue triumphed, and vice was punished. Even while treacherously endeavoring (after being once disarmed) to stab the brave Godwine with a knife which he had concealed in his boot, the false Sir Ordgar was overcome, confessed the falsehood of his charge against Edgar the Atheling and Edith his niece, and, as the quaint old record has it, "The strength of his grief and the multitude of his wounds drove out his impious soul."

So young Edith was saved; and, as is usually the case with men of his character, the Red King's humor changed completely. The victorious Godwine received the arms and lands of the dead Ordgar; Edgar the Atheling was raised high in trust and honor; the throne of Scotland, wrested from the Red Donald, was placed once more in the family of King Malcolm, and King William Rufus himself became the guardian and protector of the Princess Edith.

And when, one fatal August day, the Red King was found pierced by an arrow under the trees of the New Forest, his younger brother, Duke Henry, whom men called Beauclerc, "the good scholar," for his love of learning and of books, ascended the throne of England as King Henry I. And the very year of his accession, on the 11th of November, 1100, he married, in the Abbey of Westminster, the Princess Edith of Scotland, then a fair young lady of scarce twenty-one. At the request of her husband she took, upon her coronation day, the Norman name of Matilda, or Maud, and by this name she is known in history and among the queens of England.

So scarce four and thirty years after the Norman conquest, a Saxon princess sat upon the throne of Norman England, the loving wife of the son of the very man by whom Saxon England was conquered.

"Never, since the battle of Hastings," says Sir Francis Palgrave, the historian, "had there been such a joyous day as when Queen Maud was crowned." Victors and vanquished, Normans and Saxons, were united at last, and the name of "Good Queen Maud" was long an honored memory among the people of England.

And she was a good queen. In a time of bitter tyranny, when the common people were but the serfs and slaves of the haughty and cruel barons, this young queen labored to bring in kindlier manners and more gentle ways. Beautiful in face, she was still more lovely in heart and life. Her influence upon her husband, Henry the scholar, was seen in the wise laws he made, and the "Charter of King Henry" is said to have been gained by her intercession. This important paper was the first step toward popular liberty. It led the way to Magna Charta, and finally to our own Declaration of Independence. The boys and girls of America, therefore, in common with those of England, can look back with interest and affection upon the romantic story of "Good Queen Maud," the brave-hearted girl who showed herself wise and fearless both in the perilous mist at Edinburgh, and, later still, in the yet greater dangers of "the black lists of Gloucester."


  1. "Fair sir": an ancient style of address, used especially toward those high in rank in Norman times.
  2. Pronounced thane.
  3. Witch-wife or seeress.