William Carpenter


The See of Sherborne, Winter 878


Under a leaden breastwork of cloud,
a pair of herdsmen hobbled into Sherborne,
the one bearing a carcass on his shoulders,
the other leaning on an antique spear.

A gang of sailors, drunk with the new wine
of easy triumph, loitered by a doorway
molesting hapless Saxons as they passed,
attracted like a pack of peevish hounds
by any hint of feebleness or fear.

Their rancor towards the Saxons had deep roots.
The early Danish kings, including Offa,[1]
the ancestor of Mercia’s royal house,
fought many a deadly war with Saxon neighbors
and won and lost Saxon and Jutish lands
long years before King Pippin’s younger son
annexed the Saxons to his Roman empire.[2]

An icy snowball struck one herder’s ear.
“Easy,” his fellow urged, “they’d love to pick
a fight, but that won’t help us find the bishop.
Remember how our Lord endured men’s blows.
Take this one and ponder it in your heart.”

A sweating devil stepped astride their path.
“Halt, boys,” he said, “and pay your penny toll.
Ugh, did hunger drive you to slaughter your daughter?
She has her mother’s pretty pointed teeth.”
The mariners guffawed.  King Alfred paid.
“I see she turned to rend you,” said the devil,
examining the monarch’s purple scars.
The sailors laughed again, for they had lived
long years in Christian lands and knew the Scriptures.

The seed of Ingeld grinned and shook his skull,
a trail of slush a-snailing down his chest.
He glanced at Beornwulf’s frost-stiffened burden
and stammered they were headed for the palace,
at which the brigand briskly waved them on.
“But give me this,” he said, seizing the spear.
“You Saxons may no longer carry arms.”

The travelers approached the bishop’s hall
adjoining the cathedral Ini[3] built
in the old Roman style he’d revived
of quarried limestone blocks, with leaded windows
and limestone roofing sealed with lead flashing –
a high-walled grotto open to God’s light.
Within, the king’s two eldest brothers slept,[4]
though Athelred rested his bones at Wimborne,[5]
the abbey built by Cuthburh, Ini’s sister,
where Leoba, Saint Wynfrith’s cousin, trained
before she joined his mission to the heathens.

Fearing to find His Stoutness bound in fetters,
Alfred pounded the door with frozen fist.
“Your grace,” he cried, “your grace, we’ve brought your supper!”
A black-bristled cook unlatched the door,
whom Ingeld’s injured scion recognized
from many a cheerful night with Athelheah,
though Gyrth (his name) saw only grizzled churls,
for Denewulf had mowed the pilgrims’ crowns
and Denehild, with blushing cheeks, had rubbed
ground chalk into their locks and beards.

Noting the dressed barrow Beornwulf bore,
Gyrth said, “Come in, my friends, and thaw your trotters.”
Alfred, wincing, lowered his rump to the hearth,
a scullion brought two wooden cups of ale
(in which the king discerned the fragrant Yeo),
and the cook proffered Beornwulf a penny.
“I dare no more,” he said.  “Our Savior keep
this vanished, yet, we pray, unvanquished head.”
The herdsmen frowned, but Gyrth threw one white thumb
behind him towards the fiend-infested hall.

The monarch curbed his tongue and took the coin,
which showed him in the headdress of a Caesar
goggling at the world with one good eye –
a coin indeed four times more valuable
than anything his brothers ever minted
as struck on unadulterated silver.
He’d based it on King Offa’s Mercian penny,[6]
copied from Charles the Great’s denarius
(whose purity the junior Charles renewed),[7]
which Charles (senior) copied from his father[8] –
a triumph of administration like
the solidus of Constantine the Great.
Some even trace the West Saxon pening
to Alexander’s stater of pure gold –
an oddity of our Lord’s providence
perhaps to be unraveled in reverse,
for little did the Christian Athulfing,[9]
who claimed our common parent for his sire
and labored to preserve his Christian flock,
resemble that well-educated butcher
who undertook to conquer all the world
and dubbed himself son of the Most High God.

“The earl thanks you, sir,” said Gyrth, relieved,
“as I do, for considering my hide.”
The Saxon king met Beornwulf’s cool look
and slid aside to give the scullion room
to singe and depilate the purchased pig.

“May we salute the bishop?” Alfred asked.
“We’re lay brothers up from Muchelney.”

“Poor Burghelm is our bishop now,” said Gyrth.
“The devils mitered the old boy in jest.”

“The other was a sturdy lad,” said Alfred,
turning aside to contemplate the fire.
“I saw him hunting over Blackmoor way” –
the scullion’s scraping ceased – “some years ago.
Does he yet live?  Did he escape our friends?”

“Who, Lord Athelheah?” the cook replied.[10]
A fiend exploded through the inner door
and glared ferociously at Gyrth’s two tramps
before regaining the rambunctious sall.
“I only tell you what we tell the guests,”
Gyrth murmured.  “Our lord’s gone.  To Gaul, I gather.”
His bulging back withdrew.

The scullion spoke.
“Good thing for you the earl governs here.
When Rodulf brought his band from Dorchester
he sacrificed a traveler to Grim.”[11]

Uncertainly, the strangers sipped their ale.
Alfred didn’t distrust Gyrth or the scullion
but feared his scars might mark him, to the fiends,
as one who herded fiercer beasts than swine.
He drained his cup and clambered to his feet,
and grunting a complaint against his bladder,
he sidled out the door.  His fellow followed.

* * * * *

This is a passage from a poem about King Alfred’s struggle with the Danes in 878.   Alfred has been driven out of Chippenham.  After recovering from his wounds in the hall of Denewulf and Beornwulf (two swineherds), he has set out with Beornwulf to find the Bishop of Sherborne, to whom Alfred had sent his wife and children.  They find Sherborne occupied by the Danes and the bishop nowhere to be found.

[1] Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, bks. i-iv, vi.
[2] Charles’s Saxon wars 772-804
[3] K. Ini acc. 688.
[4] K. Athelbald d. 860; K. Athelbert d. 865.
[5] K. Athelred d. 871.
[6] K. Offa d. 796.
[7] Renovatio monetae 864.
[8] Emp. Charles d. 814; K. Charles d. 877 ; K. Pippin d. 768.
[9] I.e., Alfred, son of Athelwulf.
[10] Athelheah, 9th bp. of Sherborne cons. 871.
[11] I.e., Woden.


William Carpenter is a lifelong student of epic poetry who practices law in Minneapolis. He enjoys the medieval weather beside Lake Hiawatha and Minnehaha Creek, where the epic flow abounds. His work has been accepted by Amarillo bay, The Heroic Age, and Sewanee Theological Review.

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