A DEMONIC MURDER

A Demonic Murder

What purpose is a stone, if it crumble and the wall falls? What purpose is a field, if it lies barren? What purpose is a man, if he fails his deepest duty?

This short murder story continues the tales of Father Eadred, a local priest trying to save souls and solve murders in the Kingdom of the East Angles in the early 9th century. The story is fiction but based on what we know of Anglo-Saxon life and beliefs, as related in my novel, Under Lynden Church.

Eadred knew that his faith alone wasn’t enough to drive him to fight evil. Though he would never admit it to his brothers in Christ, his search for redemption was as powerful an influence – for he once made a fateful mistake.

In an inspired moment, he had understood that a young woman found guilty of murdering her husband, had to be innocent. He rushed to seek out a court official to explain the string of his thoughts. There was a condescending smile. The correct procedure had been followed, he was told, and a decision taken; his only task now was to pray for the girl. The priest shook his head, continuing to argue and came face-to-face with a world that terrified him.

Sand body at Sutton Hoo, Norfolk. A victim of execution (photo by author)

Cowed by the aggression unleashed by the official, he retreated to the protection of the shadows – and a young life was throttled slowly.

Eadred changed that day.

Read on and see if you can discover the culprit of a demonic murder before Father Eadred does.

The Potion

It had to be in Latin. He knew all of the words of the psalm in his native tongue and could have sung them without blemish, but it had to be in Latin. So, he stumbled on, relieved that no-one was listening.

Still intoning, Father Eadred washed the blood from his hands and forearms, then from the blade. Next, he purified the knife with holy water. Despite the intensity of his concentration, the young priest yawned long and hard. Shaking his head and rubbing his stinging, smoke-infused eyes, he stumbled from the church door. Shivering from night’s bitter bite, he walked the short distance to where Raedwald lay.

How the old thegn had suffered from his son’s iniquities and his abuse of God’s favour. At least, Raedwald was now with God. Eadred said a short prayer over his grave; it wasn’t part of the spell but could do no harm. There was no need for a candle; he had timed it well. By the light of the moon, he took the blade and while singing a further psalm, scraped the correct amount of moss and lichen from Raedwald’s stone grave marker.

St Bene't's Anglo-Saxon Church, Cambridge. The earliest church in Hildericstow would have been wooden (photo by author)
St Bene’t’s Anglo-Saxon Church, Cambridge. The earliest church in Hildericstow would have been wooden (photo by author)

Inside the church at Hildericstow once more, Eadred mixed the new ingredients with the leaves, roots and berries he had gathered to make the dwale; finally adding the hare’s blood, honey from the thegn’s own store, belladonna and holy water.

Eadred placed the wooden bowl on the altar, raised his arms and recited the Lord’s Prayer; once in Latin, then in his own tongue, then again in Latin. It only remained for him to strain the liquid into a cup and to burn the calfskin on which the potion had been written in Latin. The brew was blessed and when the sun rose, he would give the liquid to Cynewulf, their thegn, to drink and then rub the unction over his forehead.

What then? With the Lord God’s blessing, the thegn would grow sleepy and Eadred would will powerful prayers to Heaven and the black creatures would flee in anguish before God’s mighty name. This new potion, full of the power of the Lord God, offered hope for healing. Yet Eadred feared the dark spirits could still return, as they had before, welcomed by the thegn’s obsessions; his debauched and cankerous mind and practices.

Would the thegn’s godless life ever allow healing from the malignancy that clung to him? Each time had been worse and the community had suffered. Eadred prayed that the virulence of this past attack would convince Cynewulf to seek the light of God’s presence and to find happiness within his own family.

The Thegn

“My mind is at peace now. I felt the elves leave! I felt the weight in my skull lighten! My sight is restored – all from the charmed and holy liquid you gave me. The malignant spirits were strong but not enough to beat the Lord God. Now, how long must I wear this cloth?”

“For three days and three nights, lord. On the next morning, you must come to church and we will pray and you must confess, accept rightful penance and take communion then I will take the cloth from your head and it will be burned to destroy what evil may remain. And lord, you must fast for all of this time.”

Cynewulf, the thegn, smiled.

“God visited this affliction upon me because of my sins. Is this not so, my priest?”

“It is, lord.” Father Eadred felt a rush of hope that the thegn was finally owning the cause of his illness and the priest hoped he had the strength to say more to his master.

Eadred had prayed often that when the opportunity came he would be able to speak the truth to Cynewulf that the thegn’s behaviour had caused untold misery, and not only to himself. Most of the villagers had suffered through several years of crop failure and rot that destroyed much of their stores of grain and salted meats. Some lives had ended for want of food.

And what agony did the thegn’s wife, the gentle Hilda, endure? Eadred had seen her try to hide her tears when she took the body and blood of Christ, while her husband sneaked home from the embrace of his bare-breasted slave-girl. Hilda struggled alone to bring up their two children as God would wish and was as close to a martyr for her faith as Eadred had known.

Anglo-Saxon Hall, West Stow
Inside a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall, West Stow, Suffolk (photo by author)

The people’s faith in the ordained order for the kingdom was waning. Their king was Christian but Eadred knew that the Old Ways died hard. He had been told that some of the warrior leaders, including Cynewulf himself, still called on their kindred gods around the fires deep into the night, and their hearth companions happily followed the demonic practices.

While the bishop preached to the nobles that to veer from God’s path would bring certain ruin, there were many great men who said losses in battle were punishment from their ancestral gods, who felt the people foolish and weak in displacing them with a carpenter. Those men like Cynewulf said openly that the more gods, the better.

Father Eadred needed to spell out to the thegn that his soul was endangered unless he followed the One God and his Commandments. The priest must demand that Cynewulf give up his pagan ways.

“Yet the Lord God spares me. Four times he has taken me from the devil’s clutches. He is my God and protects me.”

“But lord, this time the devil’s attack was far more potent. I fear for your safety.”

“No, don’t fear, priest.” The thegn punched Eadred playfully on the shoulder. “Your potion is stronger than the devil’s strike against me. Have faith in yourself, as I do. You are a better priest than you imagine. Our God is strong is he not?

“Now, must I confess my sins, fast and do penance for the spell to work? You could fast and say a mass for me instead. All the villagers must come and pray for me and my deliverance. I will give alms to the poor and for you, Father Eadred my priest, I will give you six silver pennies They will pay for candles and a new altar – one of stone – and a new bed for your cell.” Cynewulf was suddenly animated by a wonderful thought – an inspired action.

“And we must have a relic for my church, so the Lord God will continue to pour his blessings out upon me. You must go at daybreak to Snailwell Minster and seek out a relic – one that is suitable for the stature of my church – and bring it here before this cloth is removed.

“Consult with Bishop Aethelbert. I will give you a gift for his minster, so he will be well disposed and advise you well. He is known for the relics he has collected. He will part with one – a good one – if you tell him you have been sent by me and remind him of the favours I have done for him. The possession of a great relic will draw the people to my church and protect me from anything the dark forces can muster.

A Princely Helmet, Sutton Hoo (photo by author)
A princely Anglo-Saxon helmet – depiction at the site of that discovered at Sutton Hoo, Norfolk (photo by author)

“Now, off you go. I must eat and drink. I am beyond hunger and thirst.”

Eadred waited a few seconds to marshal his courage then spoke.

The Dark Meres

The meres were darker than Father Eadred had ever experienced, as if the black water had drained the light from the vast fen sky. There was evil in the air; he felt its brooding presence. The dank vapours began to rise from the earth and demons sat on rotting trees, watching him; drawing what little hope remained. They knew his spirit was wounded and waited. He cared little. His was a solitary journey; a full day at least to Snailwell Minster if the feet were quick but Eadred moved slowly, weighed by misery.

Yet again he had let earthly power better his faith. He had acquiesced when Cynewulf’s cup of wine hit the wall and the thegn’s voice was raised in expletive-soaked anger. Then the genial half-apology and silver pennies. It was sufficient for Eadred to release his thegn from personal confession and penance; the priest agreeing to fast and pray in his stead.

Eadred possessed the power of the Lord God so why was it so hard to wield it – to insist on Cynewulf’s obedience?

Eadred knew what awaited him. The bishop would question all aspects of his duty. Whether he had baptised the newly-born; whether he preached regularly; how much Latin he had learnt; and whether the love of the Lord God still burned in his heart. And how could he answer but admit his failure to the man who had supported, trained and nurtured him.

What purpose is a stone, if it crumble and the wall falls? What purpose is a field, if it lies barren? What purpose is a man, if he fail his deepest duty? These words burned into the priest as the icy water clawed upwards through his cloak. His limbs lost feeling and his breathing grew laboured.

The Dark Meres (photo by author)
The dark meres (photo by author)

“Forgive me, Lord,” he whispered, “for I have failed you. Have mercy on my soul.”

Brother Aethelwold

He heard his name drifting, over and over, like a birdsong. His eyes flickered; he groaned.

“He’s awake!”

A little over ten minutes later, the door creaked and Brother Aethelwold’s face appeared. Eadred still lay in bed with his hands clasped in prayer.

“I’m sorry if I’m disturbing your time with our Lord.”

“I’m sure he won’t mind. How good it is to see you again, my friend. Where am I?”

Aethelwold, monk from Snailwell Minster and Eadred’s closest friend, beamed.

“In a farmhouse. It was a miracle, Eadred. I tell you, the Lord God has spoken. Listen!

“I had set out from Snailwell to visit remote farms to preach with the novice, Byrhthelm, who is under my wing. At a fork in the fen path, we aimed to leave the water’s edge to take a droveway leading to this farm, where we were to spend the night. These buildings are on the estate of Byrhthelm’s father – the thegn, Burgred. But what should we see?

“What were you thinking? You must have really lost your way, lying at the water’s edge, sinking into the mud and unconscious. You would have been dead by daybreak. We lay you across the horse’s back and got you here last night.

“You’re blessed, Eadred. Few take this path late in the day during winter. Clearly, our Lord doesn’t wish to end your days yet, despite your own considerable efforts. He has a great purpose for you; I’m certain of it.

“Now, tell me, why on earth were you on the Snailwell path at night – and without a horse?”

Eadred sighed and shook his head.

“Cynewulf wants me to secure a holy relic for his church.”

“From my uncle?”

St Botolph's Anglo-Saxon door. Exterior view
Oldest working church door in England, Anglo-Saxon, St Botolph’s church, Hadstock, Essex (photo by author)

“Yes, from Bishop Aethelbert. It will soon be a year since the church was built at Hildericstow and the thegn feels it’s now time for a relic to be housed beneath the altar to inspire faith in the community. They will come more freely to hear the word of God.”

“And doubtless Cynewulf sees the benefit from the extra dues and renders they will pay to him for your care of their souls and burial of their mortal remains?”

“Yes, it’s true – but Cynewulf provides the church and supports me in my duties. He also gives the customary payments to your uncle.”

“Indeed, as is right, for the minster is your spiritual home and continues to train you and support your growth in the ways of Christ.”

“And I give thanks each day for the blessings I’ve received from your uncle.”

Aethelwold nodded in appreciation. The door creaked again and the young novice, Byrhthelm appeared, smiling.

“It’s good to see you well, Brother Eadred.”

“Thank you, my young friend. Blessings upon you for helping save my life.” Before the novice had time to ask awkward questions, Eadred continued. “There was more darkness last night than I have ever encountered but I feel reborn this morning with God’s grace and the help of my friends. I’m a fortunate man that whenever evil tries to snare my soul, the Lord seems to send hope to carry me to safety.”

“I pray that he will continue to do so. Now, let’s get you fed so you can continue to Snailwell and Byrhthelm and I can resume our journey to distant souls.” Brother Aethelwold clapped his hands and ushered Byrhthelm from the room so Eadred could rise.

The Path to Snailwell Minster (photo by author)
The path to the fen farmstead (photo by author)

Duty 

It is one matter to feel enriched by a deep faith shared with a friend and to know that the Lord God has brought you safely out of danger – but another to be reminded of one’s duty and how you have failed it.

Eadred had met Bishop Aethelbert the morning after he had arrived at Snailwell Minster and was already, after a sharp tongue-lashing, on his return to Hildericstow that same day.

Eadred sat cheerless and self-absorbed on the horse that the bishop had lent him, overwhelmed by the news he had to impart to his thegn. The meeting with the bishop had been challenging  and had taken a few unpleasant turns.

The priest was now no more than 15 minutes ride from Hildericstow, smarting from the fierce scrutiny he’d received. The bishop had chastised what seemed to Eadred to be most aspects of his parochial duties. He had reprimanded him for two particular failings.

Eadred had declined a plea to travel urgently one night to a nearby farmstead to baptise a sick baby, saying he was already preoccupied with caring for the spiritual needs of another soul.

That soul was, in fact, Cynewulf, and Eadred was caring for his material, not spiritual, needs. The thegn had ordered Eadred to compile his ancestry. The priest had spread on a table all manner of fragments of material he had gathered, containing names and dates, and also some collected by Brother Aethelwold and Byrhthelm from ancient land charters held at Snailwell Minster.

The developing tree had rich fruit, seeming to connect the thegn to the royal house. In his excitement, Cynewulf wanted it completed quickly, so he could present it to the king, hoping it would support the thegn’s claims to possess rich landholdings owned by other nobles.

He knew it was wrong but Eadred felt Cynewulf’s pressure prevented him from visiting the sick baby but instead to work on the lineage late into the night. The priest couldn’t tell the bishop the truth – it was too awful – saying instead that he was comforting a widower and had offered to see the child the following morning.

“A soul was lost!” The bishop thundered. “The baby died unbaptised. Never, ever deny baptism to those who ask for it. It’s your solemn duty. Do you hear!

“I had to see the parents a few days later and prayed with them. The father is Athelstan, bailiff on the estate of the thegn, Burgred. I told him you were a good priest and cared deeply for your flock and needed more support from me.  Yet, you will need to face them one day soon and seek forgiveness. Don’t expect an easy time of it; Athelstan is a hard man. Choose your words carefully.”

Eadred prayed silently that the bailiff never discovered what stopped him from baptising his son.

When Eadred’s failure to chastise Cynewulf properly for his latest marital violations was prised from him, the bishop listened intently and began to tap the tabletop with his finger; a sure sign that his annoyance was mounting.

Eadred moved quickly onto Cynewulf’s wish for a relic and the thegn’s reminder of the favours he had given to the bishop. The request was ill-received.

“Cynewulf isn’t a man I wish to encourage. Surely that is clear to you. There will come a day when men of his ilk, who see no difference between the Lord God and the demons his family used to bargain with, will be forbidden from owning our places of worship. But until then, I’ll not encourage his blasphemy.

Exquisite medieval face
St Edmund, last Anglo-Saxon King of the East Angles, St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath, Suffolk (photo by author)

“My holy relics are my life’s work! They are the heart of a prayerful community – the bodily link with the blessed saints who are in Heaven. I keep their sacred names alive, when others have forgotten them.

“There will be no relic and besides, tell this to Cynewulf. I had to calm Athelstan’s anger by undertaking to establish a church at Lynden within Burgred’s estate, so the community there will never again lack for a priest. When I consecrate the church, I will bestow upon it a wonderful relic and Brother Aethelwold, whom I have ordained recently, will be its priest.

“I have always tried to be even-handed between Cynewulf, Burgred and the other nobles in their arguments over whatever they feel obliged to squabble about but no more. That man is trouble!”

Accusation

This was the outcome of his mission – no relic and a new church to be built at Lynden – to be supported by the bishop, to compete for the people’s souls, their corpses and their dues and renders!

Eadred was disturbed from his despondency by the sound of approaching horses.

“Eadred, priest of Hildericstow?”

The priest acknowledged the imperious voice of an aloof man, richly-dressed and horsed, accompanied by half a dozen armed horsemen.

“I am Waefurth, senior official of the ealdorman and sent by him to uphold the king’s law. Give me your weapon.”

“I carry no weapon. What is this?”

“You are accused of killing Cynewulf the thegn.”

“What! He’s dead! How? I have been away from Hildericstow these past few days.”

“By poison, in a potion given recently. The thegn died yesterday, in torment.”

“I’ve done no wrong! Who accuses me?”

“Edgar, the thegn’s brother.”

Men from the hue and cry surrounded Eadred and took the reins of his mount.

“My Saviour, Jesus Christ, protect me. I am innocent.” The priest cried out aloud; crushed and bewildered by the charge.

Trial

The thegn had died after hours of terrible agony; his eyes, wild and unnatural; his hands tearing at his ears. He had apparently shouted that he saw fish with men’s faces and that the earth beneath his feet tormented him, whispering that it was opening up to swallow him alive.

The trial was to take place at a special meeting of the king’s court at Snailwell Minster. The ealdorman represented the king and the bishop also presided given the seriousness and sensitivities of the charge – a priest accused of murdering a king’s thegn – and with the likelihood of sorcery.

“Who makes this suit?” Waefurth, asked the court. The dead thegn’s brother rose.

“I, Edgar, brother to Cynewulf. The day he died, I heard him screaming that his blood was boiling. I hurried to him. He was pitiful to see. Though my brother committed some wrongful deeds in his life, he was always good to me and died an awful death. He died crying out that his priest, Eadred, son of Ealfrith, had killed him by sorcery and poison to gain for himself the dues and renders owing to the thegn. Two of my kin were with me and will swear before the Lord God that my words are true.”

“Then let them come forward and swear thus on the bones of saints.”

“Eadred the priest, how do you respond to the charge?”

“In the name of the Lord God,” Eadred’s young voice trembled, “I am innocent of this charge. The deed was not mine and I have no knowledge of its instigation. But I fear for the thegn’s soul: he died without confession or penance.”

The Risen Christ, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath, Suffolk
Sensitive image of the Risen Christ, 15th century, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath, Suffolk (photo by author)

“Who swears by the priest?” Waefurth asked the assembly. Two freemen stepped forward, together with Brother Aethelwold and Byrhthelm, then two more freemen. None other. One-by-one, they swore before God and on the saints’ relics that Eadred’s oath was pure. Eadred barely registered their words. He needed more oath-helpers to confirm the veracity of his word – but few were willing to stand by him when murder and sorcery was the charge.

Waefurth seemed uncertain about what to do next. He conferred with the ealdorman and the bishop. The two great men glowered; the bishop’s face flushing red. Waefurth chose his next words even more carefully than usual.

“The charge is most serious and you have few oath-helpers but you are a man of God. If you still claim innocence, you may choose between ordeal by water or iron, which the bishop will administer. However, the court is also willing to search further into Cynewulf’s death and to question your testimony. If you choose further questioning and are found guilty, you will henceforth be outside of the Church’s protection. Do you understand?”

Eadred nodded. He had never known anyone to survive ordeals by water or hot iron, even those who seemed white and pure, despite the ordeals being administered fairly by the bishop after fasting and the Sacrament of Mass. However, he had been given the opportunity to face another type of ordeal – that of scrutiny of his claim of innocence.

“What is your decision?”

“I choose for my testimony to be fairly questioned for I know I am innocent. Another man is guilty of this crime, and I will not let the demons rejoice that they have caused consternation here and a guilty man freed.”

“You have made your choice,” Waefurth continued. “You have heard Edgar’s charge. How do you refute it?”

“It is widely known that Cynewulf was afflicted by malevolent spirits and that the whole community suffered from his encouragement of the dark forces. As his priest I urged him to turn away from anything in his life that gave the devil a hold over him. I also made charms, potions and unctions to try to heal him after the elves attacked his mind. This is no secret. I did not hide my efforts; all of you knew of them.

“The charms I made were purified and blessed by the Lord God. There was never sorcery; this I swear before the Lord. I am a man of God and abhor sorcery and any such behaviour.”

“Did the charms contain poison?”

“They contained only ingredients and medicines that wise women and healers put in dwale but then I made these spiritually powerful by calling on our Lord to bless the charms.

“The last potion I made was even more powerful to challenge the darker elves and spirits who were tormenting our thegn. I followed with utmost care the ingredients, words and other actions written down by Brother Aethelwold, who knows the special charms devised by the brothers at Snailwell to be used in the direst of circumstances when souls are in danger.”

Bishop Aethelbert rose from his chair; his eyes bulging with surprise.

“I never wrote such a thing!” Brother Aethelwold howled, looking towards his uncle. “I might have told Father Eadred I knew of such magic charms from the books we have in our minster, and would tell him one day how one could be made but I only said this to obtain his favour. We have but one leechbook and it contains only medicines to heal, not harm. I swear before the Lord.”

“No! Why are you saying this? I followed your instructions.” Eadred screamed.

“If it exists, where is this document?” Waefurth continued.

“I burned it. For the charm to work, the words had to be destroyed.” Father Eadred’s head fell forward. “Why are you denying the manuscript?” He pleaded with Brother Aethelwold, who responded.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying. This has nothing to do with me. I had nothing to do with your charms. I swear before our Lord God and on the relics of saints.”

How could Aethelwold lie? Eadred looked into the monk’s eyes; he was his friend in faith. Aethelwold looked away.

“I looked at the cloth that the priest wrapped around the thegn’s head,” Waefurth continued. “It had the remains of the roots and leaves of belladonna. If more had been administered to the thegn in a potion, there was more than a sufficiency to have killed him.”

Eadred moaned. Could he have been gulled into poisoning the thegn by Snailwell – Bishop Aethelbert and his nephew – to rid themselves of a thorn and to remain blameless?

But Brother Aethelwold was shaking his head, as confused as Eadred – and the bishop had nurtured him since he had first entered the gates of the minster. There was surely a bond in faith between them and Brother Aethelwold had saved his life. Brothers in Christ could not play with each other’s lives so flippantly and endanger their own souls through false oaths? Someone else had to have caused the thegn’s death.

“You must confess now and free your soul from the sin of falsity,” Waefurth spoke.

“I swear I am innocent. Would I return to Hildericstow if I had poisoned the thegn, knowing I would be captured?” Eadred faced the ealdorman and the bishop.

“My lords, another has committed this crime and is seeking to have me pay for it. I am known for the gift the Lord God has bestowed upon me – to find the truth when murders have been done. I beseech you, let me have one day to give you the true culprit. I have no fear for my own soul but only that if you hang me then a vile murderer will remain within this community.”

“The priest chose for his testimony to be questioned and has been found to be a liar and murderer.” Waefurth spoke to the court. “He admits to making potions for the thegn to drink, saying he was following Brother Aethelwold’s recipe but the brother swears he did not write it and there is no document to be found. We must have justice. Let him be sentenced.”

Demons
The Doomstone, Norman, York Minster (photo by author)

The ealdorman raised his hand for silence.

“The thegn will be avenged – but we must be sure of the killer. A nobleman has been murdered – poisoned – and I will take some trouble to ensure the culprit is hanged or else even the greatest of us is in danger.

“Answer me this, priest – did the thegn deserve his death?”

Eadred blanched. He was poorly equipped to answer in any other way but as the rudiments of his faith dictated, without gloss.

“My lord, I am a man of simple faith. Though I believe that the thegn’s conduct often failed his Christian duty and risked divine punishment on his own soul and his community, I never wished him dead. I tried to preserve his bodily life, so that he would turn from any wickedness while he had time to do so and thus have eternal life.”

The bishop nodded.

“Very well. The priest has asked for one day and I will grant one day. The court will meet tomorrow at this time.”

The Last Day

Eadred lay on his bed; his ankles fettered and chained to a pole. A guard rested against the outside door of his cell within the minster.

He had prayed the entire evening. His last hours may not be far away and his faults and failures weighed on him. He should have been kinder to his family; been closer and more caring, but it was not him. He couldn’t be someone he wasn’t; he cared far more for his brothers in faith. These matters troubled him but he had to look through them and think about the murderer – who was he?

Eadred knew the dangers of belladonna; that it brought healing but in too great a concentration it risked death. He had used the plant in only the final potion but had no experience to judge whether it was a safe amount or could kill. He simply followed the written document.

It was difficult to think clearly. If Bishop Aethelbert or his nephew did not write the charm on the calfskin then who else could write, apart from the monks of Snailwell? To Eadred’s knowledge, only three people from Hildericstow and the surrounding vills and settlements had learnt that skill. Two were related to the dead thegn – his brother, Edgar, and his wife, Hilda. The third was Athelstan the bailiff. Could one of these have killed the thegn?

How did he come by the written charm? It was Cynewulf himself who had handed it to him. It had come, said the thegn, from Brother Aethelwold and its efficacy was beyond doubt. But if Aethelwold knew nothing of it then who wrote it and gave it to Cynewulf? It was too late to ask the thegn.

Another hour past and it was harder to concentrate on solving the puzzle. Who would want to kill the thegn? Many people might wish him dead – but few had the opportunity or such hatred.

The feet shuffling past Eadred’s door signaled the monks’ journey to their final service before daybreak.

“Father, stop these fears from clouding my thoughts.” He prayed with tears welling in his eyes. He had often imagined dying as a martyr for his faith; that his Saviour would give him the strength to take the bite of a blade – but to die as a criminal – a murderer – was not the victory he hoped for at his life’s ending.

It had to be either the thegn’s brother, Edgar, or wife, Hilda, or Athelstan the bailiff, who had poisoned Cynewulf. Yet with the calfskin on which the charm had been written destroyed, how could he find the truth and prove it?

A vision of the girl who was hanged though innocent came to him; he was in the same predicament now. He prayed that if anyone had any knowledge that might save him that they come forward – for a decision on his life was half a dozen hours away.

St Peter's church, Bradwell. Built by St Cedd
St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, built by St Cedd, Bishop of the East Saxons, in 654 AD (photo by author)

As often happened when he prayed, Eadred’s mind visualized a scene that appeared to come from nowhere. It was of him feeding the ingredients into the dwale and this time Brother Aethelwold stood at his shoulder watching.

There was only one ingredient that Eadred didn’t gather himself – honey – and it was supplied by the thegn’s wife, Hilda, from the thegn’s own supply. Could it have been tainted?

Eadred needed to talk to Brother Aethelwold and ask him to face danger. He was the only person the priest thought he could trust but would Aethelwold trust him now?

The Soul Endangered

The court had already made up its mind; Eadred could see it in their faces. He was the murderer and they wanted him sentenced and executed. So simple. He had prayed that they would give him the opportunity to show his innocence. It was well nigh impossible but it was in the Lord’s hands.

“You asked for a day and it was granted. Speak now.” Waefurth wanted the business over and done with.

“I have prayed for enlightenment on how I could show my innocence. I was duped by someone – the real murderer. Yes, I made a dwale for the thegn that poisoned him, but I was following a recipe made by another.

“Either the recipe included too great an amount of belladonna or another ingredient had been tainted by poison.”

“What are you saying?” The ealdorman interrupted.

“My lord, I think that the honey I used in the concoction had been poisoned and that the belladonna and honey together killed the thegn. The person who provided me with the honey is the thegn’s murderer.”

“And who was that?”

Eadred stood silently. His next words would likely seal his fate.

“Speak!”

“My lord ….”

The door closed with such a noise that most eyes were drawn to it. Brother Aethelwold entered and facing Eadred, shook his head quickly.

“You waste our time.” Waefurth turned on Eadred with a fury that brought back the memory of the official who had abused him into silence and sealed the fate of an innocent girl.

“I will not be silenced! It was not the honey,” Eadred stuttered. He struggled to compose his voice but knew he had to push on. He’d not be allowed to speak again, if he faltered now.

“The belladonna was enough to kill Cynewulf. The murderer was the thegn, Burgred. His son, Byrhthelm, was also involved but I believe he was duped into writing the potion and giving the calfskin on which it was written to Cynewulf.”

It would be hard to exaggerate the response to Eadred’s claim. Burgred was present and leapt to his feet. hurling abuse at the priest, as did Burgred’s bailiff, Athelstan. The remainder of the court dissolved into chaos. Waefurth’s bellowing voice had no impact on the tumult. It was not until the ealdorman and the bishop rose together and threatened those present with injury unless they controlled themselves that order was returned.

Eadred continued quickly, shouting for fear he would be ordered to stop. Waefurth ordered a court official to restrain the priest but the command was instantly countermanded by the bishop.

“It was fear of losing rich land holdings that led Burgred to commit the murder and to endanger his eternal soul and that of his son.

“Before he died, our thegn bid me examine several documents he owned that contained the names of his ancestors and lands that were granted by past kings. He had me write down the tree of his family and ancestors, drawn from these documents, and to his delight they seemed to show a distant linkage to our king.

“The branch that contains this link, the thegn believed, might give him greater rights to possess rich lands that have long been contested between he and Burgred. The thegn swore me to secrecy. However, to be certain of the kinship, I had to check several names, one marriage and some ancient land charters kept in the records at Snailwell Minster.

“I spoke of this matter only to Brother Aethelwold, without divulging the purpose – only that Cynewulf wished to compile the list of his ancestors, so he might pray for them. Brother Aethelwold obtained permission from the bishop to access the documents and then he checked them for me with the help of Byrhthelm, the novice he is training. The information I sought was then gathered together and written on a piece of vellum by Byrhthelm.

“When Byrhthelm was examining the ancient land charters, he was curious to see that they contained the names of certain fields on his father’s estate and told his father what he had seen. Burgred understood immediately the danger to his wealth – that half of his best land could be justly claimed by Cynewulf. It was then that he devised the plan to poison Cynewulf and to implicate me, for I also knew what the discovery meant.

“Byrhthelm wrote the fatal charm, although I believe at the instigation of his father, who cannot write. Byrhthelm didn’t comprehend that the amount of belladonna would be fatal. Following his father’s instructions, he then gave the recipe to Cynewulf, saying it was a special healing charm used for generations by the monks at Snailwell and that it had come from Brother Aethelwold. This would allay the thegn’s and my concerns.

Brother Aethelwold has since confirmed with several of the thegn’s men that Byrhthelm was in Hildericstow and met Cynewulf the day before I was given the recipe by our thegn.”

“How dare you malign me, evil priest!

“My lords,” Burgred rose, red-faced, and spoke to the ealdorman and the bishop. “I have never heard such a bizarre collection of lies! If this false priest is trying to escape the gallows by such claims, he has surely tightened the rope. I am blameless and can fill this room with my oath-helpers. The priest’s twisted words come from a twisted mind. Pass sentence on him now.”

“Wait, I can show my words to be  true.”

Eadred reached within his habit and pulled out a fragment of vellum.

“This vellum has some of the names, dates and land holdings Byrhthelm wrote down for me from the charters stored here at Snailwell. It can easily be shown to be in his hand for he is known to write with particular mistakes, having not yet mastered the art.

“If I turn the vellum over, the other side is also full of writing by the same hand – but these spell out some of the ingredients of the dwale I made. And here are a few of the words to instruct how to concoct the liquid. They are repeated several times. See, this is the quantity of belladonna. It has been drawn three times but always the same deadly quantity.

“These words were written by Byrhthelm to practice the final version of the potion, so it would appear to be in Brother Aethelwold’s hand. You can see from the writing, how Byrhthelm practiced to correct his spelling and change the shape of some letters.

“The quantity of belladonna it asks for is deadly but Byrhthelm was unconcerned that the recipe for the dwale and the records he transcribed for me from the charters were on either side of the same vellum. It was only later that he came to realise the dwale’s deadly purpose.”

“These are the ravings of a condemned man.” Burgred yelled.

“Lords, speak to the son separately from the father. He was tricked into this murder. You will find him remorseful and ready to confess for, like me, Byrhthelm’s faith is stronger than the ties to his family.”

The Redeemed Soul

The king installed Edgar as the new thegn. Edgar promised Eadred he would get the support he needed to care properly for the spiritual needs of the thegn’s people. He regretted bringing the suit but said he believed that it could only have been Eadred who committed the murder.

Eadred had also made peace with Brother Aethelwold who, not having written the charm, was confused and consequently doubtful of Eadred’s story and fearful that he was being implicated in a deed of which he was ignorant. Yet, their friendship was deep.

At Eadred’s request, during the trial, the monk went to the thegn’s wife, Hilda, who was known as a pious Christian and offered her communion. At confession, she made no mention of involvement in, or knowledge of, the causes of her husband’s death. If she had such a sin hanging over her, she would have surely confessed to Aethelwold.

Eadred had also asked Aethelwold to speak to Byrhthelm. He had found the young novice  deeply depressed, having discovered he had been duped by his own father into securing the thegn’s murder. He was ready to confess to unburden his soul. He had told Aethelwold to search for one of the scraps of vellum he had given Father Eadred that contained details of Cynewulf’s ancestors – for the novice remembered having earlier used the other side to practice writing down the recipe of the dwale that killed Cynewulf.

That evening, Eadred returned to the church to pray in solitude for he was troubled; not only by the execution that he barely escaped; not only by the near victory of falsity over truth; but also by his own failures. He had let a baby die unbaptised and had not insisted that his thegn, Cynewulf, personally confess his sins and do penance. A poor, helpless soul had perished and the thegn had died tarnished by a weight of sins.

Byrhthelm did confess to his actions at his father’s trial but that he believed he was doing good until he heard of Cynewulf’s poisoning. Burgred deceived his son, by saying that Cynewulf’s demonic behaviour was harming the whole community but that he possessed a strong cure, which might free Cynewulf of his affliction. But Cynewulf would never take the potion if he believed it came from his rival, Burgred.

For Eadred, the culprit had to be able to read and write. Once he believed that the bishop and his nephew were innocent, it had to be either Edgar, Hilda, Athelstan the bailiff or someone else from the minster’s inmates who could write. All others were illiterate. While Hilda had good reason to wish her debauched husband dead, she was a noble Christian and did not confess to such a sin when she had the opportunity. Neither could Eadred find a reason for Cynewulf’s brother to kill the thegn; for it would be Hilda and her children who would be the beneficiaries of her husband’s death, not Edgar.

Eadred could find only two reasons strong enough to inspire Cynewulf’s murder. The first was Athelstan’s grief and anger when Eadred failed to baptise the bailiff’s son – but only Eadred knew of his awful mistake in putting Cynewulf’s greed ahead of another’s eternal soul. So Eadred doubted that Athelstan had sought revenge on Cynewulf and his priest. This left Burgred’s probable loss of much of his richest land to Cynewulf as the strongest reason to murder the thegn and to implicate the only other person who understood what was at stake – Eadred himself.

Yet, who could have put the recipe that killed him into Cynewulf’s hands, leading the thegn to think that it was from Brother Aethelwold? Byrhthelm was the most likely carrier, known to be Aethelwold’s pupil. As Burgred could not write, it was also most likely that he would turn to his son to write the lethal dwale.

Burgred was hanged. Eadred pleaded with the ealdorman and the bishop to spare the son from execution for though he was involved in his father’s crime, he had been tricked and had not made any attempt to conceal his involvement during his father’s trial. Byrhthelm was a green youth of strong faith, who had been easily misled and would learn from his error, given the opportunity.

Though Father Eadred would never forget the young woman he might have saved if he had been possessed of greater courage, he had saved a young novice, who had been drawn by filial obligation into his father’s crime. Burgred’s estates were confiscated and Byrhthelm was exiled to live in poverty in a monastery in a northern kingdom. His faith continued to strengthen.

Thinking back to the night in the fens when the demons almost took his soul, Eadred could barely recognise himself now as the same man. He had survived the torment and misery but only with the Lord God’s help. His faith also had strengthened.

In his house once more, the wine spilled, as the cup fell from Eadred’s hand. He was asleep; exhausted beyond measure. He would stir within a few hours and lie awake the whole night thinking about his forthcoming meeting with Burgred’s former bailiff, Athelstan, who had been named as Edgar’s new bailiff. What could he say to him?