Free eBook: Getting Through the Storms in Life

Century XI, Chapter IV


The State of the Church in England.

As the importance of our own country began to be dibplayed in this century, it will be proper to take some notice of the appearance of religion in an island, which, we have seen, had so distinguished a share, in diffusing divine truth through the northern parts of Europe.. Even the very little of evangelical religion, which we may discover, may deserve our attention.

In the reign of Ethelred, a very cruel massacre of " the Danes was, by royal order, made throughout his dominions. The rage of the populace, excited by so many injuries, was extreme, and made no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. Swein, king of Denmark, amply revenged these cruelties, by repeated

devastations: and the unwarlike Ethelred fled into Normandy to save his life, while his subjects felt all the miseries, which might be expected from incensed and victorious barbarians. Among other instances of their hostilities, they levied a contribution on the county of Kent, and murdered the archbishop of Canterbury, who had refused to countenance the exaction.*

The author, whose short account I have followed, does not deign to give us the name of this archbishop, nor to relate a single circumstance of his murder. I cannot but think, however, that he would have enlarged on the subject, if it would have gratified his dislike of religion. But thus a conduct, at once the most magnanimous and patriotic, is buried in obscurity, because the hero was an ecclesiastic. Let it, however, receive the justice, which is due to it, from these memoirs.

Thef Danes were besieging Canterbury, when Alphage, the archbishop, was entreated by his friends to save his own life. " God forbid," said Alphage, " that I should tarnish my character by so inglorious a conduct; and should be afraid of going to heaven, because a violent death lies across in the passage. I have been the instrument of drawing over several considerable persons among these Danes to the gospel: if this be a fault, I shall be happy in suffering for it. I have ransomed some of my countrymen, and supported others when in captivity. If Danes be angry, because I have reproved their sins, it behooves me to remember Him, who hath said, " If thou give not the wicked warning, his blood will I require at thine hand." It is the character of an hireling to leave the sheep, when he seeth the wolf coming. I mean, therefore, to stand the shock, and submit to the order of divine providence."!

The archbishop, influenced by these motives, remained in Canterbury, and exhorted the people, as a

• Hume, vol. i. p. 144. t Collier*! Ecc Hist.

} Osbern de Vit. Elphegi. Hoveden's Annate. .

christian pastor. But the Danes entered the city by violence, and exercised the most horrid barbarities, particularly on ladies of quality, whom they dragged to the stake and burnt to death, nor did they spare even infants. Alphage, moved at these hideous scenes, had the boldness to expostulate with them. " The cradle," says he, " can afford no triumphs for soldiers. It would be better for you to exercise your vengeance on me, whose death may give some celebrity to your names. Remember, some of your troops, have, through my means, been brought over to the faith of Christ, and I have frequently rebuked you for your acts of injustice." The Danes, exasperated at his words, seized, and bound the archbishop, and kept him prisoner for seven months. His liberty, however, was offered to him, on condition of immense payments to be made by himself and by Ethelred the king. He told them, that the sums were too large to be raised by any exactions, and he firmly refused to drain the treasures of the church, for the sake of saving his life; accounting it wrong to give to pagans those sums, which had been devoted to the honour of religion, and to the relief of the poor. The merciless Danes, enraged beyond measure, threw him down and stoned him, while he prayed for his enemies, and for the church; and, at length, a certain Dane, lately become a christian, despatched him, in order to free him from his pain. One of his successors, the famous Lanfranc, doubted whether Alphage ought to be looked on as a martyr, because he had not died explicitly for the christian faith. But Anselm, a still more famous personage, told Lanfranc, that Alphage was a real martyr, who died rather than commit an unjust thing. Nor is it easy to conceive that any spirit, less than that of a christian, could have conducted him through such a scene, and supported him with so much fortitude and charity. Alphage was murdered in the year 1013.

A preceding archbishop, probably his immediate predecessor, Elfric, in the year 1006, had directed in one of the canons published at a council,* in which he presided, that every parish priest should be obliged on Sundays and on other holidays, to explain the Lord's prayer, the creed, and the gospel for the day, before the people, in the English tongue. While historians enlarge on the quarrels between the papacy and the civil power, and descant, with tedious prolixity, on the superstitions, which were in vogue during the dark ages, they are too apt to pass over in a cursory manner, such facts as this, which has been mentioned. Let the reader, who has seriously considered the importance and excellency of evangelical truth, reflect on the preciousness of the doctrines, which the Lord's prayer, the creed, and some of the plainest and most practical passages of the new testament, do either exhibit or imply; and he will be convinced, that, if the canon of Elfric had been obeyed with any tolerable degree of spirit and exactness in a number of parishes in England, the ignorance and darkness could not have been so complete nor so universal, as we are generally taught to believe it was. Such bishops as Elfric and Alphage must have been useful lights in those times. The gospels read in the churches, I suppose, were either the same as, or similar to, those which are read at this day; nor is it to be imagined, that a familiar exposition of them, in conjunction with the creed and the Lord's prayer, would be in vain: because, in every age, the preaching of christian fundamentals is accompanied with a divine energy, and the word returns not void to its divine Author, but prospers in the thing whereto he sends it.f The mixture of superstitious inventions might adulterate, but could not altogether destroy the efficacy of the word of God. Nor can I doubt but many at this day, who boast of their exemption from papal ignorance, and who call themselves enlightened, because they have been refined by philosophical and political knowledge, are themselves much inferior in christian light and

spirit to many, who lived in the dark times of the eleventh century, under the benefit of such advantages of instruction, as the canon before us afforded. For that elementary knowledge, which is the object of the canon, is ever more salutary in its influence, than the most ingenious subtilities of literary refinement in religion. These, like the spider's web, are intricate, and are often found to be flimsy and void of any substantial advantage to mankind. Armed with catechetical knowledge, I conceive that serious minds would in that age find rest and food to their souls; and the love of God being, by this means, shed abroad in the heart, would constrain the missionaries of that period to diffuse the gospel in the northern regions with ability and success.

The facts, on which these reflections are founded, may show us, that God, had not forsaken this island during the disastrous reign of Ethelred, though the political hemisphere was gloomy beyond expression. Ethelred himself, though he returned into his kingdom, was never able to make head against the Danes, who at length, in the year 1017, brought the English into total subjection. Their king Canute, and his two sons in succession, governed England, which, however, recovered itself from the Danish yoke, and received Edward the confessor, the son of Ethelred, as its monarch, in the year 1041. But the Saxon line, though restored, was unable to maintain itself on the throne, and soon sunk under the power of William the Norman, who in the year 1066, beheld himself the sovereign of England, which continues under the government of his posterity to this day.

Under William,* the papal power, which hitherto had by no means been so absolute in England as in the southern countries, began to be felt more strongly,

• Osmund, a Norman, privy counsellor to William the conqueror, af terwards bishop of Salisbury, corrected the liturgy used in his diocese. And he was thought to have done the work so judiciously, that the service " In Usum Sarum," was received in other dioceses, and became common throughout England. For, before this time, every diocese had its appropriate liturgy. Collier's Eccles. History.

and soon reached the same height, which it had attained in France and Italy. The tyrant found it a convenient engine for the support of his own despotic authority: and while he took care that every one of his subjects should, in ecclesiastical matters, bow under the yoke of the bishop of Rome, he reserved to himself the supreme dominion in civil affairs, and exercised it with the most unqualified rigor. Lanfranc, whom he appointed archbishop of Canterbury, zealously supported the power of Rome, and confirmed the absurd doctrine of transubstantiation by his influence and authority. His successor, Anselm, was no less devoted to the pope, and maintained several famous contests with his sovereign William Rufus, the " son and successor of the conqueror. This archbishop contributed much, by his influence, to settle the celibacy of the clergy in England; and it must be confessed, that even the virtues of this great man, through the peculiar infelicity of the times, were attended with great disadvantages to the state of society. For it ought to be observed, that, if we set aside his attachment to the authority of the pope, and his passion for the fashionable superstitions, his conduct was pious and exemplary: his zeal against the luxury, simony, and vices of the great was laudable: and, above all, his defence of evangelical truth, adorned by an upright course of life and conversation, preserved, under God, some genuine remains of godliness in the nation. Nor ought we to follow implicitly the ideas of our protestant historians, who, in every debate between the king and the church, are sure to decide against the latter. What could be more arbitrary, for instance, than the demand of a thousand pounds which William Rufus made upon Anselm? and what more warrantable than the conduct of the latter?* He offered the king five hundred pounds, which were refused in disgust. Anselm gave the sum to the poor, rather than rack his tenants to double it, and said to the tyrant,

" If I am used according to my station, all I have is at your service; if I am treated as a. slave I shall keep my property to myself."

And undoubtedly the rapacity and profancness of the Norman princes, particularly of William Rufus, m the seizure and alienation of ecclesiastical benefices, were justly opposed by the bishops of those times. It is only to be wished, that they had conducted thenopposition on the grounds of scripture, and the precedents of the primitive church, not on the authority of the court of Rome.

Nothing else seems to have occurred, deserving a place in these memoirs, in the general history of our island, during the course of this century, except what relates to the personal character of Margaret queen of Scotland: a woman of the rarest piety, and of a character fitted to throw a lustre on the purest ages. She was sister to Edgar Athelin, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, who was the son and successor of Ethelred. Edgar was a peculiar favourite of the English, because he was the last of the Saxon line of princes. In the reign of William the Norman, he and his sister found a safe* retreat in Scotland, under the protection of Malcolm, who, by the assistance of Edward the confessor, had recovered the throne of Scotland from the usurper Macbeth. Malcolm married the English princess. Wonderful things are related of her piety, liberality, and humility. Through her influence, the ferocious spirit of her husband received an happy tincture of humanity. She was enabled to reform the kingdom of Scotland in a great degree, and to introduce a more serious regard to the duties of the Lord's day, than had been known in that country. She had by Malcolm six sons and two daughters. Three of her sons reigned successively, and were esteemed excellent monarchs. Her daughter Matilda was wife to Henry I. of England, and was looked on as a pious christian. Margaret had taken uncommon care of hei

1 Alban Butler, vol. v.

children's education, and the fruits of her labours appeared in their lives. Theodoric, her confessor, observes, that she was remarkably attentive in public prayer. " And," says he, " she would discourse with me concerning the sweetness of everlasting life, in such a manner, as to draw tears from my eyes." This same Theodoric, a monk of Durham, wrote her life. She was afflicted with sickness at the very time in which her husband Malcolm was slain at Alnwick in Northumberland, in the time of William Rufus, in 1093. The bitter news was brought to her ears: her reflection upon it was truly christian. " I thank thee, O Lord, that in sending me so great an affliction, thou wouldst purify me from my sins. O Lord Jesus Christ, who by thy death hast given life to the world, deliver me from evil." She survived this event only a few days. A princess of such accomplishments, could not have shone in vain in Scotland; but, most probably, must have led many, in a rude and ignorant age, to think that there is something real in godliness.

California - Do Not Sell My Personal Information  California - CCPA Notice