| Our Island Story|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|A child's history of England from earliest legendary times delightfully retold. Beginning with the stories of Albion and Brutus, it relates all the interesting legends and hero tales in which the history of England abounds through the end of the reign of Queen Victoria. Ages 9-12 |
THE STORY OF GREGORY AND THE PRETTY CHILDREN
 YOU remember that the Romans came to Britain and, in a
manner, conquered it. But after staying several hundred
years, they again went away. When the Romans came to the
island, the people who lived there were Britons. When the
Romans left the island, the people who lived there were
still Britons. The Romans could not make the Britons Romans,
however hard they tried. They could not even make them speak
Latin, which was the language of the Romans. The Britons
learned many things from the Romans, but in spite of all
they learned, they never forgot that they were Britons.
When the Saxons came to Britain, things happened very
differently. You remember that first of all Vortigern asked
the Saxons to come, and that afterwards every British king
fought against them and tried to drive them away.
It seemed sometimes as if the Britons might succeed, but it
never seemed so for long. In fact, from the day Hengist and
Horsa landed, Britain had never really been free from these
fierce heathen people. As time went on, they came in greater
and greater numbers from over the sea. They were all Saxons,
but there were many different tribes of them, some called
Jutes, some Angles, and some by other names.
 The Britons fought nobly for their country, but all in vain.
However many of the Saxons were killed did not seem to
matter, for their ships always brought more and more of them
from over the sea. At last the Saxons had killed nearly all
the Britons, and the few who remained took refuge in the
mountains, in that part of the country which we now call
Wales, and in Cornwall. So to this day the men of Cornwall
and the Welsh are the descendants of the ancient Britons,
and the language they speak is very like the language spoken
by the ancient Britons.
I want you to understand that the kings and people of whom
you are now going to read are not British but Saxon, the new
people from over the sea who had gradually taken possession
of the whole of the south of Britain. There were other
British kings after Arthur, but as nearly all their time was
taken up with fighting against the Saxons, the story of
their lives is not very interesting.
These wild Saxons did not at once settle down quietly into
one kingdom. No, they had many leaders, and each leader
seized a part of Britain for himself and his followers, so
there arose seven different kingdoms. And although they were
really all one race of people, and spoke almost the same
language, they were always fighting with each other. This
lasted until Egbert, one of the kings of one of the seven
kingdoms, succeeded in making the others own him as a kind
of over-lord. He was an Angle, and he changed the name of
the country from Britain to Angleland or England. So we may
say that he was the first king of England.
The Saxons were heathen as you know, and they pulled down
the churches and killed the Christian priests. So all the
land became heathen again. Only in the wild
 mountains of
Wales, the teaching of Arthur and his Christian knights was
But once again the story of Christ was brought to Britain,
and you shall now hear how it happened.
In those days slavery was allowed, that is, people used to
buy and sell men and women, and little boys and girls, just
as if they were cattle.
The merchants who came to trade with Britain used to take
away slaves to sell in far-off countries. One day a good man
called Gregory was walking through the market-place in Rome.
It was market day and the square was crowded with people
buying and selling. It was very noisy and gay. Fine
gentlemen strolled about, careful housewives went from stall
to stall trying to find what was cheapest and best, friends
met and chatted, and through all the noise and bustle
Gregory walked with his head bent, deep in thought.
Suddenly he stood still. He had been awakened from his dream
by the sound of children's voices, and now he stopped to
watch them, as they laughed and played together. These
children had fair faces and rosy cheeks, their eyes were
merry and blue, and their hair shone like gold in the
sunshine. Gregory thought they were the prettiest children
that he had ever seen.
A very tender look came into Gregory's eyes as he stood and
watched them playing. Then he sighed, for he saw by the
chains round their necks that they were to be sold as slaves.
"Poor children," he said, "so far from home!" He knew they
must come from some far-off country because all the people
in his own land had dark faces and black hair.
"Where do these children come from?" he asked, turning to
the man who had charge of them.
 "From the island called Britain," replied the man, "but the
people are called Angles."
"Angles," said Gregory, as he gently put his hand on their
curly heads, "nay, not Angles but angels they should be
The children could not understand what Gregory said, but
they knew from his voice that it was something kind. They
ceased their play, and stood round him, looking up
trustingly into his face, with their big blue eyes.
Gregory stroked their curly heads, and as he bent over them
he felt love for the pretty fair-haired children grow in his
heart. He asked many question about them, and when he heard
that they were heathen, he made up his mind to buy them and
teach them to be Christians.
Gregory took the pretty children home with him. He was very
kind to them, and taught them how to grow up into good men
and women. They loved him, you may be sure, and he loved
them so much, that he made up his mind to go to Britain to
teach all their brothers and sisters there to be Christians
But the people of his own land were so fond of Gregory that
they would not let him go. So, although it was a great
sorrow to him, he was obliged to give up his plan.
But Gregory did not forget about it. Some years after this
he was made Bishop of Rome, and so became a very powerful
and important person. And one of the first things he did
after he became powerful was to send a good man called
Augustine to preach about Christ to the Angles.
Augustine took about forty other good men with him, and set
out for Britain. We are not told if the pretty children,
whom Gregory had bought in the Roman market-place so many
years before, were among these
 men, but I think very likely
they were. They would be so glad to go back to their own
country to teach their brothers and sisters all the good
things they had learned from Gregory.
It is a long way from Italy to England, and in those days
when there were no trains and travelling was both difficult
and dangerous, it seemed very long indeed. But after many
adventures Augustine and his men arrived safely on the
seashore of France. There they had to wait for a ship to
take them across to Britain, or England as we must now call
While they waited, Augustine and his men heard such stories
about the fierceness of the Angles and the Saxons that they
were frightened. They were so frightened that they turned
back to Rome.
When Gregory heard that they had returned he was very angry.
"I am ashamed that you should be so cowardly," he said to
Augustine. "Go back again. If the people of England kill
you, you die for others, even as Christ did."
So Augustine set out again. This time he reached England.
Although the Saxons were fierce and lawless, they treated
Augustine and his followers very kindly. Ethelbert, who was
King of Kent, one of the seven kingdoms into which England
was divided, was the first to listen to them. He was a
heathen, but he had married a Christian lady, and so had
already heard something of the story of Christ. Soon he and
all his people were baptized.
Augustine does not seem to have had any difficulty in
persuading the Saxons to leave off worshipping idols. One
would think that the heathen priests at least would have
been very angry, and that they would have tried to stop the
teaching of this new religion. But they did not.
 A story is told of a priest whose name was Coifi. He sat one
day among the people listening very attentively to the story
of God and Christ. When the preacher had finished speaking
there was a great silence. This new religion seemed to the
people to be very beautiful, but they were so accustomed to
believing that their idols had power to punish them, if they
neglected them or disobeyed them, that they were afraid.
Then Coifi rose. "No one," he said, "has ever served the old
gods more faithfully than I have. I have tried to believe in
them all my life, yet they have never done anything to make
me better or happier. This new teaching seems to me to be
good. Let us destroy our old gods and turn to the teaching
Then while the astonished people looked on in fear, Coifi
took a spear in his hand, mounted upon a horse, and riding
at full speed knocked over the great idol which for so many
years he had worshipped as God.
When the people saw their god fallen and broken, they
trembled. They felt sure something dreadful would happen to
Coifi for his wickedness. But nothing happened. So, taking
heart and following the example of Coifi, the people set
fire to their temple, which was soon burned to the ground,
and the idols with it. Then all the people were baptized and
In time Augustine or his followers went through all the
seven kingdoms of England. It took a long time, but at last
the whole land became Christian, although of course the
people did not learn all at once to live as good Christians
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