| Our Island Saints|
|by Amy Steedman|
|Gentle stories of saints who lived their lives of service in the British Isles during the Middle Ages. Includes tales of St. Alban, St. Patrick, St. Bridget, St. Cuthbert, St. Columba, St. Margaret of Scotland, and others. Ages 6-10 |
SAINT EDWARD THE CONFESSOR>
 KING EDWARD of England, the last of the Saxon kings,
sat in his chamber deep in thought and troubled beyond all measure.
It was but a short while ago that he had been living in exile
at the Norman Court, with little hope of returning to his native land,
and now kind fortune had not only called him home
but set him there as King upon the throne.
One would have thought he had been granted more than his heart's desire
and should have been content, but there were troubled lines
on the King's forehead as he sat and thought of those days of exile.
Amidst all the gaiety and wild revels of the Norman Court,
the exiled prince had seemed to live in a world apart
from the pleasure-loving courtiers, with whom he had but little in common.
He was a strange, dreamy boy, and even his appearance
had something dreamlike about it. His soft shining hair
was almost milky white in its fairness,
and the rose pink of his cheeks made that curious whiteness
seem truly dazzling by contrast. He had delicate hands,
with long, thin, transparent fingers, and these hands,
it was whispered, held a magic in their touch
and could stroke away pain and charm away sickness.
While others talked of warlike deeds and boasted of wild adventures,
 his dreams of the saints of old and the good fight
which they had fought. Of all those saints the one he loved the best
was brave, headstrong Saint Peter, so weak at first,
so firm and faithful at last. And next he loved the kind Saint John
with his great loving heart and gentle kindly ways.
These two dream friends were far more real to him
than any of the gay companions among whom he lived,
and it is little wonder that the boy prince
with such friends kept himself pure and unspotted from the world
and earned the title of "Confessor."
The only thing outside his dream life
in which Prince Edward delighted was in the chase.
After long hours spent in church he would gallop off
for days into the forest, hunting and hawking,
no longer a dreamy youth with downcast eyes,
but a keen alert sportsman whose eyes shone with daring and excitement.
It was while hunting one day that his horse stumbled
on the edge of a dangerous cliff, and,
with a swift appeal to his unseen friend,
the Prince called upon Saint Peter to save him.
"Saint Peter," he cried, "save me, and I vow
that I will make a pilgrimage to thy shrine in Rome to mark my gratitude."
The stumbling horse recovered its foothold and Edward rode safely home.
Going straight to church, he knelt there giving thanks
for his safety, and while he was still on his knees
there came a messenger from England bidding him return
and rule over the people as their rightful King.
This good fortune made him more anxious than
 ever to keep the vow he had made that day.
The saint had been his friend and helper in the time of exile,
and now, when fortune smiled upon him,
he longed to show his gratitude the more.
But Edward had soon to learn that a king belongs to his people
and not to himself.
As soon as it was known that the new king
desired to make a pilgrimage to Rome,
the people were dismayed and horrified.
"We cannot allow it," they cried. "A king can only leave his kingdom
with the consent of the Commons, and that consent we will not give."
The wise councillors and advisers also shook their heads.
"The risks are too great," they said. "There are perils by road and sea,
by mountain pass and river, dangers from robbers and armed foes.
Who would venture among those Romans who are such villains,
caring only for the red gold and the white silver?"
So it was that the King was sorely troubled that day
as he sat and thought of all these things.
He had sent messengers to Rome to beg
that he might be pardoned for breaking his vow,
and now he was awaiting their return,
wondering what answer the Pope would send.
Ere long the answer came, and the Pope's message
cheered Edward's heart. Instead of making a pilgrimage to Rome
to do honour to Saint Peter, the King was to show his gratitude
by building or restoring some monastery belonging to Saint Peter,
which should be for ever after under the special protection
of the Kings of England.
 It was a happy way out of the difficulty,
and the King began at once to consider
where the abbey should be built. He was deep in thought one day,
sitting with his head resting on his hand,
his dreamy eyes already seeing visions
of a wonderful minster pointing its spires heavenward,
when a servant entered and told him that a holy man,
a hermit, begged to be allowed speech with the King.
"Bring him hither at once," said Edward; "it is not fit
that a holy man should be kept waiting."
It was very trying to be interrupted when his whole heart
was filled with thoughts of the great plan,
but he put them aside and turned to give a kindly greeting
to the old man, who had perhaps come to ask a boon of his King.
He little guessed that this very interruption
was to bring him the help which he sought.
Very slowly and with trembling steps the old hermit
came into the royal presence. King's palaces were strange abodes
to one who lived in the caves and rocks of the earth.
The green boughs of the trees were the only canopy
which the old man knew; the daisied grass was his carpet,
and for companions he had the squirrels and the birds,
with whom he shared his meal of fruit and roots.
But God had sent His servant with a message
and he was here to deliver it to the King.
The strange city, the bewildering noise,
and the wonderful palace were things
which had nought to do with him.
His one desire was to tell his tale.
The King listened with earnest attention,
for the message was a strange one.
 "Three nights ago," said the hermit, "as I knelt at prayer,
behold there appeared to me in a vision an old man,
bright and beautiful like to a clerk, whom I knew to be Saint Peter.
He bade me tell thee that thou wouldst even now be released from thy vow,
and commanded instead to build an abbey.
The place where thou shouldst build the abbey,
said he, should be on the Isle of Thorns,
two leagues from the city.
There a little chapel of Saint Peter already stands,
and there the great abbey shall be built,
which shall be indeed the Gate of Heaven and the Ladder of Prayer.
As soon as the vision was ended I wrote all the words
down upon this parchment, sealed it with wax,
and now have brought it to your Majesty."
So the spot was chosen on which the fair abbey should be built,
and King Edward gave his whole heart and attention to the great work.
The little Isle of Thorns of which the hermit spoke
had taken its name from the wild forest and thickets
with which it was overgrown. It was also called the "Terrible Place"
in the days when it was the refuge for the wild animals
which came down from the hills around. In those days
it was said that a heathen temple had been built on the island,
and that later, in the time of King Sebert,
it had been turned into a Christian chapel and dedicated to Saint Peter.
Now there was a curious old legend about the dedication
of that little chapel in the midst of the wild thicket of thorns,
and perhaps it helped the dreamy King to decide to build his abbey there.
 The legend tells that in the days of King Sebert,
when the monastery was finished, it was arranged
that on a certain day Mellitus, the first Bishop of London,
should consecrate the chapel. It so happened that,
the night before the consecration,
a fisherman named Edric was casting his nets into the Thames
from the Isle of Thorns when, on the opposite shore,
he saw an old man, who hailed him and asked
that he might be rowed across to the little island.
The old man was dressed in a curious foreign robe
and seemed to be a stranger, but he had a beautiful kindly face,
and Edric willingly did his bidding. Across the dark stream they rowed,
and when the old man landed on the island,
Edric stood watching to see where he would go.
The stranger walked straight to the chapel door,
and as he entered, lo! the whole chapel was flooded
with a blaze of light, so that it stood out fair and shining
without darkness or shadow. Then a host of angels,
swinging their golden censers, began to descend
from above and to ascend, linking earth with heaven,
and the sweet blue breath of the incense trailed in thin clouds
around the brightness of the heavenly torches.
Slowly and solemnly the service of consecration was performed,
while the awe-struck fisherman, forgetting his nets and his fishing,
gazed in wonder at the heavenly vision.
Presently the lights faded, the angels vanished,
and the little chapel was left in darkness once more.
Then the old man came out of the chapel
and greeted the wondering fisherman.
"How many fish hast thou taken?" asked the stranger.
 Edric stammered out that he had caught no fish,
and the old man smiled kindly upon him, seeing his confusion.
"To-morrow thou shalt tell the Bishop Mellitus all thou hast seen,"
he said. "I am Peter, Keeper of the Keys of Heaven,
and I have consecrated my own church of Saint Peter, Westminster.
For thyself, go on with thy fishing, and thou shalt catch
a plentiful supply. This I promise thee on two conditions.
First, that thou shalt no more fish on Sundays;
and secondly, that thou shalt pay a tithe of the salmon
to the abbey of Westminster."
Early next day came the Bishop Mellitus to consecrate the chapel,
as he had arranged, and the first to meet him
was the fisherman Edric, who stood waiting there with a salmon in his hand.
He told his tale, and presented his salmon from Saint Peter,
and then showed the Bishop where the holy water
had been sprinkled, and all the signs of the heavenly consecration.
The Bishop bowed his head in reverence as he listened,
and prepared to return home.
"My services are not needed," he said: "the chapel hath indeed
been consecrated in a better and more saintly fashion
than a hundred such as I could have consecrated it."
In the days of King Edward the Isle of Thorns
was no longer the Terrible Place, for the forest had
been cleared and Saint Peter's chapel stood in the
midst of flowery meadows; but still the fishermen
cast their nets in the river and caught many a silver
salmon, and once a year Saint Peter's fish was carried
 to the monastery in payment of the tithe which Edric had promised.
There were two other legends told of the little chapel
which seem to have made King Edward love the place with a special love.
One story tells how a poor cripple Irishman named Michael
sat one day by the side of the path which led to the chapel,
watching for the King to pass. The kindly King at once
noticed the lame man, and stopped to talk to him.
Michael with piteous earnestness told his tale,
and begged for help. There seemed no cure for his lameness,
although he had made six pilgrimages to Rome,
but at last Saint Peter had promised that he would be cured
if only the King would carry him up to the chapel
upon his own royal shoulders.
The courtiers mocked, and turned their backs on the ragged beggar,
but King Edward, with kind compassionate words,
bent down and lifted the cripple, and carried him up to the chapel,
where he laid him before the altar.
Immediately strength returned to the poor crippled limbs:
the man stood upright, then knelt and thanked God and his King,
and blessed the little chapel of Saint Peter.
The other legend tells of a wonderful vision
sent to bless the eyes of the Confessor in the same chapel,
as he knelt before the altar. Perhaps it was because his heart
was pure and innocent and his faith so strong
that his earthly eyes were opened to see the Christ-Child
Himself standing there "pure and bright like a spirit,"
while a glory shone around.
 It was small wonder, then, that the King was
glad to choose this spot on which to build a great abbey
to the glory of God and Saint Peter. The work was begun at once,
and the King came to live in the palace of Westminster
that he might be near at hand and watch the building.
A tenth part of all the wealth of the kingdom was spent upon the
abbey, and it took fifteen years to build;
but the King grudged neither time nor money
in carrying out this, his heart's desire. Indeed the King had
but little idea of the value of money,
and was sometimes rather a trial to his steward Hugolin,
who had charge of the chest where the royal gold was kept.
Sometimes Hugolin lost all patience
with his royal master, and shook his head over his dreamy ways.
Why, there had been one day when Edward had
actually encouraged a thief to steal his gold!
The money-chest had been left open in the King's room,
and a scullion from the kitchen had come
creeping in thinking the King was asleep.
Edward had watched the thief help himself three times to the gold,
and then had warned him to make
haste and get away before Hugolin should return.
"He will not leave you even a halfpenny," cried
the King, "so be quick."
The words only added to the scullion's terror, as he
gazed upon the white-haired King who was watching him so intently.
He fled from the room, glad to take the King's advice
and to escape before the steward's return.
 "Your Majesty has allowed yourself to be robbed,"
said Hugolin reproachfully, when he saw the empty chest
and heard the King's story.
"The thief hath more need of it than we," said his master;
"enough treasure hath King Edward."
The King's treasure was indeed spent lavishly
upon the building of the great abbey,
and soon it began to rise from its foundations like a flower,
growing in beauty and stateliness year by year,
while the dreamy King watched over it,
and added every beauty that his fancy could devise.
Rough grey stone was cut and sculptured into exquisite shapes
and designs; the daylight, as it streamed through
the rich stained glass of the windows,
was turned as if by magic into shafts of purest colour—purple,
crimson, and blue. Fair as a dream the abbey stood finished at last,
built by a dweller in dreamland, but solid and firm as a rock
upon its foundations, and as firmly to be fixed in the hearts
of the English people, while they ever weave around it
their dreams of all that is great and good—the honour
and glory of England.
The King's life was drawing to a close
just as the great abbey was completed,
and Edward knew that this was so. All his life
he had relied greatly on warnings and visions,
and now strange tales were told of how the end had been foretold.
It was said that as the King was on his way
to the dedication of a chapel to Saint John,
he was met by a beggar who asked alms of him.
"I pray thee help me, for the love of Saint John," cried the beggar.
 Now the King could not refuse such a request,
for he loved Saint John greatly. But he had no money
with him and Hugolin was not at hand, so he drew off
from his finger a large ring, royal and beautiful,
and gave it with a kindly smile to the poor beggar.
Not very long afterwards, the legend tells us,
two English pilgrims far away in Syria lost their way,
and wandered about in darkness and amidst great dangers,
not knowing which road led to safety. They were almost in despair,
when suddenly a light shone across their path,
and in the light they saw an old man with bowed white head
and a face of wonderful beauty.
"Whence do ye come?" asked the old man,
"and what is the name of your country and your King?"
"We are pilgrims from England," replied the wanderers,
"and our King is the saintly Edward, whom men call the Confessor."
Then the old man smiled joyously, and led them on their way
until they came to an inn.
"Know ye who I am?" he asked. "I am Saint John, the friend of Edward
your King. This ring which he gave for love of me,
ye shall bear back to him, and tell him that in six months
we shall meet together in Paradise."
So the pilgrims took the ring and carried it safely
over land and sea until they reached the King's palace,
when they gave it back into the royal hand
and delivered the message from Saint John.
It was midwinter when the abbey was ready for consecration.
The river ran dark and silent
 as on that long-ago night when the fisherman rowed Saint Peter
across to the little chapel and the angels came to sing the service.
Now all that earthly hands could do was done,
and the greatest in the land were gathered there
to be present at the consecration of Saint Peter's abbey.
Only the King was absent. He who had dreamed the fair dream
and wrought it out in solid stone and fairest ornament,
was lying sick unto death while the seal was set upon his work.
For a few days he lingered on, and then from the land of dreams
he passed to the great Reality, and the old chronicles
add the comforting words: "Saint Peter, his friend,
opened the gate of Paradise, and Saint John, his own dear one,
led him before the Divine Majesty."
They laid the King to rest in the centre of his beautiful abbey,
and, ever since, our land has held no greater honour
for her heroes than to let them sleep by the resting-place
of the saintly King.
All honour to those who, through the might of sword or pen,
by courage or learning, have won a place within Saint Peter's
abbey of Westminster! But for the simple of the earth
it is good to remember, that he who was first laid there
won his place not by great deeds of courage
or gifts of wondrous learning, but by the simple faith that was in him,
the kindly thought for those who were poor and needed his help,
the loving-kindness which even a child may win,
though he miss a hero's grave in the King's abbey.
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