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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 14: Henry of Essex

Of St. Edmund’s fearful avengements have they not the remarkablest instance still before their eyes? He that will go to Reading Monastery may find there, now tonsured into a mournful penitent Monk, the once proud Henry Earl of Essex; and discern how St. Edmund punishes terribly, yet with mercy! This Narrative is too significant to be omitted as a document of the Time. Our Lord Abbot, once on a visit at Reading, heard the particulars from Henry’s own mouth; and thereupon charged one of his monks to write it down; -- as accordingly the Monk has done, in ambitious rhetorical Latin; inserting the same, as episode, among Jocelin’s garrulous leaves. Read it here; with ancient yet with modern eyes.

Henry Earl of Essex, standard-bearer of England, had high places and emoluments; had a haughty high soul, yet with various flaws, or rather with one many-branched flaw and crack, running through the texture of it. For example, did he not treat Gilbert de Cereville in the most shocking manner? He cast Gilbert into prison; and, with chains and slow torments, wore the life out of him there. And Gilbert’s crime was understood to be only that of innocent Joseph: the Lady Essex was a Potiphar’s Wife, and had accused poor Gilbert! Other cracks, and branches of that widespread flaw in the Standard-bearer’s soul we could point out; but indeed the main stem and trunk of all is too visible in this, That he had no right reverence for the Heavenly in Man, -- that far from shewing due reverence to St. Edmund, he did not even shew him common justice. While others in the Eastern Counties were adorning and enlarging with rich gifts St. Edmund’s resting place, which had become a city of refuge for many things, this Earl of Essex flatly defrauded him, by violence or quirk of law, of five shillings yearly, and converted said sum to his own poor uses! Nay, in another case of litigation, the unjust Standard-bearer, for his own profit, asserting that the cause belonged not to St. Edmund’s Court, but to his in Lailand Hundred, ‘involved us in travellings and innumerable expenses, vexing the ‘servants of St. Edmund for a long tract of time.’ In short he is without reverence for the Heavenly, this Standard-bearer; reveres only the Earthly, Gold-coined; and has a most morbid lamentable flaw in the texture of him. It cannot come to good.

Accordingly, the same flaw, or St.-Vitus’ tic, manifests itself ere long in another way. In the year 1157, he went with his Standard to attend King Henry, our blessed Sovereign (whom we saw afterwards at Waltham), in his War with the Welsh. A somewhat disastrous War; in which while King Henry and his force were struggling to retreat Parthian-like, endless clouds of exasperated Welshmen hemming them in, and now we had come to the ‘difficult pass of Coleshill,’ and as it were to the nick of destruction, -- Henry Earl of Essex shrieks out on a sudden (blinded doubtless by his inner flaw, or ‘evil genius’ as some name it), That King Henry is killed, That all is lost, -- and flings down his Standard to shift for itself there! And, certainly enough, all had been lost, had all men been as he; -- had not brave men, without such miserable jerking tic douloureux in the souls of them, come dashing up, with blazing swords and looks, and asserted That nothing was lost yet, that all must be regained yet. In this manner King Henry and his force got safely retreated, Parthian-like, from the pass of Coleshill and the Welsh War [see Lyttelton’s Henry II., ii. 384]. But, once home again, Earl Robert de Montfort, a kinsman of this Standard-bearer’s, rises up in the King’s Assembly to declare openly that such a man is unfit for bearing English Standards, being in fact either a special traitor, or something almost worse, a coward namely, or universal traitor. Wager of Battle in consequence; solemn Duel, by the King’s appointment, ‘in a ‘certain Island of the Thames-stream at Reading, apud Radingas, ‘short way from the Abbey there.’ King, Peers, and an immense multitude of people, on such scaffoldings and heights as they can come at, are gathered round, to see what issue the business will take. The business takes this bad issue, in our Monk’s own words, faithfully rendered:

‘And it came to pass, while Robert de Montfort thundered on him manfully (viriliter intonâsset) with hard and frequent strokes, and a valiant beginning promised the fruit of victory, Henry of Essex, rather giving way, glanced round on all sides; and lo, at the rim of the horizon, on the confines of the River and land, he discerned the glorious King and Martyr Edmund, in shining armour, and as if hovering in the air; looking towards him with severe countenance, nodding his head with a mien and motion of austere anger. At St. Edmund’s hand there stood also another Knight, Gilbert de Cereville, whose armour was not so splendid, whose stature was less gigantic; casting vengeful looks at him. This he seeing with his eyes, remembered that old crime brings new shame. And now wholly desperate, and changing reason into violence, he took the part of one blindly attacking, not skilfully defending. Who while he struck fiercely was more fiercely struck; and so, in short, fell down vanquished, and it was thought, slain. As he lay there for dead, his kinsmen, Magnates of England, besought the King, that the Monks of Reading might have leave to bury him. However, he proved not to be dead, but got well again among them; and now, with recovered health, assuming the Regular Habit, he strove to wipe out the stain of his former life, to cleanse the long week of his dissolute history by at least a purifying sabbath, and cultivate the studies of Virtue into fruits of eternal Felicity.’ [Jocelini Chronici, p. 52].

Thus does the Conscience of man project itself athwart whatsoever of knowledge or surmise, of imagination, understanding, faculty, acquirement, or natural disposition he has in him: and, like light through coloured glass, paint strange pictures ‘on the rim of the horizon’ and elsewhere! Truly, this same ‘sense of the Infinite nature of Duty’ is the central part of all with us; a ray as of Eternity and Immortality, immured in dusky many-coloured Time, and its deaths and births. Your ‘coloured glass’ varies so much from century to century; -- and, in certain money-making, game-preserving centuries, it gets so terribly opaque! Not a Heaven with cherubim surrounds you then, but a kind of vacant leaden-coloured Hell. One day it will again cease to be opaque, this ‘coloured glass.’ Nay, may it not become at once translucent and uncoloured? Painting no Pictures more for us, but only the everlasting Azure itself? That will be a right glorious consummation! --

Saint Edmund from the horizon’s edge, in shining armour, threatening the misdoer in his hour of extreme need: it is beautiful, it is great and true. So old, yet so modern, actual; true yet for every one of us, as for Henry the Earl and Monk! A glimpse as of the Deepest in Man’s Destiny, which is the same for all times and ages. Yes, Henry my brother, there in thy extreme need, thy soul is lamed; and behold thou canst not so much as fight! For Justice and Reverence are the everlasting central Law of this Universe; and to forget them, and have all the Universe against one, God and one’s own Self for enemies, and only the Devil and the Dragons for friends, is not that a ‘lameness’ like few? That some shining armed St. Edmund hang minatory on thy horizon, that infinite sulphur-lakes hang minatory, or do not now hang, -- this alters no whit the eternal fact of the thing. I say, thy soul is lamed, and the God and all Godlike in it marred: lamed, paralytic, tending towards baleful eternal death, whether thou know it or not; -- nay hadst thou never known it, that surely had been worst of all! --

Thus, at any rate, by the heavenly Awe that overshadows earthly Business, does Samson, readily in those days, save St. Edmund’s Shrine, and innumerable still more precious things.

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