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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 3: Landlord Edmund

Some three centuries or so had elapsed since Beodric’s-worth [1] became St. Edmund’s Stow, St. Edmund’s Town and Monastery, before Jocelin entered himself a Novice there. ‘It was,’ says he, ‘the year after the Flemings were defeated at Fornham St. Genevieve.’

Much passes away into oblivion: this glorious victory over the Flemings at Fornham has, at the present date, greatly dimmed itself out of the minds of men. A victory and battle nevertheless it was, in its time: some thrice-renowned Earl of Leicester, not of the De Montfort breed, (as may be read in Philosophical and other Histories, could any human memory retain such things,) had quarrelled with his sovereign, Henry Second of the name; had been worsted, it is like, and maltreated, and obliged to fly to foreign parts; but had rallied there into new vigour; and so, in the year 1173, returns across the German Sea with a vengeful army of Flemings. Returns, to the coast of Suffolk; to Framlingham Castle, where he is welcomed; westward towards St. Edmundsbury and Fornham Church, where he is met by the constituted authorities with posse comitatus; and swiftly cut in pieces, he and his, or laid by the heels; on the right bank of the obscure river Lark, -- as traces still existing will verify.

For the river Lark, though not very discoverably, still runs or stagnates in that country; and the battle-ground is there; serving at present as a pleasure-ground to his Grace of Newcastle. Copper pennies of Henry II are still found there; -- rotted out from the pouches of poor slain soldiers, who had not had time to buy liquor with them. In the river Lark itself was fished up, within man’s memory, an antique gold ring; which fond Dilettantism can almost believe may have been the very ring Countess Leicester threw away, in her flight, into that same Lark river or ditch. [2] Nay, few years ago, in tearing out an enormous superannuated ash-tree, now grown quite corpulent, bursten, superfluous, but long a fixture in the soil, and not to be dislodged without revolution, -- there was laid bare, under its roots, ‘a circular mound of skeletons wonderfully complete,’ all radiating from a centre, faces upwards, feet inwards; a ‘radiation’ not of Light, but of the Nether Darkness rather; and evidently the fruit of battle; for ‘many of the heads were cleft, or had arrow-holes in them.’ The Battle of Fornham, therefore, is a fact, though a forgotten one; no less obscure than undeniable, -- like so many other facts.

Like the St. Edmund’s Monastery itself! Who can doubt, after what we have said, that there was a Monastery here at one time? No doubt at all there was a Monastery here; no doubt, some three centuries prior to this Fornham Battle, there dwelt a man in these parts, of the name of Edmund, King, Landlord, Duke or whatever his title was, of the Eastern Counties; -- and a very singular man and landlord he must have been.

For his tenants, it would appear, did not complain of him in the least; his labourers did not think of burning his wheatstacks, breaking into his game-preserves; very far the reverse of all that. Clear evidence, satisfactory even to my friend Dryasdust, exists that, on the contrary, they honoured, loved, admired this ancient Landlord to a quite astonishing degree, -- and indeed at last to an immeasurable and inexpressible degree; for, finding no limits or utterable words for their sense of his worth, they took to beatifying and adoring him! ‘Infinite admiration,’ we are taught, ‘means worship.’

Very singular, -- could we discover it! What Edmund’s specific duties were; above all, what his method of discharging them with such results was, would surely be interesting to know; but are not very discoverable now. His Life has become a poetic, nay a religious Mythus; though, undeniably enough, it was once a prose Fact, as our poor lives are; and even a very rugged unmanageable one. This landlord Edmund did go about in leather shoes, with femoralia and bodycoat of some sort on him; and daily had his breakfast to procure; and daily had contradictory speeches, and most contradictory facts not a few, to reconcile with himself. No man becomes a Saint in his sleep. Edmund, for instance, instead of reconciling those same contradictory facts and speeches to himself; which means subduing, and, in a manlike and godlike manner, conquering them to himself, -- might have merely thrown new contention into them, new unwisdom into them, and so been conquered by them; much the commoner case! In that way he had proved no ‘Saint,’ or Divine-looking Man, but a mere Sinner, and unfortunate, blameable, more or less Diabolic-looking man! No landlord Edmund becomes infinitely admirable in his sleep.

With what degree of wholesome rigour his rents were collected we hear not. Still less by what methods he preserved his game, whether by ‘bushing’ or how, -- and if the partridge-seasons were ‘excellent,’ or were indifferent. Neither do we ascertain what kind of Corn-bill he passed, or wisely-adjusted Sliding-scale: -- but indeed there were few spinners in those days; and the nuisance of spinning, and other dusty labour, was not yet so glaring a one.

How then, it may be asked, did this Edmund rise into favour; become to such astonishing extent a recognised Farmer’s Friend? Really, except it were by doing justly and loving mercy, to an unprecedented extent, one does not know. The man, it would seem, ‘had walked,’ as they say, ‘humbly with God;’ humbly and valiantly with God; struggling to make the Earth heavenly, as he could; instead of walking sumptuously and pridefully with Mammon, leaving the Earth to grow hellish as it liked. Not sumptuously with Mammon? How then could he ‘encourage trade,’ -- cause Howel and James, and many wine-merchants to bless him, and the tailor’s heart (though in a very short-sighted manner) to sing for joy? Much in this Edmund’s Life is mysterious.

That he could, on occasion, do what he liked with his own is, meanwhile, evident enough. Certain Heathen Physical-Force Ultra-Chartists, ‘Danes’ as they were then called, coming into his territory with their ‘five points,’ or rather with their five-and-twenty thousand points and edges too, of pikes namely and battle-axes; and proposing mere Heathenism, confiscation, spoliation, and fire and sword, -- Edmund answered that he would oppose to the utmost such savagery. They took him prisoner; again required his sanction to said proposals. Edmund again refused. Cannot we kill you? cried they. -- Cannot I die? answered he. My life, I think, is my own to do what I like with! And he died, under barbarous tortures, refusing to the last breath; and the Ultra-Chartist Danes lost their propositions; -- and went with their ‘points’ and other apparatus, as is supposed, to the Devil; the Father of them. Some say, indeed, these Danes were not Ultra-Chartists, but Ultra-Tories, demanding to reap where they had not sown, and live in this world without working, though all the world should starve for it; which likewise seems a possible hypothesis. Be what they might, they went, as we say, to the Devil: and Edmund doing what he liked with his own, the Earth was got cleared of them.

Another version is, that Edmund on this and the like occasions stood by his order; the oldest, and indeed only true order of Nobility known under the stars, that of Just Men and Sons of God, in opposition to Unjust and Sons of Belial, -- which latter indeed are second-oldest, but yet a very unvenerable order. This, truly, seems the likeliest hypothesis of all. Names and appearances alter so strangely, in some half-score centuries; and all fluctuates chameleon-like, taking now this hue, now that. Thus much is very plain, and does not change hue: Landlord Edmund was seen and felt by all men to have done verily a man’s part in this life-pilgrimage of his; and benedictions, and outflowing love and admiration from the universal heart, were his meed. Well-done! Well-done! cried the hearts of all men. They raised his slain and martyred body; washed its wounds with fast-flowing universal tears; tears of endless pity, and yet of a sacred joy and triumph. The beautifullest kind of tears, -- indeed perhaps the beautifullest kind of thing: like a sky all flashing diamonds and prismatic radiance; all weeping, yet shone on by the everlasting Sun: -- and this is not a sky, it is a Soul and living Face! Nothing liker the Temple of the Highest, bright with some real effulgence of the Highest, is seen in this world.

O, if all Yankee-land follow a small good ‘Schnüspel the distinguished Novelist’ with blazing torches, dinner-invitations, universal hep-hep-hurrah, feeling that he, though small, is something; how might all Angle-land once follow a hero-martyr and great true Son of Heaven! It is the very joy of man’s heart to admire, where he can; nothing so lifts him from all his mean imprisonments, were it but for moments, as true admiration. Thus it has been said, ‘all men, especially all women, are born worshippers;’ and will worship, if it be but possible. Possible to worship a Something, even a small one; not so possible a mere loud-blaring Nothing! What sight is more pathetic than that of poor multitudes of persons met to gaze at King’s Progresses, Lord Mayor’s Shews, and other gilt-gingerbread phenomena of the worshipful sort, in these times; each so eager to worship; each, with a dim fatal sense of disappointment, finding that he cannot rightly here! These be thy gods, O Israel? And thou art so willing to worship, -- poor Israel!

In this manner, however, did the men of the Eastern Counties take up the slain body of their Edmund, where it lay cast forth in the village of Hoxne; seek out the severed head, and reverently reunite the same. They embalmed him with myrrh and sweet spices, with love, pity, and all high and awful thoughts; consecrating him with a very storm of melodious adoring admiration, and sun-dyed showers of tears; -- joyfully, yet with awe (as all deep joy has something of the awful in it), commemorating his noble deeds and godlike walk and conversation while on Earth. Till, at length, the very Pope and Cardinals at Rome were forced to hear of it; and they, summing up as correctly as they well could, with Advocatus-Diaboli [Devil's Advocate] pleadings and their other forms of process, the general verdict of mankind, declared: That he had, in very fact, led a hero’s life in this world; and being now gone, was gone as they conceived to God above, and reaping his reward there. Such, they said, was the best judgment they could form of the case; -- and truly not a bad judgment. Acquiesced in, zealously adopted, with full assent of ‘private judgment,’ by all mortals.

The rest of St. Edmund’s history, for the reader sees he has now become a Saint, is easily conceivable. Pious munificence provided him a loculus, a feretrum or shrine; built for him a wooden chapel, a stone temple, ever widening and growing by new pious gifts; -- such the overflowing heart feels it a blessedness to solace itself by giving. St. Edmund’s Shrine glitters now with diamond flowerages, with a plating of wrought gold. The wooden chapel, as we say, has become a stone temple. Stately masonries, long-drawn arches, cloisters, sounding aisles buttress it, begirdle it far and wide. Regimented companies of men, of whom our Jocelin is one, devote themselves, in every generation, to meditate here on man’s Nobleness and Awfulness, and celebrate and shew forth the same, as they best can, -- thinking they will do it better here, in presence of God the Maker, and of the so Awful and so Noble made by Him. In one word, St. Edmund’s Body has raised a Monastery round it. To such length, in such manner, has the Spirit of the Time visibly taken body, and crystallised itself here. New gifts, houses, farms, katalla [3] -- come ever in. King Knut, whom men call Canute, whom the Ocean-tide would not be forbidden to wet, -- we heard already of this wise King, with his crown and gifts; but of many others, Kings, Queens, wise men and noble loyal women, let Dryasdust and divine Silence be the record! Beodric’s-Worth has become St. Edmund’s Bury; -- and lasts visible to this hour. All this that thou now seest, and namest Bury Town, is properly the Funeral Monument of Saint or Landlord Edmund. The present respectable Mayor of Bury may be said, like a Fakeer (little as he thinks of it), to have his dwelling in the extensive, many-sculptured Tombstone of St. Edmund; in one of the brick niches thereof dwells the present respectable Mayor of Bury.

Certain Times do crystallise themselves in a magnificent manner; and others, perhaps, are like to do it in rather a shabby one! -- But Richard Arkwright too will have his Monument, a thousand years hence: all Lancashire and Yorkshire, and how many other shires and countries, with their machineries and industries, for his monument! A true pyramid or ‘flame-mountain,’ flaming with steam fires and useful labour over wide continents, usefully towards the Stars, to a certain height; -- how much grander than your foolish Cheops Pyramids or Sakhara clay ones! Let us withal be hopeful, be content or patient.

[1] Dryasdust puzzles and pokes for some biography of this Beodric; and repugns to consider him a mere East-Anglian Person of Condition, not in need of a biography, -- whose weord, weorth or worth, that is to say, Growth, Increase, or as we should now name it, Estate, that same Hamlet and wood Mansion, now St. Edmund’s Bury, originally was. For, adds our erudite Friend, the Saxon weorthan equivalent to the German werden, means to grow, to become; traces of which old vocable are still found in the North-country dialects, as, ‘What is word of him?’ meaning ‘What is become of him?’ and the like. Nay we in modern English still say, ‘Wo worth the hour.’ (Wo befal the hour), and speak of the ‘Weird Sisters;’ not to mention the innumerable other names of places still ending in weorth or worth. And indeed, our common noun worth, in the sense of value, does not this mean simply, What a thing has grown to, What a man has grown to, How much he amounts to, -- by the Threadneedle-street standard or another![back]

[2] Lyttelton’s History of Henry II. (2nd Edition), v. 169, &c. [back]

[3] Goods, properties; what we now call chattels, and still more singularly cattle, says my erudite friend! [back]

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