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lights, where was displayed the shrine of the coffined saint, plated with solid silver and burnished gold, and sparkling with rare gems. High dignitaries of the church, in vestments heavy with gold and jewels, knelt around the shrine; white-robed boys swung golden censers of smoking perfume, that filled the vast church with its oppressive fragrance; and black-robed monks bent their tonsured heads before the shrine, chanting litanies and anthems. Around the high altar, the blaze of numerous tapers shed a brilliant light.
Farther down the church, the cold rays of the November sun struggled through the painted windows, and, warmed by the rich coloring, threw a soft rosy glow on the worshipping throng in nave and aisles.
Among the multitude that thronged the churchyard, and poured in at the church doors, were many clad in pilgrims' weeds, – the long cloak reaching nearly to the ground, and the hood drawn closely over the head, showing little of the face. These men pressed steadily towards the church, loitering never, and turning neither to right nor left. Solemn, earnest men were they, speaking to no one, and paying no heed to the jesting banter of the idlers or the frequent call from the booths of “What do you lack ?”
“By the mass !” said a gray old archer, who had served in Palestine, and who now leaned against the trunk of a stately yew-tree in the churchyard, scanning the appearance of all who entered the church, — “by the mass ! but it seemeth strange to me that so many pilgrims have boots of mail beneath the palmer's robe. And, if I mistake not, I saw a sword-hilt push from the cloak of yon pilgrim. By my fay!” he muttered to himself, as the pilgrim turned towards him, “but it is the Earl Fitzwalter himself, — the banished lord whose daughter, they say, the king poisoned. And there goes the brave De Ros; what does he do out of his cloister, with a sword once more hanging at his left hip? What! the great Percy too, and Gilbert de Clare? That bodes ill for King Lackland !”
The nobles the old archer had mentioned, drawing their palmers' robes closely around them, threaded their way through the crowd, and entered the church together, others like them following their footsteps. In the darkest part of the great church they knelt side by side, joined from time to time by others, until a goodly number had assembled.
The priests at the altar were celebrating high maşs, and Cardinal Langton himself, the chief prelate of all England, was the principal celebrant. A tall, stately man, in his gorgeous robes, rich in color, bordered heavily with gold, and sparkling with costly gems, he stood on the steps of the altar, the grandest and most dignified figure in the vast crowd that filled the building. The poor reverenced him, for he was bountiful to those in need. The yeomanry loved him, for he was a Saxon like themselves, and was proud of his birth. The Anglo-Norman barons respected and feared him; for he had defied the king himself, had flung the curses of the Church at the tyrant, and had given shape and purpose to the disaffection of the barons to the king.
The solemn chant of the monks ceased to reverberate among the lofty arches ; the stillness that followed, broken only by the tinkle of the bell that
bowed every head still lower, was in turn succeeded by a triumphant burst of sacred song; and that too died away as the stately form of Cardinal Langton, standing on the highest step of the altar, turned towards the expectant throng. Raising his right hand slowly, and turning his eyes to the far end of the building, he said, “In the name of God and Holy Church, you that would swear to maintain the laws and liberties of the people and of Holy Church come forward ! ”
There was a stir and bustle in the crowd at these words, few amid the throng knowing what they meant. At the summons the cloaked pilgrims rose in a body, their mantles were cast aside, and two by two they marched, armed and mailed warriors, through the kneeling crowd that parted to give them passage, up to the front of the altar. Then Robert Fitzwalter, tall, dark, and stern, stepped up to the shrine of St. Edmund, and lifting his cross-hilted sword in one hand, whilst the other was laid on a copy of the Holy Evangels, spread on the silver and golden shrine of the saint, he repeated, after the Cardinal Archbishop, a solemn oath, that, should King John refuse to grant the rights the barons claimed, he would renounce his faith to the king, and join the other barons in making war upon the perjured monarch. Solemn and impressive was the oath; and Fitzwalter, as he swore vengeance on the faithless king, thought of Baynard's castle in fames, his fair daughter Maud lying dead by the king's work, and himself a banished man.
Then came Robert de Ros, bold and fearless, who, wearied with the world, had retired to a monastery, abandoning wealth and power, but who had again put on armor and grasped his sword to strike a blow at tyranny and oppression. Robert de Percy, Gilbert de Clare, Geoffrey de Mandeville, and many another powerful baron and famous warrior laid his hand on the shrine, and took the dread oath. Then the Archbishop, raising his hands, blessed the confederated barons and the cause in which they had embarked, and bade them all assemble again on the Feast of the Nativity, about one month distant. The kneeling worshippers rose and streamed out of the church, to carry over all the land the news of the strange scene they had witnessed, setting all men wondering what was to come of it.
Nearly six months after the meeting at St. Edmund's Bury, on a moonlight night in May, the road leading from Bedford to London was occupied by a large army, moving rapidly, and with the least possible noise, towards the capital. The moonlight glanced on steel spear-heads and on burnished shields. The night breeze lazily ruffled the silken pennons bearing the devices of the chief barons of England. Along the narrow causeway, flanked on either side by soft ground that in wet weather became a quagmire of mud, rode the nobles, at the head of their retainers on foot and horse. In advance of all rode Robert Fitzwalter, the leader of the “Army of God and of Holy Church,” which had set out with the purpose of curbing tyranny and restoring the supremacy of the old Saxon laws that recognized the rights of the people.
The half-year since the meeting in St. Edmund's Bury Church had been an VOL. IV. – NO. VI.
eventful one. The king, deserted by his nobles, fled to London, and shut himself up in a strong castle. Thither the leading barons followed, and obtained an interview, in which, after a furious altercation, a meeting was agreed on for Easter day. Before that time came, King John sought aid from Rome, paying a heavy fine for the purpose. The Pope issued letters forbidding Cardinal Langton's interference in affairs of state, and desiring the barons to return to their allegiance. Langton declared that, cardinal of Rome though he were, he was a Saxon Englishman, and neither king nor pope should prevent his standing firmly by the old Saxon principle of freedom from oppression. The barons laughed at the request of the Pope, and swore never to stop, never to falter, until their claims were granted.
The bright round moon, rising above the trees, through whose quivering foliage the broken rays flecked the road with patches of light and spots of shade, passed above the tiny cloudlets, shining like bits of silver, up into the pale blue sky, where its flood of soft light dimmed the twinkling stars. With brisk clatter of hoof, with clank of armor, with jingle of weapons, with heavy tramp of footmen, with low-voiced talk and hurried command, the Army of God and of Holy Church pressed on towards London, where the king kept his state.
The pale, round moon passed down the sky, and hid itself behind fleecy clouds. The stars shone brighter for a while, and then paled one by one, all but the one bright star of morning, that glowed like a spark of fire. The roadside trees grew weird and shadowy as the light grew dim, and whispered to one another as a cool breeze came softly over Epping Forest. With steady prance of hoof, with rattle of shields, with jangle of heavy swords against iron armor, with weary tramp of bowmen and spearmen marching on foot and lifting their caps that the cool breeze might fan their heated brows, with here and there an occasional word of impatience at the length of the miles, the Army of God and the Holy Church pressed on towards London, where the citizens, openly friendly to the king, who, with his armed robbers, was ever ready to spoil them of their substance, were eagerly waiting to receive and welcome the barons who would curb the cruel and rapacious monarch.
The golden light of early dawn was gilding the roof and towers of Waltham Abbey as the army passed along the road to the west of that stately pile. The full glory of an unclouded sun shone on flaunting banner and glancing spear as the mighty army drew up before Aldgate, one of the seven gates in the wall that surrounded London.
It was plain that they were expected, and that those who guarded the city were their friends. The walls were decayed and ruinous. The great double doors were wide open, and but two or three watchmen kept guard. These, as the army marched silently up, made no resistance, nor attempted to shut the great doors. It was Sunday morning. The streets were deserted, and the churches were crowded with citizens attending high mass. The priests knelt at prayers, the choirs were singing the triumphant chant “Gloria in Excelsis,” when through the streets rang the cry “For God and the Holy Church!” Out from the churches rushed the people in tumultuous crowds.
Loud were their shouts, and wild their demonstrations of joy, as proudly on prancing steeds the mail-clad barons, and, joyful that the journey was over, with steady tramp the sturdy yeomen, with pikes and bows, passed by.
“For God and the Holy Church !” rang from street to street as the mailed and plumed troop passed along. “ Deliverance at last!” whispered the citizens to one another as they saw the troop go past.
King John and the few barons who still followed him heard the cry and fied. Some hastened to the Tower, and shut themselves in that gloomy stronghold. The king and seven of his friends crossed London Bridge, and, galloping across the Surrey hills, sought refuge at Odiham, in Hampshire. So the capital of the kingdom was won to the Army of Freedom, and the kingly tyrant was a fugitive from his subjects.
The Tower of London remained in the keeping of the king's friends, and the barons made no effort to dislodge them, having the city under their control, and the party in the Tower not having sufficient strength to sally out. The gates of the city were guarded by the apprentices with clubs, and the barons employed a large force of workmen in repairing the walls and strengthening the gates. Soon came a message from the king. He would meet a chosen number of the barons at Windsor Castle, and there grant all their requests. Their answer was prompt. They would have no gatherings in strong castles, where treachery might be practised. When they met the king, it must be in the free air, where no assassins could lurk and no dungeons gape. In the open meadow of Runnymede, or the “ Mead of Council,” they would meet him. Again he sought to change their purpose; but their invariable answer was, “Let the day be the fifteenth day of June, for that is the Monday of the Blessed Trinity; the place, Runnymede.” With that the king was perforce content.
Runnymede was a flat strip of meadow-land on the south bank of the River Thames, midway between London and the king's refuge at Odiham. On the day previous to the appointed time, the king and his friends moved to Windsor, and the barons to Staines. With the dawn of the fifteenth, the two parties set out for the place of meeting, and encamped at opposite sides of the meadow. In the days of the Anglo-Saxons, many a council had been held on that meadow; but no council was ever held there, or elsewhere in the kingdom, that was of so much immediate importance, or so lasting in its effect, as that for which the vast assemblage gathered on that pleasant June morning
The preliminary negotiations were soon over. The king was sullen, but made little objection, for his friends were few, whilst the army of the barons was without number. When all was ready, the final meeting for signing the Great Charter took place in the centre of the meadow.
The day was bright, the air pure and balmy. In front the silvery Thames flowed smoothly and softly down towards the chief city of the kingdom, its. bosom bearing scores of boats and barges crowded with people who had come up from London to witness the grand display. Near by, Cooper's Hill bounded the view in one direction ; at a greater distance, and farther
north, rose the heights of Windsor ; whilst far beyond were dimly visible the chalk hills of Buckinghamshire. Immense forests stretched around in every direction, forming a fine leafy border for the gorgeous picture in the meadow.
The king and his followers advanced to the centre of the meadow, where a rude table had been placed, on which lay the Great Charter, fairly engrossed on parchment, but as yet without signature, and the great seal to be affixed to it with straps. The king's party were few in number, but gor. geous in display. King John himself was arrayed in royal robes of crimson and gold, belted with gold studded with jewels, and wearing a crown of gold sparkling with rare gems. With him came eight bishops, and Pandulph, the Pope's legate, clad in rich pontifical robes, and attended by acolytes and cross-bearers ; Almeric, the Master of the English Templars, wearing the cross upon his mantle; the Earl of Pembroke, and thirteen other nobles in complete armor, and attended by their principal retainers.
From the other side came to meet them the flower of the barons of Eng. land, headed by Earl Fitzwalter, all clad in complete suits of chain or ringed armor, their visors down, and accompanied by pages bearing long heatershaped shields, on which were displayed the devices of the owners. In the camp behind them were subordinate knights, in suits of iron, and armed with long swords or longer lances, together with archers bearing long-bow and cross-bow, and the commoner retainers armed with bill-hooks, clubs, scythes mounted on long poles, and spears with hooks to drag the knights from their horses. Beyond all these the hillsides were crowded with peasantry, with citizens of London prepared to see the spectacle or to fight, if need be, against the treacherous king. Women and children, some in rich robes, but more in squalid rags, swarmed over the hillsides, eager to see so grand a sight, and hoping that in some way good might come of it to them, — that they might no longer be robbed and beaten by the servants both of the king and of the nobles.
As the nobles came together around the table, it was easy to see which party each belonged to. The king and his followers were heavily bearded, whilst the barons were all close shaved. Many a noble had cut off his beard and left the king during the past few months; and of those who still followed his fortunes, some were even now contemplating the scraping of their chins at an early day.
The king sat at the table, silent and sullen, whilst Cardinal Langton, in behalf of the barons, — few of whom could read, such matters being left to women and priests whilst they did the fighting, - read over the clauses of the Great Charter. It was a long document, and much of it of no interest now; but most of the terms wrested by it from the Crown marked a bold advance towards the rights of the people. It provided that excessive fines should no longer be demanded of heirs on coming into possession, and it protected the rights and property of wards and widows. Widows were not to be compelled to marry against their will, though not permitted to marry without the consent of the king, or the lords of whom they held their lands.