3. The Angle Children, A.D. 597
The old English who had come to Britain were heathen, and believed in many false gods: the Sun, to whom they made Sunday sacred, as Monday was to the moon, Wednesday to a great terrible god, named Woden, and Thursday to a god named Thor, or Thunder. They thought a clap of thunder was the sound of the great hammer he carried in his hand. They thought their gods cared for people being brave, and that the souls of those who died fighting gallantly in battle were the happiest of all; but they did not care for kindness or gentleness.
Thus they often did very cruel things, and one of the worst that they did was the stealing of men, women, and children from their homes, and selling them to strangers, who made slaves of them. All England had not one king. There were generally about seven kings, each with a different part of the island and as they were often at war with one another, they used to steal one another's subjects, and sell them to merchants who came from Italy and Greece for them.
Some English children were made slaves, and carried to Rome, where they were set in the market-place to be sold. A good priest, named Gregory, was walking by. He saw their fair faces, blue eyes, and long light hair, and, stopping, he asked who they were. "Angles," he was told, "from the isle of Britain." "Angles?" he said, "they have angel faces, and they ought to be heirs with the angels in heaven." From that time this good man tried to find means to send teachers to teach the English the Christian faith. He had to wait for many years, and, in that time, he was made Pope, namely, Father-Bishop of Rome. At last he heard that one of the chief English kings, Ethelbert of Kent, had married Bertha, the daughter of the King of Paris, who was a Christian, and that she was to be allowed to bring a priest with her, and have a church to worship in.
Gregory thought this would make a beginning: so he sent a priest, whose name was Augustine, with a letter to King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha, and asked the King to listen to him. Ethelbert met Augustine in the open air, under a tree at Canterbury, and heard him tell about the true God, and JESUS CHRIST, whom He sent; and, after some time, and a great deal of teaching, Ethelbert gave up worshiping Woden and Thor, and believed in the true God, and was baptized, and many of his people with him. Then Augustine was made Archbishop of Canterbury; and, one after another, in the course of the next hundred years, all the English kingdoms learnt to know God, and broke down their idols, and became Christian.
Bishops were appointed, and churches were built, and parishes were marked off—a great many of them the very same that we have now. Here and there, when men and women wanted to be very good indeed, and to give their whole lives to doing nothing but serving God, without any of the fighting and feasting, the buying and selling of the outer world, they built houses, where they might live apart, and churches, where there might be services seven times a day. These houses were named abbeys. Those for men were, sometimes, also called monasteries, and the men in them were termed monks, while the women were called nuns, and their homes convents of nunneries. They had plain dark dresses, and hoods, and the women always had veils. The monks used to promise that they would work as well as pray, so they used to build their abbeys by some forest or marsh, and bring it all into order, turning the wild place into fields, full of wheat. Others used to copy out the Holy Scriptures and other good books upon parchment— because there was no paper in those days, nor any printing—drawing beautiful painted pictures at the beginning of the chapters, which were called illuminations. The nun did needlework and embroidery, as hangings for the altar, and garments for the priests, all bright with beautiful colors, and stiff with gold. The English nuns' work was the most beautiful to be seen anywhere.
There were schools in the abbeys, where boys were taught reading, writing, singing, and Latin, to prepare them for being clergymen; but not many others thought it needful to have anything to do with books. Even the great men thought they could farm and feast, advise the king, and consent to the laws, hunt or fight, quite as well without reading, and they did not care for much besides; for, though they were Christians, they were still rude, rough, ignorant men, who liked nothing so well as a hunt or a feast, and slept away all the evening, especially when they could get a harper to sing to them.
The English men used to wear a long dress like a carter's frock, and their legs were wound round with strips of cloth by way of stockings. Their houses were only one story, and had no chimneys—only a hole at the top for the smoke to go out at; and no glass in the windows. The only glass there was at all had been brought from Italy to put into York Cathedral, and it was thought a great wonder. So the windows had shutters to keep out the rain and wind, and the fire was in the middle of the room. At dinner-time, about twelve o'clock, the lord and lady of the house sat upon cross-legged stools, and their children and servants sat on benches; and square bits of wood called trenchers, were put before them for plates, while the servants carried round the meat on spits, and everybody cut off a piece with his own knife and at it without a fork. They drank out of cows' horns, if they had not silver cups. But though they were so rough they were often good, brave people.