Havelok And Goldborough
Once upon a time there lived in England a king called Athelwold, who
ruled the land so well that everyone was rich and happy: or, if they
were not, it was their own fault. His people all loved him dearly, and
would do anything for him, and when he went to war there was no
sovereign that could count on a larger following of stout brave men. He
was quite a youth when he came to the throne, and at first all sorts of
traitors and robbers from other countries took refuge in his kingdom,
but Athelwold sought them out so carefully and punished them so severely
that they soon betook themselves and their crimes elsewhere.
Now one thing grieved the king sorely. He had no son to sit on his
throne after he was dead, to protect the poor and put down the lawless.
And how was his little daughter, who was not yet fourteen, to keep
order, or to uphold the laws?
'If she were a woman grown, it might be different,' he thought to
himself, 'for Goldborough sees clearly and acts promptly. But as yet she
has little knowledge, and her ways are those of a child. And full well I
know that my death is nigh at hand, and there is none to watch over
Long the king pondered in his mind what he could best do for his
daughter's safety and the welfare of his people, and in the end he sent
messengers with letters to all his earls and barons from Roxborough to
Dover, bidding them come to his castle of Winchester as swiftly as they
might, for he could no more mount his horse, neither could he swallow
meat or pasties.
Sadly his vassals received the summons, for each loved him as his own
father, and not one lurked behind. The king gave them a glad welcome,
but they could not forbear shedding tears when they saw his weakness and
heard his feeble voice. Athelwold let them have their way a little
while, and then he said:
'I am dying, as you see, and I have sent for you hither, to ask you all
to tell me which of you will best guard my daughter when I am dead, till
she has come to years when she can guard herself.'
And they answered as one man:
'Earl Godrich of Cornwall.'
Then the king bade the priest bring the holy vessels, and earl Godrich
swore on them that he would be faithful and true in peace and in war to
Goldborough; and, further, that he would seek out a man who was better
and fairer and stronger than all others to be her husband, so that the
land might have peace, as in the days of Athelwold.
After the earl had sworn to fulfil what the king required of him,
Athelwold made his will, and gave England into the keeping of Godrich.
This done, he lay back in his bed, and that same morning he died in the
arms of his daughter.
But bad indeed was the choice which king Athelwold's vassals had made
when they proclaimed earl Godrich as the fittest guardian for the young
princess. In the beginning, indeed, while Goldborough was still a child,
everything went smoothly. The earl appointed justices and sheriffs to
carry out the laws, and, though he took more heed to gather riches for
himself than to protect his people, yet on the whole he governed well.
Thus six years passed away, and Goldborough was twenty years old. She
had lived far away from the castle of Winchester, and had never seen her
guardian since the day that her father had been buried, and, for his
part, he had hardly remembered her, he was so busy making laws and
amassing treasures. Still, other people recollected Goldborough, if he
did not, and one Eastertide, when the princess's twentieth birthday was
at hand, an old pilgrim chanced to stop at Winchester on his way to
Canterbury. He had but lately passed through the town where Goldborough
was living, and had many tales to tell of her fair and gracious ways.
Godrich let him talk, but his face was gloomy and he answered nought.
But, though his tongue was silent, his heart was base and his thoughts
'Have I toiled all these years for nothing?' he said to himself, 'and
shall England be ruled by a fool, a maiden? I have a son, a full fair
knave; he shall have England and be king.'
So Goldborough was brought from her woods and gardens, and shut up in
the castle of Dover, where none might visit her. And no company had she
but her foster-sister, and an old woman who had been her nurse.
* * * * *
At the time when Athelwold ruled England there reigned in Denmark a king
called Birkabeyn, who had three children, two girls named Swanborough
and Helfled and a boy called Havelok. Birkabeyn was strong and healthy,
and thought to live many years, when a wound in battle proved his
death-blow. Like Goldborough, the children were all young, and he was
forced to choose someone to protect them till they were of full age. The
man on whom Birkabeyn's choice fell was his own close friend, who had
served him all his life, and who, he thought, loved his children well.
And so perhaps the earl would have done had not such power been given
into his hands, but this he was not proof against. No sooner had the
king died than he caused the three children to be cast into prison,
where he murdered the two girls himself.
At the dreadful fate of his sisters, Havelok, who was the youngest, fell
on his knees and implored the wicked earl to spare him.
'If it is Denmark you want, it shall be yours,' cried the boy, 'and
never will I seek to take it from you. Nay, give me a ship, and to-day I
will leave the country for ever.'
Even the earl's heart was for a moment softened by the child's tears and
prayers, and at first he thought that he would let him go, as it would
be many years before he would be old enough to be an enemy. But then he
remembered that, if Havelok died unwedded, he and his sons would be
heirs to the crown, for he was the king's cousin. However, he pretended
to grant the child's prayer, and bade him follow him down to the shore,
where dwelt an old fisherman. Havelok wandered down to the water, and
wondered which of the ships drawn up on the beach he should set sail in,
and where he would go. He was still terrified at the death of sisters,
and shook with fear as long as their murderer was in sight.
Meanwhile the earl was speaking to the fisherman, who stood at the door
of his cottage, which was built just out of reach of the waves.
'Grim,' he said, 'to-day you are my thrall, but to-morrow you shall be a
free man if you will do my bidding. Take the boy that stands there, and
throw him into the sea, that he drown. Fear nothing: the penalty will be
mine, not yours.'
'Your bidding shall be done,' answered the fisherman, 'though the deed
is but little to my liking.'
'So be it,' said the earl, and went home to hold counsel with his family
how best to take possession of the crown.
Grim took down a cord from a hook in the roof, and went out to the
child, who screamed with terror as he drew near, but there was no one to
help him, and Grim thrust a cloth in his mouth to stifle his cries,
while he bound his hands behind his back with a cord. When this was
done, he put the boy in a black bag, and carried him to his wife, who
flung him on the floor, where he lay for many hours, thinking every
moment that he would be thrown down a well or stabbed by a dagger.
* * * * *
At midnight, when all was still, and the men in the ships were sleeping
soundly, Grim arose, and told his wife to kindle a fire and to light a
'Why, there is a light in the room already,' said she, 'and it seems to
come from the farthest corner, and to shine as brightly as if it were
the sun itself'; and with that she sprang out of bed and ran over the
floor, calling to Grim to follow her.
And in truth it was as she had said, for round the bag which held the
boy a brilliant light was shining.
'If we touch him we shall rue it all our lives,' she whispered to her
husband; then, stooping, she cut the knots which held the bag, and drew
out Havelok, who was well-nigh dead with fright and suffocation. Next
she stripped him of his clothes, and on his shoulder she found the mark
of a tiny cross, from which the light came.
'He is born to be king,' said Grim softly, 'and surely it is he and no
other who is the son of Birkabeyn, and who some day shall come to his
own. It is easy to see that he will grow into a man, tall and strong,
who shall come back from over the sea where I shall send him, and avenge
himself on the traitor.' Then Grim fell on his knees before Havelok and
prayed his forgiveness.
'You shall stay here awhile,' he said, 'till I can fit out a ship, and
in it we will all set sail, you, and I, and my wife and my three sons,
but it must be done in secret, lest the earl should come to know of it.'
So they gave Havelok bread to eat and milk to drink, and laid him in a
bed in a dark corner, where no man could see him, and the next day Grim
set out for the traitor's castle to ask for the reward that had been
'Your bidding is done, and I have come to claim my freedom,' said Grim
when he stood in the presence of the traitor. But the earl made answer:
'Who is there to know what lies betwixt us? Go home, and be my thrall,
as you have ever been.'
Full of rage though he was, Grim dared say no more, lest his head should
pay forfeit; but the earl's words had filled him with fear, and he
hastened to get ready a ship and to fill it during the night with food
enough to last them for three weeks. By that time, he thought, they
would reach the shores of England.
When all was finished, Grim and his wife, his three sons and two
daughters and little Havelok, stole away very early one morning before
the sun was up, and set sail southwards. A north wind soon sprang up and
drove him, in ten days, to the mouth of a great river called the Humber.
Here he steered his ship on to the beach, and then they all got out and
set up a tent, till they could look about for a little and see what best
It was a wild place where they landed, and for many miles there was not
even a hut to be seen, but Grim liked it well, and he built houses for
himself and his family, and by-and-by more people came thither also, and
a town was built and was called Grimsby, after Grim. But that happened
Fish were plentiful at the mouth of the river--lampreys and sturgeon and
turbot and great cod--and Grim and his sons were good fishers, both with
net and line, and Havelok soon learned to fish too, and was as happy as
any boy could be. Sometimes he stayed at home with the women while the
others carried fish round the country in baskets.
Twelve years passed in this manner, during which Grim had prospered
greatly, but he began to get old, and the long journeys with heavy
panniers on his back tried him sorely. This Havelok perceived, and one
day he spoke:
'I am a man grown, and shall I sit at home idle mending nets while my
father travels over the whole country-side carrying weights too heavy
for him to bear? Not so! To-morrow I go forth, and my father shall take
his seat by the fire, and shall mend the nets.'
Whatever Havelok said he did, and early the next morning he took the
panniers on his shoulders, and started for the houses where Grim was
wont to sell his fish. But soon, none could tell why, a bad time came,
and there was no corn in the land, and no fish in the sea. And Grim felt
pity in his heart for Havelok, who was young and strong, and needed more
meat than other men. So one day Grim spoke:
'Havelok, dear son, you have come upon evil days, and must stay with us
no longer. Go to the city of Lincoln. It is a rich town, and there you
may find work for all you need. But, woe is me! no clothes can I give
you, save this old sail, which the women shall fashion into doublet and
hose for you.'
The sail was soon cut and fashioned by Grim's wife and daughters, but
there was nothing to make into shoes, and Havelok walked into Lincoln
barefoot, and he fasted from meat for two or three days; at length the
earl's cook took him into his service as porter, and his chief duty was
to carry the earl's fish into the castle. But the cook had many porters
besides Havelok, and when the cry of 'barmen' was heard they all tried
one to outdo the other in obtaining the pot in which lay the hot fish.
However, Havelok was taller and stronger than the rest, and generally
was able to thrust the others on one side.
Besides bearing the cauldron of fish, Havelok had many things to do. He
had to fill a huge tub in the kitchen with water, and to cut wood for
the fire, and to do anything the cook told him. And, whatever happened,
he was full of mirth, and would jest and play with the children who ran
about the back of the castle.
At last his clothes, which had been fashioned out of the old sail, fell
into holes, and the cook, out of pity and liking, bought him some new
ones, and when he put them on there was no man, be he who he might, that
was fairer to see. Then folk began to notice that he was taller than any
man in the castle, and that he was very strong. Very soon a chance came
to him to prove his strength.
Godrich the earl--or the king, as he called himself--now held his court
at Lincoln, and summoned a parliament to be held there to settle the
affairs of the nation. They came in great companies, and everyone had a
following, and so many were they that they were forced to dwell in tents
outside the city walls. It was not long before they fell to wrestling
and such sports.
* * * * *
For a while Havelok looked on, and bided his time. He took no part in
the wrestling, though there was not a champion on the ground that he
could not easily have overcome.
When they were tired of throwing each other, someone proposed that they
should put the stone, and a large smooth piece of rock was chosen. Man
after man came forward, but hardly one could raise it from the ground,
far less cast it any distance from him. At this moment the cook strolled
up and saw his scullion standing there.
'It is your turn,' he said to Havelok; 'show them what you can do, for
the honour of Lincoln,' and Havelok obeyed him. He lifted the mighty
stone to the height of his shoulder, and sent it spinning through the
'Measure the cast,' said the cook proudly; and when it was measured it
was found to be twelve feet beyond the cast of any other man.
Little was talked of that day but the wonderful throw of the young
scullion, and soon it reached the ears of the knights at court, and in
time, Godrich himself. As he listened to the tale, there flashed across
his memory the words of the dying Athelwold: 'Find out the man who is
better and fairer and stronger than any man in the world, and give him
to be husband to my daughter.' Was there any man living stronger than
this Havelok? and could he himself be ill-spoken of if he should carry
out Athelwold's dying wish? So thought Godrich; but far back in his
heart he knew that once Goldborough was wedded to a scullion there would
be small chance of her becoming queen.
Next morning a knight mounted on a big bay horse, and attended by two
men-at-arms, might have been seen riding southwards through the fair
county of Lincoln, and in twenty days' time he returned, bringing with
him the princess. Godrich greeted her with tokens of great joy, and told
her that, as her father had bidden him, he had found at last the fairest
and strongest man in the world, and he should be her husband.
Goldborough listened quietly to his words, and when he had ended she
looked at him.
'Let him be as strong and fair as he may,' she said, 'but if he is not a
king or a king's son he is no husband for me.'
At this Godrich waxed wrath, and his whole body trembled with anger.
'Your father bade me swear to him when he was dying that you should
marry the strongest man in the world, and none other,' cried he, 'and,
by the Rood, it is he you seek to disobey, and not me. The man who is to
be your husband is the servant of my cook, and to-morrow we will have
The heart of Goldborough was filled with horror when she heard the fate
that was in store for her, and she fell weeping on her knees before the
earl to implore him the rather to let her enter a convent; but Godrich
answered her nothing, and strode out of the hall.
The bells were ringing next day when Havelok woke, and before he was
dressed a message came ordering him to go at once to the earl's
presence. He wondered for what cause he was wanted, for never yet had he
had speech of the earl, and still more surprised was he to find Godrich
clad in his most splendid robes, as if for a festival. But if Havelok
was astonished at all this, he was nearly struck dumb by the words which
'Master, will you take a wife?' and the young man gazed at him in
silence; for why should the ruler of all England take heed whether his
scullion was wedded or not?
'Will you take a wife?' asked Godrich again, in tones of impatience;
then Havelok found his voice.
'No, by heaven I will not,' he cried; 'what should I do with a wife? I
could neither feed, nor clothe, nor shoe her! For myself, I should have
no clothes either, had it not been for the bounty of your cook.'
In his rage Godrich seized a thick staff and laid it across his
'Promise me that you will wed her within an hour, or I will hang you on
the nearest tree,' he cried; and Havelok, who had no liking for death,
His purpose thus gained with Havelok, the earl now summoned Goldborough,
whom he threatened to burn if she withstood him. All night the princess
had wept and pondered how to escape so dreadful a doom, but at last she
took comfort in the thought that in accepting this husband, however
lowly born he might be, she would be fulfilling her father's wishes. So
as soon as Godrich gave her a chance to speak she said she would resist
him no longer.
Then Godrich for the first time in six years felt that he was indeed
King of England.
'You are a wise maiden,' cried he, his face glowing with joy; 'and, to
show you how well I love you, I will give you much gold, and you shall
have an archbishop to bless your marriage.' And so it was done.
Both Havelok and his wife felt that they could stay in Lincoln no
longer, and the next day they bought two horses and set forth for
Grimsby. To Havelok's great grief he found that the fisherman had died
just before, after a few days' illness, but his sons and daughters gave
them a glad greeting, and bade them stay in their house, promising that
they themselves would be their servants.
Weary with travel, Havelok soon went to bed, but Goldborough knelt
praying before the window, when suddenly a bright light filled the room.
She turned to see what it might be, and beheld it issuing from a cross
on Havelok's shoulder. While she gazed wondering, she heard a voice
saying, 'Goldborough, let sorrow depart from you, for your husband is no
scullion, but the son of a king, and he shall rule over England and
Denmark.' At that her heart grew light again, and she kissed Havelok and
woke him, and told him what the voice had said.
'Let us sail at once,' added she, 'for who knows when Godrich the
traitor may change his mind? And bid the sons of Grim sail with us.'
Goldborough's counsel seemed good to Havelok, and he rose in haste and
sought Grim's sons, whom he found setting forth to fish. He begged them
to wait, and to listen to his story, which Grim had always hidden from
them, and when they heard it, they said that they would go with him, and
help him to slay the murderer of his sisters and the robber of his
'You shall be rich men the day he dies,' vowed Havelok; and the boat was
made ready for sea.
A fair wind blew them to Denmark, and Havelok left his wife with his
three foster-brothers, and betook himself to the house of Ubbe the earl,
whom his father had loved dearly. He said no word as to his birth, but
asked him leave to trade on his lands, offering a ring as
Ubbe looked at the ring, and then at the young man who gave it.
'You look fitter to do a knight's work than to buy and sell,' he said,
and Havelok answered:
'That will come, fair sir, but I must first go softly. Meanwhile I have
left my wife Goldborough under the care of her foster-brothers, and can
tarry here no longer.'
'Bring her hither,' said Ubbe, 'and dwell with her in this castle, and
if no man has dubbed you knight I will take that upon me.'
And so it was done, and the heart of Goldborough rejoiced, for by this
time she loved her husband dearly.
That same midnight Ubbe was wakened by a great light, which seemed to
fill the castle. He rose from his bed, and went from room to room, and
all were bright as day, though he could not tell why. Then he came to
the room where Havelok and Goldborough lay asleep, and out of Havelok's
mouth came a flame like that of a hundred and ninety-seven candles. And
on his shoulder was the cross of kingship, and that was shining too.
When Ubbe saw that, he knew that Havelok was indeed the son of
Birkabeyn, his friend, and the rightful king of Denmark; and, waking the
sleeping man, he bade him sit up and receive his homage. After that he
sent for his lords, and commanded that they should swear fealty to their
king. And when the lords had sworn, Ubbe summoned the people, and told
them, what many had known before, that the earl had betrayed his trust,
and that now he should pay forfeit of his wickedness.
Blithe were Havelok and Goldborough that day as they moved amidst the
groups of men who shared in the sports which the people of Denmark ever
loved, and once more Havelok cast the stone further than any one there
could throw it. His first act, after he had been proclaimed king, was to
make Grim's three faithful sons barons with fair lands. Then he bid them
go and seek the earl, and bring him back with them.
This was not done without a hard fight, for the earl and his men
defended themselves stoutly; but at length he was bound and placed upon
an old horse and carried before Havelok, who was waiting in the castle
with his lords about him.
'What judgment will ye pass on him, fair lords?' asked the king.
'That he may be hanged as beseems a murderer and a traitor, and that his
head be planted over the chief gate of the town as a warning to all,'
they said with one voice, and this was done also.
* * * * *
For a while Havelok stayed in Denmark to see to the affairs of the
kingdom, and then, leaving Ubbe to rule, he set sail for England with
Goldborough his wife, and a large army, in many ships with high carved
prows. Once again he landed at the mouth of the Humber, and his first
act was to found a church in memory of Grim. Next, he placed his army in
order of battle, and awaited the attack of his enemy. Godrich the earl
had heard that he had come, and had hastily collected a great host, with
which he marched upon Lincoln. The attack was begun by the English, and
fierce was the fight. Many were killed, both of English and Danes. At
last, just as the English were being beaten slowly back, Havelok and
Godrich came face to face with each other. Bitterly the earl then rued
the day when he had married Goldborough to the strongest man in the
world, scullion though he were! Many times Havelok might have slain him,
but such was not his purpose, and, taking a cord from his waist, he
bound the traitor's arms, and bade one of his knights ride and fetch
Goldborough, whom he had left under a guard at a little distance.
When she drew near, Havelok commanded that a flag of truce should be
waved, so that the fighting might cease. Then, taking his wife by the
hand, he led her forward, and told her story to them all, and how
Godrich the earl had wronged her. And the English fell on their faces
and did obeisance, and vowed to serve her faithfully all the days of
'And what is the law of England respecting a traitor?' asked Havelok,
when Goldborough had been proclaimed queen with trumpets and shouting.
'That he be laid on an ass and burned at the stake,' cried they. And
this was done also.
After this, Havelok gave his two foster-sisters in marriage to great
lords, and made the cook to whom he had owed his good fortune earl of
Cornwall in place of the wicked Godrich. He left Ubbe to rule in
Denmark, while he and Goldborough remained in England, but every two
years he sailed across the sea to be sure that all went well in the
country of his birth.
And for sixty years Havelok and Goldborough lived happily together and
had many children, and wherever Havelok went, Goldborough went too.
[_The Lay of Havelok the Dane._ Early English Text Society.]
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