James Lloyd returns to his native county of Kent to tell a story of jealousy, murder, virginity and blank cheques on the Isle of Thanet.
Kings have a habit of killing their young, vulnerable relatives. The Rural Voice’s folklore correspondent regarded the belated funeral of Richard III last year with considerable bemusement, wondering why all this sympathy was being deluged on a man who killed two children in his care in order to claim their inheritance. When Dickens wrote about that sort of thing, the perpetrator was usually the villain, yet here was Crookback Dick being feted by doe-eyed groupies of the House of York, beyond fashionably late to the party, trying to lay the blame for the boys’ murder on absolutely anybody else: The Earl of Richmond, the Duke of Buckingham, Santa – anyone could have done it, apparently, except, for some strange reason, Richard III. He had the means, he had the motive and he had the opportunity but he also has (not that it does him much good now) the fan club, for whom the obvious explanation simply is not obvious enough.
Well, maybe the Ricardians would like to take a break from exonerating England’s principal candidate for the Herod Award and have a crack at the case of another propinquicidal sovereign, though this one had the good fortune never to come to Shakespeare’s attention. This king was English but he was not a king of England. In the seventh century, there was no kingdom of England. The descendents of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who had dispossessed the Britons of the fertile lowlands of this island (a region that, at this time, still awaited a comprehensive name) were divided into a constantly varying number of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. One of the smallest yet also one of the most important was the kingdom of Kent, which made up for what it lacked in size with the economic clout of its continental connections and, which was more, the ecclesiastical significance of being the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Eastry, not far from Sandwich, is a mere village now but it was once one of the several residences of the kings of Kent. It was at Eastry that Egbert, who acceded to the throne of Kent in 664, domiciled his two young cousins, Æthelberht and Æthelred. They were precocious and accomplished lads, admired by some, envied by others and none envied them more than Thunor, one of the king’s councillors, who repeatedly advised the king that the boys’ popularity was a threat to his throne and volunteered his services for their termination. The king coldly rejected this counsel but, like any civil servant convinced that he knows best, Thunor went ahead anyway. He killed the boys and buried them under the king’s throne.
That night, a bright column of light shone from the spot and so frightened the servants that their screams woke the king. With a chill of realization, he summoned Thunor to his presence and extracted his confession. The king was wracked with guilt but (and this seems odd to modern eyes) the law of the time did not necessarily require the execution of the culprit. Instead, the grieved family was entitled to compensation and the king asked the boys’ next-of-kin, their sister Eormenburh, what reparation she deemed sufficient.
Her response was that she should have as much of the Isle of Thanet (at that time a real island) as her hind circulated in a run. What the king did not realize was that Eormenburh’s hind always ran in front her, so she simply perambulated the isle herself, the hind running before and thus marking out the whole of Thanet as her compensation. Thunor, realizing the trick, advised the king to halt the procedure but the ground opened up beneath him and swallowed him whole. A cairn was built on the site, which became known as ‘Tunerhleaw’, meaning Thunor’s mound.
Eormenburh founded a nunnery on Thanet, now represented by Minster-in-Thanet parish church. Strangely, however, it was not in this church that her dead brothers were buried. On the advice of the Archbishop, the bodies were initially prepared to be sent to Canterbury Cathedral but the hearse refused to move. An attempt to send them to Saint Augustine’s Abbey also failed. Only when they were directed to the monastery of Wakering in Essex did God finally allow the bodies to be transferred.
Eormenburh would come to be venerated as a saint, as would all three of her daughters, one of whom, Saint Mildred, became abbess of her mother’s foundation on Thanet. As with many medieval saints, the cult that developed around them elaborated the genuine history of their lives into a complex and romantic legend. The story of the foundation of Minster-in-Thanet is an excellent example of such monastic spin. Although the more mystical versions of the story are told in texts from as early as the eleventh century, the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury recorded a much more sober account. William laid the blame for the boys’ death squarely at Egbert’s door, himself ordering Thunor to murder them. The king then simply gave Thanet to Eormenburh without any fuss. No hind is mentioned and neither is the manner of Thunor’s demise.
Thunor’s mound is perhaps the most intriguing part of the whole legend. No Thunor’s mound is known to exist in Kent today but there is no reason to doubt that it did once. Near Eastry is the village of Woodnesborough, literally Woden’s barrow and Thunor’s mound would have been another pre-Roman archaeological feature that the Anglo-Saxons attributed to one of their deities, this time the thunder god. A later, Christian generation demoted Thunor to a human and invented the story of his unusual death to account for the place-name. It was probably at first a completely separate legend and only later became incorporated into the saga of Egbert and Eormenburh. Once it had been adopted, however, Thunor provided a convenient scapegoat for the king’s actions and also provided a villain who would get his comeuppance, so furnishing the story with something approaching a happy ending.
The process was not over there, however, for, remarkably, the legend continued to develop with each re-telling throughout the middle-ages. It was still being tweaked as late as 1576. According to the medieval chroniclers, the archbishop suggested that the princes should be buried in Canterbury Cathedral simply because it was the traditional burial place of Kentish royalty but the Elizabethan historian William Lambarde, who retells the story in his Perambulation of Kent, added a Protestant twist, accusing the Archbishop of hoping to benefit financially from the pilgrimages that the princes’ shrine would encourage.
The Legend of the Two Little Princes of Eastry is a curious beast. Part genuine history, part pious hagiography and part sanitized pre-Christian myth, it has been told and re-told by different generations, with different agenda, all modifying the story to fit their own perspective. The same process has fashioned legends out of many episodes in our history. Richard III was a villain but no worse a villain than Egbert. Maybe one day the Ricardians will have their way and Richard, like Egbert will be exonerated, albeit only in the imagination.