Royal Ordeal by Fire
Queen Emma & her Berkshire Manors
Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, persuades the King that Emma, forty-eight years after her first marriage, fifteen years after the death of her second husband, Canute, had been guilty of too close an intimacy with Aelfwine, Bishop of Winchester. The choice of an Episcopal lover was unlucky, as Aelfwine had been dead three years; a more ingenious romancer would have named Stigand. The Bishop is imprisoned, the Lady is spoiled of her goods, and sent to Wherwell Priory.
From her prison, where she was not very strictly confined, Emma writes to those Bishops in whom she trusted, saying, she is far more shocked at the scandal against Aelfwine, than at the scandal against herself. She is even ready to submit to the ordeal of burning iron in order to prove the Bishop's innocence.
The other Bishops advise the King to allow the trial, but the Norman Archbishop uses very strong language indeed. Emma is "a wild thing, not a woman;" her daring went so far that, "she called her slimy lover, Christ the Lord," and so forth; she may make compurgation for the Bishop, but who will make compurgation for herself? Yet, if she will make a double purgation, if she will walk over four burning shares for herself, and five for the Bishop, her innocence shall be allowed. Preparations for the ordeal are made accordingly, Emma passing the night before in prayer at the shrine of St. Swithun, who, in answer to her supplications, appears to her, announcing himself, "I am St. Swithun whom you have invoked; fear not, the fire shall do you no hurt."
On the morrow, the King with his attendant courtiers assemble; the nine ploughshares are made red-hot, and placed upon the pavement in the Church. Emma now enters, and after making a long invocation, which commences, "Oh God, who didst save Susannah from the malice of the wicked elders, save me," treads with her bare feet upon the glowing metal: but she senses nothing. She has touched it, yet enquires of the Bishops who lead her by the hand, "When shall we come to the ploughshares?" They show her she has already passed over them. Upon examination, her feet are found to be uninjured - "See the Miracle". The King is now thoroughly convinced of her innocence, and repenting his cruelty, casts himself at his mother's feet, exclaiming, "Mother, I have sinned before heaven and before you," receives stripes both from the Bishop and his mother, restores all their confiscated property, and banishes the Archbishop.
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