Four messengers, Athelston, Egelond, Alryke and Wymound meet and become sworn brothers. When Athelston inherits the English throne, he makes Egelond Earl of Stane, Wymound Earl of Dover, and Alryke Archbishop of Canterbury. He also marries Egelond to his sister, Edith.
Years pass, and Wymound becomes jealous of Egelond’s wife and handsome sons. He travels to London and tells Athelston that the Earl is plotting to poison him. Having promised the traitor protection, the enraged King vows to kill Egelond’s whole family and invites them to the capital on the pretext of knighting their sons. Even though Edith is heavily pregnant, they come immediately, and are thrown into prison. Athelston’s wife, who is also pregnant, attempts to intercede on their behalf, but as she kneels her husband kicks her in the stomach, killing his unborn son.
The queen sends a messenger to Canterbury, and Alryke hurries to Westminster, where he intercepts Athelston in church. The Archbishop pleads Egelond’s case and asks for a fair trial, but Athelston becomes angry and banishes him. In response, Alryke threatens to excommunicate the kingdom, forbidding priests to say mass or baptise children and denying the king absolution. He then goes to Fleet Street and announces this to the English nobles, who promise to rescue Egelond and imprison Athelston.
However, a messenger arrives with the news that Egelond will be released and the Archbishop reinstated. Alryke accepts, then blesses and absolves the king, promising to prove Egelond’s innocence. He orders a great fire to be laid out, and after blessing it nine times instructs Egelond to walk across it barefoot. The Earl does so without harm, followed by his sons, and all three are presented at St Paul’s altar. Finally Edith walks across the fire and goes into labour. She emerges and gives birth to St Edmund, whom Athelston immediately makes his heir.
The king is unwilling to name Wymound, but does so when Alryke threatens to make him walk through the fire. The Archbishop sends a letter to the traitor, claiming that Egelond is dead: fooled, Wymound arrives at Westminster but refuses to confess to Alryke. Athelston orders the fire to be re-made, and Wymound fails to cross it. He is pulled from the flames by Egelond’s sons and admits his guilt. He is drawn through the streets before being hanged.
From: Donald Sands ed., Middle English Verse Romances. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1986.
Manuscript: Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 175
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