Eldred waited until King Offa and King Angeltheow had returned to their thrones. Wihtgils and the other notables had taken their seats on the benches before the kings returned. Since it was deemed bad form to keep your king waiting, when King Offa sat on his throne Eldred commenced speaking.
"When Woden rose to his heavenly throne in Valhalla, he left many sons from to rule the various tribes. The son that was the heir to the throne of Woden's native people, the Angli, was called Wodolgeat. He had a problem with his numerous half-brothers who ruled the Saxons, Lombards, Franks, and Frisians. These half-brothers went their own way and took their tribes with them. Poor King Wodolgeat didn't have the military might, nor the will, to bring those tribes back under his rule. A tree in the forest that grows under its parent's shade seldom grows as tall.
"The Angli found that some tribes that had been firmly under their thumb since the time of King Sceaf were getting restless. Gervendil, chieftain of the Jutes, didn't ask permission of either King Wodolgeat nor his Council of Ealdormen to name as successors to the throne his sons, Horvendil and Fengo. Gervendil ignored his duty of courtesy to his lord, Wodolgeat, in unilaterally making his sons king. Gervendil, by not consulting the Council of Ealdormen, had also stepped upon the rights of his subjects by not giving them even the illusion of having a say in their government. Gervendil, blinded by love for his two sons and his decision to split the chieftainship between them in an effort to be "fair," had placed himself above the wise old men of his tribe who could have told him that it wasn't good to split political power between two men, even if they were the best of brothers, which Horvendil and Fengo were not. Gervendil didn't live to see the results of his arrogance and folly, but the eventual end of his kingdom and his family could have been foretold. For even in those days it was a byword that constant vigilance over one's impulses and actions are the price we pay for freedom, security, and prosperity," Eldred said, fully aware that he was preaching. He had a captive audience, and he knew that he could get away with it as long as he dished it out in small, easily digestible increments.
"King Wodolgeat ruled over his diminished kingdom for twenty-one years after his succession to the throne. This good, but not great king was succeeded by his son, King Wihtlaeg.
"King Wihtlaeg decided to pursue a different policies than his father. Where his father was soft, he would be hard. His father had been kind, tolerant, and inclined to avoid conflict. King Wihtlaeg would be ruthless, decisive, and would use military force anytime he knew he could prevail. He would take his chances and reap the rewards that favor bold, opportunistic men.
"Gervendil died two years into King Wihtlaeg's rule, leaving his chieftainship to his sons as he had so ruled previously. King Wihtlaeg didn't feel that he had the military force to cheaply overcome the Jutes at the time. So he gave the splitting up of Gervindil's throne his blessing, as though he still had the power to dictate to the Jutes who would be their king. Then King Wihtlaeg waited to see what would happen.
"King Wihtlaeg had met both brothers a number of times. Horvendil, the eldest, resented the fact that Fengo had had the majority of his father's love. So much so that Gervendil had followed a precedent in splitting up his modest kingdom between the eldest son and the younger son. Horvendil also blamed Fengo for depriving him of a mother, who had died soon after she had given birth to Fengo. Horvendil blamed Fengo for taking his mother, and then half a kingdom.
"Fengo, on his part, was always afraid that his older brother would take away his share of the kingdom, then kill him. Fengo knew that the Council of Ealdormen were opposed to him having a share of the kingdom. Fengo had lived for all his life under his elder brother's displeasure. Fengo hated and feared Horvendil as much as Horvendil hated and despised Fengo.
"For a little over three years the brothers managed to rule the kingdom together in their small capital of Viborg. Then one day they quarreled to the point where they were ready to draw swords on each other. Each brother was disarmed by his lieutenants before fatal blows could be struck. Out of that quarrel came an agreement by which each brother would be given a part of the land with a different capital city, so that they would not have to come in contact with each other anymore. After negotiations were conducted by intermediaries, it was agreed that Fengo would have the eastern part of Jutland encased east of the Gudena River, with Arhus as his capital. Horvendil would control the rest. Fengo had the most fertile region, the most densely populated area. Horvendil's area was four times as large, with twice the population. Fengo felt that he had gotten the worst of the new arrangement, but he rode out of Viborg at the head of his men, swearing vengeance against his brother. King Wihtlaeg, at his summer capital of Hedeby, heard all about the matter.
"This state of affairs continued for another five years. Horvendil would refuse to visit anywhere if he knew that Fengo would be at the same location. Horvendil still had to pay King Wihtlaeg a token tribute, as did Fengo.
"King Wihtlaeg condemned publicly each brother's intransigence, but he had no intention of alleviating it. Instead, he managed to whip it up by asking each brother privately, "Who will rule after you are gone? Your son? Your brother? Your brother's son? Will you divide your kingdom and people further by dividing your share of the kingdom into smaller pieces for each of your sons, as you father did with you?" Finally, these words of King Wihtlaeg achieved their desired effect," said Eldred.
Eldred was telling an old familiar tale, but like the ones about Nerthus these had a political undertone. King Wihtlaeg was the ancestor as well to all of the kings present. This history was more fresh than the matter concerning Nerthus and Woden. Eldred hoped that any wounds he might open by telling the truth would have a thick, protective scab. Eldred plunged ahead, not daring to glance at King Offa or King Angeltheow.
"Fengo heard these words from King Wihtlaeg and, realizing that he was in a weaker position, decided to act first. He hired the most powerful medicine man in the land to poison his brother. Horvendil was slowly poisoned in his capital of Viborg, where he eventually died. Fengo immediately assembled the Council of Ealdormen to proclaim him chieftain over all the Jutes.
"Horvendil had a son named Amleth, called Hamlet by us Angles. Hamlet was eighteen years old at the time. He suspected his uncle of foul play. Gathering up his father's retainers, he prevented the Council of Elders from meeting. Jutish tradition proclaimed that if a son hadn't attained the age of majority, rule passed to the King's next oldest brother, in this case Fengo. By taking these actions, Hamlet brought into the open a civil war that had been due for some time.
"Fengo had a number of advantages in pursuing the civil war that he had started. While he had much less than half the tribal population, he had nearly as many housecarls as his nephew possessed. Fengo was the aggressor in this civil war, and he had prepared well for the consequences of his actions. King Wihtlaeg had intimated to Fengo that as far as he was concerned, he didn't care who would be the overchief of the Jutes; he just wanted the petty quarreling to cease. Fengo had gained the support of many of the leading men in the Jutish community. While the common people might wonder aloud what had happened to King Horvendil, his brother, and would cheer the underdog, they would eventually support the winner, even if they didn't like him very much. So Fengo thought.
"Both Hamlet and Fengo made appeal to King Wihtlaeg to judge who was in the right. King Wihtlaeg maintained his neutrality, sending each party the message, "The stronger will survive. Might will make right. I will deal with the winner."
"Each side decided not to make peace. Each side thought, however falsely, that he had been wronged. Each side prepared an army of supporters. Hamlet had a few more armed retainers than his uncle had. He would use an army made up of yeomen, who were armed with spears and protected only by shields. He would seek out Fengo and take the battle to him. With luck, his retainers and Fengo's sworn men would engage face to face in the center while the lightly armed yeomen would flank the conflict and take Fengo's smaller force from the sides and rear. Such was Hamlet's plan, worked out by him and the wiser of his retainers.
"This plan had the virtue of simplicity. What it lacked was the element of surprise. Fengo, no fool he, was waiting for Hamlet at the marches of his domain. Fengo chose the ground of battle, a ford on the middle Gudena, where a grove of trees would give his forces some cover from thrown spears and arrows. He would guard the ford and make Hamlet's army wade through the water before they could engage his army on the opposite bank of the river. The current was swift. It would tire a man in armor charging the opposite bank. Such was Fengo's plan.
"The two armies met around noon, at the mid-ford of the Gudena in the late spring. Like cows wading through the stream, Prince Hamlet's force thrashed through the thigh-deep water to meet their opposites on Fengo's side. A few of Hamlet's housecarls were killed by an occasional spear that flashed by their shields and popped a ring in their armor. Hamlet's yeomen threw a few spears at the opposing forces an the other side, then began to wade across the river once battle had commenced."
The listening warriors who were Eldred's audience nodded. Contesting a ford was a common Angle strategy. The weaker side would have an defensive advantage. But if the stronger side was able to prevail against those odds, then it would be recognized as the legitimate winner and holder of the favor of Woden. More to the point, a contender who possessed the necessary skills of generalship to prevail, be he the outnumbered defender or the sagacious crosser of a well-defended ford, proved that he had whatever it took to rule effectively.
"Within a half hour, the issue was decided. Hamlet had over twenty-five hundred men, Fengo had but eleven hundred. Hamlet had three hundred sworn men, Fengo had two hundred fifty. The companions of each contender to the throne clashed where the ford had a road suitable to drive a cart across the river. Hamlet's men tried to form a wedge against Fengo's line, but soon the melee resembled an animal with five hundred glinting teeth and scales, like a dragon curling and stretching in the sun. Unlike a duel, which has an order like an elaborate dance of death, this fight was a mindless thing. Quick, kill your enemy before he kills you!
"Hamlet's yeomen swam the river north and south of the ford where their betters fought. They outflanked their eastern cousins, who had mostly been compelled to fight for Fengo. Many of the eastern Jutes didn't throw spears at their western cousins. They merely let Hamlet's men cross in relative peace, then lowered their spears, holding many of their cousins in the water. Soon word came that Fengo had been killed in the battle at the shallow ford. Then the East Jutes put their spears over their shoulders, turned their backs on their western kinsmen, and started walking back to their farms and villages. The West Jutes let their ill-led cousins and brethren leave in peace."
Eldred paused for a minute, looking over the faces in the hushed crowd, who had drank in every word of his oral history. Eldred shifted about, rubbed his chin, then continued.
"This is not to say that the Jutish yeomen on either side were cowardly. Sometimes the people know in their bones when they are fighting for a just cause and when they are not. There is something bred into the bones of our people that tells them that. The West Jutes knew that they had the right on their side. The East Jutes knew that Fengo had done wrong. So they did just enough fighting at the ford to keep up the illusion of an honorable fight for a bad cause. When news spread of Fengo's death, the fighting stopped. While the western Jutish yeomen had suffered over fifty casualties in crossing the river, they took no reprisals against their eastern cousins. For how could they blame kinsmen for being born on the wrong side of the river, trying to faithfully follow a king appointed over them, even a bad king like Fengo?"
Eldred paused for a minute while the audience absorbed what he had said. Then it was time to make another point.
"At the wagon ford it was a different story. Quarter was neither asked for nor given in the fight between the housecarls of Hamlet and Fengo. Hamlet lost over thirty men in forcing the assault to the other bank. Fengo lost most of his sworn men after he was taken by an intrepid spearman. Then Fengo's retainers tried to form a shield wall and sell their lives dear. None turned dastard and ran. All of Fengo's housecarls died around their lord. All valued honor over life, which is as it should be," Eldred said.
"Having killed all opposition to his rule, Prince Hamlet marched his victorious army to his defeated uncle's capital city, Arhus. All came out to greet him, with the exception of Fengo's wife and a few surviving retainers who were too old or too young to fight. Fengo's wife hurriedly gathered her young son, some silver, a few of the surviving retainers and their families. She headed for parts south and west, taking up residence in Frisia.
"Prince Hamlet had put an end to the sordid civil war that had divided the Jutes. All Jutland was pleased. His Council of Ealdormen acclaimed him King of the Jutes. But Hamlet didn't have long to enjoy his hard-earned throne.
"King Wihtlaeg had observed with pleasure the carnage caused among the Jutes. He was less pleased with the surge of patriotism among the Jutes that had come with Prince Hamlet's ascent to the throne. King Wihtlaeg decided to act while the Jutes were still weak from their recent struggle, so he sent Prince Hamlet the following message:
You have defrauded me by ruling Jutland without my authority. The Angles have always had a say in who rules the Jutes for centuries. By taking the throne without my approval, you have jeopardized the peace between our two peoples. Therefore, I call upon you to come to Leire and submit to my authority. If you refuse to come and swear allegiance to me, without quibble or reservation, you will be declared a rebel and a traitor. That is, if I do decide to keep you as governor. Your recent war has cost me the lives of many of my esteemed subjects. You have killed my most recent governor, King Fengo. So I say onto you today; submit or else face my certain wrath.
"King Wihtlaeg chose his messenger well. He sent his most vain and foolish courtier, a man detested by all who knew him and by most that ever had the misfortune of meeting him. King Wihtlaeg hoped that the foolish ambassador would deliver the insulting message with his customary impertinence. Maybe Prince Hamlet would kill him. That would give King Wihtlaeg another excuse for war while ridding himself of a man he never liked in any case, even though he had an occasional use for him.
"King Wihtlaeg's messenger orally delivered the message he had been given. He refused to answer any questions that the anxious Prince Hamlet and his advisors asked regarding King Wihtlaeg's intentions. He merely said that he hoped that King Wihtlaeg would invade Jutland.
"Prince Hamlet decided to play for time. He sent the messenger back, asking for guarantees that he be confirmed as governor. King Wihtlaeg responded that now it was too late. Hamlet would be spared his life, but he was no longer governor. With that interchange between the two rulers, war was guaranteed.
"King Wihtlaeg was confident of winning the war. Hamlet had lost many of his best retainers in the recent civil war. While Hamlet had plenty of yeomen on whom he could rely, they were not trained to fight as a unit. King Wihtlaeg had over five hundred retainers. Prince Hamlet had less than one hundred retainers left, and some of them were wounded. It would be a short and easy war, King Wihtlaeg concluded.
"And so it was. King Wihtlaeg's force met Prince Hamlet's army in a meadow outside Viborg. Prince Hamlet offered to settle the issue by personal combat, but King Wihtlaeg declined on the ground that the war was already as good as won. If Hamlet wanted to minimize bloodshed, he could abdicate, saving the lives of his countrymen. Prince Hamlet refused that course of action.
"The battle commenced in the late morning. The fighting was short and bloody. Prince Hamlet's bodyguard was quickly overwhelmed. They died bravely, sword in hand, to the last man. So bravely did they fight that King Wihtlaeg found himself on the front line a time or two and had to save himself by his own efforts. Prince Hamlet was among the last to fall. Several hundred Jutish yeomen perished in the action as well, dying in order to be ruled by their own people.
"Thus ended a line of Jutish kings who had ruled long before King Sceaf. The only male of the royal blood still alive was the young son of the discredited Fengo. King Wihtlaeg placed his second son, Prince Wehta, upon the Jutish throne. His oldest son, Prince Waermund, would rule the Angles, and through his brother he would rule the Jutes as well, by making Wehta swear allegiance to him from time to time. King Wihtlaeg summoned the Jutish Council of Ealdormen and forced them to publicly endorse his decision. The Jutish Council, mindful that it was unhealthy to oppose King Wihtlaeg's will, quickly complied. The strongest of the Jutish chieftains offered his oldest daughter in marriage to the young Prince Wehta. Her dowry would be his support and ties to the strongest surviving clan in Jutland. King Wihtlaeg accepted his offer on Prince Wehta's behalf.
"And that is the way that it has been since. King Wehta's son, King Witta, married a Jutish woman, as did the present holder of the Jutish throne, King Wihtgils," Eldred said, turning and looking at Wihtgils sitting on his bench in front.
Eldred stretched out his hand at Wihtgils, palm upward, but Eldred, the epitome of direct courtesy, didn't wiggle his fingers upward. Eldred knew better than to try to command a king. Wihtgils would decide whether to stand and be recognized or not.
Wihtgils didn't appreciate Eldred commenting so frankly on his origins, but after a second's hesitation stood up and nodded at the crowd behind him. Then Wihtgils sat down. He was annoyed, but not surprised at Eldred's performance. What Eldred had told was still fairly recent history.
Eldred recited a short bit of battle poetry pertaining to Prince Hamlet's last battle that he had composed. When it was over, Eldred started talking about tomorrow's events.