My place in the history books is but a small one:
I ruled the fen-dwelling Angles of South Gyrwas
and married Ethelreda, princess of East Anglia,
who was morbidly devoted to her own virginity,
which she had pledged, she told me, to our Savior.
Soon thereafter I died, one tiny line in Bede’s chronicle,
a footnote to Ethelreda’s impressively chaste tale.
She later married King Egfrith of Northumbia,
and they lived together as though brother and sister,
until, twelve years later, he demanded consummation
and she fled him to found the monastery at Ely.
She lived out her days there, and was later made a saint.
I missed all that, though, long dead from a broken heart.
The Back Story: I’ve been going through old journals as I’m cleaning things up for the move to Iowa, and I found this poem, and liked it more today than I did when I wrote it. I have always loved character studies about the dead and dying, probably because of the tremendously influential role of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology in my early intellectual development, sparked during a summer theater camp at Hofstra University back when I was in junior high school. This one is a true story from seventh century England. There’s loads and loads of information online about St. Ethelreda . . . but Tondberht only gets mentioned as the first man who married her. The spin on her tale is generally that it was a good thing that he died so soon, sparing her the ongoing burdens of matrimony. And maybe that was the case, maybe he was a bad and lecherous and abusive man. But what if he wasn’t? What if he was a sensitive, caring guy who was baffled by his wife’s behavior? What if it was her coldness that killed him, as he slept alone in his drafty castle in the swamp while Ethelreda prayed with her handmaidens? Even historical footnotes can have feelings, and I like to ponder them. Inspired by Spoon River, I always enjoy the fanciful concept of the dead rising to tell their tales, including the bits that their biographers might have missed. Like this one.