In 797, Alcuin of York, an English religious consellor to the pious Franks, famously wrote to the Bishop of Lindisfarne, about the use of secular verse and music in the cloisters:
Verba Dei legantur in sacerdotali convivio. Ibi decet lectorem audiri, non citharistam; sermones patrum, non carmina gentilium. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?
“The words of God should be read when monks eat together. There only the scripture-reader should be heard, not the lute-player; the sermons of the holy fathers, not the songs of the people. What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”
Apart from being excellent evidence that the harp was indeed used to accompany the recitation of heroic lays, this indicates that among the Anglo-Saxons the Ingeld legends enjoyed a preeminent status. While the Frankish clergy was successful in exstirpating nearly all traces of the traditional lays from the continental domains of the Franks, at least some of the older stories have come down to us, recorded by the Anglo-Saxon clergy.
The use by the clergy of traditional verse techniques to compose pious material probably accounts for the collection and retention the secular material which has come down to us. It was probably justified as providing raw material for religious poetry. Similar clerical fulminations were directed against the reading of the secular Latin classics, but the prestige of Latin and the need to retain knowledge of the language of imperial power ensured that they survived.
Apart from the glorious Beowulf, however, it must be admitted that the pickings in terms of surviving heroic legendary material from England are rather slim. The only lengthy depiction of the once dominant Ingeld cycle is to be found in a passage in Beowulf describing his bride-to-be Freawaru and predicting a less than happy end to the story. Other than that, he is only mentioned briefly in the poem Widsið as being defeated by his enemies.
The Exeter Book, which contains Widsith, is our main source of non-religious traditional poetry outside of the Beowulf manuscript. It contains a considerable amount of religious poetry, an large number of impenetrable verse-riddles, some gnomic verse and several rather mysterious shortish poems which we know as the elegies.
Of these, both Widsith and another poem Deor contain clear references to legendary material. It also seems likely that the elegaic poem Wulf and Eadwacer is in some way related to a cycle of legends surrounding Theoderic, on the basis that the name Eadwacer is the English version of Odoacer, who was Theoderic’s enemy. More than that is impossible to know except that the poem certainly contains no references to Ingeld. So the possibility that other elegies are related to epic heroic lays is not at all far-fetched.
Might they even contain material going back to all those songs about Ingeld which were being recited in English monasteries at the end of the 8th century and so infuriated Alcuin? I suggest that parts of the Ingeld cycle do indeed survive in anonymous form in other poems in the Exeter Book, protected from clerical censorship by their obscurity. I believe that this ‘hidden Ingeld’ material is to be found in the poems The Wife’s Lament, The Seafarer and The Husband’s Message.
The Beowulf story tells how Hroðgar King of Denmark has offered his daughter Freawaru to Ingeld the Heaðobard, whose father was killed by the Danes, to settle the feud and cement an alliance. Beowulf predicts that Ingeld’s kin will not take kindly to his marrying the daughter of his father’s killer. His prediction that there will be blood spilled and that Ingeld’s love for his bride will cool is confirmed in a later Danish telling of the tale by Saxo Grammaticus (read this magnificent piece in full here). In Widsið we learn that Ingeld subsequently attacked Hroðgar in Denmark and was defeated. We don’t know what happened to him after that. But after such a defeat, if he wasn’t killed, it is certainly possible that he was on the run.
The Wife’s Lament tells of a royal couple who are separated as a result of the husband being forced to leave and pressure from the husband’s kin. She now lives alone in a sacred grove. The man is portrayed as in exile, at least partly on a ship. The first section of The Seafarer contains the lament of a man who once lived among warriors, who must now voyage as an exile on the cold seas. The Husband’s Message tells of a ruler who has overcome problems which forced him to go away on a ship and now asks his former wife to join him in his new life.
There is no doubt that the three elegies fit together quite well. The Exeter Book materials can also be viewed as a continuation of the Ingeld story in Beowulf and Widsið, with Ingeld on the run and his wife alone and desperate. By tying them all together we can develop an powerful alternative perspective for reading the Exeter Book poems.
In The Hidden Ingeld – Pt II, I discuss how each of the poems can be read so they all fit together as part of the Ingeld saga.
Here is a summary of the complete story derived from a combined reading:
The speaker in The Wife’s Lament is Freawaru. She is the daughter of the Hroðgar, King of the Danes, given in marriage to Ingeld the Heaðobard, whose father was killed in battle by the Danes, together with the hero Wiðergyld .
Things go well for a while in the Heaðobard court, until Ingeld, provoked by an old warrior from among his own followers, kills one of Freawaru’s thanes. He then leaves his wife behind and goes off to fight the Danes, by whom he is defeated and subsequently goes into exile. During his exile he is a seafarer for at least part of the time.
Meanwhile Freawaru goes looking for supporters, but finds none. Ingeld, from his exile organises for her to live in the sacred grove, where she will be safe from his kin, in the same way as later cast-off queens were sent to a nunnery. She lives in a cave under an oak tree.
The story is completed in The Husband’s Message, with Ingeld sending Freawaru a secret message carved in runes on the oak tree in the grove. The message is encoded because he doesn’t want his kin to find out. He has overcome his troubles and established himself somewhere safe from the Danes. When the cuckoo sings in the grove, marking spring, she is to sail south and rejoin him.