The next morning at sunrise, Aethelwin and Ailith dutifully made themselves ready for the procession. It was Palm Sunday. In days gone by, they would have set aside their beautiful dresses and their expensive jewellery in favour of simple, unadorned tunics, in order to show their piety and respect for the occasion. Now, neither had a piece of gold or silver between them. The clothes they had slept and lived in for the past four months were the only items of clothing they possessed. They scrubbed their hands and faces, combed each other’s hair free of knots and tried to make themselves as respectable as possible before leaving the little riverside house.
The beginning of the procession would start in the ruins of the old town, past the little Foss Bridge to the charred buildings and colourful tents of the Danes on the north bank. The river from the fortress to the settlement was almost entirely devoid of the Danish fleet. Only a few smaller trading vessels pulled at their tethers in the sway of the river. Likewise on the land behind the settlement, large patches of mud now stood where once tents had flourished. The occupants of the remaining tents stood outside of their doorways, eagerly taking in the growing hoard of Christians which had lined the old roman road. Aethelwin gripped her sisters hand tighter as they stopped in the grey morning light, waiting.
It was heartening to see so many Christians, so many of her people who despite the threat of their Danish overlords, had come out to mark such a holy occasion. Some no doubt were the original habitants of York who for one reason or another had stayed, just like the girls. Though much more of the group would be from further afield, from the towns and villages, encouraged back to York by the determination of the Archbishop to keep up the Northumbrian traditions.
At last a cheer at the far end of the crowd was heard. The figure of the Archbishop could be seen ahead of a large crowd. He too wore a plain tunic, though in a deep red, much different to his elegant robes and pallium he usually wore for such special occasions. He sat upon a grey donkey, led by another priest, with three more leading the way. Their job was to lay the boughs of willow ahead of the donkey so that the Archbishop could ride over them. Behind them, two novice boys scooped up the fronds quickly and passed them to the monks to be re-laid, over and over again. Behind the novices shuffled the people of Northumbria, solemn and pious as ritual dictated.
Those waiting along the roadside fell in with the crowd and silently walked back over the little bridge to the main gate of the fortress. Aethelwin noticed that even a few of the Danes had joined in, though she reasoned it was probably more due to curiosity than a new found belief in Christianity.
As the Archbishop and his entourage passed through the East Gate, an even louder cheer erupted. Danish men and women were even perched on top of the ruined roman walls and the wooden palisades, enraptured by the spectacle of hundreds of people filing into the fortress, following an old man on a donkey. Unbeknown to them, they had just witnessed one of the defining moments in the ritual. The moment when Wulfhere rode through the gates of York on his donkey, was a reproduction of the moment when the Lord Jesus rode his own donkey, a symbol of peace, through the gates of Jerusalem.
The procession swelled into the old fortress and lined the narrow road towards the Minster, the final destination. There, Wulfhere was helped from his noble steed and led to the steps of the church.
“Welcome everyone, in the commemoration of this holy day. Palm Sunday, the day in which our Lord, Jesus Christ, entered into Jerusalem as the rightful king. It also marks the last week of lent, the beginning of the last week in which our Lord is betrayed, is tried, and lastly sacrificed for our sins. Let us give thanks and praise for such a sacrifice.”
The monks who were arrayed behind the Archbishop, erupted into a steady chant. Those in the crowd who knew enough of the words followed suit, though the majority shuffled about, trying to keep warm. Now that the initial excitement of the procession was over, they had to endure the preaching of a normal Sunday sermon, in the cold and soggy March morning.
Behind the chanting though, came another sound. A soft whispering on the wind that in itself sounded like the competing chants of a far off rival church. A ripple of intrigue ran through everyone as the chanting magnified and the sentinels stirred into action. The Danes who had not joined in with the procession started pouring into the fortress from their tents on the Ouse bank. The Northumbrians were more interested in the scurrying Danes than listening to any more of the service. Most stood as if transfixed.
“It’s the King!” A voice called out from the crowd. “It’s King Aelle.”
Excerpt from The Northumbrian Saga by A H Gray
Copyright © 2013 by A H Gray.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
- Historical Figure Profile: King Osbert and King Aelle of Northumbria (ahgray.wordpress.com)
- Historical Figure Profile: Archbishop Wulfhere of York (ahgray.wordpress.com)