Between the Shelves: The British Mummy Kings by Matthew Goldberg

Between the Shelves is a showcase of Archive of the Odd stories outside of the main zine.

The following story is by the fantastic Matthew Goldberg. Matt Goldberg is a writer, teacher, and content strategist whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of literary journals, including SmokeLong QuarterlyThe Normal SchoolCoolest American Stories, The Arcanist, Maudlin House, and others. His work has also won first place for the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Sci-Fi and Fantasy Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives in Philadelphia, PA. Find him on Twitter @mattmgoldberg.

Story warnings: Dead bodies, war, food, alcohol, mention of prostitution

            On May 22, 802 AD, Egbert I made landfall in southern England to regain the kingdom of Wessex, one of the proto-states that existed in Britain at the time. The period in question, commonly known as the Dark Ages, began with the collapse of Roman rule in the fifth century. It was a difficult period for most people, affecting nearly every social strata, from peasant to nobleman, characterized by rapid economic decline, falling living standards, and social fragmentation. Out of the rubble, a handful of rulers attempted to restore something like the old order, with others attempting to create something wholly new. Of the latter category was Egbert I of Britain. His was a tumultuous reign, characterized by violence, but which marked great and enduring cultural change in the British Isles, the most important of those being the cessation of royal mummy worship.1

            Europeans, and in particular, Britons, viewed family lineage as crucial to both social status and identity, and it was common for those of means to mummify a deceased family member. This was especially the case for royalty. Because kings were thought to rule by God’s Will, they were considered divine beings and, as such, had special lineages known as Divine Lines. Unlike typical lineages that extend on with each generation, each Divine Line, consisting of the king’s wives and children, began and ended with that king’s rule (e.g. new king = new Divine Line).2 Upon the death of a king, the surviving members of his Divine Line would swiftly mummify his body. This was accomplished via the removal of his organs, and the subsequent embalming and drying of his flesh, ensuring at least the outward appearance of vitality. It was the belief in Europe, evidenced since before the time of Roman rule, that flesh contained the soul—the essential spark of a person—and thus the spark of a king could never, having come from the Divine Source, die out.3 In essence, then, the king was considered an immortal being and even after death treated as if he were still alive. As such, his wealth and possessions, including castles, land, servants, personal effects like jewels, art, armor, all remained under his control, and by extension, under the control of his Divine Line. The British royal dead were very much a part of the living world. They participated in meetings, collected tribute, and through decrees—which were interpreted by Court Mediums (often referred to in early texts as King Whisperers)—made crucial decisions that impacted state affairs. Thus power was preserved, in the same way that a prehistoric animal specimen is preserved when frozen in ice. This stockpiling of wealth and land frequently led to power clashes between heirs upon the physical death of the king, as happened after the death of Egbert’s father, Beorhtric, King of Wessex.  

            While Egbert I was Beorhtric’s eldest son, he had lost favor and was exiled to continental Europe during Beorhtric’s reign sometime in the 780s. After Beorhtric died (owing to a severe case of dysentery from eating spoiled pheasant), Egbert returned to Britain from Charlemagne’s court intent on claiming his rightful throne. But Beorhtric’s mummy had other intentions. In Egbert’s absence, Æthulwulf, Beorhtric’s second son, had been chosen king under dubious circumstances.4 This resulted in significant objections from the provincial vassals, who had become disillusioned with Beorhtric upon his mummification and did not trust his appointed successor. Æthulwulf, like his father, was a known sympathizer with the kingdom of Mercia, located directly north of Wessex, which had been steadily encroaching into Wessex lands. It had been Beorhtric’s (and then Æthulwulf’s) intention to ally with the Mercians to defeat the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia. The vassals, concerned that their lands would be annexed to Mercia in exchange for a military alliance, claimed that the Divine Line had not accurately represented the wishes of Mummy Beorhtric. Suffice it to say: the kingdom of Wessex had a serious mummy-engendered succession problem on their hands.

            Egbert exploited this rift to great effect. His steward, Cedric of Shereborne, provides an account of Egbert’s arrival in the southern town of Bridport:

At the Lord’s arrival, there was a parade held in his honor. We came to learn that both King Cuthred and King Cynewulf would be in attendance, having backed our claim to the throne. Brought out on litters, the Kings were outfitted in noble armor, affixed to their seats by ropes, and installed behind us in the arrival procession.5 The townspeople knelt in the streets, bowing with tears in their eyes. There was much feasting to be had in the evening, and the good tidings showered upon our procession were a sign of God’s fortune. It is liberation that we bring, freeing the Kingdom from the yolk of Beorhtric’s corruption and that of his illegitimate successor, Æthulwulf.

The support of the Mummy Kings Cuthred and Cynewulf—direct predecessors of Beorhtric—was key to establishing Egbert’s legitimacy. Their history and achievements were imparted upon Egbert, casting him in their deified glow. In particular, Mummy Cuthred, who had declared (and won) independence from Mercia in the early 700s, was revered. In the dead of night, Mummy Cuthred had been spirited out of the Wessex capital of Winchester under the nose of Æthulwulf. Mummy Cuthred’s appearance in the procession thus represented a coup of sorts, given his considerable sway with the vassals. The symbolism of the procession was also of great importance, offering a clear picture of Egbert as next in line to rule.

            News of Egbert’s return spread throughout Wessex and, with the support of the northern and southern provinces, he was able to summon a considerable army. But to become the undisputed king, Egbert needed to dispose of Æthulwulf and reinterpret the will of Beorhtric’s mummy, naming himself the rightful heir and true King of Wessex. This meant marching on Winchester Castle, the seat of power, which was still fully under the control of Æthulwulf and King Beorhtric’s Divine Line. Despite commanding fewer soldiers, Æthulwulf was aware of his tactical superiority and thus refused to meet Egbert in the field of battle. This forced Egbert to lay siege upon Winchester, leaving the northern provinces of Wessex open to an attack from the kingdom of Mercia, which had formally recognized Æthulwulf as king.6 As a result of the dual front that Mercia’s incursions represented, Egbert did not have the luxury of time to simply starve out Winchester and force surrender. His army would have to conquer the castle quickly—a difficult, if not impossible, task.

            Though modest by current standards, Winchester Castle was built to be impregnable against the warfare of the day. It was a circular structure, whose solid stone wall wrapped around the outside to withstand battering-rams and projectiles. The castle was also surrounded by a moat filled with stagnant, vile-smelling water that contained waste from the castle’s inhabitants. From overhanging platforms, the castle defenders hurled arms—rocks, arrows, or even animal dung—at attackers below. For two months, Egbert held siege, attempting to sink the morale of Æthulwulf’s forces. However, his attempts at breaching the castle walls were consistently beaten back. In the third month, Egbert faced pressure from the northern vassals to repulse the Mercian offensive. He would have to decamp, allowing Æthulwulf to consolidate power in the central provinces. This setback, combined with the waning support from Cuthred’s Divine Line, threatened the basis for Egbert’s claim.

            Knowing the capriciousness of the Royal Mummies (and having lived through the previous civil war that vaulted his father Beorhtric to the throne),7  Egbert wrote a letter of appeal to Cynewulf’s Divine Line, entreating them to shore up support with Cuthred:

I beseech thee, Good King Cynewulf, victor at the Battle of Burford, Repeller of the Danes, to confer with King Cuthred and his Line on my behalf. As reward for this aid, I shall, upon my ascension to the throne, bequeath to thee the fertile lands between Eashing and Appledore. Please make haste. Discretion, as always, is vital.

            Privately, however, Egbert was livid at having to kowtow before the Mummy Kings, finding the custom antiquated, and perhaps even barbarous. Egbert was not just an ambitious man, but a reformer who had, as a result of his exile, spent much of his adulthood in continental Europe. His pilgrimage to Rome in 795 AD and, in particular, his affinity for Pope Leo III,  (who regarded the deification of Royal Mummies as a distraction from God’s grace), revealed that Egbert’s supplications to the Mummy Kings were a matter of political expedience as opposed to genuine reverence. While the effect of his letter is unknown, Egbert soon received a stroke of good luck that would propel him to the throne.        

            Inside the walls of Winchester Castle, fear ran rampant and starvation creeped in like shadow. With that fear came treachery. The famished and stricken inhabitants of Winchester did not know that within the month, Egbert would have to abandon the siege. They believed themselves on the verge of destruction, and so it was that the members of Beorhtric’s Divine Line—relatives of both Egbert and Æthulwulf—conspired with Æthulwulf’s wife, Osburh, to have her husband, their king, murdered. While it is not known how this murder was carried out, we do get an account from Cedric of Shereborne of the aftermath:

A force emerged from the castle walls to parlay. It appeared that Æthulwulf himself was leading the envoy. We did not know what this entailed, but soon learnt, as the party approached, that it was not Æthulwulf as we had believed, but his mummy. My Lord could scarcely believe it. Providence shown down on us once again.

            Mummy Æthulwulf came with terms, whereby Egbert would be declared King of Wessex on the condition that the Divine Line of both former kings (Æthulwulf and Beorhtric) were spared. Another form of preservation—this time of the living at the expense of the dead.

            Egbert agreed to and kept with the terms, but he also had something in mind that neither Lines had foreseen. Egbert’s first act as king was to host a great feast. He invited all of the Divine Lines and their august originators. At the long table in the Great Hall of Winchester, Egbert presided over what must have been a strange dinner in which he was the only living king at the table.8 The sumptuous food sat in front of the mummies, growing cold on their plates until it was carted out to the family members of each Divine Line, assembled in a secondary dining room filled with chatter and revelry.

            Egbert waited until those in the secondary dining room were good and drunk on spiced mead, and then ordered his men to gather the Mummy Kings into a great heap. The kings were set aflame until their mummified remains were burnt to nothing. Knowing the power these mummies held, Egbert realized that to avoid destructive infighting in the future, it was necessary to erase the past. Thus, he eliminated both the physical bodies of the mummies and also the vital afterlife their families imagined for them. The Mummy Kings were finally, irreversibly dead.9 When the family members of each Divine Line were informed, they were aghast, wailing and moaning as if they themselves had been burned alive. There are accounts of long-time Court Mediums immolating themselves so as to join their rulers (perhaps bereft that their positions were no longer required). Egbert allowed the families to grieve, thinking himself a pious and fair ruler. As a last gesture of goodwill, he permitted the mourners to gather up the ashes of their forbearers, which were still considered animate, so that they could continue to venerate the ashes in private chapels.10

            Throughout the remainder of his reign, Egbert took special pleasure in rooting out royal mummies and burning them to dust. When Egbert himself died in 839, he refused to be mummified, despite popular demand. He ordered his body to be buried in the first Christian Church of Winchester, known as Old Minster. While there have been many theories claiming this order was disobeyed,11 we now know for certain that Egbert’s wishes were indeed carried out. In the 1960s, during an excavation of the site that housed Old Minster, Egbert’s bones were exhumed and their identity confirmed through carbon dating and a description of his burial goods. Subsequently, his royal bones were removed from the original burial site, reinterred at Winchester Cathedral, and housed in a mortuary chest around the pulpit.

            That is, until 2012 when scientists from the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology began a groundbreaking project to piece together the mortal remains of early Anglo-Saxon kings, like Egbert I. Visitors to the Winchester Cathedral can now view Egbert’s skeleton, along with his 3D-printed facial reconstruction, at the Cathedral’s landmark National Lottery funded exhibition, Kings of Old: Reliving the Past. Egbert’s myriad contributions to British history are recounted there in exquisite detail. One wonders what Egbert would make of this honor. It seems fair to speculate that, in hindsight, he would regret not opting for cremation.

1 The origin of this practice can be traced to ritual sacrifice in ancient Britain, whereby deposed chieftains were buried in peat bogs, leading to spontaneous mummification – examples include the famous Lindow Man and the Tolland Man. These mummies were created due to the anaerobic conditions naturally found in bogs.

2 Factionalism among the various Divine Lines was common, which served to undermine the potential for dynastic ruling structures. Thus, power was diffused between the various royal claimants, each deriving their authority from a different ancestral Mummy King.

3 The belief in the sanctity of flesh can be seen today in the Christian Eucharist, whereby the “body” of Christ is eaten in the form of sacramental bread.

4 It is believed that Æthulwulf had Beorhtric’s existing Court Mediums beheaded and appointed his own. Evidently, being a Medium was a lucrative, if short-lived position.

5 There were a number of creative methods that Divine Lines used to make it appear as if Royal Mummies were alive. Puppeteer-like aids would stand behind mummies to make them wave or otherwise interact with their subjects; taste-testers would stick food into the mouths of mummies and move their lips around as if chewing; prostitutes were hired to have sexual relationships with long-dead mummies in an attempt to demonstrate vitality.

6 Unlike Wessex, Mercia was a pagan kingdom that did not widely practice royal mummy worship. Mummies were common, of course, but their use largely revolved around demonstrations of devotion, in which mummified bodies were burned atop cultic pyres in sacrifice to deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year.

7 Beorhtric had been the second eldest nephew of the childless King Cynewulf, and thus his claim to the throne was even more fragile. His initial reign was contested by two brothers, a cousin, and a powerful Court Medium known only as Oswald.  

8 We know from contemporaneous sources the contents of the meal. It included: a roe-deer, a suckling pig, a sturgeon cooked in parsley and vinegar, twelve goslings, as many pigeons, six young rabbits, two herons, four chickens covered with egg yolks, a wild boar, and some wafers with a jelly, part white and part red, representing the crests of the honored guests.

9 Given their active role in state affairs and as a result of normal wear and tear, the Royal Mummies (depending on their age) were in various states of deterioration. The oldest among them appeared as desiccated heads stuck atop wooden stakes and wrapped in linen.

10 There is conjecture that a number of Anglican Saints had their origins in this practice.

11 Egbert’s mummy allegedly surfaced a number of times in Victorian England. One even made the rounds at the British Museum.

One thought on “Between the Shelves: The British Mummy Kings by Matthew Goldberg

  1. An excellent, well-researched historical account, Matthew. I’m ashamed to admit that I, an English woman with a keen interest in the Dark Ages, had been hitherto unaware of the illustrious reign of Egbert I, and indeed of his tactical brilliance in socially and politically outmanoeuvring his extant and deceased rivals.

    Liked by 1 person

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