The Tale of King Henry and the Angel

[A spirited but friendly argument was going on in the kitchen of the castle of our King. The subject was angels, and the Chief Cook was adamant that angels were spiritual, translucent creatures, and floated in the air; much like a ghost. On the other hand, the Royal Chancellor was positive that angels were ten feet tall, with large, white wings, and wore robes of white silk. The discussion wove back and forth, with the kitchen workers acting as judge, jury and spectator. The argument finally got to the point that neither side would budge an inch from their position, so they moved on to another age-old question, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

The Chief Cook said all of them, as they could change their shape and size; while the Royal Chancellor said only one, in deference to their large size; they were clearly much bigger than a mere pin.

After an hour of very pleasant but mostly idle conversation, they found that neither one had moved the other's position by as much as an inch; clearly they needed to go elsewhere for their solution. Asking one of the kitchen crew to act as arbiter was out of the question, they would no doubt be loyal to their master. Likewise, asking a courtier who was beholden to the Royal Chancellor did not seem to the Chief Cook to be such a wonderful idea. They did not know what to do.

"Why not get an impartial but learned opinion?" ventured one of the assistant cooks; "Perhaps Roger might be called upon to review both sides, and render a verdict; after all, angels are more his business than either of yours!"

"That's an excellent idea!" cried the Chief Cook; "he is out in the garden; I'll send one of my helpers out to ask him to join us in the kitchen."

"Why not the Great Hall," responded the Royal Chancellor; "That is a more neutral place."

"I can not allow that; if we leave the kitchen, dinner will not be prepared on time; and then we will be in trouble with the King." The Chief Cook shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that it really did not matter to him, and so the Royal Chancellor agreed to hold the judgment in the kitchen workroom.

Therefore, the monk was sent for, and soon arrived at the kitchen door. "You sent for me?" the old monk inquired; "Is someone ill?"

"Sit down, dear Roger," the Royal Chancellor spoke in a friendly voice, "we have a question or two for you. But first, try this new wine I just brought up from the cellar, I think it may be to your liking."

"The wine would go well with these cookies," added the Chief Cook, throwing a wicked glance at the Royal Chancellor; "and if you finish these, there are always more cookies and cakes to be had."

Roger slowly took his regular chair, over by the kitchen fire. "I take it that you both want me to give my opinion on some point of canon law or religious dogma? Moreover, you think that some wine and cookies would sway my opinion? I must say I am disappointed in the both of you; you offer to buy me with things you would normally give me anyway. I will take some ale, and perhaps a slice or two of that fresh loaf of bread, and I shall try to forget how you think I could have been bought so cheaply."

The Royal Chancellor and the Chief Cook both hurried to apologize to their old friend, and assured him that they did not mean to offend him.

"Okay," said the monk; "but please do not let it happen again. Now what is this burning question that draws me from my prayers?"

The Chancellor and the Cook each gave Roger their views on what an angel looks like, and then they described how many angels they thought could dance on the head of a pin; they summed it all up by inquiring who the wise old monk thought was correct.

"Well, let me first say that you are both wrong," said the old monk; "You have listened to old wife's tales, and have not learned anything from my sermons. Angels are God's messengers, and they look just like us. Don't you remember what I spoke about last Spring? I believe the verse was in, er, Hebrews; yes, Hebrews 13:2 - 'Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.' If angels can be entertained and you are not aware of it, surely they must look just like you and me, right? As for dancing on pinheads, angels are too busy dancing before the Throne of God for His pleasure to ever think about dancing on silly pins!"

The old monk took a swig of his ale, and continued; "I remember a story from the days of Good King Henry: it was a spring day and . . ."]

King Henry was out again touring the countryside, wandering among his people, disguised as a humble Friar. By journeying abroad in this way he learned what was important to the common people of the kingdom, and how he could help them in their daily lives. Now this trip in particular was for a special reason; word had gotten back to the King's Court that there was an angel in the land, doing good deeds and then vanishing mysteriously. This intrigued the King and Queen, so they decided that the King himself would go out and look for signs of this angel.

As the King walked along, he kept his eyes open for any signs of an angel; were the people he met totally clean of body, their clothes spotless, did they seem to float or hover in the air, did their heads seem to glow with a halo; all the things that legend said angels manifested. Nevertheless, so far everyone he saw looked quite ordinary.

On the third day of his journey, the King came upon a small cottage. A call of greeting went unanswered so he walked up to the door, and saw that it was open. Inside, amid much clutter and debris, an old man lay on a pallet, clearly quite ill. The King heard the man whisper for a drink, so finding a cup, Henry went out to the well, and filled it with clear, cold water.

As he slowly helped the man to drink the water, the man told him of how his family had each one taken ill, and one by they had passed through death's door. He had just finished burying his youngest son when he felt light-headed, and knew that he himself had caught the disease that had killed his family. He went in to lie down on his bed, but found out later that he had not the strength to rise up again. Dogs had come through the unfastened door, and had ransacked the cottage, making a mess while searching for food, with the man unable to do anything about it.

The King felt so sorry for the man he decided to set about restoring the cottage to some form of order. First, seeing the man was famished, Henry set about looking for some food that was still edible. Finding that the dogs had not ruined any of the stored grain, the King made porridge, and fed the man it all, bite by bite, until it was gone. The King helped the man to clean himself, as he had lain in his bed for days, unable to rise and attend to his body's needs properly. When all of that was taken care of, Henry made sure the man was okay to leave for a few hours, and set out to get more firewood, as he had used the last of it to fix the porridge; there was none left in the cottage.

However, as he started out to a grove of nearby trees, he spied an old woman with a huge bunch of old branches on her back. "Where are you going with that wood?" the King asked her.

"I travel to the next village, my wood for to sell," was her reply; "this is how I keep food on my table."

"I will buy your wood," said the King, "and I have a job for you, if you will take it."

"I am not skilled in any craft, I am but a poor wife, whose husband is dead, and whose children are all grown and moved away. I fear I am not very useful, unless you seek a wood gatherer or a housemaid."

"A housemaid is exactly what I am looking for; if you go to yon cottage and tend to the man inside, I will pay you a gold coin. With that money, you could buy food for the both of you, and when the man is well, he can tend the farm, and you can tend the house for him."

The old woman agreed, but begged the Friar to allow her to go and fetch her household goods, so that she would have the things she needed to keep the cottage in order and prepare meals. The King gave her the gold coin he had promised her, and some silver coins so that she could buy meat and other food to supplement the grain still secure in the cottage. He also told her to rent a wagon to haul her household stuff from her old home.

The King returned to the cottage with the firewood, and set about cleaning the cottage itself. As he worked, the man on the pallet told him of his family; and how the joy in his life had left with the death of his children and wife.

"I have found you a woman who will tend your needs until you are well again," said Henry; "she is off gathering supplies; when she returns she will feed you and see to your needs."

The next day, the woman returned, with a wagon and driver, the wagon filled with the old woman's possessions. They unloaded all the furniture, and as the old woman set about fixing a meal, the King paid the driver himself, and asked for a ride to the next village. The sick man and the widow woman did not even see them leave, as they were quite busy becoming acquainted with each other.

Soon the wagon driver and the Good Friar were well on their way to the wagon driver's village. As they rode along, the driver talked of how he had started as an innkeeper's stable boy, and by saving his pennies, had bought the cart and horse he was now driving, to make a better life for himself and his family. Henry encouraged the man to talk, and they spent a pleasant afternoon, the man telling of his life as a wagon master.

"Some day I hope to save enough to buy a second wagon, and then I shall really become wealthy. My oldest son is fourteen, and can drive this wagon as well as I can. With him and I both working, we will not stop until we have our own stable filled with horses and wagons to hire out!"

When they finally got to the wagon master's village, the King thanked the man for the ride, and gave him a gold coin, "to aid you in your plans for your son." The man protested that a bit of copper was more than enough, but Henry insisted, saying that as a humble Friar, he could not carry gold for very long. He needed, he said, to give it away to others as quickly as he possibly could. The man thanked the King repeatedly, and said that he would never forget him. As the driver went to tend his horse, Good King Henry quickly slipped away, so that when the driver returned to say goodbye, he had no clue where the disguised King had gone.

Feeling quite pleased with himself, the King sought out the Inn of the village, and asked for ale and a meal. As he ate, the King saw a young boy and girl enter the inn, and they were but skin and bone. The boy asked the innkeeper if they could work for a meal, and soon the boy was sweeping the room with a broom as tall as he was, as his sister went to wash dirty dishes in the kitchen.

Good King Henry motioned to the Innkeeper, and asked him to feed the children without any more work. Giving the man a silver coin, he also asked the innkeeper to have them sit at his table. Giving a shrug, the innkeeper did as requested, for a silver piece would feed more than a dozen men. As the innkeeper went to fetch the children, the King sat and waited for the children to sit down and start their meal. Once the boy and girl had started eating, the King began to ask them questions.

"Why do you look for work at such a young age?" asked the King; "have you no homes to go to, no parents or family to care for you?"

"Our parents are dead, and if we have other family, we do not know them," replied the boy. "We have been traveling to the King's castle, where we have been told that Good King Henry might find us a place to live and work. My sister was ill for a long time, and ever since my parents died, she has not spoken a word."

"The King does do that," the King replied, "but I have a better idea. Why not travel to a cottage that I know of in the woods, where you will meet two people who are struggling to farm the land. I am sure they would love to take care of you both. You can work for them and they will feed, cloth, and shelter you, as if you were their own children."

After their meal, the King took the two children to the wagon master's home, and asked him to drive the children, along with a load of food, to the cottage he had just left. Paying the man with more silver, the King gave the children each a gold coin, and told them to give it to the goodwife at the cottage.

Soon the wagon was filled with food enough to feed four people for months. Eager to be on their way, the children waved at the King as their wagon rolled out of sight, calling out their thanks and promising to remember the Friar in their prayers each night.

Having been on the road now for almost a week, the King turned and started his way back to his castle. At every inn he listened for word of the elusive angel, but found no one who could report that they themselves had seen one, just that it always seemed to have happened "over in the next village."

Then the King got an Idea. "I have heard tell that our King will pay a silver piece to anyone who has seen the angel," he said at the next inn; "so let those who you meet that say they have know that our King wants to meet them, and will pay for the privilege."

Spreading his message as he walked his way home, the King was sure that this idea would finally answer the question that had started his journey in the first place. He finally entered his castle, and went to meet his Queen in her solarium. Telling her of all he had seen, she agreed that it would probably be but a few days before someone who had actually seen the angel entered their court.

And it proved to be true; over the next two weeks, people of all walks of life came to see the King and Queen, each telling of how some stranger unknown to anybody had helped them in some way. One spoke of a ride in a wagon when he could not walk another step; another of a sack of food left on the doorstep of a family whose barn had burned down. Each story told of a kindness given to another, but there was nothing miraculous in any of the tales told to the King and Queen.

However, much to the King's surprise, when the next family came to his court, claiming to have seen the angel, he knew them all well. It was the old man and widow he had helped, along with the two children he had sent to them.

"I saw the angel with my own two eyes," said the man; "he fed me, cleaned me, and restored order to my home. But when I went to thank him, he disappeared!"

"I saw him too, Good King," added the woman, "he sent me to this Goodman here, and we have fallen in love. We plan to marry when the Banns can be read thrice in the village church, and then we shall make a true home for each other and the children the angel has sent us!"

Then spoke up the little boy: "We were poor and starving; he paid for our food, and sent us to these wonderful people. We are very happy with them, and it is all the work of the angel!" The boy finished talking, and his little sister nodded her head, agreeing with all that her brother said.

As the King pondered what he could say to these people, another person entered the court.

"I am a wagon master in my village, and I have seen the angel you asked for word about," said the man; "with his gift of gold my son now has a wagon to drive, and we have been very successful with us both working hard, carrying people and their goods from village to village."

The King gravely thanked them all for coming to his court, and tried to give them each a silver coin, as promised. But each one of them refused the gift, instead asking the King to give it to the church, as a thanks offering to God, for sending them His angel. Good King Henry did as he was asked, and added another gold piece from his own purse, for he had learned an important lesson. The King himself had been the angel sent by God to some of the people of the Kingdom. It appeared that there were no miracles at all, it was just ordinary people doing good works, as God has asked of each of us.

[. . . And so the King and his Queen then realized that anyone who loves his neighbor as we are told to do by God has the ability to be used as an angel, a messenger of God's love for us all." Roger took another sip of his ale, and looked around at the people who had stopped their work to listen to him. "Now I fear you all must get back to your duties, lest the King have his dinner served late, and I be blamed for it!"

And as they all set off to their labors, they each wondered if they, too, had ever been an angel to someone else. They were so intent on their tasks, that they did not see Roger rise from his chair and gently float out the kitchen door, heading back to his reading in the garden. "Angels with white wings, wearing robes of white silk!" he muttered to himself; "How could I keep that clean? It was as if I were ten feet tall, or could be seen clear through! I am much too plump to be dancing on the head of a pin; I would probably prick myself in the toe! What silly idea will people think up next!" And as the monk made his way unobserved by anyone here on Earth, he danced along the path to the glory of his Creator, with a smile on his face, and joy in his heart.]

{Author's Note: the ending above does not jibe with the other Good King Henry stories, but that does not matter, even the finest stories have the odd inconsistancy or two. By the next story, I'm sure that Roger will be back to being a grumpy old monk, and his ability to float and his ability to dance only a memory.}

Roger of Belden Abbey
Copyright © 2005, Daniel A. Thompson, Jr.

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