The year is 679.
It was the sound, the caw of crows that was first to wake him, next it was pain. His head throbbed. His limbs were rigid, refusing to budge. He squint his eyes open. He was laying face upwards. Clouds scud above, a cool breeze ruffled his hair bringing also a stench that sickened him. He raised and turned his head. The carnage of battle lay strewn as far as he could see. Mud splattered bodies, mortal wounds issuing dried fountains of blood, clouds of flies, hovering, weapons discarded or still piercing through leather and flesh. Scarred, lifeless faces and the hideous display of death restored his memory of the day before.
The Remarkable Story of Imma and Tunna
His king, Egfrid, ruler of all Bernicia also called Northumbria, had been defeated by Ethelred, King of Mercia, on the banks of the River Trent, in the province of Lyndsey. The defeat was overwhelming.
Imma, through his ancestry, was thegn to King Egfrid and though he did not fight in the battle was caught in the conflict, severely wounded in one leg and a severe blow to his skull had rendered him unconscious all night long.
“Must get to my feet and find my friends,” he muttered to himself.
Being determined not to remain with the dead he sat up, tore some cloth from his shirt, bound his leg and struggled to his feet. But as he scanned the wasteland for signs of life only crows were busy. Hobbling between bodies he crossed the battle field to a stream where he knelt, cupped his hands and drank. He did not feel it was safe to return up the north road so began a slow stumble through woods and forest. His progress was slow but he was determined. After an hour though, he had to rest. But as he sat on a tree stump, he was startled as a voice bellowed from behind him.
“Who do we have here? Declare yourself young man!” Demanded one as some dozen men immediately surrounded him with drawn swords.
Cowering in fright, sure that his end was now upon him, he stammered his name.
“My name is Imma.”
“Imma, then you must be a Bernician. All yesterday we were slaughtering Bernicians, weren’t we men. So what shall we do with this one, eh? Looks like we could easily finish him off. Put him out of his agony. What do you say? Would that be merciful?”
“Indeed I am a Bernician but I was no soldier in that battle, just a humble peasant who with others came with provisions. Sadly I was caught up in a skirmish and was wounded and knocked out until but an hour ago. I was hoping to find friends and return home.”
“Peasant or not, you will not be returning anywhere. But we can see you are no sport. We will let our master decide your fate. Come.”
Surrounded and bound he was half dragged over rough country to the nobleman’s manor where again Imma declared who he was, just a poor peasant, with wife and children at home, who had simply been delivering food for those who fought. Fortunately this nobleman accepted Imma’s identity and explanation and so ordered that he be fed and his wounds dressed. But so that he would not escape at night he was confined and bound.
Meanwhile, Imma had a brother named Tunna who was a priest and abbot at a monastery back home in Bernicia. Sadly, the news soon came to him that his brother had been killed in the battle. Therefore, with great mourning, he immediately journeyed to the field of battle where he supposed his brother had been slain. But by this time the bodies were being eaten by crows and foxes and so it was hard to identify his corpse. Nevertheless, finding a body that looked very much like his brother, and so believing it indeed was him, he carried the body to the monastery where he was honourably buried.
Now Imma was completely unaware of what his brother had done, but after his supposed burial something remarkable occurred. Each night, when Imma was securely bound so that he could not escape, the cords that bound him loosed and fell from him. The nobleman was greatly amazed and perplexed by this.
“Imma, how is it you cannot be bound?” He demanded to know. “Is there some spell cast upon you, the sort of spells we hear in stories of old?”
“Kind sir, I know of no such things and am not familiar with those arts. But I do have a brother who is a religious man back in our country. He is a Christian and at certain times of the day, supposing me to be killed, will be praying for my soul. Of this I am sure, for we do earnestly believe that the prayers of the faithful here will greatly aid the progress of our souls in the next life.”
The nobleman considered this answer but nevertheless, although he could not be bound, Imma was still kept prisoner.
Now as time passed it was hard for Imma to continue pretending to be a peasant. Those who observed him could not be fooled for his manners, knowledge and quality of conversation did not seem to be that of a peasant. Eventually, as these observations were reported to the nobleman, Imma was brought before him to explain.
“Young man, Imma, it has been brought to my attention that you seem to be more than a mere peasant so do now tell me your true identity. I promise that no harm will come to you if you tell me truly.”
“Sire, I do confess, I was indeed a thegn to King Egfrid.”
“I knew it! From your bearing and your answers to my questions I was suspicious that you were but a mere peasant. Now hearing you are a thegn to my king’s enemy you deserve to die. All my brothers, uncles and cousins were killed in that battle. I lost everyone.”
“Sire I am deeply saddened by your loss, but I was no soldier, I truly was simply supplying provisions to my kings army.”
“Fear not, I have promised no harm will come to you. But as soon as your wounds are fully healed you will be sold as a slave. You will no longer be a free man. You may leave.”
The journey from Mercia to London was long and wearisome but just as he could not be bound when at the nobleman’s manor, while being transported, again, no ropes could bind him.
In London he was sold to a Frisian merchant, a man of the Netherlands who he served willingly, but again, his master was unable to bind him. Eventually, because of this annoyance his master decided that rather than risk losing his investment by flight he would offer him a deal.
“Imma, you have served me well, but at any time you could run away and you will then be money wasted. I give you a deal. If you promise me that you will raise the money and pay me the ransom, then you will no longer be bound to me. You will be a free man.”
“Thank you sir for the opportunity you give me. However long it takes, on my honour, I shall return with or send you the ransom. I know I shall be successful for it is the prayers of my brother that prevents me from being bound with cords, those prayers shall also unbind me from you.”
But how was Imma going to raise a lot of money? Well, a thegn has royal connections and he had been in the court of Queen Ethelthryth, wife of King Egfrid. Now this queen was aunt to Hlothere king of Kent, so, he thought, maybe that king would pay his ransom. So with faith in his brothers prayers he set off across the river Thames to the court of the king, who upon hearing Imma’s amazing story, granted him the money he needed which was sent straight to Imma’s Frisian master in London.
Imma was now free and with a full heart he began his long journey north, home to Bernicia, his wife and children and to his brother.
Tunna of course was amazed when who should knock on the door of his monastery but the brother he thought he had buried! What joy both felt as they embraced in that reunion. But as Imma related his adventure, Tunna confirmed the times of the day he prayed and administered the sacrament of the Lord's supper and they always coincided with the times those cords that bound him were loosed. With this knowledge they gave heartfelt thanks to He who sets free all who put their whole trust in Him.
(Expanded from Bede's History, Book IV Chapter XXII)
Monasteries in the 7th century would have been simple timber framed structtures, not made of stone as in later centuries