In the reign of King John there lived an Abbot of Canterbury who had an important position in his Abbey. A hundred of the Abbot's men had dinner each day with him in his dining room, and fifty knights in velvet coats and gold chains waited for him daily. Well, King John, as you know, was a very bad king, and he couldn't stand the idea of anyone in his kingdom being honoured more than him. So he called for the Abbot of Canterbury.
The Abbot came with a good company, with his fifty knights in velvet cloaks and gold chains. The King went to meet him, and said to him, "Well, father Abbot. I hear that people think you are more important than I am. Do you want to attack our royal dignity?"
"My liege," said the Abbot, bending low, "I beg to say that the people of my Abbey generously gave me all I spend. I hope your Grace will not think it is bad to spend for the Abbey what is from the Abbey."
"Not at all," answered the King, "everything that is in England is our own, and you have no right to put me to shame by saying this. However, I will be merciful and I will spare your life and your property if you can answer me three questions."
"I will do it, my liege," said the Abbot, "if I know."
"Well, then," said the King, "tell me. Where is the centre of all the world? How soon can I ride around the whole world? And finally, tell me what I think."
"Your Majesty is joking," stammered the Abbot.
"I am not joking," said the King. "If you can't answer me these questions within a week, your head will leave your body;" and he turned away.
Well, the Abbot rode off in fear and trembling. First he went to Oxford to see if a learned doctor could tell him the answer to those questions. But none could help him, and he went to Canterbury, sad and sorrowful, to ask his monks. But on his way he met his shepherd.
"Welcome home, Lord Abbot," said the shepherd; "What's new from good King John?"
"Sad news, sad news, my shepherd," said the Abbot, and told him everything.
"Now, cheer up, Sir Abbot," said the shepherd. "A fool may perhaps answer what a wise man does not know. I will go to London in your place; give me your clothes and your company of knights. At least I can die in your place."
"No, shepherd, no," said the Abbot; "I must meet the danger in my own person."
"But in a disguise, who will know me?"
So at last the Abbot agreed and sent him to London. The shepherd approached King John with all his company as before, but dressed in a simple monk's dress and his hood over his face.
"Now welcome, Sir Abbot," said King John; "I see you are prepared for your doom."
"I am ready to answer your questions, Majesty," said he.
"Well, then, question first — where is the centre of the earth?" said the King.
"Here," said the shepherd, knocking the ground with his crozier. "And if your Majesty does not believe me, go measure it and see."
"Good Lord," said the King, "good and wise answer. Question number two. How soon may I ride around this world?"
"If your Majesty will get up with the sun, and ride along with the sun until the next morning."
"Heavens!" laughed King John, "I did not think it could be done so soon. But now the last question. What do I think?"
"That is easy, your Grace," said he. "Your Majesty thinks that I am my lord the Abbot of Canterbury; but as you may see," and here he raised his cowl, "I am his poor shepherd, that has come to ask your pardon for him and for me."
The King laughed loudly. "Well done. You have more wit than your lord, and you will be Abbot in his place."
"No, I can't," said the shepherd; "I don't know to write or read."
"Well, then, four nobles will teach you every day. And tell the Abbot from me that he has my pardon." And with that King John sent the shepherd away.
Adapted from "MORE ENGLISH FAIRY TALES Collected and Edited by JOSEPH JACOBS"
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