Charles Dickens.

A child's history of England online

. (page 10 of 38)
Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 10 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to rebuild, for his own defence, some fortifications there which
the Saracens had destroyed, he kicked his ally, the Duke of
Austria, for being too proud to work at them.

The army at last came within sight of the holy city of Jeru-
salem but being then a mere nest of jealousy, and quarrelling
and fighting, soon retired, and agreed with the Saracens upon
a truce for three years, three months, three days, and three
hours. Then the English Christians, protected by the noble
Saladin, from Saracen revenge, visited our Saviour's tomb ; and
then King Richard embarked with a small tcrce at Acre to re-
turn home.

But he was shipwrecked in the Adriatic Sea, and was fain
to pass through Germany r.iuler an assumed name. Now, there
were many people in Germar/,- who had served in the Holy
Land under that proud duke of Austria who had been kicked \
and some of them, easily recognizing a man so remarkable as
King Richard, carried their intelligence to the kicked duke,
who straightway took him prisoner at a little inn near Vienna.

The duke's master, the Emperor of Germany, and the king
of France, were equally delighted to have so troublesome a
monarch in safe keeping. Friendships which are founded on
a partnership in doing wrong are never true \ and the King of
France was now quite as heartily King Richard's foe as he had
ever been his friend in his unnatural conduct to his father. He
monstrously ]'r tended that King Richard had designed to
poison him \\\ i; c East; he charged him with having murdered
there a man he had in truth befriended ; he bribed the
Emperor of Germany to keep him close prisoner ; and finally,
through the plotting of these two princes, Richard was brought
before the German legislature, charged with the foregoing
crimes, and many others. But he defended himself so well,
that many of the assembly were moved to tears by his eloquence
and earnestness. It was decided that he should be treated,
during the rest of his captivity, in a manner more becoming his
dignity than he had been, and that he should be set free on the
payment of a heavy ransom. This ransom the English people



willingly raised. When Queen Eleanor took it over to Germany,
it was at first evaded and refused. But she appealed to the
honor of all the princes of the German Empire in behalf of her
son, and appealed so well that it was accepted, and the king-
released. Thereupon the King of France wrote to Prince John,
" Take care of thyself ; the Devil is unchained ! "

Prince John had reason to fear his brother ; for he had been
a traitor to him in his captivity. He had secretly joined the
French king, had vowed to the English nobles and people that
his brother was dead, and had vainly tried to seize the crown.
He was now in France, at a place called Evreux. Being the
meanest and basest of men, he contrived a mean and base ex-
pedient for making himself acceptable to his brcther. He in-
vited the French officers of the garrison in that town to dinner,
murdered them all, and then took the fortress. With this re-
commendation to the good-will of a lion-hearted monarch, he
hastened to King Richard, fell on his knees before him, and
obtained the intercession of Queen Eleanor. " I forgive him,"
said the king ; " and I hope I may forget the injury he has done
me, as easily as I know he will forget my pardon."

While King Richard was in Sicily, there had been trouble
in his dominions at home ; one of the bishops whom he had left
charge thereof arresting the other, and making, ia his pride
and ambition, as great a show as if he were king himself. But
the king hearing of it at Messina, and appointing a new regency,
this Longchamp (for that was his name) had fled to France
in a woman's dress, and had there been encouraged and sup-
ported by the French king. With all these causes of offence
against Philip in his mind, King Richard had no soon-^r been
welcomed home by his enthusiastic subjects with great display
and splendor, and had no sooner been crowned afresh at Win-
chester, than he resolved to show the French king that the
Devil was unchained indeed, and made war against him with
great fury.

There was fresh trouble at home about this time, arising
out of the discontent of the poor people, who complained that
they were far m . re heavily taxed than the rich, and who found
a sprited champion in William Fitz-Osbert, called Longbeard.
He became the leader of a secret society, comprismg fifty thou-
sand men ; he was seized by surprise ; he stabbed the citizen
who first laid hands upon him, and retreated, bravely fighting,
to a church, which he maintained four days, until he was dis-
lodged by fire, and run through the body as he came out. He
was not killed, though ; for he was dragged, half dead, at the


tail of a horse to Smithfield, and there hanged. Death was
long a favorite remedy for silencing the people's advocates ;
but, as we ^o on with this history, I fancy we shall find them
difficult "■ make an end of, for all that.

The French war, delayed occasionally by a truce, was still
in progress when a certain lord named Vidomar, Viscount of
Limoges, chanced to find in his ground a treasure of ancient
coins. As the king's vassal, he sent the king half of it ; but
the king claimed the whole. The lord refused to yield the
whole. The king besieged the lord in his castle, swore that he
would take the castle by storm, and hang every man of its de-
fenders on the battlements.

There was a strange old song in that part of the country,
to the effect, that in Limoges an arrow would be made by which
King Richard would die. It may be that Bertrand de Gour-
don, a young man who was one of the defenders of the castle,
had often sung it, or heard it sung of a wintry night, and remem-
bered it when he saw, from his post upon the ramparts, the
king, attended only by his chief officer, riding below the walls
surveying the place. He drew an arrow to the head, took
steady aim, said between his teeth, " Now I pray God speed
thee well, arrow ! " discharged it, and struck the king in the
left shoulder.

Although the wound was not at first considered dangerous,
it was severe enough to cause the king to retire to his tent, and
direct the assault to be made without him. The castle was
taken ; and every man of its defenders was hanged, as the king
had sworn all should be, except Bertrand de Gourdon, who was
reserved until the royal pleasure respecting him should be

By that time unskilful treatment had made the wound mor-
tal, and the king knew that he was dying. He directed Ber-
trand to be brought into his tent. The young man was brought
there heavily chained. King Richard looked at him steadily.
He looked as steadily at the king.

" Knave ! " said King Richard, " what have I done to thee,
that thou shouldst take my life ? "

*' What hast thou done to me ? " replied the young man.
" With thine own hands thou hast killed my father and my two
brothers. Myself thou wouldst hj.vj ' jiged. Let me die, now,
by any torture that thou wilt. My comfort is, that no torture
can save thee. Thou, too, must die ; and through me the
world is quit of thee."

Again the king looked at the young man steadily. Again


the young man looked steadily at him. Perhaps some remem-
brance of his generous enemy Saladin, who was not a Chris-
tian, came int the mind of the dymg king.

"Youth," he said, " I forgive thee. Go unhurt ! "

Then turning to the chief officer who had been riding in his
company when he received the wound, King Richard said, —

" Take off his chains, give him a hundred shillings, and let
him depart."

He sunk down on his couch, and a dark mist seemed in his
weakened eyes to fill the tent wherein he had so often rested, and
he died. His age was forty-two . he had reigned ten years.
His last command was not obeyed ; for the chief officer flayed
Bertrand de Gourdon alive, and hanged him.

There is an old tune yet known, — a sorrowful air will some-
times outlive many generations of strong men, and even last
longer than battle-axes with twenty pounds cf steel in the head,
— by which this king is said to have been discovered in his cap-
tivity, Blondel, a favorite minstrel of King Richard, as the
story relates, faithfully seeking his royal master, went singing
it outside the gloomy walls of many foreign fortresses and
prisons, until, at Ust, he heard it echoed from within a dungeon,
and knew the voice, and cried out in ecstacy, " O Richard ! O
my king ! " You may believe it, if you like ; it would be easy
to believe worse things. Richard was himself a mmstrel and
poet. If he had not been a prince too, he might have been a
better man perhaps, and might have gone out of the world with
Jess bloodshed and waste of life to answer for.



At two-and-thirty years of age, John became King of Eng-
land. His pr( tty little nephew, Arthur, had the best claim to
the throne ; but John seized the treasure, and made fine
promises to the nobility, and got himself crowned at Westmin-
ster within a few w eks after his brother Richard's death. I
doubt whether the crown could possibly have been put upon the
head of a meaner coward, or a more detestable villain, if
England had be^n searched from end to end to find him out.


The French king, Philip, refused to acknowledge the right
of John to his new 'dignity, and declared in favor of Arthur.
You must not suppose that he had any generosity of feeling for
the fatherless boy ; it merely suited his ambitious schemes to
oppose the King of England. So John and the French king
went to war about Arthur.

He was a handsome boy, at that time only twelve years old.
He was not born when his father, Geoffrey, had his brainr
trampled out at the tournament ; and, besides the misfortune
of never having known a father's guidance and protection, he
had the additional misfortune to have a foolish mother (Con-
stance by name), lately married to her third husband. She
took Arthur, upon John's accession, to the French king, who
pretended to be very much his friend, and who made him a
knight, and promised him his daughter in marriage ; but who
cared so little about him in reality, that, finding it his interest
to make peace with King John for a time, he did so without the
least consideration for the poor little prince, and heartlessly
sacrificed all his interests.

Young Arthur, for two years afterwards, lived quietly ; and
in the course of that time his mother died. But the French
king then finding it his interest to quarrel with King John
again, again made Arthur his pretence, and invited the orphan
boy to court. " You know your rights. Prince," said the French
king, " and you would like to be a king. Is it not so ? "
*' Truly," said Prince Arthur, " I should greatly like to be a
king!" " Then," said Philip, "you shall have two hundred
gentlemen who are knights of mine, and with them you shall
go to win back the provinces belonging to you of which your
uncle, the usurping King of England, has taken possession. I
myself, meanwhile, will head a force against him in Normandy."
Poor Arthur was flattered, and so grateful, that he signed a
treaty with the crafty French king, agreeing to consider him his
superior lord, and that the French king should keep for himself
whatever he could take from King John.

Now King John was so bad in all ways, and King Philip
was so perfidious, that Arthur, between the two, might as well
have been a lamb between a fox and a wolf. But, being so
young, he was ardent and flushed with hope ; and when the
people of Brittany (which was his inheritance) sent him five
hundred more knights and five thousand foot-soldiers, he be-
lieved his fortune was made. The people of Brittany had been
fond of him from his birth, and liad requested that he might be
called Arthur in remembrance of that dimly famous English


Arthur of whom I told you early in this book, whom they be-
lieved to have been the brave friend and companion of an old
king of their own. They had tales among them about a prophet
called Merlin (of the same old time), who had foretold that
their own king should be restored to them after hundreds of
years : and they believed that the prophecy would be fulfilled
in Arthur ; that the time would come when he would rule them
with a crown of Brittany upon his head, and when neither King
of France nor King of ICngland would have any power over
them. When Arthur found himself riding in a glittering suit of
armor, on a richly caparisoned horse, at the head of his train of
knights and soldiers, he began to believe this too, and to con-
sider old Merlin a very superior prophet.

He did not know — how could he, being so innocent and in-
experienced ? — that his little army was a mere nothing against
the power of the King of England. The French king knew it ;
but the poor boy's fate was little to him, so that the King of
England was worried and distressed. Therefore, King Philip
went his way into Normandy ; and Prince Arthur went his way
towards Mirebeau, a French town near Poictiers, both very well

Prince Arthur went to attack the town of Mirebeau, because
his grandmother Eleanor, who has so often made her appear-
ance in this history (and who had always been his mother's
enemy), was living there, and because his knights said, " Prince,
if you can take her prisoner, you will be able to bring the king,
your uncle, to terms ! " But she was not to be easily taken.
She was old enough by this time, — eighty ; but she was as full
of stratagem as she was full of years and wickedness. Receiv
ing intelligence of young Arthur's approach, she shut herself up
in a high tower, and encouraged her soldiers to defend it like
men. Prince Arthur with his little army besieged the high tower.
King John, hearing how matters stood, came up to the rescue
with his army. So here was a strange family party : the boy-
prince besieging his grandmother, and his uncle besieging
him !

This position of affairs did not last long. One summer
night King John, by treachery, got his men into the town, sur-
prised Prince Arthur's force, took two hundred of his knights,
and seized the prince himself in his bed. The knights were
put in heavy irons, and driven away in open carts drawn by
bullocks, to various dungeons, where they were most inhumanly
treated, and where some of them were starved to death. Prince
Arthur was sent to the Castle of Falaise.


One day while he was in prison at that castle, mournfully
thinking it strange that one so young should be in so much
trouble, and looking out of the small window in the deep dark
wall, at the summer sky and the birds, the door was softly opened,
and he saw his uncle, the king, standing in the shadow of the
archway, looking very grim.

" Arthur," said the king, with his wicked eyes more on the
stone floor than on his nephew, " will you not trust to the gen-
tleness, the friendship, and the truthfulness of your loving
uncle ? "

" I will tell my loving uncle that," replied the boy, " when
he does me right. Let him restore to me my kingdom of Eng-
land, and then come to me and ask the question."

The king looked at him and went out. " Keep that boy
close prisoner," said he to the warden of the castle.

Then the king took secret counsel with the worst of his
nobles how the prince was to be got rid of. Some said, " Put
out his eyes and keep him in prison, as Robert of Normandy
was kept." Others said, " Have kim stabbed." Others, " Have
him hanged." Others, " Have him poisoned."

King John feeling that in any case, whatever was done
afterwards, it would be a satisfaction to his mind to have those
handsome eyes burnt out, that had looked at him so proudly
while his own royal eyes were blinking at the stone floor, sent
certain ruffians to Falaise to blind the boy with red-hot irons.
But Arthur so pathetically entreated them, and shed such pite-
ous tears, and so appealed to Hubert de Bourg (or Burgh),
the warden of the castle, who had a love for him, and was an
honorable, tender man, that Hubert could not bear it. To his
eternal honor, he prevented the torture from being performed,
and, at his own risk, sent the savages away.

The chafed and disappointed king bethought himself of the
stabbing suggestion next, and, with his shuffling manner and
his cruel face, proposed it to one William de Bray. " I am a
gentleman, and not an executioner," said William de Bray, and
left the presence with disdain.

But it was not difficult for a king to hire a murderer in those
days. King John found one for his money, and sent him down
to the Castle of Falaise. " On what errand dost thou come ? "
said Hubert to this fellow. "To despatch young Arthur," he
returned. "Go back to him who sent thee," answered Hubert,
*' and say that I will do it."

Kmg John, very well knowing that Hubert would never do
it, but that he courageously sent this reply to save the prince


or gain time, despatched messengers to convey the young pris-
oner to the Castle of Rouen.

Arthur was soon forced from the good Hubert, of whom he
had never stood in greater need than then, carried away by
night, and lodged in his new prison ; where, through his grated
window, he could hear the deep waters of the River Seine rip-
pling against the stone wall below.

One dark night, as he lay sleeping, dreaming perhaps of
rescue by those unfortunate gentlemen who were obscurely suf-
fering and dying in his cause, he was roused, and bidden by
his Jailer to come down the staircase to the foot of the tower-
He hurriedly dressed himself and obeyed. When they came
to the bottom of the winding stairs, and the night air from the
river blew upon their faces, the jailer trod upon his torch, and
put it out. Then Arthur, in the darkness, was hurriedly drawn
into a solitary boat. And in that boat he found his uncle and
one other man.

He knelt to them, and prayed them not to murder him.
Deaf to his entreaties, they stabbed him, and sunk his body in
the river with heavy stones. When the spring morning broke,
the tower-door was closed, the boat was gone, the river sparkled
on its way, and never more was any trace of the poor boy beheld
by mortal eyes.

The news of this atrocious murder being spread in England
awakened a hatred of the king (already odious for his many
vices, and for his having stolen away and married a noble lady
while his ovv^n wife was living) that never slept again through
his whole reign. In Brittany the indignation was intense.
Arthur's own sister Eleanor was in the power of John, and shut
up in a convent at Bristol ; but his half-sister Alice was in Brit-
tany. The people chose her, and the murdered prince's father-
in-law, the last husband of Constance, to represent them, and
carried their fiery complaints to King Philip. King Philip
summoned King John (as the holder of territory in France)
to come before him and defend himself. King John refusing
to appear. King Philip declared him false, perjured, and guilty,
and again made war. In a little time, by conquering the
greater part of his French territory. King Philip deprived him
of one third of his dominions. And through all the fighting
that tcok place. King John was always found either to be eat-
ing and drinking like a gluttonous fool when the danger was at
a distance, or to be running away like a beaten cur when it was

You might suppose that when he was losing his dominions


at this rate, and when his own nobles cared so little for him or
his cause that they plainly refused to follow his banner out of
England, he had enemies enough. But he made another enemy
of the pope, which he did in this way.

The Archbishop of Canterbury dying, the junior monks of
that place, wishing to get the start of the senior monks in the
appointment of his successor, met together at midnight, secretly
elected a certain Reginald, and sent him off to Rome to get
the pope's approval. The senior monks and the king soon
finding this out, and being very angry about it, the junior monks
gave way ; and all the monks together elected the Bishop of
Norwich, who was the king's favorite. The pope, hearing the
whole story, declared that neither election would do for him,
and that he elected Stephen Langton. The monks submitting
to the pope, the king turned them all out bodily, and banished
them as traitors. The pope sent three bishops to the king to
threaten him with an interdict. The king told the bishops,
that if any interdict were laid upon his kingdom, he would tear
out the eyes and cut off the noses of all the monks he could lay
hold of, and send them over to Rome in that undecorated state
as a present for their master. The bishops, nevertheless, soon
published the interdict and fled.

After it had lasted a year, the pope proceeded to his next
step, which was excommunication. King John was declared
excommunicated, with all the usual ceremonies. The king was
so incensed at this, and was made so desperate by the disaffec-
tion of his barons and the hatred of his people, that it is said
he even privately sent ambassadors to the Turks in Spain,
offering to renounce his religion, and hold his kingdom of them
:f they would help him. It is related that the ambassadors
were admitted to the presence of the Turkish emir through long
lines of Moorish guards, and that they found the emir with his
eyes seriously fixed on the pages of a large book, from which
he never once looked up ; that they gave him a letter from the
king, containing his proposals, and were gravely dismissed ;
that presently the emir sent for one of them, and conjured him
by his faith in his religion, to say what kind of man the King
of England truly was ; that the ambassador, thus pressed,
replied, that the King of England was a false tyrant, against
whom his own subjects would soon rise ; and that this was quite
enough for the emir.

Money being, in his position, the next best thing to men,
King John spared no means of getting it. He set on foot
another oppressing and torturing of the unhappy Jews (which


was quite in his way), and invented a new punishment for one
wealthy Jew of Bristol. Until such time as that Jew should
produce a certain large sum of money, the king sentenced him
to be imprisoned, and every day to have one tooth violently
wrenched out of his head ; beginning with the double teeth.
For seven days, the oppressed man bore the daily pain and
lost the daily tooth ; but on the eighth he paid the money.
With the treasure raised in such ways, the king made an expe-
dition into Ireland, where some English nobles had revolted.
It was one of the very few places from which he did not run
awav ; because no resistance was shown. He made another
expedition into Wales, whence he did run away in the end, but
not before he had got from the Welsh people, as hostages,
twenty-seven young men of the best families ; every one of
whom he caused to be slain in the following year.

To interdict and excommunication, the pope now added his
last sentence, deposition. He proclaimed John no longer king,
absolved all his subjects from their allegiance, and sent Stephen
Langton and others to the King of France to tell him, that, if
he would invade England, he should be forgiven all his sins ;
at least, should be forgiven them by the pope, if that would do.
As there was nothing that King Philip desired more than
to invade England, he collected a great army at Rouen, and a
fleet of seventeen hundred ships to bring them over. But the
English people, however bitterly they hated the King, were not
a people to suffer invasion quietly. They flocked to Dover,
where the English standard was, in such great numbers, to en-
roll themselves as defenders of their native land, that there were
no provisions for them ; and the king could only select and
retain sixty thousand. But at this crisis the pope, who had
his own reasons for objecting to either King John or King
Philip being too powerful, interfered. He intrusted a legate,
whose name was Pandolf, with the easy task of frightening King
John. He sent him to the English camp, from France, to ter-
rify him with exaggerations of King Philip's power, and his
own weakness in the discontent of the English barons and peo-
ple. Pandolf discharged his commission so well, that King
John, in a wretched panic, consented to acknowledge Stepb'^n

Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 10 of 38)