Copyright
Charles Dickens.

A child's history of England online

. (page 7 of 38)
Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 7 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


To strengthen his power, the king with great ceremony
betrothed his eldest daughter, Matilda, then a child only eight
years old, to be the wife of Henry the Fifth, the Emperor of
Germany. To raise her marriage-portion, he taxed the English
people in a most oppressive manner ; then treated them to a
great procession, to restore their good humor; and sent Matilda
away, in fine state, with the German ambassadors, to be edu-
cated in the country of her future husband.

And now his queen, Maud the Good, unhappily died. It
was a sad thought for that gentle lady, that the only hope with
which she had married a man whom she had never Inved, — the
hope of reconciling the Norman and English races — haJ failed.
At the very time of her death, Normandy and all France was in
arms against England \ for, so soon as his last danger was over,
King Henry had been false to all the French powers he had
promised, bribed, and bought, and they had naturally united
against him. After some fighting, however, in which few suf-
fered but the unhappy common people (who always suffered,
whatsoever was the matter), he began to promise, bribe, and
buy again ; and by those means, and by the help of the pope,
who exerted himself to save more bloodshed, and by solemnly
declaring, over and over again, that he really was in earnest
this time, and would keep his word, the king made peace.

One of the first consequences of this peace was, that the
king went over to Normandy with his son Prince William and
a great retinue, to have the prince acknowledged as his suq-



ENGLAND UNDER HBKRY THE FIRST. 65

cesser by the Norman nobles, and to contract the promised
marriage (this w^as one of the many promises the king had
broken) between him and the daughter of the Count of Anjou.
Both these things were triumphantly done with great show and
rejoicing; and, on the 25th of November, in the year 1120, the
whole retinue prepared to embark at the Port of Barfleur, for
the voyage home.

On that day, and at that place, there came to the king, Fitz-
Stephen, a sea-captain, and said, —

" My liege, my father served your father all his life, upon
the sea. He steered the ship, with the golden boy upon the
prow, in which your father sailed to conquer England. I
beseech you to grant me the same office. I have a fair vessel
in the harbor here, called ' The White Ship,' manned by fifty
sailors of renown. I pray you, sire, to let your servant have
the honor of steering you in ' The White Ship' to England ! "

" I am sorry, friend," replied the king, " that my vessel is
already chosen, and that I cannot (therefore) sail with the son
of the man who served my father. But the prince and all his
company shall go along with you, in the fair ' White Ship,'
manned by the fifty sailors of renown."

An hour or two afterwards, the king set sail in the vessel he
had chosen, accompanied by other vessels, and, sailing all night
with a fair and gentle wind, arrived upon the coast to England
in the morning. While it was yet night the people in some of
those ships heard a faint wild cry come over the sea, and won-
dered what it was.

Now the prince was a dissolute, debauched young man of
eighteen, who bore no love to the English, and had declared
that when he came to the throne he would yoke them to the
plough like oxen. He went aboard " The White Ship," with
one hundred and forty youthful nobles like himself, among
whom were eighteen noble ladies of the highest rank. All this
gay company, with their servants and the fifty sailors, made
three hundred souls aboard the fair " White Ship."

"Give three casks of v.'ine, Fitz-Stephen," said the prince,
" to the fifty sailors of renown. My father, the king, has sailed
out of the harbor. What time is there to make merry here,
and yet reach England with the rest ? "

"Prince," said Fitz-Stephen, " before morning my fifty and
* The White Ship' shall overtake the swiftest vessel in attend-
ance on your father, the king, if we sail at midnight ! "

Then the prince commanded to make merry ; and the sailors
drank out the three casks of wine, and the prince and all the



66 A CHILD'S HISTORY OF ENGLAND.

noble company danced in the moonlight on the deck of " The
White Ship."

When, at last, she shot out of the harbor of Barfleur, there
was not a sober seaman on board. But the sails were all set,
and the oars all going merrily. Fitz-Stephen had the helm.
The gay young nobles and the beautiful ladies wrapped in
mantles of various bright colors to protect them from the cold,
talked, laughed, and sang. The prince encouraged the fifty
sailors to row harder, yet, for the honor of ** The White
Ship."

Crash ! A terrific cry broke from three hundred hearts. It
was the cry the people in the distant vessels of the king heard
faintly on the water. " The White Ship" had struck upon a
rock, — was filling, — going down !

Fitz-Stephen hurried the prince into a boat, with some few
nobles. " Push off," he whispered, " and row to the land.
It is not so far, and the sea is smooth. The rest of us must
die."

But as they rowed away fast from the sinking ship, the prince
heard the voice of his sister Marie, the countess of Perche,
calling for help. He never in his life had been so good as he
was then. He cried in an agony, *' Row back at any risk ! I
cannot bear to leave her ! "

They rowed back. As the prince held out his arms to catch
his sister, such numbers leaped in, that the boat was over-
set. And in the same instant " The White Ship " went down.

Only two men floated. They both clung to the mainyard
of -the ship which had broken from the mast and now supported
them. One asked the other who he was ? He said, " I am a
nobleman, Godfrey by name, the son of Gilbert de I'Aigle.
And you ? " said he. " I am Berold, a poor butcher of Rouen,"
was the answer. Then they said together, " Lord be merci-
ful to us both ! " and tried to encourage one another, as they
drifted in the cold benumbing sea on that unfortunate November
night.

By and by, another man came swimming towards them,whonj
they knew, when he pushed aside his long wet hair, to be Fitz-
Stephen. " Where is the prince ? " said he. " Gone, gone ! '*
the two cried together. " Neither, he, nor his brother, nor his
sister, nor the king's niece, nor her brother, nor any one of all
the brave three hundred, noble or commoner, except we three,
has risen above the water ! " Fitz-Stephen, with a ghastly face,
cried, " Woe ! woe to me ! " and sunk to the bottom.

The other two clung to the yard for some hours. At length



BNGl 4 J tINDER HENRY THE FIRST. ^f

the young noble said faintly, " I am exhausted and chilled with
the cold, and can hold no longer. Farewell, good friend ! God
preserve you ! " So he dropped and sunk ; and, of all the
brilliant crowd, the poor butcher of Rouen alone was saved. In
the morning, some fishermen saw him floating in his sheep-skin
coat, and got him into their boat, — the sole relater of the dis-
mal tale.

For three days, no one dared to carry the intelligence to
the king. At length they sent into his presence a little boy,
who, weeping bitterly, and kneeling at his feet told him that
*' The White Ship " was lost with all on board. The king fell
to the ground like a dead man, and never, never afterwards was
seen to smile.

But he plotted again, and promised again, and bribed and
bought again, in his old deceitful way. Having no son to suc-
ceed him, after all his pains ("The prince will never yoke us
to the plough now ! " said the English people), he took a second
wife, — Adelias, or Alice, a duke's daughter, and the pope's
niece. Having no more children, however, he proposed to the
barons to swear that they would recognize as his successor his
daughter Matilda, whom, as she was now a widow, he married
to the eldest son of the count of Anjou, Geoffrey, surnamed
Plantagenet, from a custom he had of wearing a sprig of flower-
ing broom (called genet in French) in his cap for a feather. A«
one false man usually makes many, and as a false king, in par-
ticular, is pretty certain to make a false court, the barons tool<
the oath about the succession of Matilda (and her children after
her) twice over without in the least intending to keep it. The
king was now relieved from any remaining fears of William
Fitz-Robert, by his death in the Monastery of St. Omer, in
France, at twenty-six years old, of a pike-wound in the hand.
And, as Matilda gave birth to three sons, he thought the succes-
sion, to the throne secure.

He spent most of the latter part of his life, which was
troubled by family quarrels, in Normandy, to be near Matilda.
When he had reigned upwards of thirty-five years, and was
sixty-seven years old, he died of an indigestion and fever,
brought on by. eating, when he was far from well, of a fish called
lamprey, against which he had often been cautioned by his phy-
sicians. His remains were brought over to Reading Abbey,
to be buried.

You may perhaps hear cunning and promise-breaking of
King Henry the First, called "policy" by some people, and
" diplomacy " by others. Neither of these fine words will in



^o A C HILDAS HISTORY OF ENGLAND.

the least mean that it was true ; and nothing that is not true
can possibly be good.

His greatest merit, that I know of, was his love of learning
I should have given him greater credit even for that, if it had
been strong enough to induce him to spare the eyes of a certain
poet he once took prisoner, who was a knight besides. But he
ordered the poet's eyes to be torn from his head, because he
had laughed at him in his verses ; and the poet in the pain of
that torture, dashed out his own brains against his prison wall.
King Henry the First, was avaricious, revengeful, and so false
that I suppose a man never lived whose word was less to be
relied upon.



CHAPTER XL

ENGLAND UNDER MATILDA AND STEPHEN.

The king was no sooner dead, than all the plans and
schemes he had labored at so long, and lied so much for,
crumbled away like a hollow heap of sand. Stephen, whom he
had never mistrusted or suspected, started up to claim the
throne.

Stephen was the sun of Adela, the Conqueror's daughter,
married to the Count of Blois. To Stephen, and to his brother
Henry, the late king had been liberal ; making Henry Bishop
of Winchester, and finding a good marriage for Stephen, and
much enriching him. This did not prevent Stephen from
hastily producing a false witness, a servant of the late king, to
swear that the king had named him for his heir upon his death-
bed. On this evidence the Archbishop of Canterbury crowned
him. The new king, so suddenly made, lost not a moment in
seizing the royal treasure, and hiring foreign soldiers with some
of it to protect his throne.

If the dead king had ever done as the false witness said,
he would have had small right to will away the English people,
like so many sheep or oxen, without their consent. But he
had, in fact, bequeathed all his territory to Matilda ; who, sup-
ported by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, soon began to dispute
the crown. Some of the powerful barons and priests took her
side ; some took Stephen's ; all fortified their castles ; and
again the miserable English people were involved in war, from



ENGLAND UNDER MATILDA AND STEPHEN.



69



which they could never derive advantage whosoever was victo-
rious, and in which all parties plundered, tortured, starved, and
ruined them.

Five years had passed since the death of Henry the First,
and during those five years there had been two terrible inva-
sions by the people of Scotland under their King David, who
was at last defeated with all his army, — when Matilda, attended
by her brother Robert, and a large force, appeared in England
to maintain her claim. A battle was fought between her troops
and King Stephen's, at Lincoln ; in which the king himself was
taken prisoner, after bravely fighting until his battle-axe and
sword were broken, and was carried into strict confinement at
Gloucester. Matilda then submitted herself to the priests, and
the priests crowned her Queen of England.

She did not long enjoy this dignity. The people of London
had a great affection for Stephen ; many of the barons consid-
ered it degrading to be ruled by a woman ; and the queen's
temper was so haughty that she made innumerable enemies.
The people of London revolted ; and in alliance with tlie troops
of Stephen, besieged her at Winchester, where they took her
brother Robert prisoner, whom, as her best soldier and chief
general, she was glad to exchange for Stephen himself, who
thus regained his liberty. Then the long war went on afresh.
Once she was pressed so hard in the Castle of Oxford, in the
winter weather, when the snow lay thick upon the ground, that
her only chance of escape was to dress herself all in white, and
accompanied by no more than three faithful knights dressed in
like manner, that their figures might not be seen from Ste-
phen's camp as they passed over the snow, to steal away on
foot, cross the frozen Thames, walk a long distance, and at last
gallop away on horseback. All this she did, but to no great
purpose then : for, her brother dying while the struggle was yet
going on, she at last withdrew to Normandy.

In two or three years after her withdrawal her cause ap-
peared in England afresh, in the person of her son Henry,
young Plantagenet, who, at only eighteen years of age, was very
powerful ; not only on account of his mother having resigned all
Normandy to him, but also from his having married Eleanor,
the divorced wife of the French king, a bad woman, who
had great possessions in France. Louis, the French king, not
relishing this arrangement, helped Eustace, King Stephen's
son, to invade Normandy ; but Henry drove their united forces
out of that country, and then returned here to assist his parti-
sans, whom the king was then besieging at Wallingford upon



?•



A CHILD'S HISTORY OF ENGLAND,



the Thames. Here for two days, divided only by the river, the
two armies lay encamped opposite to one another, — on the eve,
as it seemed to all men, of another desperate fight, when the
Earl of Arundel took heart, and said, "that it'was not reason-
able to prolong the unspeakable miseries of two kingdoms to
minister to the ambition of two princes."

Many other noblemen, repeating and supporting this when
it was once uttered, Stephen and young Plantagenet went down,
each to his own bank of the river, and held a conversation
across it, in which they arranged a truce ; very much to the
dissatisfaction of Eustace, who swaggered away with some fol-
lowers, and laid violent hands on the Abbey of St. Edmund's -
Bury, where he presently died mad. The truce led to a sol-
emn council at Winchester, in which it was agreed that Ste-
phen should retain the crown, on condition of his declarmg
Henry his successor . that William, another son of the king's,
should inherit his father's rightful possessions ; and that all the
crown lands which Stephen had given away should be recalled,
?\nd all the castles he had permitted to be built demolished.
Thus terminated the bitter war, which had now lasted fifteen
years, and had again laid England waste. In the next year
Stephen died, after a troubled reign of nineteen years.

Although King Stephen was, for the time in which he lived
a humane and moderate man, with many excellent qualities ;
and although nothing worse is known of him than his usurpa-
tion of the crown, which he probably excused to himself by the
consideration that King Henry the First was an usurper too, —
which was no excuse at all, — the people of England suffered
more in these dread nineteen years than at any former period
even of their suffering history. In the division of the nobility
between the two rival claimants of the crown, and in the growth
of what is called the Feudal System (which made the peasants
the born vassals and mere slaves of the barons), every noble
had his strong castle, where he reigned the cruel king of all the
neighboring people. Accordingly, he perpetrated whatever
cruelties he chose ^ and never were worse cruelties committed
upon earth than in wretched England in those nineteen years.

The writers who were living then describe them fearfully.
They say that the castles were filled with devils rather than
with men ; that the peasants, men and women, were put into
dungeons for their gold and silver, were tortured with fire and
smoke, were hung up by the thumbs, were hung up by the heels
with great weights to their heads, were torn with jagged irons,
killed with hunger, broken to death in narrow chests filled with



ENGLAND UNDER HENRY THE SECOND.







sharp-pointed stones, murdered in countless fiendish ways. In
England there was no corn, no meat, no cheese, no butter, there
were no tilled lands, no harvests. Ashes of burnt towns and
dreary wastes were all that the traveller, fearful of the robbers
who prowled abroad at all hours, would see in a long day's
journey ; and from sunrise until night he would not come upon
a home.

The clergy sometimes suffered, and heavily too, from pil-
lage ; but many of them had castles of their own, and fought
in helmet and armor like the barons, and drew lots with other
fighting men for their share of booty. The Pope (or Bishop of
Rome), on King Stephen's resisting his ambition, laid England
under an interdict at one period of this reign ; which means that
he allowed no service to be performed in the churches, no
couples to be married, no bells to be rung, no dead bodies to be
buried. Any man having the power to refuse these things, no
matter whether he were called a pope or a poulterer, would of
course have the power of afflicting numbers of innocent people.
That nothing might be wanting to the miseries of King Ste-
phen's time, the Pope threw in this contribution to the public
store, — not very like the widow's contribution, as I think, when
our Saviour sat in Jerusalem over against the treasury, " and
she threw in two mites which make a farthing."



CHAPTER XII.
england under henry the second.
Part the First.

Henry Plantagenet, when he was but twenty-one years
old, quietly succeeded to the throne of England, according to
his agreement made with the late king at Winchester. Six
weeks after Stephen's death, he and his queen, Eleanor, were
crowned in that city ; into which they rode on horseback in
great state, side by side, amidst much shouting and rejoicing,
and clashing of music, and strewing of flowers.

The reign of King Henry the Second began well. The
king had great possessions, and (what with his own rights, and
♦hat with those of his wife) was lord of one-third part of



72



A CHILD'S HISTORY OF ENGLAND.



France. He was a young man of vigor, ability, and resolution,
and immediately applied himself to remove some of the evils
which had arisen in the last unhappy reign. He revoked all
the grants of land that had been hastily made on either side
during the late struggles ; he obliged numbers of disorderly
soldiers to depart from England ; he reclaimed all the castles
belonging to the crown ; and he forced the wicked nobles to
pull down their own castles to the r^umber of eleven hundred,
in which such dismal cruelties had been inflicted on the people.
The king's brother, Geoffrey, rose against him in France, while
he was so well employed, and rendered it necessary for him to
repair to that country ; where, after he had subdued and made
a friendly arrangement with his brother (who did not live long),
his ambition to increase his possessions involved him in a war
with the French king, Louis, with whom he had been on such
friendly terms, just before, that, to the French king's infant
daughter, then a baby in the cradle, he had promised one of
his little sons in marriage, who was a child of five years old.
However, the war came to nothing at last, and the Pope made
the two kmgs friends again.

Now the clergy in the troubles of the last reign had gone
on very ill indeed. There were all kinds of criminals among
them, — murderers, thieves, and vagabonds ; and the worst of
the matter was, that the good priests would not give up the bad
priests to justice when they committed crimes, but persisted in
sheltering and defending them. The king, well knowing that
there could be no peace or rest in England while such things
lasted, resolved to reduce the power of the clergy, and, when
he had reigned seven years, found (as he considered) a good
opportunity for doing so in the death of the Archbishop of Can
terbury. " I will have for the new Archbishop," thought the
king, " a friend in whom I can trust, who will help me to hum-
ble these rebellious priests, and have them dealt with when
they do wrong as other men who do wrong are dealt with." So
he resolved to make his favorite the new archbishop ; and this
favorite was so extraordinary a man, and his story is so curious,
that I must tell you all about him.

Once upon a time a worthy merchant of London, named
Gilbert k Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was
taken prisoner by a Saracen lord. This lord, who treated him
kindly, and not like a slave, had one fair daughter, who fell in
love with the merchant, and who told him that she wanted to
become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could
fly to a Christian country. The merchant returned her love



ENGLAND UNDER HENRY THE SECOND. 73

tintil he found an opportunity to escape, when he did not
trouble himself about the Saracen lady, hut escaped with his
servant Richard, who had been taken prisoner along with him,
and arrived in England and forgot her. The Saracen lady,
who was more loving than the merchant, left her father's house
in disguise to follow him, and made her way under many hard-
ships to the sea-shore. The merchant had taught her only two
English words [iox I suppose he must have learnt the Saracen
tongue himself, and made love in that language), of which
London was one, and his own name, Gilbert, the other. She
went among the shi^DS, saying, " London, London ! " over and
over again, until the sailors understood that she wanted to
to find an English vessel that would carry her there ; so they
showed her such a ship, and she paid for her passage with
some of her jewels, and sailed away. Well, the merchant was
sitting in his counting-house in London one day, when he
heard a great noise in the street, and presently Richard came
running in from the warehouse, with his eyes wide open and
his breath almost gone, saying, " Master, master, here is the
Saracen lady ! " The merchant thought Richard was mad ;
but Richard said, " No, master ; as I live, the Saracen lady
is going up and down the city, calling ' Gilbert ! ' " Then he
took the merchant by the sleeve, and pointed out at window ;
and there they saw her among the gables and water-spouts of
the dark, dirty street, in her foreign dress, so forlorn, sur-
rounded by a wondering crowd, and passing slowly along,
calling Gilbert, Gilbert ! " When the merchant saw her and
thought of the tenderness she had shown him in his captivity
and of her constancy, his heart was moved, and he ran down
into the street ; and she saw him coming, and with a great cry
fainted in his arms. They were married without loss of time,
and Richard (who was an excellent man) danced with joy the
whole day of the svedding ; and they all lived happy ever after-
wards.

This merchant and this Saracen lady had one son, Thomas
\ Becket. He it was who became the favorite of king Henry
the Second.

He had become chancellor, when the king thought of mak-
ing him archbishop. He was clever, gay, well educated, brave ;
had fought in several battles in France ; had defeated a French
knight in single combat, and brought his horse away as a token of
the victory. He lived in a noble palace, he was the tutor of the
young Prince Henry, he was served by one hundred and forty
knights, his riches were immense. The king once sent him as



74 ^ CHILD'S HISTORY OF ENGLAND,

his ambassador to France ; and the French people beholding
in what state he travelled, cried out in the streets, " How
splendid must the king of England be, when this is only the
chancellor ! " They had good reason to wonder at the mag-
nificence of Thomas a Becket : for when he entered a French
town, his procession was headed by two hundred and fifty
singing boys ; then came his hounds in couples ; then eight
wagons, each drawn by five horses, driven by five drivers j
two of the wagons filled with strong ale to be given away to
the people ; four with his gold and silver plate and stately



Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 7 of 38)