Edward Augustus Freeman.

William the Conqueror online

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D.C.L., LL.D.




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THIS small volume, written as the first of a series, is
meant to fill quite another place from the Short History
of the Norman Conquest, by the same author. That was
a narrative of events reaching over a considerable time.
This is the portrait of a man in his personal character,
a man whose life takes up only a part of the time
treated of in the other work. We have now to look
on William as one who, though stranger and conqueror,
is yet worthily entitled to a place on the list of English
statesmen. There is perhaps no man before or after
him whose personal character and personal will have
had so direct an effect on the course which the laws and
constitution of England have taken since his time.
Norman as a Conqueror, as a statesman he is English,
and, on this side of him at least, he worthily begins
the series.

6lk February 1888.




















THE history of England, like the land and its people,
has been specially insular, and yet no land has under-
gone deeper influences from without. No land has
owed more than England to the personal action of men
not of native birth. Britain was truly called another
world, in opposition to the world of the European
mainland, the world of Rome. In every age the history
of Britain is the history of an island, of an island great
enough to form a world of itself. In speaking of Celts
or Teutons in Britain, we are speaking, not simply of
Celts and Teutons, but of Celts and Teutons parted from
their kinsfolk on the mainland, and brought under the
common influences of an island world. The land has
seen several settlements from outside, but the settlers
have always been brought under the spell of their insular
position. Whenever settlement has not meant displace-
ment, the new comers have been assimilated by the
existing people of the land. When it has meant
displacement, they have still become islanders, marked off
from those whom they left behind by characteristics which
were the direct result of settlement in an island world.

The history of Britain then, and specially the history
of England, has been largely a history of elements

as B



absorbed and assimilated from without. But each of
those elements has done somewhat to modify the mass
into which it was absorbed. The English land and
nation are not as they might have been if they had never
in later times absorbed the Fleming, the French Hugue-
not, the German Palatine. Still less are they as they
might have been, if they had not in earlier times absorbed
the greater elements of the Dane and the Norman.
Both were assimilated ; but both modified the character
and destiny of the people into whose substance they
were absorbed. The conquerors from Normandy were
silently and peacefully lost in the greater mass of the
English people ; still we can never be as if the Norman
had never come among us. We ever bear about us the
signs of his presence. Our colonists have carried those
signs with them into distant lands, to remind men that
settlers in America and Australia came from a land
which the Norman once entered as a conqueror. But
that those signs of his presence hold the place which
they do hold in our mixed political being, that, badges
of conquest as they are, no one feels them to be badges
of conquest all this comes of the fact that, if the
Norman came as a conqueror, he came as a conqueror of
a special, perhaps almost of an unique kind. The
Norman Conquest of England has, in its nature and in
its results, no exact parallel in history. And that it has
no exact parallel in history is largely owing to the
character and position of the man who wrought it.
That the history of England for the last eight hundred
years has been what it has been has largely come of the
personal character of a single man. That we are what
we are to this day largely comes of the fact that there


was a moment when our national destiny might be said
to hang on the will of a single man, and that that man
was William, surnamed at different stages of his life and
memory, the Bastard, the Conqueror, and the Great.

With perfect fitness then does William the Norman,
William the Norman Conqueror of England, take his place
in a series of English statesmen. That so it should be is
characteristic of English history. Our history has been
largely wrought for us by men who have come in from
without, sometimes as conquerors, sometimes as the oppo-
site of conquerors ; but in whatever character they came,
they had to put on the character of Englishmen, and to
make their work an English work. From whatever land
they came, on whatever mission they came, as statesmen
they were English. William, the greatest of his class, is
still but a member of a class. Along with him we must
reckon a crowd of kings, bishops, and high officials in
many ages of our history. Theodore of Tarsus and
Cnut of Denmark, Lanfranc of Pavia and Anselm of
Aosta, Eandolf Flambard and Eoger of Salisbury,
Henry of Anjou and Simon of Montfort, are all written
on a list of which William is but the foremost. The
largest number come in William's own generation and
in the generations just before and after it. But the
breed of England's adopted children and rulers never
died out. The name of William the Deliverer stands,
if not beside that of his namesake the Conqueror, yet
surely alongside of the lawgiver from Anjou. And we
count among the later worthies of England not a few
men sprung from other lands, who did and are doing
their work among us, and who, as statesmen at least,
must count as English. As we look along the whole


line, even among the conquering kings and their imme-
diate instruments, their work never takes the shape of the
rooting up of the earlier institutions, of the land. Those
institutions are modified, sometimes silently by the mere
growth of events, sometimes formally and of set purpose.
Old institutions get new names; new institutions are
set up alongside of them. But the old ones are never
swept away ; they sometimes die out ; they are never
abolished. This comes largely of the absorbing and
assimilating power of the island world. But it comes
no less of personal character and personal circumstances,
and pre-eminently of the personal character of the Nor-
man Conqueror and of the circumstances in which he
found himself.

Our special business now is with the personal acts
and character of William, and above all with his acts
and character as an English statesman. But the Eng-
lish reign of William followed on his earlier Norman
reign, and its character was largely the result of his
earlier Norman reign. A man of the highest natural
gifts, he had gone through such a schooling from his
childhood upwards as falls to the lot of few princes.
Before he undertook the conquest of England, he had
in some sort to work the conquest of Normandy. Of
the ordinary work of a sovereign in a warlike age, the
defence of his own land, the annexation of other lands,
William had his full share. W T ith the land of his over-
lord he had dealings of the most opposite kinds. He
had to call in the help of the French king to put down
rebellion in the Norman duchy, and he had to drive
back more than one invasion of the French king at the


head of an united Norman people. He added Domfront
and Maine to his dominions, and the conquest of Maine,
the work as much of statesmanship as of warfare, was
the rehearsal of the conquest of England. There, under
circumstances strangely like those of England, he learned
his trade as conqueror, he learned to practise on a
narrower field the same arts which he afterwards prac-
tised on a wider. But after all, William's own duchy
was his special school ; it was his life in his own duchy
which specially helped to make him what he was. Sur-
rounded by trials and difficulties almost from his cradle,
he early learned the art of enduring trials and over"
coming difficulties ; he learned how to deal with men ; he
learned when to smite and when to spare ; and it is not
a little to his honour that, in the long course of such a
reign as his, he almost always showed himself far more
ready to spare than to smite.

Before then we can look at William as an English
statesman, we must first look on him in the land in which
he learned the art of statesmanship. We must see how
one who started with all the disadvantages which are
implied in his earlier surname of the Bastard came to
win and to deserve his later surnames of the Conqueror
and the Great.


A.D. 1028-1051.

IF William's early reign in Normandy was his time of
schooling for his later reign in England, his school was a
stern one, and his schooling began early. His nominal
reign began at the age of seven years, and his personal
influence on events began long before he had reached the
usual years of discretion. And the events of his minority
might well harden him, while they could not corrupt
him in the way in which so many princes have been cor-
rupted. His whole position, political and personal, could
not fail to have its effect in forming the man. He was
Duke of the Normans, sixth in succession from Eolf,
the founder of the Norman state. At the time of his
accession, rather more than a hundred and ten years had
passed since plunderers, occasionally settlers, from Scan-
dinavia, had changed into acknowledged members of
the Western or Karolingian kingdom. The Northmen,
changed, name and thing, into Normans, were now
in all things members of the Christian and French-
speaking world. But French as the Normans of William's
day had become, their relation to the kings and people of
France was not a friendly one. At the time of the settle-


ment of Kolf, the western kingdom of the Franks had not
yet finally passed to the Duces Francorum at Paris ; Rolf
became the man of the Karolingian king at Laon. France
and Normandy were two great duchies, each owning a
precarious supremacy in the king of the West-Franks. On
the one hand, Normandy had been called into being by a
frightful dismemberment of the French duchy, from which
the original Norman settlement had been cut off. France
had lost in Rouen one of her greatest cities, and she was
cut off from the sea and from the lower course of her own
river. On the other hand, the French and the Norman
dukes had found their interest in a close alliance ; Nor-
man support had done much to transfer the crown from
Laon to Paris, and to make the Dux Francorum and the
Eex Francorum the same person. It was the adoption of
the French speech and manners by the Normans, and
their steady alliance with the French dukes, which finally
determined that the ruling element in Gaul should be
Romance and not Teutonic, and that, of its Romance
elements, it should be French and not Aquitanian. If the
creation of Normandy had done much to weaken France
as a duchy, it had done not a little towards the making of
France as a kingdom. Laon and its crown, the unde-
fined influence that went with the crown, the prospect
of future advance to the south, had been bought by the
loss of Rouen and of the mouth of the Seine.

There was much therefore at the time of William's
accession to keep the French kings and the Norman
dukes on friendly terms. The old alliance had been
strengthened by recent good offices. The reigning king,
Henry the First, owed his crown to the help of William's
father Robert. On the other hand, the original ground


of the alliance, mutual support against the Karolingian
king, had passed away. A King of the French reigning
at Paris was more likely to remember what the Normans
had cost him as duke than what they had done for him
as king. And the alliance was only an alliance of
princes. The mutual dislike between the people of the
two countries was strong. The Normans had learned
French ways, but French and Normans had not become
countrymen. And, as the fame of Normandy grew,
jealousy was doubtless mingled with dislike. William,
in short, inherited a very doubtful and dangerous state
of relations towards the king who was at once his chief
neighbour and his overlord.

More doubtful and dangerous still were the relations
which the young duke inherited towards the people of
his own duchy and the kinsfolk of his own house.
William was not as yet the Great or the Conqueror, but
he was the Bastard from the beginning. There was then
no generally received doctrine as to the succession to king-
doms and duchies. Everywhere a single kingly or
princely house supplied, as a rule, candidates for the
succession. Everywhere, even where the elective doctrine
was strong, a full-grown son was always likely to suc-
ceed his father. The growth of feudal notions too had
greatly strengthened the hereditary principle. Still no
rule had anywhere been laid down for cases where the
late prince had not left a full-grown son. The question
as to legitimate birth was equally unsettled. Irregular
unions of all kinds, though condemned by the Church,
were tolerated in practice, and were nowhere more com-
mon than among the Norman dukes. In truth the feeling
of the kingliness of the stock, the doctrine that the king


should be the son of a king, is better satisfied by the
succession of the late king's bastard son than by sending
for some distant kinsman, claiming perhaps only through
females. Still bastardy, if it was often convenient to
forget it, could always be turned against a man. The
succession of a bastard was never likely to be quite
undisputed or his reign to be quite undisturbed.

Now William succeeded to his duchy under the double
disadvantage of being at once bastard and minor. He was
born at Falaise in 1027 or 1028, being the son of Eobert,
afterwards duke, but then only Count of Hiesmois,
by Herleva, commonly called Arietta, the daughter of
Fulbert the tanner. There was no pretence of marriage
between his parents ; yet his father, when he designed
William to succeed him, might have made him legitimate,
as some of his predecessors had been made, by a mar-
riage with his mother. In 1028 Eobert succeeded his
brother Eichard in the duchy. In 1034 or 1035 he de-
termined to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He called
on his barons to swear allegiance to his bastard of seven
years old as his successor in case he never came back.
Their wise counsel to stay at home, to look after his
dominions and to raise up lawful heirs, was unheeded.
Eobert carried his point. The succession of young
William was accepted by the Norman nobles, and was con-
firmed by the overlord Henry King of the French. The
arrangement soon took effect. Eobert died on his way
back before the year 1035 was out, and his son began, in
name at least, his reign of fifty-two years over the
Norman duchy.

The succession of one who was at once bastard and
minor could happen only when no one else had a dis-


tinctly better claim. William could never have held his
ground for a moment against a brother of his father of
full age and undoubted legitimacy. But among the living
descendants of former dukes some were themselves of
doubtful legitimacy, some were shut out by their pro-
fession as churchmen, some claimed only through females.
Robert had indeed two half-brothers, but they were
young and their legitimacy was disputed; he had an
uncle, Robert Archbishop of Rouen, who had been legiti-
mated by the later marriage of his parents. The rival
who in the end gave William most trouble was his cousin
Guy of Burgundy, son of a daughter of his grandfather
Richard the Good. Though William's succession was not
liked, no one of these candidates was generally preferred
to him. He therefore succeeded ; but the first twelve
years of his reign were spent in the revolts and con-
spiracies of unruly nobles, who hated the young duke as
the one representative of law and order, and who were
not eager to set any one in his place who might be better
able to enforce them.

Nobility, so variously defined in different lands, in
Normandy took in two classes of men. All were noble
who had any kindred or affinity, legitimate or otherwise,
with the ducal house. The natural children of Richard
the Fearless were legitimated by his marriage with their
mother Gunnor, and many of the great houses of Nor-
mandy sprang from her brothers and sisters. The mother
of William received no such exaltation as this. Besides
her son, she had borne to Robert a daughter Adelaide,
and, after Robert's death, she married a Norman knight
named Herlwin of Conteville. To him, besides a daughter,
she bore two sons, Odo and Robert. They rose to high


posts in Church and State, and played an important part
in their half-brother's history. Besides men whose
nobility was of this kind, there were also Norman houses
whose privileges were older than the amours or marriages
of any duke, houses whose greatness was as old as the
settlement of Rolf, as old that is as the ducal power
itself. The great men of both these classes were alike
hard to control. A Norman baron of this age was well
employed when he was merely rebelling against his
prince or waging private war against a fellow baron.
What specially marks the time is the frequency of
treacherous murders wrought by men of the highest rank,
often on harmless neighbours or unsuspecting guests.
But victims were also found among those guardians of
the young duke whose faithful discharge of their duties
shows that the Norman nobility was not wholly corrupt.
One indeed was a foreign prince, Alan Count of the
Bretons, a grandson of Richard the Fearless through a
daughter. Two others, the seneschal Osbern and Gilbert
Count of Eu, were irregular kinsmen of the duke. All
these were murdered, the Breton count by poison. Such
a childhood as this made William play the man while he
was still a child. The helpless boy had to seek for sup-
port of some kind. He got together the chief men of his
duchy, and took a new guardian by their advice. But it
marks the state of things that the new guardian was one
of the murderers of those whom he succeeded. This
was Ralph of Wacey, son of William's great-uncle, Arch-
bishop Robert. Murderer as he was, he seems to have
discharged his duty faithfully. There are men who are
careless of general moral obligations, but who will strictly
carry out any charge which appeals to personal honour.


Anyhow Ralph's guardianship brought with it a certain
amount of calm. But men, high in the young duke's
favour, were still plotting against him, and they presently
began to plot, not only against their prince but against
their country. The disaffected nobles of Normandy
sought for a helper against young William in his lord
King Henry of Paris.

The art of diplomacy had never altogether slumbered
since much earlier times. The king who owed his crown
to William's father, and who could have no ground of
offence against William himself, easily found good pre-
texts for meddling in Norman affairs. It was not un-
natural in the King of the French to wish to win back a
sea-board which had been given up more than a hundred
years before to an alien power, even though that power
had, for much more than half of that time, acted more
than a friendly part towards France. It was not un-
natural that the French people should cherish a strong
national dislike to the Normans and a strong wish that
Rouen should again be a French city. But such motives
were not openly avowed then any more than now. The
alleged ground was quite different. The counts of
Chartres were troublesome neighbours to the duchy, and
the castle of Tillieres had been built as a defence against
them. An advance of the King's dominions had made
Tillieres a neighbour of France, and, as a neighbour, it
was said to be a standing menace. The King of the
French, acting in concert with the disaffected party in
Normandy, was a dangerous enemy, and the young Duke
and his counsellors determined to give up Tillieres. Now
comes the first distinct exercise of William's personal
will We are without exact dates, but the time can


be hardly later than 1040, when William was from twelve
to thirteen years old. At his special request, the de-
fender of Tillieres, Gilbert Crispin, who at first held out
against French and Normans alike, gave up the castle to
Henry. The castle was burned ; the King promised not
to repair it for four years. Yet he is said to have
entered Normandy, to have laid waste William's native
district of Hiesmois, to have supplied a French garrison
to a Norman rebel named Thurstan, who held the castle
of Falaise against the Duke, and to have ended by restor-
ing Tillieres as a menace against Normandy. And now
the boy whose destiny had made him so early a leader
of men had to bear his first arms against the fortress
which looked down on his birth-place. Thurstan sur-
rendered and went into banishment. William could set
down his own Falaise as the first of a long list of towns
and castles which he knew how to win without shedding
of blood.

When we next see William's distinct personal action,
he is still young, but no longer a child or even a boy.
At nineteen or thereabouts he is a wise and valiant man,
and his valour and wisdom are tried to the uttermost.
A few years of comparative quiet were chiefly occupied,
as a quiet time in those days commonly was, with
ecclesiastical affairs. One of these specially illustrates
the state of things with which William had to deal. In
1042, when the Duke was about fourteen, Normandy
adopted the Truce of God in its later shape. It no
longer attempted to establish universal peace ; it satisfied
itself with forbidding, under the strongest ecclesiastical
censures, all private war and violence of any kind on
certain days of the week. Legislation of this kind has


two sides. It was an immediate gain if peace was really
enforced for four days in the week ; but that which was
not forbidden on the other three could no longer be
denounced as in itself evil. We are told that in no land
was the Truce more strictly observed than in Normandy.
But we may be sure that, when William was in the ful-
ness of his power, the stern weight of the ducal arm was
exerted to enforce peace on Mondays and Tuesdays as
well as on Thursdays and Fridays.

It was in the year 1047 that William's authority
was most dangerously threatened and that he was first
called on to show in all their fulness the powers that
were in him. He who was to be conqueror of Maine
and conqueror of England was first to be conqueror of
his own duchy. The revolt of a large part of the country,
contrasted with the firm loyalty of another part, throws
a most instructive light on the internal state of the
duchy. There was, as there still is, a line of severance
between the districts which formed the first grant to
Rolf and those which were afterwards added. In these
last a lingering remnant of old Teutonic life had been
called into fresh strength by new settlements from
Scandinavia. At the beginning of the reign of Richard
the Fearless, Rouen, the French-speaking city, is em-
phatically contrasted with Bayeux, the once Saxon city
and land, now the head-quarters of the Danish speech.
At that stage the Danish party was distinctly a heathen
party. We are not told whether Danish was still spoken
so late as the time of William's youth. We can hardly
believe that the Scandinavian gods still kept any avowed
worshippers. But the geographical limits of the revolt
exactly fall in with the boundary which had once

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