Edward Augustus Freeman.

William the Conqueror online

. (page 12 of 14)
Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 12 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

earldom of the East-Angles was held by a born English-
man who was more hateful than any stranger. Ralph
of Wader was the one Englishman who had fought at
William's side against England. He often passes for a
native of Britanny, and he certainly held lands and
castles in that country ; but he was Breton only by the
mother's side. For Domesday and the Chronicles show
that he was the son of an elder Earl Ralph, who had
been staller or master of the horse in Edward's days,
and who is expressly said to have been born in Norfolk.
The unusual name suggests that the elder Ralph was not
of English descent. He survived the coming of William,
and his son fought on Senlac among the countrymen of his
mother. This treason implies an unrecorded banishment
in the days of Edward or Harold. Already earl in 1069,
he had in that year acted vigorously for William against
the Danes. But he now conspired against him along with
Roger, the younger son of William Fitz-Osbern, who had
succeeded his father in the earldom of Hereford, while his
Norman estates had passed to his elder brother William.
What grounds of complaint either Ralph or Roger had
against William we know not ; but that the loyalty of
the Earl of Hereford was doubtful throughout the year
1074 appears from several letters of rebuke and counsel
sent to him by the Regent Lanfranc. At last the
wielder of both swords took to his spiritual arms, and
pronounced the Earl excommunicate, till he should submit
to the King's mercy and make restitution to the King
and to all men whom he had wronged. Roger remained
stiff-necked under the Primate's censure, and presently


committed an act of direct disobedience. The next
year, 1075, he gave his sister Emma in marriage to Earl
Ralph. This marriage the King had forbidden, on
some unrecorded ground of state policy. Most likely
he already suspected both earls, and thought any tie
between them dangerous. The notice shows William
stepping in to do, as an act of policy, what under his
successors became a matter of course, done with the sole
object of making money. The bride-ale the name that
lurks in the modern shape of bridal was held at Exning
in Cambridgeshire ; bishops and abbots were guests of
the excommunicated Roger ; Waltheof was there, and
many Breton comrades of Ralph. In their cups they
began to plot how they might drive the King out of the
kingdom. Charges, both true and false, were brought
against William; in a mixed gathering of Normans,
English, and Bretons, almost every act of William's life
might pass as a wrong done to some part of the com-
pany, even though some others of the company were his
accomplices. Above all, the two earls Ralph and Roger
made a distinct proposal to their fellow-earl Waltheof.
King William should be driven out of the land ; one of
the three should be King ; the other two should remain
earls, ruling each over a third of the kingdom. Such a
scheme might attract earls, but no one else ; it would
undo William's best and greatest work ; it would throw
back the growing unity of the kingdom by all the steps
that it had taken during several generations.

Now what amount of favour did Waltheof give to
these schemes 1 Weighing the accounts, it would
seem that, in the excitement of the bride-ale, he con-
sented to the treason, but that he thought better of it


the next morning. He went to Lanfranc, at once regent
and ghostly father, and confessed to him whatever he
had to confess. The Primate assigned his penitent some
ecclesiastical penances ; the Regent bade the Earl go into
Normandy and tell the whole tale to the King. Waltheof
went, with gifts in hand ; he told his story and craved
forgiveness. William made light of the matter, and
kept Waltheof with him, but seemingly not under
restraint, till he came back to England.

Meanwhile the other two earls were in open rebellion.
Ealph, half Breton by birth and earl of a Danish land,
asked help in Britanny and Denmark. Bretons from
Britanny and Bretons settled in England flocked to him.
King Swegen, now almost at the end of his reign and
life, listened to the call of the rebels, and sent a fleet
under the command of his son Cnut, the future saint,
together with an earl named Hakon. The revolt in
England was soon put down, both in East and West.
The rebel earls met with no support save from those
who were under their immediate influence. The country
acted zealously for the King. Lanfranc could report
that Earl Ralph and his army were fleeing, and that the
King's men, French and English, were chasing them.
In another letter he could add, with some strength of
language, that the kingdom was cleansed from the filth of
the Bretons. At Norwich only the castle was valiantly
defended by the newly married Countess Emma. Roger
was taken prisoner ; Ralph fled to Britanny ; their
followers were punished with various mutilations,
save the defenders of Norwich, who were admitted to
terms. The Countess joined her husband in Britanny,
and in days to come Ralph did something to redeem


so many treasons by dying as an armed pilgrim in the
first crusade.

The main point of this story is that the revolt met
with no English support whatever. Not only did Bishop
Wulfstan march along with his fierce Norman brethren
Odo and Geoffrey ; the English people everywhere were
against the rebels. For this revolt offered no attraction
to English feeling had the undertaking been less hope-
less, nothing could have been gained by exchanging the
rule of William for that of Ralph or Roger. It might
have been different if the Danes had played their part
better. The rebellion broke out while William was in
Normandy ; it was the sailing of the Danish fleet which
brought him back to England. But never did enterprise
bring less honour on its leaders than this last Danish
voyage up the Humber. All that the holy Cnut did
was to plunder the minster of Saint Peter at York and
to sail away.

His coming however seems to have altogether changed
the King's feelings with regard to Waltheof. As yet
he had not been dealt with as a prisoner or an enemy.
He now came back to England with the King, and
William's first act was to imprison both Waltheof and
Roger. The imprisonment of Roger, a rebel taken in
arms, was a matter of course. As for Waltheof, what-
ever he had promised at the bride-ale, he had done no
disloyal act ; he had had no share in the rebellion, and
he had told the King all that he knew. But he had
listened to traitors, and it might be dangerous to leave
him at large when a Danish fleet, led by his old comrade
Cnut, was actually afloat. Still what followed is strange
indeed, specially strange with William as its chief doer.


At the Midwinter Gemdt of 1075-1076 Koger and
Waltheof were brought to trial. Ealph was condemned
in absence, like Eustace of Boulogne. Roger was
sentenced to forfeiture and imprisonment for life.
Waltheof made his defence; his sentence was de-
ferred ; he was kept at Winchester in a straiter im-
prisonment than before. At the Pentecostal Gem6t of
1076, held at Westminster, his case was again argued,
and he was sentenced to death. On the last day of
May the last English earl was beheaded on the hills
above Winchester.

Such a sentence and execution, strange at any time,
is specially strange under William. Whatever Waltheof
had done, his offence was lighter than that of Roger ;
yet Waltheof has the heavier and Roger the lighter
punishment. With Scroggs or Jeffreys on the bench,
it might have been argued that Waltheof's confession
to the King did not, in strictness of law, wipe out the
guilt of his original promise to the conspirators; but
William the Great did not commonly act after the
fashion of Scroggs and Jeffreys. To deprive Waltheof
of his earldom might doubtless be prudent ; a man who
had even listened to traitors might be deemed unfit for
such a trust. It might be wise to keep him safe under
the King's eye, like Edwin, Morkere, and Edgar. But
why should he be picked out for death, when the far
more guilty Roger was allowed to live ? Why should
he be chosen as the one victim of a prince who never
before or after, in Normandy or in England, doomed
any man to die on a political charge ? These are ques-
tions hard to answer. It is not enough to say that
Waltheof was an Englishman, that it was William's


policy gradually to get rid of Englishmen in high
places, and that the time was now come to get rid of
the last. For such a policy forfeiture, or at most im-
prisonment, would have been enough. While other
Englishmen lost lands, honours, at most liberty, Wal-
theof alone lost his life by a judicial sentence. It is
likely enough that many Normans hungered for the
lands and honours of the one Englishman who still
held the highest rank in England. Still forfeiture
without death might have satisfied even them. But
Waltheof was not only earl of three shires ; he was hus-
band of the King's near kinswoman. We are told that
Judith was the enemy and accuser of her husband.
This may have touched William's one weak point. Yet
he would hardly have swerved from the practice of his
whole life to please the bloody caprice of a niece who
longed for the death of her husband. And if Judith
longed for Waltheof's death, it was not from a wish to
supply his place with another. Legend says that she
refused a second husband offered her by the King ; it
is certain that she remained a widow.

Waltheof's death must thus remain a mystery, an
isolated deed of blood unlike anything else in William's
life. It seems to have been impolitic; it led to no
revolt, but it called forth a new burst of English feel-
ing. Waltheof was deemed the martyr of his people ;
he received the same popular canonization as more than
one English patriot. Signs and wonders were wrought
at his tomb at Crowland, till displays of miraculous
power which were so inconsistent with loyalty and good
order were straitly forbidden. The act itself marks a
stage in the downward course of William's character.


In itself, the harrying of Northumberland, the very
invasion of England, with all the bloodshed that
they caused, might be deemed blacker crimes than the
unjust death of a single man. But as human nature
stands, the less crime needs a worse man to do it.
Crime, as ever, led to further crime and was itself the
punishment of crime. In the eyes of William's con-
temporaries the death of Waltheof, the blackest act of
William's life, was also its turning-point. From the
day of the martyrdom on Saint Giles' hill the magic of
William's name and William's arms passed away. Un-
failing luck no longer waited on him ; after Waltheof 's
death he never, till his last campaign of all, won a battle
or took a town. In this change of William's fortunes
the men of his own day saw the judgement of God
upon his crime. And in the fact at least they were
undoubtedly right. Henceforth, though William's real
power abides unshaken, the tale of his warfare is chiefly
a tale of petty defeats. The last eleven years of his
life would never have won him the name of Conqueror.
But in the higher walk of policy and legislation never
was his nobler surname more truly deserved. Never
did William the Great show himself so truly great as in
these later years.

The death of Waltheof and the popular judgement on
it suggest another act of William's which cannot have
been far from it in point of time, and about which men
spoke in his own day in the same spirit If the judge-
ment of God came on William for the beheading of
Waltheof, it came on him also for the making of the
New Forest. As to that forest there is a good deal


of ancient exaggeration and a good deal of modern
misconception. The word forest is often misunder-
stood. In its older meaning, a meaning which it still
keeps in some parts, a forest has nothing to do with
trees. It is a tract of land put outside the common
law and subject to a stricter law of its own, and that
commonly, probably always, to secure for the King the
freer enjoyment of the pleasure of hunting. Such a
forest William made in Hampshire ; the impression
which it made on men's minds at the time is shown by
its having kept the name of the New Forest for eight
hundred years. There is no reason to think that
William laid waste any large tract of specially fruitful
country, least of all that he laid waste a land thickly
inhabited ; for most of the Forest land never can have
been such. But it is certain from Domesday and the
Chronicle that William did afforest a considerable tract
of land in Hampshire ; he set it apart for the purposes
of hunting ; he fenced it in by special and cruel laws
stopping indeed short of death for the protection of
his pleasures, and in this process some men lost their
lands and were driven from their homes. Some de-
struction of houses is here implied; some destruction
of churches is not unlikely. The popular belief, which
hardly differs from the account of writers one degree
later than Domesday and the Chronicle, simply exag-
gerates the extent of destruction. There was no such
wide-spread laying waste as is often supposed, because
no such wide-spread laying waste was needed. But
whatever was needed for William's purpose was done ;
and Domesday gives us the record. And the act surely
makes, like the death of Waltheof, a downward stage


in William's character. The harrying of Northumber-
land was in itself a far greater crime, and involved far
more of human wretchedness. But it is not remem-
bered in the same way, because it has left no such
abiding memorial. But here again the lesser crime
needed a worse man to do it. The harrying of Nort-
humberland was a crime done with a political object ;
it was the extreme form of military severity; it was
not vulgar robbery done with no higher motive than to
secure the fuller enjoyment of a brutal sport. To this
level William had now sunk. It was in truth now that
hunting in England finally took the character of a mere
sport. Hunting was no new thing ; in an early state
of society it is often a necessary thing. The hunting
of Alfred is spoken of as a grave matter of business, as
part of his kingly duty. He had to make war on the
wild beasts, as he had to make war on the Danes. The
hunting of William is simply a sport, not his duty or
his business, but merely his pleasure. And to this
pleasure, the pleasure of inflicting pain and slaughter,
he did not scruple to sacrifice the rights of other men,
and to guard his enjoyment by ruthless laws at which
even in that rough age men shuddered.

For this crime the men of his day saw the punish-
ment in the strange and frightful deaths of his offspring,
two sons and a grandson, on the scene of his crime.
One of these himself he saw, the death of his second
son Eichard, a youth of great promise, whose pro-
longed life might have saved England from the rule of
William Rufus. He died in the Forest, about the year
1081, to the deep grief of his parents. And Domesday
contains a touching entry, how William gave back his


land to a despoiled Englishman as an offering for
Richard's soul.

The forfeiture of three earls, the death of one, threw
their honours and estates into the King's hands. An-
other fresh source of wealth came by the death of the
Lady Edith, who had kept her royal rank and her great
estates, and who died while the proceedings against
Waltheof were going on. It was not now so important
for William as it had been in the first years of the
Conquest to reward his followers ; he could now think
of the royal hoard in the first place. Of the estates
which now fell in to the Crown large parts were granted
out. The house of Bigod, afterwards so renowned as
Earls of Norfolk, owe their rise to their forefather's
share in the forfeited lands of Earl Ralph. But Wil-
liam kept the greater part to himself ; one lordship in
Somerset, part of the lands of the Lady, he gave to the
church of Saint Peter at Rome. Of the three earldoms,
those of Hereford and East-Anglia were not filled up ;
the later earldoms of those lands have no connexion
with the earls of William's day. Waltheof's southern
earldoms of Northampton and Huntingdon became the
dowry of his daughter Matilda; that of Huntingdon
passed to his descendants the Kings of Scots. But
Northumberland, close on the Scottish border, still
needed an earl ; but there is something strange in the
choice of Bishop Walcher of Durham. It is possible
that this appointment was a concession to English feel-
ing stirred to wrath at the death of Waltheof. The
days of English earls were over, and a Norman would
have been looked on as Waltheof's murderer. The


Lotharingian bishop was a stranger ; but he was not a
Norman, and he was no oppressor of Englishmen. But
he was strangely unfit for the place. Not a fighting
bishop like Odo and Geoffrey, he was chiefly devoted
to spiritual affairs, specially to the revival of the
monastic life, which had died out in Northern England
since the Danish invasions. But his weak trust in
unworthy favourites, English and foreign, led him to a
fearful and memorable end. The Bishop was on terms
of close friendship with Ligulf, an Englishman of the
highest birth and uncle by marriage to Earl Waltheof.
He had kept his estates ; but the insolence of his Nor-
man neighbours had caused him to come and live in
the city of Durham near his friend the Bishop. His
favour with Walcher roused the envy of some of the
Bishop's favourites, who presently contrived his death.
The Bishop lamented, and rebuked them ; but he failed
to "do justice," to punish the offenders sternly and
speedily. He was therefore believed to be himself
guilty of Ligulf's death. One of the most striking
and instructive events of the time followed. On May
14, 1080, a full Gem6t of the earldom was held at
Gateshead to deal with the murder of Ligulf. This
was one of those rare occasions when a strong feeling
led every man to the assembly. The local Parliament
took its ancient shape of an armed crowd, headed by
the noblest Englishmen left in the earldom. There
was no vote, no debate ; the shout was " Short rede
good rede, slay ye the Bishop." And to that cry,
Walcher himself and his companions, the murderers of
Ligulf among them, were slaughtered by the raging
multitude who had gathered to avenge him.


The riot in which Walcher died was no real revolt
against William's government. Such a local rising
against a local wrong might have happened in the like
case under Edward or Harold. No government could
leave such a deed unpunished ; but William's own ideas
of justice would have been fully satisfied by the blind-
ing or mutilation of a few ringleaders. But William
was in Normandy in the midst of domestic and poli-
tical cares. He sent his brother Odo to restore order,
and his vengeance was frightful. The land was harried;
innocent men were mutilated and put to death ; others
saved their lives by bribes. Earl after earl was set over
a land so hard to rule. A certain Alberie was appointed,
but he was removed as unfit. The fierce Bishop Geoffrey
of Coutances tried his hand and resigned. At the time
of William's death the earldom was held by Geoffrey's
nephew Robert of Mowbray, a stern and gloomy
stranger, but whom Englishmen reckoned among " good
men," when he guarded the marches of England against
the Scot.

After the death of Waltheof William seems to have
stayed in Normandy for several years. His ill luck
now began. Before the year 1076 was out, he entered,
we know not why, on a Breton campaign. But he was
driven from Dol by the combined forces of Britanny
and France ; Philip was ready to help any enemy of
William. The Conqueror had now for the first time
suffered defeat in his own person. He made peace
with both enemies, promising his daughter Constance
to Alan of Britanny. But the marriage did not follow
till ten years later. The peace with France, as the


English Chronicle says, " held little while ; " Philip
could not resist the temptation of helping William's
eldest son Robert when the reckless young man rebelled
against his father. With most of the qualities of an
accomplished knight, Robert had few of those which
make either a wise ruler or an honest man. A brave
soldier, even a skilful captain, he was no general ; ready
of speech and free of hand, he was lavish rather than
bountiful. He did not lack generous and noble feelings ;
but of a steady course, even in evil, he was incapable.
As a ruler, he was no oppressor in his own person ; but
sloth, carelessness, love of pleasure, incapacity to say
No, failure to do justice, caused more wretchedness than
the oppression of those tyrants who hinder the oppres-
sions of others. William would not set such an one
over any part of his dominions before his time, and it
was his policy to keep his children dependent on him.
While he enriched his brothers, he did not give the
smallest scrap of the spoils of England to his sons. But
Robert deemed that he had a right to something greater
than private estates. The nobles of Normandy had done
homage to him as William's successor; he had done
homage to Fulk for Maine, as if he were himself its
count. He was now stirred up by evil companions to
demand that, if his father would not give him part of
his kingdom the spirit of Edwin and Morkere had
crossed the sea he would at least give him Normandy
and Maine. William refused with many pithy sayings.
It was not his manner to take off his clothes till he
went to bed. Robert now, with a band of discontented
young nobles, plunged into border warfare against his
father. He then wandered over a large part of Europe,


begging and receiving money and squandering all that
he got. His mother too sent him money, which led to
the first quarrel between William and Matilda after so
many years of faithful union. William rebuked his
wife for helping his enemy in breach of his orders : she
pleaded the mother's love for her first-born. The
mother was forgiven, but her messenger, sentenced to
loss of eyes, found shelter in a monastery.

At last in 1079 Philip gave Eobert a settled dwelling-
place in the border -fortress of Gerberoi. The strife
between father and son became dangerous. William
besieged the castle, to undergo before its walls his second
defeat, to receive his first wound, and that at the hands
of his own son. Pierced in the hand by the lance of
Eobert, his horse smitten by an arrow, the Conqueror
fell to the ground, and was saved only by an English-
man, Tokig, son of Wiggod of Wallingford, who gave
his life for his king. It seems an early softening of the
tale which says that Robert dismounted and craved his
father's pardon ; it seems a later hardening which says
that William pronounced a curse on his son. William
Kufus too, known as yet only as the dutiful son of his
father, was wounded in his defence. The blow was not
only grievous to William's feelings as a father ; it was
a serious military defeat. The two wounded Williams
and the rest of the besiegers escaped how they might,
and the siege of Gerberoi was raised.

We next find the wise men of Normandy debating
how to make peace between father and son. In the
course of the year 1080 a peace was patched up, and a
more honourable sphere was found for Robert's energies
in an expedition into Scotland. In the autumn of the



year of Gerberoi Malcolm had made another wasting
inroad into Northumberland. With the King absent
and Northumberland in confusion through the death
of Walcher, this wrong went unavenged till the autumn
of 1080. Eobert gained no special glory in Scotland ;
a second quarrel with his father followed, and Eobert
remained a banished man during the last seven years of
William's reign.

In this same year 1080 a synod of the Norman
Church was held, the Truce of God again renewed
which we heard of years ago. The forms of outrage
on which the Truce was meant to put a check, and
which the strong hand of William had put down more
thoroughly than the Truce would do, had clearly begun
again during the confusions caused by the rebellion of

The two next years, 1081-1082, William was in Eng-

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14

Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 12 of 14)