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hardly doubt, as a babe when Chester opened its gates
to William, were all set free ; some indeed were put in
bonds again by the King's successor. But Odo William
would not set free ; he knew too well how many would
suffer if he were again let loose upon the world. But
love of kindred was still strong ; at last he yielded,
sorely against his will, to the prayers and pledges of his
other brother. Odo went forth from his prison, again
Bishop of Bayeux, soon again to be Earl of Kent, and
soon to prove William's foresight by his deeds.

William's disposal of his dominions on his death-bed
carries on his political history almost to his last breath.
Kobert, the banished rebel, might seem to have forfeited
all claims to the succession. But the doctrine of heredi-
tary right had strengthened during the sixty years of
William's life. He is made to say that, though he fore-
sees the wretchedness of any land over which Eobert
should be the ruler, still he cannot keep him out of the
duchy of Normandy which is his birthright. Of England
he will not dare to dispose ; he leaves the decision to
God, seemingly to Archbishop Lanfranc as the vicar of
God. He will only say that his wish is for his son
William to succeed him in his kingdom, and he prays
Lanfranc to crown him king, if he deem such a course
to be right. Such a message was a virtual nomination,
and William the Red succeeded his father in England,
but kept his crown only by the help of loyal Englishmen
against Norman rebels. William Eufus, it must be re-
membered, still under the tutelage of his father and
Lanfranc had not yet shown his bad qualities ; he was



xi. THE LAST YEARS OF WILLIAM. 195

known as yet only as the dutiful son who fought for his
father against the rebel Eobert. By ancient English law,
that strong preference which was all that any man could
claim of right belonged beyond doubt to the youngest
of William's sons, the English ^Etheling Henry. He
alone was born in the land ; he alone was the son of a
crowned King and his Lady. It is perhaps with a know-
ledge of what followed that William is made to bid his
youngest son wait while his eldest go before him ; that
he left him landless, but master of a hoard of silver,
there is no reason to doubt. English feeling, which
welcomed Henry thirteen years later, would doubtless
have gladly seen his immediate accession ; but it might
have been hard, in dividing William's dominions, to have
shut out the second son in favour of the third. And in
the scheme of events by which conquered England was
to rise again, the reign of Eufus, at the moment the
darkest time of all, had its appointed share.

That England could rise again, that she could rise
with a new life, strengthened by her momentary over-
throw, was before all things owing to the lucky destiny
which, if she was to be conquered, gave her William the
Great as her Conqueror. It is as it is in all human affairs.
William himself could not have done all that he did,
wittingly and unwittingly, unless circumstances had been
favourable to him ; but favourable circumstances would
have been useless, unless there had been a man like
William to take advantage of them. What he did,
wittingly or unwittingly, he did by virtue of his special
position, the position of a foreign conqueror veiling his
conquest under a legal claim. The hour and the man



196 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

were alike needed. The man in his own hour wrought
a work, partly conscious, partly unconscious. The more
clearly any man understands his conscious work, the
more sure is that conscious work to lead to further
results of which he dreams not. So it was with the Con-
queror of England. His purpose was to win and to
keep the kingdom of England, and to hand it on to those
who should come after him more firmly united than it
had ever been before. In this work his spirit of formal
legality, his shrinking from needless change, stood him
in good stead. He saw that as the kingdom of England
could best be won by putting forth a legal claim to it, so
it could best be kept by putting on the character of a
legal ruler, and reigning as the successor of the old
kings seeking the unity of the kingdom ; he saw, from
the example both of England and of other lands, the
dangers which threatened that unity; he saw what
measures were needed to preserve it in his own day,
measures which have preserved it ever since. Here is a
work, a conscious work, which entitles the foreign Con-
queror to a place among English statesmen, and to a
place in their highest rank Further than this we can-
not conceive William himself to have looked. All that
was to come of his work in future ages was of necessity
hidden from his eyes, no less than from the eyes of
smaller men. He had assuredly no formal purpose to
make England Norman; but still less had he any
thought that the final outcome of his work would
make England on one side more truly English than if
he had never crossed the sea. In his ecclesiastical work
he saw the future still less clearly. He designed to
reform what he deemed abuses, to bring the English



xi. THE LAST YEAES OF WILLIAM. 197

Church into closer conformity with the other Churches
of the West ; he assuredly never dreamed that .the issue
of his reform would be the strife between Henry and
Thomas and the humiliation of John. His error was
that of forgetting that he himself could wield powers,
that he could hold forces in check, which would be too
strong for those who should come after him. At his
purposes with regard to the relations of England and
Normandy it would be vain to guess. The mere leav-
ing of kingdom and duchy to different sons would not
necessarily imply that he designed a complete or
lasting separation. But assuredly William did not
foresee that England, dragged into wars with France
as the ally of Normandy, would remain the lasting rival
of France after Normandy had been swallowed up in
the French kingdom. If rivalry between England and
France had not come in this way, it would doubtless
have come in some other way ; but this is the way in
which it did come about. As a result of the union of
Normandy and England under one ruler, it was part of
William's work, but a work of which William had no
thought. So it was with the increased connexion of
every kind between England and the continent of
Europe which followed on William's coming. With one
part of Europe indeed the connexion of England was
lessened. For three centuries before William's coming,
dealings in war and peace with the Scandinavian king-
doms had made up a large part of English history.
Since the baffled enterprise of the holy Cnut, our
dealings with that part of Europe have been of only
secondary account.

But in our view of William as an English statesman,



198 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

the main feature of all is that spirit of formal legality
of which we have so often spoken. Its direct effects,
partly designed, partly undesigned, have affected our
whole history to this day. It was his policy to disguise
the fact of conquest, to cause all the spoils of con-
quest to be held, in outward form, according to the
ancient law of England. The fiction became a fact,
and the fact greatly helped in the process of fusion
between Normans and English. The conquering race
could not keep itself distinct from the conquered, and
the form which the fusion took was for the conquerors
to be lost in the greater mass of the conquered. Wil-
liam founded no new state, no new nation, no new
constitution ; he simply kept what he found, with such
modifications as his position made needful. But with-
out any formal change in the nature of English king-
ship, his position enabled him to clothe the crown with
a practical power such as it had never held before, to
make his rule, in short, a virtual despotism. These
two facts determined the later course of English history,
and they determined it to the lasting good of the Eng-
lish nation. The conservative instincts of William
allowed our national life and our national institutions
to live on unbroken through his conquest. But it was
before all things the despotism of William, his despotism
under legal forms, which preserved our national institu-
tions to all time. As a less discerning conqueror
might have swept our ancient laws and liberties away,
so under a series of native kings those laws and liberties
might have died out, as they died out in so many con-
tinental lands. But the despotism of the crown called
forth the national spirit in a conscious and antagonistic



xi. THE LAST YEARS OF WILLIAM. 199

shape ; it called forth that spirit in men of both races
alike, and made Normans and English one people. The
old institutions lived on, to be clothed with a fresh life,
to be modified as changed circumstances might make
needful. The despotism of the Norman kings, the
peculiar character of that despotism, enabled the great
revolution of the thirteenth century to take the forms,
which it took, at once conservative and progressive.
So it was when, more than four centuries after William's
day, England again saw a despotism carried on under
the forms of law. Henry the Eighth reigned as
William had reigned ; he did not reign like his brother
despots on the continent ; the forms of law and freedom
lived on. In the seventeenth century therefore, as in
the thirteenth, the forms stood ready to be again
clothed with a new life, to supply the means for an-
other revolution, again at once conservative and pro-
gressive. It has been remarked a thousand times that,
while other nations have been driven to destroy and to
rebuild the political fabric, in England we have never
had to destroy and to rebuild, but have found it enough
to repair, to enlarge, and to improve. This character-
istic of English history is mainly owing to the events
of the eleventh century, and owing above all to the
personal agency of William. As far as mortal man can
guide the course of things when he is gone, the course
of our national history since William's day has been
the result of William's character and of William's acts.
Well may we restore to him the surname that men
gave him in his own day. He may worthily take his
place as William the Great alongside of Alexander,
Constantine, and Charles. They may have Avrought in



200 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP. xi.

some sort a greater work, because they had a wider
stage to work it on. But no man ever wrought a greater
and more abiding ' work on the stage that fortune gave
him than he

" Qui dux Normannis, qui Caesar preefuit Anglis."

Stranger and conqueror, his deeds won him a right to a
place on the roll of English statesmen, and no man
that came after him has won a right to a higher place.



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