Edward Augustus Freeman.

William the Conqueror online

. (page 2 of 14)
Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 2 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


divided French and Danish speech, Christian and heathen
worship. There was a wide difference in feeling on the
two sides of the Dive. The older Norman settlements,
now thoroughly French in tongue and manners, stuck
faithfully to the Duke ; the lands to the west rose against
him. Rouen and Evreux were firmly loyal to William ;
Saxon Bayeux and Danish Coutances were the head-
quarters of his enemies.

When the geographical division took this shape, we
are surprised at the candidate for the duchy who was
put forward by the rebels. William was a Norman born
and bred; his rival was in every sense a Frenchman. This
was William's cousin Guy of Burgundy, whose connexion
with the ducal house was only by the spindle-side. But
his descent was of uncontested legitimacy, which gave
him an excuse for claiming the duchy in opposition to
the bastard grandson of the tanner. By William he had
been enriched with great possessions, among which was
the island fortress of Brionne in the Eisle. The real
object of the revolt was the partition of the duchy.
William was to be dispossessed ; Guy was to be duke in
the lands east of Dive ; the great lords of Western Nor-
mandy were to be left independent. To this end the
lords of the Bessin and the Cotentin revolted, their
leader being Neal, Viscount of Saint-Sauveur in the
Cotentin. We are told that the mass of the people
everywhere wished well to their duke ; in the common
sovereign lay their only chance of protection against
their immediate lords. But the lords had armed force
of the land at their bidding. They first tried to slay or
seize the Duke himself, who chanced to be in the midst
of them at Valognes. He escaped ; we hear a stirring


tale of his headlong ride fnom Valognes to Falaise. Safe
among his own people, he planned his course of action.
He first sought help of the man who could give him
most help, but who had most wronged him. He went
into France ; he saw King Henry at Poissy, and the King
engaged to bring a French force to William's help under
his own command.

This time Henry kept his promise. The dismember-
ment of Normandy might have been profitable to France
by weakening the power which had become so special an
object of French jealousy ; but with a king the common
interest of princes against rebellious barons came first.
Henry came with a French army, and fought well for
his ally on the field of Val-es-dunes. Now came the
Conqueror's first battle, a tourney of horsemen on an
open table-land just within the land of the rebels between
Caen and Mezidon. The young duke fought well and
manfully ; but the Norman writers allow that it was
French help that gained him the victory. Yet one of the
many anecdotes of the battle points to a source of
strength which was always ready to tell for any lord
against rebellious vassals. One of the leaders of the
revolt, Ealph of Tesson, struck with remorse and stirred
by the prayers of his knights, joined the Duke just before
the battle. He had sworn to smite William wherever he
found him, and he fulfilled his oath by giving the Duke a
harmless blow with his glove. How far an oath to do
an unlawful act is binding is a question which came up
again at another stage of William's life.

The victory at Val-es-dunes was decisive, and the
French King, whose help had done so much to win it, left
William to follow it up. He met with but little re-


sistance except at the stronghold of Brionne. Guy
himself vanishes from Norman history. William had
now conquered his own duchy, and conquered it by
foreign help. For the rest of his Norman reign he
had often to strive with enemies at home, but he
had never to put down such a rebellion again as that
of the lords of western Normandy. That western
Normandy, the truest Normandy, had to yield to the
more thoroughly Komanized lands to the east. The
difference between them never again takes a political
shape. William was now lord of all Normandy, and able
to put down all later disturbers of the peace. His real
reign now begins ; from the age of nineteen or twenty, his
acts are his own. According to his abiding practice, he
showed himself a merciful conqueror. Through his
whole reign he shows a distinct unwillingness to take
human life except in fair fighting on the battle-field.
No blood was shed after the victory of Val-es-dunes ;
one rebel died in bonds; the others underwent no
harder punishment than payment of fines, giving of
hostages, and destruction of their castles. These castles
were not as yet the vast and elaborate structures which
arose in after days. A single strong square tower, or
even a defence of wood on a steep mound surrounded by
a ditch, was enough to make its owner dangerous. The
possession of these strongholds made every baron able at
once to defy his prince and to make himself a scourge to
his neighbours. Every season of anarchy is marked by
the building of castles ; every return of order brings with
it their overthrow as a necessary condition of peace.

Thus, in his lonely and troubled childhood, William


had been schooled for the rule of men. He had now, in
the rule of a smaller dominion, in warfare and conquest
on a smaller scale, to be schooled for the conquest and
the rule of a greater dominion. William had the gifts
of a born ruler, and he was in no way disposed to abuse
them. We know his rule in Normandy only through
the language of panegyric ; but the facts speak for them-
selves. He made Normandy peaceful and nourishing,
more peaceful and flourishing perhaps than any other
state of the European mainland. He is set before us as in
everything a wise and beneficent ruler, the protector of
the poor and helpless, the patron of commerce and of all
that might profit his dominions. For defensive wars, for
wars waged as the faithful man of his overlord, we can-
not blame him. But his main duty lay at home. He
still had revolts to put down, and he put them down.
But to put them down was the first of good works. He
had to keep the peace of the land, to put some check on
the unruly wills of those turbulent barons on whom only
an arm like his could put any check. He had, in the
language of his day, to do justice, to visit wrong with
sure and speedy punishment, whoever was the wrong-
doer. If a ruler did this first of duties well, much was
easily forgiven him in other ways. But William had as
yet little to be forgiven. Throughout life he steadily
practised some unusual virtues. His strict attention to
religion was always marked. And his religion was not
that mere lavish bounty to the Church which was con-
sistent with any amount of cruelty or license. William's
religion really influenced his life, public and private. He
set an unusual example of a princely household governed
according to the rules of morality, and he dealt with


ecclesiastical matters in the spirit of a true reformer.
He did not, like so many princes of his age, make ecclesi-
astical preferments a source of corrupt gain, but pro-
moted good men from all quarters. His own education
is not likely to have received much attention ; it is not
clear whether he had mastered the rarer art of writing
or the more usual one of reading ; but both his promotion
of learned churchmen and the care given to the education
of some of his children show that he at least valued the
best attainments of his time. Had William's whole life
been spent in the duties of a Norman duke, ruling his
duchy wisely, defending it manfully, the world might
never have known him for one of its foremost men, but
his life on that narrower field would have been useful
and honourable almost without a drawback. It was the
fatal temptation of princes, the temptation to territorial
aggrandizement, which enabled him fully to show the
powers that were in him, but which at the same time led
to his moral degradation. The defender of his own land
became the invader of other lands, and the invader could
not fail often to sink into the oppressor. Each step in
his career as Conqueror was a step downwards. Maine
was a neighbouring land, a land of the same speech, a
land which, if the feelings of the time could have allowed
a willing union, would certainly have lost nothing by an
union with Normandy. England, a land apart, a land of
speech, laws, and feelings, utterly unlike those of any
part of Gaul, was in another case. There the Conqueror
was driven to be the oppressor. Wrong, as ever, was
punished by leading to further wrong.

With the two fields, nearer and more distant, nar-
rower and wider, on which William was to appear as


Conqueror he has as yet nothing to do. It is vain to
guess at what moment the thought of the English succes-
sion may have entered his mind or that of his advisers.
When William began his real reign after Val-es-dunes,
Norman influence was high in England. Edward the
Confessor had spent his youth among his Norman kins-
folk; he loved Norman ways and the company of Normans
and other men of French speech. Strangers from the
favoured lands held endless posts in Church and State ;
above all, Kobert of Jumieges, first Bishop of London and
then Archbishop of Canterbury, was the King's special
favourite and adviser. These men may have suggested
the thought of William's succession very early. On the
other hand, at this time it was by no means clear that
Edward might not leave a son of his own. He had been
only a few years married, and his alleged vow of chas-
tity is very doubtful. William's claim was of the
flimsiest kind. By English custom the king was chosen
out of a single kingly house, and only those who were
descended from kings in the male line were counted as
members of that house. William was not descended,
even in the female line, from any English king; his
whole kindred with Edward was that Edward's mother
Emma, a daughter of Richard the Fearless, was William's
great-aunt. Such a kindred, to say nothing of William's
bastardy, could give no right to the crown according to
any doctrine of succession that ever was heard of. It
could at most point him out as a candidate for adoption,
in case the reigning king should be disposed and allowed
to choose his successor. William or his advisers may
have begun to weigh this chance very early; but all
that is really certain is that William was a friend and


favourite of his elder kinsman, and that events finally
brought his succession to the English crown within the
range of things that might be.

But, before this, William was to show himself as a
warrior beyond the bounds of his own duchy, and to
take seizin, as it were, of his great continental conquest.
William's first war out of Normandy was waged in com-
mon with King Henry against Geoffrey Martel Count of
Anjou, and waged on the side of Maine. William un-
doubtedly owed a debt of gratitude to his overlord for
good help given at Val-es-dunes, and excuses were never
lacking for a quarrel between Anjou and Normandy.
Both powers asserted rights over the intermediate land of
Maine. In 1048 we find William giving help to Henry in
a war with Anjou, and we hear wonderful but vague tales
of his exploits. The really instructive part of the story
deals with two border fortresses on the march of Nor-
mandy and Maine. Alen9on lay on the Norman side of the
Sarthe ; but it was disloyal to Normandy. Brionne was
still holding out for Guy of Burgundy. The town was a
lordship of the house of Belleme, a house renowned for
power and wickedness, and which, as holding great pos-
sessions alike of Normandy and of France, ranked rather
with princes than with ordinary nobles. The story
went that William Talvas, lord of Belleme, one of the
fiercest of his race, had cursed William in his cradle, as
one by whom he and his should be brought to shame.
Such a tale set forth the noblest side of William's
character, as the man who did something to put down
such enemies of mankind as he who cursed him. The
possessions of William Talvas passed through his daughter
Mabel to Eoger of Montgomery, a man who plays a


great part in William's history ; but it is the disloyalty
of the burghers, not of their lord, of which we hear just
now. They willingly admitted an Angevin garrison.
William in return laid siege to Domfront on the Varenne,
a strong castle which was then an outpost of Maine
against Normandy. A long skirmishing warfare, in
which William won for himself a name by deeds of
personal prowess, went on during the autumn and
winter (1048-49). One tale specially illustrates more
than one point in the feelings of the time. The two
princes, William and Geoffrey, give a mutual challenge ;
each gives the other notice of the garb and shield that he
will wear that he may not be mistaken. The spirit of
knight-errantry was coming in, and we see that William
himself in his younger days was touched by it. But
we see also that coat-armour was as yet unknown.
Geoffrey and his host, so the Normans say, shrink from
the challenge and decamp in the night, leaving the way
open for a sudden march upon Ale^on. The disloyal
burghers received the duke with mockery of his birth.
They hung out skins, and shouted, "Hides for the
Tanner." Personal insult is always hard for princes to
bear, and the wrath of William was stirred up to a pitch
which made him for once depart from his usual modera-
tion towards conquered enemies. He swore that the men
who had jeered at him should be dealt with like a tree
whose branches are cut off with the pollarding-knife.
The town was taken by assault, and William kept his
oath. The castle held out ; the hands and feet of thirty-
two pollarded burghers of Alencon were thrown over its
walls, and the threat implied drove the garrison to sur-
render on promise of safety for life and limb. The


defenders of Domfront, struck with fear, surrendered also,
and kept their arms as well as their lives and limbs.
William had thus won back his own rebellious town,
and had enlarged his borders by his first conquest.
He went farther south, and fortified another castle at
Ambrieres; but Ambrieres was only a temporary con-
quest. Domfront has ever since been counted as part of
Normandy. But, as ecclesiastical divisions commonly
preserve the secular divisions of an earlier time, Dom-
front remained down to the great French Revolution in
the spiritual jurisdiction of the bishops of Le Mans.

William had now shown himself in Maine as con-
queror, and he was before long to show himself in
England, though not yet as conqueror. If our chrono-
logy is to be trusted, he had still in this interval to com-
plete his conquest of his own duchy by securing the
surrender of Brionne ; and two other events, both charac-
teristic, one of them memorable, fill up the same time.
William now banished a kinsman of his own name, who
held the great county of Mortain, Moretoliam or Mare-
tonium, in the diocese of Avranches, which must be care-
fully distinguished from Mortagne-en-Perche, Mauritania
or Moretonia in the diocese of Seez. This act, of some-
what doubtful justice, is noteworthy on two grounds.
First, the accuser of the banished count was one who
was then a poor serving-knight of his own, but who
became the forefather of a house which plays a great
part in English history, Robert surnamed the Bigod.
Secondly, the vacant county was granted by William to
his own half-brother Robert. He had already in 1048
bestowed the bishopric of Bayeux on his other half-


brother Odo, who cannot at that time have been more
than twelve years old. He must therefore have held
the see for a good while without consecration, and at no
time of his fifty years' holding of it did he show any very
episcopal merits. This was the last case in William's
reign of an old abuse by which the chief church prefer-
ments in Normandy had been turned into means of pro-
viding for members, often unworthy members, of the
ducal family ; and it is the only one for which William
can have been personally responsible. Both his brothers
were thus placed very early in life among the chief men
of Normandy, as they were in later years to be placed
among the chief men of England. But William's affec-
tion for his brothers, amiable as it may have been per-
sonally, was assuredly not among the brighter parts of
his character as a sovereign.

The other chief event of this time also concerns the
domestic side of William's life. The long story of his
marriage now begins. The date is fixed by one of the
decrees of the council of Rheims held in 1049 by Pope
Leo the Ninth, in which Baldwin Count of Flanders is
forbidden to give his daughter to William the Norman.
This implies that the marriage was already thought of,
and further that it was looked on as uncanonical. The
bride whom William sought, Matilda daughter of
Baldwin the Fifth, was connected with him by some tie
of kindred or affinity which made a marriage between
them unlawful by the rules of the Church. But no
genealogist has yet been able to find out exactly what
the canonical hindrance was. It is hard to trace the
descent of William and Matilda up to any common
forefather. But the light which the story throws on


William's character is the same in any case. Whether
he was seeking a wife or a kingdom, he would have his
will, but he could wait for it. In William's doubtful
position, a marriage with the daughter of the Count of
Flanders would be useful to him in many ways ; and
Matilda won her husband's abiding love and trust.
Strange tales are told of William's wooing. Tales are
told also of Matilda's earlier love for the Englishman
Brihtric, who is said to have found favour in her eyes
when he came as envoy from England to her father's
court. All that is certain is that the marriage had been
thought of and had been forbidden before the next im-
portant event in William's life that we have to record.

Was William's Flemish marriage in any way con-
nected with his hopes of succession to the English
crown 1 Had there been any available bride for him
in England, it might have been for his interest to seek
for her there. But it should be noticed, though no
ancient writer points out the fact, that Matilda was
actually descended from Alfred in the female line ; so
that William's children, though not William himself,
had some few drops of English blood in their veins.
William or his advisers, in weighing every chance which
might help his interests in the direction of England,
may have reckoned this piece of rather ancient genealogy
among the advantages of a Flemish alliance. But it is
far more certain that, between the forbidding of the
marriage and the marriage itself, a direct hope of suc-
cession to the English crown had been opened to the
Norman duke.


A.D. 1051-1052.

WHILE William was strengthening himself in Normandy,
Norman influence in England had risen to its full height.
The king was surrounded by foreign favourites. The
only foreign earl was his nephew Ralph of Mentes, the
son of his sister Godgifu. But three chief bishoprics
were held by Normans, Robert of Canterbury, William
of London, and Ulf of Dorchester. William bears a good
character, and won the esteem of Englishmen ; but the
unlearned Ulf is emphatically said to have done " nought
bishoplike." Smaller preferments in Church and State,
estates in all parts of the kingdom, were lavishly granted
to strangers. They built castles, and otherwise gave
offence to English feeling. Archbishop Robert, above
all, was ever plotting against Godwine, Earl of the West-
Saxons, the head of the national party. At last, in the
autumn of 1051, the national indignation burst forth.
The immediate occasion was a visit paid to the King by
Count Eustace of Boulogne, who had just married the
widowed Countess Godgifu. The violent dealings of his
followers towards the burghers of Dover led to resistance
on their part, and to a long series of marches and negoti-


ations, which ended in the banishment of Godwine and
his son, and the parting of his daughter Edith, the
King's wife, from her husband. From October 1051 to
September 1052, the Normans had their own way in
England. And during that time King Edward received
a visitor of greater fame than his brother-in-law from
Boulogne in the person of his cousin from Kouen.

Of his visit we only read that " William Earl came
from beyond sea with mickle company of Frenchmen,
and the king him received, and as many of his comrades
as to him seemed good, and let him go again." Another
account adds that William received great gifts from the
King. But William himself in several documents speaks
of Edward as his lord ; he must therefore at some time
have done to Edward an act of homage, and there is no
time but this at which we can conceive such an act being
done. Now for what was the homage paid 1 Homage
was often paid on very trifling occasions, and strange
conflicts of allegiance often followed. No such conflict
was likely to arise if the Duke of the Normans, already
the man of the King of the French for his duchy, be-
came the man of the King of the English on any other
ground. Betwixt England and France there was as yet
no enmity or rivalry. England and France became
enemies afterwards because the King of the English
and the Duke of the Normans were one person. And
this visit, this homage, was the first step towards making
the King of the English and the Duke of the Normans
the same person. The claim William had to the English
crown rested mainly on an alleged promise of the suc-
cession made by Edward. This claim is not likely to
have been a mere shameless falsehood. That Edward


did make some promise to "William as that Harold, at a
later stage, did take some oath to William seems fully
proved by the fact that, while such Norman statements
as could be denied were emphatically denied by the
English writers, on these two points the most patriotic
Englishmen, the strongest partisans of Harold, keep a
marked silence. We may be sure therefore that some
promise was made ; for that promise a time must be
found, and no time seems possible except this time of
William's visit to Edward. The date rests on no direct
authority, but it answers every requirement. Those
who spoke of the promise as being made earlier, when
William and Edward were boys together in Normandy,
forgot that Edward was many years older than William.
The only possible moment earlier than the visit was
when Edward was elected king in 1042. Before that
time he could hardly have thought of disposing of a
kingdom which was not his, and at that time he might
have looked forward to leaving sons to succeed him.
Still less could the promise have been made later than
the visit. From 1053 to the end of his life Edward
was under English influences, which led him first to
send for his nephew Edward from Hungary as his
successor, and in the end to make a recommendation in
favour of Harold. But in 1051-52 Edward, whether
under a vow or not, may well have given up the hope
of children ; he was surrounded by Norman influences ;
and, for the only time in the last twenty-four years of
their joint lives, he and William met face to face. The
only difficulty is one to which no contemporary writer
makes any reference. If Edward wished to dispose of his
crown in favour of one of his French-speaking kinsmen,


he had a nearer kinsman of whom he might more natur-
ally have thought. His own nephew Ralph was living
in England and holding an English earldom. He had the
advantage over both William and his own older brother
Walter of Mantes, in not being a reigning prince else-
where. We can only say that there is evidence that
Edward did think of William, that there is no evidence
that he ever thought of Ralph. And, except the tie of
nearer kindred, everything would suggest William rather
than Ralph. The personal comparison is almost grotesque;
and Edward's early associations and the strongest influ-
ences around him, were not vaguely French but specially
Norman. Archbishop Robert would plead for his own
native sovereign only. In short, we may be as nearly
sure as we can be of any fact for which there is no direct

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 2 of 14)