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William did, and all this, we may be sure, he looked for-
ward to doing, when he caused Harold to become his man.
The mere obligation of homage would, in the skilful
hands of William and Lanfranc, be quite enough to
work on men's minds, as William wished to work on
them. To Harold meanwhile and to those in Eng-
land who heard the story, the engagement would not
seem to carry any of these consequences. The mere
homage then, which Harold could hardly refuse, would
answer William's purpose nearly as well as any of these


fuller obligations which Harold would surely have re-
fused. And when a man older than William engaged to
marry William's child-daughter, we must bear in mind the
lightness with which such promises were made. William
could not seriously expect that this engagement would
be kept, if anything should lead Harold to another mar-
riage. The promise was meant simply to add another
count to the charges against Harold when the time should
come. Yet on this point it is not clear that the oath
was broken. Harold undoubtedly married Ealdgyth,
daughter of uElfgar and widow of Gruffydd, and not
any daughter of William. But in one version Harold
is made to say that the daughter of William whom he
had engaged to marry was dead. And that one of
William's daughters did die very early there seems little

Whatever William did Lanfranc no doubt at least
helped to plan. The Norman duke was subtle, but the
Italian churchman was subtler still. In this long series
of schemes and negotiations which led to the conquest of
England, we are dealing with two of the greatest recorded
masters of statecraft. We may call their policy dishonest
and immoral, and so it was. But it was hardly more
dishonest and immoral than most of the diplomacy of
later times. William's object was, without any formal
breach of faith on his own part, to entrap Harold into
an engagement which might be understood in different
senses, and which, in the sense which William chose to
put upon it, Harold was sure to break. Two men,
themselves of virtuous life, a rigid churchman and a
layman of unusual religious strictness, do not scruple to


throw temptation in the way of a fellow man in the hope
that he will yield to that temptation. They exact a
promise, because the promise is likely to be broken, and
because its breach would suit their purposes. Through
all William's policy a strong regard for formal right as
he chose to understand formal right, is not only found
in company with much practical wrong, but is made the
direct instrument of carrying out that wrong. Never
was trap more cunningly laid than that in which William
now entangled Harold. Never was greater wrong done
without the breach of any formal precept of right.
William and Lanf ranc broke no oath themselves, and that
was enough for them. But it was no sin in their eyes
to beguile another into engagements which he would
understand in one way and they in another; they
even, as their admirers tell the story, beguile him into
engagements at once unlawful and impossible, because
their interests would be promoted by his breach of
those engagements. William, in short, under the spirit-
ual guidance of Lanfranc, made Harold swear because
he himself would gain by being able to denounce Harold
as perjured.

The moral question need not be further discussed ;
but we should greatly like to know how far the fact of
Harold's oath, whatever its nature, was known in Eng-
land 1 On this point we have no trustworthy authority.
The English writers say nothing about the whole
matter ; to the Norman writers this point was of no in-
terest. No one mentions this point, except Harold's
romantic biographer at the beginning of the thirteenth
century. His statements are of no value, except as
showing how long Harold's memory was cherished.


According to him, Harold formally laid the matter before
the Witan, and they unanimously voted that the oath
more, in his version, than a mere oath of homage
was not binding. It is not likely that such a vote was
ever formally passed, but its terms would only express
what every Englishman would feel. The oath, whatever
its terms, had given William a great advantage ; but
every Englishman would argue both that the oath,
whatever its terms, could not hinder the English nation
from offering Harold the crown, and that it could not
bind Harold to refuse the crown if it should be so



IF the time that has been suggested was the real time
of Harold's oath to William, its fulfilment became a
practical question in little more than a year. How the
year 1065 passed in Normandy we have no record ; in
England its later months saw the revolt of Northumber-
land against Harold's brother Tostig, and the reconcilia-
tion which Harold made between the revolters and the
king to the damage of his brother's interests. Then
came Edward's sickness, of which he died on January
5, 1066. He had on his deathbed recommended
Harold to the assembled Witan as his successor in the
kingdom. The candidate was at once elected. Whether
William, Edgar, or any other, was spoken of we know
not ; but as to the recommendation of Edward and the
consequent election of Harold the English writers are
express. The next day Edward was buried, and
Harold was crowned in regular form by Ealdred Arch-
bishop of York in Edward's new church at West-
minster. Northumberland refused to acknowledge him ;
but the malcontents were won over by the coming of
the king and his friend Saint Wulfstan Bishop of Wor-


cester. It was most likely now, as a seal of this recon-
ciliation, that Harold married Ealdgyth, the sister of the
two northern earls Edwin and Morkere, and the widow
of the Welsh king Gruffydd. He doubtless hoped in
this way to win the loyalty of the earls and their

The accession of Harold was perfectly regular accord-
ing to English law. In later times endless fables arose ;
but the Norman writers of the time do not deny the facts
of the recommendation, election, and coronation. They
slur them over, or, while admitting the mere facts, they
represent each act as in some way invalid. No
writer near the time asserts a deathbed nomination of
William ; they speak only of a nomination at some
earlier time. But some Norman writers represent Harold
as crowned by Stigand Archbishop of Canterbury.
This was not, in the ideas of those times, a trifling ques-
tion. A coronation was then not a mere pageant ; it
was the actual admission to the kingly office. Till his
crowning and anointing, the claimant of the crown was
like a bishop-elect before his consecration. He had, by
birth or election, the sole right to become king ; it was
the coronation that made him king. And as the cere-
mony took the form of an ecclesiastical sacrament, its
validity might seem to depend on the lawful position of
the officiating bishop. In England to perform that
ceremony was the right and duty of the Archbishop of
Canterbury ; but the canonical position of Stigand was
doubtful. He had been appointed on the flight of
Robert ; he had received the pallium, the badge of archi-
episcopal rank, only from the usurping Benedict the
Tenth. It was therefore good policy in Harold to be


crowned by Ealdred, to whose position there was no ob-
jection. This is the only difference of fact between the
English and Norman versions at this stage. And the
difference is easily explained. At William's coronation
the king walked to the altar between the two arch-
bishops, but it was Ealdred who actually performed the
ceremony. Harold's coronation doubtless followed the
same order. But if Stigand took any part in that coron-
ation, it was easy to give out that he took that special
part on which the validity of the rite depended.

Still, if Harold's accession was perfectly lawful, it
was none the less strange and unusual. Except the
Danish kings chosen under more or less of compulsion,
he was the first king who did not belong to the West-
Saxon kingly house. Such a choice could be justified
only on the ground that that house contained no quali-
fied candidate. Its only known members were the
children of the ^Etheling Edward, young Edgar and
his sisters. Now Edgar would certainly have been
passed by in favour of any better qualified member of
the kingly house, as his father had been passed by in
favour of King Edward. And the same principle would,
as things stood, justify passing him by in favour of
a qualified candidate not of the kingly house. But
Edgar's right to the crown is never spoken of till a
generation or two later, when the doctrines of hereditary
right had gained much greater strength, and when
Henry the Second, great-grandson through his mother
of Edgar's sister Margaret, insisted on his descent from
the old kings. This distinction is important, because
Harold is often called an usurper, as keeping out Ed-
gar the heir by birth. But those who called him an



usurper at the time called him so as keeping out Wil-
liam the heir by bequest. William's own election was
out of the question. He was no more of the English
kingly house than Harold ; he was a foreigner and an
utter stranger. Had Englishmen been minded to choose
a foreigner, they doubtless would have chosen Swegen
of Denmark. He had found supporters when Edward
was chosen ; he was afterwards appealed to to deliver
England from William, He was no more of the Eng-
lish kingly house than Harold or William ; but he was
grandson of a man who had reigned over England,
Northumberland might have preferred him to Harold ;
any part of England would have preferred him to
William. In fact any choice that could have been
made must have had something strange about it. Ed-
gar himself, the one surviving male of the old stock,
besides his youth, was neither born in the land nor the
son of a crowned king. Those two qualifications had
always been deemed of great moment; an elaborate
pedigree went for little ; actual royal birth went for a
great deal. There was now no son of a king to choose.
Had there been even a child who was at once a son of
Edward and a sister's son of Harold, he might have
reigned with his uncle as his guardian and counsellor.
As it was, there was nothing to do but to choose the
man who, though not of kingly blood, had ruled England
well for thirteen years.

The case thus put seemed plain to every Englishman,
at all events to every man in Wessex, East-Anglia, and
southern Mercia. But it would not seem so plain in
other lands. To the greater part of Western Europe
William's claim might really seem the better. William


himself doubtless thought his own claim the better ; he
deluded himself as he deluded others. But we are more
concerned with William as a statesman; and if it be
statesmanship to adapt means to ends, whatever the
ends may be, if it be statesmanship to make men believe
that the worse cause is the better, then no man ever
showed higher statesmanship than William showed in
his great pleading before all Western Christendom. It
is a sign of the times that it was a pleading before
all Western Christendom. Others had claimed crowns ;
none had taken such pains to convince all mankind that
the claim was a good one. Such an appeal to public
opinion marks on one side a great advance. It was a
great step towards the ideas of International Law and even
of European concert. It showed that the days of mere
force were over, that the days of subtle diplomacy had
begun. Possibly the change was not without its dark
side ; it may be doubted whether a change from force to
fraud is wholly a gain. Still it was an appeal from the
mere argument of the sword to something which at least
professed to be right and reason. William does not
draw the sword till he has convinced himself and every-
body else that he is drawing it in a just cause. In that
age the appeal naturally took a religious shape. Herein
lay its immediate strength ; herein lay its weakness as
regarded the times to come. William appealed to
Emperor, kings, princes, Christian men great and small,
in every Christian land. He would persuade all; he
would ask help of all. But above all he appealed to the
head of Christendom, the Bishop of Rome. William in
his own person could afford to do so ; where he reigned,
in Normandy or in England, there was no fear of


Eoman encroachments ; he was fully minded to be in
all causes and over all persons within his dominions
supreme. While he lived, no Pope ventured to dispute
his right. But by acknowledging the right of the Pope
to dispose of crowns, or at least to judge as to the right
to crowns, he prepared many days of humiliation for
kings in general and specially for his own successors.
One man in Western Europe could see further than
William, perhaps even further than Lanfranc. The chief
counsellor of Pope Alexander the Second was the Arch-
deacon Hildebrand, the future Gregory the Seventh. If
William outwitted the world, Hildebrand outwitted
William. William's appeal to the Pope to decide be-
tween two claimants for the English crown strengthened
Gregory not a little in his daring claim to dispose of
the crowns of Rome, of Italy, and of Germany. Still
this recognition of Roman claims led more directly
to the humiliation of William's successor in his own
kingdom. Moreover William's successful attempt to
represent his enterprise as a holy war, a crusade before
crusades were heard of, did much to suggest and to
make ready the way for the real crusades a generation
later. It was not till after William's death that Urban
preached the crusade, but it was during William's life
that Gregory planned it.

The appeal was strangely successful. William con-
vinced, or seemed to convince, all men out of England
and Scandinavia that his claim to the English crown was
just and holy, and that it was a good work to help him
to assert it in arms. He persuaded his own subjects ;
he certainly did not constrain them. He persuaded
some foreign princes to give him actual help, some to


join his muster in person ; he persuaded all to help him
so far as not to hinder their subjects from joining him
as volunteers. And all this was done by sheer per-
suasion, by argument good or bad. In adapting of
means to ends, in applying to each class of men that
kind of argument which best suited it, the diplomacy,
the statesmanship, of William was perfect. Again we
ask, How far was it the statesmanship of William, how
far of Lanfranc ? But a prince need not do everything
with his own hands and say everything with his own
tongue. It was no small part of the statesmanship of
William to find out Lanfranc, to appreciate him and to
trust him. And when two subtle brains were at work,
more could be done by the two working in partnership
than by either working alone.

By what arguments did the Duke of the Normans
and the Prior of Bee convince mankind that the worse
cause was the better 1 We must always remember the
transitional character of the age. England was in poli-
tical matters in advance of other Western lands ; that is,
it lagged behind other Western lands. It had not gone
so far on the downward course. It kept far more than
Gaul or even Germany of the old Teutonic institutions,
the substance of which later ages have won back under
new shapes. Many things were understood in Eng-
land which are now again understood everywhere,
but which were no longer understood in France or in
the lands held of the French crown. The popular
election of kings comes foremost. Hugh Capet was an
elective king as much as Harold ; but the French kings
had made their crown the most strictly hereditary of all
crowns. They avoided any interregnum by having their


sons crowned in their lifetime. So with the great fiefs
of the crown. The notion of kingship as an office con-
ferred by the nation, of a duchy or county as an office
held under the king, was still fully alive in England ; in
Gaul it was forgotten. Kingdom, duchies, counties, had
all become possessions instead of offices, possessions
passing by hereditary succession of some kind. But no
rule of hereditary succession was universally or generally
accepted. To this day the kingdoms of Europe differ as
to the question of female succession, and it is but slowly
that the doctrine of representation has ousted the more
obvious doctrine of nearness of kin. All these points
were then utterly unsettled ; crowns, save of course
that of the Empire, were to pass by hereditary right ;
only what was hereditary right ? At such a time claims
would be pressed which would have seemed absurd either
earlier or later. To Englishmen, if it seemed strange to
elect one who was not of the stock of Cerdic, it seemed
much more strange to be called on to accept without
election, or to elect as a matter of course, one who was
not of the stock of Cerdic and who was a stranger into
the bargain. Out of England it would not seem strange
when William set forth that Edward, having no direct
heirs, had chosen his near kinsman William as his suc-
cessor. Put by itself, that statement had a plausible
sound. The transmission of a crown by bequest belongs
to the same range of ideas as its transmission by hered-
itary right; both assume the crown to be a property
and not an office. Edward's nomination of Harold, the
election of Harold, the fact that William's kindred to
Edward lay outside the royal line of England, the
fact that there was, in the person of Edgar, a nearer


kinsman within that royal line, could all be slurred over
or explained away or even turned to William's profit. Let
it be that Edward on his death-bed had recommended
Harold, and that the Witan had elected Harold. The
recommendation was wrung from a dying man in opposi-
tion to an earlier act done when he was able to act
freely. The election was brought about by force or
fraud ; if it was free, it was of no force against William's
earlier claim of kindred and bequest. As for Edgar, as
few people in England thought of him, still fewer out of
England would have ever heard of him. It is more
strange that the bastardy of William did not tell against
him, as it had once told in his own duchy. But this fact
again marks the transitional age. Altogether the tale
that a man who was no kinsman of the late king had
taken to himself the crown which the king had be-
queathed to a kinsman, might, even without further
aggravation, be easily made to sound like a tale of

But the case gained tenfold strength when William
added that the doer of the wrong was of all men the one
most specially bound not to do it. The usurper was in
any case William's man, bound to act in all things for his
lord. Perhaps he was more ; perhaps he had directly sworn
to receive William as king. Perhaps he had promised all
this with an oath of special solemnity. It would be easy
to enlarge on all these further counts as making up an
amount of guilt which William not only had the right to
chastise, but which he would be lacking in duty if he failed
to chastise. He had to punish the perjurer, to avenge the
wrongs of the saints. Surely all who should help him
in so doing would be helping in a righteous work.


The answer to all this was obvious. Putting the case
at the very worst, assuming that Harold had sworn all
that he is ever said to have sworn, assuming that he
swore it in the most solemn way in which he is ever said
to have sworn it, William's claim was not thereby made
one whit better. Whatever Harold's own guilt might
be, the people of England had no share in it. Nothing
that Harold had done could bar their right to choose
their king freely. Even if Harold declined the crown,
that would not bind the electors to choose William. But
when the notion of choosing kings had begun to sound
strange, all this would go for nothing. There would be
no need even to urge that in any case the wrong done
by Harold to William gave William a casus belli against
Harold, and that William, if victorious, might claim the
crown of England, as a possession of Harold's, by right
of conquest. In fact William never claimed the crown
by conquest, as conquest is commonly understood. He
always represented himself as the lawful heir, unhappily
driven to use force to obtain his rights. The other pleas
were quite enough to satisfy most men out of England
and Scandinavia. William's work was to claim the crown
of which he was unjustly deprived, and withal to deal
out a righteous chastisement on the unrighteous and
ungodly man by whom he had been deprived of it.

In the hands of diplomatists like William and Lan-
franc, all these arguments, none of which had in itself
the slightest strength, were enough to turn the great
mass of continental opinion in William's favour. But
he could add further arguments specially adapted to
different classes of minds. He could hold out the pros-
pect of plunder, the prospect of lands and honours in a


land whose wealth was already proverbial. It might of
course be answered that the enterprise against England
was hazardous and its success unlikely. But in such
matters, men listen rather to their hopes than to their
fears. To the Normans it would be easy, not only to
make out a case against Harold, but to rake up old
grudges against the English nation. Under Harold the
son of Cnut, Alfred, a prince half Norman by birth,
wholly Norman by education, the brother of the late
king, the lawful heir to the crown, had been betrayed
and murdered by somebody. A wide-spread belief laid
the deed to the charge of the father of the new king.
This story might easily be made a ground of national
complaint by Normandy against England, and it was easy
to infer that Harold had some share in the alleged crime
of Godwine. It was easy to dwell on later events, on
the driving of so many Normans out of England, with
Archbishop Kobert at their head. Nay, not only had
the lawful primate been driven out, but an usurper had
been set in his place, and this usurping archbishop had
been made to bestow a mockery of consecration on the
usurping king. The proposed aggression on England
was even represented as a missionary work, undertaken
for the good of the souls of the benighted islanders. For,
though the English were undoubtedly devout after their
own fashion, there was much in the ecclesiastical state
of England which displeased strict churchmen beyond
sea, much that William, when he had the power, deemed
it his duty to reform. The insular position of England
naturally parted it in many things from the usages and
feelings of the mainland, and it was not hard to get up
a feeling against the nation as well as against its king.


All this could not really strengthen William's claim;
but it made men look more favourably on his enter-

The fact that the Witan were actually in session at
Edward's death had made it possible to carry out Harold's
election and coronation with extreme speed. The
electors had made their choice before William had any
opportunity of formally laying his claim before them.
This was really an advantage to him; he could the
better represent the election and coronation as invalid.
His first step was of course to send an embassy to
Harold to call on him even now to fulfil his oath. The
accounts of this embassy, of which we have no English
account, differ as much as the different accounts of the
oath. Each version of course makes William demand
and Harold refuse whatever it had made Harold swear.
These demands and refusals range from the resignation of
the kingdom to a marriage with William's daughter.
And it is hard to separate this embassy from later
messages between the rivals. In all William demands,
Harold refuses ; the arguments on each side are likely to
be genuine. Harold is called on to give up the crown to
William, to hold it of William, to hold part of the kingdom
of William, to submit the question to the judgement of
the Pope, lastly, if he will do nothing else, at least to
marry William's daughter. Different writers place these
demands at different times, immediately after Harold's

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Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 5 of 14)