Copyright
Edward Augustus Freeman.

William the Conqueror online

. (page 7 of 14)
Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 7 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


can be enforced ; here, whether William slew Harold or
Harold slew William, there was no means of enforcing
the judgement except by the strength of the two armies.
If Harold fell, the English army were not likely to receive
William as king ; if William fell, the Norman army was
still less likely to go quietly out of England. The chal-



90 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

lenge was meant as a mere blind; it would raise the
spirit of William's followers ; it would be something for
his poets and chroniclers to record in his honour ; that
was all.

The actual battle, fought on Senlac, on Saint Calixtus'
day, was more than a trial of skill and courage between
two captains and two armies. It was, like the old battles of
Macedonian and Roman, a trial between two modes of war-
fare. The English clave to the old Teutonic tactics. They
fought on foot in the close array of the shield- wall. Those
who rode to the field dismounted when the fight began.
They first hurled their javelins, and then took to the
weapons of close combat. Among these the Danish axe,
brought in byCnut,had nearly displaced the older English
broadsword. Such was the array of the housecarls and of
the thegns who had followed Harold from York or joined
him on his march. But the treason of Edwin and
Morkere had made it needful to supply the place of the
picked men of Northumberland with irregular levies,
armed almost anyhow. Of their weapons of various
kinds the bow was the rarest. The strength of the Nor-
mans lay in the arms in which the English were lacking,
in horsemen and archers. These last seem to have been
a force of "William's training ; we first hear of the Norman
bowmen at Varaville. These two ways of fighting were
brought each one to perfection by the leaders on each
side. They had not yet been tried against one another.
At Stamfordbridge Harold had defeated an enemy
whose tactics were the same as his own. William had
not fought a pitched battle since Val-es-dunes in his
youth. Indeed pitched battles, such as English and



vii. WILLIAM'S INVASION OF ENGLAND. 91

Scandinavian warriors were used to in the wars of
Edmund and Cnut, were rare in continental warfare.
That warfare mainly consisted in the attack and defence
of strong places, and in skirmishes fought under their
walls. But William knew how to make use of troops of
different kinds and to adapt them to any emergency.
Harold too was a man of resources ; he had gained his
Welsh successes by adapting his men to the enemy's way
of fighting. To withstand the charge of the Norman
horsemen, Harold clave to the national tactics, but he
chose for the place of battle a spot where those tactics
would have the advantage. A battle on the low ground
would have been favourable to cavalry ; Harold there-
fore occupied and fenced in a hill, the hill of Senlac, the
site in after days of the abbey and town of Battle, and
there awaited the Norman attack. The Norman horse-
men had thus to make their way up the hill under the
shower of the English javelins, and to meet the axes as
soon as they reached the barricade. And these tactics
were thoroughly successful, till the inferior troops were
tempted to come down from the hill and chase the
Bretons whom they had driven back. This suggested to
William the device of the feigned flight; the English
line of defence was broken, and the advantage of ground
was lost. Thus was the great battle lost. And the
war too was lost by the deaths of Harold and his
brothers, which left England without leaders, and by the
unyielding valour of Harold's immediate following.
They were slain to a man, and south-eastern England
was left defenceless.

William, now truly the Conqueror in the vulgar sense,



92 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR, CHAP.

was still far from having full possession of his conquest.
He had military possession of part of one shire only ; he
had to look for further resistance, and he met with not
a little. But his combined luck and policy served
him well. He could put on the form of full possession
before he had the reality ; he could treat all further
resistance as rebellion against an established authority;
he could make resistance desultory and isolated. William
had to subdue England in detail ; he had never again to
fight what the English Chroniclers call a, folk-fight. His
policy after his victory was obvious. Still uncrowned,
he was not, even in his own view, king, but he alone
had the right to become king. He had thus far been
driven to maintain his rights by force ; he was not dis-
posed to use force any further, if peaceful possession was
to be had. His course was therefore to show himself
stern to all who withstood him, but to take all who
submitted into his protection and favour. He seems
however to have looked for a speedier submission than
really happened. He waited a while in his camp for
men to come in and acknowledge him. As none came,
he set forth to win by the strong arm the land which he
claimed of right.

Thus to look for an immediate submission was not
unnatural ; fully believing in the justice of his own cause,
William would believe in it all the more after the issue of

9

the battle. God, Harold had said, should judge between
himself and William, and God had judged in William's
favour. With all his clear-sightedness, he would hardly
understand how differently things looked in English
eyes. Some indeed, specially churchmen, specially
foreign churchmen, now began to doubt whether to fight



vii. WILLIAM'S INVASION OF ENGLAND. 93

against William was not to fight against God. But to the
nation at large William was simply as Hubba, Swegen, and
Cnut in past times. England had before now been con-
quered, but never in a single fight. Alfred and Edmund
had fought battle after battle with the Dane, and men
had no mind to submit to the Norman because he had been
once victorious. But Alfred and Edmund, in alternate
defeat and victory, lived to fight again ; their people had
not to choose a new king ; the King had merely to gather
a new army. But Harold was slain, and the first
question was how to fill his place. The Witan, so many
as could be got together, met to choose a king, whose first
duty would be to meet William the Conqueror in arms.
The choice was not easy. Harold's sons were young,
and not born ^Ethelings. His brothers, of whom Gyrth
at least must have been fit to reign, had fallen with him.
Edwin and Morkere were not at the battle, but they
were at the election. But schemes for winning the crown
for the house of Leofric would find no favour in an
assembly held in London. For lack of any better candi-
date, the hereditary sentiment prevailed. Young Edgar
was chosen. But the bishops, it is said, did not agree ;
they must have held that God had declared in favour
of William. Edwin and Morkere did agree ; but they
withdrew to their earldoms, still perhaps cherishing
hopes of a divided kingdom. Edgar, as king-elect, did
at least one act of kingship by confirming the election of
an abbot of Peterborough ; but of any general prepara-
tion for warfare there is not a sign. The local resistance
which William met with shows that, with any combined
action, the case was not hopeless. But with Edgar for
king, with the northern earls withdrawing their forces,



94 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

with the bishops at least lukewarm, nothing could be
done. The Londoners were eager to fight ; so doubtless
were others; but there was no leader. So far from
there being another Harold or Edmund to risk another
battle, there was not even a leader to carry out the
policy of Fabius and Gyrth.

Meanwhile the Conqueror was advancing, by his own
road and after his own fashion. We must remember
the effect of the mere slaughter of the great battle.
William's own army had suffered severely : he did not
leave Hastings till he had received reinforcements from
Normandy. But to England the battle meant the loss
of the whole force of the south-eastern shires. A large
part of England was left helpless. William followed
much the same course as he had followed in Maine. A
legal claimant of the crown, it was his interest as soon
as possible to become a crowned king, and that in his
kinsman's church at Westminster. But it was not his
interest to march straight on London and demand the
crown, sword in hand. He saw that, without the sup-
port of the northern earls, Edgar could not possibly
stand, and that submission to himself was only a
question of time. He therefore chose a roundabout
course through those south-eastern shires which were
wholly without means of resisting him. He marched
from Sussex into Kent, harrying the land as he went,
to frighten the people into submission. The men of
Eomney had before the battle cut in pieces a party of
Normans who had fallen into their hands, most likely
by sea. William took some undescribed vengeance
for their slaughter. Dover and its castle, the castle
which, in some accounts, Harold had sworn to surrender



vii. WILLIAM'S INVASION OF ENGLAND. 95

to William, yielded without a blow. Here then he
was gracious. When some of his unruly followers set
fire to the houses of the town, William made good the
losses of their owners. Canterbury submitted; from
thence, by a bold stroke, he sent messengers who received
the submission of Winchester. He marched on, ravaging
as he went, to the immediate neighbourhood of London,
but keeping ever on the right bank of the Thames.
But a gallant sally of the citizens was repulsed by the
Normans, and the suburb of Southwark was burned.
William marched along the river to Wallingford. Here
he crossed, receiving for the first time the active support
of an Englishman of high rank, Wiggod of Wallingford,
sheriff of Oxfordshire. He became one of a small class
of Englishmen who were received to William's fullest
favour, and kept at least as high a position under him
as they had held before. William still kept on, march-
ing and harrying, to the north of London, as he had
before done to the south. The city was to be isolated
within a cordon of wasted lands. His policy succeeded.
As no succours came from the North, the hearts of those
who had chosen them a king failed at the approach of his
rival. At Berkhampstead Edgar himself, with several
bishops and chief men, came to make their submission.
They offered the crown to William, and, after some
debate, he accepted it. But before he came in person,
he took means to secure the city. The beginnings of
the fortress were now laid which, in the course of
William's reign, grew into the mighty Tower of London.
It may seem strange that when his great object was
at last within his grasp, William should have made his
acceptance of it a matter of debate. He claims the



96 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

crown as his right ; the crown is offered to him ; and
yet he doubts about taking it. Ought he, he asks, to
take the crown of a kingdom of which he has not as
yet full possession ? At that time the territory of which
William had even military possession could not have
stretched much to the north-west of a line drawn
from ^Winchester to Norwich. Outside that line men
were, as William is made to say, still in rebellion.
His scruples were come over by an orator who was
neither Norman nor English, but one of his foreign
followers, Haimer Viscount of Thouars. The debate
was most likely got up at William's bidding, but it was
not got up without a motive. William, ever seeking
outward legality, seeking to do things peaceably when
they could be done peaceably, seeking for means to
put every possible enemy. in the wrong, wished to make
his acceptance of the English crown as formally regular
as might be. Strong as he held his claim to be by the
gift of Edward, it would be better to be, if not strictly
chosen, at least peacefully accepted, by the chief men
of England. It might some day serve his purpose to say
that the crown had been offered to him, and that he had
accepted it only after a debate in which the chief speaker
was an impartial stranger. Having gained this point
more, William set out from Berkhampstead, already, in
outward form, King-elect of the English.

The rite which was to change him from king-elect
into full king took place in Eadward's church of West-
minster on Christmas day, 1066, somewhat more than two
months after the great battle, somewhat less than twelve
months after the death of Edward and the corona-
tion of Harold. Nothing that was needed for a lawful



vir. WILLIAM'S INVASION OF ENGLAND. 97

crowning Avas lacking. The consent of the people, the
oath of the king, the anointing by the hands of a lawful
metropolitan, all were there. Ealdred acted as the
actual celebrant, while Stigand took the second place in
the ceremony. But this outward harmony between the
nation and its new king was marred by an unhappy
accident. Norman horsemen stationed outside the
church mistook the shout with which the people ac-
cepted the new king for the shout of men who were
doing him damage. But instead of going to his help,
they began, in true Norman fashion, to set fire to the
neighbouring houses. The havoc and plunder that fol-
lowed disturbed the solemnities of the day and were a
bad omen for the new reign. It was no personal fault
of William's ; in putting himself in the hands of subjects
of such new and doubtful loyalty, he needed men near
at hand whom he could trust. But then it was his
doing that England had to receive a king who needed
foreign soldiers to guard him.

William was now lawful King of the English, so far
as outward ceremonies could make him so. But he
knew well how far he was from having won real
kingly authority over the whole kingdom. Hardly a
third part of the land was in his obedience. He had
still, as he doubtless knew, to win his realm with the
edge of the sword. But he could now go forth to
further conquests, not as a foreign invader, but as the
king of the land, putting down rebellion among his own
subjects. If the men of Northumberland should refuse
to receive him, he could tell them that he was their
lawful king, anointed by their own archbishop. It was

H



98 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

sound policy to act as king of the whole land, to exer-
cise a semblance of authority where he had none in fact.
And in truth he was king of the whole land, so far as
there was no other king. The unconquered parts of the
land were in no mood to submit ; but they could not
agree on any common plan of resistance under any
common leader. Some were still for Edgar, some for
Harold's sons, some for Swegen of Denmark. Edwin
and Morkere doubtless were for themselves. If one
common leader could have been found even now, the
throne of the foreign king would have been in no small
danger. But no such leader came : men stood still, or
resisted piecemeal, so the land was conquered piecemeal,
and that under cover of being brought under the obedi-
ence of its lawful king.

Now that the Norman duke has become an English
king, his career as an English statesman strictly begins,
and a wonderful career it is. Its main principle was to
respect formal legality wherever he could. All William's
purposes were to be carried out, as far as possible, under
cover of strict adherence to the law of the land of which
he had become the lawful ruler. He had sworn at his
crowning to keep the laws of the land, and to rule his
kingdom as well as any king that had gone before him.
And assuredly he meant to keep his oath. But a foreign
king, at the head of a foreign army, and who had his
foreign followers to reward, could keep that oath only
in its letter and not in its spirit. But it is wonderful
how nearly he came to keep it in the letter. He
contrived to do his most oppressive acts, to deprive
Englishmen of their lands and offices, and to part them



vii. WILLIAM'S INVASION OF ENGLAND. 99

out among strangers, under cover of English law.
He could do this. A smaller man would either have
failed to carry out his purposes at all, or he could have
carried them out only by reckless violence. When we
examine the administration of William more in detail,
we shall see that its effects in the long run were rather to
preserve than to destroy our ancient institutions. He
knew the strength of legal fictions; by legal fictions
he conquered and he ruled. But every legal fiction is
outward homage to the principle of law, an outward
protest against unlawful violence. That England under-
went a Norman Conquest did in the end only make her
the more truly England. But that this could be was
because that conquest was wrought by the Bastard of
Falaise and by none other.



CHAPTEE VIII.

THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND.
DECEMBER 1066-MARCH 1070.

THE coronation of William had its effect in a moment.
It made him really king over part of England ; it put
him into a new position with regard to the rest. As
soon as there was a king, men flocked to swear
oaths to him and become his men. They came from
shires where he had no real authority. It was most
likely now, rather than at Berkhampstead, that Edwin
and Morkere at last made up their minds to acknowledge
some king. They became William's men and received
again their lands and earldoms as his grant. Other
chief men from the North also submitted and received
their lands and honours again. But Edwin and Mor-
kere were not allowed to go back to their earldoms.
William thought it safer to keep them near himself,
under the guise of honour Edwin was even promised
one of his daughters in marriage but really half as
prisoners, half as hostages. Of the two other earls, Wal-
theof son of Siward, who held the shires of Northampton
and Huntingdon, and Oswulf who held the earldom of
Bernicia or modern Northumberland, we hear nothing at
this moment As for Waltheof, it is strange if he were



CHAP. vin. THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND. 101

not at Senlac ; it is strange if he were there and came
away alive. But we only know that he was in William's
allegiance a few months later. Oswulf must have held
out in some marked way. It was William's policy to act
as king even where he had no means of carrying out his
kingly orders. He therefore in February 1067 granted
the Bernician earldom to an Englishman named Copsige,
who had acted as Tostig's lieutenant. This implies the
formal deprivation of Oswulf. But William sent no
force with the new earl, who had to take possession as
he could. That is to say, of two parties in a local
quarrel, one hoped to strengthen itself by making use of
William's name. And William thought that it would
strengthen his position to let at least his name be heard
in every corner of the kingdom. The rest of the story
stands rather aloof from the main history. Copsige got
possession of the earldom for a moment. He was then
killed by Oswulf and his partisans, and Oswulf himself
was killed in the course of the year by a common robber.
At Christmas, 1067, William again granted or sold
the earldom to another of the local chiefs, Gospatric.
But he made no attempt to exercise direct authority in
those parts till the beginning of the year 1069.

All this illustrates William's general course. Crowned
king over the land, he would first strengthen himself in
that part of the kingdom which he actually held. Of
the passive disobedience of other parts he would take no
present notice. In northern and central England William
could exercise no authority ; but those lands were not
in arms against him, nor did they acknowledge any
other king. Their earls, now his earls, were his favoured
courtiers. He could afford to be satisfied with this



102 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

nominal kingship, till a fit opportunity came to make it
real. He could afford to lend his name to the local
enterprise of Copsige. It would at least be another
count against the men of Bernicia that they had killed
the earl whom King William gave them.

Meanwhile William was taking very practical pos-
session in the shires where late events had given him real
authority. His policy was to assert his rights in the
strongest form, but to show his mildness and good will
by refraining from carrying them out to the uttermost.
By right of conquest William claimed nothing. He
had come to take his crown, and he had unluckily met
with some opposition in taking it. The crown lands of
King Edward passed of course to his successor. As
for the lands of other men, in William's theory all was
forfeited to the crown. The lawful heir had been driven
to seek his kingdom in arms ; no Englishman had helped
him ; many Englishmen had fought against him. All
then were directly or indirectly traitors. The King might
lawfully deal with the lands of all as his own. But in
the greater part of the kingdom it was impossible, in no
part was it prudent, to carry out this doctrine in its ful-
ness. A passage in Domesday, compared with a passage
in the English Chronicles, shows that, soon after William's
coronation, the English as a body, within the lands already
conquered, redeemed their lands. They bought them
back at a price, and held them as a fresh grant from
King William. Some special offenders, living and dead,
were exempted from this favour. The King took to
himself the estates of the house of Godwine, save those
of Edith, the widow of his revered predecessor, whom
it was his policy to treat with all honour. The lands



vin. THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND. 103

too of those who had died on Senlac were granted
back to their heirs only of special favour, sometimes
under the name of alms. Thus, from the beginning of
his reign, William began to make himself richer than
any king that had been before him in England or than
any other Western king of his day. He could both
punish his enemies and reward his friends. Much of
what he took he kept ; much he granted away, mainly
to his foreign followers, but sometimes also to English-
men who had in any way won his favour. Wiggod of
Wallingford was one of the very few Englishmen who
kept and received estates which put them alongside of
the great Norman landowners. The doctrine that all
land was held of the King was now put into a practical
shape. All, Englishmen and strangers, not only became
William's subjects, but his men and his grantees. Thus he
went on during his whole reign. There was no sudden
change from the old state of things to the new. After
the general redemption of lands, gradually carried out
as William's power advanced, no general blow was dealt
at Englishmen as such. They were not, like some con-
quered nations, formally degraded or put under any legal
incapacities in their own land. William simply distin-
guished between his loyal and his disloyal subjects, and
used his opportunities for punishing the disloyal and
rewarding the loyal. Such punishments and rewards
naturally took the shape of confiscations and grants of
land. If punishment was commonly the lot of the
Englishman, and reward was the lot of the stranger,
that was only because King William treated all men as
they deserved. Most Englishmen were disloyal ; most
strangers were loyal. But disloyal strangers and loyal



104 WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. CHAP.

Englishmen fared according to their deserts. The final
result of this process, begun now and steadily carried on,
was that, by the end of William's reign, the foreign king
was surrounded by a body of foreign landowners and
office-bearers of foreign birth. When, in the early days
of his conquest, he gathered round him the great men
of his realm, it was still an English assembly with a
sprinkling of strangers. By the end of his reign it had
changed, step by step, into an assembly of strangers with
a sprinkling of Englishmen.

This revolution, which practically transferred the
greater part of the soil of England to the hands of
strangers, was great indeed. But it must not be mis-
taken for a sudden blow, for an irregular scramble, for a
formal proscription of Englishmen as such. William,
according to his character and practice, was able to do
all this gradually, according to legal forms, and without
drawing any formal distinction between natives and
strangers. All land was held of the King of the English,
according to the law of England. It may seem strange
how such a process of spoliation, veiled under a legal fiction,
could have been carried out without resistance. It was
easier because it was gradual and piecemeal. The whole
country was not touched at once, nor even the whole of
any one district. One man lost his land while his
neighbour kept his, and he who kept his land was not
likely to join in the possible plots of the other. And
though the land had never seen so great a confiscation,


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 7 of 14)