Edward Augustus Freeman.

William the Conqueror online

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Herein conies one of the most remarkable results of
William's coming. His greatest work was to make
England a kingdom which no man henceforth thought
of dividing. But the circumstances of his conquest of
Northern England ruled that for several centuries the
unity of England should take the form of a distinct
preponderance of Southern England over Northern.
William's reign strengthened every tendency that way,
chiefly by the fearful blow now dealt to the physical
strength and well-being of the Northern shires. From
one side indeed the Norman Conquest was truly a Saxon
conquest. The King of London and Winchester became
more fully than ever king over the whole land.

The Conqueror had now only to gather in what was
still left to conquer. But, as military exploits, none
are more memorable than the winter marches which put
William into full possession of England. The lands
beyond Tees still held out; in January 1070 he set
forth to subdue them. The Earls Waltheof and Gospatric
made their submission, Waltheof in person, Gospatric
by proxy. William restored both of them to their
earldoms, and received Waltheof to his highest favour,
giving him his niece Judith in marriage. But he
systematically wasted the land, as he had wasted


Yorkshire. He then returned to York, and thence set
forth to subdue the last city and shire that held
out. A fearful march led him to the one remaining
fragment of free England, the unconquered land of
Chester. We know not how Chester fell ; but the land
was not won without fighting, and a frightful harrying
was the punishment. In all this we see a distinct stage
of moral downfall in the character of the Conqueror. Yet
it is thoroughly characteristic. All is calm, deliberate,
politic. William will have no more revolts, and he will
at any cost make the land incapable of revolt. Yet, as
ever, there is no blood shed save in battle. If men
died of hunger, that was not William's doing ; nay,
charitable people like Abbot ^thelwig of Evesham
might do what they could to help the sufferers. But the
lawful king, kept so long out of his kingdom, would,
at whatever price, be king over the whole land. And
the great harrying of the northern shires was the price
paid for William's kingship over them.

At Chester the work was ended which had begun
at Pevensey. Less than three years and a half, with
intervals of peace, had made the Norman invader king
over all England. He had won the kingdom ; he had
now to keep it. He had for seventeen years to deal
with revolts on both sides of the sea, with revolts both
of Englishmen and of his own followers. But in Eng-
land his power was never shaken ; in England he never
knew defeat. His English enemies he had subdued;
the Danes were allowed to remain and in some sort to
help in his work by plundering during the winter.
The King now marched to the Salisbury of that day,
the deeply fenced hill of Old Sarum. The men who


had conquered England were reviewed in the great
plain, and received their rewards. Some among them
had by failures of duty during the winter marches lost
their right to reward. Their punishment was to remain
under arms forty days longer than their comrades.
William could trust himself to the very mutineers whom
he had picked out for punishment. He had now to
begin his real reign ; and the champion of the Church
had before all things to reform the evil customs of the
benighted islanders, and to give them shepherds of their
souls who might guide them in the right way.



ENGLAND was now fully conquered, and William could
for a moment sit down quietly to the rule of the king-
dom that he had won. The time that immediately
followed is spoken of as a time of comparative quiet, and
of less oppression than the times either before or after.
Before and after, warfare, on one side of the sea or the
other, was the main business. Hitherto William has
been winning his kingdom in arms. Afterwards he
was more constantly called away to his foreign domin-
ions, and his absence always led to greater oppression
in England. Just now he had a moment of repose,
when he could give his mind to the affairs of Church
and State in England. Peace indeed was not quite un-
broken. Events were tending to that famous revolt in
the Fenland which is perhaps the best remembered part
of William's reign. But even this movement was merely
local, and did not seriously interfere with William's
government. He was now striving to settle the land in
peace, and to make his rule as little grievous to the con-
quered as might be. The harrying of Northumberland
showed that he now shrank from no harshness that would


serve his ends ; but from mere purposeless oppression he
was still free. Nor was he ever inclined to needless
change or to that scorn of the conquered which meaner
conquerors have often shown. He clearly wished both
to change and to oppress as little as he could. This is a
side of him which has been greatly misunderstood,
largely through the book that passes for the History of
Ingulf Abbot of Crowland. Ingulf was William's Eng-
lish secretary ; a real history of his writing would be
most precious. But the book that goes by his name is
a forgery not older than the fourteenth century, and is
in all points contradicted by the genuine documents of
the time. Thus the forger makes William try to
abolish the English language and order the use of
French in legal writings. This is pure fiction. The
truth is that, from the time of William's coming, Eng-
lish goes out of use in legal writings, but only gradually,
and not in favour of French. Ever since the coming
of Augustine, English and Latin had been alternative
tongues ; after the coming of William English becomes
less usual, and in the course of the twelfth century it
goes out of use in favour of Latin. There are no French
documents till the thirteenth century, and in that cen-
tury English begins again. Instead of abolishing the
English tongue, William took care that his English-born
son should learn it, and he even began to learn it himself.
A king of those days held it for his duty to hear and
redress his subjects' complaints ; he had to go through
the land and see for himself that those who acted in
his name did right among his people. This earlier
kings had done; this William wished to do; but he
found his ignorance of English a hindrance. Cares of


other kinds checked his English studies, but he
may have learned enough to understand the meaning
of his own English charters. Nor did William try, as
he is often imagined to have done, to root out the
ancient institutions of England, and to set up in their
stead either the existing institutions of Normandy or
some new institutions of his own devising. The truth
is that with William began a gradual change in the
laws and customs of England, undoubtedly great, but far
less than is commonly thought. French names have
often supplanted English, and have made the amount
of change seem greater than it really was. Still much
change did follow on the Norman Conquest, and the
Norman Conquest was so completely William's own
act that all that came of it was in some sort his act
also. But these changes were mainly the gradual
results of the state of things which followed William's
coming ; they were but very slightly the results of any
formal acts of his. With a foreign king and foreigners
in all high places, much practical change could not
fail to follow, even where the letter of the law was
unchanged. Still the practical change was less than
if the letter of the law had been changed as well.
English law was administered by foreign judges ; the
foreign grantees of William held English land according
to English law. The Norman had no special position
as a Norman; in every rank except perhaps the
very highest and the very lowest, he had Englishmen
to his fellows. All this helped to give the Norman
Conquest of England its peculiar character, to give it
an air of having swept away everything English, while
its real work was to turn strangers into Englishmen.


And that character was impressed on William's work
by William himself. The king claiming by legal right,
but driven to assert his right by the sword, was unlike
both the foreign king who comes in by peaceful succes-
sion and the foreign king who comes in without even
the pretext of law. The Normans too, if born soldiers,
were also born lawyers, and no man was more deeply
impressed with the legal spirit than William himself.
He loved neither to change the law nor to transgress the
law, and he had little need to do either. He knew how
to make the law his instrument, and, without either
changing or transgressing it, to use it to make himself
all-powerful. He thoroughly enjoyed that system of legal
fictions and official euphemisms which marks his reign.
William himself became in some sort an Englishman,
and those to whom he granted English lands had in
some sort to become Englishmen in order to hold them.
The Xorman stepped into the exact place of the Eng-
lishman whose land he held ; he took his rights and his
burthens, and disputes about those rights and burthens
were judged according to English law by the witness
of Englishmen. Reigning over two races in one land,
William would be lord of both alike, able to use either
against the other in case of need. He would make the
most of everything in the feelings and customs of either
that tended to strengthen his own hands. And, in the
state of things in which men then found themselves,
whatever strengthened William's hands strengthened
law and order in his kingdom.

There was therefore nothing to lead William to
make any large changes in the letter of the English law.
The powers of a King of the English, wielded as he


knew how to wield them, made him as great as he
could wish to be. Once granting the original wrong of
his coming at all and bringing a host of strangers with
him, there is singularly little to blame in the acts of the
Conqueror. Of bloodshed, of wanton interference with
law and usage, there is wonderfully little. Englishmen
and Normans were held to have settled down in peace
under the equal protection of King William. The two
races were drawing together ; the process was beginning
which, a hundred years later, made it impossible, in any
rank but the highest and the lowest, to distinguish Nor-
man from Englishman. Among the smaller landowners
and the townsfolk this intermingling had already begun,
while earls and bishops were not yet so exclusively Nor-
man, nor had the free churls of England as yet sunk so
low as at a later stage. Still some legislation was needed
to settle the relations of the two races. King William
proclaimed the "renewal of the law of King Edward."
This phrase has often been misunderstood ; it is a com-
mon form when peace and good order are restored after
a period of disturbance. The last reign which is looked
back to as to a time of good government becomes
the standard of good government, and it is agreed
between king and people, between contending races or
parties, that things shall be as they were in the days of
the model ruler. So we hear in Normandy of the
renewal of the law of Rolf, and in England of the
renewal of the law of Cnut. So at an earlier time
Danes and Englishmen agreed in the renewal of the law
of Edgar. So now Normans and Englishmen agreed in
the renewal of the law of Edward. There was no code
either of Edward's or of William's makincr. William


simply bound himself to rule as Edward had ruled.
But in restoring the law of King Edward, he added,
" with the additions which I have decreed for the ad-
vantage of the people of the English."

These few words are indeed weighty. The little
legislation of William's reign takes throughout the shape
of additions. Nothing old is repealed ; a few new enact-
ments are set up by the side of the old ones. And
these words describe, not only William's actual legisla-
tion, but the widest general effect of his coming. The
Norman Conquest did little towards any direct abolition
of the older English laws or institutions. But it set up
some new institutions alongside of old ones; and it
brought in not a few names, habits, and ways of looking
at things, which gradually did their work. In England
no man has pulled down ; many have added and modified.
Our law is still the law of King Edward with the
additions of King William. Some old institutions took
new names ; some new institutions with new names
sprang up by the side of old ones. Sometimes the old
has lasted, sometimes the new. We still have a king and
not a roy ; but he gathers round him a parliament and
not a witenagemdt. We have a sheriff and not a viscount ;
but his district is more commonly called a county than a
shire. But county and shire are French and English for
the same thing, and " parliament " is simply French for
the "deep speech" which King William had with his
Witan. The National Assembly of England has changed
its name and its constitution more than once ; but it has
never been changed by any sudden revolution, never till
later times by any formal enactment. There was no
moment when one kind of assembly supplanted another.


And this has come because our Conqueror was, both by
his disposition and his circumstances, led to act as a pre-
server and not as a destroyer.

The greatest recorded acts of William, administrative
and legislative, come in the last days of his reign. But
there are several enactments of William belonging to
various periods of his reign, and some of them to this
first moment of peace. Here we distinctly see William
as an English statesman, as a statesman who knew
how to work a radical change under conservative
forms. One enactment, perhaps the earliest of all, pro-
vided for the safety of the strangers who had come with
him to subdue and to settle in the land. The murder
of a Norman by an Englishman, especially of a Norman
intruder by a dispossessed Englishman, was a thing that
doubtless often happened. William therefore provides
for the safety of those whom he calls " the men whom I
brought with me or who have come after me;" that is,
the warriors of Senlac, Exeter, and York. These men
are put within his own peace ; wrong done to them is
wrong done to the King, his crown and dignity. If the
murderer cannot be found, the lord and, failing him, the
hundred, must make payment to the King. Of this
grew the presentment of Englishry, one of the few formal
badges of distinction between the conquering and the
conquered race. Its practical need could not have
lasted beyond a generation or two, but it went on
as a form ages after it had lost all meaning. An un-
known corpse, unless it could be proved that the dead
man was English, was assumed to be that of a man
who had come with King William, and the fine was
levied. Some other enactments were needed when two


nations lived side by side in the same land. As in earlier
times, Roman and barbarian each kept his own law, so
now for some purposes the Frenchman " Francigena"
and the Englishman kept their own law. This is chiefly
with regard to the modes of appealing to God's judge-
ment in doubtful cases. The English did this by ordeal,
the Normans by wager of battle. When a man of one
nation appealed a man of the other, the accused chose
the mode of trial. If an Englishman appealed a French-
man and declined to prove his charge either way, the
Frenchman might clear himself by oath. But these
privileges were strictly confined to Frenchmen who had
come with William and after him. Frenchmen who had
in Edward's time settled in England as the land of their
own choice, reckoned as Englishmen. Other enactments,
or fresh enactments of older laws, touched both races.
The slave trade was rife in its worst form ; men were
sold out of the land, chiefly to the Danes of Ireland.
Earlier kings had denounced the crime, and earlier
bishops had preached against it. William denounced it
again under the penalty of forfeiture of all lands and
goods, and Saint Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester,
persuaded the chief offenders, Englishmen of Bristol, to
give up their darling sin for a season. Yet in the next
reign Anselm and his synod had once more to denounce
the crime under spiritual penalties, when they had no
longer the strong arm of William to enforce them.

Another law bears more than all the personal impress
of William. In it he at once, on one side, forestalls
the most humane theories of modern times, and on the
other sins most directly against them. His remark-
able unwillingness to put any man to death, except



among the chances of the battle-field, was to some extent
the feeling of his age. With him the feeling takes the
shape of a formal law. He forbids the infliction of
death for any crime whatever. But those who may on
this score be disposed to claim the Conqueror as a
sympathizer will be shocked at the next enactment.
Those crimes which kings less merciful than William
would have punished with death are to be punished
with loss of eyes or other foul and cruel mutilations.
Punishments of this kind now seem more revolting than
death, though possibly, now as then, the sufferer himself
might think otherwise. But in those days to substitute
mutilation for death, in the case of crimes which were
held to deserve death, was universally deemed an act of
mercy. Grave men shrank from sending their fellow-
creatures out of the world, perhaps without time for
repentance ; but physical sympathy with physical suffer-
ing had little place in their minds. In the next century
a feeling against bodily mutilation gradually comes in ;
but as yet the mildest and most thoughtful men,
Anselm himself, make no protest against it when it is
believed to be really deserved. There is no sign of any
general complaint on this score. The English Chronicler
applauds the strict police of which mutilation formed a
part, and in one case he deliberately holds it to be the
fitting punishment of the offence. In fact, when penal
settlements were unknown and legal prisons were few
and loathsome, there was something to be said for a
punishment which disabled the criminal from repeating
his offence. In William's jurisprudence mutilation
became the ordinary sentence of the murderer, the
robber, the ravisher, sometimes also of English revolters


against William's power. We must in short balance
his mercy against the mercy of Kirk and Jeffreys.

The ground on which the English Chronicler does
raise his wail on behalf of his countrymen is the special
jurisprudence of the forests and the extortions of money
with which he charges the Conqueror. In both these
points the royal hand became far heavier under the
Norman rule. In both William's character grew darker
as he grew older. He is charged with unlawful exac-
tions of money, in his character alike of sovereign and
of landlord. We read of his sharp practice in dealing
Avith the profits of the royal demesnes. He would turn
out the tenant to whom he had just let the land, if
another offered a higher rent. But with regard to taxa-
tion, we must remember that William's exactions, how-
ever heavy at the time, were a step in the direction of
regular government. In those days all taxation was dis-
liked. Direct taking of the subject's money by the Bang
was deemed an extraordinary resource to be justified
only by some extraordinary emergency, to buy off the
Danes or to hire soldiers against them. Men long after
still dreamed that the King could " live of his own," that
he could pay all expenses of his court and government
out of the rents and services due to him as a landowner,
without asking his people for anything in the character
of sovereign. Demands of money on behalf of the King
now became both heavier and more frequent. And
another change which had long been gradually work-
ing now came to a head. When, centuries later, the
King was bidden to " live of his own," men had forgotten
that the land of the King had once been the land of
the nation. In all Teutonic communities, great and


small, just as in the city communities of Greece and
Italy, the community itself was a chief landowner. The
nation had its folkland, its agerpublicus, the property of
no one man but of the whole state. Out of this, by the
common consent, portions might be cut off and booked
granted by a written document to particular men as
their own booJcland. The King might have his private
estate, to be dealt with at his own pleasure, but of the
folkland, the land of the nation, he was only the chief
administrator, bound to act by the advice of his Witan.
But in this case more than in others, the advice of the
Witan could not fail to become formal ; the folkland, ever
growing through confiscations, ever lessening through
grants, gradually came to be looked on as the land of
the King, to be dealt with as he thought good. We
must not look for any change formally enacted ; but in
Edward's day the notion of folkland, as the possession of
the nation and not of the King, could have been only a
survival, and in William's day even the survival passed
away. The land which was practically the land of King
Edward became, as a matter of course, Terra Regis, the
land of King William. That land was now enlarged by
greater confiscations and lessened by greater grants than
ever. For a moment, even lay estates had been part of
the land of William. And far more than had been the
land of the nation remained the land of the King, to be
dealt with as he thought good.

In the tenure of land William seems to have made no
formal change. But the circumstances of his reign gave
increased strength to certain tendencies which had been
long afloat. And out of them, in the next reign, the
malignant genius of Eandolf Flambard devised a system-


atic code of oppression. Yet even in his work there
is little of formal change. There are no laws of William
Kufus. The so called feudal incidents, the claims of
marriage, wardship, and the like, on the part of the lord,
the ancient heriot developed into the later relief, all these
things were in the germ under William, as they had been
in the germ long before him. In the hands of Randolf
Flambard they stiffen into established custom; their
legal acknowledgement comes from the charter of Henry
the First which promises to reform their abuses. Thus
the Conqueror clearly claimed the right to interfere with
the marriages of his nobles, at any rate to forbid a mar-
riage to which he objected on grounds of policy. Under
Eandolf Flambard this became a regular claim, which of
course was made a means of extorting money. Under
Henry the claim is regulated and modified, but by being
regulated and modified, it is legally established.

The ordinary administration of the kingdom went on
under William, greatly modified by the circumstances of
his reign, but hardly at all changed in outward form.
Like the kings that were before him, he "wore his
crown " at the three great feasts, at Easter at Win-
chester, at Pentecost at Westminster, at Christmas at
Gloucester. Like the kings that were before him, he
gathered together the great men of the realm, and when
need was, the small men also. Nothing seems to have
been changed in the constitution or the powers of the
assembly ; but its spirit must have been utterly changed.
The innermost circle, earls, bishops, great officers of
state and household, gradually changed from a body of
Englishmen with a few strangers among them into a
body of strangers among whom two or three Englishmen


still kept their places. The result of their " deep
speech " with William was not likely to be other than
an assent to William's will. The ordinary freeman did
not lose his abstract right to come and shout " Yea, yea,"
to any addition that King William made to the law of
King Edward. But there would be nothing to tempt him
to come, unless King William thought fit to bid him. But
once at least William did gather together, if not every
freeman, at least all freeholders of the smallest account.
On one point the Conqueror had fully made up his

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Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanWilliam the Conqueror → online text (page 9 of 14)