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William the Conqueror By Edward A. Freeman Characters: 28691

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

August-December 1066.

The statesmanship of William had triumphed. The people of England had chosen their king, and a large part of the world had been won over by the arts of a foreign prince to believe that it was a righteous and holy work to set him on the throne to which the English people had chosen the foremost man among themselves. No diplomatic success was ever more thorough. Unluckily we know nothing of the state of feeling in England while William was plotting and pleading beyond the sea. Nor do we know how much men in England knew of what was going on in other lands, or what they thought when they heard of it. We know only that, after Harold had won over Northumberland, he came back and held the Easter Gemót at Westminster. Then in the words of the Chronicler, "it was known to him that William Bastard, King Edward's kinsman, would come hither and win this land." This is all that our own writers tell us about William Bastard, between his peaceful visit to England in 1052 and his warlike visit in 1066. But we know that King Harold did all that man could do to defeat his purposes, and that he was therein loyally supported by the great mass of the English nation, we may safely say by all, save his two brothers-in-law and so many as they could influence.

William's doings we know more fully. The military events of this wonderful year there is no need to tell in detail. But we see that William's generalship was equal to his statesmanship, and that it was met by equal generalship on the side of Harold. Moreover, the luck of William is as clear as either his statesmanship or his generalship. When Harold was crowned on the day of the Epiphany, he must have felt sure that he would have to withstand an invasion of England before the year was out. But it could not have come into the mind of Harold, William, or Lanfranc, or any other man, that he would have to withstand two invasions of England at the same moment.

It was the invasion of Harold of Norway, at the same time as the invasion of William, which decided the fate of England. The issue of the struggle might have gone against England, had she had to strive against one enemy only; as it was, it was the attack made by two enemies at once which divided her strength, and enabled the Normans to land without resistance. The two invasions came as nearly as possible at the same moment. Harold Hardrada can hardly have reached the Yorkshire coast before September; the battle of Fulford was fought on September 20th and that of Stamfordbridge on September 25th. William landed on September 28th, and the battle of Senlac was fought on October 14th. Moreover William's fleet was ready by August 12th; his delay in crossing was owing to his waiting for a favourable wind. When William landed, the event of the struggle in the North could not have been known in Sussex. He might have had to strive, not with Harold of England, but with Harold of Norway as his conqueror.

At what time of the year Harold Hardrada first planned his invasion of England is quite uncertain. We can say nothing of his doings till he is actually afloat. And with the three mighty forms of William and the two Harolds on the scene, there is something at once grotesque and perplexing in the way in which an English traitor flits about among them. The banished Tostig, deprived of his earldom in the autumn of 1065, had then taken refuge in Flanders. He now plays a busy part, the details of which are lost in contradictory accounts. But it is certain that in May 1066 he made an ineffectual attack on England. And this attack was most likely made with the connivance of William. It suited William to use Tostig as an instrument, and to encourage so restless a spirit in annoying the common enemy. It is also certain that Tostig was with the Norwegian fleet in September, and that he died at Stamfordbridge. We know also that he was in Scotland between May and September. It is therefore hard to believe that Tostig had so great a hand in stirring up Harold Hardrada to his expedition as the Norwegian story makes out. Most likely Tostig simply joined the expedition which Harold Hardrada independently planned. One thing is certain, that, when Harold of England was attacked by two enemies at once, it was not by two enemies acting in concert. The interests of William and of Harold of Norway were as much opposed to one another as either of them was to the interests of Harold of England.

One great difficulty beset Harold and William alike. Either in Normandy or in England it was easy to get together an army ready to fight a battle; it was not easy to keep a large body of men under arms for any long time without fighting. It was still harder to keep them at once without fighting and without plundering. What William had done in this way in two invasions of Normandy, he was now called on to do on a greater scale. His great and motley army was kept during a great part of August and September, first at the Dive, then at Saint Valery, waiting for the wind that was to take it to England. And it was kept without doing any serious damage to the lands where they were encamped. In a holy war, this time was of course largely spent in appeals to the religious feelings of the army. Then came the wonderful luck of William, which enabled him to cross at the particular moment when he did cross. A little earlier or later, he would have found his landing stoutly disputed; as it was, he landed without resistance. Harold of England, not being able, in his own words, to be everywhere at once, had done what he could. He and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine undertook the defence of southern England against the Norman; the earls of the North, his brothers-in-law Edwin and Morkere, were to defend their own land against the Norwegians. His own preparations were looked on with wonder. To guard the long line of coast against the invader, he got together such a force both by sea and land as no king had ever got together before, and he kept it together for a longer time than William did, through four months of inaction, save perhaps some small encounters by sea. At last, early in September, provisions failed; men were no doubt clamouring to go back for the harvest, and the great host had to be disbanded. Could William have sailed as soon as his fleet was ready, he would have found southern England thoroughly prepared to meet him. Meanwhile the northern earls had clearly not kept so good watch as the king. Harold Hardrada harried the Yorkshire coast; he sailed up the Ouse, and landed without resistance. At last the earls met him in arms and were defeated by the Northmen at Fulford near York. Four days later York capitulated, and agreed to receive Harold Hardrada as king. Meanwhile the news reached Harold of England; he got together his housecarls and such other troops as could be mustered at the moment, and by a march of almost incredible speed he was able to save the city and all northern England. The fight of Stamfordbridge, the defeat and death of the most famous warrior of the North, was the last and greatest success of Harold of England. But his northward march had left southern England utterly unprotected. Had the south wind delayed a little longer, he might, before the second enemy came, have been again on the South-Saxon coast. As it was, three days after Stamfordbridge, while Harold of England was still at York, William of Normandy landed without opposition at Pevensey.

Thus wonderfully had an easy path into England been opened for William. The Norwegian invasion had come at the best moment for his purposes, and the result had been what he must have wished. With one Harold he must fight, and to fight with Harold of England was clearly best for his ends. His work would not have been done, if another had stepped in to chastise the perjurer. Now that he was in England, it became a trial of generalship between him and Harold. William's policy was to provoke Harold to fight at once. It was perhaps Harold's policy-so at least thought Gyrth-to follow yet more thoroughly William's own example in the French invasions. Let him watch and follow the enemy, let him avoid all action, and even lay waste the land between London and the south coast, and the strength of the invaders would gradually be worn out. But it might have been hard to enforce such a policy on men whose hearts were stirred by the invasion, and one part of whom, the King's own thegns and housecarls, were eager to follow up their victory over the Northern with a yet mightier victory over the Norman. And Harold spoke as an English king should speak, when he answered that he would never lay waste a single rood of English ground, that he would never harm the lands or the goods of the men who had chosen him to be their king. In the trial of skill between the two commanders, each to some extent carried his point. William's havoc of a large part of Sussex compelled Harold to march at once to give battle. But Harold was able to give battle at a place of his own choosing, thoroughly suited for the kind of warfare which he had to wage.

Harold was blamed, as defeated generals are blamed, for being too eager to fight and not waiting for more troops. But to any one who studies the ground it is plain that Harold needed, not more troops, but to some extent better troops, and that he would not have got those better troops by waiting. From York Harold had marched to London, as the meeting-place for southern and eastern England, as well as for the few who actually followed him from the North and those who joined him on the march. Edwin and Morkere were bidden to follow with the full force of their earldoms. This they took care not to do. Harold and his West-Saxons had saved them, but they would not strike a blow back again. Both now and earlier in the year they doubtless aimed at a division of the kingdom, such as had been twice made within fifty years. Either Harold or William might reign in Wessex and East-Anglia; Edwin should reign in Northumberland and Mercia. William, the enemy of Harold but no enemy of theirs, might be satisfied with the part of England which was under the immediate rule of Harold and his brothers, and might allow the house of Leofric to keep at least an under-kingship in the North. That the brother earls held back from the King's muster is undoubted, and this explanation fits in with their whole conduct both before and after. Harold had thus at his command the picked men of part of England only, and he had to supply the place of those who were lacking with such forces as he could get. The lack of discipline on the part of these inferior troops lost Harold the battle. But matters would hardly have been mended by waiting for men who had made up their minds not to come.

The messages exchanged between King and Duke immediately before the battle, as well as at an earlier time, have been spoken of already. The challenge to single combat at least comes now. When Harold refused every demand, William called on Harold to spare the blood of his followers, and decide his claims by battle in his own person. Such a challenge was in the spirit of Norman jurisprudence, which in doubtful cases looked for the judgement of God, not, as the English did, by the ordeal, but by the personal combat of the two parties. Yet this challenge too was surely given in the hope that Harold would refuse it, and would thereby put himself, in Norman eyes, yet more thoroughly in the wrong. For the challenge was one which Harold could not but refuse. William looked on himself as one who claimed his own from one who wrongfully kept him out of it. He was plaintiff in a suit in which Harold was defendant; that plaintiff and defendant were both accompanied by armies was an accident for which the defendant, who had refused all peaceful means of settlement, was to blame. But Harold and his people could not look on the matter as a mere question between two men. The crown was Harold's by the gift of the nation, and he could not sever his own cause from the cause of the nation. The crown was his; but it was not his to stake on the issue of a single combat. If Harold were killed, the nation might give the crown to whom they thought good; Harold's death could not make William's claim one jot better. The cause was not personal, but national. The Norman duke had, by a wanton invasion, wronged, not the King only, but every man in England, and every man might claim to help in driving him out. Again, in an ordinary wager of battle, the judgement 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 challenge 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 warfare. 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 by Cnut, 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 Normans 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-ès-dunes in his youth. Indeed pitched battles, such as English and 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 therefore 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 horsemen 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, 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 disposed 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 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 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 conquered, 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 ?thelings. 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 candidate, 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 preparation 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, 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 support 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 Romney 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 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, marching 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 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 Westminster 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 coronation of Harold. Nothing that was needed for a lawful crowning was 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 accepted 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 followed 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 sound policy to act as king of the whole land, to exercise 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 obedience 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 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 underwent 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.

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