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William the Conqueror By Edward A. Freeman Characters: 31769

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


Of two events of these last years of the Conqueror's reign, events of very different degrees of importance, we have already spoken. The Welsh expedition of William was the only recorded fighting on British ground, and that lay without the bounds of the kingdom of England. William now made Normandy his chief dwelling-place, but he was constantly called over to England. The Welsh campaign proves his presence in England in 1081; he was again in England in 1082, but he went back to Normandy between the two visits. The visit of 1082 was a memorable one; there is no more characteristic act of the Conqueror than the deed which marks it. The cruelty and insolence of his brother Ode, whom he had trusted so much more than he deserved, had passed all bounds. In avenging the death of Walcher he had done deeds such as William never did himself or allowed any other man to do. And now, beguiled by a soothsayer who said that one of his name should be the next Pope, he dreamed of succeeding to the throne of Gregory the Seventh. He made all kinds of preparations to secure his succession, and he was at last about to set forth for Italy at the head of something like an army. His schemes were by no means to the liking of his brother. William came suddenly over from Normandy, and met Ode in the Isle of Wight. There the King got together as many as he could of the great men of the realm. Before them he arraigned Ode for all his crimes. He had left him as the lieutenant of his kingdom, and he had shown himself the common oppressor of every class of men in the realm. Last of all, he had beguiled the warriors who were needed for the defence of England against the Danes and Irish to follow him on his wild schemes in Italy. How was he to deal with such a brother, William asked of his wise men.

He had to answer himself; no other man dared to speak. William then gave his judgement. The common enemy of the whole realm should not be spared because he was the King's brother. He should be seized and put in ward. As none dared to seize him, the King seized him with his own hands. And now, for the first time in England, we hear words which were often heard again. The bishop stained with blood and sacrilege appealed to the privileges of his order. He was a clerk, a bishop; no man might judge him but the Pope. William, taught, so men said, by Lanfranc, had his answer ready. "I do not seize a clerk or a bishop; I seize my earl whom I set over my kingdom." So the Earl of Kent was carried off to a prison in Normandy, and Pope Gregory himself pleaded in vain for the release of the Bishop of Bayeux.

The mind of William was just now mainly given to the affairs of his island kingdom. In the winter of 1083 he hastened from the death-bed of his wife to the siege of Sainte-Susanne, and thence to the Midwinter Gemót in England. The chief object of the assembly was the specially distasteful one of laying on of a tax. In the course of the next year, six shillings was levied on every hide of land to meet a pressing need. The powers of the North were again threatening; the danger, if it was danger, was greater than when Waltheof smote the Normans in the gate at York. Swegen and his successor Harold were dead. Cnut the Saint reigned in Denmark, the son-in-law of Robert of Flanders. This alliance with William's enemy joined with his remembrance of his own two failures to stir up the Danish king to a yearning for some exploit in England. English exiles were still found to urge him to the enterprise. William's conquest had scattered banished or discontented Englishmen over all Europe. Many had made their way to the Eastern Rome; they had joined the Warangian guard, the surest support of the Imperial throne, and at Dyrrhachion, as on Senlac, the axe of England had met the lance of Normandy in battle. Others had fled to the North; they prayed Cnut to avenge the death of his kinsman Harold and to deliver England from the yoke of men-so an English writer living in Denmark spoke of them-of Roman speech. Thus the Greek at one end of Europe, the Norman at the other, still kept on the name of Rome. The fleet of Denmark was joined by the fleet of Flanders; a smaller contingent was promised by the devout and peaceful Olaf of Norway, who himself felt no call to take a share in the work of war.

Against this danger William strengthened himself by the help of the tax that he had just levied. He could hardly have dreamed of defending England against Danish invaders by English weapons only. But he thought as little of trusting the work to his own Normans. With the money of England he hired a host of mercenaries, horse and foot, from France and Britanny, even from Maine where Hubert was still defying him at Sainte-Susanne. He gathered this force on the mainland, and came back at its head, a force such as England had never before seen; men wondered how the land might feed them all. The King's men, French and English, had to feed them, each man according to the amount of his land. And now William did what Harold had refused to do; he laid waste the whole coast that lay open to attack from Denmark and Flanders. But no Danes, no Flemings, came. Disputes arose between Cnut and his brother Olaf, and the great enterprise came to nothing. William kept part of his mercenaries in England, and part he sent to their homes. Cnut was murdered in a church by his own subjects, and was canonized as Sanctus Canutus by a Pope who could not speak the Scandinavian name.

Meanwhile, at the Midwinter Gemót of 1085–1086, held in due form at Gloucester, William did one of his greatest acts. "The King had mickle thought and sooth deep speech with his Witan about his land, how it were set and with whilk men." In that "deep speech," so called in our own tongue, lurks a name well known and dear to every Englishman. The result of that famous parliament is set forth at length by the Chronicler. The King sent his men into each shire, men who did indeed set down in their writ how the land was set and of what men. In that writ we have a record in the Roman tongue no less precious than the Chronicles in our own. For that writ became the Book of Winchester, the book to which our fathers gave the name of Domesday, the book of judgement that spared no man.

The Great Survey was made in the course of the first seven months of the year 1086. Commissioners were sent into every shire, who inquired by the oaths of the men of the hundreds by whom the land had been held in King Edward's days and what it was worth then, by whom it was held at the time of the survey and what it was worth then; and lastly, whether its worth could be raised. Nothing was to be left out. "So sooth narrowly did he let spear it out, that there was not a hide or a yard of land, nor further-it is shame to tell, and it thought him no shame to do-an ox nor a cow nor a swine was left that was not set in his writ." This kind of searching inquiry, never liked at any time, would be specially grievous then. The taking of the survey led to disturbances in many places, in which not a few lives were lost. While the work was going on, William went to and fro till he knew thoroughly how this land was set and of what men. He had now a list of all men, French and English, who held land in his kingdom. And it was not enough to have their names in a writ; he would see them face to face. On the making of the survey followed that great assembly, that great work of legislation, which was the crown of William's life as a ruler and lawgiver of England. The usual assemblies of the year had been held at Winchester and Westminster. An extraordinary assembly was held in the plain of Salisbury on the first day of August. The work of that assembly has been already spoken of. It was now that all the owners of land in the kingdom became the men of the King; it was now that England became one, with no fear of being again parted asunder.

The close connexion between the Great Survey and the law and the oath of Salisbury is plain. It was a great matter for the King to get in the gold certainly and, we may add, fairly. William would deal with no man otherwise than according to law as he understood the law. But he sought for more than this. He would not only know what this land could be made to pay; he would know the state of his kingdom in every detail; he would know its military strength; he would know whether his own will, in the long process of taking from this man and giving to that, had been really carried out. Domesday is before all things a record of the great confiscation, a record of that gradual change by which, in less than twenty years, the greater part of the land of England had been transferred from native to foreign owners. And nothing shows like Domesday in what a formally legal fashion that transfer was carried out. What were the principles on which it was carried out, we have already seen. All private property in land came only from the grant of King William. It had all passed into his hands by lawful forfeiture; he might keep it himself; he might give it back to its old owner or grant it to a new one. So it was at the general redemption of lands; so it was whenever fresh conquests or fresh revolts threw fresh lands into the King's hands. The principle is so thoroughly taken for granted, that we are a little startled to find it incidentally set forth in so many words in a case of no special importance. A priest named Robert held a single yardland in alms of the King; he became a monk in the monastery of Stow-in-Lindesey, and his yardland became the property of the house. One hardly sees why this case should have been picked out for a solemn declaration of the general law. Yet, as "the day on which the English redeemed their lands" is spoken of only casually in the case of a particular estate, so the principle that no man could hold lands except by the King's grant ("Non licet terram alicui habere nisi regis concessu") is brought in only to illustrate the wrongful dealing of Robert and the monks of Stow in the case of a very small holding indeed.

All this is a vast system of legal fictions; for William's whole position, the whole scheme of his government, rested on a system of legal fictions. Domesday is full of them; one might almost say that there is nothing else there. A very attentive study of Domesday might bring out the fact that William was a foreign conqueror, and that the book itself was a record of the process by which he took the lands of the natives who had fought against him to reward the strangers who had fought for him. But nothing of this kind appears on the surface of the record. The great facts of the Conquest are put out of sight. William is taken for granted, not only as the lawful king, but as the immediate successor of Edward. The "time of King Edward" and the "time of King William" are the two times that the law knows of. The compilers of the record are put to some curious shifts to describe the time between "the day when King Edward was alive and dead" and the day "when King William came into England." That coming might have been as peaceful as the coming of James the First or George the First. The two great battles are more than once referred to, but only casually in the mention of particular persons. A very sharp critic might guess that one of them had something to do with King William's coming into England; but that is all. Harold appears only as Earl; it is only in two or three places that we hear of a "time of Harold," and even of Harold "seizing the kingdom" and "reigning." These two or three places stand out in such contrast to the general language of the record that we are led to think that the scribe must have copied some earlier record or taken down the words of some witness, and must have forgotten to translate them into more loyal formul?. So in recording who held the land in King Edward's day and who in King William's, there is nothing to show that in so many cases the holder under Edward had been turned out to make room for the holder under William. The former holder is marked by the perfectly colourless word "ancestor" ("antecessor"), a word as yet meaning, not "forefather," but "predecessor" of any kind. In Domesday the word is most commonly an euphemism for "dispossessed Englishman." It is a still more distinct euphemism where the Norman holder is in more than one place called the "heir" of the dispossessed Englishmen.

The formul? of Domesday are the most speaking witness to the spirit of outward legality which ruled every act of William. In this way they are wonderfully instructive; but from the formul? alone no one could ever make the real facts of William's coming and reign. It is the incidental notices which make us more at home in the local and personal life of this reign than of any reign before or for a long time after. The Commissioners had to report whether the King's will had been everywhere carried out, whether every man, great and small, French and English, had what the King meant him to have, neither more nor less. And they had often to report a state of things different from what the King had meant to be. Many men had not all that King William had meant them to have, and many others had much more. Normans had taken both from Englishmen and from other Normans. Englishmen had taken from Englishmen; some had taken from ecclesiastical bodies; some had taken from King William himself; nay King William himself holds lands which he ought to give up to another man. This last entry at least shows that William was fully ready to do right, according to his notions of right. So also the King's two brothers are set down among the chief offenders. Of these unlawful holdings of land, marked in the technical language of the Survey as invasiones and occupationes, many were doubtless real cases of violent seizure, without excuse even according to William's reading of the law. But this does not always follow, even when the language of the Survey would seem to imply it. Words implying violence, per vim and the like, are used in the legal language of all ages, where no force has been used, merely to mark a possession as illegal. We are startled at finding the Apostle Paul set down as one of the offenders; but the words "sanctus Paulus invasit" mean no more than that the canons of Saint Paul's church in London held lands to which the Commissioners held that they had no good title. It is these cases where one man held land which another claimed that gave opportunity for those personal details, stories, notices of tenures and customs, which make Domesday the most precious store of knowledge of the time.

One fruitful and instructive source of dispute comes from the way in which the lands in this or that district were commonly granted out. The in-comer, commonly a foreigner, received all the lands which such and such a man, commonly a dispossessed Englishman, held in that shire or district. The grantee stepped exactly into the place of the antecessor; he inherited all his rights and all his burthens. He inherited therewith any disputes as to the extent of the lands of the antecessor or as to the nature of his tenure. And new disputes arose in the process of transfer. One common source of dispute was when the former owner, besides lands which were strictly his own, held lands on lease, subject to a reversionary interest on the part of the Crown or the Church. The lease or sale-emere is the usual word-of Church lands for three lives to return to the Church at the end of the third life was very common. If the antecessor was himself the third life, the grantee, his heir, had no claim to the land; and in any case he could take in only with all its existing liabilities. But the grantee often took possession of the whole of the land held by the antecessor, as if it were all ali

ke his own. A crowd of complaints followed from all manner of injured persons and bodies, great and small, French and English, lay and clerical. The Commissioners seem to have fairly heard all, and to have fairly reported all for the King to judge of. It is their care to do right to all men which has given us such strange glimpses of the inner life of an age which had none like it before or after.

The general Survey followed by the general homage might seem to mark William's work in England, his work as an English statesman, as done. He could hardly have had time to redress the many cases of wrong which the Survey laid before him; but he was able to wring yet another tax out of the nation according to his new and more certain register. He then, for the last time, crossed to Normandy with his new hoard. The Chronicler and other writers of the time dwell on the physical portents of these two years, the storms, the fires, the plagues, the sharp hunger, the deaths of famous men on both sides of the sea. Of the year 1087, the last year of the Conqueror, it needs the full strength of our ancient tongue to set forth the signs and wonders. The King had left England safe, peaceful, thoroughly bowed down under the yoke, cursing the ruler who taxed her and granted away her lands, yet half blessing him for the "good frith" that he made against the murderer, the robber, and the ravisher. But the land that he had won was neither to see his end nor to shelter his dust. One last gleam of success was, after so many reverses, to crown his arms; but it was success which was indeed unworthy of the Conqueror who had entered Exeter and Le Mans in peaceful triumph. And the death-blow was now to come to him who, after so many years of warfare, stooped at last for the first time to cruel and petty havoc without an object.

The border-land of France and Normandy, the French Vexin, the land of which Mantes is the capital, had always been disputed between kingdom and duchy. Border wars had been common; just at this time the inroads of the French commanders at Mantes are said to have been specially destructive. William not only demanded redress from the King, but called for the surrender of the whole Vexin. What followed is a familiar story. Philip makes a foolish jest on the bodily state of his great rival, unable just then to carry out his threats. "The King of the English lies in at Rouen; there will be a great show of candles at his churching." As at Alen?on in his youth, so now, William, who could pass by real injuries, was stung to the uttermost by personal mockery. By the splendour of God, when he rose up again, he would light a hundred thousand candles at Philip's cost. He kept his word at the cost of Philip's subjects. The ballads of the day told how he went forth and gathered the fruits of autumn in the fields and orchards and vineyards of the enemy. But he did more than gather fruits; the candles of his churching were indeed lighted in the burning streets of Mantes. The picture of William the Great directing in person mere brutal havoc like this is strange even after the harrying of Northumberland and the making of the New Forest. Riding to and fro among the flames, bidding his men with glee to heap on the fuel, gladdened at the sight of burning houses and churches, a false step of his horse gave him his death-blow. Carried to Rouen, to the priory of Saint Gervase near the city, he lingered from August 15 to September 7, and then the reign and life of the Conqueror came to an end. Forsaken by his children, his body stripped and well nigh forgotten, the loyalty of one honest knight, Herlwin of Conteville, bears his body to his grave in his own church at Caen. His very grave is disputed-a dispossessed antecessor claims the ground as his own, and the dead body of the Conqueror has to wait while its last resting-place is bought with money. Into that resting-place force alone can thrust his bulky frame, and the rites of his burial are as wildly cut short as were the rites of his crowning. With much striving he had at last won his seven feet of ground; but he was not to keep it for ever. Religious warfare broke down his tomb and scattered his bones, save one treasured relic. Civil revolution swept away the one remaining fragment. And now, while we seek in vain beneath the open sky for the rifled tombs of Harold and of Waltheof, a stone beneath the vault of Saint Stephen's still tells us where the bones of William once lay but where they lie no longer.

There is no need to doubt the striking details of the death and burial of the Conqueror. We shrink from giving the same trust to the long tale of penitence which is put into the mouth of the dying King. He may, in that awful hour, have seen the wrong-doing of the last one-and-twenty years of his life; he hardly threw his repentance into the shape of a detailed autobiographical confession. But the more authentic sayings and doings of William's death-bed enable us to follow his course as an English statesman almost to his last moments. His end was one of devotion, of prayers and almsgiving, and of opening of the prison to them that were bound. All save one of his political prisoners, English and Norman, he willingly set free. Morkere and his companions from Ely, Walfnoth son of Godwine, hostage for Harold's faith, Wulf son of Harold and Ealdgyth, taken, we can hardly doubt, as a babe when Chester opened its gates to William, were all set free; some indeed were put in bonds again by the King's successor. But Ode William would not set free; he knew too well how many would suffer if he were again let loose upon the world. But love of kindred was still strong; at last he yielded, sorely against his will, to the prayers and pledges of his other brother. Ode went forth from his prison, again Bishop of Bayeux, soon again to be Earl of Kent, and soon to prove William's foresight by his deeds.

William's disposal of his dominions on his death-bed carries on his political history almost to his last breath. Robert, the banished rebel, might seem to have forfeited all claims to the succession. But the doctrine of hereditary right had strengthened during the sixty years of William's life. He is made to say that, though he foresees the wretchedness of any land over which Robert should be the ruler, still he cannot keep him out of the duchy of Normandy which is his birthright. Of England he will not dare to dispose; he leaves the decision to God, seemingly to Archbishop Lanfranc as the vicar of God. He will only say that his wish is for his son William to succeed him in his kingdom, and he prays Lanfranc to crown him king, if he deem such a course to be right. Such a message was a virtual nomination, and William the Red succeeded his father in England, but kept his crown only by the help of loyal Englishmen against Norman rebels. William Rufus, it must be remembered, still under the tutelage of his father and Lanfranc, had not yet shown his bad qualities; he was known as yet only as the dutiful son who fought for his father against the rebel Robert. By ancient English law, that strong preference which was all that any man could claim of right belonged beyond doubt to the youngest of William's sons, the English ?theling Henry. He alone was born in the land; he alone was the son of a crowned King and his Lady. It is perhaps with a knowledge of what followed that William is made to bid his youngest son wait while his eldest go before him; that he left him landless, but master of a hoard of silver, there is no reason to doubt. English feeling, which welcomed Henry thirteen years later, would doubtless have gladly seen his immediate accession; but it might have been hard, in dividing William's dominions, to have shut out the second son in favour of the third. And in the scheme of events by which conquered England was to rise again, the reign of Rufus, at the moment the darkest time of all, had its appointed share.

That England could rise again, that she could rise with a new life, strengthened by her momentary overthrow, was before all things owing to the lucky destiny which, if she was to be conquered, gave her William the Great as her Conqueror. It is as it is in all human affairs. William himself could not have done all that he did, wittingly and unwittingly, unless circumstances had been favourable to him; but favourable circumstances would have been useless, unless there had been a man like William to take advantage of them. What he did, wittingly or unwittingly, he did by virtue of his special position, the position of a foreign conqueror veiling his conquest under a legal claim. The hour and the man were alike needed. The man in his own hour wrought a work, partly conscious, partly unconscious. The more clearly any man understands his conscious work, the more sure is that conscious work to lead to further results of which he dreams not. So it was with the Conqueror of England. His purpose was to win and to keep the kingdom of England, and to hand it on to those who should come after him more firmly united than it had ever been before. In this work his spirit of formal legality, his shrinking from needless change, stood him in good stead. He saw that as the kingdom of England could best be won by putting forth a legal claim to it, so it could best be kept by putting on the character of a legal ruler, and reigning as the successor of the old kings seeking the unity of the kingdom; he saw, from the example both of England and of other lands, the dangers which threatened that unity; he saw what measures were needed to preserve it in his own day, measures which have preserved it ever since. Here is a work, a conscious work, which entitles the foreign Conqueror to a place among English statesmen, and to a place in their highest rank. Further than this we cannot conceive William himself to have looked. All that was to come of his work in future ages was of necessity hidden from his eyes, no less than from the eyes of smaller men. He had assuredly no formal purpose to make England Norman; but still less had he any thought that the final outcome of his work would make England on one side more truly English than if he had never crossed the sea. In his ecclesiastical work he saw the future still less clearly. He designed to reform what he deemed abuses, to bring the English Church into closer conformity with the other Churches of the West; he assuredly never dreamed that the issue of his reform would be the strife between Henry and Thomas and the humiliation of John. His error was that of forgetting that he himself could wield powers, that he could hold forces in check, which would be too strong for those who should come after him. At his purposes with regard to the relations of England and Normandy it would be vain to guess. The mere leaving of kingdom and duchy to different sons would not necessarily imply that he designed a complete or lasting separation. But assuredly William did not foresee that England, dragged into wars with France as the ally of Normandy, would remain the lasting rival of France after Normandy had been swallowed up in the French kingdom. If rivalry between England and France had not come in this way, it would doubtless have come in some other way; but this is the way in which it did come about. As a result of the union of Normandy and England under one ruler, it was part of William's work, but a work of which William had no thought. So it was with the increased connexion of every kind between England and the continent of Europe which followed on William's coming. With one part of Europe indeed the connexion of England was lessened. For three centuries before William's coming, dealings in war and peace with the Scandinavian kingdoms had made up a large part of English history. Since the baffled enterprise of the holy Cnut, our dealings with that part of Europe have been of only secondary account.

But in our view of William as an English statesman, the main feature of all is that spirit of formal legality of which we have so often spoken. Its direct effects, partly designed, partly undesigned, have affected our whole history to this day. It was his policy to disguise the fact of conquest, to cause all the spoils of conquest to be held, in outward form, according to the ancient law of England. The fiction became a fact, and the fact greatly helped in the process of fusion between Normans and English. The conquering race could not keep itself distinct from the conquered, and the form which the fusion took was for the conquerors to be lost in the greater mass of the conquered. William founded no new state, no new nation, no new constitution; he simply kept what he found, with such modifications as his position made needful. But without any formal change in the nature of English kingship, his position enabled him to clothe the crown with a practical power such as it had never held before, to make his rule, in short, a virtual despotism. These two facts determined the later course of English history, and they determined it to the lasting good of the English nation. The conservative instincts of William allowed our national life and our national institutions to live on unbroken through his conquest. But it was before all things the despotism of William, his despotism under legal forms, which preserved our national institutions to all time. As a less discerning conqueror might have swept our ancient laws and liberties away, so under a series of native kings those laws and liberties might have died out, as they died out in so many continental lands. But the despotism of the crown called forth the national spirit in a conscious and antagonistic shape; it called forth that spirit in men of both races alike, and made Normans and English one people. The old institutions lived on, to be clothed with a fresh life, to be modified as changed circumstances might make needful. The despotism of the Norman kings, the peculiar character of that despotism, enabled the great revolution of the thirteenth century to take the forms, which it took, at once conservative and progressive. So it was when, more than four centuries after William's day, England again saw a despotism carried on under the forms of law. Henry the Eighth reigned as William had reigned; he did not reign like his brother despots on the continent; the forms of law and freedom lived on. In the seventeenth century therefore, as in the thirteenth, the forms stood ready to be again clothed with a new life, to supply the means for another revolution, again at once conservative and progressive. It has been remarked a thousand times that, while other nations have been driven to destroy and to rebuild the political fabric, in England we have never had to destroy and to rebuild, but have found it enough to repair, to enlarge, and to improve. This characteristic of English history is mainly owing to the events of the eleventh century, and owing above all to the personal agency of William. As far as mortal man can guide the course of things when he is gone, the course of our national history since William's day has been the result of William's character and of William's acts. Well may we restore to him the surname that men gave him in his own day. He may worthily take his place as William the Great alongside of Alexander, Constantine, and Charles. They may have wrought in some sort a greater work, because they had a wider stage to work it on. But no man ever wrought a greater and more abiding work on the stage that fortune gave him than he

"Qui dux Normannis, qui C?sar pr?fuit Anglis."

Stranger and conqueror, his deeds won him a right to a place on the roll of English statesmen, and no man that came after him has won a right to a higher place.


Printed by R. & R. Clarke, Limited, Edinburgh.

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