William the Conqueror - Jacob Abbott

The Preparations

The messenger who brought William the tidings of Harold's accession to the throne was a man named Tostig, Harold's brother. Though he was Harold's brother, he was still his bitterest enemy. Brothers are seldom friends in families where there is a crown to be contended for. There were, of course, no public modes of communicating intelligence in those days, and Tostig had learned the facts of Edward's death and Harold's coronation through spies which he had stationed at certain points on the coast. He was himself, at that time, on the Continent. He rode with all speed to Rouen to communicate the news to William, eager to incite him to commence hostilities against his brother.

[Illustration] from William the Conqueror by Jacob Abbott


When Tostig arrived at Rouen, William was in a park which lay in the vicinity of the city, trying a new bow that had been recently made for him. William was a man of prodigious muscular strength, and they gave him the credit of being able to use easily a bow which nobody else could bend. A part of this credit was doubtless due to the etiquette which, in royal palaces and grounds, leads all sensible courtiers to take good care never to succeed in attempts to excel the king. But, notwithstanding this consideration, there is no doubt that the duke really merited a great portion of the commendation that he received for his strength and dexterity in the use of the bow. It was a weapon in which he took great interest. A new one had been made for him, of great elasticity and strength, and he had gone out into his park, with his officers, to try its powers, when Tostig arrived. Tostig followed him to the place, and there advancing to his side, communicated the tidings to him privately.

William was greatly moved by the intelligence. His arrow dropped upon the ground. He gave the bow to an attendant. He stood for a time speechless, tying and untying the cordon of his cloak in his abstraction. Presently he began slowly to move away from, the place, and to return toward the city. His attendants followed him in silence, wondering what the exciting tidings could be which had produced so sudden and powerful an effect.

William went into the castle hall, and walked to and fro a long time, thoughtful, and evidently agitated. His attendants waited in silence, afraid to speak to him. Rumors began at length to circulate among them in respect to the nature of the intelligence which had been received. At length a great officer of state, named Fitzosborne, arrived at the castle. As he passed through the court-yard and gates, the attendants and the people, knowing that he possessed in a great degree the confidence of his sovereign, asked him what the tidings were that had made such an impression. "I know nothing certain about it," said he, "but I will soon learn." So saying, he advanced toward William, and accosted him by saying, "Why should you conceal from us your news? It is reported in the city that the King of England is dead, and that Harold has violated his oaths to you, and has seized the kingdom. Is that true?"

William acknowledged that that was the intelligence by which he had been so vexed and chagrined. Fitzosborne urged the duke not to allow such events to depress or dispirit him. "As for the death of Edward," said he, "that is an event past and sure, and can not be recalled; but Harold's usurpation and treachery admits of a very easy remedy. You have the right to the throne, and you have the soldiers necessary to enforce that right. Undertake the enterprise boldly. You will be sure to succeed."

William revolved the subject in his mind for a few days, during which the exasperation and anger which the first receipt of the intelligence had produced upon him was succeeded by calm but indignant deliberation, in respect to the course which he should pursue. He concluded to call a great council of state, and to lay the ease before them—not for the purpose of obtaining their advice, but to call their attention to the crisis in a formal and solemn manner, and to prepare them to act in concert in the subsequent measures to be pursued. The result of the deliberations of this council, guided, doubtless, by William's own designs, was, that the first step should be to send an embassy to Harold to demand of him the fulfillment of his promises.

The messenger was accordingly dispatched. He proceeded to London, and laid before Harold the communication with which he had been intrusted. This communication recounted the three promises which Harold had made, namely, to send his daughter to Normandy to be married to one of William's generals; to marry William's daughter himself; and to maintain William's claims to the English crown on the death of Edward. He was to remind Harold, also, of the solemnity with which he had bound himself to fulfill these obligations, by oaths taken in the presence of the most sacred relics of the Church, and in the most public and deliberate manner.

Harold replied,

1. That as to sending over his daughter to be married to one of William's generals, he could not do it, for his daughter was dead. He presumed, he said, that William did not wish him to send the corpse.

2. In respect to marrying William's daughter, to whom he had been affianced in Normandy, he was sorry to say that that was also out of his power, as he could not take a foreign wife without the consent of his people, which he was confident would never be given; besides, he was already married, he said, to a Saxon lady of his own dominions.

3. In regard to the kingdom: it did not depend upon him, he said, to decide who should rule over England as Edward's successor, but upon the will of Edward himself, and upon the English people. The English barons and nobles had, decided, with Edward's concurrence, that he, Harold, was their legitimate and proper sovereign, and that it was not for him to controvert their will. However much he might be disposed to comply with William's wishes, and to keep his promise, it was plain that it was out of his power, for in promising him the English crown, he had promised what did not belong to him to give.

4. As to his oaths, he said that, notwithstanding the secret presence of the sacred relics under the cloth of gold, he considered them as of no binding force upon his conscience, for he was constrained to take them as the only means of escaping from the duress in which he was virtually held in Normandy. Promises, and oaths even, when extorted by necessity, were null and void.

The messenger returned to Normandy with these replies, and William immediately began to prepare for war.

His first measure was to call a council of his most confidential friends and advisers, and to lay the subject before them. They cordially approved of the plan of an invasion of England, and promised to co-operate in the accomplishment of it to the utmost of their power.

The next step was to call a general council of all the chieftains and nobles of the land, and also the notables, as they were called, or principal officers and municipal authorities of the towns. The main point of interest for the consideration of this assembly was, whether the country would submit to the necessary taxation for raising the necessary funds. William had ample power, as duke, to decide upon the invasion and to undertake it. He could also, without much difficulty, raise the necessary number of men; for every baron in his realm was bound, by the feudal conditions on which he held his land, to furnish his quota of men for any military enterprise in which his sovereign might see fit to engage. But for so distant and vast an undertaking as this, William needed a much larger supply of funds  than were usually required in the wars of those days. For raising such large supplies, the political institutions of the Middle Ages had not made any adequate provision. Governments then had no power of taxation, like that so freely exercised in modern times; and even now, taxes in France and England take the form of grants  from the people to the kings. And as to the contrivance, so exceedingly ingenious, by which inexhaustible resources are opened to governments at the present day—that is, the plan of borrowing the money, and leaving posterity to pay or repudiate the debt, as they please, no minister of finance had, in William's day, been brilliant enough to discover it. Thus each ruler had to rely, then, mainly on the rents and income from his own lands, and other private resources, for the comparatively small amount of money that he needed in his brief campaigns. But now William perceived that ships must be built and equipped, and great stores of provisions accumulated, and arms and munitions of war provided, all which would require a considerable outlay; and how was this money to be obtained?

The general assembly which he convened were greatly distracted by the discussion of the question. The quiet and peaceful citizens who inhabited the towns, the artisans and tradesmen, who wished for nothing but to be allowed to go on in their industrial pursuits in peace, were opposed to the whole project. They thought it unreasonable and absurd that they should be required to contribute from their earnings to enable their lord and master to go off on so distant and desperate an undertaking, from which, even if successful, they could derive no benefit whatever. Many of the barons, too, were opposed to the scheme. They thought it very likely to end in disaster and defeat; and they denied that their feudal obligation to furnish men for their sovereign's wars was binding to the extent of requiring them to go out of the country, and beyond the sea, to prosecute his claims to the throne of another kingdom.

Others, on the other hand, among the members of William's assembly, were strongly disposed to favor the plan. They were more ardent or more courageous than the rest, or perhaps their position and circumstances were such that they had more to hope from the success of the enterprise than they, or less to fear from its failure. Thus there was great diversity of opinion; and as the parliamentary system of rules, by which a body of turbulent men, in modern times, are kept in some semblance of organization and order during a debate, had not then been developed, the meeting of these Norman deliberators was, for a time, a scene of uproar and confusion. The members gathered in groups, each speaker getting around him as many as he could obtain to listen to his harangue; the more quiet and passive portion of the assembly moving to and fro, from group to group, as they were attracted by the earnestness and eloquence of the different speakers, or by their approval of the sentiments which they heard them expressing. The scene, in fact, was like that presented in exciting times by a political caucus in America, before it is called to order by the chairman.

Fitzosborne, the confidential friend and counselor, who has already been mentioned as the one who ventured to accost the duke at the time when the tidings of Edward's death and of Harold's accession first reached him, now seeing that any thing like definite and harmonious action on the part of this tumultuous assembly was out of the question, went to the duke, and proposed to him to give up the assembly as such, and make the best terms and arrangements that he could with the constituent elements of it, individually and severally. He would himself, he said, furnish forty ships, manned, equipped, and provisioned; and he recommended to the duke to call each of the others into his presence, and ask them what they were individually willing to do. The duke adopted this plan, and it was wonderfully successful. Those who were first invited made large offers, and their offers were immediately registered in form by the proper officers. Each one who followed was emulous of the example of those who had preceded him, and desirous of evincing as much zeal and generosity as they. Then, besides, the duke received these vassals with so much condescension and urbanity, and treated them with so much consideration and respect, as greatly to flatter their vanity, and raise them in their own estimation, by exalting their ideas of the importance of the services which they could render in carrying so vast an enterprise to a successful result. In a word, the tide turned like a flood in favor of granting liberal supplies. The nobles and knights promised freely men, money, ships, arms, provisions—every thing, in short, that was required; and when the work of receiving and registering the offers was completed, and the officers summed up the aggregate amount, William found, to his extreme satisfaction, that his wants were abundantly supplied.

There was another very important point, which William adopted immediate measures to secure, and that was obtaining the Pope's  approval of his intended expedition. The moral influence of haying the Roman pontiff on his side, would, he knew, be of incalculable advantage to him. He sent an embassage, accordingly, to Rome, to lay the whole subject before his holiness, and to pray that the pope would declare that he was justly entitled to the English crown, and authorize him to proceed and take possession of it by force of arms. Lanfranc was the messenger whom he employed—the same Lanfranc who had been so successful, some years before, in the negotiations at Rome connected with the confirmation of William and Matilda's marriage.

Lanfranc was equally successful now. The pope, after examining William's claims, pronounced them valid. He decided that William was entitled to the rank and honors of King of England. He caused a formal diploma to be made out to this effect. The diploma was elegantly executed, signed with the cross, according to the pontifical custom, and sealed with a round leaden seal.

It was, in fact, very natural that the Roman authorities should take a favorable view of William's enterprise, and feel an interest in its success, as it was undoubtedly for the interest of the Church that William, rather than Harold, should reign over England, as the accession of William would bring the English realm far more fully under the influence of the Roman Church. William had always been very submissive to the pontifical authority, as was shown in his conduct in respect to the question of his marriage. He himself, and also Matilda his wife, had always taken a warm interest in the welfare and prosperity of the abbeys, the monasteries, the churches, and the other religious establishments of the times. Then the very circumstance that he sent his embassador to Rome to submit his claims to the pontiff's adjudication, while Harold did not do so, indicated a greater deference for the authority of the Church, and made it probable that he would be a far more obedient and submissive son of the Church, in his manner of ruling his realm, if he should succeed in gaining possession of it, than Harold his rival. The pope and his counselors at Rome thought it proper to take all these things into the account in deciding between William and Harold, as they honestly believed, without doubt, that it was their first and highest duty to exalt and aggrandize, by every possible means, the spiritual authority of the sacred institution over which they were called to preside.

The pope and his cardinals, accordingly, espoused William's cause very warmly. In addition to the diploma which gave William formal authority to take possession of the English crown, the pope sent him a banner and a ring. The banner was of costly and elegant workmanship; its value, however, did not consist in its elegance or its cost, but in a solemn benediction which his holiness pronounced over it, by which it was rendered sacred and inviolable. The banner, thus blessed, was forwarded to William by Lanfranc with great care.

It was accompanied by the ring. The ring was of gold, and it contained a diamond of great value. The gold and the diamond both, however, served only as settings to preserve and honor something of far greater value than they. This choice treasure was a hair from the head of the Apostle Peter! a sacred relic of miraculous virtue and of inestimable value.

When the edict with its leaden seal, and the banner and the ring arrived in Normandy, they produced a great and universal excitement. To have bestowed upon the enterprise thus emphatically the solemn sanction of the great spiritual head of the Church, to whom the great mass of the people looked up with an awe and a reverence almost divine, was to seal indissolubly the rightfulness of the enterprise, and to insure its success. There was thenceforward no difficulty in procuring men or means. Every body was eager to share in the glory, and to obtain the rewards, of an enterprise thus commended by an authority duly commissioned to express, in all such cases, the judgment of Heaven.

Finding that the current was thus fairly setting in his favor, William sent proclamations into all the countries surrounding Normandy, inviting knights, and soldiers, and adventurers of every degree to join him in his projected enterprise. These proclamations awakened universal attention. Great numbers of adventurous men determined to enter William's service. Horses, arms, and accoutrements were every where in great demand. The invasion of England and the question of joining it were the universal topics of conversation. The roads were covered with knights and soldiers, some on horseback and alone, others in bands, large or small, all proceeding to Normandy to tender their services. William received them all, and made liberal promises to bestow rewards and honors upon them in England, in the event of him success. To some he offered pay in money; to others, booty; to others, office and power. Every one had his price. Even the priests and dignitaries of the Church shared the general enthusiasm. One of them furnished a ship and twenty armed men, under an agreement to be appointed bishop of a certain valuable English diocese when William should be established on his throne.

While all these movements were going on in the interior of the country, all the sea-ports and towns along the coast of Normandy presented a very busy scene of naval preparation. Naval architects were employed in great numbers in building and fitting out vessels. Some were constructed and furnished for the transportation of men, others for conveying provisions and munitions of war; and lighters and boats were built for ascending the rivers, and for aiding in landing troops upon shelving shores. Smiths and armorers were occupied incessantly in manufacturing spears, and swords, and coats of mail; while vast numbers of laboring men and beasts of burden were employed in conveying arms and materials to and from the manufactories to the ships, and from one point of embarkation to another.

As soon as William had put all these busy agencies thus in successful operation, he considered that there was one more point which it was necessary for him to secure before finally embarking, and that was the co-operation and aid of the French king, whose name at this time was Philip. In his character of Duke of Normandy the King of France was his liege lord, and he was bound to act, in some degree, under an acknowledgment of his superior authority. In his new capacity, that is, as King of England, or, rather, as heir to the English kingdom, he was, of course, wholly independent of Philip, and, consequently, not bound by any feudal obligation to look to him at all. He thought it most prudent, however, to attempt, at least, to conciliate Philip's favor, and, accordingly, leaving his officers and his workmen to go on with the work of organizing his army and of building and equipping the fleet, he set off, himself, on an expedition to the court of the French king. He thought it safer to undertake this delicate mission himself, rather than to intrust it to an embassador or deputy.

He found Philip at his palace of St. Germain's, which was situated at a short distance from Paris. The duke assumed, in his interview with the king, a very respectful and deferential air and manner. Philip was a very young man, though haughty and vain. William as very much his superior, not only in age and experience, but in talents and character, and in personal renown. Still, he approached the monarch with all the respectful observance due from a vassal to his sovereign, made known his plans, and asked for Philip's approbation and aid. He was willing, he said, in case that aid was afforded him, to hold his kingdom of England, as he had done the duchy of Normandy, as a dependency of the French crown.

Philip seemed not at all disposed to look upon the project with favor. He asked William who was going to take care of his duchy while he was running off after a kingdom. William replied, at first, that that was a subject which he did not think his neighbors need concern themselves about. Then thinking, on reflection, that a more respectful answer would be more politic, under the circumstances of the case, he added, that he was providentially blessed with a prudent wife and loving subjects, and that he thought he might safely leave his domestic affairs in their hands until he should return. Philip still opposed the plan. It was Quixotic, he said, and dangerous. He strongly advised William to abandon the scheme, and be content with his present possessions. Such desperate schemes of ambition as those he was contemplating would only involve him in ruin.

Before absolutely deciding the case, however, Philip called a council of his great nobles and officers of state, and laid William's proposals before them. The result of their deliberations was to confirm Philip in his first decision. They said that the rendering to William the aid which he desired would involve great expense, and be attended with great danger; and as to William's promises to hold England as a vassal of the King of France, they had no faith in the performance of them. It had been very difficult, they said, for many years, for the kings of France to maintain any effectual authority over the dukes of Normandy, and when once master of so distant and powerful a realm as England, all control over them would be sundered forever.

Philip then gave William his final answer in accordance with these counsels. The answer was received, on William's part, with strong feelings of disappointment and displeasure. Philip conducted the duke to his retinue when the hour of departure arrived, in order to soothe, as air as possible, his irritated feelings, by dismissing him from his court with marks of his honorable consideration and regard. William, however, was not in a mood to be pleased. He told Philip, on taking leave of him, that he was losing the most powerful vassal that any lord sovereign ever had, by the course which he had decided to pursue. "I would have held the whole realm of England as a part of your dominions, acknowledging you as sovereign over all, if you had consented to render me your aid, but I will not do it since you refuse. I shall feel bound to repay only those who assist me."

William returned to Normandy, where all the preparations for the expedition had been going on with great vigor during his absence, and proceeded to make arrangements for the last great measure which it was necessary to take previous to his departure; that was, the regular constitution of a government to rule in Normandy while he should be gone. He determined to leave the supreme power in the hands of his wife Matilda, appointing, at the same time, a number of civil and military officers as a council of regency, who were to assist her in her deliberations by giving her information and advice, and to manage, under her direction, the different departments of the government. Her title was "Duchess Regent," and she was installed into her office in a public and solemn manner, at a great assembly of the estates of the realm. At the close of the ceremonies, after William had given Matilda his charge, he closed his address by adding, "And do not let us fail to enjoy the benefit of your prayers, and those of all the ladies of your court, that the blessing of God may attend us, and secure the success of our expedition."

We are not necessarily to suppose, as we might at first be strongly inclined to do, that there was any special hypocrisy and pretense in William's thus professing to rely on the protection of Heaven in the personal and political dangers which he was about to incur. It is probable that he honestly believed that the inheritance of the English crown was his right, and, that being the case, that a vigorous and effort to enforce his right was a solemn duty. In the present age of the world, now that there are so many countries in which intelligence, industry, and love of order are so extensively diffused that the mass of the community are capable of organizing and administering a government themselves, republicans are apt to look upon hereditary sovereigns as despots, ruling only for the purpose of promoting their own aggrandizement, and the ends of an unholy and selfish ambition. That there have been a great many such despots no one can deny; but then, on the other hand, there have been many others who have acted, in a greater or less degree, under the influence of principles of duty in their political career. They have honestly believed that the vast power with which, in coming forward into life, they have found themselves invested, without, in most cases, any agency of their own, was a trust imposed upon them by divine Providence, which could not innocently be laid aside; that on them devolved the protection of the communities over which they ruled from external hostility, and the preservation of peace and order within, and the promotion of the general industry and welfare, as an imperious and solemn duty; and they have devoted their lives to the performance of this duty, with the usual mixture, it is true, of ambition and selfishness, but still, after all, with as much conscientiousness and honesty as the mass of men in the humbler walks of life evince in performing theirs. William of Normandy appears to have been one of this latter class; and in obeying the dictates of his ambition in seeking to gain possession of the English crown, he no doubt considered himself as fulfilling the obligations of duty too.

However this may be, he went on with his preparations in the most vigorous and prosperous manner. The whole country were enthusiastic in the cause; and their belief that the enterprise about to be undertaken had unquestionably secured the favor of Heaven, was confirmed by an extraordinary phenomenon which occurred just before the armament was ready to set sail. A comet appeared in the sky, which, as close observers declared, had a double tail. It was universally agreed that this portended that England and Normandy were about to be combined, and to form a double kingdom, which should exhibit to all mankind a wonderful spectacle of splendor.