Historic Boys - E. S. Brooks

William of Normandy: the Boy Knight

(Afterward William the Conqueror, King of England.)
[A. D. 1040]

It was a time of struggle in France. King and barons, lords and vassals, were warring against each other for the mastery. Castles were besieged, cities sacked, and fertile fields laid waste; and in that northern section of France known as the Duchy of Normandy the clash and crush of conflict raged the fiercest around the person of one brave-hearted but sorely troubled little man of twelve—William, Lord of Rouen, of the Hiesmos and of Falaise, and Duke of Normandy.

Left an orphan at eight by the death of his famous father—whom men called Robert the Magnificent before his face and Robert the Devil behind his back—the boyhood of the young duke had been full of danger and distress. And now in his gloomy castle at Rouen—which his great-grandfather, Richard the Fearless, had built nearly a hundred years before—new trouble threatened him, as word came that King Henry of France, the "suzerain," or overlord of Normandy, deeming his authority not sufficiently honored in his Norman fief, had invaded the boy's territories, and with a strong force was besieging the border castle of Tillieres, scarce fifty miles to the south.

The beleaguering hosts of France swarmed round the strong-walled castle, and the herald of France demanded entrance. In the audience-hall the warden of the marches, or borders of Normandy, received him.

"Gilbert of Crispin," said the herald, "thy master and suzerain, King Henry of France, demands from thee the keys and possession of this his fortress of Tillieres, granting therefore, to thee and thy followers, pardon and safe conduct. But and if thou failest, then will he raze these walls to the ground, and give to thee and thy followers the sure and speedy death of traitors."

Bluff old Gilbert of Crispin, with scarcely restrained rage, made instant answer:

"Sir herald," he said, "tell thy master, the King of France, that Gilbert of Crispin defies and scorns him, and that he will hold this castle of Tillieres for his liege and suzerain, Duke William of Normandy, though all the carrion kites of France should flap their wings above it."

Defiance begets defiance, and both besiegers and besieged prepared for a stubborn conflict. Suddenly the watcher from the donjon spied a flurry of dust toward the north, out of the distance came hurrying forms, then the sun played on shield and lance and banneret, and the joyful shout of the watchman in the tower rang out: Rescue! rescue and succor from our Duke!

A band of knights rode from the French camp to intercept the new-comers. Then came a halt and parley, and just as doughty Gilbert of Crispin was preparing a sally for the support of his friends the parley ceased, the Norman knights rode straight to the castle, and a loud trumpet-peal summoned the warder to the gates. "Open; open in the name of the Duke!" came the command.

The ponderous drawbridge slowly fell, the grim portcullis rose with creak and rattle, the great gate swung open wide, and into the castle yard rode Duke William himself.

A handsome, ruddy, stalwart lad of twelve; old-looking for his years, and showing, even then, in muscle and in face, the effect of his stormy boyhood. An open, manly brow, wavy chestnut hair, and a face that told of thoughtful purpose and a strong will.

"Good Crispin," said the boy duke as his faithful liege-man came forward to greet him, "suffer me to have my will. 'Tis wiser to fly your hawk at a stag-royal than a fox. Henry of France may be fair or false to us of Normandy but 'tis safer in these troublous times to have him as friend rather than foe. You, in whose charge my father Duke Robert left me years ago, know well how when scarce seven years old I placed my hands between this same King Henry's and swore to be his man. I will be true to my fealty vows hap what may, and though it cometh hard to your stout Norman heart to give up without a blow what you are so loyal to defend, suffer me, as your suzerain, to give up this my fortress to my overlord. Trust me 'twill be best for Normandy and for your duke."

Gilbert of Crispin grumbled and chafed at the command of his young lord, but he obeyed, and the castle which he had hoped to defend was handed over to King Henry as hostage for Normandy's faith.

And when the crafty king, who as the boy duke had wisely said was fox rather than stag-royal, was safely in possession he said, with all the stately courtesy he could assume when occasion served: "Fair Cousin William, so loyal and loving a concession as is this of thine, at a time when blows were far easier to give, merits more from me than thanks. The fealty of vassal to suzerain is well, but so fair a deed as this of thine is the height of knightly valor. And where such knightly valor cloth live the knightly spurs should follow. Kneel before thy lord!"

William the Conqueror


And as the boy knelt bareheaded before him King Henry with drawn sword gave him the accolade—three smart taps with the flat of the sword on the shoulder and one with the palm of the hand on the check. Then said the king: "William of Normandy, in the name of God, St. Michael, and St. George, I dub thee knight. Be valiant, bold, and loyal. Speak the truth; maintain the right; protect the defenceless; succor the distressed; champion the ladies; vindicate thy knightly character, and prove thy knightly bravery and endurance by perilous adventures and valorous deeds. Fear God, fight for the faith, and serve thy suzerain and thy fatherland faithfully and valiantly."

So Duke William was made a knight at the earliest age at which knighthood was conferred. And he rode back to his castle at Rouen; and both there and at his neighboring castle of Vaudreuil, farther down the valley of the Seine, it was a day of pleasure and feasting for vassals and retainers when the boy knight first donned his armor and sprang to his saddle without aid of stirrup—"so tall, so manly in face, and so proud of bearing," says the old record, "that it was a sight both pleasant and terrible to see him guiding his horse's career, flashing with his sword, gleaming with his shield, and threatening with his casque and lance."

But soon, boy though he was, he had terrible work to do. Rebellion was abroad in his realm, and King Henry's foxy qualities were shown when, spite of his promises, he still farther invaded the Norman land, and gave support to the boy's rebellious subjects. And, worse still, as if to heap additional insult on his young life, Thurstan Goz, charged with the defence of a portion of the Norman borders, rose in open rebellion and garrisoned with recreant Normans and purchased Frenchmen the castle of Falaise—not only the birthplace, but the favorite castle of the boy duke,—insolently declaring that if the lad dared attempt its release that he, Thurstan the rebel, had a plenty of raw hides with which to "tan the tanner."

Frequent dangers and distresses had taught the boy to curb his sometimes fiery temper. But this special insult was past all endurance, and even his self-control was lost in indignation.

Scarce had the courserman, who had sped with the news to the duke's castle at Rouen, delivered his message than the boy flamed with rage, and turning to his guardian, Ralph of Wacey, captain-general of the armies of Normandy, he cried:

"Good cousin, this is not to be borne. I have done King Henry's will, and been faithful to my fealty vows, but this passeth even my bent. Fling out our standard. Summon every loyal Norman to our aid—knight and archer and cross-bowman. Cry 'Maslon!'  and 'Dix aie!'  and let us straight against this dastard rebel at Falaise."

Quick to act whenever the need arose, the boy duke was soon leading his army of loyal Normans against the massive castle in which he first saw the light.

castle at rouen


From one of those very turret windows which to-day still look down from this old castle on the cliffs upon the lovely valley or glen of the Ante, where Norman peasant women still wash their clothes as they did in Duke William's day, the recreant Thurstan saw the banners of the approaching host, and laughed grimly to think how he had outwitted the boy, and how those steep cliffs, or felsens  (which give the place its name of Falaise), could never be scaled by the armor-encased troops of his young lord.

But Thurstan reckoned without his host. Friendship is an even better ally than battering-rams and scaling-ladders. Duke William had played as a little child in this very town and castle of Falaise, and not a Norman peasant girl but loved and petted him, not a Norman peasant lad but was proud of the daring and muscle of the brave young duke. At one of those very washing booths in which it was said Duke Robert first saw and loved the beautiful Herleva, the tanner's daughter, a peasant girl, pounding her wash on the sloping board, saw across the treeless slopes the advancing banners of the duke. The clothes were left unpounded, and speeding to the little town, she told her news; the loyal men of Falaise flocked to meet their duke, the gates of the town were opened to him, and from the most accessible side the Norman host advanced to the assault of the massive castle walls.

Spurred on to fresh energy and immediate action by the loyalty of his townsmen and the sight of the rebel standard floating from the walls of his own castle, the boy knight led the assault upon the outworks, and proved in this, his first deed of arms, the truth of his biographer, that he was one who "knew when to strike and how to strike." Catapult and balista, battering-ram and arbalast, cloth-yard shaft and javelin did their work, a breach was made in the walls, and only the darkness put a stop to the assault.

Then, spent with the conflict and fearful as to the result, Thurstan saw that rebellion against this determined boy was no child's play, and with his haughty spirit considerably humbled he sought an audience with the duke and craved pardon and easy terms of surrender.

No boy of thirteen, even in this refined and enlightened nineteenth century, can refrain from "crowing" over a defeated antagonist. It is human nature and boy-nature especially. What then must it have been in those cruel and vindictive days eight hundred years ago, when every man's hand was ready to strike, and every victor's sword was quick to destroy. But see how in even an ignoble age the manly boy can still be noble.

"Thurstan Goz," said the duke, "that you have warred against me I can forgive; that you have disgraced this the dearest estate of Duke Robert, my father, and of me his son, I can also forgive. But that you should forfeit your vows of fealty and rebelliously conspire against this your homeland of Normandy I can never forgive. I give you your life. Depart in peace. But, as you hope for life, never show yourself in this our realm again. You are banished from Normandy forever!"

The boyhood of William of Normandy seems to have been full of just such evidences as this of his love of justice, his kind-heartedness, his moral and physical courage—qualities which even in these days of universal education and grander opportunities would stamp a boy as noble and manly, and which were especially remarkable in that age of narrower views and universal ignorance, when even this just and wise boy prince could simply make a rude cross as his ducal signature.

So desirous was he for peace and quietness in his realm that, boy though he was, he stood among the foremost advocates of the measure by which the Church sought to limit crime and violence and bloodshed, by instituting what was know as the "Truce of God," and by the terms of which all men agreed to abstain from violent deeds (except in cases of actual warfare) from the night of Wednesday to the following Monday morning in each week.

All of William's biographers, however they criticise his later acts, unite in speaking of the excellences of his boyhood: of his wisdom in the choice of counsellors, and his willingness to listen to and follow their advice; of his personal goodness in an age of widespread viciousness; of his grace and skill in athletic sports and warlike exercises, and his expertness beyond all his companions in the excitements and successes of the chase.

Of this last-named pastime he was passionately fond, even from early boyhood, and few excelled him, either in the eagerness with which he followed the game, or the skill which he displayed in the hunt.

This thought came also to the two mail-clad watchers who, shielded from view by a group of large trees, looked with interest upon a youthful hunter, who, in one of the glades that broke the great stretch of forest near to beautiful Valognes, sped his cloth-yard shaft from his mighty long-bow of English yew, and sent it whizzing full four hundred feet, straight to the heart of a bounding buck that dashed across the glade scarce forty yards from the ambushed watchers.

"By the mass, a wondrous hit!" exclaimed the older knight. "Why, man, he drew that shaft from hocking-point to pile. I would have sworn that mortal man—let alone a lad like that—could not have drawn such a bow, or sped so true a shaft."

"There is but one lad that can do it in all Normandy, and that is yonder hunter," said the younger knight enthusiastic in spite of himself. "Hast thou not known that none but Duke William can bend Duke William's bow—a murrain on him too!"

"So, is it our quarry—is it the duke, say'st thou?" hurriedly asked the older knight. "Then the saints keep me out of range of his shaft. Draw off, he comes this way "; and grizzled Grimald de Plessis, the Saxon baron, drew still farther behind the tree-trunks as the young duke and his only companion, Golet, his merryman or fool, dashed across the glade to where the stricken stag lay dead.

But his companion, young Guy of Burgundy, fingered his light cross-bow nervously. "Ten thousand curses on this coward Truce!" he exclaimed beneath his breath as the duke, all unconscious of his danger, hurried past the ambush. "But for that I might even now speed my shaft and wing the tanner where he stoops above his game. Did'st ever see a fairer chance?"

But wary De Plessis caught the lad's uplifted arm. "Have down thy hand and bethink thee of that same Truce," he said. "'T is a wise restriction on your wayward wits, my lord count. The duke's men are much too nigh at hand to make such a bow-shot safe even for thee, and to-morrow's venture which we have in hand may be made without breaking this tyrant Truce or braving the ban of Holy Church. I would have a score of good men at my back ere I try to wing so stout a bird as he," and De Plessis and the hot-headed Guy withdrew from their dangerous ambush, while the duke, calling in his lagging followers, turned over his prize to his huntsmen and rode on to his castle.

"To-morrow's venture," of which the Saxon baron spoke, was to be the sorriest chance that had yet happened to the brave young duke. For this very Guy of Burgundy, cousin and comrade to William since his earliest days, brought up in his court, and beholden to him for many favors, and even for his knighthood, had—moved by jealousy—conspired with the foremost barons of Western Normandy to put the young duke to death. That very next night was the attempt to be made here in the duke's own castle of Valognes, away up in the north-western corner of France, some fifteen miles or so to the south of Cherbourg town—the modern naval and ship-building city, off which the Kearsarge  and the Alabama  had their famous sea-fight in the recent days of our own great rebellion—June 19, 1864.

But a well-known poet has told us that

"The best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft a-gley,"

and this even the over-confident conspirators discovered. For, before they could reach the castle on the night appointed, Golet, the duke's faithful fool, had fathomed their plans, and with fleetest foot dashed into the castle and up the narrow stairway to the bedchamber of the sleeping duke.

Bang, bang, bang, came a noisy pounding on the closed door, rousing the lad, sorely tired from his day's hunting. Again and again the pel, or jester's staff, clamored against the door, and now the fully aroused duke caught his faithful servant's words:

"Up, up, my lord duke! Open, open! Where art thou, Duke William? Wherefore dost thou sleep? Flee, flee, or thou art a dead man! Up, up, I say! All are armed; all are marshalled; and if they capture thee, never, never wilt thou again see the light of day!"

So earnest a warning was not calculated to allow even the most tired of huntsmen to sleep. William sprang from his bed, and with nothing but a capa, or short, hooded cloak thrown over his half-clad body, without even clapping on his inseparable spurs, he leaped to his horse and rode for his life. All unattended he galloped through the night, fording now the shallow Doure and now the ebbing Vire, stopping for one short prayer for safety at the shrine of St. Clement, near Isigny, and speeding along the unfrequented road between Bayeux and the sea, until just before sunrise he galloped into the little hamlet of Rie or Rye, close to the shore. Foam-flecked and mud-bespattered, his flagging horse dashed past the manoir  or castle of the lord of the hamlet whose name was Hubert.

The old Norman was an early riser, and was standing at his castle gate sniffing the morning air. His ear caught the sound of hoofs, and as the lad galloped up, the stout old baron rubbed his eyes in surprise to see his sovereign in such sorry plight.

"So, hollo, my lord duke," he cried; "what taketh thee abroad in this guise so early? Is aught of danger afoot?"

"Hubert," said the duke, "dare I trust thee?"

"And why not," was the reply. "Have I ever played thee false? Speak, and speak boldly."

Then William told his story, and without a moment's hesitation the loyal baron hurried his early guest into the castle, summoned his three sons, gave the lad a fresh horse, and said to his boys: "Mount, and mount quickly. Behold your lord in dire stress. Leave him not till you have lodged him safely in Falaise."

He bade them God-speed and hurried them off none too soon, for scarce had the sounds of their horses' hoofs died away before the duke's pursuers came riding hard behind. And Hubert, apparently as good a conspirator as any of them, sent them on a wild-goose chase over the wrong road, while the boy duke, with his faithful escort of Hubert's sons, crossed the ford of Folpendant and reached Falaise at last in safety—in not a very presentable condition after his hard all-night ride for his life, but, says the old record, "what mattered that so that he was safe?"

Such a break-neck race with death could have but one result. The young duke realized at last the fierceness and relentlessness of his rivals and enemies, and, sorrowing most of all at the treachery of the lad who had been his playmate and comrade in arms in mimic fight and serious quarrel, at the chase and in the tourney, he turned reluctantly for succor to the only man to whom he might rightly look for aid—his liege lord and suzerain, Henry, King of France.

castle at falaise


That crafty and unscrupulous king, whose relations with his boy vassal had been one continual game of "fast and loose," as desire dictated or opportunity served, gave a secret chuckle of joy as Duke William and his slender escort of knights and men-at-arms rode into the palace yard at Poissy, only a few miles northwest of modern Versailles. And when at last he saw the youth an actual suppliant at his throne his thought was: "Ah ha! Duke William and Normandy are in my power at last."

But King Henry's lips seldom spoke his thoughts.

"Cousin of Normandy," he said, "you have done well and wisely to pray my aid against your rebel barons and this wicked boy of Burgundy. To whom else should you turn but to the overlord to whom your great father, Duke Robert, confided you as a sacred trust years ago?"

The lad might justly have inquired how King Henry had kept the trust his father had confided in him. But he only said:

"'T is not for me but for my father's duchy that I plead. The very life of Normandy is in jeopardy, my liege."

"And right valiantly will we relieve it, lad," the king exclaimed. "Send out your rallying-call. Summon your loyal vassals. Join force and arm with me, and the banners of France and Normandy shall wave above conquered rebels and a victorious field."

Action quickly succeeded words. An army was speedily raised. The loyal Normans of the eastern counties hurried to the standard of their young lord, and at the head of a combined French and Norman force, king and duke, in the summer of the year 1047, confronted the rebel knights under Guy of Burgundy, Grimbald de Plessis, Neel of St. Savior, and Randolf of Bayeux, on the open slopes of Val-es-dunes, or the valley of the sand-hills, not far from the town of Caen, and almost within sight of the English Channel.

Duke William led the left wing and King Henry the right. There was a shouting of battle-cries—the Dix aie  of the loyal Normans and the Montjoye-St. Denys  of France mingling with St. Savior  and St. Armand  from the rebel ranks. Then, as in a great tournament, horse and rider, shield, sword, and lance closed in desperate combat. It was a battle of the knights. King Henry went down twice beneath the thrust of Norman lances, but was on his horse again fighting valiantly in his vassal's cause, and Duke William, in this his first pitched battle, by a day of mingled courage, good fortune, prowess, and personal success, laid the basis of that wonderful career that filled his daring and victorious future, and fitted him to bear the proud though bloody title of the Conqueror. Hand to hand, not with lance but with sword, he vanquished in open conflict the champion of the rebel knights, Hardrez of Bayeux, and ere darkness fell his enemies were vanquished and in desperate flight for life, and his power as Duke of Normandy was established finally and forever.

Great in his victory the boy knight was greater still in his generous treatment of the conquered rebels. Only one, Grimbald de Plessis, who had been the prime mover in the treason, suffered imprisonment and death. All were pardoned, and young Guy of Burgundy, like the coward he seems to have been, slipped sullenly away rather than face his generous rival and old-time playfellow, and in his distant court of Burgundy spent his after years in unsuccessful plots against his always successful rival.

And here our story of the boy William end. Conqueror at Val-es-dunes, when yet scarcely nineteen, his course from that time on through his busy manhood, was one of unvarying success in battle and in statecraft. The wonderful victory at Senlac, or Hastings, which, on the 14th of October, 1066, gave him the throne of England, and made him both king and conqueror, has placed his name in the foremost rank of the military heroes of the world. From this point his story is known to all. It is a part of the history of our race. It is, indeed, as Palgrave the historian says:

"Magnificent was William's destiny. Can we avoid accepting him as the Founder of the predominating empire now existing in the civilized world? Never does the sun set upon the regions where the British banner is unfurled. Nay, the Stars and Stripes of the Transatlantic Republic would never have been hoisted, nor the Ganges flow as a British stream, but for Norman William's gauntleted hand."

William the Conqueror


Eight hundred years of progress have removed us far from the savagery of Duke William's day. The nations of the world are, each year, less and less ready to fly at each other's throats like "dogs of war," whenever any thing goes wrong or their "angry passions rise." The desires of to-day are largely in the direction of universal peace and brotherhood. But still we honor valor and courage and knightly and noble deeds. And though, as we study the record of that remarkable life that so changed the history of the world eight centuries back, we can see faults and vices, shortcomings and crimes even, in the stirring life of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England, still, as we look upon his spirited statue that now stands in the market-place of Falaise, almost beneath the ruined walls of the grim old castle in which he was born, and which he stormed and carried when a boy of scarce fourteen, our thoughts go back to his stormy and turbulent boyhood. And, as we do so, we see, not the Conqueror of England, the enslaver of the Saxons, the iron-handed tyrant of the Curfew-bell and the Doomsday-book, but the manly, courageous, true-hearted, perplexed, and persecuted little fellow of the old Norman days, when, spite of trouble and turmoil, he kept his heart brave, and true, and pure, and was in all things the real boy knight—in those fresh and generous days of youth, when, as Mr. Freeman, the brilliant historian of the Norman Conquest, says: "He shone forth before all men as the very model of every princely virtue."