In the Days of William the Conqueror - E. M. Tappan

On Board the "Mora"

Two years later, on January 5, 1066, King Edward died. That same day saw the meeting of the council to name his successor. The choice was soon made, but not without free discussion.

"I give my word for the crowning of Edgar," said one gray-haired councillor.

"Edgar is but a child," said many voices.

"He is of the royal blood," said the old man. "Never has England of her own free will bestowed her crown upon one who was not of the house of Cerdic."

"Shall a few drops of blood in the veins of a child count for more than the valor in the heart of the man who has been the real sovereign of England for more than ten years?" said another councillor. "There is no one else in the land—or out of it," he added, with a withering glance at a little group of men who were suspected of being Norman in their sympathies—"there is no one else whom the people of England love and admire and trust as they do Earl Harold of Wessex, and I give my voice for him as the successor of our holy King Edward."

"And yet it is said in Normandy that many years ago the holy king gave his word that the Duke of Normandy should be his successor," said the boldest of the little group in the farther corner.

"Have the Normans who have come to our land been so true and upright that we should trust even an unproven rumor of their country?" retorted a knight fiercely.

"No king can bequeath his crown," said another councillor gravely; "that is the gift of the people; and, moreover, this is, as you say, but a rumor, while we know by the testimony of many witnesses that the king in the last hour of his life recommended Harold as his successor."

"Holy men at the hour of death have often new vision and strange powers of prophecy," said the abbot of a great convent. "It is not well to pass lightly by what men see who see more than men can see." The vote was taken, and Harold was elected with hardly a dissenting voice. Two great chieftains bore to him the slender golden crown from the chamber of the dead king.

For a moment Harold hesitated. His wise use of his abilities had raised him to the highest position in the land; it was a time to be proud. But was it all his wisdom, was it not the course of events? Would not another man with his opportunities have done even more? it was a time to be humble. And in the doorway stood the two nobles with the golden circle which he had solemnly promised to give to another man. It was a forced oath—no, it was not, his word was his own; he had chosen, a hard choice, but he had chosen. He would refuse and say boldly, "Come what may, I will not live a man forsworn. I cannot be your king." What freedom that would be! But the councillors were speaking:—

"We bring the crown of England from the chamber of King Edward. We are come to say that it is the will of the council that you, Harold, Earl of Wessex, should be our king. Do you accept the crown?"

"The will of the council." That was the way of escape. He had no more right to refuse the crown than a king had to give it away. He was but a tool, a weapon of the people. Should the sword say, "Why choose me? I will not be chosen." So said Harold to himself. Again he yielded, and as he had once said, "I will promise," so he now said, "I will be your king."

The times were too full of danger for a land to remain for a single day without a lawful sovereign. Before the next nightfall, Westminster Abbey had seen the burial of Edward and the coronation of Harold.

William of Normandy was hunting in the forest near Rouen. He had bent the bow which no other man had strength to bend, and he had taken aim at a deer, when from behind him came a voice, "My lord!" The arrow flew wide, and the deer sprang away.

"How dare you?" said William, turning upon the man fiercely. "I have forgiven rebellious vassals, but I never yet forgave a man who spoiled a shot like that."

"Pardon, my lord," said the man who had spoken. "I have a message for you from one over the water. Edward has ended his life, and Earl Harold is raised to the kingdom." William turned deadly pale. His bow fell to the ground. He laced and unlaced his mantle. Then without a word he strode to the bank of the Seine and motioned to his boatman to row him across. He went up the hill to his castle and entered the great hall. He looked to one side, then to the other. He dropped upon a bench, and with his mantle thrown over his face sat leaning against a pillar. The men in the hall withdrew silently into little groups.

On the hunt with William had been one William Fitz-Osbern, son of the faithful guardian whose death had once saved the life of the duke. He alone ventured to speak to his master.

"Duke William," said he, "this is no secret. Every street in Rouen is ablaze with the news. This is no time to mourn that Edward is dead or that Harold is forsworn. This is the time to cross the water and seize the kingdom that is your own."

William straightway sent an embassy to Harold, demanding the keeping of his oath. Harold replied that it was better to break a bad oath than to keep it; and that in any case the crown was not for him to give, but for the nation. It was plain that to win the kingdom William must fight for it. He appealed to his vassals.

"Many years ago," he said, "the English crown was promised to me by King Edward, and this was right, for I am his lawful heir. When Edward had become a feeble old man, Harold usurped his power and turned the English people as he would. Harold belongs to an accursed race, for to his father is laid the savage murder of Alfred. In your very presence he swore on the relics of the saints that he would uphold my right—not my right, but that of Normandy, for Alfred was supported by Norman arms, and the relics were those of the greatest saints of our land. He and his father together drove the Normans from England. Shall we not avenge the wrongs of our own countrymen?"

Lanfranc, who had won the Pope's confirmation of William's marriage, was ready to place his keen intellect at the service of the duke, and now an appeal was made to Rome. To the Pope the matter was put as a missionary undertaking. William was going to England, it seemed, to punish a usurper and a man forsworn, a man who had not only stolen a kingdom, but who had insulted the saints, whose good deeds were the most cherished possession of the church. Would the Father of the Church judge between them? The Pope decided in favor of William, and sent him a consecrated banner and a ring containing a sacred relic.

While the embassy was in Rome, William called together his vassals at Lillebonne and asked their aid. He could not command it, for a vassal was not bound to cross the sea with his lord. They were not enthusiastic.

"England is rich," said one, "and Harold can engage even kings and dukes to fight for him."

"Yes," said another, "we cannot win; and if we attempt it, we shall only ruin our own Normandy."

"I would gladly follow you over land and sea," said one, "but I am poor; I cannot furnish ships or even arm my men as they should be armed for such an attempt."

"Harold will grow stronger every day," said a noble. "Whatever is done should be done at once; but England has a great fleet and well-trained sailors. More than one year, more than two years, would it take us to prepare ships to meet it." Then came forward bold William Fitz-Osbern.

"You have fought for the duke," said he, "but has he done nothing for you? You owe him service for your feoffs; and what matters it whether you fight on one side of the water or the other? The ground is the same. Shame on the faithless vassal whose chief must beg for his obedience. There is something more," he added. "You know the temper of the duke. Is he one to yield? Has he ever yielded? If you refuse him now, what do you think the end will be? He is angry. He has left your assembly. Shall I beg him to return?"

Even the boldest of the barons were alarmed. They did, indeed, know William's temper. "Speak to him for us," they said to Fitz-Osbern.

Fitz-Osbern spoke, but in accordance with his own wishes, and without the least regard to those of the barons.

"Your barons have such zeal in your service and such affection for you," he said, "that they will gladly meet all danger into which you may lead them." The barons looked at Fitz-Osbern angrily and motioned him to stop, but William sat by with stern, lowering face, and they were silent. Fitz-Osbern went on:—

"To punish the wicked usurper, the scorner of Norman arms, the insulter of Norman saints, I will furnish sixty ships, well filled with fighting men; and every man here will agree to furnish not the number of men to which he is bound, but twice that number."

Then the wrath of the barons broke out. There was no attempt to keep order. The hall was full of angry, shouting men, each struggling to be heard. Now was William's time. He was no longer the stern ruler, but the fascinating pleader; and when William chose to persuade rather than to demand, few could resist him. One by one they yielded.

This expedition was setting out to avenge a broken oath and an insult to religion. The Pope had blessed the enterprise. The ships would sail under the banner of the church. This was more profitable than a pilgrimage. A man might gain the good-will of the powerful ruler of Normandy, who would perhaps be king of England; he might have a reasonable hope of winning land and gold; and he might be working for the good of his soul, all at the same time. So advantageous a bargain as that was seldom offered. No wonder that soldiers came from near and from far. No wonder that all the seaport towns were building ships, and that all the inland towns were forging armor. Night and day the anvils rang and the hammers beat.

As has been said before, there was always danger in a sovereign's leaving his country, if only for a short time. As far as possible, William must secure the friendliness of the surrounding districts. As a vassal of France, he went to Philip, son of Henry, to offer him a share in the conquest of England. Philip and his councillors had already discussed this project of William's, and they were prepared to oppose it. "Normandy," said they, "is so independent as it is that her vassalage is only a name. Let her win England, and it will not be even that." So when William came to Philip and said:—

"I come to you as my suzerain to ask if you will assist me to gain my rights in England and to punish a usurper. If you will help me, I promise to hold England, as I do Normandy, as a feoff of the kingdom of France." Then the young Philip replied rather pertly, inasmuch as he was speaking to a man much older than himself and the greatest military commander in Europe:—

"And who will care for your duchy while you are trying to gain these rights of yours across the sea?" William looked down upon the young fellow before him and answered:—

"That is a matter which need not trouble my neighbors, for God has given me a prudent wife and loving subjects, and together they will care for my duchy."

William then invited his wife's brother-in-law to join with him, but young Baldwin asked first what he would gain by it. William never could pass by the opportunity for a jest, and even in this hurried time he stopped to fold a blank parchment into the shape of a royal missive, sealed it with the ducal seal, and on the outside he wrote:—

"Brother-in-law, in England you'll win

Just as much as you find within."

Afterward, however, he made generous promises to Matilda's relatives for their aid.

The last thing before setting out to join his forces, William solemnly appointed Matilda ruler of Normandy during his absence; and that in case of his death his son Robert, a boy of twelve or thirteen, might be already in power, he put him in nominal command of the military forces of the duchy. There was a great assemblage of the chief men of Normandy when Matilda was formally declared "Duchess Regent," and at the end of the ceremony William said earnestly:—

"We beg that you and the ladies of your court will give us your prayers that the blessing of God may go with us and may give us success."

At the mouth of the Dive, not so very far from the ford of Varaville, whence King Henry and his men had begun their wild flight from the land of the Normans, assembled the ships, seven hundred, one chronicler puts it; three thousand and more, others say. Ships came and men came, grave and dignified barons and wild, turbulent young adventurers; no easy horde to keep in order, but the duke was able to control the power that he had aroused. Plunder was forbidden, and the rule against it was enforced. The cattle and the cornfield of the peasant were untouched.

So strict was the order maintained that a man who had hoped to make his way through the camp by his Norman dress and his knowledge of the Norman tongue, was captured at once and brought before the duke. He was an English spy, but William received him like a guest, treated him courteously, and finally sent him away with a message to Harold. "Tell your lord," said he, "to go where he thinks himself safest, and if he does not meet me there before the year ends, then need he never fear me while he lives."

Harold had some reason to be comforted by the message, for day after day passed, and still the fleet was weather-bound at the mouth of the Dive. September came. The north wind blew and the rain fell and the surf pounded on the shore. No ship could go to sea in safety, and for one long month the whole fleet waited impatiently for the south wind that should speed the vessels on their way to England.

Not only did the south wind fail, but provisions began to be scarce. It was easier to move the fleet than to bring food; and so, at the first breath of the west wind, William took the ships to Ponthieu, and anchored off the mouth of the river Somme. Still the south wind refused to blow. The soldiers murmured.

"Where are the fertile lands that this great conqueror promised?" said one.

"Here is land enough," said another, "I want to get out on the water;" and one who had been gazing out over the sea turned and said:—

"The terrible comet that swept through the sky, we thought that it meant ruin to England, but it is borne in upon my mind that the two long fiery trains that trailed after it portend rather that Normandy shall be divided and shattered by this evil plan of Duke William's to seize upon land that God's ocean has separated from us."

"He is mad," said one. "His father had the same madness; and when he, too, set out to conquer England, the winds opposed him, just as they oppose Duke William. God is against him. Let us leave him and go to our homes."

The little church of Saint Valéry was not far away, and William alternately offered prayers at its altar and watched the vane on its spire. Finally he arranged a solemn procession of the clergy of the church bearing the relics of their patron saint. Gold and silver and jewels were cast upon the shrine until it was almost buried beneath the offerings. Duke and army prayed, and at last, after six weeks of waiting, the wind blew from the south. The ships made ready to set sail for England.

But a great warship was coming into the harbor. No one had ever seen it before. It was all a-glitter with its bright decorations, and its sails were of many colors.

"I have no vassal," said William, "who could bring me a ship like that. It must be from some other country."

"But there are the three lions of Normandy on her sails," cried Fitz-Osbern. As she came nearer, William saw that the figure-head was a child, a boy wrought all of gold, and in his hand was an ivory horn. As William looked at it he fancied that it was like his little son William; and so it was, and in the boat was the Duchess Matilda with her attendants. The name of the ship was the "Mora," the "Delay," and she was a gift from Matilda to her husband.

"As you have been delayed by foul winds," said the duchess, "so now shall the 'Delay' fill her sails with fair winds and bear you swiftly to the land that is of right your own."

"So shall it be," said William, "for the 'Mora' and no other vessel shall carry me across the water." The consecrated banner was run up to the masthead. Matilda said her farewell, and to the music of cymbals and pipes and many other instruments William set out for England.

Harold's months on the English throne had not been easy. The Norwegians, aided by his own brother, Tostig, had descended upon the north coast, and he had been obliged to march beyond the Humber to repulse them. So it was that when William landed at Pevensey, not a blow was struck, though if the south wind had blown but a few days sooner, an army would have been ready to receive him. William was the first to spring ashore, but in his eagerness he fell at full length. A low groan of fear came from the soldiers.

"It is a terrible omen," said one.

"God is against us," said another; but William rose with a bit of turf in either hand and said jubilantly,—

"So it is that I take seizin of my rightful kingdom." A soldier pulled a handful of thatch from the roof of a cottage.

"Here, too, is seizin," he said, "of England and all that is within it."

"I accept it," said the duke, "and may God be with us."

After one day the whole force marched to Hastings, where provisions could more easily be procured. A wooden fortress was put up and a moat was dug. William did not wish to go far inland, so he set to work to harass the country round-about that he might provoke Harold to come to him. By forced marches Harold came southward, and when he reached London, William's messenger met him.

"This is the word of the Duke of Normandy," said the messenger: "By Edward's will and by your own oath I call upon you to give up the kingdom."

"And this is the reply of the King of England," said Harold: "So long as a man lives, he has a right to alter his will, and in no court is an extorted oath held sacred. I offer you my friendship and costly gifts if you will depart from the land without violence or harm; but if you persist in grasping for that which is not your own, then will I and my brave men meet you in battle on Saturday, and as we have just driven an invader from our northern coasts, so will we drive you from our southern."

Few days were there before the one that was set for the battle, but Harold took a little time to go to his own church at Waltham. Many gifts he laid upon the altar, then he knelt in prayer for the forgiveness of his sins and for the welfare of his land. "I sought to do for the best," he prayed, "but it may be that I am entangled in the meshes of evil. Forgive me, and save my country from the usurper, and give the victory as shall be for her own best good."

Harold went back to London and there met him his faithful brother Gyrth, who pleaded with him:—

"Do you stay and defend London. A forced oath is not binding, but yet it is an oath, and I fear that God will be against you. No oath have I sworn. Let me go forth to meet the invader. If I am slain, then can you, the king, gather another army and avenge me; and let us now burn the houses and lay waste the harvest fields and leave this invader with nothing but the desert and the sea. So will he go to his ships and betake him to his own country." Then spoke Harold:—

"No friend of mine," said he, "shall go forth to face danger that I ought to face. Never will I set fire to an English home or lay waste an English harvest field."

And so it was that Harold of England went forth to meet William of Normandy.