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

The Little Duke

In spite of King Henry's urgent hospitality, Duke Robert was much too eager to be on his way to Rome to linger for many days in the French court, and before a week had passed he had begun his journey.

It was a great company. Many of Robert's nobles accompanied him, among them Drogo, count of his new possession, the Vexin, and Toustain, his chamberlain and favorite attendant. Not all of these travellers went necessarily for the good of their souls and the forgiveness of their sins, as Robert put it; some went because a pilgrimage was an exceedingly interesting expedition. No one knew what perils might be met by the way, and the flavor of danger gave an added zest to the enjoyment of seeing new countries and journeying in unknown places. Moreover, to have gone on a pilgrimage was with many people a strong title to a peculiar respect and deference that could be gained in no other way. There was another advantage, though perhaps no one counted upon it in setting out—the memory of such a journey, combined with a little imagination, would provide a man with enough materials for story-telling to the circle around his hall fire for all the rest of his life.

There was a long train of servants and attendants. The men that cared for the horses would make quite a troop by themselves, for there must be war-horses, in case any fighting was necessary; and there must be pleasure-horses, for every once in a while Robert would forget that he was a humble pilgrim, and then the whole party would canter along the way as merrily as if they were on a pleasure trip instead of a pilgrimage. There must be many beasts of burden, and their load was by no means light, for they bore the provisions for man and horse, and all the other necessities for the journey. Many of the pack-horses were loaded with skins filled with wine, sewn up and coated thickly with pitch. There were harbingers, of course, whose special duty it was to ride in advance of the rest of the company and arrange for lodgings and entertainment wherever they could be had; but such places were few, and it was desirable that the pilgrims should be able to stop to rest wherever they might choose.

Through France they went, through Switzerland,—or rather, what are now France and Switzerland,—over the Alps, and into Rome. So far the duke was a pilgrim,— when he did not forget it,—but on leaving Rome he became a mere traveller, and set out for Constantinople, and then for the Holy Land. Frequent tidings came by messenger to the little boy at the French court. One man reported the duke's great humility, and said that when a warder struck him with his staff and told him not to loiter by the way, Robert bore the blow meekly, saying that it was the duty of pilgrims to suffer.

Then came another tale of his prank in Rome, where he threw a rich mantle over the shoulders of a statue of the Emperor Constantine, "to protect him from the wind and cold," said this merry pilgrim.

The Norman notion of a jest was not exactly in accordance with modern ideas, and the Normans seem to have found it exceedingly amusing that when in Constantinople the duke entered the handsome audience chamber of the Emperor of the East he rolled up his embroidered cloak, dropped it on the floor, and made a seat of it, refusing to take it when he left, because it was "not the custom of the Normans to carry their seats away with them." Equally entertaining they thought the speech of Robert when a Norman on his homeward way saw him borne in a litter by four black slaves, and asked the duke what message he would send to Normandy. "Tell them," said Robert, "that you saw four demons bearing me to Paradise."

Everywhere he lavished great sums of money. He was Robert the Magnificent wherever he went, and often Robert the Reckless. The story is that in entering Constantinople he had his horse shod with shoes of silver. They were but slightly nailed on, so that they might drop off by the way and be picked up by whosoever would. At Jerusalem he made a better use of his wealth by paying for the great numbers of needy pilgrims outside the city the golden bezant demanded of each of them before they were allowed to enter.

Robert was wildly extravagant in his expenditures, and also in his penances, but it was an extravagant age. The scenes of remorse were as theatrical as the scenes of crime were tragic. Only a few years before Robert's pilgrimage, Foulques Nerra, Count of Anjou, made three journeys to the Holy Land, and once on reaching Jerusalem he had himself bound to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of the city, while by his own orders two of his servants scourged him most unmercifully amidst his cries of "Have pity, O Lord, have pity!" Robert's excesses were no greater than those of his contemporaries, and there seems no reason for the story that arose that he was insane.

Before many months had passed, a sad message came to the little boy at the French court, for Robert had died at NicŠa, by poison, it was thought. As a mark of special honor, permission was given that he should be buried in the Byzantine basilica of Saint Mary.

"It is the beginning of troubles," said Alain of Brittany to himself, and he set out to have an interview with William. "Much depends upon what kind of boy he is," thought Alain, "and a year may have changed him greatly."

The change had indeed been great, and in Alain's eyes it was for the better in every respect. The boy had grown tall and large, and had a manly bearing, which pleased the governor of Normandy.

"Do you know what you are to be when you grow up?" asked Alain.

"Yes," said the boy. "My father was Duke of Normandy, and that is what I am to be."

"And supposing that there are people who will try to keep you from being duke?" said Alain, to see what the boy would say.

"But I am  the duke," said William. "No one can keep me from it."

"And what will you do if they take your castles?"

"I shall say, 'This is my castle, and you must give it up.' "

"And what will you say if they do not give it up?"

"Then I shall not say anything to the people in my castle, but I shall say to my men: 'Bring up the arbalests, tear down the walls, put up the scaling ladders;' and I shall go first, and I shall say: 'Come on, my men, follow me; rally round my gonfalon; strike with your swords. This is my castle, and no one shall keep it away from me.' " The boy drew himself up to his full height. His cheeks blazed and his eyes flashed as he paced quickly up and down the room, now thrusting an imaginary lance, and now drawing an imaginary sword.

"There's not another child like him in France," thought Alain. "He's not much more than eight years old, and he looks as if he were twelve. He's a fine boy, and he shall have his duchy, if there's any power in my right hand to—"

"Why did you put your hand on your sword?" asked William.

"In these times one must remember where his sword is," said Alain. The boy was silent for a moment; then he said:—

"I have a sword, and it is larger than the one that I used to have, because I am a bigger boy. If I am Duke of Normandy, when shall I be big enough to go to Falaise? Isn't that my castle?"

"I believe you captured it," said Alain with a smile. William looked abashed.

"I was only a little boy then," he said. "I should know better now; but I mean, shall I have to grow much taller before I am a real duke? I'm stronger than any other boy of my age—not one of them can bend my bow—and I can throw a spear and ride a horse—my father said perhaps I might go to fight when I could ride a horse—and I can wear heavier armor than any other boy at the court. What shall I have to do before I go to Normandy?"

"Perhaps we shall ask you to go to Normandy very soon," said Alain, "if King Henry is willing."

"Did my father have to ask King Henry if he might go to his castle?" asked the boy.

"No," said Alain with a little smile, "King Henry asked your father for permission to go to his own; and when you are grown up, I think it will be you to whom people will come to ask what they may do. But tell me, would you be afraid to go where men were trying to take your castles and to kill you?"

"No," said the boy simply. "There were people who tried to kill my father, and he wasn't afraid; but where is my mother, and where is Adelaide? Now that my father is dead, I want to take care of them."

"And so you shall when you are older," said Alain; "but they are in a safe castle, and strong men are guarding them."

"I shall be a strong man soon;" said William, drawing himself up, "and I shall learn all there is to know about fighting. Thorold is teaching me. I like Thorold. He taught me how to ride, and King Henry hasn't a horse that can throw me. Could my father ride better than that?"

Soon Alain took his farewell, and went away.

"He's a brave boy," he said to himself, as he rode through the castle gate. "I almost wish he was in Normandy, and yet, perhaps King Henry is right in keeping him here. He might be murdered in a day."

Alain leaves William with King Henry.


And indeed, there was murder and robbery and devastation in every corner of Normandy. People believed that as soon as a king was dead, whatever laws he had made ceased to be of force, and that any promises that they had made to him were no longer binding; and so between the death of a king and the proclamation of what was called the "king's peace,"—a peace which was not peace at all, unless it was accompanied by an enforcement of the claims of the next heir as king,—every man did what he chose, and most of the nobles thought that such a break was the proper time to revenge themselves on their enemies, a time for burning and pillage and murder.

So it was in Normandy, as soon as it was known that the duke was dead. The nobles who made promises to serve him if he would protect them, now said that there was no one to protect them, and so they were freed from all service. William was proclaimed duke. "But what does that amount to?" said the nobles scornfully. "He is only a child. A child cannot see to it that we have justice done us, and he cannot lead us in battle. We want a strong man for our duke—and we do not want the grandson of a tanner."

There was no very definite law of succession to the dukedom, and if Robert had left a grown-up brother, or if there had been any one person with a good claim to the duchy on whom the nobles could unite, the little boy at King Henry's court would have had small chance of ever becoming the ruler of Normandy, even if he could ride any horse in the royal stables; but the difficulty was that there were so many people who thought that the boy's inheritance ought to be theirs. Rollo, the Norman chieftain, who had been the first duke of Normandy, had left many descendants, and every one of these was sure that no one else had so good a right to rule the land as himself. There were six of these relatives whose claims had some shadow of justice; but of the six, one was a monk, one a priest, and one an archbishop. Of the other three, one was Alain of Brittany, who held himself in honor bound to save for the child the lands that had been intrusted to him; another was William, Count of Arques, a half-brother of Duke Robert; and the third was Guy of Burgundy, a nephew of Robert.

There was another reason for the turbulence in the duchy. No one was allowed to build a castle without the permission of the ruler of the country; but in Robert's time he had been so sure that he could put down any uprising, that he had made no objection to the erection of a castle wherever any one chose to put one. Now very few of these strongholds were at all like what we should call a castle to-day. Not all of them were of stone, by any means. Even a square wooden tower with a moat and a drawbridge was called a castle; but in the three districts of Normandy in which the greatest number of fighters lived there were at least one hundred and thirty-two built so solidly that even now their remains may be seen. Every noble who had built a castle stood by himself, and in spite of what they had said, these men were not at all eager to have a strong man become duke and limit their independence. So it was that, instead of uniting at to revolt against William, they all revolted against one another, and against all law and order. Every man did just as he chose, and many chose to avenge any wrongs that they fancied had been done them. Robbery and fire and murder were in every corner of Normandy. Nothing could quiet the disorder but a duke who ruled either by undisputed right or by irresistible force.

William was only a child, but he had one great advantage—his guardians were true to him and to his interests. One guardian has already been mentioned, the brave Alain of Brittany, whose special care was that the duchy of Normandy should be held for Robert's son. The second was the old soldier Thorold. The third was Seneschal Osbern, and the fourth was Count Gilbert of Eu. King Henry was a kind of overlord to these men, and the boy was still at his court.

There were others whose friendliness to William was of the greatest value, those men who had gone on the pilgrimage with Robert, and who were now beginning to return to Normandy. They brought with them the relics of saints and martyrs that Robert had collected in the east, and had intrusted to his chamberlain Toustain to present to the Abbey of CÚrisy. Robert had founded this abbey not long before he went on his pilgrimage, and he had expected to be buried within its walls. He had endowed it richly, but no more valuable gift could he have bestowed upon it than those bits of hair and bone and wood, those fragments of gowns and scourges and psalters; for men who came to look upon them never failed to leave a generous offering in the fortunate church to whose care they had been intrusted. Few of these visitors went away without a thought of Duke Robert and some gain of friendliness toward the little boy whom he had loved so well. As for the travellers themselves, people thought of them with a sincere reverence, because they had been pilgrims. Then they remembered that Robert, too, had been a pilgrim, and many of them began to feel that the child whom he had left in their care was fairly entitled to their loyalty. Moreover, these pilgrims had been chosen friends of Robert's, and their support of his child was worth much. All these strong allies of William were called together by Alain.

"I have asked you to meet," he said, "to decide whether it is best for the young duke to remain in Paris or to return to Normandy." Then said one of the councillors:—

"The duke is far safer in Paris than he would be here."

"Surely," said another, "there are enough who are loyal to defend a child and a castle."

"Yes, we can fight armed forces," said the first, "but can we fight poison or assassination?"

"There is another side," said one who until then had been silent. "Soldiers need a gonfalon rally about; so do our nobles of Normandy need to see the duke. They think of him as a child in the French court. Let them see him for themselves, a bold, brave, handsome boy on his own rightful heritage, and I believe that they will be far more likely to stand by him."

"Still, there is the danger," said the first that had spoken.

"Yes," said the silent one; "but shall we save the child and leave him a beggar, or shall we let him share the risk, that we may help him to hold fast to that which is of right his own?"

"Moreover," said another, "are we so sure that he is safe in Paris? King Henry owed his throne to Duke Robert, but France would not be unwilling to possess Normandy and the Norman sea-coast. A child's life is a small matter when one wants a kingdom. A child may easily die or disappear. There would be no other claimant on whom so many would unite, and in the tumult and confusion Normandy could easily be made a part of France."

Finally it was decided that William should be taken to Vaudreuil, the castle that Robert had recommended as a safe place for the boy. It was situated on an island in the river Eure, and a river would be a better protection than a moat. Moreover, it was in the district of Evreux in Normandy, and yet not too far from the French domain to call upon King Henry in case of need; for after all, no one could believe that he would forget what was due to the son of the man who had befriended him in the days when he most needed a friend.

First, however, the king's permission to remove the boy to Vaudreuil must be gained. The councillors had looked upon this as hardly more than a matter of form, but much to their surprise King Henry began to make objections; the boy was safer with him, he said; a removal would interfere with his military education, etc.

The councillors became a little alarmed when the escort returned without the young duke. They had thought of King Henry as of one upon whom they might call for aid. Was it possible that he really had plans against the boy and his heritage? Shut up in one of Henry's strong castles, he might be held all his life as a captive; and then there were a hundred means by which a child that was in the way might be disposed of, and no one be the wiser. A second escort was sent with more emphatic demands than the first, and after some delay, the king yielded. Thorold was appointed to take command of the escorting party. It was an unfortunate journey for him, for soon after reaching Vaudreuil he was murdered by some unknown assassin.

It was a hard life for a boy in the stern, gray castle on the island.

"Why cannot my mother and Adelaide live with me?" the boy demanded. The guardians had thought it best that Arletta should be kept away from her son, so that the people might remember only that he was the child of Duke Robert, but they said:—

"You know that you are to be a great soldier, and a soldier must learn of men, not of women."

"But a soldier must take care of women," said the boy. His guardians made no reply, but before long they told him that his mother had married a loyal knight, Herlwin of Conteville, and that Adelaide was safe in their care.

"I wanted to take care of them myself," said the boy soberly.

"Some day you will be able to," said his guardians.

Meanwhile it was all that they could do to take care of him. Not a moment, night or day, could he be left alone; for, although they could perhaps prepare for an armed attack, who could tell when an assassin might steal into the stronghold? Who could be sure that the members of the young duke's own train were faithful? A strong hand laid upon the boy's throat, a drop of poison forced gently between his lips as he slept, and Normandy would be the helpless prey of him who might have the power to take it. Gilbert, Count of Eu, had already been murdered, and the faithful Alain of Brittany had been poisoned as he was besieging the castle of William of Montgomery. Who knew when a like fate would befall the young duke?

Osbern slept in the boy's room at night, and watched him by day as he would watch some precious jewel. Walter, his mother's brother, was always on guard; but in spite of all their vigilance, there came a terrible night when William of Montgomery and his men forced their way into the castle, coming so suddenly and so powerfully that even before an alarm could be made, the faithful Osbern was stabbed as he lay asleep in the bed beside the duke. In the darkness the murderers believed that they had slain the duke himself, and while they were rejoicing, Walter hid the boy and carried him away to safety; not to some stone castle, but to the cottages of the poor, where no one would think of looking for him.

This was only one of the many attempts that were made to kill William, and only one of the many times that he was rescued by the bravery and quickness of his uncle. When the castle failed, the cottage was always his refuge.

Every one of the men who had been chosen as guardians for William had been killed by the boy's enemies. Lawlessness was everywhere. If a man was not robbed, it was because he had nothing that was of value to his stronger neighbor; if he was not murdered, it was because his neighbor had nothing to gain by his death. To these robbers and murderers the fact that a son of their former duke was alive and among them was a continual threat of vengeance. If the boy could be killed, they were safe, they thought, from fear of punishment or interference. Thus far these men had triumphed. Would they continue to triumph?