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

Guest or Prisoner?

All acts of William's protectors were done in his name, and now messengers were sent to those of the nobles who still wished for a united, peaceful duchy to say that William, Duke of Normandy, had called together his council. The first business was to choose new guardians, and now the boy was of legal age to have a voice in the matter.

Whether by his own wise instincts or by the advice of his council, his choice was Ralph of Wacey, the son of that Archbishop of Rouen whom Duke Robert had besieged in his castle at Evreu. Now Ralph had been the murderer of Count Gilbert, but this appeal to his honor conquered his hostility. He became military tutor to William and commander-in-chief of the armies of Normandy, and from that time he was one of the boy-duke's strongest supporters.

Ralph ruled with a heavy hand. From one rebellious vassal to another he sped, ever leaving behind him peace, and an obedience that, on the surface, at least, bore every mark of loyalty. Under his firm, steady control, the duchy might have become a land of law-keepers instead of law breakers, had it not been for the ruler of a neighboring domain who now began to lend a listening ear to all complaints that came from the treacherous nobles that dwelt in Normandy. This ruler was King Henry of France. Not long after the election of Ralph as William's guardian, he sent a formal demand for the young duke to come to Evreux to do him homage. William's council straightway assembled to consider the matter.

"Never has there been such a going to and fro between Paris and every part of Normandy as of late," said one of the councillors significantly.

"You mean by that that King Henry is a friend to Norman traitors?" asked another bluntly.

"That is a thing which I would not say," said the first; "but I hardly think he has forgotten that Normandy was once a part of the land of the Franks, and that his own capital stands on a river that is controlled by another power."

"For three generations the kings of France have owed much to the dukes of Normandy," said another, "and save for Duke Robert, King Henry would have been no king."

"King Henry said, 'I thank you,' and gave the duke the Vexin," said a fourth; "but that is past. Perhaps he would be willing to let Normandy keep the thanks, if he could take back the Vexin."

"Perhaps he would like also the Norman sea-coast. Perhaps he would like to have Rouen a French city once more," said another.

"I think he would," said gravely the one that had first spoken. "But the question just now is whether the duke shall be advised to go to Evreux to pay homage to the king. I admit that I do not like the place. To leave the stronghold of Vaudreuil—and go nearer the French capital seems to be full of danger."

"The duke could have a large train of attendants," said one, "and every one of them should be armed from head to foot. To refuse to pay homage would be to plunge the land into war with France. Just now the friends of the duke seem to be in power, but not every one who bends the knee is faithful. There may be many a traitor among those who seem to be truest. A refusal to pay homage may be only the pretext for which the king is waiting."

"A king who would seize upon a second kingdom would wait for no—" began one, but stopped; for the duke, who had been listening closely to every word, had risen to speak.

He was only a boy of twelve years, but most of them had been spent among grave, stern warriors. Hardly an hour of his life had been free from danger. Many a time he had listened to his guardians while they discussed in which place there was least chance of his being murdered, and whether some knight who had seemed to be loyalty itself was more likely to stand by him or to attempt to kill him. He had learned of arms and warfare, understanding perfectly that some failure to know how to defend a stronghold might lose him a castle, that some slight lack of skill in arms might cost him his life. Hawking and hunting had been almost his only recreations, and even in the hunting-field there were many dangers for one who threw himself into the chase with such headlong eagerness and delight.

One would not expect such a childhood to make a boy gentle and tender-hearted, but it could hardly fail to bring him to an early maturity, to make him bold and strong and hardy, and to give him coolness and judgment far beyond his years. This was why, when the young duke arose to speak, his council turned toward him, not with the mere polite attention of vassals to their feudal chief, not even with a keen curiosity to see what a boy of his age would say, but with much the same kind of consideration that they would have shown to the expression of opinion of a man of twice his years.

It hardly seemed possible that he was but a boy of twelve, so dignified and composed did he seem. He was tall and strong and well developed, and more than one of the councillors before him said to himself, "If I were on a field of battle, I should rather have him for a friend than a foe." Quietly assuming that the final decision lay in his own hands, the boy said:—

I have listened to the advice of my councillors. Since I am the duke of Normandy, I must not fear danger, neither must I plunge my country into war with France. I will go to the king and I will say, 'King Henry, I am now fully twelve years of age, and I come to you not only to do homage to my liege lord, but to ask the honor of knighthood from the king of France.' "

"Never was there such wisdom in so young a head," said one councillor to another, as they went out of the room. "Boy as he is, he has cut the knot when we could not. However it may be about going to do homage whenever and wherever the king of France may ask it, a young noble may go to an older one and demand the blow of the sword that shall make him a knight, and for this he must go to whatever place the older shall name."

"Surely," said another; "and no train of attendants can be too long for a young duke who is on his way to receive the golden spurs."

"It shall be as splendid an escort as the Norman duchy can furnish," said the nobles; and forthwith each one of them called out every man who was a vassal to him and owed him military service, to come to the appointed place with as handsome an equipment as he could command. The duke was unarmed,—for a vassal must not appear in arms to do homage to his suzerain,—but every one else was in full armor.

The horses had been groomed until they fairly shone. The coats of mail and the bright shields and lances and helmets glittered in the sunshine the brilliant as the company set out. William was at its head, carefully guarded by Ralph of Wacey and twenty of the strongest men and most experienced fighters. A little distance before the ducal line rode ten men as advance warders, for who could tell what danger might be lying in wait for the young man upon whom so much depended? The rear was as closely watched; for although their force was so strong that they needed to have little fear of a direct attack, who knew what treacherous foes might be about them ready to cut the duke from his defenders?

King Henry received the duke with calm courage, but glanced with a shade of annoyance, the nobles thought, at the great company of armed men.

"You come to a friendly court in full array, it seems," he said to the duke.

"I have many friends who wish to see me receive the golden spurs," said the young noble, and the king was silent. A messenger had been sent to King Henry long before the company set out to say to him that William would ask for knighthood, and so all things had been made ready. The ceremony of homage was short, and then came the preparations for receiving the accolade, and these were by no means short or simple.

Every part of the preliminary rites was full of significance. First came the bath followed by the white tunic to indicate the purity which was expected of every true knight. Over the white tunic was put a red robe to call to mind the blood that the knight must always be ready to shed in a righteous cause. Over the red robe was drawn a close black coat, that the knight might never forget that death will finally come to all men.

If this ceremony had taken place in France, William would have been required to fast for twenty-four hours, to spend a night alone in the church praying before the altar, to confess and receive absolution, to attend service in the church and listen to a sermon about his new life and its duties; but the Normans were much inclined to feel that knighthood was more closely connected with warriors than with priests, and so much of the usual religious ceremony was omitted.

The rite, however, took place in the church, and it is possible that William followed the French custom of advancing to the altar with his sword hanging by a scarf about his neck; and that the priest took it off, laid it upon the altar, and blessed it. William advanced to the king and knelt before him with hands clasped, and said:—

"I am come to you, King Henry of France, to ask that I may be armed as a knight, and that all forms may be fulfilled that are necessary to my having the right to serve and command in all ranks." The king asked:—

"To what purpose do you wish to become a knight? Is it because you seek to be rich, to take your ease, to be held in honor among men without doing that which shall make you deserving of honor?" Then William answered:—

"I do not seek to become a knight for any honor save that of punishing those who do evil, of protecting the innocent and avenging their wrongs, and of maintaining true religion. If I am admitted to the noble rank of knighthood, I will endeavor to perform its duties faithfully and well."

Then all the knights in their shining armor gathered about the young duke. Then, too, came the ladies of the court in their most brilliant attire, and together they put the young man's armor upon him, piece by piece; first the golden spurs, then the coat of mail, the cuirass, and last of all the sword. Then the ladies and the knights drew back, and William, glittering in his flashing steel, advanced to the king and again knelt before him. The king unsheathed his own sword, a sword that had been reddened by the blood of many battles, and gave the duke the accolade,—that is, three light blows on the shoulder or the nape of the neck,—saying:—

"In the name of God, Saint Michael, and Saint George, I dub thee knight. Be valiant, bold, and loyal."

Again the brilliant company gathered around him. The knights flashed their swords over their heads and embraced him and welcomed him among them. A helmet was brought him, and a horse was led up to the church door. The newly made knight sprang upon its back, disdaining to make use of the stirrups, and galloped back and forth, poising his lance and brandishing his sword. One of the old chroniclers says:—

"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 javelins."

After all this came a most elaborate feast, when every one drank to his health and every one rejoiced in his new honors. Generous gifts were made to the minstrels and to all that had helped to entertain the guests; and finally large sums of money were distributed among the servants, that every one, even the humblest, might be glad in the young knight's gladness.

The homage was performed, the ceremony of knighthood was completed, the pleasures of the feast and the rejoicing were at an end, the formal farewell had been said, and the Normans prepared to set out on their homeward march to Falaise. William was about to mount his horse, when a chamberlain from King Henry stood before him, saying:—

"I am the bearer of a message from the king. It is this: 'King Henry of France, suzerain of the duchy of Normandy, summons his vassal, William, Duke of Normandy, to appear before him.' " The faces of the Normans were grave, but William still looked upon the king as the guardian whom his father had chosen, and without hesitation he advanced with only a small bodyguard to the royal audience chamber. The king gave him no word of greeting, but looked at him sternly and said:—

"I am little pleased, my young sir knight, with the reports that have come to me in regard to this new fort of yours at Tillières."

"My councillors have told me," answered William, "that the fort at Tillières was built by Richard the Good, the father of my father."

"It matters not," said the king, with a frown, "the fort stands, and it is garrisoned, and its men are making continual incursions into my territory."

"If that is true," said William, "I am very sorry. I will send a messenger to the commander of the fort. If my men have made incursions into your lands, they shall be punished, and there shall be no more annoyance."

" 'No more annoyance!' " repeated the king angrily, "and 'If it is true!' I tell you, young sir, a vassal is not to arm himself against his suzerain. The fort at Tillières is a menace and a threat, and it must fall; and until it falls, I look upon you as a rebellious vassal. Perchance your councillors have told you how a rebellious vassal is to be treated." The king spoke harshly, and sat gazing with the utmost sternness at the young duke.

Mature as he was by reason of his bitter experience, William was but a boy after all, and in such a strait as this even an older and wiser head might well have been puzzled. He was silent.

"You cannot speak?" said the king. "Then I will provide one that can speak for you. A messenger is in readiness to bear to the commander of the fort at Tillières your orders that it be razed to the ground."

What could the boy do? He was in the hands of the king, practically a prisoner at his court. Then, too, he had spent many months in Henry's care, and he was accustomed to obey him as he would obey a father. There was no opportunity to consult his councillors; he must decide the matter himself.

"Here is a scribe," said the king. "Will you send to the governor of the fort an order to raze it to the ground, and will you seal the order with your seal?"

"I will," said William slowly.

"I give you most courteous invitation to remain as my guest until word shall come that the castle of Tillières has been levelled," said the king ironically, and William was immediately escorted with a guard to a part of the castle from which it would have been almost impossible for his own men to reach him or for him to escape.

The order was sealed with the duke's seal and sent to the governor of the fort; but this independent governor calmly refused to surrender. He returned a brief message that the fort had been intrusted to him by Robert, duke of Normandy, to watch and ward as the heritage of his son William. It was impossible, he said, that this son should have given the order to destroy it, and he would surrender it to no one but the duke himself in person.

The king was more angry than ever, and now he sent a great armed force to tear down the castle. He expected that the sight of his soldiers would be enough to make the governor submit, but Gilbert Crispin was made of somewhat unyielding material. He shut himself up in the castle with his men, and there he stayed. Henry's soldiers attacked the fort, and the governor was more determined than ever when among them he recognized some of the traitorous Norman nobles, who either preferred to pay their allegiance to a suzerain that would be chiefly in another district, or who were eager to help on any kind of warfare that they might the more readily find opportunities for robbery and pillage.

Gilbert's reply to the king's messenger had left it to be inferred that if the duke himself in person commanded him to give up the fort, he would yield; but when King Henry in a storm of anger had William taken to Tillières, even then, with the duke before him, Gilbert hesitated, and it was, only when the orders of the duke were seconded by those of the council that he submitted. The gates were thrown open, and the faithful governor and his valiant men marched out. The castle was in the hands of the French, and they at once set fire to it. The roofs and floors were burned, and the stone tower, blackened and despoiled, stood as a gloomy monument to the unjust claims of the French king.

Again the council met, and now Henry was recognized as an undoubted foe.

"I am but young in knighthood," said William; "but when I received my arms, I was told that a true knight would never couch his lance against the noble who had given him the accolade. Shall I be true to my oath of knighthood, or shall I fight against my suzerain?"

"It is the duty of a knight to be faithful to him who has admitted him to knighthood," said one of the council, "and therefore as a loyal knight you cannot couch your lance against him; but you are more than a knight. King Henry is your feudal chief, and you are his vassal. You owe him service, and he owes you protection. If he has broken his promise of protection by himself invading your lands, you are no longer bound by your promise of service. As a knight you cannot fight him; but as the duke of Normandy you are bound to defend your country and protect it from every one that would work it harm."

It was evident enough that King Henry intended to work it harm. He seemed to have forgotten that the duke was his ward, and that by every tie of honor he was bound to be faithful to the boy's interests. Apparently he had no recollection of the fact that, save for the aid of William's father, he would have had no power to harass the son.

Henry began to march his forces into the district beyond Tillières, and now the Norman council realized that by surrendering the fort at the king's demand, they had only weakened themselves without lessening his longing for the broad and fertile lands of Normandy. Faster and faster came the bands of Frenchmen into the Norman boundaries, each company venturing farther than those that had preceded it. Into the very centre of the Norman domain they pushed their way.

If all Normandy had been faithful to William, there would have been little chance for the ravages of any foreign power; but some preferred the tumults of war to the restraints of peace, some blamed the duke, boy as he was, for the loss of the fort of Tillières, and there were many among the proud nobles of Normandy who still declared that they would never submit to the "grandson of a tanner."

Even in the district of the Hiesmois, it was not difficult to find a traitor. In the very heart of Falaise, in the castle itself, was the man whom the council had trusted, and whom the bribes and promises of Henry now succeeded in making unfaithful to his trust. This traitor, governor of the castle, rid himself one by one of the soldiers who would have stood by their duke, and garrisoned the castle with men from the forces of the French.