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

"William Knows How"

There could hardly have been a heavier blow to William than to find that the castle of his birthplace, the home of his childish memories, was the very centre of the attack upon him. It is no wonder that he was aroused to a fury of indignation. He was no longer alone, as he had been at King Henry's court when he was forced to give up his border fort. He had by his side a wise man, well skilled in the art of war, his guardian, Ralph Wacey, and by his advice the duke called out all the nobles who were faithful to him to rally around his standard.

In the castle of Falaise was the traitor governor with some few of William's friends who could not be sent away without arousing suspicion, and as many of Henry's men as could well be brought within its walls. On three sides of the fort was the steep and rocky precipice at whose foot clustered the houses of the town. About the town was a wall, and beyond the wall were encamped the forces of the French.

All was arranged. The French troops were to make their way through the town, carry on a pretended siege for a short time, and then the traitor within the castle was to be false to his trust and surrender the fort to the soldiers of the king. Henry's commander outside the wall of the town had no thought of a surprise. The castle was sure, the people in the town would not dare to make any resistance, and there was little possibility of the duke's coming against them; so one morning they leisurely made ready to enter the town.

The leader had not yet fully armed himself for the fight when rapid hoofbeats were heard, and a horseman galloped at full speed into the royal camp. His horse was wet with sweat and covered thickly with dust and foam. The rider dropped from his saddle and fell on the ground at the feet of the commander. He tried in vain to speak, for his mouth was so parched and dry that he could not utter a word. With a great effort he pointed feebly down the road. Men brought water. They wiped away the stifling dust. They lifted him up. They poured wine down his throat. Again he pointed and whispered a single word. It was, "William!" and he fell back on the ground weak and helpless.

Now William had not so many men as the king, but every man was true and resolute. They fell like a storm-wind upon the French camp, and the king's troops fled for their lives. So far it was well for the Normans, but there were foes in the castle, William knew that; and how would it be with the town? From the lack of heavy engines of war in the abandoned French camp, the king's men evidently did not expect very much difficulty in entering the town. How would it be when the Normans should try to enter?

The time that he had to wait in uncertainty could almost be measured by minutes, for men on the walls had quickly recognized the young duke. He was their duke, and their home was his. He was coming to his own, and never did an heir come to his own with greater rejoicing.

"Welcome! Welcome!" they shouted. "Hail to the son of Arletta! Welcome!" Banners and strips of bright-colored cloth and green branches of trees were waved joyfully as the Norman forces entered the Norman town. Women held up their children to see the duke.

"That's he," they called, "on the black horse. Look at him! See how he rides! His father used to ride like that, and his mother was one of us, and he is our own duke. Look at him! Hail to the son of Arletta!" And one peasant woman, who was holding up her baby and who had nothing else to wave, actually waved the baby in her excitement as the duke rode by, and the baby's cries mingled with the cheers of the people.

Now ever since William was seven years old he had lived among stern warriors. They had taken care of him as a valuable piece of property, and they had guarded him from injury as they would have guarded a piece of property. He had trusted King Henry, and the king had met him with coldness and blame and imprisonment. Never before, since the death of his father, had the young duke received a sincere, hearty welcome. It is no wonder that ever after this day his love for the town below the precipice was firm and sure.

Through the familiar streets he rode at the head of the line. Past the river Ante they went, and his cheeks burned under the cold steel of his helmet as he remembered the insult of the boy whom he had pushed into the stream.

"Hail to our duke, the son of Arletta!" the people cried. And under the steel helmet the stern young duke smiled, and with fresh courage rode up the winding way to the castle. Not quite pleasing to the proud Norman nobles were these cries of "Arletta," but it was no time to be critical; friendly enthusiasm was worth more than pride just then.

"You have taken the castle once," said Ralph Wacey, who had heard of William's childish exploit, "and it ought to be easy to take it again."

"Easy or not easy, we will have it," said William, and in a moment his wrath came back at the thought that it was the castle of the town of Falaise, the castle of his own home, that had rebelled.

The attack was furious, and the defence desperate, for the faithless governor knew full well that death was the just penalty of such guilt as his. The Normans fought fiercely, but the castle was strong. Forenoon, afternoon, sunset,—still they fought, the attack as violent and the defence as obstinate as in the early morning. Just as darkness began to hide the assaulters from their foes within the castle, the duke's men succeeded in making a breach in the outer wall.

The false governor put up a white flag and begged for mercy. Few men would have refused to be merciful after such a victory and in the first great joy of their lives. William pardoned the traitor on condition of his leaving Normandy forever. The district which he had held as a vassal of the duke was, of course, taken from him; and a large share of this land, the first winnings of that sword which was to conquer wherever it was unsheathed, William immediately presented to the mother whom he had scarcely seen since the days of his early childhood in Falaise.

When Tillières was surrendered, one condition was that it should not be restored for four years; but King Henry, ever faithless, paid no heed to his promise, and soon the fort stood in all its early might, the stonework repaired and strengthened, the roofs and floors renewed; and now, instead of being a protection to Normandy, it was a constant threat of invasion and conquest.

In the middle of the eleventh century there seems to be nothing but fighting. The governments were weak; if men would protect their rights they must fight for them. It was not only one man and his retainers fighting against another man with the men whom he could bring into the field; in the chain of feudalism every man had sworn to give military service to some one of greater power than he, and every man had sworn to give protection to several men who were of less power than he. Whenever any link of the chain was touched, the whole chain quivered.

In those troublous times,—those days of destruction, rebellion, and the foulest of treachery,—the one power in the land was the church. The church cried "Peace," and peace there was to an extent that would have seemed impossible. Too wise to require what no fear of her thunders would force men to grant, the church limited her demand for peace to Sunday and the last three days of each week. During those days not a sword was to be unsheathed, not a blow struck. The clergy proclaimed:—

"It is the peace of God. Whoever shall break it, let him be accursed." Then they turned their lighted tapers downward and extinguished them, while the people chanted:—

"And so may God extinguish the joys of every one who shall refuse to observe peace and justice." Whoever broke this law was shut out of the church. If he died before bringing about a reconciliation, he was forbidden to receive Christian burial. The only way for him to win forgiveness was to confess his fault with all meekness, atone for whatever wrong he had done, leave home and friends, and spend many years of penance in exile.

With this law of the church and William's increasing power, the condition of Normandy became greatly improved. He offered free pardon to all who would lay down their arms, and gave generous rewards to those who were true to him. He was interested in commerce, he encouraged manufactures, he maintained peace with the neighboring states wherever peace was possible. His relations with King Henry of France were of the only character that could be wisely maintained with that changeable monarch; that is, he was on the terms of peace and allegiance that were proper between vassal and suzerain, but he did not neglect to make friends with those nobles especially who had some reason to dislike the king of France. After all the murders and revolts, there seemed to have come a time of peace. Even the duke might borrow a few days for rest end pleasure.

William and his court went to Valognes—"pleasant Valognes." Day after day they hunted in the forest and feasted at the castle. One night, after the guests had departed full of plans for the next day's hunt, the last day before the duke was to return to Rouen, William was so sound asleep that not even a loud knocking on the gate aroused him.

"Open, open!" a voice cried. "Enemies are coming, fly! Rise, wretches, you will all be murdered!"

"It's the duke's jester," said one of the household sleepily. "He's trying to play some trick on us. Go down and let him in. The duke will be angry if he is kept out all night." So the door was opened and the jester burst in.

"Where's my master?" he cried, "where's William? William, where are you?" and in spite of the half-laughing, half-sleepy attempts of the watchman to stop him, he made his way to the door of William's chamber and beat upon it madly.

"Master, master," he cried, "open the door, open it! They are coming to kill you! Fly, fly!"

"Who are you?" said William.

"Gallet, master, your own jester. I heard them at Bayeux. I slept in the stable and—" But William had thrown open his door, and there was a strange figure, for the jester wore a close-fitting doublet of red on the right side and yellow on the left. His right stocking was yellow and the left was red. Over his doublet was a coat of all the colors of the rainbow. A yellow hood covered his head, pointed, and with little bells hanging from every point. In his hand was a wand with what had been a fool's head, but now it was flattened and broken where its owner had beaten it against the door.

"Is this one of your pranks?" demanded the duke sternly.

"I heard them, indeed I did, and I saw the horses and the arms, and they are coming to kill you, and I love you, master, and if they come, you will never, never again see the light of day. Fly, master, fly!"

One glance at the face of the jester was enough. This was no untimely prank; it was fearful truth. William made the sign of the cross. He thrust on a tunic, buckled on a sword, caught up a travelling cloak and ran, barefooted and bareheaded, to the stables. He was only nineteen years of age, but he showed the wisdom of sixty, for he trusted no one. Whom could he trust in all his duchy but the poor jester? He saddled his horse and fled. From whom? To whom? Who could say?

The galloping of horses was heard, and it seemed but a moment before the castle was surrounded. Armed men swarmed from turret to dungeon. Where was William? The servants stood pale and trembling. They did not know, they said, and by their faces they told the truth. They clustered in a frightened group, terrified and silent. There was another group of the invaders, loud and angry, for the duke was nowhere to be found. Between these two groups, playing tricks on one man and then on another, was the jester. He was in high spirits. He tossed his stick with the broken fool's head. He whirled it around and around.

"One fool's head is broken," he said, "but the other fool's head is sound," and then he felt for the corners of his hood and shook his bells. "Too late, my brave men, too late," he cried, whirling around on the yellow foot and then on the red one, and turning somersaults in the very midst of the angry group. "William is gone. O William! Where's William? He'll make ready for you; William knows how. William knows, he does. You gave him a bad night, and he'll give you a bad day. How wise you are! Glad am I that I am a fool! William knows, he knows."

Now a jester might be tormented and he might be beaten, but no man cared really to injure one of these quick-witted, half-mad beings, for no one knew what evil might befall him who struck a deadly blow. So the jester jeered at them to his heart's content, but long before his antics were over, they were on their horses shouting:—

"Death to him! Death to him!"

Down the same road by which the traitors had come, William galloped. It was bright moonlight. The shadow of every rock and of every tree was black and dense. Who could tell behind which one an enemy might lurk, ready to spring out and strike the fatal blow? He heard horsemen coming furiously up the road. He slipped into the gloom of a thicket, and stood with his hands closely clasping his horse's nose, lest the animal should neigh as the others came near. The horsemen dashed on. In their excited talk he was sure that he heard his own name. He was but a little way from the castle. His enemies would fail to find him, and then they would follow on his tracks. Not a moment could be lost. He thrust into his horse's sides the cruel Norman spurs that were fastened to the stirrups. The river Vire lay before him. If it was low tide, he could cross by the ford; if high, he must go far around. The tide was out, and he splashed through the shallow water in safety. Close by the shore on the opposite side stood the tiny stone church of Saint Clement, every line of it clear and distinct in the moonlight.

William flies from the traitors.


"God has helped me," said the fugitive. "To thank him cannot delay me." He sprang from his horse and burst into the little church. He threw himself before the altar. It was but a moment. On, on! they were pursuing. Bayeux lay before him, but—what was it that he had heard of Bayeux? Oh, the jester had said that his enemies were there. He must go north by lanes and by-paths between Bayeux and the sea; then he would pass Rye and come to the districts that he believed were faithful to him. The moon had long since set, but he had galloped on through the darkness. The east began to brighten. Here and there the sleepy twitter of a bird came from some tree above his head. Dew fell from the branches as he dashed by. There was a stone tower. Whose was it? No matter, every one was false; and once more the cruel spurs were plunged into the horse's bleeding sides.

All was quiet and peaceful in the castle. Hubert, its lord, stood just without the gate. Before him was the little church, and he was on his way to matins. He stopped a moment to look at the east, which was brightening with the rising sun. Then he turned to the west. He heard a furious galloping. What fugitive was this? No criminal must pass his castle gate. He sprang forward and caught the bridle rein. The horse was covered with foam and blood. On its back was a man without shoes or stockings, bareheaded, covered with dust. His mantle was torn to shreds by the briers through which he had come. His face was bleeding. He was clinging to his horse's neck, and as Hubert caught the bridle he sank to the ground. For a moment Hubert stood silent in amazement. Then he fell on his knees before the horseman.

"My duke, my duke," he cried, "what has happened? Where are your followers? Who has done this? Who pursues you? Trust me, and I will save you as I would save myself. Have I not sworn to be your loyal vassal, to be faithful to you as well as to God?"

"Many have sworn to be faithful," said William sadly, "but I trust you;" and then he told Hubert the story of the pursuit and the escape. They are on my track," he said; "I must flee."

"Then will I give you a guard," said Hubert, "and one that will not fail you." So Hubert brought him food and wine and clothes, and set the duke upon his own good horse.

"Fear not, my lord," said he; "the horse is strong and sure of foot, and he will hold out well to your journey's end." Then called he his three sons, three brave knights.

"Buckle on your swords, my three brave knights," said he, "for here is my lord and yours. Foul traitors have wished to murder him. Save him. Give your life for his, if need be. God gives glory and honor to him who dies for the lord to whom he has sworn to be faithful."

"We swear to be true to our own sovereign lord, Duke William of Normandy," said the three young men, making the sign of the cross. Then William and his guards left the sun on their left, and rode swiftly to the river Orne and crossed over, and soon the duke was safe in his own castle of Falaise.

Then was there great rejoicing, for the roads were full of peasants wandering to and fro, and saying with sadness and many tears, "Where is our duke? Is he a prisoner, is he wounded, or perchance is he slain? Who are the knaves that have done this?" And when they knew that he was neither a prisoner nor wounded nor slain, then were they joyful, and the heart of every one of them was glad.

But who were these foes that pursued William so savagely, and whose first move was an attempt at assassination? The leader was one Guy of Burgundy, his own cousin. Guy had spent much of his childhood at Falaise, and had received knighthood from William's hands. William had made him lord of two castles, and had treated him as if he was a younger brother. To this young man who had every reason for being loyal to his cousin, went one Grimbald, whose castle of Plessis was in the district of Bayeux.

"Did it ever enter your mind," said Grimbald, "that you are rightful heir to the dukedom of Normandy?"

"My father claimed no such right," said Guy, "and surely I have no claim that he had not."

"That is but a childish excuse," said Grimbald. "William's father had but a peasant wife. You are the lawful heir to the dukedom. You need only to stretch out your hand to take that which is your own. Do you not wish to be duke?" Then Guy began to wish for it, and soon he was sure that he had a right to the dukedom. All William's kindness was forgotten. From one noble to another this new claimant went. To the lords of the strong castles in western Normandy he said:—

"If I am duke, I shall content myself with the eastern part of the duchy, and you may go on building your castles and live in the independence which day by day you are losing under the rule of him who now unjustly holds control." Western Normandy stood by Guy, while eastern Normandy armed itself and was ready to fight to the death to maintain the rights of William.

The first act of the conspirators was the attempt to murder William which was frustrated by the devotion of the jester Gallet. Now the duke was in his castle. He knew who were false to him and who were true, but he had not the forces to conquer his foes. Whom should he ask? Up and down the room he paced. Suddenly he struck his hand on the hilt of his sword.

"I will do it," he said. "I do not bow down to one who has wronged me, I make him of service to me. I claim that which I have a right to claim, and if he gives it, it shall atone for the harm that he has done me." Straightway he started for the French court.

"To you as my suzerain I am come," he said.

You owe me protection. I am come to claim it. It was to you that my father, setting out on a holy pilgrimage, intrusted my interests. Had he done nothing to warrant him in his trust? Do you not hold your kingdom to-day because of the aid that he gave you? You came to him in your need with but twelve knights, and he treated you with honor and put you on the throne of France." Henry made no reply, and the duke went on:—

"The western districts will hold by my cousin. I can name you over the traitors one by one. You know well that not one of those men can unite Normandy or rule it if it is united, and you know that I can, if you help me to overcome these rebels." Still Henry was silent. Then said the duke:—

"It rests with you whether you will have Normandy united and under a strong hand, or whether you will have bloodshed and robbery and murder. Even if these men should ask to be your vassals, what kind of subjects, think you, will rebels and traitors become? Will they be any more true to you than they have been to me?" For the third time in William's few years of life, it had been shown that to throw one's self frankly upon the generosity of either Frenchman or Norman would often arouse in him a spirit of chivalry and honor. King Henry spoke at last.