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

The Last Year

In all these years of trouble and anxiety, of false friends and bitter enemies, William's one joy had been the companionship of his wife and children,—when he could have them with him in England, or could be with them in Normandy. Matilda shared his ambition, and endured the frequent separation as patiently as might be, trying to rule the duchy in such wise that her husband might be free for the difficulties of England.

In the town of Bayeux, there is kept with the utmost care a piece of embroidery that Matilda and her court ladies are supposed to have wrought in William's honor during some of these absences. Embroidery was not looked upon in those days as a trivial amusement, it was a serious occupation; and it is quite possible that Matilda's excellent management of the turbulent duchy was not regarded with nearly so much respect and admiration as her skill in the use of the needle. Tapestry was not only the comfort that made life endurable in the draughty old castles; it was the family record, the history, the children's picture-book, and the grown folks' portrait gallery.

This Bayeux tapestry, as it is called, is a piece of canvas about half a yard wide and nearly seventy yards long. It is covered with figures of men and horses and trees and ships and castles,—hundreds of them; and these pictures, together with a running inscription in Latin, tell the whole story of the Norman conquest, beginning with Harold's visit to Normandy, and ending with the battle at Senlac. While the stone castles have crumbled, and the steel weapons of the fighters have vanished, this fragile piece of linen has endured for eight hundred years. The care with which it is wrought suggests that it was a labor of love; and it seems a great pity that between the man who did such bold deeds and the woman who loved to chronicle them, dissension should have arisen. Dissension did arise, however, and it was on account of the one who was dearest to them both,—their eldest son, Robert.

William had always been troubled lest the barons should revolt at his death and refuse their allegiance to his son. It was because of this fear that before he went to England he required all his vassals to do homage to Robert, who was then twelve years of age; and to make the matter even more sure, he called upon the king of France, as overlord, to confirm this transaction. Whenever William was in England, Robert's name was associated with his mother's in the government of the duchy, until, while he was yet a boy, he began to feel like a very great man; and when he was about twenty-three, he demanded that his father's domain should be limited to England, and that he himself should have the full control of Normandy.

"I don't take off my clothes till I go to bed," said the conqueror. "Normandy is mine because I inherited it, and England is mine because I won it; but if I gave up Normandy, I could not hold England."

"What am I to do, then?" asked Robert angrily. "How am I to pay my followers?"

"Obey me," said William, "and wherever I have power, there shall you have power; wherever I have wealth, there shall you have wealth."

"I won't be the hireling of any man," said Robert; "I want what belongs to me. You give me Normandy, and then you take it away. Normandy belongs to me, and I want it."

"A son who does not know how to obey his father is not fit to rule a duchy," said William. "Go to Canterbury and ask Archbishop Lanfranc how a son should behave toward his father before you come to me for a duchy."

William and his rebellious son


"My lord the king," said Robert, "I did not come here to listen to lectures; I had enough of that from my tutors when I was a boy. I came for the duchy of Normandy, which is mine by right. Will you give it to me, or will you not?"

"I will not," thundered the king. "So long as I live, what is mine is mine."

Robert went away in a rage. The more he thought of the matter, the more angry he grew, and the more ready to listen to his companions and to the messages of Philip of France that were ever urging him on to demand his rights. The younger sons, William Rufus and Henry, held by their father, and Robert's jealousy of them made him ready to quarrel on the slightest pretext.

It soon came about that William went forth to quell a Norman revolt, and his three sons accompanied him, though Henry could hardly have been more than nine or ten years old. The little boy and William Rufus were playing at dice in the room directly over Robert, and either in malice or in mischief, they threw water down upon their brother and his friends below. Robert chose to regard the silly trick as a deliberate insult, and rushed upstairs with his drawn sword to take a fearful revenge. Fortunately, the king appeared and prevented violence, but that very night Robert and a company of his friends rode to Rouen and made an attempt to seize the castle. This was unsuccessful; and Robert then declared that he would stay no longer in a duchy which was his own and was unjustly kept from him by another; so out into the world he went, visiting wealthy knights and nobles, and arousing them against his father by telling them how unjustly he had been treated. There were many in Normandy who, in spite of their oath to William, would provide Robert with money on his promise to repay them liberally when he should come to his rights; and Philip of France was always ready to do anything that would work to the injury of William.

Robert had yet another grievance; and that was that when he was a child his father had betrothed him to the little girl who was the heiress of Maine, on condition that the revenues of Maine were to belong to William till the children were old enough to be married. The little girl died; and as there was no one else who had a good title to the district, William kept it; and when Robert demanded it as his right, declared that there had been no marriage, and therefore Robert had no claim to the province.

King William's love for his children was as strong as his manifestation of it was often unwise, and this rebellion would have been enough to make him unhappy; but worst of all, he found after a while that Matilda was secretly supporting Robert's rebellious plans by sending him the money that was increasing and arming the foes of her husband. Again and again he forbade it. The proud queen pleaded for her son. Then said the king:—

"Could you have found a husband who would have loved you more than I, or have been more faithful to you? Where I am duke, you are duchess; where I am king, you are queen. My treasures are in your hand. Can it be that you are pouring them out to aid my enemy, that you whom I have loved best of all the world are the one that has betrayed me?" And Matilda answered:—

"You have shared with me all that you have because you love me; and can you blame me that I share with Robert all that I have because I love him? If he was dead and buried in the earth seven feet deep, I would give my own heart's blood to bring him to life again. I cannot be so hard-hearted as to abandon my eldest son, and you must not lay such a command upon me." Then William declared that at least her messenger should be punished; but Matilda sent word to the man, and he fled to a convent, "and so saved at the same time his body and his soul," say the old chroniclers.

Finally, there was a pitched battle between father and son and their followers. An arrow shot down the king's horse, and at the same moment William, who in all his battles had never before received a wound, was pierced through the arm by a spear thrust. It was Robert who bore the spear, and upon him his father pronounced a bitter curse. Afterwards, by the entreaties of the queen and the chief men of the duchy, a kind of reconciliation was brought about; but the thought that his queen was no longer one with him, and that to please a prodigal son she would aid his enemies, was perhaps the greatest grief of the king's whole life.

One sorrow after another came to him. Not long after Robert's rebellion, a messenger stood before him with pale face and downcast eyes.

"O King William," he said, "the prince was pursuing a deer in the New Forest, and his horse took fright and dashed him against a tree, and he is dead." Prince Richard was buried in the church at Winchester. After the funeral a little group of English lingered about the place.

"It is not easy to lose a son," said one.

"No, it is not," said an old man. "My son was killed at Senlac. If William had stayed in the land that God gave him, his son would not have been killed and neither would mine."

"They say that the prince fell from his horse just where the altar of the church used to stand," said the first.

"So I have heard," said the old man; "and I have also heard that every night as the curfew rings, the dead priests come out in white robes and walk around the place where their church used to be. One of them bears the golden pyx, and in it is the semblance of the Holy Wafer, and as they go, they chant, 'There shall be three, there shall be three.' This is the first; who will be the second?"

"Perhaps the king himself," whispered the other fearfully. "Since the murder of Waltheof nothing has gone well with him. Then, too, he married against the will of the church, and it is only right that one should die and one rebel. When a man does wrong, he is sure to suffer."

William's other two sons had stood by their father. Of his daughters, the little girl who had been promised to Harold had never crossed the water, for she died before the conquest. Cicely entered a convent, as did also a younger sister. One married the Count of Brittany, and another, the Count of Blois.

A fine trait in William's character was his affection for his relatives on the side of his peasant mother. Of Arletta herself nothing is known, except that she married an honorable knight, Herlwin de Conteville, and that William always treated her with great respect. Her two sons, Robert and Odo, had stood one on either side of William at the battle of Senlac. Robert was a brave, true, upright man, and he seems to have been one of the few whom William dared to trust; for while in giving land to other men, he was careful to scatter their manors about the kingdom, to Robert he gave nearly the whole of Cornwall and seventy-five manors in Devonshire, besides nearly five hundred more in different parts of the country. Robert fought not only with William, but for him, and was never tempted to have the least connection with the endless conspiracies that were made against his royal brother.

Odo, the second son of Arletta, was of quite different material. He had been raised to the bishopric of Bayeux; but he was more of a warrior than a bishop, and he gladly dropped his staff and seized a war-club when the opportunity came to him to win great possessions in England. William made him Earl of Kent, and gave him a great number of manors; but not nearly so many as he gave Robert, and far more scattered.

When William had to leave England for Normandy, the chief rule of the country was given to Odo, as has been said before. Wealth and power coming to him so suddenly were more than he could bear with wisdom. He began to think of aiming at the royal throne. Then some evil counsellor whispered to him:—

"There is a soothsayer in Rome who says that the name of the next pope will be either Odo or Otto."

"It shall be Odo," said the bishop to himself; and from that moment he was like one insane in his ambition to become pope. He bought himself a beautiful house in Rome; he sent munificent gifts to all whose influence might be of value; and he even planned to enter the holy city with so large an escort that it was almost like an army. But William had not been blind; and just when Odo was ready to set sail with his company, who should appear on the scene but the king of England. He straightway called an assembly of the chief men, and to them he said:—

"Here is the man who has ruled England in my name, while I was quelling a revolt in my duchy and suppressing the rebellion of my unnatural son. He has robbed the poor and the church. He has planned to seize the popedom as he has seized the goods of my subjects. My knights who are needed in England he has persuaded to abandon their own country to the Danish hosts or to any marauders that may come, while they themselves guard his way to Rome that he may become pope. Here is the man. What is fitting to be done with him?" No one wished to speak. There was silence. Then said the king:—

"No man who has done ill should be spared through favor. Seize this man and put him in ward." No one dared to seize a bishop. There upon William himself laid hold of him.

"I am a priest," cried Odo, "a minister of the Lord. No one may condemn a bishop without the decree of the Pope."

"A bishop?" said William. "I have nothing to do with a bishop. The bishop may go where he will. The one I have to do with is the Earl of Kent, he who has ill-treated my people, he who is my vassal and my earl." Then was the Earl of Kent carried away and put into prison. The Pope was indignant, but William replied only:—

"Naught have I to do with the bishop, he may go free; but the earl remains in prison."

Only one year after the trouble with Odo, the king was suddenly called to Normandy by the fatal illness of Matilda. He had met his other troubles bravely; but her loss was a crushing blow, and one from which he never recovered.

Four years after the death of Matilda came the last year of William's life. It was a terrible time. There were disastrous fires in many of the chief towns of England, and the land was ravaged by fearful storms. Then came famine, and after famine came sickness. With all this there was war as fierce as any that had been fought during the whole reign.

A strip of territory called the Vexin had been given by France to Duke Robert, then seized again by France when William was a child. William demanded this land of Philip, but Philip, knowing that the king was not at all well, ventured to return no other reply than a coarse, impertinent jest. In a moment there flashed through William's mind the wrongs that he had endured from Philip's father, the insolence of Philip himself, and worst of all, the eager encouragement to rebellion that Philip had given to his son Robert. He sprang from his bed, assembled his troops, and whirled over the Vexin like a storm-wind, laying waste homes and harvest-fields. At last he came to Mantes; and there palace and church blazed alike, till the ground where the town had stood was only a bed of glowing embers. On one of these the horse of William stumbled. The king fell forward heavily upon the pommel of the saddle. He felt that his injury was mortal and sounded a retreat. He was taken to Rouen, and thence to the quiet priory of Saint Gervase on a hill to the west of the city.

About him gathered bishops and abbots and men skilled in medicine. There, too, came his faithful brother Robert; and his two younger sons, William Rufus and Henry, who waited eagerly for the suffering man to declare his final will in regard to his property.

"Who shall have Normandy?" they questioned.

"Normandy was promised to Robert," said the king. "Ill fares the land that he rules, but the Normans have done him homage; they wish for him, and Normandy he must have."

"And who is to have England?" cried William Rufus, with sparkling eyes; but his face fell when his father said slowly:—

"Normandy is mine as it was my father's, but England I took by the sword. I give it back to God; the land is not mine to bestow." His eyes closed wearily, and William Rufus turned bitterly away.

"My lord king," said one of the bishops, "is it well to leave the country to the strife and tumult that befall the land that has no ruler? Will you not name him to whom you would give your kingdom?"

"It is not mine to give," said the king; "but if it was mine, I would give it to my son William. Yes, write a parchment to Lanfranc. Tell him my son has been obedient to me, and that if it please God, I would that he should have the kingdom. Tell Lanfranc to crown him if he thinks it right." The parchment was prepared, and William sealed it with his ring. Henry had been waiting impatiently. Now he broke forth:—

"And what am I to have, if Robert has the duchy and William the kingdom? What is there left for me?"

"I give you five thousand pounds in silver," said the king.

"What can I do with that," said Henry, "if I have no place to dwell in?"

"Be patient," said his father. "You are young; let those who are older go before you. The time may come when you will be greater than both of them."

The two young men left their father's bedside: Henry to have his silver weighed and to put it into a place of safety; William Rufus to set out for England, lest some one seize the throne before him. Then William gave large sums of money to rebuild Mantes, to aid the church, and to help the poor of England. He named over one prisoner after another, and bade that they be released.

"There is one more," said an abbot; "there is Bishop Odo. Will you not set him free?"

"No," said the king; "bishop and brother I would gladly free, but the earl who has plundered and oppressed my people, he shall not go free. Open every other prison door in Normandy and in England, but bar his more firmly." Then said Robert of Mortain, Earl of Cornwall:—

"He is our brother, William, our own mother's son. Set him free, and I pledge all that you have given me that he will no longer oppress those who cannot resist. By your love for me, by your love for our mother, set him free."

"Ruin and woe will follow him wherever he goes," said William; "but as you will. Set him free."

One September morning a few days later the great bell on the church struck.

"What is that?" asked William.

"It is the bell for primes," said the attendant. William clasped his hands, and with a prayer for pardon his spirit passed away. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:—

"May Almighty God show mercy to his soul, and grant his sins forgiveness."

As to William's greatness, there is no question. More than one man of resolute purpose has cut for himself a way to a throne with his own good sword, and that, indeed, is an achievement; but it is a greater when one placed at the head of a turbulent, rebellious state has reduced that state to order, and has extended his sway over a rich and powerful kingdom. Here is a man who began his reign as a little child, envied because of his princely father and despised because of his plebeian mother. Whoever chose might cast a glance of scorn at the boy of ignoble birth. Whoever aspired to a duchy might attempt his murder. Other children grew up amid love; he grew up amid hatred. Could one expect such a childhood to bring forth tenderness, gentleness, and mercy? Could one ask more than that those years should not make him bitter and malevolent?

And yet this child proved to be a man of warmest affections. He clung to his low-born mother. To her he presented the first-fruits of his sword; to her son, of all the nobles that stood by him at Senlac, he gave the largest share of the conquered kingdom. He showed a savage cruelty more than once, it is true, but either to those who had taunted his mother, or to the king who had led astray his eldest son. Over and over again he forgave men who had revolted against him.

An eleventh-century man should not be judged by twentieth-century ideas. The standard of goodness is higher, and the moral man of William's time would be looked upon to-day as a dangerous character. What was then the simple course of justice would be to-day the most barbaric cruelty. It was a time of formalism. He who committed no great crime, performed the penances of the church, and gave to her freely, was looked upon as her faithful son. To take a false oath one's self was generally regarded as wrong under most circumstances, but to trick another into a sacred promise was a different matter. Hildebrand had come none too soon. Morality was low; the demands of the church were low. If William seized England wrongfully, he was at least fighting under the Pope's banner, and with the blessing of the Pope resting upon his head.

Alfred the Great might well say, "I have sought to live my life worthily;" William the Conqueror could say, "I have given freely to the church; I have built many convents and many abbeys." Alfred was true to the spirit of the teachings of the church; William was true to the letter.