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

"England Is Mine"

The strength of the Norman army was its horsemen; the strength of the English army was its foot soldiers. While William's forces were well fitted to make an attack, Harold's power lay in his ability to resist an attack. William was a great commander, for he knew when to advance; but Harold was hardly less great, for he knew when to stand still. He was familiar with southern England, and on his hurried march from the north he had mentally chosen his position. It was seven miles from Hastings and on the direct line from Hastings to London.

Just below the summit of the hill of Senlac he arranged his men in order, those on either hand armed with clubs or javelins or forks or even stone hammers or sharp stakes. In the centre, where the first advance of the Normans was expected, were the veterans of the army, soldiers tried and true. Their shields and arms were much like those of the Normans, save for one terrible weapon, the great battle-axe. This had a longer handle than the Norman axe, and in the hands of a strong man it was the most deadly of weapons. In the midst of the veterans was the dragon banner of England, and the king's gonfalon bearing a warrior in full array. Near the banner stood Harold and his two faithful brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. Stretching along in front of the line of soldiers was a strong palisade.

This was the array which the Normans were advancing to attack. At the first sight of the English encampment they paused to put on their armor. William's coat of mail was brought out, and by mistake the front and back were reversed. The soldiers who were to bear their part so boldly in the battle trembled before the omen of evil, but again the quick-witted duke smiled at their fear and said:—

"I trust in God, not in signs and warnings; but if this is an omen of anything, it means that just as I change this hauberk about, so am I to be changed—changed from a duke into a king."

William, too, had arranged his men in three divisions, the Normans in the centre. In the first line were the slingers and archers; then came the heavy-armed infantry; and behind them rode the knights in full armor with the lance and the sword. In the centre of the group the holy banner of the Pope waved in the breeze of the early morning, and under it were Robert of Mortain, a brave, faithful, kind-hearted man; and Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who, forbidden by the church to bear sword or spear, solved the difficulty by arming himself with a war-club. These were the sons of Arletta and Heriwin of Conteville. Between them rode their half-brother, the great duke. No lance or javelin did he carry, but a heavy iron mace, as terrible a weapon as the axe of Harold.

On toward the hill came the Norman array, but suddenly a man rode forth in front of the line. It was Taillefer, the minstrel. He sang songs of Roland and of Charlemagne; he made his horse curvet and caracole; he tossed his sword into the air and caught it as it fell. He chanted words of encouragement to the Normans and of threatening to the English. Both armies stood as if spellbound. The minstrel waved his sword to the duke.

"Duke William," he said, "long ago, in happy Falaise, you promised me one day that whatever gift I should ask of you, you would grant. This is the gift—to strike the first blow against the usurper." Then, wheeling about, he dashed up to the English line, thrust his lance through one man, cut down another with his sword, and in a moment lay dead, struck down by many an English weapon.

The Norman line advanced. Straight up the hill they charged. "God help us!" they shouted; while the English veterans cried, "Holy Cross! Holy Cross!" Harold had laid his plans well. The palisade, the wall of shields, the solid ranks of men—as long as these were unbroken the Norman onslaughts were as powerless as a shower beating upon an oak tree. Duke William and his men fell back. The ranks were in disorder. The whole invading force was panic-stricken.

"Flee, my duke, save yourself!" shouted a soldier.

"The duke is dead! The duke is dead!" cried some one, and the wild cry ran through the lines. William uncovered his face and pursued his men.

"Come back," he called; "why do you flee? I live, and by the grace of God I will conquer. Come back, or with my own hand I will strike you down."

At the head of the Normans William dashed forward for another attack. His horse fell under him. No matter, he could press nearer on foot. He struck down Gyrth, and his brother struck down Leofwine; and now the English fought for vengeance. William mounted another horse. It was slain. He mounted a third. The Norman forces pressed on. The wooden palisade was beginning to yield, but behind it were the deep ranks of brave Englishmen, and their firmly grasped shields were a stronger wall than any palisade.

Something more than daring was needed. Part of the invading force advanced, turned, broke ranks and fled. The raw troops of the English rushed from their position and pursued, though the veterans at their left shouted "Back! back!" for this was the old trick which the Danes had played upon the English two centuries before, and which William had played upon the king of France. The Normans wheeled about, formed their lines anew, and cut down their scattered pursuers.

It was almost twilight. Since nine in the morning the battle had raged. To attack the English behind the firm line of shields was like making an assault upon a fortress. William ordered his archers to shoot straight up into the air. There fell upon the English a storm of the deadly steel, the most terrible event of the day. Men held their shields high up to protect their heads. Then was the moment for the Norman lance and the Norman sword.

Harold fell, his eye pierced by an arrow. His own veterans fought to the death; not one was captured, but the less disciplined troops fled madly over the hills to the northward. They knew the country, but their pursuers were lost in the morass or fell headlong over the precipice; the land itself was avenging the death of her heroes. The English turned and took a fearful revenge on the invaders; but this was only a little company—the battle was lost. If those Englishmen who left their lines to pursue the pretended retreat of the enemy had been as true to Harold in deed as they were in heart, if they had been as obedient as they were courageous, then might the battle of Senlac have been an English victory instead of an English defeat.

The body of Harold was probably buried by William's orders on the shore near Hastings, and sometime later removed to the dead king's church in Waltham; but there is a legend that many years after the battle there was seen in far-away Chester a monk blind in one eye, bent and bowed with trouble and sorrow, and that on his death-bed he owned that it was he who had once been called Harold and crowned king of England.

After the battle the Normans returned to Hastings.

"What is the duke going to do?" said one soldier. "Will he not march upon London?"

"They say not," said another. "They say that he declares God has decided between him and Harold, and that he will remain in Hastings to receive the homage of the nobles of the land."

"Will they come, do you think?"

"Neither William nor I can tell that."

"And what you two can't tell, no one knows," said the other with a laugh.

The English knew that William might march directly upon London. A new king must be chosen at once, and the council met without delay. A strong leader might have united England and saved her; but there was none. Worse than that, there were several parties. One favored the child Edgar, son of the Outlaw; one said that the victory at Senlac was the judgment of God, and that to refuse to submit to William would be to resist God; and the northern earls stood aside, willing that the kingdom should be divided if only they might have a share. Finally Edgar was chosen as king; but he was a child, and the army had vanished.

William waited five days in Hastings for the homage which did not come; then he set out on a march to the eastward as far as Dover, and from there directly to London. Wherever the English yielded, he was mild and gentle, and repaid generously any damage caused by his soldiers; but wherever there was the least resistance, he was so severe that many a town surrendered without a blow. The chief men of England met in London.

"The Duke of Normandy is ravaging the country roundabout," said one. "Soon we shall have nothing around us but burned dwellings and fields laid waste. He is merciful where men yield, and brutal where they resist. I counsel that we yield."

"Harold gave his life to repel the invader," said another, "and shall we so lightly resign the liberty for which he died?"

"We do not resign it, it is already taken from us," said one; "the only question is whether we shall lose our lives as well as our liberty."

"But is our liberty gone?" said another. "Canute came as a conqueror; but he ruled like an Englishman. Has not this duke made Normandy the power which she was not before his reign began?"

"True," said a thoughtful man who sat near him. "Canute came of a heathen race, but he was a good king. This William is a faithful son of the church and—"

He may be a son of the church, but he is the grandson of a tanner," said one bitterly. "Such a disgrace has never before fallen upon the throne of England."

"We cannot resist him," said one sadly; "we have no choice."

"What should we do if we had a choice?" asked another, looking hopelessly about the room. "We chose Harold; he is dead, and there is no one to follow him. We chose Edgar, but he is a child. It may be that it would have been wise, even of our own free will, to choose this great commander, and hope that he would do for us what he has already done for Normandy."

So it was that the crown was offered to William. He had fought for it fiercely, and he had put aside indignantly the suggestion that he should make a compromise for gold and treasure; but now that it was offered, he hesitated. He would have no weak point by which any one else might demand it of him as he had demanded it of Harold. He called a council of his chief officers.

"England is mine," he said. "God has chosen between me and the usurper. In time to come, I shall rule every sod and every stream; but now my word is obeyed and my voice is feared over but a small part of the land. Shall I take the crown before I have won it?"

"Then would a king ever have a crown?" asked a keen-eyed councillor. "Is a king ever sure of his kingdom? Can he ever say that no insurrection will arise, no revolt that, however small, shall yet make him the less king until it be subdued?"

"True," said the duke thoughtfully; "perhaps you are right, though when I am once come to my kingdom, I think there will be no revolts to fear. There is another reason why I should wish to delay the crowning. Do you remember that over the sea is your duchess, my own dearly beloved wife? It is she who has freed me from the care of my duchy that I might cross the water and claim that which is my right. Whatever I win of honors and glory belongs to her, and I would gladly have her beside me to share my crown."

"If you are crowned at once," said another councillor, "it will be taking what is your own as soon as it is possible; but if you delay till you have conquered England step by step, then will you seem not like the rightful king kept out of his own for a time, but like an invader who seizes the land, field by field, and when he has grasped it all, then says that he is king."

Arrangements were made for the coronation. It had long been the custom for the Archbishop of Canterbury to place the crown upon the head of the newly chosen king; but there was some doubt whether Stigand of Canterbury had been made an archbishop with all the due formalities, and as William meant that no one should ever question his legal right to the throne, he chose the Bishop of York to lay upon his head the new crown all ablaze with jewels which had been made for this occasion.

English and Normans filled Westminster Abbey, waiting eagerly for the glittering procession. The clergy in their richest vestments, the English lords in their splendid mantles gorgeous in coloring and sparkling with gems, the royal guard in their brightly burnished armor, swept up toward the altar. There was a moment's break in the long line, and people held their breath to watch, for towering above the spectators, handsome, grave, and stately, came the great duke himself. On one side of him walked Stigand; on the other, Ealdred, Bishop of York.

The Te Deum had been sung; there was silence. Then Ealdred of York and the Bishop of Coutances, who had come with William from Normandy, took their stand, one on either side of the altar. William came forward and stood before the multitude. Then spoke Ealdred of York:—

"This man who now stands before you is William, Duke of Normandy. I present him to you with the blessing of the church upon him. Is it your will, O you people of England, that the crown of England shall be laid upon his head?" Then spoke the Bishop of Coutances:—

"And you, O you Normans, is it your will that he who is your duke shall rule a twofold empire? that he who governs the duchy of Normandy shall become the sovereign of the people of England?"

"Yes! yes! King William! King William!" shouted the whole assembly. But William, who had so many times faced death on the field of battle, turned pale and trembled. There were wild shouts of "Fire! fire!" outside the church. Was it the Norman guards who heard the cries of assent within and mistook the clamor for an attack upon the duke, or was it one last effort of the English people to rid themselves of this foreign ruler? No one knows, but the buildings around the church had been fired, and the blaze shone through the many-colored windows and cast a strange, weird light upon those who were within.

The solemn ritual went on. There was prayer and litany and chanting of psalms. There was swinging of censers, till rich clouds of incense rose far above the altar. William kissed the cross which had been carried before him when he entered the church. Then he laid his hand upon the Gospels; and it may be that there came to him a thought of the oath which he had driven Harold to take, and that he trembled at the memory of this rather than at the fire and the tumult.

'Do you solemnly swear," said the bishop, "that you will rule your people according to the laws of the land?

"Do you swear that you will do justice and mercy to all that abide within your realm?

"Do you swear to be true to the church, to watch over her interests, to guard and defend her?"

William, still trembling, made the sacred promise. Then was he anointed with the consecrated oil, the glittering crown was laid upon his head, and the Duke of Normandy was also King of England.

The coronation should have been followed by the ceremony of paying homage, but this had been prevented by the fire. William was as wise as he was bold, and he thought it best to withdraw to Barking; and there it was that one Saxon noble after another came to become "his man." William received them as his own beloved subjects, invited them to hunt and to hawk, and treated them like favored guests. As a rule, the nobles dwelling in that part of England which had submitted paid William a fee and received their lands again as a fresh grant from him. The northern earls seem to have been convinced that resistance would be useless, and they, too, did homage. William showed them special courtesy, and even promised one of them his little daughter in marriage. Nevertheless, he did not trust them to return to their distant north, where they might easily arouse rebellion, but he gave them each some high office that would keep them in his sight.

To the child Edgar, and his mother and his sisters, William did not fail to show honor; and for the boy himself, who came so near to being king, he seemed to feel a sincere affection. The whole policy of William was to shed no blood, to arouse no unnecessary ill-will, to be just and even generous to those who yielded to him; but to be mercilessly severe in his treatment of those who opposed him.

But there was a crowd of nobles from Normandy and the neighboring countries, and they would not fail to say:—

"King William, when we helped you to gain possession of your kingdom, you said, 'The land that I win, it shall be yours.' Give us our land as you promised us then," and William gave.

According to the ideas of the times, all land belonged to the king and was loaned by him to vassals on condition of their fealty. Now William was the king, crowned and anointed; therefore all who had opposed him were rebels and their land belonged to him. Godwin's family held large tracts, and these he might lawfully appropriate. Besides this, there were many estates whose owners and owners' sons had died at Senlac, and these estates would return to the sovereign. William did not try to make the English poor and the Normans rich; but he took from those who opposed him and gave to those who were loyal to him.

The king must have a well-fortified place of residence in London, and so it was that he began to build the Tower of London. At the same time, he gave the city a special charter. "Ye shall be worthy to enjoy all the laws ye were worth in King Edward's days," said William, and he kept his word. Nevertheless, the strong fortress arose, and it was well garrisoned with men from Normandy and the districts lying around it.

But the king of England was also Duke of Normandy, and across the Channel were lands which ought not to be longer without their lord. William had landed in October and been crowned at Christmas. More than two months had passed since then. He began to feel that he might spend Easter in Normandy with his beloved wife and children.

Nothing could seem wiser than his plan for the government of the kingdom during his absence. Those left in control were his half-brother Odo, the warlike Bishop of Bayeux, he who kept the letter of the church law by wearing no sword, but followed the desires of his own spirit by mounting a war-horse and galloping to battle armed with a war-club; and the second, William Fitz-Osbern, the old and tried friend who had first urged him to make his attack upon England, and who had tricked the Norman nobles not only into aiding him, but into aiding him to such an extent as they would never have dreamed of doing.

Odo and Fitz-Osbern were strong men, but trouble might arise. Since William would not be in the kingdom to suppress any revolt, he very wisely carried those who might become leaders of a revolt with him to Normandy—not as captives, by any means, but as an escort of honor. Each one of the most dangerous of the great men among the English had received a message somewhat like this:—

"William, king of England, is about to cross the sea. He would be escorted by men of mark in the kingdom over which he rules, and therefore he sends you courteous invitation to visit with him his duchy of Normandy."

Probably every one who received this message knew that he was to be taken to Normandy as a hostage for the good behavior of the men who were left behind. If William had demanded their attendance, they might have refused, though the refusal would have been a signal for a revolt; but he had invited, and invited with such flattering courtesy, such apparent confidence in their loyalty, that to refuse would be not only ungracious, but a most unwise confession of hostility. They accepted the invitation; and the ship "Mora," that six months before had brought William and his army to the shores of England, now set out for a return, bearing not only a king of England, but a company of English nobles who to do him honor had left their own land and were coming to Normandy.

Nor was English homage the only treasure on board the ships. Beautiful vessels of gold and of silver, adorned with precious stones, finer jewelry, more exquisite work of enamel and filigree of gold than the Normans could make in their own land, hanging lamps of iron and of the precious metals, the finest cloth of woollen and of linen, robes and vestments rich with embroidery, tapestries shining with gold thread, curtains made precious by the work of the needle—with such things as these the ships were loaded when he who had left his native land a duke returned to it a king. No wonder that he received a welcome. Here was the man who by his own hand had won glory for himself, had honored his duchy, had enriched his nobles, and had, as the weapon of the church, punished one whom the church deemed deserving of punishment.