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

Promise or Prison?

Occupied as William was by revolts in his own duchy, invasions of the king of France, and negotiations to obtain the Pope's sanction of his marriage, he had never forgotten the promise of King Edward that some day he should wear the crown of England. He waited patiently, increasing his power in Normandy, and watching keenly every movement of the people across the Channel. Twelve years had passed before anything happened that seemed to strengthen his hold upon the English crown.

Now when "all folk chose Edward to king," the principal reason for their choice was that Edward belonged to the old Saxon family that had been their rulers before the coming of the Danes. One of Edward's chief supporters was a powerful noble named Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and he gave to the new king his daughter Edith in marriage. Godwin may have been indignant that Edward's gratitude was not powerful enough to make him obedient to the man who had helped him to the throne; or he may have been genuinely disappointed when he found that he had only exchanged Danish rule for Norman; for in education and taste Edward was as much of a Norman as if he had never left Norman soil, and to Normans he gave all places of honor in court and church. Whatever may have been the reason, he opposed Edward determinedly. The king accused him of the murder of Alfred, and the council seized his estates and banished him.

Soon after William made his visit to England, Godwin returned. He had cleared himself of the charge of murder, and the council gave back his land. It did more, for a decree was passed declaring that the king's Norman friends must leave England because it was their advice that had brought about such injustice.

An event like this could hardly fail to make it clear to the king that the English people would not give up easily to any foreign rule. Edward began to find that his recommendation to the council would not be enough to place William peaceably upon the throne. Would it not rather bring about discord and war? and would not the Danish party seize upon any time of disunion to force a Danish king upon the land? Was there anything better to do?

Far away in Hungary was a prince called the "Outlaw," a nephew of Edward's. He was invited to England, and now the question seemed to be settled, for his father had been greatly loved by the English people; but in a few weeks he died. His son was too young to be thought of as ruler of the land, and again Edward must try to plan for the succession. He had learned that the king could not give away his crown; but he had also learned that when the people came to make their choice, the wish of the king would be of great weight. What should he do?

Godwin was dead, but he had left a son, Harold, and every day Harold's power was on the increase. He had no claim to the throne by blood, he was merely the brother-in-law of the king; but William's relationship was only that of grand-nephew to Edward's Norman mother. No drop of English blood royal was in his veins any more than in Harold's. Edward's choice lay between a child of the royal family, whose youth would lay the kingdom open to Danish dominion; a foreigner of a race hated by the English; and an Englishman loved and admired by the English nation. Who could blame him if his mind turned toward Harold?

It came about one bright day in 1064 that Earl Harold went out sailing with a merry party. There were three vessels full of his friends. They started from Bosham, near the Isle of Wight. Just where they would go, they had not decided, but they took with them their dogs and hawks and bows and spears, for they meant to hunt wherever they landed. A storm came up suddenly. The boats were separated, and the one that carried Harold was driven across the Channel and wrecked. In the darkness he and several of the party were cast upon an unknown coast. Harold was the first to reach the land, and in the roar of the surf he shouted:—

"Ho, there, ho! Is any one saved?" There was no sound from the shore, but from the waves came a cry of "Help, help!" Into the fearful tumult of the waters Harold plunged in the direction of the voice. He touched a man in the darkness and brought him to land.

"The earl himself," said the man. "Glad am I that you are saved."

"And I, too," said another. "And I," "And, I" cried other voices. "It would have fared ill with us in England if we had gone back without the man who is to be its king."

"Talk not of kings," said the earl; "talk rather of where we are and how we are to escape. If we are on the coast of Normandy, I'd rather go back into the sea."

"The duke owes England nothing but kindness," said one of the party.

"He would willingly owe her for more kindness," said the earl grimly. "We will stay under these rocks till daybreak. They seem to rise up high above us; at least, it is darker there than to the right or the left; and when morning comes, we will try to escape. I would give half of my earldom to have a good piece of English ground under my feet once more."

Just before the break of day two men stood on the little cliff that in the darkness had seemed to tower so far above the beach. By their dress they should have been fishermen, but on the shore there were no signs of nets having been spread, and the men had neither fishhooks nor lines. Instead they bore stout ropes and long poles with strong hooks at the end.

"Stop!" said one softly, as the little path came near the edge of the cliff; "there are sometimes better things than driftwood, or kegs of food or bits of iron. Stay back and let me look."

"Yes, I know what you want. Stay back yourself," whispered the other angrily, and he flung his companion back heavily away from the cliff. The noise of the waves covered that of the scuffle, and the man crept to the edge and peered over.

Down below him was the little group. The sailor's dress and the knight's dress he could make out, but there was one man the richness of whose garments even the salt water could not entirely conceal. The watcher on the cliff noticed that some attempt seemed to have been made to lessen his discomfort. The cloak of one and the tunic of another were thrown over him. He moved, and the fisherman caught a glimpse of his face and started.

"I haven't been on the English coast for nothing," he said to himself. He sprang up softly, but the other caught him by the leg.

"Where are you going?" he demanded in a fierce whisper.

"To the count."

"Then I go with you," and he pursued closely as the first ran across the field. They were soon out of hearing of the shipwrecked party.

"What are you  going to the count for?" called over his shoulder the one who had seen the group on the shore.

"Because you expect a reward from him, and I mean to have some of it," said the other boldly.

"You do? and what can you say to win a reward? I have something to tell."

"Tell me what it is, or you will never get to the count."

"And what would you have to tell, then? Would the count be pleased that you had killed a man who was useful to him? Watch and see that no one escapes, and I will give you a pound when I come back."

"You expect to get twenty, or else you wouldn't," muttered the fisherman; but there was nothing else to do, so he gave up the pursuit. The spy ran on, but before he came to the castle he met the count.

"Count Guy," said he, "I have a bigger fish than I ever caught before. Will you give me twenty pounds for him? I'll warrant you he'll pay you one hundred. It's the Earl of Wessex."

Without a moment's delay, the count summoned his followers and rode to the coast. The broken vessel had come ashore, and the shipwrecked men were trying to make it seaworthy. So busy were they that the first they knew of the coming of the count was his call,—

"Hold, you are my captives!"

"Who are you?" demanded Harold defiantly.

"Count Guy of Ponthieu, a faithful vassal of Normandy. You are my prisoner."

"I claim of you the hospitality that one noble has the right to claim of another," said Harold.

"You do not give me your name," said the count with a peculiar smile. "I know it, however. You are Earl Harold of England, and down into my strongest dungeon you go until your ransom is paid."

"And this is your Norman courtesy? You are thieves and robbers all, and so was your Rollo before you," said Harold fiercely.

"What the wave brings to us is our own, be it weed or drift," said the count calmly.

"Or men?" asked Harold angrily.

"Or men," repeated the count. "The man who is wrecked is accursed of God, or God would have brought him safely to his haven."

"What kind of God you have in Normandy, I know not," said Harold bitterly; "but the God of England tells us to help the unfortunate."

"And so may you do when you are in England," said the count; "but this is Ponthieu, and I am lord of Ponthieu, and a faithful vassal to Duke William and—"

"And when did your faithfulness begin?" asked Harold scornfully.

"Long enough ago for me to have a castle. It has a dungeon and a torture chamber, too, and sometimes these will hasten the coming of a ransom."

Harold was taken to the castle, perhaps to the dungeon; but one of his faithful attendants who had been out of sight when the count appeared, remained in hiding until he and his captives were gone, and then made his way to Rouen and demanded to see Duke William. To him he told the story of the wreck and the capture, and begged that he as overlord would force the count to set Harold free.

It was a terrible temptation to set before the man whose ambition it was to become king of England. Here was his only rival fallen by the fate of the waves and the winds into the hands of a man whose anger the earl had already aroused by his boldness. He need do nothing but to let the count work his will. The dungeon and the rack might hasten the ransom, or they might hasten the death of the only man that stood between the Duke of Normandy and the succession to the English crown. He had only to imprison this messenger, and it would never be known that any appeal had been made to him.

Whatever William did afterward to further his ambition, his course now seemed most honorable. Swift messengers were sent to Count Guy to ask for the freedom of the English earl, to demand it if need be. Guy yielded gracefully, and accompanied Harold, not as jailer but as host, to the castle of Eu on the boundary line of Ponthieu. There Duke William received him with the greatest courtesy. Count Guy was rewarded with money and land, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, became the guest of William, Duke of Normandy. The two men who were most prominent in western Europe were together; what would come of the meeting?

Apparently the chief result of it was only a most hospitable entertainment. Harold was provided with the best that the castle afforded. There were feasts and games and hunting and hawking; and finally, there came the noblest sport of it all, so Harold and his friends thought, for one of the Breton nobles had revolted, and William invited his guests to join him in an expedition to overcome the rebel. They were successful, and when they returned, William gave them generous presents and knighted those who had not already received knighthood. It was a merry time.

"You have shown us great courtesy," said Harold to William. "Save for you, I might still have been a prisoner in the dungeon of the Count of Ponthieu. The silver I can return to you, but the kindness and the hospitality I can return only if you will become my guest in Wessex. May I hope that this will come to pass?"

"I thank you," said William heartily, and he added slowly: "Yes, I will come; but, Earl Harold, there is something on my mind that I wish to discuss with you. We have lived in friendly companionship, and it would not displease me if the relationship between us was even closer. You are a man of great power, and some day you will marry, and in such wise as to increase your power. How would an alliance with Normandy please you? I have a daughter Adelaide, nine years old, or eight—I will ask her mother. When my father left me to rule the barons of Normandy, he said of me, 'He is little, but he will grow.' So say I of my Adelaide. But here comes the little maid herself. Will you have her, Earl Harold? She's the fairest little girl in Normandy." He caught the child in his arms and seated her high up on his shoulder.

"How is it with you, Adelaide? Will you marry this Englishman and go across the water with him to live in the far-away land?"

"Will he take me in a boat?" asked the child earnestly.

"Yes, will you marry me?" said Harold.

"I've wanted to go in a boat ever since I was a little girl," said Adelaide. "I'll marry you right away; but wait till I call my dog, he wants to go in a boat, too. Come, father, you and mother, and we will go across the water."

So it was that the little daughter of William was betrothed to Earl Harold. A formal ceremony followed, and the child was much disappointed to find that she would not cross the water at present, but would only be led up to the altar in the church by this tall Englishman with a brilliant company of knights and nobles and ladies looking on.

Harold was older than William; the marriage was far in the future; and even if it came to pass, an alliance with the Duke of Normandy would be a great advantage, so the earl willingly agreed to the betrothal.

Harold had been entertained as a guest to whom the duke wished to show special honor; but for all that, he would, as he said, have given half his earldom to have a good piece of English ground under his feet. Several times he had named an hour to set sail for England, but when the hour had come, the duke had always had some excuse for detaining him. A wonderfully large wild boar had been seen in the forest, and his guest must join in just one more hunt; or the wind was not in the right direction; or the sky gave signs of a change of weather. These excuses were often so trivial that Harold well understood that, guest as he was, he was not at liberty to leave the Norman shores till it should please the duke to allow his departure.

The crown of England lay between these two men. Each knew that the other intended to win it, and Harold was not entirely surprised when William said:—

"There is another subject that I wish to discuss with you. Of course a man in the king's counsel as you are knows that it was settled some twelve or thirteen years ago that at my cousin's death I was to become king of England."

"The king does not reveal all his plans," said Harold evasively.

"True," said the duke quietly; "but I fancied that he had revealed this one to an earl who was so fully in his confidence. Edward is feeble, his life cannot last many years, perhaps not many months. We must be prepared for what may happen. Until that comes to pass which will come, I must remain in Normandy; but I need a strong man to look after my interests in England. I need not say that when the time comes, I shall look after his interests. He who serves me well now will have wide stretches of land and the highest honors of the kingdom. Will you promise me to act in my behalf and to do all in your power to secure for me the throne of England?"

"I will do all that I can to carry out King Edward's will," said Harold evasively.

"That may be enough, and it may not. Edward is advancing in years, and as one grows weak in body, he is sometimes influenced by those around him to make plans that he would not have thought of in his stronger days. Will you promise me—"

"Father," said a childish voice, "won't you come and tell the armorer to make me a sword? He won't, and I'm ten years old, and you had one when you were not nearly so old. You told me you did. Come quick, father." Robert seized his father's hand, and the great duke followed meekly to give the order to the armorer. When he returned, he seemed to have forgotten all about the English crown, and he said to Harold:—

"I think you have never seen the whole of the castle. Will you go over it now?" Up the narrow, winding stairs they went to the very summit of the tower; then down, down below the hall with its light and color and cheer to the wine cellars, and below those to the dungeons. Great pits they were into which no ray of light could penetrate. There was a noisome smell of slime and foulness.

"Count Guy spent two years in one of my dungeons; but I fancy that less than two years in this would make a man agree to anything," said William with a significance which Harold understood.

[Illustration] from Days of William the Conqueror by E. M. Tappan


When they were in the hall again, the duke said quietly:—

"I may depend upon you, may I not, to act in my interest to the full, and to do your best to secure for me peaceable possession of the English crown? Do you promise?" The duke spoke gently; but his eyes were fixed upon Harold, and in them was a stern glitter like the flashing of a sword.

Harold was a man of truth, but he held many honors, and even greater ones were before him. At the last breath of Edward the English people were ready to make him king. Should he give up a kingdom and submit to a living death in the horrible dungeons of Normandy for a scruple of conscience? What was a word after all? Only a breath. Ought it to hold one like a chain of iron? Moreover, he must think of others besides himself. If he was down in that fearful pit, William would attempt to become king of England. There would be war. Ruin and devastation and bloodshed would sweep over the country. Had a man the right to keep his conscience pure at the cost of the whole land? These were not new thoughts to Harold, but in a moment they flashed through his mind like a flash of lightning. He yielded.

"I will do it," he said, "I will do my best to place you peaceably on the throne of England."

"And all that the man who sits on the throne can do for another, will I do for you," said William; "and the day after to-morrow, if you insist upon going, all our merry company will ride to the shore with you and see you safely launched on the blue waters of the Channel.

Morning came, and with it a message from the duke.

"My knights are assembled in the council hall. They are come to do you honor before you depart from our court. Will you come with me to receive their farewells and their good wishes?"

Harold rode with the duke to the great council chamber. There was a brilliant assemblage of knights and nobles and ladies of the court. They seemed to have clustered about some object in the centre of the hall, but as William and Harold drew near they separated. There stood the richly carven chair of state. Over it was thrown a cloth of gold, and on this were the holy vessels brought from the nearest cathedral. In the centre was a missal open at one of the Gospels, and near it lay some of the relics of Saint Candre.

"I know well that you are a man of your word," said. William to Harold, "and your promise is enough for me; but for the sake of those about me, to increase their loyalty and their confidence, I ask you to swear on the Gospel and on these relics that you will do everything in your power to aid me to become king of England."

To the people of the eleventh century an oath was far more binding than an ordinary promise, but Harold had gone too far to go back, he thought; and although William spoke in a most friendly way, his eyes were sternly bent upon the English earl. Harold hesitated for a moment. The thought flashed through his mind, "Saint Candre is not a very powerful patron. I need not fear him. I will do penance, and I will make great gifts to the church, and I will win over every other saint in the calendar to be my friend." So Harold laid his hand on the Gospels, as William bade him, and took the oath. Two priests, who had stood one on either side of the chair of state, gently lifted the golden cloth. There was silence through the great hall; and Harold turned white with horror, for under the golden cloth were relics of the most powerful saints of Normandy, and relics that Duke Robert had sent from Rome and from Jerusalem. Upon these relics he had laid his hand as he took the oath, and if the oath was broken every one of those saints was bound to be his enemy and to do him harm. No wonder that he was aghast.

"A promise is a promise," said William in his ear. "To a man like you, whose promise is sincere, it matters not that he has sworn to it on the holiest relics that the church in Normandy possesses." He turned to his knights:—

"Our good friend and welcome guest has told me that he must set sail for England in the morning. Let us give him a merry escort to Harfleur, and see him fairly embarked on the water that perhaps will not always separate the interests of Normandy from those of England."

Never had William's knights seen him so full of jests and gayety as on their return from Harfleur. They did not know that he was saying to himself over and over:—

"If he keeps his oath, it is well; if he breaks it, who is there in all England that will trust the kingdom to a man who is forsworn?"