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

A Stern Rule

The king was seated firmly on his throne. The south was submissive; the north was a wilderness. Far to the northwest was one last stronghold, the city of Chester, and William now set out to subdue it, and so complete the circle of his conquests. He was at York, and it was not long after Christmas, in a bitter northern winter; but William gave the order to march to Chester, and the army marched.

It was a terrible march. There were no roads. It was a wild, rough country at best, with streams, forests, valleys, and jagged hills, difficult in summer even for fresh, enthusiastic troops; but in the winter to make a way through valleys choked with snow, over hills bleak and slippery, and through forests that were masses of icy thorns and tangled icy boughs, would have been hard enough for men born and bred in the north. It was doubly hard for the soldiers from the sunny land of France, wearied by the previous campaigns, their first enthusiasm exhausted by this never satisfied commander, who was ever crying, "On, on," and it is no wonder that the murmurs grew louder and louder.

"I wish I was back in my own Anjou," said one soldier under his breath to a man from Brittany.

"Brittany isn't so bad a place," said the Breton. "We had enough to eat there, and here we may live on fogs and icicles or else starve."

"If any one denies that I, a man from Maine, am a good fighter, he is a false-hearted traitor and a liar," said a man from Maine, looking cautiously around him, and then strutting up and down in grotesque imitation of the "champion." Every one laughed, but one said:—

"There's as much earnest as fun in that, my friend from Maine; for not many men would have been willing to go up the scaling ladder first as you did at Exeter."

"Then if you will agree that I am not a coward, I will say that I don't want to fight any more of these English. They strike like demons."

"I'd as soon fight a demon as anything else," said the man of Anjou; "and I'd go up two scaling ladders to eat a good dinner in a comfortable hall with a red fire on the hearth and plenty of tapestry to keep the wind out." More and more did such feelings spread, till at last some one was found bold enough to say to the king:—

"King William, your soldiers would speak with you." Then the king went forth to his men, and one said, though not without some trembling:—

"King William, we are tired of hunger and cold and of this continual marching on and on. Your orders are too hard for men to carry out. Give us our dismissal." Not a moment did the king hesitate. He stood before them and said:—

"You who are faithful, follow me. You who are cowards, get you gone; it is nothing to me whether you follow or not." Now the soldiers could not make their way to France alone and without the resources of the king. They had hoped to make him turn back, or at least, to offer them higher wages, but the plan had failed. There was nothing to do but to follow him and by their bravery to try to make him forget their attempted desertion. They went on through forest and marsh, in the midst of snow and icy rain, and Chester was taken. The army marched south. On the plain of Sarum William reviewed his troops and rewarded them.

England was quiet, but it was not all peace and happiness through the land. There was discontent and bitter hatred and sometimes revolt, but William was king; and revolt was no longer against a man seeking power, but against a man holding power. William was never intentionally cruel. He had no wish to maim, to starve, to slaughter; but having set before him the single aim of subduing England, he would allow nothing to stand in his way. He would tear down a rebellious castle and put its defenders to the sword; but afterward, and almost without being asked, he would grant a free pardon to the man who had closed the castle gates against him.

Now that he was fairly settled in England, swarms of people came from the continent; for they looked upon England as a new country where, if a man was only a good soldier and vassal, he might receive broad stretches of land. Whole families came. An old rhyme says:—

"William de Coningsby

Came out of Brittany

With his wife Tiffany

And his maide Maufas

And his dogge Hardigras."

William never despised the English. He tried to learn their language, encouraged marriages between English and Normans, and when he was not engaged in subduing his new people, he did all that he could to make them friendly with his old subjects. Unfortunately, many of the conqueror's army and of those that came after them were men of low birth, and the English despised them even while they yielded.

"These adventurers," said one English noble to another, "they are a rabble, and they follow a low-born king."

"There is no place here for an Englishman," said the other, "and I mean to take my own good sword and cut my way to the east. The emperor will always give an Englishman a welcome."

"So say I," said the other heartily. "My country is mine no longer; it belongs to these vagabonds. I will go to Denmark. The Danes were better friends to us than this great Norman with his haughty crew." So it was that while many people came to England, many left their country for foreign lands. Even if a man had sworn fealty to the king and was in his own house, he knew not when some wild band of marauders might come upon him,—against the king's will, of course, but the king was far away. It was better to defend one's goods than to try to restore them; and so the houses were filled with weapons, and the doors were barred and bolted.

Many hid themselves in the wide tracts of forests. Sometimes whole families with their servants, if they had any, went to the wild-wood. "The conqueror has stolen from us, why should we not take back what we can?" they said; and so they fell upon the Normans who came their way. The usual punishments did so little in preventing these assassinations that a law was made imposing a fine upon the people of every district in which a murdered man was found. To avoid this fine the English would, whenever a man was found dead, destroy his clothes and weapons, and then they would declare that the body was that of an Englishman. To meet this state of things, a law was made that every man found murdered should be regarded as a Frenchman unless two men and two women, all near relatives of the murdered man, should swear that he was English.

Although the conquered people never felt the least affection for William, they admitted that he was a just man, if he was severe; but for his companions they seem to have felt only scorn and hatred. They were willing to fight under the king, and especially if they could fight Frenchmen, for they looked upon all who spoke the French language as belonging to their oppressors. William had subdued English with French, and now he would subdue French with English, for Maine had revolted. Le Mans, which he had conquered ten years before, was determined to be free.

Matilda seems never to have made any long stay in England, for so long as William must be away from his duchy, so long must she and Robert stay in Normandy to rule over it. It was at their call that William crossed the Channel. He appeared before Le Mans with his army, and the conquest was only the old story repeated; for instead of fighting, he appealed to the men of Le Mans to surrender, that there might be no bloodshed. After one day's deliberation the town yielded, and William was as merciful as usual to his fallen foe.

The one instance in which he seems to have shown no mercy is in the case of the great Earl Waltheof, to whom he had given his niece Judith in marriage. It seems that Roger, son of the king's old friend, Fitz-Osbern, wished his sister to marry a Breton noble. For some reason the king forbade the marriage. Nevertheless, there was a great wedding, and many prominent men were present, both English and Normans, although they knew that it was against the king's will. Very bold were they in their speeches.

"He has stolen our land from us," said a Saxon.

"And we," said a Norman, "what have we received? We put him on a throne—the grandson of a tanner on a throne—and he has rewarded us with half-barren tracts of land. The land in Normandy is rich with vineyards and with grain fields. This reward of ours is rich in fogs and forests." Then arose another Norman and turned to Earl Waltheof, who had sat silent, pouring the last drops of wine in his horn into another and then back again.

"Earl Waltheof," said he, "all that you English need is a man to lead. You are the man. If you and we two Normans unite, we can bring back the days of Edward. We need do no harm to the king, but we can prevent the oppressions of his nobles. Moreover, William is in Normandy, he is fighting, and he may never be able to return, and—"

"William not return?" said another Norman; "he has spent his life in battles and never yet has he received a wound. He'll return."

"Let him, when we are ready to receive him," said the first Norman. "There may be another Senlac, and if there is we will finish Battle Abbey, but it shall be in memory of William's defeat, not of his victory. We do not all love him any more than you do." Waltheof seemed to have heard not a word of this speech. At last he yielded against his will, and troops began to assemble.

"Do not hasten to cross the seas," wrote William's chief adviser to the absent king. "It would be a shame for you to have to come to us to drive out a handful of traitors and robbers." The royal forces met the conspirators and subdued them after one battle. Waltheof might have escaped, but trusting in his comparative innocence, he crossed the Channel, went straight to William, and begged for his forgiveness. Instead of receiving pardon, he was executed—the last of the English earls, and the only man executed, save for crime, in the whole of William's reign.

"And it was all his wicked wife," said an English thegn; "she wanted to get rid of her husband, and she told King William falsely that the earl had engaged a Danish fleet to come over to fight against him."

"King William made her marry Waltheof," said another; "she did not wish to be his wife."

"He was the best man in England," said the first.

"Perhaps she is sorry now. At any rate, it was she who besought the king to let the earl's body be taken from the hole between the cross-roads and buried at the convent of Croyland."

"She was afraid his spirit would trouble her," said the first, "and I don't wonder. The cousin of a friend of my wife's knows a man who has been at the convent, and he said that this Judith came there and brought a rich silken drapery, costly enough to be a prince's ransom, to throw over his tomb; but that whenever she tried to lay it down, an arm that no one could see would thrust it back as if a strong wind had blown it; and he says that at last she dropped the cloth on the ground and would never come near the tomb again."

And what had become of Edgar, heir to the English throne, last of the male line of the old royal family? For a long while he seemed to be at the call of any one that wanted to use him as a figurehead for a revolt. Apparently William had no special fear of him so long as he remained in England, or was visiting his sister who had married the king of Scotland; but, finally, King Philip of France, not so young as he was, but fully as pert, and as jealous of William as ever, invited Edgar to make his home in a French castle; then, although William did not interfere, he kept a close watch of the English prince.

Edgar set out for France in a finely decorated vessel laden with beautiful furs and many other rich presents from the Scotch king. If the vessel had been as seaworthy as it was handsome, the story might have had a different ending; but a great storm arose, and the ship was driven upon the coast of England. Without the load of gifts, Edgar and his men made their way back to Scotland as best they could.

"It is the will of God," said the Scotch king. "He has sent His storm that you may not resist the man whom He has chosen to rule. Do not fight against the decree of God, but send messengers to William and ask that there may be peace between you."

Edgar yielded, as he always did to whatever the last speaker advised. The messengers were sent, and King William replied with the utmost friendliness.

"I would gladly show all kindness," said William, "to him who is first of the English nobles." Then William sent an honorable embassy to bring Edgar to Normandy. Edgar was now the guest of a king, and he travelled in as much luxury as the times would permit. At every castle on the way a feast was made for him and his party. This time the sea was kind to him, and he came to the Norman court in safety. The king gave him one silver pound a day, and for many years he lived at the Norman court, satisfied with his silver pound, his dogs and horses, and the small manors which William allowed him in England.

There were three of William's deeds that especially aroused the wrath of the people,—the law of the curfew bell, the forming of the New Forest, and the compiling of the Doomsday Book. The curfew was a bell that rang at sunset in summer and at eight o'clock in winter, and when it struck, the fire on the hearth must be covered with ashes and the lights put out. This was an old regulation on the continent in order to prevent fires, and it was especially necessary in London, where there were only wooden houses; but it was new to the English, and though they were such early risers that few of them cared to sit up later or had lights good enough to make longer evenings a pleasure, they felt it a great act of tyranny to oblige them to blow out their candles at any fixed time.

The curfew law hurt their pride rather than did them any real injury; but they had a more serious grievance in the forming of the New Forest, as it was called, and as it has been called for eight hundred years. William had chosen Winchester, the favorite home of the Saxon kings, as his own dwelling place. It is north of the Isle of Wight, and easily approached from the sea. A little to the southwest of the city, and bordering on the shore, was a fertile tract of land containing some sixty thousand acres. It was partly wooded and partly open, and in the open places were homes of some of the English and some small settlements. These people were driven away to find an abode where they could, and their houses were torn down. More trees were planted, so as to make it as nearly like a wild country as possible.

No one knows just why William did this. It may have been in order to provide a place for the landing of his Norman forces that would be safe even in a time of general revolt. The deep forest would also be a good place for meetings of conspirators; and to prevent any dangers arising from such meetings there were most severe laws against carrying weapons into this region.

This is what some say, but others recall the fact that the one amusement that seemed to give the king any pleasure was hunting, and they believe that his only reason for making this tract of land into a desert was that he might have near his home a good field for his chosen sport.

Now among the earlier kings of England hunting had been as serious a business as repelling Danish invaders, and two hundred years before this time King Ethelwulf had feared lest some day England should be deserted and be given up to wild beasts. Only one hundred years before the coming of the Normans a certain Welsh prince was required to present every year a tribute of three hundred wolves' heads. Even in William's day, there were not only deer, but there were wolves and wild boars that must be killed for the safety of the flocks and herds. To destroy these would have been a praiseworthy deed; but to hunt merely for the pleasure of killing was not so common in England as in France, and many of the English looked upon William's enjoyment of the chase with a real horror. Whatever William's reasons were, the New Forest was made.

The desire of the poor people to remain in their old home was looked upon by the Normans much as the desire of a horse to remain in the same place and with the master whom he knows and loves is often looked upon to-day. To drive these people out from home to live or die as they might, seemed to the Normans as innocent a deed as it seems to some people of to-day to drop a petted kitten in a strange street and abandon it to its fate. Even those among the English who were well-to-do would not look upon these evictions of the poor people as nearly so much of a crime as was the severity of the laws against trespassing within the limits of the king's hunting ground. William "loved the wild animals as if he was their father," says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with a touch of grim irony, and he decreed terrible penalties for every trespass. The man that shot a deer must lose both his eyes—a punishment which generally resulted in death. People stood aghast and whispered:—

"The hand of God will be upon him. A curse rests upon his forest. That he might have idle sport, he has made men suffer, and suffering will surely come to him and to his."

The third deed of William which was especially objectionable to the English was the compilation of the Doomsday Book. The Danes had come many times, and might come again, and in any case it was necessary that the king should know what money he could collect for the expenses of the kingdom and for its protection. He had tried to levy a tax on land; but the value of land varied so widely in different places that the tax was not fairly apportioned, and so it was exceedingly hard to collect. There was another reason for the difficulty.

"You told us," said the Norman nobles, "that the land which we should win with our swords should be our own, and now you tax us to increase your own hoard." William replied:—

"You think of yourselves; I think of the country. You plan to raise flocks and cultivate the ground and make yourselves rich; I plan to strengthen the kingdom, lest some day an enemy fall upon us and we have not the means of defence."

Whether the holders of land were pleased or not, the survey did not stop. Commissioners were appointed to go all over England except in the northern districts, where the land had perhaps been little cultivated since the great devastation. They did their work thoroughly. "How much woodland, meadow, pasture, and ploughed land is there?" the commissioners asked. "How many people? How many cows, oxen, sheep, swine? How much did the manor bring in when King Edward reigned? How much when King William gave it? How much does it bring in now?"

The people, both English and Normans, were most indignant about this book. The curfew bell was not so serious a matter after all, and as for the New Forest, they could easily keep out of it; but this census was a different thing. The commissioners came to every house, and the people said:—

"It is a shame for a great king to send men to peer into the private affairs of his people. What is it to him whether we have a hive of bees or not?" Nevertheless, the survey went on, and the records were put into a great book and kept in the king's treasury at Winchester. The Normans called this book the King's Roll, or the Winchester Roll; but the Saxons named it indignantly the Doomsday Book, or the book of final decisions.

Early in the August of 1086, a remarkable meeting was held at Sarum. It was common on the continent for one man to pay homage to several persons. If dissensions arose between any two or three persons, it was sometimes a question with which one the vassal should stand. William meant to have no such trouble; and he called together his bishops, abbots, nobles, every man in the kingdom who held a piece of land, and required them to swear to obey him against all other men.

In 1066, England had one conqueror; in 1070, one king; in 1086, the land became one country.