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

A Visit to England

"The full truth has not been told me," he said. "And now that you have come directly to me to ask of your suzerain that which you have a right to ask, I will join you. I will lead my own troops in person, and I will put you on the ducal throne so firmly that no one shall ever dare attempt to thrust you from it. I came to your father with twelve knights, it is true, but I will come to you with three thousand, and with them shall come a great band of followers. This is what the king of France will do for his vassals."

So it was that William set out for what was to be one of the three decisive battles of his life. The hostile troops met at Val-ès-dunes, near Caen. The rebels came from the west; the French and the Normans from the east. As both parties were arranging their men, there came up from the south so noble a band that the leaders stopped, each hoping that these one hundred and forty knights, so finely armed and accoutred, would be on his side. Just between the opposing lines they came, and then halted as if to decide which to choose.

William puts down the traitors.


"Who are they?" asked King Henry of William. "On whose side will they stand?"

"On mine, I think," said William, and he went up boldly to the leader.

"You are Ralph of Tesson," said he, "and when my father went to Jerusalem, you laid your hands in mine and swore to be faithful to me."

"And I have sworn also to be the first to give you a blow. I swore it on the shrine at Bayeux no longer ago than yestermorn."

"The French, the French, Ralph; go with the French," said the knights behind him softly. Ralph hesitated. "A man must keep his oath," he said, "and what's more, I will. Pardon me, my liege," said he, as he struck William lightly on the shoulder, "there's one oath kept; now come on, my men, for the other, and we'll stand by Duke William till the river runs uphill."

The two great bodies of knights rushed together, shouting their war-cries.

"Montjoie Saint Denis!" cried the French.

"God help us!" cried the Normans.

"Saint Amand! Saint Sever! Thury! Thury!" shouted the barons, making the hills resound with the names of their castles or their patron saints. Lances were shivered, shields were forgotten, and men fought hand-to-hand with swords, pikes—anything they could snatch up, even with their naked fists. King Henry was as eager to help William as he had been to harm him, and he flung himself into the wildest of the fight. A lance was thrust against him by a knight of the Cotentin district with such terrible force that he fell from his horse, and for many generations the minstrels of the Cotentin sang proudly:—

"From Cotentin came forth the lance

That once unhorsed the king of France."

But a Frenchman came to his aid, and the old chroniclers glory in the prowess of the king and in the victory of the young duke over the champion warrior of Bayeux.

The rebels retreated, but they escaped one death only to run into another; for over the steep river banks they were driven till the stream was red with their blood and the mill-wheels were stopped by their dead bodies.

What should be the punishment of the traitors, was the next question. Except on the battle-field, William almost invariably refused to take human life; so, although Guy still maintained his rebellion, and had to be besieged in his castle before he would yield, his life was spared. Even Grimbald,—the tempter and the would-be assassin, as it was proved,—even Grimbald was not put to death. After three years in prison, he died and was buried in his chains. On some of the conspirators, indeed, William did inflict a most useful and appropriate vengeance, and one not without a grim touch of humor; for he forced them to build a road from Valognes to Falaise, following closely the line of his mad gallop to save his life on the night of the attempted assassination.

Even after this victory, there were many disturbances which William had to suppress. Many a noble was still stung to the quick by the thought that he was forced to pay homage to a tanner's grandson. Many a knight, forbidden by his rank to engage in any pursuit except fighting, was ready to seize upon any pretext to take up arms. There were disturbances, but never again anything like a general revolt.

It was not long before William was called upon to help Henry in a war with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. The district of Maine lay between France and Anjou, and the rulers of each country claimed it as tributary to himself. Just across the boundary and on the Norman side was the town of Alenšon, the city of William Talvas of Belesme, who had cursed William when the duke was in his babyhood. On Norman ground as it was, this town had always hated the tanner's grandson, and the people gladly seized the opportunity to strike at him by aiding the count of Anjou. The soldiers of Anjou were welcomed into the town and formed a strong garrison for the fort.

Duke William was besieging another town some distance away, but he knew that if he struck at all, he must strike suddenly; so he marched all night, and just at sunrise drew up his men before Alenšon. Soldiers were at the bridge, and a fierce reception they gave him. William fought with his usual vigor, but the men of Alenšon were well armed and brave. They began to feel sure of the victory, and in their bravado they went one step too far. Not content with blows, they even ventured to enrage William with insulting words.

"Hail to the grandson of the tanner!" they shouted. Then they hung from the walls leather aprons and jerkins, and skins wet with blood and foulness, and called out:—

"Hides, hides, hides for the tanner! Plenty of work for the tanner! Come on, grandson of the tanner!"

Now from his earliest childhood, the least disrespect to his mother seemed to throw William into a passion that was almost like a fit of insanity. He had the one thought of revenge, and a terrible revenge he took. For one moment he stood still, then he swore a great oath that the men who had thus mocked him should be lopped off as are the branches of a tree. He fought like a very demon. The bridge was torn down; the palisades, the gates, the roofs of houses, everything that could be battered or burned, was destroyed. Still with grim, set face, William struck to the right, to the left. Lance or sword, it mattered not to him—the blow was all; and with every blow the tanner's grandson had one enemy the less.

Even then the castle refused to yield. William was beside himself with fury. He kept his fearful oath. The hands and feet of thirty-two of the men that had been captured were cut off, and with great slings they were flung over the castle wall. No wonder is it that at this ghastly threat the garrison surrendered, and begged most humbly for mercy. William had come to himself again, and he was merciful.

The one excuse that can be given for such savage barbarity is that it was the custom of the times. While capital punishment was somewhat rare, men seemed never to hesitate to condemn a vanquished foe to lose eyes or limbs, or to be thrown into a dungeon so horrible that the life of a single day was worse than any death. Men seemed utterly without sympathy with the physical sufferings of others. Nearly forty years after the taking of Alenšon, it was decreed by Henry IV, Emperor of Germany, that if a boy over twelve years of age offended against the truce of God by striking a blow that produced a wound, his hand should be stricken off.

William's devotion to his mother was shown in less violent ways than this, not only by his gifts to her directly, but by his watchfulness of the interests of his half-brothers. On one of them he bestowed the bishopric of Bayeux, and to the other he gave so large a grant of land as to place him at once among the principal landholders of Normandy. Neither bishop nor landholder could have been more than twelve years of age when the gift was made, but this, too, was done in accordance with the custom of the times; and it is the only instance in William's reign of his yielding to the old abuse of giving church positions to members of his family for whom he wished to provide.

Now that William had shown his ability to govern Normandy and to rule revolting vassals, his nobles became very anxious that he should marry. They had hope of a lasting peace under his strong control, if he only had a son to be his heir. The duke was now about twenty years of age. The chroniclers say that he was handsome, well formed, and far above the ordinary height of men. On more than one occasion he had proved himself a man of bravery and power. His bravery would not diminish, and his power would increase. There was every reason why he should be able to ally himself with the ruler of some puissant country, and so strengthen his duchy as well as his own position.

Whom should he choose? William looked about him and set his mind upon Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders. This was exactly the marriage which his councillors would have chosen for him, not so much because Matilda was beautiful, virtuous, and skilled in the two great accomplishments of the day, music and embroidery, but because the Count of Flanders was a man of great power. He had wealth and soldiers, and, moreover, his family was of very high rank. One of his ancestors had married a daughter of King Alfred the Great, so that Alfred's blood ran in the veins of Matilda. The proud count must have had much respect for William's achievements, or he would never have allowed his daughter to become betrothed to the offspring of a peasant, the grandson of a tanner.

Now just at this time a number of princes were forced to do penance or were even excommunicated, for breaking the laws of the church concerning marriage. The haughty Count of Flanders must have been very indignant when he was forbidden to give Matilda to the duke, and there is surely no doubt that William's wrath rose when he was forbidden to marry her if she was offered to him. No one knows just why such a decree was passed. It may have been because of some relationship between the two, or possibly because the count was an exceedingly independent vassal and the church did not wish him to increase his power by forming an alliance with the strong Norman duchy. At any rate, the highest church authorities pronounced their decree that William and Matilda should not marry.

When William had once set his mind upon a thing, that thing usually came to pass. He was never impatient, he could wait, but he must have his own way in the end. He had determined to marry Matilda of Flanders. His council was with him, and neither the Count of Flanders nor Matilda seems to have made any objection. The church had forbidden the marriage, to be sure, but William did not give it up on that account. He kept up his friendship with the count, he sent legates to Rome to try to win the permission of the Pope, and then he waited.

But he did not take his seat on the ducal throne and fold his hands. There was much to be done. Many a proud noble still paid his homage to Arletta's son most unwillingly; but it was paid, and William was in peaceful control of his own country. The Count of Flanders was his friend, and the king of France was his ally—for the time, at any rate. William began to think of making a visit to England.

About fifteen years before he was born, his great-aunt, Emma, and her husband, the king of England, were driven from the English throne, and fled to Normandy with their two little boys, Edward and Alfred. Soon the king died, and in a very short time Emma married Canute, son of the man who had thrust her husband from his kingdom. She seems to have had no affection for her boys, for she left them in Normandy, and even agreed in the marriage contract that they should have no claim to the English throne.

These boys remained at the Norman court, and were treated very kindly by Duke Robert's father and then by himself. Robert even made an attempt to invade England in their behalf, and get possession of the English throne for them. Alfred was finally killed in trying to regain his father's crown; but Edward, after living quietly in Normandy for almost thirty-five years, was invited by the English people to come to be their king. He was nearly twenty-five years older than William, and had known and cared for the young duke in his boyhood. Since William was fourteen, they had never met. Naturally, Edward wished to see him. William always clung to his relatives with as warm affection as they would permit, and he was more than ready to cross the narrow channel that lay between him and England.

In these days, their wish to see each other would have been enough to explain the journey, but in the eleventh century it was a rare thing for two princes to exchange visits merely from friendship. There was generally a good reason for their staying at home, since in most countries a revolt would break out if the king was absent; and in this case, we are perhaps safe in thinking that Edward had a plan for his young cousin's advancement, and that William had at least a suspicion of what it was.

However that may be, William set out with a great train of nobles and attendants. They wore their finest array. Their ships were gilded and ornamented. The figurehead of William's was an image of Rollo, the first duke of Normandy, and from the mast floated the pennant of the present duke. They carried to the king gifts of noble steeds, beautifully embroidered cloaks, handsome armor, and, it may be, some of the precious relics that Duke Robert had sent home when he was on his pilgrimage.

A warm welcome King Edward gave them. The lad of fourteen whom he had left in Normandy had become the man of twenty-four, tall, strong, manly, and with a reputation of wielding a sword that won its way wherever he unsheathed it. It was hardly a strange court to which he had come. Although Edward's father was a Saxon, his mother was of Norman birth, and from early childhood till near his fortieth year the king had lived in Normandy. He had always spoken French, and now he gathered Normans around him in his court. The highest offices in the kingdom he gave to Normans. These men had not forgotten their own country, nor the little son of Duke Robert who had become this masterful ruler of lordly Normandy. When they looked at him, they could well put aside the thought of the peasant mother, and remember only that he was a man whom they might be proud to have at the head of their homeland.

A merry time they had. There were feasts and tournaments and hunting parties, and there were long "progresses," or journeys through the kingdom, to show the Norman guests the cities and castles of the country. Edward was inclined to be meek and humble, and he always preferred to live simply and with as little of display as possible; but whatever William's virtues were, meekness was not the leading one among them, and he did enjoy having a touch of magnificence to whatever was going on around him. To please his guest, Edward made these "progresses" in a much more sumptuous style than he had ever favored before in travelling about his kingdom. The Normans who dwelt at the English court were delighted, but the Saxons looked, at the swarms of foreign guests with some displeasure, and a little fear of what the result of the visit might be.

"What do you think of this sudden outburst of hospitality?" said one Saxon noble to another.

"I suppose a king must entertain his guests," said the other.

"True," said the first; "but we are Saxons in a Saxon land, and our king is half Norman by birth and wholly Norman by feeling. He has given the great bishoprics to Normans. Normans build their strongholds when and where they please. The officers of the king's household are Normans. We are under Norman rule. We call our country England; and we say that we are free, but—"

"But we are only a province of Normandy," said a third, who had stood by them listening grimly to their talk.

"We have the king of our own choice," said the second, "and he is a good, kind man. Don't you remember when they showed him the great casks of gold, the tax that the people groaned over so loudly,—don't you remember that he looked at it for a minute without a word, and then he said, 'This shall never be collected again; I can almost believe that I see little exulting demons of cruelty and extortion dancing on every barrel'? Was he not a good king to say that?"

"Yes, but he said it in French," said the third noble. "A king who does not speak the language of the country may be king of the land, but he is not king of the people."

"But he is almost a saint," said the second. "Only yesterday I heard some one call him the 'Confessor.' They say that he can work miracles, too, just like a real saint, and that if he touches any one who has scrofula, the disease is cured; and I have heard that more than once he has foretold what was coming to pass, and it came just as he said."

"It is of what may come to pass that I am afraid," said the first. "Who is to be king when this 'Confessor' dies? He has no children. There is no man in all England who can be called his rightful heir. He is Norman, his language and his feelings are Norman. What is more natural than that he should try to bequeath the throne to this Norman cousin of his?"

"And this is what the visit of Duke William and his roisterous crowd of knights signifies," said the third. "This is why all this elaborate entertainment which is never given to our own nobles when they go to court is lavished upon this Norman gang. We are fighters. Do you call out your men. I will call out mine. We will spread it through the kingdom. Never shall this foreigner, this son of a—"

"Gently, my friend," said the first; "what could we do? The king has the treasury and the arms and the castles and many soldiers. Shall we take a little band and march up to his gates and say, 'Come down from the throne, for I don't like to have you there'?"

"And so you would have us stand by in silence and fold our hands while our kingdom is taken from us?" demanded the third.

"What has been done? The king is receiving a friendly visit from a favorite cousin. May not a man receive a visitor and entertain him in the way that is most pleasing to the guest? They say that William has come here intending to pay homage to King Edward. Would you drive away a powerful vassal from our kingdom?"

"When one does homage, it is for some gain," said the third. "William of Normandy needs no aid from this side of the water to rule his duchy. All that he can want from England is—England itself."

"King Edward cannot give away his throne; that belongs to the country, not to him," said the first. "He is a Norman and looks at things in a Norman fashion, and he may promise to help William to get it; but that means more than a peaceful 'I give it to you' from Edward, and a grateful 'I thank you' from William. It means an attack by sea and land. It means that Saxon blood will flow to save the land, and that Norman blood will flow to win it. When that time comes, we will fight."

"But after all, Edward is a good man," said the second, "and they do say that even to bathe in the water in which he has washed his hands will often cure sickness."

From this discussion the second noble went away with more devotion to the king than ever. The third went home to count over his retainers, and to think upon how many brave men he could depend in case of a sudden uprising in behalf of William. The first, after a little time, sent a messenger secretly to a trusty friend in Normandy to suggest to the Count of Eu that this time of William's absence would be an excellent opportunity to raise a revolt.

"He may be killed in the fighting," thought the Saxon noble, "and at least, it will take him away from the court of England."

Meanwhile the festivities went on. Minstrels, jugglers, feasts, hunting—there seemed to be no end to the pleasures of the entertainment that King Edward gave so willingly to his cousin and guest.