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Chapter XXI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1 page 2


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The death of Siward, Duke of Northumberland, in 1055, made the way still more open to the ambition of that nobleman. Siward, besides his other merits, had acquired honour to England by his successful conduct in the only foreign enterprise undertaken during the reign of Edward. Duncan, King of Scotland, was a prince of a gentle disposition, but possessed not the genius requisite for governing a country so turbulent, and so much infested by the intrigues and animosities of the great. Macbeth, a powerful nobleman, and nearly allied to the crown, not content with curbing the king's authority, carried still further his pestilent ambition: he put his sovereign to death; chased Malcolm Kenmure, his son and heir, into England; and usurped the crown. Siward, whose daughter was married to Duncan, embraced, by Edward's orders, the protection of this distressed family: he marched an army into Scotland; and having defeated and killed Macbeth in battle, he restored Malcolm to the throne of his ancestors. This service, added to his former connections with the royal family of Scotland, brought a great accession to the authority of Siward in the north; but as he had lost his eldest son, Osberne, in the action with Macbeth, it proved in the issue fatal to his family. His second son, Waltheof, appeared, on his father's death, too young to be entrusted with the government of Northumberland; and Harold's influence obtained that dukedom for his own brother, Tostig.

There are two circumstances related of Siward which discover his high sense of honour and his martial disposition. When intelligence was brought to him of his son Osberne's death, he was inconsolable, till he heard that the wound was received in the breast, and that he had behaved with great gallantry in the action. When he found his own death approaching, he ordered his servants to clothe him in a complete suit of armour; and sitting erect on the couch, with a spear in his hand, declared that in that posture, the only one worthy of a warrior, he would patiently await the fatal moment.

The king, now worn out with cares and infirmities, felt himself far advanced in the decline of life; and having no issue himself, began to think of appointing a successor to the kingdom. He sent a deputation to Hungary, to invite over his nephew Edward, son of his elder brother, and the only remaining heir of the Saxon line. That prince, whose succession to the crown would have been easy and undisputed, came to England with his children, Edgar, surnamed Atheling, Margaret, and Christina; but his death, which happened a few days after his arrival, threw the king into new difficulties. He saw that the great power and ambition of Harold had tempted him to think of obtaining possession of the throne on the first vacancy; and that Edgar, on account of his youth and inexperience, was very unfit to oppose the pretensions of so popular and enterprising a rival. The animosity which he had long borne to Earl Godwin made him averse to the succession of his son; and he could not, without extreme reluctance, think of an increase of grandeur to a family which had risen on the ruins of royal authority, and which, by the murder of Alfred, his brother, had contributed so much to the weakening of the Saxon line. In this uncertainty, he secretly cast his eye towards his kinsman, William, Duke of Normandy, as the only person whose power, and reputation, and capacity could support any destination which he might make in his favour, to the exclusion of Harold and his family.

This famous prince was natural son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, by Harlotta, daughter of a tanner in Falaise, and was very early established in that grandeur from which his birth seemed to have set him at so great a distance. While he was but nine years of age, his father had resolved to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem - a fashionable ace of devotion, which had taken the place of the pilgrimages to Rome, and which, as it was attended with more difficulty and danger, and carried those religious enthusiasts to the cradle of Christianity, appeared to them more meritorious. Before setting out on his expedition, he assembled the states of his duchy, and induced them to swear allegiance to his son William, whom, as he had no legitimate issue, he designated his successor, in the event of his never returning.

The duke died whilst engaged in this pilgrimage; and the minority of his son afforded to the luxurious nobles full scope for the gratification of their passions.

But the great qualities which the young prince soon displayed, encouraged his friends, and struck consternation to his enemies: he appeared himself in arms, on all sides, to his turbulent and rebellious subjects; and obliged Henri I. of France, who thought it a favourable occasion to repress a too powerful subject, to conclude a peace upon honourable conditions.

The tranquillity which William, after many efforts, succeeded in establishing, gave him leisure to pay Edward a visit in England, during the period of Earl Godwin's exile in Flanders. He was received in a manner suitable to his reputation, and the near relationship between them, by the Saxon monarch, who began to think of nominating the young Duke of Normandy as his successor.

This occurred before the return of Harold, who now proceeded, in a more open manner, to prepare the way to the throne, by using every means to increase his popularity with the people. From the age and great infirmities of the king, he foresaw that the vacancy could not be long distant; but there was still an obstacle to be vanquished.

Earl Godwin, his father, had given hostages for his future loyalty and peaceable conduct; and these hostages - amongst whom were one son and grandson of the ambitious noble - Edward, for greater security, as has been related, had consigned to the custody of the Duke of Normandy. Harold, though not aware of the duke being his competitor, was uneasy that such near relations should be detained prisoners in a foreign country; and he was afraid lest William should, in favour of Edgar, retain these pledges as a check on the ambition of any other pretender. He represented, therefore, to the king his unfeigned submission to royal authority, his steady duty to his prince, and the little necessity there was, after such a uniform trial of his obedience, to detain any longer those hostages who had been required on the first composing of civil discords. By these topics, enforced by his great power, he extorted the king's consent to release them; and in order to effect his purpose, he immediately proceeded, with a numerous retinue, on his journey to Normandy. A tempest drove him on the territory of Guy, Count of Ponthieu, who, being informed of his quality, immediately detained him prisoner, and demanded an exorbitant sum for his ransom. Harold found means to convey intelligence of his situation to the Duke of Normandy; and represented, that while he was proceeding to his court, in execution of a commission from the King of England, he had met with this harsh treatment from the mercenary disposition of the Count of Ponthieu.

William was immediately sensible of the importance of the incident: he foresaw that if he could once gain Harold, either by favours or menaces, his way to the throne of England would be open, and Edward would meet with no farther obstacle in executing the favourable intentions which he had entertained in his behalf. He sent, therefore, a messenger to Guy, in order to demand the liberty of his prisoner; and that nobleman, not daring to refuse so great a prince, put Harold into the hands of the Norman, who conducted him to Rouen. William received him with every demonstration of respect and friendship; and after showing himself disposed to comply with his desire, in delivering up the hostages, he took an opportunity of disclosing to him the great secret of his pretensions to the crown of England, and of the will which Edward intended to make in his favour. He desired the assistance of Harold in perfecting that design; he made professions of the utmost gratitude in return for so great an obligation; he promised that the present grandeur of Harold's family, which supported itself with difficulty owing to the jealousy of Edward, should receive fresh increase from a successor who would be so much beholden to him for his advancement. Harold concealed his surprise and consternation at the intelligence; but, conscious that he could not regain either his own liberty, or that of his brother and nephew, affected compliance, and declared his firm intention of maintaining the will of the Confessor. (a.d. 1057.)

William offered him one of his daughters in marriage, as a means of binding him still more strongly to his interests; and proposed that he should take an oath to keep his promise, to which Harold reluctantly assented.

Then occurred one of those remarkable scenes so common in the superstitious age in which the principal actors of it flourished. William caused the most celebrated relics of the saints and martyrs to be brought from the churches, and secretly placed beneath the covering of the altar on which the English noble was to take the oath. No sooner were the solemn words pronounced, than the prelate who had administered them drew off the cloth, and displayed the holy collection. Harold was appalled.

"Behold," exclaimed William, "the relics of God's blessed saints and martyrs - not one of them but is a witness of the oath you have just taken. Beware how you violate it, for they will feel themselves bound in honour to avenge it."

This speech, so highly characteristic of the times, and the belief of the age, was not without its effect upon Harold, who once more renewed the promises he had made, and was soon afterwards dismissed from Normandy in all courtesy and honour.

No sooner, however, had Harold returned to his native country, than he began to reflect on the engagement he had taken, and attempted to justify the breach he already meditated, by the fact that it had been extorted by fear, and that, if fulfilled, it might ultimately subject England to the yoke of a foreign power, which had already caused such miseries to his fellow-countrymen.

He still continued, therefore, to practise every art to increase his popularity - in the hope, by thus displaying his power and popularity before Edward, to prevent the aged monarch from carrying out his intentions in favour of his rival.

Fortune, shortly after his arrival in England, favoured him by giving him two occasions of distinguishing himself. The first was an expedition against the Welsh, who had long been accustomed to infest and plunder the western borders of the kingdom, and, after spoiling the country, retreat to their own mountain fastnesses.

Griffith, the reigning prince, had greatly distinguished himself in these incursions; and his name had become so terrible to the English, that Harold found he could do nothing more acceptable to the public, and more honourable for himself, than the suppressing of so dangerous an enemy. He formed the plan of an expedition against Wales; and having prepared some light-armed foot to pursue the natives into their fastnesses, some cavalry to scour the open country, and a squadron of ships to attack the sea-coast, he employed at once all these forces against the Welsh, prosecuted his advantages with vigour, made no intermission in his assaults, and at last reduced the enemy to such distress, that, in order to prevent their total destruction, they made a sacrifice of their prince, whose head they cut off, and sent to Harold; and they were content to receive as their sovereigns two Welsh noblemen appointed by Edward to rule over them. The other incident was no less honourable to Harold.

Tostig, brother of this nobleman, who had been created Duke of Northumberland, being of a violent, tyrannical temper, had acted with such cruelty and injustice, that the inhabitants rose in rebellion, and chased him from his government. Morcar and Edwin, two brothers, who possessed great power in those parts, and who were grandsons of the great Duke Leofric, concurred in the insurrection; and the former, being elected duke, advanced with an army to oppose Harold, who was commissioned by the king to reduce and chastise the Northumbrians. Before the armies came to action, Morcar, well acquainted with the generous disposition of the English commander, endeavoured to justify his own conduct. He represented to Harold that Tostig had behaved in a manner unworthy of the station to which he was advanced; and no one, not even a brother, could support such tyranny without participating, in some degree, in the infamy attending it; that the Northumbrians, accustomed to a legal administration, and regarding it as their birthright, were willing to submit to the king, but required a governor who would pay regard to their rights and privileges; that they had been taught by their ancestors that death was preferable to servitude, and had taken the field, determined to perish rather than suffer a renewal of those indignities to which they had long been exposed; and they trusted that Harold, on reflection, would not defend in another the violence he had repressed in his own govern meet.

This remonstrance was accompanied by such proofs of the justice of the complaints, that Harold felt himself compelled to abandon his brother's cause; and, returning to Edward, persuaded the king to pardon the Northumbrians, and to confirm Morcar in the government. He afterwards married the sister of that nobleman.

Tostig, in a rage, quitted England, and took refuge with his father-in-law, the Earl of Flanders.

By this union, William perceived that Harold had broken faith with him, and naturally considered, that if he had done so in espousing another than his daughter, to whom he had previously engaged himself, no reliance could be placed upon his oath; and began to despair of success, for his rival's conduct had gained him the universal approbation of his countrymen.

Harold now openly declared his pretensions to the succession, which the aged Edward was too irresolute either to oppose or arrest. Whilst things were in this state, he was surprised by sickness, and died on the 5th of January, 1066, in the sixty-fifth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his reign.

This prince, to whom the Church has given the title of saint and confessor, was the last of the Saxon line that ruled in England. Though his reign was peaceable and fortunate, he owed his prosperity less to his own abilities than to the conjunctures of the times. The Danes, employed in other enterprises, did not attempt those incursions which had been so troublesome to all his predecessors, and fatal to some of them. The facility of his disposition made him acquiesce under the government of Godwin and his son Harold; and the abilities as well as the power of these noblemen enabled them, while they were entrusted with authority, to preserve domestic peace and tranquillity. The most commendable circumstance of Edward's government was his attention to the administration of justice; and his compiling, for that purpose, a body of laws, which he collected from the laws of Ethelbert, Ina, and Alfred. This compilation, though now lost (for the laws that pass under Edward's name were composed afterwards), was long the object of affection to the English nation.

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Pictures for Chapter XXI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1 page 2

William, Duke of Normandy.
William, Duke of Normandy. >>>>
The Shrine of Edward
The Shrine of Edward >>>>

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