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Chapter XXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Accession of Harold - His Brother Tostig - William of Normandy sends an Embassy.
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When it is recollected how much England had endured from invasion and the government of foreign kings, it is little to be wondered that Harold's accession to the throne, for which he had so long prepared the way, was hailed with enthusiasm by the majority of the native nobles as well as the people. The city of London showed itself most zealous in his cause. The Saxon clergy, who recollected the intrusion of the Norman prelates into various sees at the commencement of the late king's reign, adopted his party; and the great nobility, most of whom were connected with him by blood or friendship, gave him their support.

The title of Edward Atheling, who was the undoubted heir of the Saxon line, was passed over in silence, and the claims of the Duke of Normandy treated with contempt. In an assembly which he had convened, Harold received the crown, and was proclaimed on January 6th, 1066.

If any - and there were doubtless some who objected to his reigning over England - felt aggrieved at his elevation, they carefully concealed their disaffection; and the new king was crowned by Aldred, Archbishop of York, the very day after Edward the Confessor's, decease.

The first danger which threatened the new government arose from the discontent of Tostig, who considered himself to have been unjustly treated by his brother, of whose accession he heard with feelings of rage and indignation. He complained loudly to the Court of Flanders, where he was then residing, of the wrongs he had suffered, and endeavoured to arouse the anger of the count against Harold. Not content with this, he dispatched messengers to Norway' to engage the fierce and warlike people of that kingdom in his interests, pointed out the unsettled state of England in consequence of the new reign, and the wide field for plunder which it afforded. Had it been requisite to justify hia having been deprived of his government and driven into exile, these last proceedings would have afforded the means of doing so.

With the restless ambition and thirst for vengeance which appear to have been the characteristics of this selfish noble, he made a journey into Normandy, in the hope of exciting his brother-in-law, William, who had married his wife's sister - both daughters of Baldwin, Count of Flanders - against Harold; his object was to counsel him to undertake the invasion of England.

When William heard the news of Harold's accession, he gave way to the most violent indignation; but not having yet matured his designs, for the event had occurred unexpectedly, he sent an embassy to his rival, to reproach him for his perjury, and summon him instantly to resign the crown to him.

To this demand the new king replied that the oath had been extorted from him by the dread of violence, and, for that reason, could not be regarded as binding upon his conscience; and added, that at the time he took it, he had no authority, either from his predecessor or the estates of the kingdom - who alone possessed the right of disposing of the crown - to make an offer of it to the Duke of Normandy, who could not possibly possess any hereditary claims to it. He further argued that if he, as a private person, had even sworn voluntarily to support their master's pretensions, the oath would have been an unlawful one, and that it would have been his duty to break it; that he had been raised to the throne by the voice of the people, and should hold himself a coward if he did not do his best to maintain the national liberties; and if the Duke of Normandy should attempt, by force of arms, to wrest the crown from him, he would experience the power of a mighty nation, headed by a prince who well knew the obligations imposed on him by his royal dignity, and who was resolved that the same moment should end his life and reign.

This was no other than the answer which William expected his ambassadors would bring him, and he at once set about making his preparations for a descent upon England; in which he was encouraged, not more by his own ambition, than the personal feelings of his wife, Matilda, whose love having been rejected by the English Earl of Gloucester, had caused her enmity to the entire nation.

William, consulting only his courage and ambition, overlooked all the difficulties inseparable from an attack on a great kingdom by such inferior force as his duchy could supply, and saw only the circumstances which would facilitate his enterprise. He considered that England, ever since the accession of Canute, had enjoyed profound tranquillity, during a period of nearly fifty years; and it would require time for its soldiers, enervated by long peace, to learn discipline, and its generals experience. He knew that it was entirely unprovided with fortified towns, by which his rival could prolong the war; but must venture its whole fortune in one decisive action against a veteran enemy, which, being once master of the field, would be in a condition to overrun the kingdom. He saw that Harold, though he had given proofs of vigour and bravery, had newly mounted a throne which he had acquired by faction, from which he had excluded a very ancient royal family, and which was likely to totter under him by its own instability, much more if shaken by any violent external impulse; and he hoped that the very circumstance of his crossing the sea, quitting his own country, and leaving himself no hopes of retreat, as it would astonish the enemy by the boldness of the enterprise, would impel his own soldiers, by a feeling of desperation, to unheard-of feats of arms.

The Normans had long been distinguished for courage amongst all European nations. Besides the noble territory they had acquired in France, they had lately added to their possessions by remarkable successes in a distant part of Europe. A few Norman adventurers in Italy had vanquished, not only the Italians and Greeks, but the Germans and Saracens, and laid the foundation of the two kingdoms of Naples and Sicily.

The success of these men, most of them his vassals, increased the pride of William, who felt anxious to emulate their glory.

The enterprise was a gigantic one, and could not be undertaken without an immense outlay, far exceeding William's means. Before convoking the assembly of his states, he held a secret council with his immediate friends, amongst whom were Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and the Count de Mortain, his two half-brothers; with them were the son of Osbert, Seneschal of Normandy, Robert, Count d'Eu, Roger de Montgomery, Gautier Guiffort, Count de Longueville, and Roger de Vielles, Lord of Bellemont, who all promised to risk their lives and fortunes to assist him in his enterprise.

He was far from finding, however, the same disposition in the general assembly of the states; many of the members of which, instead of voting the subsidies required, complained of the enormous imposts already levied. The deputies whom the states nominated to bear their answer to their sovereign, instanced that although they were his subjects, they were not bound to assist him in obtaining possession of the kingdom of a foreign prince who had inflicted no injury upon Normandy. They knew the character of William, and foresaw, if once they yielded to his demands, and followed him beyond sea, a precedent would be drawn for the future.

The duke dissimulated his anger and mortification, and had recourse to an expedient which proved his tact to have been equal to his courage. He sent for the principal members of the states individually, was prodigal of promises, and gradually won them over, none singly venturing on an opposition which they had not hesitated to offer collectively.

Neither did he neglect other means. He well knew the superstitious of the age would consider the oath which Harold had taken on the relics as doubly sacred. Had it been simply on the Gospels, the breach of it might have been thought less of. He carried his cause to Rome, where the celebrated Lanfranc, who afterwards became Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert of Jumiege, whom Harold's father, Earl Godwin, had caused to be expelled from the primacy in England, pleaded his cause effectually, and ably sustained his pretensions in a consistory held at the Lateran, where it was finally decided that William of Normandy, being related to the late King Edward, and long reputed his heir, might with justice assume the title of King of England, and invade the kingdom.

Here it may not be amiss to notice the influences which led to this decision. The Court of Rome, ever zealous of its authority, had witnessed with dissatisfaction the expulsion of the Norman archbishop from the see of Canterbury by the secular authority, and the elevation of Stigand in his place. The refusal of Harold to pay the tax known as Peter's pence, and the violation of his oath, were in the eyes of the consistory heinous crimes. The Saxon king had, moreover, shown great disrespect in not submitting his cause to their decision, as his rival had the prudence to do.

But the most powerful enemy of Harold in the councils of Pope Alexander II., in whose pontificate this celebrated cause was pleaded, was the celebrated monk Hildebrand, who afterwards, as Gregory VII., carried the Papal power to such a height. He maintained that the Pontiff alone had the right to decide the question, and pronounce on all disputes touching the inheritance of the kingdoms of the world - a doctrine too palatable to be rejected, enforced as it was by all the fiery eloquence and influence of an enthusiast.

The solemn decision of Alexander II. was transmitted to the Duke of Normandy in the form of a bull. The holy father, at the same time, sent him, in token of his paternal regard, a hair of St. Peter in a rich ring, and a banner, with the figure of the apostle, which was to guarantee him against defeat.

On receiving these welcome gifts, William at once proclaimed his appeal to arms, and promised to all who would join him a share in the spoils of the kingdom he had undertaken to conquer. French, Britons, Burgundians, and adventurers from almost every country in Europe flocked to his standard, allured by these tempting offers. Some had the modesty to demand a city, others a castle, as the price of their arms; and the duke appears to have been as extravagant in his promises as his new allies were in their expectations.

From all parts he gathered the immense material necessary for his enterprise, and assembled a great number of workmen to construct the vessels destined to carry himself and his army over. Nothing was neglected which might contribute to his conquest; and, in order to secure his dominions during his absence, he so far subdued his pride as to remember the homage which he owed to the King of France, Philip I., and solicit aid, promising that if he succeeded in his enterprise against England, he would hold it as a fief of the crown of France.

William was already too powerful a vassal, and his overtures were rejected from policy. Nothing daunted, he next addressed himself to his father-in-law, the Count of Flanders, for assistance. Baldwin listened to him, and helped him to the utmost of his power.

In the midst of these warlike preparations, the Duke of Normandy received a message from Conan II., Duke of Brittany, demanding that he should resign his states to him, as the legitimate heir of Rollo. Conan died shortly afterwards by poison; and his successor, with far more prudence, not only abandoned the claim, but sent his two sons with troops and offers of service to William.

Whether guilty or not, William was accused of the murder of Conan. Guillaume de Jumiege asserts that one of his chamberlains, bribed by the Duke of Normandy, rubbed a subtle poison on the hunting-horn of the unfortunate prince, on the reins of his horse, and on his gloves; and that Conan, after having worn the latter, raised his hands to his lips, and died shortly afterwards.

In the middle of August, 1066, the Duke of Normandy Lad collected and built upwards of 900 large vessels, without counting those destined to serve as means of transport, and counted under his command 50,000 horsemen and 10,000 foot soldiers, of various nations. He named, as general rendezvous, the mouth of the Dive, where his fleet Lad for some time been detained by unfavourable weather.

The unfortunate Harold saw himself menaced by the danger of a double invasion - one from William, and the -other from the King of Norway. A third enemy threatened his repose, in the person of his own brother, Tostig, who, impatient to avenge his real or pretended injuries, could not wait the arrival of the Norwegian fleet; but gathering an army and sixty vessels in the ports of Flanders, set sail, and attempted to effect a landing in the south of England. Driven back by Saxon ships, he directed his forces to the Humber, where he was defeated by Earl Edwin, who obliged him to retreat.

Tostig took refuge in Scotland, after escaping with only twelve of his vessels, there to await the arrival of his ally, the King of Norway, who made his appearance off the English coast early in August, 1066, with a fleet of 300 sail, and a formidable army.

Tostig joined him with the wreck of his armament; and they sailed up the Humber, took Scarborough, and then Directed their march upon York, the capital of the province of Northumbria.

Morcar and his brother Edwin hastened to the defence; but, being defeated, were obliged to shut themselves within the walls of the city, which the Norwegians immediately besieged. Negotiations were opened, and a day named for delivering York to the enemy.

Harold, who was engaged in watching the movements of William in the western part of the kingdom, no sooner heard of the arrival of his brother and the Norwegians, than he marched rapidly towards the north with all his forces.

The King of Norway, who had divided his army, leaving a. portion of it under the command of his son Olave, was advancing with the other to take possession of York, when he suddenly perceived, near Stanford bridge, the approach of the Saxons, who, by a long and forced march, were hastening to relieve the city.

The Norwegians were taken by surprise by their adversaries. Hardrada, their king, sent to his son for succour, and proceeded to range his soldiers in line of battle; then, riding along the ranks, mounted upon his black charger, he animated his men, by singing their national war-songs.

Anxious as Harold must have felt from being threatened by two enemies, he showed no unmanly fear. It is true he made offers to his brother, in an interview which took place between them, of restoring him to all his honours and possessions, if he would lay down his arms, which Tostig at first seemed disposed to do.

"And what will you give my ally, the King of Norway?" demanded the traitor.

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Pictures for Chapter XXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


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