Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1
William I., Surnamed the Conqueror.Pages: <1>
Great as were the disasters of Hastings, the English were still in a position to offer a powerful resistance, had they been united and firm. The population of London took up arms, and were still further strengthened by the arrival of the Earls Edwin and Morcar within their walls, with the remains of the routed army. An assembly of the nobles was convened, in which, as the brothers of Harold were both slain, and his sons too young to govern, Edgar Atheling, the grand-nephew of Edward the Confessor, the only descendant of Cerdic, was proclaimed king, chiefly through the influence of the primate Stigand, and Aldred, the Archbishop of York.
Although dear to the people on account of his birth, Edgar possessed no one quality necessary for the crisis which menaced his kingdom. So weak was his character, that it would have been difficult for him, under the most favourable circumstances, to have maintained himself upon the throne; and he was totally unfitted to cope with an adversary, who was not only the most warlike, "but one of the ablest princes of his time.
William remained for some days quietly at Hastings after his victory, not doubting but the terrified inhabitants of London would send a deputation to his camp with offers of submission. Some writers have contended that he was detained by a violent dissension which broke out amongst the soldiers. This inactivity, however, was but of short duration. Finding that no one came to him with offers from the English, and learning that several vessels which his wife Matilda had sent to him with reinforcements from Normandy had been attacked and driven from the coast at Romney, the duke felt that it was time to act, but tempered his ardour with prudence.
His first care was to assure his communications with the continent, and establish a post to which he could retreat in case of a reverse. With this intention, he followed with his army the line of coast between Hastings and Dover, stopping by the way at Romney, which he pillaged and burnt.
The garrison of Dover Castle, a fortress at that time deemed impregnable, yielded without a blow, vanquished by the terror of his name; and was replaced by a force of Normans. Here William remained till he received fresh troops and supplies from Normandy; after which, he advanced with the flower of his army to London.
Finding the approaches to the city well defended, the Conqueror made no attempt to carry it by assault, but dispersed his troops in the neighbourhood, with orders to burn and plunder the villages, and to intercept all supplies to the capital. The two earls, Morcar and Edwin-refusing to yield obedience to the phantom of a king, which the ambitious prelates, who hoped to govern in his name, had caused to be elected - had retired to their respective governments. After their departure the military authority fell into the hands of Ansgar, who filled the office of esquire to the new king. Although deprived of the use of his limbs, he caused himself to be borne on his litter to every point of the city, examined the defences, and exercised the utmost vigilance and zeal for the general safety.
William, who had his spies within the walls, was soon aware of the credit of Ansgar with the people and his influence in the council of the nation, and sent a messenger to him, with secret offers, to bribe him to the Norman interests.
"My master," said the emissary, "merely demands the title of king - he will leave you to govern the kingdom in his name."
Ansgar neither accepted nor rejected these advances, but kept them a secret from the council, whom he persuaded to send an envoy to the duke to sound his intentions
No prince of his day equalled William either in ability or dissimulation; he quickly penetrated the designs of the messenger, whom he seduced, by magnificent promises and protestations.
On his return to the council, the envoy kept his promise to plead the cause of the duke. William, he proclaimed aloud, had not his equal, either in wisdom or courage, amongst the princes of the age: "in the first, he exceeds Solomon; and in the latter, Charlemagne: he demands your suffrages, that you confirm the donation of the kingdom made to him by Edward. The general safety depends upon submission."
These words, by which the Duke of Normandy let it be understood that he would rather hold the crown by the legitimate title of a general consent than by the right of conquest, were not without the effect he anticipated, both on the nobles and people, who unanimously withdrew their allegiance from the feeble Edgar, and resolved to take the oath of fidelity to a new sovereign in the camp of the Normans.
The primate Stigand was the first who went over to William, whom he encountered at Wallingford, and who received him with hollow marks of affection and respect, addressing him by the titles of archbishop and father in exchange for those of king and son. The example of Stigand was quickly followed by his brother of York, and the principal nobles and prelates who had assembled in London.
The degenerate 'Edgar Atheling himself came and resigned the crown he had so lately received into the hands of the Conqueror. William received it with affected modesty, invited the barons to express their wishes, and, in finally ascending the throne made it appear that he did so in obedience to their desire.
Christmas-day was the one fixed for the coronation of the new king, and the church of Westminster the place appointed; but before trusting himself within the walls of London, the wily Norman caused some of the strongest entrenchments to be destroyed, and commenced strengthening, if he did not lay the foundation of, the fortress which has since grown into the Tower of London.
William decided on receiving the crown from the hands of Aldred, Archbishop of York v and that the ceremony should take place with the same formalities which marked the accession of the Saxon kings.
A serious tumult took place during the ceremony. When the archbishop demanded of the assembled nobles whether they would have William for their king, the reply was given with acclamations so loud as to startle the Norman soldiers stationed outside the church. Supposing that an attack was being made upon their duke, the troops rushed to the English houses adjoining the abbey, and set them on fire.'
Both Norman and Saxon nobles rushed from the sacred edifice, leaving their new sovereign and a few churchmen alone within the walls. Recovering his self-possession, William commanded that the ceremony should be concluded; and in the midst of the cries of his new subjects, who were being massacred on all sides, the flames of the burning houses, the pillage and devastation, he took the oath to govern according to the laws of the kings his predecessors.
Directly after his coronation, William, not deeming himself in perfect safety in London, whose inhabitants bitterly resented the outrage they had been subjected to, removed to Barking, where he received the homage of many of the great nobility, churchmen, and thanes.
The conduct of William at this period appears to have been most prudent; he respected the rights of his new subjects and the laws of property, though it was impossible for him to restrain the rapacious disposition of his followers, The treasures of Harold and the donations of the nobility, which were supposed to be voluntary, furnished the first largess, which ho distributed amongst his companions in arms. He granted at least nominal privileges to the citizens of London, in the hops of reconciling them to his government, and took strong measures to secure the future tranquillity of the capital. It is true that he disarmed the inhabitants; but at the same time, in order to establish a favourable impression of his justice, he punished with rigour various acts of outrage that had been committed.
He introduced into England that strict execution of justice for which his administration had been much celebrated in Normandy; and even during this violent revolution, disorder and oppression met with rigorous punishment. His army in particular was governed with severe discipline; and, notwithstanding the insolence of victory, care was taken to give as little offence as possible to the jealousy of the vanquished. The king appeared solicitous to unite, in an amicable manner, the Normans and the English, by intermarriages and alliances; and all his new subjects who approached his person were received with affability and apparent regard. No signs of suspicion appeared, not even towards Edgar Atheling, the heir of the ancient royal family, whom William confirmed in the honours of Earl oi Oxford, conferred on him by Harold, and whom he affected to treat with the highest kindness, as nephew to the Confessor, his great friend and benefactor. Though he confiscated the estates of Harold, and of those who had fought in the battle of Hastings on the side of that prince, whom he represented as a usurper, he seemed willing to admit of every plausible excuse for past opposition to his pretensions, and received many into favour who had carried arms against him.
William set sail from England in the month of May, 1067, to return to Normandy, accompanied by the most considerable nobility of England, who, while they served to grace his court by their presence and magnificent retinues, were in reality hostages for the fidelity of the nation. Among these were Edgar Atheling, Stigand the primate, the Earls Edwin and Morcar, Waltheof, the son of the brave Earl Siward, with others eminent for the greatness of their fortunes and families, or for their ecclesiastical and civil dignities. He was visited at the abbey of Fescamp, where he resided during some rime, by Rodulph, uncle to the King of France, and by many powerful princes and nobles, who, having taken part in his enterprise, were desirous of participating in the joy and advantages of its success. His English courtiers, willing to ingratiate themselves with their new sovereign, outvied each other in equipages and entertainments; and made a display of riches which struck the foreigners with astonishment. William of Poictiers, a Norman historian, who was present, speaks with admiration of the beauty of their persons, the size and workmanship of their silver plate, the costliness of their embroideries, an art in which the English women then excelled; and he expresses himself in such terms as tend much to exalt our idea of the opulence and cultivation of the people. But though everything bore the face of joy and festivity, and William himself treated his new courtiers with great appearance of kindness, it was impossible altogether to prevent the insolence of the Normans: and the English nobles derived little satisfaction from those entertainments, where they considered themselves as led in triumph by their ostentatious conqueror.
During his absence, William had entrusted the government of his newly-acquired country to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and to William Fitz-Osborn, one of his Norman vassals. The affection of the king had elevated Odo at a very early age to the see of Bayeux, where he displayed great ability, not only in the administration of the affairs of his diocese, but in the councils Of his sovereign.
In obedience to the canon of the Church, which strictly forbids the shedding of blood by a priest, he never carried arms, although he constantly attended his brother in all his battles, assisting him with his advice and resources, which were large. He was, says a contemporary historian, "a prelate of such rare and noble qualities, that the English, barbarians as they were, could not but admire him."
To Odo had been assigned the government of Kent, the remainder of the kingdom being committed to the care of Fitz-Osborn, who was also related to William by his mother's side. This noble appears to have been the steadfast friend of the Conqueror, whom he invariably supported in his disputes with his own turbulent Norman subjects, and to his influence was attributed the resolution of William to make good his claims to the crown of England by the invasion of the country. Fitz-Osborn was looked upon by the Normans as one of the greatest warriors of the age; and by the oppressed and suffering Saxons as the powerful instrument of the Conqueror in oppressing their unhappy country, which he ruled with a rod of iron.
Discontents and complaints multiplied rapidly during the absence of William, and secret conspiracies were entered into against the government. The Norman historians throw the blame of these proceedings on the fickle, turbulent spirit of the English, who, doubtless, when they began to recover from their panic and surprise, felt ashamed of having yielded so tamely to the enemy. On the other hand, it is probable that William, compelled to satisfy the thirst of his followers for plunder, did not hesitate secretly to instigate the English to conspiracies which he knew could easily be quenched, and which afforded him a pretext for depriving the people of their possessions.
The inhabitants of Kent, who had been the first to acknowledge him, were also the first to attempt to shake off the yoke, and, assisted by Eustace, Count of Boulogne, endeavoured to surprise the castle of Dover, but failed.
Edric the Forester, being pressed by the ravages committed by the Normans on his lands, entered into an alliance with two Welsh princes, Blethyn and Rowallan, to repel force by force, A secret conspiracy was gradually formed throughout England to get rid of the Normans by general massacre, like that perpetrated on the Danes. So strong were the feelings of the Saxons, that the vassals of Earl Coxo, on the refusal of that noble to lead them against the invaders, put him to death as a traitor to his country.
The king, informed of these proceedings, hastened over to England, and by his sudden appearance disconcerted the machinations of his new subjects; it was no part of his policy to let the insurrection make any head, all he required being a pretext for the plans he meditated. Those who were most compromised in these transactions betrayed their fears by flight, and William confiscated their estates, which he bestowed upon his Norman followers. He still affected an outward show and love of justice, by commanding that the possessions which during his absence had been taken from the English should be restored to them, but at the same time he imposed a heavy tax upon the people, that of Danegelt, which had been abolished by Edward the Confessor, and which had ever been regarded with peculiar aversion by the nation.
The inhabitants of Exeter, instigated by Githa, or Editha^ mother to King Harold, refused to admit a Norman garrison; and betaking themselves to arms, were strengthened by the assistance of the neighbouring inhabitants of Devonshire and Cornwall. The king hastened with his forces to chastise this revolt; and on his approach, the wiser and more considerable citizens, sensible of the unequal contest, persuaded the people to submit, and to deliver hostages for their obedience. A sudden mutiny of the populace broke this agreement; and William, appearing before the walls, ordered the eyes of one of the hostages to be put out, as an earnest of the severity which the rebels might expect if they persevered in their revolt. The inhabitants, undaunted by this savage act, refused to surrender, and sustained the attack of the king's forces for eighteen days, during which the besiegers suffered heavy loss. When the city at length was taken, the brave men of Exeter obtained terms by which their lives and property were secured to them. William was not destitute of generosity, when his temper was not hardened either by policy or passion: he set guards on all the gates, in order to prevent the rapacity and insolence of his soldiery. Githa escaped with her treasures to Flanders; and the king, having built a citadel in the city of Exeter, which ho put under the command of Baldwin, son of Earl Gilbert, returned to Winchester, and dispersed his army into their quarters. He was here joined by his wife, Matilda, who had not before visited England, and whom he now ordered to be crowned by Archbishop Aldred. This ceremony, which was contrary to an old law of the Anglo-Saxons, displeased the people, who were further incensed against the new queen in consequence of large tracts of confiscated territory being assigned to her.