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


Continuation of the Reign of William the Conqueror - Depression of the English - Introduction of the Feudal Laws.
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William, finding himself entirely master of a people who had given him such sensible proofs of their impotent rage und animosity, now resolved to proceed to extremities against all the natives of England, and to reduce them to r. condition in which they should no longer be formidable. The insurrections and conspiracies in so many parts of the kingdom had involved the bulk of the landed proprietors, more or less, in the guilt of treason; and the king took vantage of executing against them, with the utmost rigour, the laws of forfeiture and attainder. Their lives were, generally speaking, spared; but their estates were confiscated, and either annexed to the crown or bestowed upon the Norman nobility.

Thus many ancient families were reduced to beggary and had the mortification of seeing their lands in the possession of strangers, as well as finding themselves excluded from office and employment.

William, as has been observed, was not only the most warlike, but one of the most politic princes of his time. Knowing that power followed property, he took care to establish such institutions in the country as would retain the military power of the kingdom in the hands of those who had assisted him to obtain possession of the throne. With this view the feudal law was introduced into the island. The lands, with the exception of the royal domains, were, with a few exceptions, divided into baronies, which ho conferred upon his followers, who held them by military service due to the crown.

The new barons subdivided their lands amongst their knights and vassals, whom they bound to them by the same tenure, paying to their chief in time of peace or war the same species of service which they rendered to their sovereign.

The entire kingdom was thus divided into about 700 fiefs, and upwards of 60,000 knights' fees or holdings.

As none of the English were admitted into the first class, the few who were permitted to retain possession of land were only too glad to be received into the second division, and, under the protection of some favoured Norman noble, hold by the feudal tenure the estates which had descended to them free from their ancestors.

The Conqueror placed the ecclesiastical revenues of the country under the same law; he was no longer under the necessity of wearing a mask with the clergy, whom on his first arrival he found it necessary to court. The bishops and abbots were bound to furnish him during war with a certain number of knights, in proportion to the extent of their possessions, and were rendered liable, in case of failure, to the same penalties as the laity.

It was in vain that the Pope and the Church protested against this innovation. William was now absolute master, and the army devoted to him. He had little to fear from ecclesiastical menaces. The great body of the priesthood were still Saxons, and the pontic king knew well the effects which might arise from their opposition to his interests: he therefore expelled them from the principal dignities, and advanced Norman and other prelates in their places.

Amongst the Saxon churchmen was Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who by the greatness of his birth, the extent of his possessions, and the dignity of his office, gave great cause of jealousy to the Conqueror.

Not deeming it safe to violate the respect due to the primate, William waited the arrival of the Bishop of Sion, the legate of the Pope in England, the first who ever appeared in that character in the island. It was not deference to the see of Rome alone which induced William to receive the Papal envoy, but the desire of using him for a political purpose which he had long meditated; and the legate consented to become the supporter of his tyranny.

He summoned, therefore, a council of the prelates and abbots at Winchester; and being assisted by two cardinals, Peter and John, he cited before him Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, to answer for his conduct. The primate was accused of three crimes: the holding of the see of Winchester, together with that of Canterbury; the officiating in the pall of Robert, his predecessor; and the having received his own pall from Benedict IX,, who was afterwards deposed for simony, and for intrusion into the Papacy. These crimes of Stigand were mere pretences, since the first had been a practice not unusual in England, and was never anywhere subjected to a higher penalty than a resignation of one of the sees; the second was a pure ceremonial; and as Benedict was the only pope who then officiated, and his acts were never repealed, all the prelates of the Church, especially those who lived at a distance, were excusable for making their applications to him. Stigand's ruin, however, was resolved on, and was prosecuted with great severity. The legate degraded him from Ms dignity; the king confiscated his estate, and cast him into prison, where he continued in poverty and want during the remainder of his life.

Like rigour was exercised against the other English preiates. Agelric, Bishop of Selesey, and Agelmare, of Elmham, were deposed by the legate, and imprisoned by the king. Many considerable abbots shared the same fate: Egelwin, Bishop of Durham, fled the kingdom. Wulstan, of Worcester, a man of an inoffensive character, was the only English prelate that escaped this general proscription.

Brompton relates, that the last-named bishop was also deprived of his dignities by the synod; but refusing to deliver his pastoral staff and ring to any but the person from whom he first received it, he went immediately to King Edward's tomb, and struck the staff so deeply into the stone, that none but; himself was able to pull it out; on which he was allowed to retain possession of his dignity.

Aldred, Archbishop of York, who had crowned the Conqueror, died, about the same time, of grief. He left his malediction, it is said, to William, on account of the wrongs he had inflicted on the people.

The deposing of Stigand gave the king an opportunity of paying a long debt of gratitude to Lanfranc, a Lombard monk, by raising him to the vacant dignity. This friar had been sent by him shortly after his marriage with Matilda to the Court of Rome, to obtain the Papal dispensation for their union, it having been discovered, after the ceremony had taken place, that they were related within the prohibited degree.

The new archbishop showed himself exceedingly unbending, where the prerogatives of the primacy were in question. After a long contest before the Pope, he compelled Thomas, a Norman monk, who had been appointed to the see of York, to acknowledge his superiority, a point which had hitherto been warmly contested between the occupants of the rival sees.

The zeal of the new primate in supporting the interests of Rome met with great success. It is true that William, during his reign, rarely felt inconvenience from, it, for with his strong hand and iron will he kept the Church in great subjection to the Crown, and would allow none to dispute his sovereign will and pleasure. He prohibited his subjects from acknowledging any one for pope whom he himself had not previously received: he required that all the ecclesiastical canons, voted in any synod, should first be laid before him, and be ratified by his authority; even bulls, or letters from Rome, could not legally be produced, till they received the same sanction: and none of his ministers or barons, whatever offences they were guilty of, could be subjected to spiritual censures till he himself had given his consent to their excommunication.


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

Battle Abbey
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Hereward
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