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


Insurrection at Durham - Death of the Bishop - Expedition of William against Scotland - Invasion and Retreat of the Danes.
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William to the end of his reign no longer had any serious difficulties to contend with from the Saxons, the national spirit being broken and subdued beneath his iron yoke. The conspiracies which ensued were now those of the Normans, and the partial insurrections that took place were instigated chiefly by private vengeance against some local oppressor.

In one of these insurrections perished Walcher, Bishop of Durham, a prelate originally from Lorraine, and elevated by the new king to the see of St. Cuthbert.

Historians who have written of this remarkable man agree in describing him as no less distinguished for his attainments than the excellence of his moral character: he was good but feeble, and lacked the energy necessary to restrain the evil-doers in the troublesome times in which he lived. His tragical death is said to have been predicted by the widow of Edward the Confessor, who resided at Winchester, where the bishop was consecrated. When she saw him conducted in great pomp to the cathedral, struck by his venerable air and majestic demeanour, she exclaimed to those around her, "Beheld a noble martyr!". Like many other prophecies, it doubtless might have been forgotten, had not circumstances afterwards caused its fulfilment.

On the death of Waltheof, the government of Northumberland was confided by William to this venerable prelate, who thus united in his hands the temporal as well as the spiritual power; repressing by the sword the excesses of the barbarous people whom he was called to govern, and instructing them by the word.

His own disposition being good, he suspected no ill in others; and giving much time to study, delegated a great share of his authority to one Gilbert, his archdeacon, an ecclesiastic of ardent character, who committed great crimes and exactions, and permitted the soldiers to pillage and slay the inhabitants of the diocese, without listening to their prayers for redress.

It was in vain that the good bishop tried to temper the harshness of this man by associating with him a relative of his own, one Leob, who sided with the archdeacon in all his exactions; or took to his councils a noble Saxon, Leulf, uncle to the deceased Waltheof. The two tyrants disregarded the remonstrances of the latter, and continued their career of crime and oppression. Leob, enraged at the remonstrances of Leulf, demanded his life of his confederate Gilbert, who entered the house of the Saxon, and slew him with most of his followers.

The murdered man not only held vast possessions, but was greatly esteemed on account of the justness of his character; and the crime excited such unusual indignation that the people, excited by his relatives and friends, flew to arms, demanding vengeance on the criminals. The bishop, in an agony of fear, sent messengers to say that justice should be done; that he would place out of the pale of the law Gilbert and his accomplices; that he himself was innocent of the death of Leulf, and offered to purge himself by oath of all suspicion of the deed. This offer was accepted, and the two parties met at a church near Durham, a ferocious and armed multitude on one side, frantic for vengeance. They had seen, they said, the assassins received and sheltered in the episcopal palace directly after the commission of the crime.

Walcher, alarmed by their cries, refused to trust himself amongst them, but offered to take the oath in the church, where he was surrounded, together with Leob and Gilbert, the actual murderers. In the midst of the tumult, the Saxon cry of "Short rede - good rede," signifying "Short words - good words," was raised, and their leader called out "Slay the bishop!" The multitude, delighted with the order, rushed to the sacred edifice, and attempted to set it on fire.

In this peril the prelate commanded Gilbert, who had actually committed the offence, to quit the church, lest, as he said, the innocent should perish with the guilty; the archdeacon obeyed, and was speedily torn in pieces by the Saxons. Leob refused to quit the place, which he vainly hoped would shelter him, although the names had begun to penetrate in every part. Then it was the bishop took the resolution of quitting the building, in the hope that the lives of his companions might be spared. Covering his face with his mantle, he advanced amongst the crowd, but soon fell, pierced by a hundred wounds. His guilty relative, and those who were with him, perished in the flames.

Excited by this success, the insurgents returned to Durham, and attempted to become masters of the citadel of the murdered bishop; but the garrison, which was composed of Normans, beat them off, and they dispersed themselves in the neighbouring country.

No sooner did the report of this insurrection reach the ears of Odo, the grand justiciary of the kingdom, than he marched towards Durham with a strong body of men to restore order. Incensed at the death of his brother prelate, he gave licence to his soldiery to ravage and destroy. The horrors that ensued were fearful. The innocent suffered with the guilty. Whenever a Saxon was met with he was put to death, with circumstances of such appalling barbarity that we cannot venture to describe them.

This scene of horrors took place in 1080, and fell with double hardship on the inhabitants, who had not yet recovered from the incursion which Malcolm, King of Scotland, had made a short time previously in the province.

William resolved to chastise the Scots once more, and for that purpose entrusted the command of an expedition to his eldest son Robert, surnamed Ceurte-heuse on account of the shortness of his legs. But on the arrival of the prince in Northumbria, he no longer found an enemy to oppose him, Malcolm and his troops having retired into their own country. The only result, therefore, of the enterprise was the founding of the town of Newcastle, upon the banks of the river Tyne.

The following year the king marched into Wales in person, with numerous forces, and overran a considerable portion of the country, delivering, in. the course of his progress, upwards of 300 Saxons, whom the Welsh had enslaved. From this excursion he was speedily recalled by a confederacy entered into against him by the Danes, whose king, Canute the Younger, laid claim to the crown of England, and with this intention entered into an alliance with Olave, King of Norway, and with his brother-in-law Robert, Count of Flanders, who promised him a succour of 600 vessels. William felt the utmost alarm at this alliance, which seriously menaced his throne, and he enlisted under his banners a crowd of mercenaries from every part of Europe^ whom he paid by the enormous contributions wrung from his English subjects. The Danish army, however, dispersed without a battle, either from insubordination or want of supplies, or perhaps from both causes united.


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

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