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

Revolt of Robert, the Eldest Son of the Conqueror - His Submission - Death of Matilda - Arrest of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux - Domesday Book.
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Although released from external menaces, it was not permitted to the Conqueror to enjoy repose in the last years of his eventful reign. Ordericus Vitalis, in speaking of him, says, "He was afflicted by the just judgment of God. Since the death of Waltheof, whom he had so unjustly punished, he had neither repose nor peace, and the astonishing course of his success was poisoned by the troubles which those related to him occasioned."

When William first received the submission of the province of Maine, he had promised the inhabitants that Robert should be their prince; and before he undertook the expedition against-England, he had, on the application of the French court, declared him his successor in Normandy, and had obliged the barons of that duchy to do him homage as their future sovereign. By this artifice, he had endeavoured to appease the jealousy of his neighbours, as affording them a prospect of separating England from his dominions on the Continent; but when Robert demanded of him the execution of those engagements, he gave him an absolute refusal, and told him, according to the homely saying, that he never intended to throw off his clothes till he went to bed. Robert openly declared his discontent; and was suspected of secretly instigating the King of France and the Earl of Brittany to the opposition which they made to William, and which had formerly frustrated his attempts on the town of Dol; and, as the quarrel still augmented, Robert proceeded to entertain a strong jealousy of his two surviving brothers, William and Henry (for Richard was killed in hunting by a stag), who, by greater submission and complaisance, had acquired the affections of their father. In this disposition on both sides, a small matter sufficed to produce a rupture between them.

The three princes, residing with their father in the castle of l'Aigle, in Normandy, were one day eugaged in sport together; and, after some mirth and jollity, the two younger took a fancy of throwing over some water on Robert, as he passed through the court on leaving their apartment - a frolic which he would naturally have regarded as innocent, had it not been for the suggestions of Alberic de Grentmesnil, son of that Hugh de Grentmesnil whom William had formerly deprived of his fortunes, when that baron deserted him during his greatest difficulties in England. The young man, mindful of the injury, persuaded the prince that this action was meant as a public affront, which it behoved him in honour to resent; and the choleric Robert, drawing his sword, ran up-stairs, with an intention of taking revenge on his brothers. The whole castle was filled with tumult, which the king himself, who hastened from his apartment, found some difficulty in appeasing. He could by no means calm the resentment of his eldest son, who, complaining of his father's partiality, and fancying that no proper atonement had been made for the insult, left the court that very evening, and hastened to Rouen, with the intention of seizing the citadel of that place. Disappointed in this attempt by the precaution and vigilance of Roger de Ivery, the governor, he fled to Hugh de Neufchatel, a powerful Norman baron, who gave him protection in his castles; and he levied war openly against his father. The popular character of the prince, and a similarity of manners, engaged all the young nobility of Normandy and Maine, as well as of Anjou and Brittany, to take part with him; and it was suspected that Matilda, his mother, whose favourite he was, supported him in his rebellion by secret remittances of money, which so enraged her husband that, despite the affection he is known to have borne her, he is said to have beaten her with his own hand.

All the hereditary provinces of William were convulsed by this war, and he was at last compelled to draw an army from England to assist him. These forces, led by his ancient captains, soon enabled him to drive Robert and his adherents from their strongholds, and re-establish his authority; the rebellious son himself being driven to seek a retreat in the castle of Gerberay, which the King of France, who had secretly fomented these dissensions, placed at his disposal. In this fortress he was closely besieged by his angry father, and many encounters took place in the sorties made by the garrison.

In one of these Robert engaged the king without knowing him, wounded him in the arm, and unhorsed him. On William calling out for assistance, his son recognised his voice, and, filled with horror at the idea of having so nearly become a parricide, threw himself at his feet, and asked pardon for his offences. William's mortification, however, and rage did not permit him to reply to this dutiful submission as he ought to have done: breathing a malediction upon his heir, he mounted his son's horse, and rode sullenly away.

The entreaties of the queen, and other influences, soon afterwards brought about a reconciliation; but it is thought the Conqueror in his heart never forgave his son, although he afterwards took Robert to England. This occurred previous to the expedition recorded in the preceding chapter, in which he sent his son to oppose the King of Scotland.

The tranquillity which now ensued gave William leisure to begin an undertaking which proves the comprehensive nature of his talents: it was a general survey of all the lands in the kingdom in 1081; their extent in each district; their proprietors, tenures, value; the quantity of meadow, pasture, wood, and arable land which they contained; and, in some counties, the number of tenants, cottagers, and slaves of all denominations who lived on them. He appointed commissioners for this purpose, who entered every particular in their register by the verdict of juries, and, after a labour of six years (for the work was so long in finishing), brought him an exact account of all the landed property in England. This monument, called Domesday Book - the most valuable piece of antiquity possessed by any nation - is still preserved in the Exchequer; and, though only some extracts of it have hitherto been published, it serves to illustrate, in many particulars, the ancient condition of England. The great Alfred had finished a like survey of the kingdom in his time, which was long kept at Winchester, and which probably served as a model to William in his undertaking.

William, in common with all the great men of the time, was passionately addicted to the chase; a pastime he indulged in at the expense of his unhappy subjects. Not content with the royal domains, he resolved to make a new forest near Winchester, his usual place of abode, and for this purpose laid waste a tract of country extending above thirty miles, expelling the inhabitants from their houses, and seizing on their property without affording them the least compensation; neither did he respect the churches and convents - the possessions of the clergy as well as laity were alike confiscated to his pleasures. At the same time, he enacted penalties, more severe than had hitherto been known in England, against hunting in any of the royal forests. The killing of a deer, wild boar, or hare, was punished by the loss of the offender's eyes - and that at a time when the slaying of a fellow-creature might be atoned by the payment of a fine.

Matilda was spared the pain of witnessing the misfortunes of her favourite son; she died some years before. Matthew Paris, in speaking of her, says, l; She was an incomparably noble and pious princess, whose generous gifts were the joy of the Church."

Although the wife of William possessed many virtues, her character was far from being perfect. It was her influence which induced her husband to put the Earl of Gloucester to death, and to confiscate his possessions to her use. She never forgave that unhappy noble for having rejected her love.

It is even said that one of the conditions on which she married William was, that he should minister to her revenge. Certain it is that she refused the latter when he first made proposals for her hand, which so much incensed the Norman duke that, meeting her in the streets of Bruges as she returned from the church, he not only beat her, but rolled her in the dirt. Notwithstanding this unknightly outrage, she afterwards consented to become his wife.

The transactions recorded during the remainder of this reign may be considered more as domestic occurrences which concern the prince, than as national events which regard England. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the king's uterine brother, whom he had created Earl of Kent, and entrusted with a great share of power during his whole reign, had amassed immense riches; and, agreeably to the usual progress of human wishes, he began to regard his present acquisitions as but a step to farther grandeur. He had formed the chimerical project of buying the papacy; and though Gregory, the reigning pope, was not of advanced years, the prelate had confided so much in the predictions of an astrologer, that he reckoned on the pontiff's death, and on attaining, by his own intrigues and money, that envied state of greatness. Resolving, therefore, to remit all his riches to Italy, he had persuaded many considerable barons, and among the rest Hugh, Earl of Chester, to take the same course, in hopes that when he should mount the Papal throne, he would bestow on them more considerable establishments in that country. The king, from whom all these projects had been carefully concealed, at last got intelligence of the design, and ordered Odo to be arrested. His officers, from respect to the immunities which the ecclesiastics now assumed, scrupled to execute the command, till the king himself was obliged in person to seize him; and when Odo insisted that he was a prelate, and exempt from all temporal jurisdiction, William replied that he arrested him not as Bishop of Bayeux, but as Earl of Kent. He was sent prisoner to Normandy, and, notwithstanding the remonstrances and menaces of Gregory, was kept in confinement during the remainder of William's reign.

William was detained upon the Continent some time after this affair by a quarrel which, in 1087, broke out between himself and his suzerain the King of France, and was occasioned by inroads which the French barons made into Normandy. His displeasure was also increased by some railleries which had been thrown out against his person. The king had grown remarkably stout, and been detained for some time on a bed of sickness. Philip, hearing of this, expressed his surprise that his brother of England should be so long at his lying-in, but that no doubt there would be a fine churching when he was delivered. The Conqueror, enraged at the insulting jest, sent him word, that as soon as he was up he would be churched in Notre Dame, and present so many lights - alluding to the Catholic custom - as would give little pleasure to the King of France. Immediately on his recovery he kept his word; for, gathering an army, he led his forces into the L'Isle de France, laying everything waste with fire and sword in his passage, and took the town of Mantes, which he reduced to ashes.

This career of conquest, however, was cut short by an accident which afterwards cost William, his life. His horse starting on a sudden, caused him to bruise his stomach severely against the pommel of his saddle. Being advanced in years, he began to apprehend the consequences, and ordered himself to be conveyed to the monastery of St. Gervas. Finding his end approaching, he perceived the vanity of all human greatness, and began to feel the most bitter remorse of conscience for the cruelties he had practised, the desolation he had caused, and the innocent blood he had shed during his reign in England; and by way of atonement gave great gifts to various monasteries. He also commanded that Earls Morcar, Siward, Beorn, and other English prisoners, should be set at liberty. He was now prevailed upon, though not without reluctance, to release his brother Odo, against whom he was terribly incensed.

He left Normandy and Maine to his eldest son Robert, whom he had never forgiven for his rebellion against him. He wrote to Lanfranc, the primate, desiring him to crown William King of England, and bequeathed to his son Henry the possessions of his mother; foretelling, it is said, that he would one day surpass both his brothers in greatness.

He died at Rouen, on the 9th of September, 1087, in the sixty-third year of his age, the twenty-first of his reign in England, and fifty-fourth over Normandy.

Few princes have been more fortunate than William, or better entitled to grandeur and prosperity, from the abilities and the vigour of mind displayed in all his conduct. His spirit was bold and enterprising, yet guided by prudence; his ambition, which was exorbitant, and lay little under the restraints of justice, still less under those of humanity, ever submitted to the dictates of sound policy. Born in an age when the minds of men were intractable and unacquainted with submission, he was yet able to direct them to his purposes; and partly from the influence of his vehement character, partly from art and dissimulation, to establish an unlimited authority. The maxims of his administration were austere, but might have been useful, had they been solely employed to preserve order in an established government: they were ill calculated for softening the rigours which, under the most gentle management, are inseparable from conquest. His attempt against England was the last great enterprise of the kind which, during the course of 800 years, has fully succeeded in Europe; and the force of his genius broke through those limits which the feudal institutions and the refined policy of princes have fixed to the several states of Christendom.

King William had issue, besides his three sons who survived him, five daughters, to wit - 1. Cicely, a nun in the monastery of Feschamp, afterwards abbess in the Holy Trinity at Caen, where she died in 1127. 2. Constantia, married to Alan Fergent, Earl of Brittany: she died without issue. 3. Alice, contracted to Harold. 4. Adela, married to Stephen, Earl of Blois, by whom she had four sons - William, Theobald, Henry, and Stephen - of whom the elder was neglected on account of the imbecility of his understanding. 5. Agatha, who died a virgin, but was betrothed to the King of Gallicia: she died on her journey thither, before she joined her bridegroom.

A learned historian gives the following more circumstantial account of William's death and character. He says, " Early on the morning of the 9th of September, 1087, the king heard the sound of a bell, and eagerly demanded what it meant. He was told that it sounded the hour of prime in the Church of St. Mary. 'Then,' said he, 'I commend my soul to my Lady, the mother of God, that by her holy prayers she may reconcile me to her son, my Lord Jesus Christ,' and immediately expired."

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