| In the Days of William the Conqueror|
|by Eva March Tappan|
|Story of the life of William the Conqueror, telling of his boyhood in Normandy, beset by dangers, of his knighting by the King of France and of the after-deeds which made him famous, including the conquest of England. Ages 11-15 |
THE LAST YEAR
N all these years of trouble and anxiety, of false
friends and bitter enemies, William's one joy had been
the companionship of his wife and children,—when he
could have them with him in England, or could be with
them in Normandy. Matilda shared his ambition, and
endured the frequent separation as patiently as might
be, trying to rule the duchy in such wise that her
husband might be free for the difficulties of England.
In the town of Bayeux, there is kept with the utmost
care a piece of embroidery that Matilda and her court
ladies are supposed to have wrought in William's honor
during some of these absences. Embroidery was not
looked upon in those days as a trivial amusement, it
was a serious occupation; and it is quite possible that
Matilda's excellent management of the turbulent duchy
was not regarded with nearly so much respect and
admira-  tion as her skill in the use of the needle.
Tapestry was not only the comfort that made life
endurable in the draughty old castles; it was the
family record, the history, the children's
picture-book, and the grown folks' portrait gallery.
This Bayeux tapestry, as it is called, is a piece of
canvas about half a yard wide and nearly seventy yards
long. It is covered with figures of men and horses and
trees and ships and castles,—hundreds of them; and
these pictures, together with a running inscription in
Latin, tell the whole story of the Norman conquest,
beginning with Harold's visit to Normandy, and ending
with the battle at Senlac. While the stone castles have
crumbled, and the steel weapons of the fighters have
vanished, this fragile piece of linen has endured for
eight hundred years. The care with which it is wrought
suggests that it was a labor of love; and it seems a
great pity that between the man who did such bold deeds
and the woman who loved to chronicle them, dissension
should have arisen. Dissension did arise, however, and
it was on account of the one who was dearest to them
both,—their eldest son, Robert.
William had always been troubled lest the
 barons should revolt at his death and refuse their
allegiance to his son. It was because of this fear that
before he went to England he required all his vassals
to do homage to Robert, who was then twelve years of
age; and to make the matter even more sure, he called
upon the king of France, as overlord, to confirm this
transaction. Whenever William was in England, Robert's
name was associated with his mother's in the
government of the duchy, until, while he was yet a boy,
he began to feel like a very great man; and when he was
about twenty-three, he demanded that his father's
domain should be limited to England, and that he
himself should have the full control of Normandy.
"I don't take off my clothes till I go to bed," said
the conqueror. "Normandy is mine because I inherited
it, and England is mine because I won it; but if I gave
up Normandy, I could not hold England."
"What am I to do, then?" asked Robert angrily. "How am
I to pay my followers?"
"Obey me," said William, "and wherever I have power,
there shall you have power; wherever I have wealth,
there shall you have wealth."
 "I won't be the hireling of any man," said Robert; "I
want what belongs to me. You give me Normandy, and then
you take it away. Normandy belongs to me, and I want
"A son who does not know how to obey his father is not
fit to rule a duchy," said William. "Go to Canterbury
and ask Archbishop Lanfranc how a son should behave
toward his father before you come to me for a duchy."
"A SON WHO DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO OBEY HIS FATHER IS NOT FIT TO RULE A DUCHY," SAID WILLIAM
"My lord the king," said Robert, "I did not come here
to listen to lectures; I had enough of that from my
tutors when I was a boy. I came for the duchy of
Normandy, which is mine by right. Will you give it to
me, or will you not?"
"I will not," thundered the king. "So long as I live,
what is mine is mine."
Robert went away in a rage. The more he thought of the
matter, the more angry he grew, and the more ready to
listen to his companions and to the messages of Philip
of France that were ever urging him on to demand his
rights. The younger sons, William Rufus and Henry, held
by their father, and Robert's jealousy of them made him
ready to quarrel on the slightest pretext.
It soon came about that William went forth to
 quell a Norman revolt, and his three sons accompanied
him, though Henry could hardly have been more than nine
or ten years old. The little boy and William Rufus were
playing at dice in the room directly over Robert, and
either in malice or in mischief, they threw water down
upon their brother and his friends below. Robert chose
to regard the silly trick as a deliberate insult, and
rushed upstairs with his drawn sword to take a fearful
revenge. Fortunately, the king appeared and prevented
violence, but that very night Robert and a company of
his friends rode to Rouen and made an attempt to seize
the castle. This was unsuccessful; and Robert then
declared that he would stay no longer in a duchy which
was his own and was unjustly kept from him by another;
so out into the world he went, visiting wealthy knights
and nobles, and arousing them against his father by
telling them how unjustly he had been treated. There
were many in Normandy who, in spite of their oath to
William, would provide Robert with money on his promise
to repay them liberally when he should come to his
rights; and Philip of France was always ready to do
anything that would work to the injury of William.
 Robert had yet another grievance; and that was that
when he was a child his father had betrothed him to the
little girl who was the heiress of Maine, on condition
that the revenues of Maine were to belong to William
till the children were old enough to be married. The
little girl died; and as there was no one else who had
a good title to the district, William kept it; and when
Robert demanded it as his right, declared that there
had been no marriage, and therefore Robert had no
claim to the province.
King William's love for his children was as strong as
his manifestation of it was often unwise, and this
rebellion would have been enough to make him unhappy;
but worst of all, he found after a while that Matilda
was secretly supporting Robert's rebellious plans by
sending him the money that was increasing and arming
the foes of her husband. Again and again he forbade it.
The proud queen pleaded for her son. Then said the
"Could you have found a husband who would have loved
you more than I, or have been more faithful to you?
Where I am duke, you are duchess; where I am king, you
are queen. My treasures
 are in your hand. Can it be that you are pouring them
out to aid my enemy, that you whom I have loved best of
all the world are the one that has betrayed me?" And
"You have shared with me all that you have because you
love me; and can you blame me that I share with Robert
all that I have because I love him? If he was dead and
buried in the earth seven feet deep, I would give my
own heart's blood to bring him to life again. I cannot
be so hard-hearted as to abandon my eldest son, and you
must not lay such a command upon me." Then William
declared that at least her messenger should be
punished; but Matilda sent word to the man, and he fled
to a convent, "and so saved at the same time his body
and his soul," say the old chroniclers.
Finally, there was a pitched battle between father and
son and their followers. An arrow shot down the king's
horse, and at the same moment William, who in all his
battles had never before received a wound, was pierced
through the arm by a spear thrust. It was Robert who
bore the spear, and upon him his father pronounced a
bitter curse. Afterwards, by the entreaties of the
queen and the
 chief men of the duchy, a kind of reconciliation was
brought about; but the thought that his queen was no
longer one with him, and that to please a prodigal son
she would aid his enemies, was perhaps the greatest
grief of the king's whole life.
One sorrow after another came to him. Not long after
Robert's rebellion, a messenger stood before him with
pale face and downcast eyes.
"O King William," he said, "the prince was pursuing a
deer in the New Forest, and his horse took fright and
dashed him against a tree, and he is dead." Prince
Richard was buried in the church at Winchester. After
the funeral a little group of English lingered about
"It is not easy to lose a son," said one.
"No, it is not," said an old man. "My son was killed at
Senlac. If William had stayed in the land that God
gave him, his son would not have been killed and
neither would mine."
"They say that the prince fell from his horse just
where the altar of the church used to stand," said the
"So I have heard," said the old man; "and I have also
heard that every night as the curfew rings, the dead
priests come out in white robes and
 walk around the place where their church used to be.
One of them bears the golden pyx, and in it is the
semblance of the Holy Wafer, and as they go, they
chant, 'There shall be three, there shall be three.'
This is the first; who will be the second?"
"Perhaps the king himself," whispered the other
fearfully. "Since the murder of Waltheof nothing has
gone well with him. Then, too, he married against the
will of the church, and it is only right that one
should die and one rebel. When a man does wrong, he is
sure to suffer."
William's other two sons had stood by their father. Of
his daughters, the little girl who had been promised to
Harold had never crossed the water, for she died before
the conquest. Cicely entered a convent, as did also a
younger sister. One married the Count of Brittany, and
another, the Count of Blois.
A fine trait in William's character was his affection for his relatives on the side of
his peasant mother. Of Arletta herself nothing is
known, except that she married an honorable knight,
Herlwin de Conteville, and that William always treated
her with great respect. Her two sons, Robert and
 Odo, had stood one on either side of William at the
battle of Senlac. Robert was a brave, true, upright
man, and he seems to have been one of the few whom
William dared to trust; for while in giving land to
other men, he was careful to scatter their manors about
the kingdom, to Robert he gave nearly the whole of
Cornwall and seventy-five manors in Devonshire, besides
nearly five hundred more in different parts of the
country. Robert fought not only with William, but for
him, and was never tempted to have the least connection
with the endless conspiracies that were made against
his royal brother.
Odo, the second son of Arletta, was of quite different
material. He had been raised to the bishopric of
Bayeux; but he was more of a warrior than a bishop,
and he gladly dropped his staff and seized a war-club
when the opportunity came to him to win great
possessions in England. William made him Earl of Kent,
and gave him a great number of manors; but not nearly
so many as he gave Robert, and far more scattered.
When William had to leave England for Normandy, the
chief rule of the country was given to Odo, as has been
said before. Wealth and power
 coming to him so suddenly were more than he could bear
with wisdom. He began to think of aiming at the royal
throne. Then some evil counsellor whispered to him:—
"There is a soothsayer in Rome who says that the name
of the next pope will be either Odo or Otto."
"It shall be Odo," said the bishop to himself; and from
that moment he was like one insane in his ambition to
become pope. He bought himself a beautiful house in
Rome; he sent munificent gifts to all whose influence
might be of value; and he even planned to enter the
holy city with so large an escort that it was almost
like an army. But William had not been blind; and just
when Odo was ready to set sail with his company, who
should appear on the scene but the king of England. He
straightway called an assembly of the chief men, and to
them he said:—
"Here is the man who has ruled England in my name,
while I was quelling a revolt in my duchy and
suppressing the rebellion of my unnatural son. He has
robbed the poor and the church. He has planned to seize
the popedom as he has seized the goods of my subjects.
My knights who are needed in England he has persuaded
to abandon their own
 country to the Danish hosts or to any marauders that
may come, while they themselves guard his way to Rome
that he may become pope. Here is the man. What is
fitting to be done with him?" No one wished to speak.
There was silence. Then said the king:—
"No man who has done ill should be spared through
favor. Seize this man and put him in ward." No one
dared to seize a bishop. There upon William himself
laid hold of him.
"I am a priest," cried Odo, "a minister of the Lord. No
one may condemn a bishop without the decree of the
"A bishop?" said William. "I have nothing to do with a
bishop. The bishop may go where he will. The one I have
to do with is the Earl of Kent, he who has ill-treated
my people, he who is my vassal and my earl." Then was
the Earl of Kent carried away and put into prison. The
Pope was indignant, but William replied only:—
"Naught have I to do with the bishop, he may go free;
but the earl remains in prison."
Only one year after the trouble with Odo, the king was
suddenly called to Normandy by the fatal illness of
Matilda. He had met his other troubles
 bravely; but her loss was a crushing blow, and one from
which he never recovered.
Four years after the death of Matilda came the last
year of William's life. It was a terrible time. There
were disastrous fires in many of the chief towns of
England, and the land was ravaged by fearful storms.
Then came famine, and after famine came sickness. With
all this there was war as fierce as any that had been
fought during the whole reign.
A strip of territory called the Vexin had been given by
France to Duke Robert, then seized again by France when
William was a child. William demanded this land of
Philip, but Philip, knowing that the king was not at
all well, ventured to return no other reply than a
coarse, impertinent jest. In a moment there flashed
through William's mind the wrongs that he had endured
from Philip's father, the insolence of Philip himself,
and worst of all, the eager encouragement to rebellion
that Philip had given to his son Robert. He sprang from
his bed, assembled his troops, and whirled over the
Vexin like a storm-wind, laying waste homes and
harvest-fields. At last he came to Mantes; and there
palace and church blazed alike,
 till the ground where the town had stood was only a bed
of glowing embers. On one of these the horse of William
stumbled. The king fell forward heavily upon the pommel
of the saddle. He felt that his injury was mortal and
sounded a retreat. He was taken to Rouen, and thence to
the quiet priory of Saint Gervase on a hill to the west
of the city.
About him gathered bishops and abbots and men skilled
in medicine. There, too, came his faithful brother
Robert; and his two younger sons, William Rufus and
Henry, who waited eagerly for the suffering man to
declare his final will in regard to his property.
"Who shall have Normandy?" they questioned.
"Normandy was promised to Robert," said the king. "Ill
fares the land that he rules, but the Normans have done
him homage; they wish for him, and Normandy he must
"And who is to have England?" cried William Rufus, with
sparkling eyes; but his face fell when his father said
"Normandy is mine as it was my father's, but England I
took by the sword. I give it back to God; the land is
not mine to bestow." His eyes
 closed wearily, and William Rufus turned bitterly away.
"My lord king," said one of the bishops, "is it well to
leave the country to the strife and tumult that befall
the land that has no ruler? Will you not name him to
whom you would give your kingdom?"
"It is not mine to give," said the king; "but if it was
mine, I would give it to my son William. Yes, write a
parchment to Lanfranc. Tell him my son has been
obedient to me, and that if it please God, I would that
he should have the kingdom. Tell Lanfranc to crown him
if he thinks it right." The parchment was prepared, and
William sealed it with his ring. Henry had been waiting
impatiently. Now he broke forth:—
"And what am I to have, if Robert has the duchy and
William the kingdom? What is there left for me?"
"I give you five thousand pounds in silver," said the
"What can I do with that," said Henry, "if I have no
place to dwell in?"
"Be patient," said his father. "You are young; let
those who are older go before you. The time
 may come when you will be greater than both of them."
The two young men left their father's bedside: Henry to
have his silver weighed and to put it into a place of
safety; William Rufus to set out for England, lest some
one seize the throne before him. Then William gave
large sums of money to rebuild Mantes, to aid the
church, and to help the poor of England. He named over
one prisoner after another, and bade that they be
"There is one more," said an abbot; "there is Bishop
Odo. Will you not set him free?"
"No," said the king; "bishop and brother I would gladly
free, but the earl who has plundered and oppressed my
people, he shall not go free. Open every other prison
door in Normandy and in England, but bar his more
firmly." Then said Robert of Mortain, Earl of Cornwall:—
"He is our brother, William, our own mother's son. Set
him free, and I pledge all that you have given me that
he will no longer oppress those who cannot resist. By
your love for me, by your love for our mother, set him
"Ruin and woe will follow him wherever he goes," said
William; "but as you will. Set him free."
 One September morning a few days later the great bell
on the church struck.
"What is that?" asked William.
"It is the bell for primes," said the attendant.
William clasped his hands, and with a prayer for pardon
his spirit passed away. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:—
"May Almighty God show mercy to his soul, and grant his
As to William's greatness, there is no question. More
than one man of resolute purpose has cut for himself a
way to a throne with his own good sword, and that,
indeed, is an achievement; but it is a greater when one
placed at the head of a turbulent, rebellious state
has reduced that state to order, and has extended his
sway over a rich and powerful kingdom. Here is a man
who began his reign as a little child, envied because
of his princely father and despised because of his
plebeian mother. Whoever chose might cast a glance of
scorn at the boy of ignoble birth. Whoever aspired to
a duchy might attempt his murder. Other children grew
up amid love; he grew up amid hatred. Could one expect
such a childhood to bring forth tenderness, gentleness,
 Could one ask more than that those years should not
make him bitter and malevolent?
And yet this child proved to be a man of warmest
affections. He clung to his low-born mother. To her he
presented the first-fruits of his sword; to her son, of
all the nobles that stood by him at Senlac, he gave the
largest share of the conquered kingdom. He showed a
savage cruelty more than once, it is true, but either
to those who had taunted his mother, or to the king who
had led astray his eldest son. Over and over again he
forgave men who had revolted against him.
An eleventh-century man should not be judged by
twentieth-century ideas. The standard of goodness is
higher, and the moral man of William's time would be
looked upon to-day as a dangerous character. What was
then the simple course of justice would be to-day the
most barbaric cruelty. It was a time of formalism. He
who committed no great crime, performed the penances of
the church, and gave to her freely, was looked upon as
her faithful son. To take a false oath one's self was
generally regarded as wrong under most circumstances,
but to trick another into a sacred promise was a
Hilde-  brand had come none too soon. Morality was low; the demands
of the church were low. If William seized England
wrongfully, he was at least fighting under the Pope's
banner, and with the blessing of the Pope resting upon
Alfred the Great might well say, "I have sought to live
my life worthily;" William the Conqueror could say, "I
have given freely to the church; I have built many
convents and many abbeys." Alfred was true to the
spirit of the teachings of the church; William was true
to the letter.
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