| 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 |
PROMISE OR PRISON?
CCUPIED as William was by revolts in his own duchy,
invasions of the king of France, and negotiations to
obtain the Pope's sanction of his marriage, he had
never forgotten the promise of King Edward that some
day he should wear the crown of England. He waited
patiently, increasing his power in Normandy, and
watching keenly every movement of the people across the
Channel. Twelve years had passed before anything
happened that seemed to strengthen his hold upon the
Now when "all folk chose Edward to king," the principal
reason for their choice was that Edward belonged to the
old Saxon family that had been their rulers before the
coming of the Danes. One of Edward's chief supporters
was a powerful noble named Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and
he gave to the new king his daughter Edith in marriage.
 Godwin may have been indignant that Edward's gratitude
was not powerful enough to make him obedient to the man
who had helped him to the throne; or he may have been
genuinely disappointed when he found that he had only
exchanged Danish rule for Norman; for in education and
taste Edward was as much of a Norman as if he had never
left Norman soil, and to Normans he
gave all places of honor in court and church. Whatever
may have been the reason, he opposed Edward
determinedly. The king accused him of the murder of
Alfred, and the council seized his estates and banished
Soon after William made his visit to England, Godwin
returned. He had cleared himself of the charge of
murder, and the council gave back his land. It did
more, for a decree was passed declaring that the king's
Norman friends must leave England because it was their
advice that had brought about such injustice.
An event like this could hardly fail to make it clear
to the king that the English people would not give up
easily to any foreign rule. Edward began to find that
his recommendation to the council would not be enough
to place William
 peaceably upon the throne. Would it not rather bring
about discord and war? and would not the Danish party
seize upon any time of disunion to force a Danish king
upon the land? Was there anything better to do?
Far away in Hungary was a prince called the "Outlaw," a
nephew of Edward's. He was invited to England, and now
the question seemed to be settled, for his father had
been greatly loved by the English people; but in a few
weeks he died. His son was too young to be thought of
as ruler of the land, and again Edward must try to plan
for the succession. He had learned that the king could
not give away his crown; but he had also learned that
when the people came to make their choice, the wish of
the king would be of great weight. What should he do?
Godwin was dead, but he had left a son, Harold, and
every day Harold's power was on the increase. He had no
claim to the throne by blood, he was merely the
brother-in-law of the king; but William's relationship
was only that of grand-nephew to Edward's Norman
mother. No drop of English blood royal was in his veins
any more than in Harold's. Edward's choice lay between
a child of
 the royal family, whose youth would lay the kingdom
open to Danish dominion; a foreigner of a race hated by
the English; and an Englishman loved and admired by the
English nation. Who could blame him if his mind turned
It came about one bright day in 1064 that Earl Harold
went out sailing with a merry party. There were three
vessels full of his friends. They started from Bosham,
near the Isle of Wight. Just where they would go, they
had not decided, but they took with them their dogs and
hawks and bows and spears, for they meant to hunt
wherever they landed. A storm came up suddenly. The
boats were separated, and the one that carried Harold
was driven across the Channel and wrecked. In the
darkness he and several of the party were cast upon an
unknown coast. Harold was the first to reach the land,
and in the roar of the surf he shouted:—
"Ho, there, ho! Is any one saved?" There was no sound
from the shore, but from the waves came a cry of
"Help, help!" Into the fearful tumult of the waters
Harold plunged in the direction of the voice. He
touched a man in the darkness and brought him to land.
 "The earl himself," said the man. "Glad am I that you
"And I, too," said another. "And I," "And, I" cried
other voices. "It would have fared ill with us in
England if we had gone back without the man who is to
be its king."
"Talk not of kings," said the earl; "talk rather of
where we are and how we are to escape. If we are on
the coast of Normandy, I'd rather go back into the
"The duke owes England nothing but kindness," said one
of the party.
"He would willingly owe her for more kindness," said
the earl grimly. "We will stay under these rocks
till daybreak. They seem to rise up high above us; at
least, it is darker there than to the right or the
left; and when morning comes, we will try to escape.
I would give half of my earldom to have a good piece of
English ground under my feet once more."
Just before the break of day two men stood on the
little cliff that in the darkness had seemed to tower
so far above the beach. By their dress they should
have been fishermen, but on the shore there were no
signs of nets having been spread, and the
 men had neither fishhooks nor lines. Instead they bore
stout ropes and long poles with strong hooks at the
"Stop!" said one softly, as the little path came near
the edge of the cliff; "there are sometimes better
things than driftwood, or kegs of food or bits of iron.
Stay back and let me look."
"Yes, I know what you want. Stay back yourself,"
whispered the other angrily, and he flung his companion
back heavily away from the cliff. The noise of the
waves covered that of the scuffle, and the man crept to
the edge and peered over.
Down below him was the little group. The sailor's dress
and the knight's dress he could make out, but there was
one man the richness of whose garments even the salt
water could not entirely conceal. The watcher on the
cliff noticed that some attempt seemed to have been
made to lessen his discomfort. The cloak of one and the
tunic of another were thrown over him. He moved, and
the fisherman caught a glimpse of his face and started.
"I haven't been on the English coast for nothing," he
said to himself. He sprang up softly, but the other
caught him by the leg.
 "Where are you going?" he demanded in a fierce whisper.
"To the count."
"Then I go with you," and he pursued closely as the
first ran across the field. They were soon out of
hearing of the shipwrecked party.
"What are you going to the count for?" called over his
shoulder the one who had seen the group on the shore.
"Because you expect a reward from him, and I mean to
have some of it," said the other boldly.
"You do? and what can you say to win a reward? I have
something to tell."
"Tell me what it is, or you will never get to the
"And what would you have to tell, then? Would the count
be pleased that you had killed a man who was useful to
him? Watch and see that no one escapes, and I will give
you a pound when I come back."
"You expect to get twenty, or else you wouldn't,"
muttered the fisherman; but there was nothing else to
do, so he gave up the pursuit. The spy ran on, but
before he came to the castle he met the count.
 "Count Guy," said he, "I have a bigger fish than I ever
caught before. Will you give me twenty pounds for him?
I'll warrant you he'll pay you one hundred. It's the
Earl of Wessex."
Without a moment's delay, the count summoned his
followers and rode to the coast. The broken vessel had
come ashore, and the shipwrecked men were trying to
make it seaworthy. So busy were they that the first
they knew of the coming of the count was his call,—
"Hold, you are my captives!"
"Who are you?" demanded Harold defiantly.
"Count Guy of Ponthieu, a faithful vassal of Normandy.
You are my prisoner."
"I claim of you the hospitality that one noble has the
right to claim of another," said Harold.
"You do not give me your name," said the count with a
peculiar smile. "I know it, however. You are Earl
Harold of England, and down into my strongest dungeon
you go until your ransom is paid."
"And this is your Norman courtesy? You are thieves and
robbers all, and so was your Rollo before you," said
 "What the wave brings to us is our own, be it weed or
drift," said the count calmly.
"Or men?" asked Harold angrily.
"Or men," repeated the count. "The man who is wrecked
is accursed of God, or God would have brought him
safely to his haven."
"What kind of God you have in Normandy, I know not,"
said Harold bitterly; "but the God of England tells us
to help the unfortunate."
"And so may you do when you are in England," said the
count; "but this is Ponthieu, and I am lord of
Ponthieu, and a faithful vassal to Duke William and—"
"And when did your faithfulness begin?" asked Harold
"Long enough ago for me to have a castle. It has a
dungeon and a torture chamber, too, and sometimes these
will hasten the coming of a ransom."
Harold was taken to the castle, perhaps to the dungeon;
but one of his faithful attendants who had been out of
sight when the count appeared, remained in hiding until
he and his captives were gone, and then made his way to
Rouen and demanded to see Duke William. To him he told
 the story of the wreck and the capture, and begged that
he as overlord would force the count to set Harold
It was a terrible temptation to set before the man
whose ambition it was to become king of England. Here
was his only rival fallen by the fate of the waves and
the winds into the hands of a man whose anger the earl
had already aroused by his boldness. He need do nothing
but to let the count work his will. The dungeon and the
rack might hasten the ransom, or they might hasten the
death of the only man that stood between the Duke of
Normandy and the succession to the English crown. He
had only to imprison this messenger, and it would
never be known that any appeal had been made to him.
Whatever William did afterward to further his ambition,
his course now seemed most honorable. Swift messengers
were sent to Count Guy to ask for the freedom of the
English earl, to demand it if need be. Guy yielded
gracefully, and accompanied Harold, not as jailer but
as host, to the castle of Eu on the boundary line of
Ponthieu. There Duke William received him with the
greatest courtesy. Count Guy was rewarded with
 money and land, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, became the
guest of William, Duke of Normandy. The two men who
were most prominent in western Europe were together;
what would come of the meeting?
Apparently the chief result of it was only a most
hospitable entertainment. Harold was provided with the
best that the castle afforded. There were feasts and
games and hunting and hawking; and finally, there came
the noblest sport of it all, so Harold and his friends
thought, for one of the Breton nobles had revolted, and
William invited his guests to join him in an expedition
to overcome the rebel. They were successful, and when
they returned, William gave them generous presents and
knighted those who had not already received knighthood.
It was a merry time.
"You have shown us great courtesy," said Harold to
William. "Save for you, I might still have been a
prisoner in the dungeon of the Count of Ponthieu. The
silver I can return to you, but the kindness and the
hospitality I can return only if you will become my
guest in Wessex. May I hope that this will come to
"I thank you," said William heartily, and he
 added slowly: "Yes, I will come; but, Earl Harold,
there is something on my mind that I wish to discuss
with you. We have lived in friendly companionship, and
it would not displease me if the relationship between
us was even closer. You are a man of great power, and
some day you will marry, and in such wise as to
increase your power. How would an alliance with
Normandy please you? I have a daughter Adelaide, nine
years old, or eight—I will ask her mother. When my
father left me to rule the barons of Normandy, he said
of me, 'He is little, but he will grow.' So say I of my
Adelaide. But here comes the little maid herself. Will
you have her, Earl Harold? She's the fairest little
girl in Normandy." He caught the child in his arms and
seated her high up on his shoulder.
"How is it with you, Adelaide? Will you marry this
Englishman and go across the water with him to live in
the far-away land?"
"Will he take me in a boat?" asked the child earnestly.
"Yes, will you marry me?" said Harold.
"I've wanted to go in a boat ever since I was a little
girl," said Adelaide. "I'll marry you right
 away; but wait till I call my dog, he wants to go in a
boat, too. Come, father, you and mother, and we will go
across the water."
So it was that the little daughter of William was
betrothed to Earl Harold. A formal ceremony followed,
and the child was much disappointed to find that she
would not cross the water at present, but would only be
led up to the altar in the church by this tall
Englishman with a brilliant company of knights and
nobles and ladies looking on.
Harold was older than William; the marriage was far in
the future; and even if it came to pass, an alliance
with the Duke of Normandy would be a great advantage,
so the earl willingly agreed to the betrothal.
Harold had been entertained as a guest to whom the duke
wished to show special honor; but for all that, he
would, as he said, have given half his earldom to have
a good piece of English ground under his feet. Several
times he had named an hour to set sail for England, but
when the hour had come, the duke had always had some
excuse for detaining him. A wonderfully large wild boar
had been seen in the forest, and his guest must
 join in just one more hunt; or the wind was not in the
right direction; or the sky gave signs of a change of
weather. These excuses were often so trivial that
Harold well understood that, guest as he was, he was
not at liberty to leave the Norman shores till it
should please the duke to allow his departure.
The crown of England lay between these two men. Each
knew that the other intended to win it, and Harold was
not entirely surprised when William said:—
"There is another subject that I wish to discuss with
you. Of course a man in the king's counsel as you are
knows that it was settled some twelve or thirteen years
ago that at my cousin's death I was to become king of
"The king does not reveal all his plans," said Harold
"True," said the duke quietly; "but I fancied that he
had revealed this one to an earl who was so fully in
his confidence. Edward is feeble, his life cannot last
many years, perhaps not many months. We must be
prepared for what may happen. Until that comes to pass
which will come, I must remain in Normandy; but I need
 strong man to look after my interests in England. I
need not say that when the time comes, I shall look
after his interests. He who serves me well now will
have wide stretches of land and the highest honors of
the kingdom. Will you promise me to act in my behalf
and to do all in your power to secure for me the throne
"I will do all that I can to carry out King Edward's
will," said Harold evasively.
"That may be enough, and it may not. Edward is
advancing in years, and as one grows weak in body, he
is sometimes influenced by those around him to make
plans that he would not have thought of in his stronger
days. Will you promise me—"
"Father," said a childish voice, "won't you come and
tell the armorer to make me a sword? He won't, and I'm
ten years old, and you had one when you were not nearly
so old. You told me you did. Come quick, father."
Robert seized his father's hand, and the great duke
followed meekly to give the order to the armorer. When
he returned, he seemed to have forgotten all about the
English crown, and he said to Harold:—
"I think you have never seen the whole of the castle.
Will you go over it now?" Up the
 narrow, winding stairs they went to the very summit of
the tower; then down, down below the hall with its
light and color and cheer to the wine cellars, and
below those to the dungeons. Great pits they were into
which no ray of light could penetrate. There was a
noisome smell of slime and foulness.
"Count Guy spent two years in one of my dungeons; but
I fancy that less than two years in this would make a
man agree to anything," said William with a
significance which Harold understood.
When they were in the hall again, the duke said
"I may depend upon you, may I not, to act in my
interest to the full, and to do your best to secure for
me peaceable possession of the English crown? Do you
promise?" The duke spoke gently; but his eyes were
fixed upon Harold, and in them was a stern glitter like
the flashing of a sword.
Harold was a man of truth, but he held many honors, and
even greater ones were before him. At the last breath
of Edward the English people were ready to make him
king. Should he give up
 a kingdom and submit to a living death in the horrible
dungeons of Normandy for a scruple of conscience? What
was a word after all? Only a breath. Ought it to hold
one like a chain of iron? Moreover, he must think of
others besides himself. If he was down in that fearful
pit, William would attempt to become king of England.
There would be war. Ruin and devastation and bloodshed
would sweep over the country. Had a man the right to
keep his conscience pure at the cost of the whole land?
These were not new thoughts to Harold, but in a moment
they flashed through his mind like a flash of
lightning. He yielded.
"I will do it," he said, "I will do my best to place
you peaceably on the throne of England."
"And all that the man who sits on the throne can do for
another, will I do for you," said William; "and the day
after to-morrow, if you insist upon going, all our
merry company will ride to the shore with you and see
you safely launched on the blue waters of the Channel.
Morning came, and with it a message from the duke.
"My knights are assembled in the council hall. They are
come to do you honor before you depart
 from our court. Will you come with me to receive their
farewells and their good wishes?"
Harold rode with the duke to the great council chamber.
There was a brilliant assemblage of knights and nobles
and ladies of the court. They seemed to have clustered
about some object in the centre of the hall, but as
William and Harold drew near they separated. There
stood the richly carven chair of state. Over it was
thrown a cloth of gold, and on this were the holy
vessels brought from the nearest cathedral. In the
centre was a missal open at one of the Gospels, and
near it lay some of the relics of Saint Candre.
"I know well that you are a man of your word," said.
William to Harold, "and your promise is enough for me;
but for the sake of those about me, to increase their
loyalty and their confidence, I ask you to swear on the
Gospel and on these relics that you will do everything
in your power to aid me to become king of England."
To the people of the eleventh century an oath was far
more binding than an ordinary promise, but Harold had
gone too far to go back, he thought; and although
William spoke in a most friendly way, his eyes were
sternly bent upon the
 English earl. Harold hesitated for a moment. The
thought flashed through his mind, "Saint Candre is not
a very powerful patron. I need not fear him. I will do
penance, and I will make great gifts to the church, and
I will win over every other saint in the calendar to be
my friend." So Harold laid his hand on the Gospels, as
William bade him, and took the oath. Two priests, who
had stood one on either side of the chair of state,
gently lifted the golden cloth. There was silence
through the great hall; and Harold turned white with
horror, for under the golden cloth were relics of the
most powerful saints of Normandy, and relics that Duke
Robert had sent from Rome and from Jerusalem. Upon
these relics he had laid his hand as he took the oath,
and if the oath was broken every one of those saints
was bound to be his enemy and to do him harm. No wonder
that he was aghast.
"A promise is a promise," said William in his ear. "To
a man like you, whose promise is sincere, it matters
not that he has sworn to it on the holiest relics that
the church in Normandy possesses." He turned to his
"Our good friend and welcome guest has told
 me that he must set sail for England in the morning.
Let us give him a merry escort to Harfleur, and see him
fairly embarked on the water that perhaps will not
always separate the interests of Normandy from those of
Never had William's knights seen him so full of jests
and gayety as on their return from Harfleur. They did
not know that he was saying to himself over and over:—
"If he keeps his oath, it is well; if he breaks it, who
is there in all England that will trust the kingdom to
a man who is forsworn?"
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