| 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 |
A VISIT TO ENGLAND
HE full truth has not been told me," he said. "And now
that you have come directly to me to ask of your
suzerain that which you have a right to ask, I will
join you. I will lead my own troops in person, and I
will put you on the ducal throne so firmly that no one
shall ever dare attempt to thrust you from it. I came
to your father with twelve knights, it is true, but I
will come to you with three thousand, and with them
shall come a great band of followers. This is what the
king of France will do for his vassals."
So it was that William set out for what was to be one
of the three decisive battles of his life. The hostile
troops met at Val-ès-dunes, near Caen. The rebels came
from the west; the French and the Normans from the
east. As both parties were arranging their men, there
came up from the south so noble a band that the leaders
stopped, each hoping that these one hundred and forty
 finely armed and accoutred, would be on his side. Just
between the opposing lines they came, and then halted
as if to decide which to choose.
WILLIAM SETS OUT FOR BATTLE
"Who are they?" asked King Henry of William. "On whose
side will they stand?"
"On mine, I think," said William, and he went up boldly
to the leader.
"You are Ralph of Tesson," said he, "and when my father
went to Jerusalem, you laid your hands in mine and
swore to be faithful to me."
"And I have sworn also to be the first to give you a
blow. I swore it on the shrine at Bayeux no longer ago
"The French, the French, Ralph; go with the French,"
said the knights behind him softly. Ralph hesitated. "A
man must keep his oath," he said, "and what's more, I
will. Pardon me, my liege," said he, as he struck
William lightly on the shoulder, "there's one oath
kept; now come on, my men, for the other, and we'll
stand by Duke William till the river runs uphill."
The two great bodies of knights rushed together,
shouting their war-cries.
"Montjoie Saint Denis!" cried the French.
us!" cried the Normans.
 "Saint Amand! Saint Sever! Thury! Thury!" shouted the
barons, making the hills resound with the names of
their castles or their patron saints. Lances were
shivered, shields were forgotten, and men fought
hand-to-hand with swords, pikes—anything they could
snatch up, even with their naked fists. King Henry was
as eager to help William as he had been to harm him,
and he flung himself into the wildest of the fight. A
lance was thrust against him by a knight of the
Cotentin district with such terrible force that he fell
from his horse, and for many generations the minstrels
of the Cotentin sang proudly:—
"From Cotentin came forth the lance
That once unhorsed the king of France."
But a Frenchman came to his aid, and the old
chroniclers glory in the prowess of the king and in the
victory of the young duke over the champion warrior of
The rebels retreated, but they escaped one death only
to run into another; for over the steep river banks
they were driven till the stream was red with their
blood and the mill-wheels were stopped by their dead
What should be the punishment of the traitors,
 was the next question. Except on the battle-field,
William almost invariably refused to take human life;
so, although Guy still maintained his rebellion, and
had to be besieged in his castle before he would yield,
his life was spared. Even Grimbald,—the tempter and
the would-be assassin, as it was proved,—even Grimbald
was not put to death. After three years in prison, he
died and was buried in his chains. On some of the
conspirators, indeed, William did inflict a most useful
and appropriate vengeance, and one not without a grim
touch of humor; for he forced them to build a road from
Valognes to Falaise, following closely the line of his
mad gallop to save his life on the night of the
Even after this victory, there were many disturbances
which William had to suppress. Many a noble was still
stung to the quick by the thought that he was forced to
pay homage to a tanner's grandson. Many a knight,
forbidden by his rank to engage in any pursuit except
fighting, was ready to seize upon any pretext to take
up arms. There were disturbances, but never again
anything like a general revolt.
It was not long before William was called upon
 to help Henry in a war with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou.
The district of Maine lay between France and Anjou, and
the rulers of each country claimed it as tributary to
himself. Just across the boundary and on the Norman
side was the town of Alenšon, the city of William
Talvas of Belesme, who had cursed William when the duke
was in his babyhood. On Norman ground as it was, this
town had always hated the tanner's grandson, and the
people gladly seized the opportunity to strike at him
by aiding the count of Anjou. The soldiers of Anjou
were welcomed into the town and formed a strong
garrison for the fort.
Duke William was besieging another town some distance
away, but he knew that if he struck at all, he must
strike suddenly; so he marched all night, and just at
sunrise drew up his men before Alenšon. Soldiers were
at the bridge, and a fierce reception they gave him.
William fought with his usual vigor, but the men of
Alenšon were well armed and brave. They began to feel
sure of the victory, and in their bravado they went one
step too far. Not content with blows, they even
ventured to enrage William with insulting words.
"Hail to the grandson of the tanner!" they
 shouted. Then they hung from the walls leather aprons
and jerkins, and skins wet with blood and foulness, and
"Hides, hides, hides for the tanner! Plenty of work for
the tanner! Come on, grandson of the tanner!"
Now from his earliest childhood, the least disrespect
to his mother seemed to throw William into a passion
that was almost like a fit of insanity. He had the one
thought of revenge, and a terrible revenge he took. For
one moment he stood still, then he swore a great oath
that the men who had thus mocked him should be lopped
off as are the branches of a tree. He fought like a
very demon. The bridge was torn down; the palisades,
the gates, the roofs of houses, everything that could
be battered or burned, was destroyed. Still with grim,
set face, William struck to the right, to the left.
Lance or sword, it mattered not to him—the blow was
all; and with every blow the tanner's grandson had one
enemy the less.
Even then the castle refused to yield. William was
beside himself with fury. He kept his fearful oath.
The hands and feet of thirty-two of
 the men that had been captured were cut off, and with
great slings they were flung over the castle wall. No
wonder is it that at this ghastly threat the garrison
surrendered, and begged most humbly for mercy. William
had come to himself again, and he was merciful.
The one excuse that can be given for such savage
barbarity is that it was the custom of the times. While
capital punishment was somewhat rare, men seemed never
to hesitate to condemn a vanquished foe to lose eyes or
limbs, or to be thrown into a dungeon so horrible that
the life of a single day was worse than any death. Men
seemed utterly without sympathy with the
physical sufferings of others. Nearly forty years after
the taking of Alenšon, it was decreed by Henry IV,
Emperor of Germany, that if a boy over twelve years of
age offended against the truce of God by striking a
blow that produced a wound, his hand should be stricken
William's devotion to his mother was shown in less
violent ways than this, not only by his gifts to her
directly, but by his watchfulness of the interests of
his half-brothers. On one of them he bestowed the
bishopric of Bayeux, and
 to the other he gave so large a grant of land as to
place him at once among the principal landholders of
Normandy. Neither bishop nor landholder could have
been more than twelve years of age when the gift was
made, but this, too, was done in accordance with the
custom of the times; and it is the only instance in
William's reign of his yielding to the old abuse of
giving church positions to members of his family for
whom he wished to provide.
Now that William had shown his ability to govern
Normandy and to rule revolting vassals, his nobles
became very anxious that he should marry. They had hope
of a lasting peace under his strong control, if he only
had a son to be his heir. The duke was now about twenty
years of age. The chroniclers say that he was handsome,
well formed, and far above the ordinary height of men.
On more than one occasion he had proved himself a man
of bravery and power. His bravery would not diminish,
and his power would increase. There was every reason
why he should be able to ally himself with the ruler of
some puissant country, and so strengthen his duchy as
well as his own position.
 Whom should he choose? William looked about him and set
his mind upon Matilda, daughter of the Count of
Flanders. This was exactly the marriage which his
councillors would have chosen for him, not so much
because Matilda was beautiful, virtuous, and skilled in
the two great accomplishments of the day, music and
embroidery, but because the Count of Flanders was a man
of great power. He had wealth and soldiers, and,
moreover, his family was of very high rank. One of his
ancestors had married a daughter of King Alfred the
Great, so that Alfred's blood ran in the veins of
Matilda. The proud count must have had much respect for
William's achievements, or he would never have allowed
his daughter to become betrothed to the offspring of a
peasant, the grandson of a tanner.
Now just at this time a number of princes were forced
to do penance or were even excommunicated, for breaking
the laws of the church concerning marriage. The haughty
Count of Flanders must have been very indignant when he
was forbidden to give Matilda to the duke, and there is
surely no doubt that William's wrath rose when he was
forbidden to marry her
 if she was offered to him. No one knows just why such a
decree was passed. It may have been because of some
relationship between the two, or possibly because the
count was an exceedingly independent vassal and the
church did not wish him to increase his power by
forming an alliance with the strong Norman duchy. At
any rate, the highest church authorities pronounced
their decree that William and Matilda should not marry.
When William had once set his mind upon a thing, that
thing usually came to pass. He was never impatient, he
could wait, but he must have his own way in the end. He
had determined to marry Matilda of Flanders. His
council was with him, and neither the Count of
Flanders nor Matilda seems to have made any objection.
The church had forbidden the marriage, to be sure, but
William did not give it up on that account. He kept up
his friendship with the count, he sent legates to Rome
to try to win the permission of the Pope, and then he
But he did not take his seat on the ducal throne and
fold his hands. There was much
 to be done. Many a proud noble still paid his homage to
Arletta's son most unwillingly; but it was paid, and
William was in peaceful control of his own country.
The Count of Flanders was his friend, and the king of
France was his ally—for the time, at any rate. William
began to think of making a visit to England.
About fifteen years before he was born, his great-aunt,
Emma, and her husband, the king of England, were driven
from the English throne, and fled to Normandy with
their two little boys, Edward and Alfred. Soon the
king died, and in a very short time Emma married
Canute, son of the man who had thrust her husband from
his kingdom. She seems to have had no affection for her
boys, for she left them in Normandy, and even agreed in
the marriage contract that they should have no claim to
the English throne.
These boys remained at the Norman court, and were
treated very kindly by Duke Robert's father and then by
himself. Robert even made an attempt to invade England
in their behalf, and get possession of the English
throne for them. Alfred was finally killed in trying to
regain his father's crown; but Edward, after
 living quietly in Normandy for almost thirty-five
years, was invited by the English people to come to be
their king. He was nearly twenty-five years older than
William, and had known and cared for the young duke in
his boyhood. Since William was fourteen, they had never
met. Naturally, Edward wished to see him. William
always clung to his relatives with as warm affection
as they would permit, and he was more than ready to
cross the narrow channel that lay between him and
In these days, their wish to see each other would have
been enough to explain the journey, but in the eleventh
century it was a rare thing for two princes to exchange
visits merely from friendship. There was generally a
good reason for their staying at home, since in most
countries a revolt would break out if the king was
absent; and in this case, we are perhaps safe in
thinking that Edward had a plan for his young cousin's
advancement, and that William had at least a suspicion
of what it was.
However that may be, William set out with a great train
of nobles and attendants. They wore their finest array.
Their ships were gilded and
 ornamented. The figurehead of William's was an image of
Rollo, the first duke of Normandy, and from the mast
floated the pennant of the present duke. They carried
to the king gifts of noble steeds, beautifully
embroidered cloaks, handsome armor, and, it may be,
some of the precious relics that Duke Robert had sent
home when he was on his pilgrimage.
A warm welcome King Edward gave them. The lad of
fourteen whom he had left in Normandy had become the
man of twenty-four, tall, strong, manly, and with a
reputation of wielding a sword that won its way
wherever he unsheathed it. It was hardly a strange
court to which he had come. Although Edward's father
was a Saxon, his mother was of Norman birth, and from
early childhood till near his fortieth year the king
had lived in Normandy. He had always spoken French, and
now he gathered Normans around him in his court. The
highest offices in the kingdom he gave to Normans.
These men had not forgotten their own country, nor the
little son of Duke Robert who had become this masterful
ruler of lordly Normandy. When they looked at him, they
could well put aside the thought of the
 peasant mother, and remember only that he was a man
whom they might be proud to have at the head of their
A merry time they had. There were feasts and
tournaments and hunting parties, and there were long
"progresses," or journeys through the kingdom, to show
the Norman guests the cities and castles of the
country. Edward was inclined to be meek and humble, and
he always preferred to live simply and with as little
of display as possible; but whatever William's virtues
were, meekness was not the leading one among them, and
he did enjoy having a touch of magnificence to whatever
was going on around him. To please his guest, Edward
made these "progresses" in a much more sumptuous style
than he had ever favored before in travelling about his
kingdom. The Normans who dwelt at the English court
were delighted, but the Saxons looked, at the swarms of
foreign guests with some displeasure, and a little fear
of what the result of the visit might be.
"What do you think of this sudden outburst of
hospitality?" said one Saxon noble to another.
"I suppose a king must entertain his guests," said the
 "True," said the first; "but we are Saxons in a Saxon
land, and our king is half Norman by birth and wholly
Norman by feeling. He has given the great bishoprics to
Normans. Normans build their strongholds when and where
they please. The officers of the king's household are
Normans. We are under Norman rule. We call our country
England; and we say that we are free, but—"
"But we are only a province of Normandy," said a
third, who had stood by them listening grimly to their
"We have the king of our own choice," said the second,
"and he is a good, kind man. Don't you remember when
they showed him the great casks
of gold, the tax that the people groaned over so
loudly,—don't you remember that he looked at it for a
minute without a word, and then he said, 'This shall
never be collected again; I can almost believe that I
see little exulting demons of cruelty and extortion
dancing on every barrel'? Was he not a good king to say
"Yes, but he said it in French," said the third noble.
"A king who does not speak the language of the country may
be king of the land, but he is not king of the people."
 "But he is almost a saint," said the second. "Only
yesterday I heard some one call him the 'Confessor.'
They say that he can work miracles, too, just like a
real saint, and that if he touches any one who has
scrofula, the disease is cured; and I have heard that
more than once he has foretold what was coming to pass,
and it came just as he said."
"It is of what may come to pass that I am afraid," said
the first. "Who is to be king when this 'Confessor'
dies? He has no children. There is no man in all
England who can be called his rightful heir. He is
Norman, his language and his feelings are Norman. What
is more natural than that he should try to bequeath the
throne to this Norman cousin of his?"
"And this is what the visit of Duke William and his
roisterous crowd of knights signifies," said the third.
"This is why all this elaborate entertainment which is
never given to our own nobles when they go to court is
lavished upon this Norman gang. We are fighters. Do you
call out your men. I will call out mine. We will spread
it through the kingdom. Never shall this foreigner,
this son of a—"
 "Gently, my friend," said the first; "what could we do?
The king has the treasury and the arms and the castles
and many soldiers. Shall we take a little band and
march up to his gates and say, 'Come down from the
throne, for I don't like to have you there'?"
"And so you would have us stand by in silence and fold
our hands while our kingdom is taken from us?" demanded
"What has been done? The king is receiving a friendly
visit from a favorite cousin. May not a man receive a
visitor and entertain him in the way that is most
pleasing to the guest? They say that William has come
here intending to pay homage to King Edward. Would you
drive away a powerful vassal from our kingdom?"
"When one does homage, it is for some gain," said the
third. "William of Normandy needs no aid from this side
of the water to rule his duchy. All that he can want
from England is—England itself."
"King Edward cannot give away his throne; that belongs
to the country, not to him," said the first. "He is a
Norman and looks at things in a Norman fashion, and he
may promise to
 help William to get it; but that means more than a
peaceful 'I give it to you' from Edward, and a grateful
'I thank you' from William. It means an attack by sea
and land. It means that Saxon blood will flow to save
the land, and that Norman blood will flow to win it.
When that time comes, we will fight."
"But after all, Edward is a good man," said the second,
"and they do say that even to bathe in the water in
which he has washed his hands will often cure
From this discussion the second noble went away with
more devotion to the king than ever. The third went
home to count over his retainers, and to think upon how
many brave men he could depend in case of a sudden
uprising in behalf of William. The first, after a
little time, sent a messenger secretly to a trusty
friend in Normandy to suggest to the Count of Eu that
this time of William's absence would be an excellent
opportunity to raise a revolt.
"He may be killed in the fighting," thought the Saxon
noble, "and at least, it will take him away from the
court of England."
Meanwhile the festivities went on. Minstrels,
 jugglers, feasts, hunting—there seemed to be no end
to the pleasures of the entertainment that King Edward
gave so willingly to his cousin and guest.
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