| 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 VOICE FROM THE CLIFF
HIS marriage is thought to have taken place in 1053,
when William was probably twenty-five years of age. His
whole life had been a warfare, and one of his three
decisive battles had been fought before he was twenty
years old. This battle was Val-ès-dunes, and his victory settled the
question of his supremacy in Normandy. He had
conquered his own
duchy, and he had shown that in all Europe there was no better
commander than he. Two other great victories lay in the
years before him. Nothing came to him by gift;
everything must be won. Even for the hand of Matilda he
had laid siege, and he had waited as he would have done
to capture a city. His love for his wife was as
earnest as was his vehemence on the field of battle.
At last a gleam of happiness had come to him; but
clouds were gathering, and in all his joy there
 were mutterings of a rising storm, of a battle that
could not be fought with sword and lance.
"What do you think of our duke's marriage?" questioned
a Norman knight of a priest.
"The lady Matilda is a gracious and beautiful woman,"
replied the priest.
"You priests are so cautious," laughed the knight.
"Think you that the Pope will bless the marriage?"
"The gift of prophecy was not bestowed upon me," said
the priest, smiling at the knight's apparent
"What would you do if you were Pope?" questioned the
"I am but a simple priest. Never could I even think of
myself in so exalted a position as that of Father of
"I see there is no getting anything out of you," said
the knight good-humoredly. "We'll drop it; but priest
or no priest, I fancy that you know something about a
good horse when you see one. Come with me on a hunt,
and I'll lend you the best horse that you ever mounted.
I presume you can think of some one who would be the
better for a little wild meat. "
 The hunt was successful, and on the return the knight
"To make a man a priest does not seem to make him a
coward. That was a close thing when the boar attacked
you. Ought a bishop to be braver than a priest, and the
Pope braver than a bishop?"
"I don't know about that," said the priest; "but at any
rate, the Pope is no coward. They say that he picked up
a leper who was at his door, took him on his shoulder,
and laid him in his own bed. A man who will do that is
a brave man. He cares not a straw who opposes him. He
means to work reforms in the church, and when he has
once said what he believes is right, there is no power
that will make him change." The priest made his
farewell, and the knight looked after him with a grim
"They all tell the same story," said he. "Sometimes it
needs only a question, sometimes a cup of wine or a
ride, and sometimes a horse; but they all think alike.
The Pope will never bless this marriage. There's a
chance for Malger, and there's a chance for King Henry—and,
mayhap, there's a chance for me," and he spurred
his horse and rode away in the direction of the
 Norman capital, where abode Malger, Archbishop of
With the custom of giving high positions in the church
to any young relatives for whom the head of a powerful
family might wish to provide, there could hardly fail
to be bishops and archbishops who were unfit for their
office. No one doubts that Malger was one of these. At
the head of the church in Normandy he was, the
chroniclers declare that more than one pope had refused
him the snowy pallium, the sacred vestment which was
the sign of his ecclesiastical rank.
At this man's door the knight knocked.
Sounds of feasting and high revelry came from within.
After some delay the door was opened a little way, and
the servant said, with a grimace that one might
interpret as he would,—
"The archbishop sees no one to-day; it is a fast-day."
"I think he will see me," said the knight. "Come here."
He whispered a single word. The door was flung open,
and in five minutes the archbishop had excused himself
from his guests, and he and the knight were talking
 together in a private room, far away from listening
"The trouble is that no one can foretell what that
turbulent nephew of mine will do," said Malger; "he can
turn in as many ways as the fiend himself."
"True," said the knight, "but what can he do? He has a
sword, and he knows how to wield it; but there are
knots that even so keen a weapon as his will not cut."
"Nine-tenths of the nobles in the duchy favor the
marriage," said Malger.
"Yes, so eager are they to have an heir to the throne
and a hope of lasting peace that they will favor
anything," said the knight; "but there need not be
peace unless you will it. It all lies in your hands.
Think of it! An excommunication—an uprising—help
from a certain foreign power—the Count of Arques on
the ducal throne—and would your brother dare to
neglect the weapon by which he had won his place?"
"But would the Pope support an excommunication that I
"You mean that he does not always manifest a hearty
approbation of what seems to you a
desi-  rable course?" said the knight with a knowing
"That is perhaps a gentle way of putting it," said the
"And has it occurred to you that if he sees you so
zealous in the discharge of the duties of your office,
so eager to uphold his decree that you even venture to
oppose the will of a ruler like the duke—do you not
think that you will win the favor not only of the Pope,
but of all the powers of the church? You have a high
position, but even you may rise. There are other fields
than Normandy." The knight gazed fixedly for a moment
at the archbishop's face. Then with a careless
obeisance he withdrew. As he went from the house, he
whispered to himself exultantly:—
"I've done it. Now for King Henry and a rich marriage
and a great feoff."
Straightway Malger issued a decree of excommunication
against William and Matilda, the two children of the
church who had so boldly ventured to disregard her
Well might Archbishop Malger say that no one could
foretell the deed of his nephew. Without delay William
laid before the Pope proofs of
Mal-  ger's unfitness for his office. The Pope could
censure William's marriage, but he was none the less
bound to consider impartially a complaint of this kind
coming from the ruler of a great duchy. The proofs were
only too plentiful, and two years after the marriage
the archbishop was deposed.
A louder voice than Malger's now spoke. It was the
voice of one Lanfranc, prior of the convent of Bec.
Lanfranc was a scholar, with an eloquence and logic
worthy of his descent from a famous family of lawyers,
a man whose honesty and keenness of intellect had won
for him the favor and the confidence of the Norman
duke. This was the man who, with nothing to gain by his
opposition and much to lose, now spoke out boldly
against the marriage, blaming equally duke and duchess.
The same madness which always seemed to overcome
William at any insult offered to his mother, now burst
forth at this censure of his wife. He drove Lanfranc
from his convent and banished him from Normandy. His
wrath knew no bounds. He ordered part, at least, of the
lands of the monastery to be ravaged and some of the
buildings belonging to the abbey to be burned.
 Lanfranc prepared to leave the Norman territories, but
he took care to withdraw by a road where he was almost
sure to fall in with the duke. The exiled monk wore the
humblest garb that his convent could furnish, and he
was mounted on a lame horse—some say a horse with but
three legs. A single servant, whose dress was certainly
no better than that of his master, followed the man who
had been at the head of a great convent and the friend
of a great duke. William met this little procession
face to face. Lanfranc and the lame horse made a
simultaneous bow. The combination was irresistible, and
the duke's stern lips twitched with grim amusement at
the sight. The prior saw his opportunity. Pretending
great eagerness to hasten, he belabored his poor beast
"Pardon, pardon, my lord, that I am so slow to obey
your command. Indeed, I am going as fast as I can, but
if you would only give me a better horse,—if you would
perhaps exchange with me,—I should be far more
obedient." Whoever got the better of William in a jest
had won the day, and he said:—
"Never before did a criminal ask a gift of his judge.
Supposing that I should not only give you
 a horse, but should more than make up all that you have
lost, what would you do for me?"
"Whatever an honorable man can do for his prince,"
replied the prior steadily. William looked him full in
"You know the thing that I want," said he, "and you
know that you can get it if any one can. Will you do
it?" Lanfranc was no coward. He returned to the full
the searching look of the duke.
"William, Duke of Normandy," said he, "my own liege
lord, many a favor have you done me, but not for all
that you have done and all that it is in your power to
do would I say that your marriage is according to the
laws of the church to which we have both promised
"Go, then," said William angrily, "and never let me see
your face again in Normandy." The duke rode away
furiously, and Lanfranc hobbled along in the opposite
direction. An hour later a cloud of dust arose behind
the banished prior. It came nearer. Some one was
galloping so madly that Lanfranc guided his sorry steed
to the side of the road. The rider drew up his horse so
suddenly that the poor animal almost fell backward. It
was the duke.
 "Lanfranc!" he called.
"My liege lord," answered the prior.
"Did you ever hear of such a thing as the forgiveness
of a sin?"
"Yes, surely," said Lanfranc.
"You say that my marriage is not according to the law
of the church. Very well. Will you go to Rome and say,
'The Duke of Normandy has broken a law of the church;
but for pardon, for the Pope's confirmation of his
marriage, he will as a thank-offering do whatever deed
of charity the Pope shall command.' Will you say this,
and will you do your best to bring it about?"
"Then what are you waiting for?" cried William. "Give
him the best horse that you have," he said to his
attendants, who were standing at a little distance.
"And do you," said he to Lanfranc, "do you get you back
to your convent and put on your richest robes. Horses
and guards will be at your door, and do you be on your
way to Rome before the sun begins to sink. On the very
day that a messenger arrives to tell me that you have
secured a dispensation, I will rebuild all that has
been destroyed; and I will give the abbey of Bec
 three times the value of what it has lost. As for you,
if you are true to me, and if you prove yourself the
man that I think you are, you shall one day hold
positions that have never entered into your dreams. Now
go." William embraced him and gave him the formal kiss
of reconciliation, and the prior went on his way.
That William had a sincere regard for the welfare of
the church is proved by the character of the men to
whom he gave her highest honors in his duchy,—Lanfranc,
Anselm, and Maurilius, men worthy in mind and
in heart of all that the duke could bestow. His
marriage manifested less of opposition to the law of
the church than of confidence in her willingness to
pardon. About a year after the marriage, his son Robert
was born; and in his love for the child and the mother,
the negotiations with the Pope and with his successors
would have seemed slow indeed, had not his thoughts
been so fully taken up by other matters that pressed
The king of France, a fickle, vacillating ally, had
once shown himself a generous friend; now he appeared
in the character of a bitter enemy. France had never
ceased to look with envy upon
 the fertile expanse of Normandy. The French kingdom,
strong or weak, as contrast with its neighbors might
show it, began to fear before the ever increasing power
of the duchy. Ought a vassal, who at best could not be
called over-submissive to his suzerain, to control the
district that shut France from the sea, even the very
river whereon her capital was situated? Ought these
Normans, only five generations removed from the heathen
who had forced an unfortunate king to part with his
territories, to hold a duchy which by its size, power,
and position was a constant menace to the kingdom to
which it owed service? Let William keep the northwest;
the east should again belong to France.
So said the French, and King Henry and his army set out
to overpower this too prosperous duke. The plan was for
Henry to lead one division of the army into Normandy
from the south, while his brother made an attack from
the north upon the country about Rouen. To meet the
advance from the north, William trusted some of his
well-tried nobles; but to meet the advance from the
south, King Henry and his great band of allies, William
would trust no one but himself.
 The Norman fighters assembled—and stood still. The
French forces swept into Normandy from the north. They
burned and they pillaged and they murdered. Churches or
dwelling-houses, old men, young men, women, or
children, it was all the same to them; and with a
ferocity almost as savage as that of the Danes in their
most savage days they ploughed their way, leaving want
and suffering and death behind them. They encamped in
the town of Mortemer. Every day there was burning and
pillage of the country roundabout; every night there
was feasting and drunkenness.
Just what was William about? There must be no battle,
said this wise general of twenty-six years, until the
whole Norman force could be brought together; and so
all that the Normans attempted was to save what
property they could, and to cut off small bodies of men
who had strayed from the French troops.
At last the Normans were strong, and one dark night
they marched silently to the town of Mortemer. It was
just at the break of day. After a night of carousing,
the Frenchmen were lost in a drunken slumber. Was it a
bad dream? The houses were all ablaze. Where were their
 their horses? What had happened? Was it the troops of
Normandy or was it hosts of demons that were upon them?
Half-dressed, half-armed, mad with pain, they were cut
down on the steps, even in their beds. They attempted
to fight their way out of the burning town, but the
head of every street was guarded. They resisted
furiously. From early in the morning till the middle
of the afternoon they fought, but it was in vain.
They were cut down till the little town was red with
A man of high rank was chosen to be the bearer of news
like this to William's camp across the Seine.
"A Norman knight is riding swiftly up the hill,"
reported the sentinel.
"Our men are in trouble. Arm and make ready to got to
them," ordered William; but the rider waved his
"There is no longer an enemy in Mortemer," said he;
"all whose ransoms would be worth having are in the
prisons of Normandy, the rest are slain."
"It is God that has given us the victory," said William
reverently; "to Him be the thanks." King Henry was
encamped not far away.
 "Surprise routed one army," said William; "it may be
that fright will rout the other." In the middle of the
night the king and his men were aroused by a weird,
solemn chanting from the top of a cliff which overhung
"Arouse, ye soldiers of France! Too long have your eyes
been closed in slumber. Onward to Mortemer, to bury
your friends who lie dead in the streets, slain by the
swords of the Normans."
Before sunrise King Henry and his men had fled, caring
for no plunder, no captives,—nothing but to get far
away from the terrible duke.
The king was ready to make peace, and for three years
there was peace. This was about as long as Henry could
resist the temptation to attack the ever increasing
power of the Normans. He set out with a great company
of Frenchmen and their allies to plunder Normandy. With
wrathful patience William gathered his knights
together, and then again he waited. In Falaise he
remained, while the Frenchmen cut a swath of fire and
pillage through the country. Everywhere were William's
spies, and when the moment came he struck.
Henry was on his return. He and his vanguard had
crossed the river Dive at Varaville, and had
 climbed the cliffs on the eastern aide of the stream.
The rear-guard and the great quantities of treasure
that they had taken from the country had not yet come
across. They were on a narrow causeway that was built
out into the river at a place where it might be forded
when the tide was low. William had secretly marched
around the French lines, and now he fell suddenly upon
the half of the army on the causeway. There was a
terrible struggle, hopeless from the first. It is said
that not one of the rear-guard escaped.
From the cliffs only just across the stream King Henry
saw every movement. He saw his men struck down and
taken captive, and to see was all that he could do. If
his counsellors had not held him back, he would have
plunged down the cliff in a hopeless attempt to rescue
his knights; but the tide was coming in swiftly; only
the most expert swimmers could cross the stream, and
what could even they do with Norman arrows flying about
them, and the lance and the terrible battle-axe waiting
to receive them on the opposite shore? There was
nothing for Henry to do but to save what men remained
to him by a speedy flight from Norman territory.
 This battle at the ford of Varaville was the end of the
French invasions. Henry gladly made peace, and for the
sake of it he offered to rebuild Tillières and restore
it to Normandy. Two years later Henry died, and
profiting perhaps by William's experience, he too
threw himself upon the generosity of a foe, and left
the guardianship of his little son to William's
father-in-law, the Count of Flanders.
William had gained possession of his own country, and
he had repelled the invasions of the ruler of another.
He himself was to become an invader, but with a kind of
lawfulness of claim so like that which is put forward a
few years later that his conquest of Maine seems like a
rehearsal of his conquest of England.
Count Herbert, driven from his inheritance of Maine, a
large and fertile district south of Normandy, fled to
William, became his vassal, and bequeathed to him the
county of Maine.
"The land is mine, and I shall take it," said William;
"but I shed no unnecessary drop of blood." With his
usual policy of patience, he kept his hands from the
chief city, Le Mans, but took one fortress after
another and ravaged
dis-  trict after district. The people of Maine were finally exhausted.
William held the whole country, and when he called upon
Le Mans to surrender, it not only yielded, but flung
open the gates with a welcome to William and to peace
sincere in part, at any rate, for now there would be
no more fighting. William had taken the city without
shedding a drop of blood. Men greeted the duke as a
saviour rather than a conqueror. Throughout the town his
praises were shouted. A long procession swept out of
the church chanting psalms of joy. He might almost
have been entering his own Falaise, so great was the
William had yet another cause for happiness. Lanfranc
had been doing his best in Rome, and finally the
promised messenger came to William with the word that
he had awaited so eagerly for six long years.
"The duke will not yield," Lanfranc had said, "and an
interdict punishes the innocent in the kingdom as much
as it does the guilty. Moreover, if the marriage is
not confirmed, if by any means William should be forced
to send Matilda back to Flanders, that will cause war.
Ought not the
 Father of the Church to prevent bloodshed by mercy? Are
there not heathen enough to kill without shedding
Pope Nicholas yielded, and the marriage was formally
confirmed by the church. The penance imposed was that
William and Matilda should build four hospitals, one in
each of the four chief towns of Normandy, and that they
should build a convent for women and one for men. They
obeyed, and the two noble abbeys of Caen are the
memorial of the broken law of the church, of the
penance, and of the pardon.
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