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History of the English People - Book II England under Foreign Kings, 1071-1204
The Conqueror--1071-1085
by Green, John Richard (M.A.)

The Foreign Kings      William the Conqueror
His rule William and feudalism
William and England The Church
William's death  

The Foreign Kings

In the five hundred years that followed the landing of Hengest Britain had become England, and its conquest had ended in the settlement of its conquerors, in their conversion to Christianity, in the birth of a national literature, of an imperfect civilization, of a rough political order. But through the whole of this earlier age every attempt to fuse the various tribes of conquerors into a single nation had failed. The effort of Northumbria to extend her rule over all England had been foiled by the resistance of Mercia; that of Mercia by the resistance of Wessex. Wessex herself, even under the guidance of great kings and statesmen, had no sooner reduced the country to a seeming unity than local independence rose again at the call of the Northmen. The sense of a single England deepened with the pressure of the invaders; the monarchy of Ælfred and his house broadened into an English kingdom; but still tribal jealousies battled with national unity. Northumbrian lay apart from West-Saxon, Northman from Englishman. A common national sympathy held the country roughly together, but a real national union had yet to come. It came with foreign rule. The rule of the Danish kings broke local jealousies as they had never been broken before, and bequeathed a new England to Godwine and the Confessor. But Cnut was more Englishman than Northman, and his system of government was an English system. The true foreign yoke was only felt when England saw its conqueror in William the Norman.

For nearly a century and a half, from the hour when William turned triumphant from the fens of Ely to the hour when John fled defeated from Norman shores, our story is one of foreign masters. Kings from Normandy were followed by kings from Anjou. But whether under Norman or Angevin Englishmen were a subject race, conquered and ruled by men of strange blood and of strange speech. And yet it was in these years of subjection that England first became really England. Provincial differences were finally crushed into national unity by the pressure of the stranger. The firm government of her foreign kings secured the land a long and almost unbroken peace in which the new nation grew to a sense of its oneness, and this consciousness was strengthened by the political ability which in Henry the First gave it administrative order and in Henry the Second built up the fabric of its law. New elements of social life were developed alike by the suffering and the prosperity of the times. The wrong which had been done by the degradation of the free landowner into a feudal dependant was partially redressed by the degradation of the bulk of the English lords themselves into a middle class as they were pushed from their place by the foreign baronage who settled on English soil; and this social change was accompanied by a gradual enrichment and elevation of the class of servile and semi-servile cultivators which had lifted them at the close of this period into almost complete freedom. The middle class which was thus created was reinforced by the upgrowth of a corresponding class in our towns. Commerce and trade were promoted by the justice and policy of the foreign kings; and with their advance rose the political importance of the trader. The boroughs of England, which at the opening of this period were for the most part mere villages, were rich enough at its close to buy liberty from the Crown and to stand ready for the mightier part they were to play in the developement of our parliament. The shame of conquest, the oppression of the conquerors, begot a moral and religious revival which raised religion into a living thing; while the close connexion with the Continent which foreign conquest brought about secured for England a new communion with the artistic and intellectual life of the world without her.


William the Conqueror

In a word, it is to the stern discipline of our foreign kings that we owe not merely English wealth and English freedom but England herself. And of these foreign masters the greatest was William of Normandy. In William the wild impulses of the northman's blood mingled strangely with the cool temper of the modern statesman. As he was the last, so he was the most terrible outcome of the northern race. The very spirit of the sea-robbers from whom he sprang seemed embodied in his gigantic form, his enormous strength, his savage countenance, his desperate bravery, the fury of his wrath, the ruthlessness of his revenge. "No knight under heaven," his enemies owned, "was William's peer." Boy as he was at Val-ès-dunes, horse and man went down before his lance. All the fierce gaiety of his nature broke out in the warfare of his youth, in his rout of fifteen Angevins with but five men at his back, in his defiant ride over the ground which Geoffry Martel claimed from him, a ride with hawk on fist as if war and the chase were one. No man could bend William's bow. His mace crashed its way through a ring of English warriors to the foot of the Standard. He rose to his greatest height at moments when other men despaired. His voice rang out as a trumpet when his soldiers fled before the English charge at Senlac, and his rally turned the flight into a means of victory. In his winter march on Chester he strode afoot at the head of his fainting troops and helped with his own hand to clear a road through the snowdrifts. And with the northman's daring broke out the northman's pitilessness. When the townsmen of Alençon hung raw hides along their walls in scorn of the "tanner's" grandson, William tore out his prisoners' eyes, hewed off their hands and feet, and flung them into the town. Hundreds of Hampshire men were driven from their homes to make him a hunting-ground and his harrying of Northumbria left Northern England a desolate waste. Of men's love or hate he recked little. His grim look, his pride, his silence, his wild outbursts of passion, left William lonely even in his court. His subjects trembled as he passed. "So stark and fierce was he," writes the English chronicler, "that none dared resist his will." His very wrath was solitary. "To no man spake he and no man dared speak to him" when the news reached him of Harold's seizure of the throne. It was only when he passed from his palace to the loneliness of the woods that the King's temper unbent. "He loved the wild deer as though he had been their father."


His rule

It was the genius of William which lifted him out of this mere northman into a great general and a great statesman. The wary strategy of his French campaigns, the organization of his attack upon England, the victory at Senlac, the quick resource, the steady perseverance which achieved the Conquest showed the wide range of his generalship. His political ability had shown itself from the first moment of his accession to the ducal throne. William had the instinct of government. He had hardly reached manhood when Normandy lay peaceful at his feet. Revolt was crushed. Disorder was trampled under foot. The Duke "could never love a robber," be he baron or knave. The sternness of his temper stamped itself throughout upon his rule. "Stark he was to men that withstood him," says the Chronicler of his English system of government; "so harsh and cruel was he that none dared withstand his will. Earls that did aught against his bidding he cast into bonds; bishops he stripped of their bishopricks, abbots of their abbacies. He spared not his own brother: first he was in the land, but the King cast him into bondage. If a man would live and hold his lands, need it were he followed the King's will." Stern as such a rule was, its sternness gave rest to the land. Even amidst the sufferings which necessarily sprang from the circumstances of the Conquest itself, from the erection of castles or the enclosure of forests or the exactions which built up William's hoard at Winchester, Englishmen were unable to forget "the good peace he made in the land, so that a man might fare over his realm with a bosom full of gold." Strange touches too of a humanity far in advance of his age contrasted with this general temper of the Conqueror's government. One of the strongest traits in his character was an aversion to shed blood by process of law; he formally abolished the punishment of death, and only a single execution stains the annals of his reign. An edict yet more honourable to his humanity put an end to the slave-trade which had till then been carried on at the port of Bristol. The contrast between the ruthlessness and pitifulness of his public acts sprang indeed from a contrast within his temper itself. The pitiless warrior, the stern and aweful king was a tender and faithful husband, an affectionate father. The lonely silence of his bearing broke into gracious converse with pure and sacred souls like Anselm. If William was "stark" to rebel and baron, men noted that he was "mild to those that loved God."


William and feudalism

But the greatness of the Conqueror was seen in more than the order and peace which he imposed upon the land. Fortune had given him one of the greatest opportunities ever offered to a king of stamping his own genius on the destinies of a people; and it is the way in which he seized on this opportunity which has set William among the foremost statesmen of the world. The struggle which ended in the fens of Ely had wholly changed his position. He no longer held the land merely as its national and elected King. To his elective right he added the right of conquest. It is the way in which William grasped and employed this double power that marks the originality of his political genius, for the system of government which he devised was in fact the result of this double origin of his rule. It represented neither the purely feudal system of the Continent nor the system of the older English royalty: more truly perhaps it may be said to have represented both. As the conqueror of England William developed the military organization of feudalism so far as was necessary for the secure possession of his conquests. The ground was already prepared for such an organization. We have watched the beginnings of English feudalism in the warriors, the "companions" or "thegns" who were personally attached to the king's war-band and received estates from the folk-land in reward for their personal services. In later times this feudal distribution of estates had greatly increased as the bulk of the nobles followed the king's example and bound their tenants to themselves by a similar process of subinfeudation. The pure freeholders on the other hand, the class which formed the basis of the original English society, had been gradually reduced in number, partly through imitation of the class above them, but more through the pressure of the Danish wars and the social disturbance consequent upon them which forced these freemen to seek protectors among the thegns at the cost of their independence. Even before the reign of William therefore feudalism was superseding the older freedom in England as it had already superseded it in Germany or France. But the tendency was quickened and intensified by the Conquest. The desperate and universal resistance of the country forced William to hold by the sword what the sword had won; and an army strong enough to crush at any moment a national revolt was needful for the preservation of his throne. Such an army could only be maintained by a vast confiscation of the soil, and the failure of the English risings cleared the ground for its establishment. The greater part of the higher nobility fell in battle or fled into exile, while the lower thegnhood either forfeited the whole of their lands or redeemed a portion by the surrender of the rest. We see the completeness of the confiscation in the vast estates which William was enabled to grant to his more powerful followers. Two hundred manors in Kent with more than an equal number elsewhere rewarded the services of his brother Odo, and grants almost as large fell to William's counsellors Fitz-Osbern and Montgomery or to barons like the Mowbrays and the Clares. But the poorest soldier of fortune found his part in the spoil. The meanest Norman rose to wealth and power in this new dominion of his lord. Great or small, each manor thus granted was granted on condition of its holder's service at the King's call; a whole army was by this means encamped upon the soil; and William's summons could at any hour gather an overwhelming force around his standard.

Such a force however, effective as it was against the conquered English, was hardly less formidable to the Crown itself. When once it was established, William found himself fronted in his new realm by a feudal baronage, by the men whom he had so hardly bent to his will in Normandy, and who were as impatient of law, as jealous of the royal power, as eager for an unbridled military and judicial independence within their own manors, here as there. The political genius of the Conqueror was shown in his appreciation of this danger and in the skill with which he met it. Large as the estates he granted were, they were scattered over the country in such a way as to render union between the great landowners or the hereditary attachment of great areas of population to any one separate lord equally impossible. A yet wiser measure struck at the very root of feudalism. When the larger holdings were divided by their owners into smaller sub-tenancies, the under-tenants were bound by the same conditions of service to their lord as he to the Crown. "Hear, my lord," swore the vassal as kneeling bareheaded and without arms he placed his hands within those of his superior, "I become liege man of yours for life and limb and earthly regard; and I will keep faith and loyalty to you for life and death, God help me!" Then the kiss of his lord invested him with land as a "fief" to descend to him and his heirs for ever. In other countries such a vassal owed fealty to his lord against all foes, be they king or no. By the usage however which William enacted in England each sub-tenant, in addition to his oath of fealty to his lord, swore fealty directly to the Crown, and loyalty to the King was thus established as the supreme and universal duty of all Englishmen.


William and England

But the Conqueror's skill was shown not so much in these inner checks upon feudalism as in the counterbalancing forces which he provided without it. He was not only the head of the great garrison that held England down, he was legal and elected King of the English people. If as Conqueror he covered the country with a new military organization, as the successor of Eadward he maintained the judicial and administrative organization of the old English realm. At the danger of a severance of the land between the greater nobles he struck a final blow by the abolition of the four great earldoms. The shire became the largest unit of local government, and in each shire the royal nomination of sheriffs for its administration concentrated the whole executive power in the King's hands. The old legal constitution of the country gave him the whole judicial power, and William was jealous to retain and heighten this. While he preserved the local courts of the hundred and the shire he strengthened the jurisdiction of the King's Court, which seems even in the Confessor's day to have become more and more a court of highest appeal with a right to call up all cases from any lower jurisdiction to its bar. The control over the national revenue which had rested even in the most troubled times in the hands of the King was turned into a great financial power by the Conqueror's system. Over the whole face of the land a large part of the manors were burthened with special dues to the Crown: and it was for the purpose of ascertaining and recording these that William sent into each county the commissioners whose enquiries are recorded in his Domesday Book. A jury empannelled in each hundred declared on oath the extent and nature of each estate, the names, number, and condition of its inhabitants, its value before and after the Conquest, and the sums due from it to the Crown. These, with the Danegeld or land-tax levied since the days of Æthelred, formed as yet the main financial resources of the Crown, and their exaction carried the royal authority in its most direct form home to every landowner. But to these were added a revenue drawn from the old Crown domain, now largely increased by the confiscations of the Conquest, the ever-growing income from the judicial "fines" imposed by the King's judges in the King's courts, and the fees and redemptions paid to the Crown on the grant or renewal of every privilege or charter. A new source of revenue was found in the Jewish traders, many of whom followed William from Normandy, and who were glad to pay freely for the royal protection which enabled them to settle in their quarters or "Jewries" in all the principal towns of England.


The Church

William found a yet stronger check on his baronage in the organization of the Church. Its old dependence on the royal power was strictly enforced. Prelates were practically chosen by the King. Homage was exacted from bishop as from baron. No royal tenant could be excommunicated save by the King's leave. No synod could legislate without his previous assent and subsequent confirmation of its decrees. No papal letters could be received within the realm save by his permission. The King firmly repudiated the claims which were beginning to be put forward by the court of Rome. When Gregory VII. called on him to do fealty for his kingdom the King sternly refused to admit the claim. "Fealty I have never willed to do, nor will I do it now. I have never promised it, nor do I find that my predecessors did it to yours." William's reforms only tended to tighten this hold of the Crown on the clergy. Stigand was deposed; and the elevation of Lanfranc to the see of Canterbury was followed by the removal of most of the English prelates and by the appointment of Norman ecclesiastics in their place. The new archbishop did much to restore discipline, and William's own efforts were no doubt partly directed by a real desire for the religious improvement of his realm. But the foreign origin of the new prelates cut them off from the flocks they ruled and bound them firmly to the foreign throne; while their independent position was lessened by a change which seemed intended to preserve it. Ecclesiastical cases had till now been decided, like civil cases, in shire or hundred-court, where the bishop sate side by side with ealdorman or sheriff. They were now withdrawn from it to the separate court of the bishop. The change was pregnant with future trouble to the Crown; but for the moment it told mainly in removing the bishop from his traditional contact with the popular assembly and in effacing the memory of the original equality of the religious with the civil power.


William's death

In any struggle with feudalism a national king, secure of the support of the Church, and backed by the royal hoard at Winchester, stood in different case from the merely feudal sovereigns of the Continent. The difference of power was seen as soon as the Conquest was fairly over, and the struggle which William had anticipated opened between the baronage and the Crown. The wisdom of his policy in the destruction of the great earldoms which had overshadowed the throne was shown in an attempt at their restoration made in 1075 by Roger, the son of his minister William Fitz-Osbern, and by the Breton, Ralf de Guader, whom the King had rewarded for his services at Senlac with the earldom of Norfolk. The rising was quickly suppressed, Roger thrown into prison, and Ralf driven over sea. The intrigues of the baronage soon found another leader in William's half-brother, the Bishop of Bayeux. Under pretence of aspiring by arms to the papacy Bishop Odo collected money and men, but the treasure was at once seized by the royal officers and the bishop arrested in the midst of the court. Even at the King's bidding no officer would venture to seize on a prelate of the Church; and it was with his own hands that William was forced to effect his arrest. The Conqueror was as successful against foes from without as against foes from within. The fear of the Danes, which had so long hung like a thunder-cloud over England, passed away before the host which William gathered in 1085 to meet a great armament assembled by king Cnut. A mutiny dispersed the Danish fleet, and the murder of its king removed all peril from the north. Scotland, already humbled by William's invasion, was bridled by the erection of a strong fortress at Newcastle-upon-Tyne; and after penetrating with his army to the heart of Wales the King commenced its systematic reduction by settling three of his great barons along its frontier. It was not till his closing years that William's unvarying success was troubled by a fresh outbreak of the Norman baronage under his son Robert and by an attack which he was forced to meet in 1087 from France. Its king mocked at the Conqueror's unwieldy bulk and at the sickness which bound him to his bed at Rouen. "King William has as long a lying-in," laughed Philip, "as a woman behind her curtains." "When I get up," William swore grimly, "I will go to mass in Philip's land and bring a rich offering for my churching. I will offer a thousand candles for my fee. Flaming brands shall they be, and steel shall glitter over the fire they make." At harvest-tide town and hamlet flaring into ashes along the French border fulfilled the ruthless vow. But as the King rode down the steep street of Mantes which he had given to the flames his horse stumbled among the embers, and William was flung heavily against his saddle. He was borne home to Rouen to die. The sound of the minster bell woke him at dawn as he lay in the convent of St. Gervais, overlooking the city--it was the hour of prime--and stretching out his hands in prayer the King passed quietly away. Death itself took its colour from the savage solitude of his life. Priests and nobles fled as the last breath left him, and the Conqueror's body lay naked and lonely on the floor.


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