Return to The Normans

The Normans
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Chapter VI.

Dukes of the Normans


"What exile from himself can flee?" -- Byron.

     Before we begin the story of the next Duke of Normandy whose two surnames, the Devil, and the Magnificent, give us a broad hint of his character, we must take a look at the progress of affairs in the dukedom. There is one thing to be remembered in reading this history, or any other, that history is not merely the story of this monarch or that, however well he may represent the age in which he lived and signify its limitations and development.

     In Normandy one cannot help seeing that a power has been at work bringing a new Northern element into the country, and that there has been a great growth in every way since Rolf came with his vikings and besieged the city of Jumièges. Now the dukedom that he formed is one of the foremost of its day, able to stand on equal ground with the royal kingdom and duchy of France, for Robert's homage is only the homage of equals and allies. Normandy is the peer of Burgundy and of Flanders, and every day increases in strength, in ambition, in scholarship and wealth. The influence and prestige of the dukedom are recognized everywhere, and soon the soldiers of Normandy are going to take hold of English affairs and master them with unequalled strength. Chivalry is in the bloom of its youth, and the merchants of Falaise, and Rouen, and their sister cities, are rich and luxurious. The women are skilled in needlework and are famous for their beauty and intelligence. Everywhere there are new castles and churches, and the land swarms with inhabitants who hardly find room enough, while the great army hardly draws away the overplus of men from the farms and workshops. There are whole districts like the Côtentin peninsula, that are nearly ready to pour out their population into some new country, like bees when they swarm in early summer, and neither the fashion of going on pilgrimage to the holy shrines, nor the spirit that leads to any warlike adventure, are equal to the need for a new conquest of territory, and a general emigration.

     There are higher standards everywhere in law and morals and customs of home-life. The nobles are very proud and keep up a certain amount of state in their high stone castles. In the Côtentin alone the ruins of more than a hundred of these can yet be seen, and all over Normandy and Brittany are relics of that busy, prosperous time. The whole territory is like a young man who has reached his majority, and who feels a strength and health and ambition that make him restless, and make him believe himself capable of great things.

     From followers of the black ravens and worshippers of the god Thor, the Normans have become Christians and devout followers of the Church of Rome. They go on pilgrimage to distant shrines and build churches that the world may well wonder at to-day and try to copy. They have great houses for monks and nuns, and crowds of priests and scholars, and it would not be easy to find worshippers of the old faith unless among old people and in secluded neighborhoods. There is little left of the old Northman's fashions of life but his spirit is as vigorous as ever, and his courage, and recklessness, his love of a fight and hatred of cowardice, his beauty and shapeliness, are sent down from generation to generation, a surer inheritance than lands or money. We grow eager, ourselves, to see what will come of this leaven of daring and pride of strength. There is no such thing for Normandy now, as tranquillity.

     Duke Robert's story is chiefly interesting to us because he was the father of William the Conqueror, and in most of the accounts of that time it is hard to find any thing except various versions of his course toward his more famous son. But in reality he was a very gifted and powerful man, and strange to say, the conquest of England was only the carrying out of a plan that was made by Duke Robert himself.

     The two young sons of Emma and Æthelred were still in Normandy, and the Duke thought it was a great pity that they were neglected and apparently forgotten by their countrymen. He undertook to be their champion, and boldly demanded that King Cnut of England should consider their rights. He sent an embassy to England and bade Cnut "give them their own," which probably meant the English crown. Cnut disdained the message, as might have been expected, and Duke Robert armed his men and fitted out a fleet, and all set sail for England to force the Dane to recognize the young princes. It sounds very well that the Normans should have been so eager to serve the Duke's cousins, but no doubt they were talking together already about the possibility of extending their dominions across the Channel. They were disappointed now, however, for they were beaten back and out of their course by very bad weather, and had to put in at the island of Jersey. From there they took a short excursion to Brittany, because Robert and his cousin Alan were not on good terms, Alan having refused to do homage to Normandy. There was a famous season of harrying and burning along the Breton coast, which may have reconciled the adventurers to their disappointment, but at any rate the conquest of England was put off for forty years. One wonders how Cnut's Queen Emma felt about the claims of her sons. It was a strange position for her to be put into. A Norman woman herself who had virtually forsaken her children, she could hardly blame her brother for his efforts to restore them to their English belongings, and yet she was bound to her new English interests, and must have different standards as Danish Cnut's wife from those of Saxon Æthelred's. There is an announcement in one of the Norman chronicles that Cnut sent a message to the effect that he would give the princes their rights at his death. This must have been for the sake of peace, but it is not very likely that any such thing ever happened.

     A new acquaintance between the countries must have grown out of the banishment of some of the English nobles in the early part of Cnut's reign, and they no doubt strengthened the interest of the Normans, and made their desire to possess England greater than ever before. We shall be conscious of it more and more until the time of the Conquest comes. The Normans plotted and planned again and again, and their intrigues continually grew more dangerous to England. It is plain to see that they were always watching for a chance to try their strength, and were not unwilling to provoke a quarrel. Eadward, one of the English princes was ready to claim his rights, but he had learned to be very fond of Normandy, and his half-heartedness served his adopted country well when he came at last to the English throne. For the present we lose sight of him, but not of Ælfred his brother, who ventured to England on an expedition which cost him his life, but that failure made the Norman desire for revenge burn hotter and deeper than before, though the ashes of disappointment covered it for a time.

     Duke Robert's reign began with a grand flourish, as if he wished to bribe his subjects into forgetfulness of his brother Richard's death. There were splendid feasts and presents of armor and fine clothes for his retainers, and he won his name of the Magnificent in the very face of those who whispered that he was a murderer. He was very generous, and seems to have given presents for the pleasure it gave himself rather than from any underhand motives of gaining popularity. We are gravely told that some of his beneficiaries died of joy, which strikes one as being somewhat exaggerated.

     The old castle of Rolf at Rouen was forsaken for the castle of Falaise. No doubt there were unpleasant associations with Rolf's hall, where poor Richard had been seized with his mysterious mortal illness. Falaise, with its hunting-grounds and pleasant woods and waters and its fine situation, was Robert's favorite home forever after. There he brought his wife Estrith, Cnut's sister, who first had been the wife of Ulf the Danish king, and there he lived in a free companionship with his nobles and with great condescension towards his inferiors, with whom he was often associated in most familiar terms.

     There were chances enough to show his valor. Once Baldwin the elder, of Flanders, was attacked by his son Baldwin de Lisle, who had put himself at the head of an army, and the poor Count was forced to flee to Falaise for shelter and safety. Any excuse for going to war seems to have been accepted in Normandy; the country was brimming over with people. There was almost more population than the land could support, and Robert led his men to Flanders with great alacrity, and settled the mutiny so entirely that there was no more trouble. Flanders was brought to a proper state of submission, as if in revenge for old scores. At last the noblemen who had upheld the insurrection all deserted the leader of it, and both they and young Baldwin besought Robert to make the terms of peace. After this, Flanders and Normandy were very friendly together, and before long they formed a most significant alliance of the royal houses.

     In Robert's strolls about Falaise, perhaps in disguise, like another Haroun al Raschid, his beauty-loving eyes caught sight one day of a young girl who was standing bare-footed in a shallow brook, washing linen, and making herself merry with a group of busy young companions. This was Arlette, or Herleva, according as one gives her the Saxon or the Norman name; her father was a brewer and tanner, who had been attracted to Falaise from Germany by the reputation of its leather manufactures and good markets. The pastures and hunting-grounds made skins very cheap and abundant, but the trade of skinning of beasts was considered a most degrading one, and those who pursued it in ancient times were thought less of than those who followed almost any other occupation. If we were not sure of this, we might suspect the Norman nobles of casting undue shame and reproach upon this man Fulbert.

     Duke Robert seems to have quite forgotten his lawful wife in his new love-making with Herleva. Even the tanner himself objected to the duke's notice of his daughter, but who could withstand the wishes of so great a man? Not Fulbert, who accepted the inevitable with a good grace, for later in the story he shows himself a faithful retainer and household official of his lord and master. Robert never seems to have recovered from his first devotion to the pretty creature who stood with slender, white feet in the brook, and turned so laughing a face toward him. They showed not long ago the very castle-window in Falaise from which he caught his first sight of the woman who was to rule his life. He did not marry her, though Estrith was sent away; but they had a son, who was named William, who himself added the titles of the Great and The Conqueror, but who never escaped hearing to his life's end the shame and ignominy of his birth. We cannot doubt that it was as mean an act then as now to taunt a man with the disgrace he could not help; but of all the great men who were of illegitimate birth whom we know in the pages of history, this famous William is oftenest openly shamed by his title of the Bastard. He won much applause; he was the great man of his time, but from pique, or jealousy, or prejudice, perhaps from some faults that he might have helped, he was forever accused of the shame that was not his. The Bastard, -- the Tanner's Grandson; he was never allowed to forget, through any heroism or success in war, or furthering of Norman fortunes, that these titles belonged to him.

     The pride of the Norman nobles was dreadfully assailed by Duke Robert's shameful alliance with Herleva. All his relations, who had more or less right to the ducal crown, were enraged beyond control. Estrith had no children, and this beggarly little fellow who was growing plump and rosy in the tanner's house, was arch-enemy of all the proud lords and gentlemen. There was plenty of scandal and mockery in Falaise, and the news of Robert's base behavior was flying from village to village through Normandy and France. The common people of Falaise laughed in the faces of the barons and courtiers as they passed in the street, and one day an old burgher and neighbor of the tanner asked William de Talvas, the head of one of the most famous Norman families, to go in with him to see the Duke's son. The Lord of Alençon was very angry when he looked at the innocent baby-face. He saw, by some strange foreboding and prevision, the troubles that would fall upon his own head because of this vigorous young life, and, as he cursed the unconscious child again and again, his words only echoed the fear that was creeping through Normandy.

     Robert was very bold in his defiance of public opinion, and before long the old tanner sheds his blouse like the cocoon of a caterpillar, and blooms out resplendent in the gay trappings of court chamberlain. Herleva was given the place as duchess which did not legally belong to her, and this hurt the pride of the ladies and gentlemen of the court and the country in a way that all Robert's munificence and generosity could not repay or cure. The age was licentious enough, but public opinion demanded a proper conformity to law and etiquette. All the aristocratic house of Rolf's descendants, the valor and scholarship and churchmanship of Normandy, were insulted at once. The trouble fermented more and more, until the Duke's uncle, the Archbishop of Rouen, called his nephew to account for such open sin and disgrace of his kindred, and finally excommunicated him and put all Normandy under a ban.

     Somehow this outbreak was quieted down, and just then Robert was called upon, not only to settle the quarrel in Flanders above mentioned, but to uphold the rights of the French king. For his success in this enterprise he was granted the district of the Vexin, which lay between Normandy and France, and so the Norman duchy extended its borders to the very walls of Paris. Soon other questions of pressing importance rose up to divert public comment; it was no time to provoke the Duke's anger, and there was little notice taken of Herleva's aggravating presence in the ducal castle, or the untoward growth and flourishing of her son.

     At length Duke Robert announced his intention of going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He wished to show his piety and to gain as much credit as possible, so the long journey was to be made on foot. The Norman barons begged him not to think of such a thing, for in the excited condition of French and Normans affairs nothing could be more imprudent than to leave the dukedom masterless. "By my faith!" Robert answered stoutly, "I do not mean to leave you without a lord. Here is my young son, who will grow and be a gallant man, by God's help; I command you to take him for your lord, for I make him my heir and give him my whole duchy of Normandy."

     There was a stormy scene in the council, and however we may scorn Robert's foolish, selfish present-giving and his vulgarity, we cannot help pitying him as he pleads with the knights and bishops for their recognition of his innocent boy. We pity the Duke's shame, while his natural feeling toward the child wars with his disgust. With all his eloquence, with all his authority, he entreats the scornful listeners until they yield. They have warned him against the danger of the time, and of what he must expect, not only if he goes on pilgrimage and leaves the dukedom to its undefended fate, but also if he further provokes those who are already his enemies, and who resent the presence of his illegitimate child. But he dares to put the base-born lad over the dukedom of Normandy as his own successor. He even goes to the king of France and persuades him to receive the unworthy namesake of Longsword as vassal and next duke, and to Alan of Brittany, who consents to be guardian. Then at last the unwilling barons do homage to the little lord -- a bitter condescension and service it must have been!

     After all the ceremonies were finished, Robert lost no time in starting on his pilgrimage. He sought the shrine of Jerusalem, many a weary mile away, over mountain and fen, past dangers of every sort. Nothing could be more characteristic than his performance of his penance or his pleasure journey -- whichever he called it -- for although he went on foot, he spent enormous sums in showering alms upon the people who came out to greet him. Heralds rode before him, and prepared his lodging and reception, and the great procession of horses and grooms and beasts of burden grew longer and longer as he went on his way. Once they blocked up the gateway of a town, and the keeper fell upon the pilgrim Duke, ignorantly, and gave him a good thrashing to make him hurry on with his idle crowd. Robert piously held back those of his followers who would have beaten the warder in return, and said that it was well for him to show himself a pattern of humility and patience, and such suffering was meant for the good of one's soul.

     The Duke did a great many foolish things; for one, he had his horses shod with silver shoes, held on by only one nail, and gave orders that none of his servants should pick up the shoes when they were cast, but let them lie in the road.

     At last the pilgrims reached Constantinople, and Robert made a great display of his wealth, not to speak of his insolent bad manners. The emperor, Michael, treated his rude guests with true Eastern courtesy, and behaved himself much more honorably than those who despised him and called him names. He even paid all the expenses of the Norman procession, but, no doubt, he was anxious not to give any excuse for displeasure or disturbance between the Northerners and his own citizens. When the visit was over, and Robert moved on toward Jerusalem, his already feeble health, broken by his bad life, grew more and more alarming, and at last he could not take even a very short journey on foot, and was carried in a litter by negroes. The Crusades were filling the roads with pilgrims and soldiers, and travellers of every sort. One day they met a Côtentin man, an old acquaintance of Robert's. The Duke said with grim merriment that he was borne like a corpse on a bier. "My lord," asked the Crusader, who seems to have been sincerely shocked and doleful at the sight of the Duke's suffering; "my lord, what shall I say for you when I reach home?" "That you saw me carried toward Paradise by four devils," said the Duke, readier at any time to joke about life than to face it seriously and to do his duty. He kept up the pretence of travelling unknown and in disguise, like a humbler pilgrim, but his lavishness alone betrayed the secret he would really have been sorry to keep. Outside the gates of Jerusalem there was always a great crowd of people who were not able to pay the entrance-fee demanded of every pilgrim; but Robert paid for himself and all the rest before he went in at the gate. The long journey was almost ended, for on the way home, at the city of Nicæa, the Duke was poisoned, and died, and was buried there in the cathedral with great solemnity and lamentation. He had collected a heap of relics of the saints, and these were brought safely home to Normandy by Tostin, his chamberlain, who seems to have served him faithfully all the way.

Notes for Chapter 6

"What exile from himself can flee":  This line appears in "To Inez," a song that follows Stanza 84 of the first canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824).
    [ Back ]

Haroun al Raschid:  Harun al-Rashid (born c. 763-766; died 809) was the fifth Arab Abbasid Caliph.  Wikipedia says "Al-Rashid ruled from 786 to 809, and his time was marked by scientific, cultural, and religious prosperity. Islamic art and Islamic music also flourished significantly during his reign."  He a fictionalized character in One Thousand and One Nights.  It is possible that Jewett refers to the descriptive poem, "Recollections of the Arabian Nights," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), in which the speaker journeys through beautiful scenes of Baghdad and ends with his looking upon a beautiful Persian girl, presumably the Caliph's wife, and then upon the Caliph himself.
    [ Back ]

carried toward Paradise by four devils: This story is recounted in Palgrave, vol. 3, p. 189.   (Jewett's Sources).  However, he does not offer the dialogue that Jewett has included. 
    [ Back ]

Edited and annotated by Terry Heller
    Assistance from:  Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.   


Return to The Normans