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The Normans
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Chapter XIII.

Dukes of the Normans


          "The languid pulse of England starts
          And bounds beneath your words of power."

     Just here we might well stop to consider the true causes and effects of war. Seen in the largest way possible, from this side of life, certain forces of development are enabled to assert themselves only by outgrowing, outnumbering, outfighting their opposers. War is the conflict between ideas that are going to live and ideas that have passed their maturity and are going to die. Men possess themselves of a new truth, a clearer perception of the affairs of humanity; progress itself is made possible with its larger share of freedom for the individual or for nations only by a relentless overthrowing of outgrown opinions. It is only by new combinations of races, new assertions of the old unconquerable forces, that the spiritual kingdom gains or rather shows its power. When men claim that humanity can only move round in a circle, that the world has lost many things, that the experience of humanity is like the succession of the seasons, and that there is reproduction but not progression, it is well to take a closer look, to see how by combination, by stimulus of example, and power of spiritual forces and God's great purposes, this whole world is nearer every year to the highest level any fortunate part of it has ever gained. Wars may appear to delay, but in due time they surely raise whole nations of men to higher levels, whether by preparing for new growths or by mixing the new and old. Generals of battalions and unreckoned camp-followers alike are effects of some great change, not causes of it. And no war was ever fought that was not an evidence that one element in it had outgrown the other and was bound to get itself manifested and better understood. The first effect of war is incidental and temporary; the secondary effect makes a link in the grand chain of the spiritual education and development of the world.

     We grow confused in trying to find our way through the intricate tangle of stories about the relation of Harold and William to each other, with their promises and oaths and understanding of each other's position in regard to the throne of England. Of course, William knew that Harold had a hope of succeeding the Confessor. There was nobody so fit for it in some respects as he -- nobody who knew and loved England any better, or was more important to her welfare. He had fought for her; he was his father's son, and the eyes of many southern Englishmen would turn toward him if the question of the succession were publicly put in the Witanagemôt. He might have defamers and enviers, but the Earl of the West Saxons was the foremost man in England. He had a right to expect recognition from his countrymen. The kingship was not hereditary, and Eadward had no heirs if it had been. Eadward trusted him; perhaps he had let fall a hint that he meant to recommend his wise earl as successor, even though it were a repetition of another promise made to William when Harold was a banished man and the house of Godwine serving its term of disgrace and exile.

     It appears that Eadward had undergone an intermediate season of distrusting either of these two prominent candidates for succession. But the memory of Eadward Ironside was fondly cherished in England, and his son, Eadward the Outlaw, the lawful heir of the crown, was summoned back to his inheritance from Hungary. There was great rejoicing, and the Atheling's wife and his three beautiful children, a son and two daughters, were for a time great favorites and kindled an instant loyalty all too soon to fade. Alas! that Eadward should have returned from his long banishment to sicken and die in London just as life held out such fair promises; and again the Confessor's mind was troubled by the doubtful future of his kingdom.

     On the other hand, if we trust to the Norman records now, -- not always unconfirmed by the early English historians, -- we must take into account many objections to, as well as admissions of, Harold's claim. Eadward's inclination seems often to swerve toward his Norman cousin, who alone seemed able to govern England properly or to hold her jealous forces well in hand. The great English earls were in fact nearly the same as kings of their provinces. There was much opposition and lack of agreement between them; there was a good deal of animosity along the borders in certain sections, and a deep race prejudice between the Danes of Northumberland and the men of the south. The Danes from over-sea were scheming to regain the realm that had belonged to their own great ruler Cnut, and so there was a prospect of civil war or foreign invasion which needed a strong hand. Harold's desire to make himself king was not in accordance with the English customs. He was not of the royal house; he was only one of the English earls, and held on certain grounds no better right to pre-eminence than they. Leofric and Siward would have looked upon him as an undeserving interloper, who had no right to rule over them. "The grandsons of Leofric, who ruled half England," says one historian, "would scarcely submit to the dominion of an equal. . . . No individual who was not of an ancient royal house had ever been able to maintain himself upon an Anglo-Saxon throne."

     Before we yield too much to our natural sentiment over the story of this unfortunate "last of the Saxon kings," it is well to remember the bad and hindering result to England if Harold had conquered instead of fallen on the battle-field of Hastings. The weakness of England was in her lack of unity and her existing system of local government.

     There are two or three plausible stories about Harold's purpose in going to Normandy. It is sometimes impossible in tracing this portion of history through both English and Norman chronicles to find even the same incidents mentioned. Each historian has such a different proof and end in view, and it is only by the closest study, and a good deal of guesswork beside, that a reasonable account of Harold's second visit, and the effects of it, can be made out. We may listen for a moment to the story of his being sent by Eadward to announce that the English crown was to be given to the Norman duke by Eadward's own recommendation to the council, or we may puzzle our way through an improbable tale that Godwine's son, Wolfnoth, and grandson, Hakon, were still held by William as hostages between Eadward and Godwine, though Godwine's family had long since been formally reinstated and re-endowed. Harold is supposed to have gone over to demand their release, though Eadward mournfully warned him of danger and treachery.

     The most probable explanation is that Harold was bound on a pleasure excursion with some of his family either to Flanders or some part of his own county, and was shipwrecked and cast ashore on the coast of Ponthieu. All accounts agree about this, though they differ so much about the port he meant to make and his secret purpose.

     In those days wrecking was a sadly common practice, and the more illustrious a rescued man might be, the larger ransom was demanded. When we reflect that much of the brutal and lawless custom of wrecking survived almost if not quite to our own time in England, we cannot expect much from the leniency of the Count of Ponthieu's subjects, or indeed much clemency from that petty sovereign himself. Harold was thrown into prison and suffered many things there before the Duke of Normandy could receive his message and come to his relief.

     We might imagine for ourselves now a fine historical picture of William the Conqueror seated in his palace at Rouen, busy with affairs of church and state. He has grown stouter, and his face shows marks of thought and care which were not all there when he went to England. His hair is worn thin by his helmet, and the frank, courteous look of his youth has given place to sternness and insistence, though his smile is ready to be summoned when occasion demands. He is a man who could still be mild with the gentle, and pleasantry was a weapon and tool if it were not an unconscious habit. Greater in state and less in soul, says one historian, who writes of him from an English standpoint at this hour in his career. A Norman gentleman lived delicately in those days; he was a worthy successor of a Roman gentleman in the luxurious days of the empire, but not yet enfeebled and belittled by ease and extravagance -- though we do listen with amusement to a rumor that the elegant successors of Rolf the Ganger were very dependent upon warm baths, and a good sousing with cold water was a much dreaded punishment and penance. The reign of the valet had become better assured than the reign (in England) of the offspring of Woden and the house of Cerdic.

     But we forget to watch the great Duke of the Normans as he sits in his royal chamber and listens to a messenger from the prisoned Earl of the West Saxons. It is a moment of tremendous significance, for by the assistance of winds and waves Harold has fallen into his power. He must tread carefully now and use his best cleverness of strategy and treacherous artifice. How the bystanders must have watched his face, and listened with eager expectation for his answer. The messenger pleads Harold's grievous condition; hints of famine, torture, and death itself have been known to escape this brutal Count of Ponthieu who keeps the great Englishman in his dungeon as if he were a robber. Perhaps he only wishes to gain a great ransom, perhaps he acts in traitorous defiance of his Lord of Normandy's known friendship for England.

     William replies at last with stern courtesy. He is deeply grieved, we can hear him say, for the earl's misfortune, but he can only deal in the matter as prince with prince. It is true that Guy of Ponthieu is his vassal and man, but Guy is governor of his coast, and makes his own laws. It will cost great treasure to ransom this noble captive, but the matter must be carefully arranged, for Guy is hot-tempered and might easily be provoked into sending Harold's head to Rouen without his body. Yet half the Norman duchy shall be spent if need be for such a cause as the English earl's release.

     Fitz-Osbern, the duke's seneschal and Malet de Graville, and the noble attendants of the palace murmur a pleased assent as the half-satisfied messenger is kindly dismissed. They detect an intrigue worthy of the best Norman ability, and know by William's face that he has unexpectedly gained a welcome control over events.

     The liberation of Harold was effected after much manśvering, necessary or feigned, and when he appeared before William it was as a grateful man who was in debt not only for his release from danger and discomfort, but for a great sum of money and a tract of valuable landed property.

     It is impossible not to suspect that Guy of Ponthieu and William were in league with each other, and when the ransom was paid, the wrecker-count became very amiable, and even insisted upon riding with a gay company of knights to the place where the Norman duke came with a splendid retinue to meet his distinguished guest. William laid aside the cumbrous forms of court etiquette and hurried to the gates of the Chateau d' Eu to help Harold to dismount, and greeted him with cordial affection, as friend with friend. Harold may well have been dazzled by his reception at the most powerful court in that part of the world. To have a welcome that befitted a king may well have pleased him into at least a temporary acknowledgment of his entertainer's majestic power and rights. No doubt, during that unlucky visit it seemed dignity enough to be paraded everywhere as the great duke's chosen companion and honored friend and guest. At any rate, Harold's visit seems to have given occupation to the court, and we catch many interesting glimpses of the stately Norman life, as well as the humble, almost brutal, condition of the lower classes, awed into quietness and acquiescence by the sternness and exactness of William's rule. It must be acknowledged that if the laws were severe they prevented much disorder that had smouldered in other times in the lower strata of society; men had less power and opportunity to harm each other or to enfeeble the state.

     No greater piece of good luck could have befallen the duke than to win the post of Harold's benefactor, and he played the part gallantly. Not only the duke but the duchess treated their guest with uncommon courtesy, and he was admitted to the closest intimacy with the household. If Harold had been wise he would have gone back to England as fast as sails could carry him, but instead of that he lingered on, equally ready to applaud the Norman exploits in camp and court, and to show his entertainers what English valor could achieve. He went with the duke on some petty expedition against the rebellious Britons [Bretons?], but it is hard to make out a straight story of that enterprise. But there is a characteristic story of Harold's strength in the form of a tradition that when the Norman army was crossing the deep river Coesnon, which pours into the sea under the wall of Mount St. Michel, some of the troops were being swept away by the waves, when Harold rescued them, taking them with great ease, at arm's length, out of the water.

     There is a sober announcement in one of the old chronicles, that the lands of Brittany were included in Charles the Simple's grant to Rolf, because Rolf had so devastated Normandy that there was little there to live upon. At the time of William's expedition, Brittany itself was evidently taking its turn at such vigorous shearing and pruning of the life of its fertile hills and valleys. The Bretons liked nothing so well as warfare, and when they did not unite against a foreign enemy, they spent their time in plundering and slaughtering one another. Count Conan, the present aggressor, was the son of Alan of Brittany, William's guardian. Some of the Bretons were loyal to the Norman authority, and Dôl, an ancient city renowned for its ill luck, and Dinan were successively vacated by the rebels. Dinan was besieged by fire, a favorite weapon in the hands of the Normans; but later we find that both the cities remained Breton, and the Norman allies go back to their own country. There is a hint somewhere of the appearance of an army from Anjou, to take the Bretons' part, but the Norman chroniclers ignore it as far as they can.

     It is impossible to fix the date of this campaign; indeed there may have been more than one expedition against Brittany. Still more difficult is it to learn any thing that is undisputed about the famous oath that Harold gave to William, and was afterward so completely punished for breaking. Yet, while we do not know exactly what the oath was, Harold's most steadfast upholders have never been able to deny that there was an oath, and there is no contradiction, on the English side, of the whole affair. His best friends have been silent about it. The most familiar account is this, if we listen to the Norman stories: Harold entered into an engagement to marry one of William's daughters, who must have been very young at the time of the visit or visits to Normandy, and some writers claim that the whole cause of the quarrel lay in his refusal to keep his promise. There is a list beside of what appears to us unlikely concessions on the part of the English earl. Harold did homage to the duke, and formally became his man, and even promised to acknowledge his claim to the throne of England at the death of the Confessor. More than this, he promised to look after William's interest in England, and to put him at once into possession of the Castle of Dover, with the right of establishing a Norman garrison there. William, in return, agreed to hold his new vassal in highest honor, giving him by and by even the half of his prospective kingdom. When this surprising oath was taken, Harold was entrapped into swearing upon the holiest relic of Norman saints which had been concealed in a chest for the express purpose. With the superstitious awe that men of his time felt toward such emblems, this not very respectable act on William's part is made to reflect darkly upon Harold. Master  Wace says that "his hand trembled and his flesh quivered when he touched the chest, though he did not know what was in it, and how much more distressed he was when he found by what an awful vow he had unwittingly bound his soul."

     So Harold returned to England the duke's vassal and future son-in-law, according to the chronicles, but who can help being suspicious, after knowing how Harold was indebted to the duke and bound with cunningly contrived chains until he found himself a prisoner? William of Poitiers, a chronicler who wrote in the Conqueror's day, says that Harold was a man to whom imprisonment was more odious than shipwreck. It would be no wonder if he had made use of a piece of strategy, and was willing to make any sort of promise simply to gain his liberty.

     The plot of the relic-business put a different face upon the whole matter, and yet, even if Harold was dazzled for the time being by William's power and splendor, one must doubt whether he would have given up all his ambition of reigning in England. He was already too great a man at home to play the subject and flatterer with much sincerity, even though his master were the high and mighty Duke of the Normans, and he had come from a ruder country to the fascination and elegance of the Norman court. Whatever the oath may have been that Harold gave at Bayeux, it is certain that he broke it afterward, and that his enemies made his failure not only an affair of state, but of church, and waged a bitter war that brought him to his sad end.

     Now, the Norman knights might well look to it that their armor was strong and the Norman soldiers provide themselves with arrows and well-seasoned bows. It was likely that Harold's promise was no secret, and that some echo of it reached from one end of the dukedom to the other. There were great enterprises on foot, and at night in the firelight there was eager discussion of possible campaigns, for though the great Duke William, their soldier of soldiers, had bent the strength of his resistless force upon a new kingdom across the Channel and had won himself such a valuable ally, it was not likely that England would be ready to fall into his hand like a ripe apple from the bough. There was sure to be fighting, but there was something worth fighting for; the petty sorties against the provincial neighbors of Normandy were hardly worth the notice of her army. Men like the duke's soldiers were fit for something better than such police duty. Besides, a deep provocation had not been forgiven by those gentlemen who were hustled out of England by Godwine and his party, and many an old score would now stand a chance of repayment.

     Not many months were passed before the news came from London that the holy king Eadward was soon to leave this world for a better. He was already renowned as a worker of miracles and a seer of visions, and the story was whispered reverently that he had given his ring to a beggar who appeared before him to ask alms in the middle of a crowd assembled at the dedication of a church. The beggar disappeared, but that very night some English pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem are shelterless and in danger near the holy city. Suddenly a company of shining acolytes approach through the wilderness, carrying two tapers before an old man, as if he were out on some errand of the church. He stops to ask the wondering pilgrims whence they come and whither they are going, and guides them to a city and a comfortable lodging, and next morning tells them that he is Saint John the Evangelist. More than this, he gives them the Confessor's ring, with a message to carry back to England. Within six months Eadward will be admitted to paradise as a reward for his pure and pious life. The message is carried to the king by miraculous agency that same night, and ever since he prays and fasts more than ever, and is hurrying the builders of his great Westminster, so that he may see that holy monument of his piety dedicated to the service of God before he dies.

     The Norman lords and gentlemen who listened to this tale must have crossed themselves, one fancies, and craved a blessing on the saintly king, but the next minute we fancy also that they gave one another a glance that betokened a lively expectation of what might follow the news of Eadward's translation.

     Twice in the year, at Easter and Christmas, the English king wore his crown in the great Witanagemôt and held court among his noblemen. In this year the midwinter Gemôt was held at the king's court at Westminster, instead of at Gloucester, to hallow the Church of St. Peter, the new shrine to which so much more of the Confessor's thought had gone than to the ruling of his kingdom.

     But in the triumphant days to which he had long looked forward, his strength failed faster and faster, and his queen, Edith, the daughter of Godwine, had to take his place at the ceremonies. The histories of that day are filled with accounts of the grand building that Eadward's piety had reared. He had given a tenth part of all his income to it for many years, and with a proud remembrance of the Norman churches with which he was familiar in his early days, had made Westminster a noble rival of them and the finest church in England. The new year was hardly begun, the Witan had not scattered to their homes, before Eadward the Confessor was carried to his tomb -- the last of the sons of Woden. He had reigned for three and twenty years, and was already a worn old man.

          "Now, in the falling autumn, while the winds
          Of winter blew across his scanty days
          He gathered up life's embers --"

But as he lay dying in the royal palace at Westminster everybody was less anxious about the king, than about the country's uncertain future. Harold had been a sort of under-king for several years, and had taken upon himself many of the practical duties of government. He had done great deeds against the Welsh, and was a better general and war-man than Eadward had ever been. Nobody had any hope of the Confessor's recovery, and any hour might find the nation kingless. The Atheling's young son was a feeble, incompetent person, and wholly a foreigner; only the most romantic and senseless citizen could dream of making him Lord of England in such a time as that. There were a thousand rumors afloat; every man had his theory and his prejudice, and at last there must have been a general feeling of relief when the news was told that the saint-king was dead in his palace and had named Harold as his successor. The people clung eagerly to such a nomination; now that Eadward was dead he was saint indeed, and there was a funeral and a coronation that same day in the minster on the Isle of Thorney; his last word to the people was made law.

     No more whispering that Harold was the Duke of the Normans' man, and might betray England again into the hands of those greedy favorites whom the holy king had cherished in his bosom like serpents. No more fears of Harold's jealous enemies among the earls; there was a short-sighted joy that the great step of the succession had been made and settled fast in the consent of the Witan, who still lingered; to be dispersed, when these famous days were at an end, by another king of England than he who had called them together.

     The king had prophesied in his last hours; he had seen visions and dreamed dreams; he had said that great sorrows were to fall upon England for her sins, and that her earls and bishops and abbots were but ministers of the fiend in the eye of God; that within a year and a day the whole land would be harried from one end to another with fire and slaughter. Yet, almost with the same breath, be recommends his Norman friends, "those whom in his simplicity he spoke of as men who had left their native land for love of him," to Harold's care, and does not seem to suspect their remotest agency in the future harrying. True enough some of the Norman officers were loyal to him and to England. This death-bed scene is sad and solemn. Norman Robert the Staller was there, and Stigand, the illegal archbishop; Harold, the hope of England, and his sister, the queen, who mourns now and is very tender to her royal husband, who has given her a sorry lot with his cold-heartedness toward her and the dismal exile and estrangement he has made her suffer. He loves her and trusts her now in this last day of life, and her woman's heart forgets the days that were dark between them. He even commends her to Harold's care, and directs that she must not lose the honors which have been hers as queen.

     There is a tradition that when Eadward lay dying he said that he was passing from the land of the dead to the land of the living, and the chronicle adds: "Saint Peter, his friend, opened to him the gates of Paradise, and Saint John, his own dear one, led him before the Divine Majesty." The walls that Eadward built are replaced by others; there is not much of his abbey left now but some of the foundation and an archway or two. But his tomb stands in a sacred spot, and the prayers and hymns he loved so devoutly are said and sung yet in his own Westminster, the burying-place of many another king since the Confessor's time.

  Notes for Chapter 13

And bounds beneath your words of power:  from "To the Reformers of England" by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892).
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the true causes and effects of war:  Jewett has taken some criticism for what might seem like a naďve view of the value of war.  However, the view she expresses here closely follows those of two of her main sources.  Francis Palgrave, in The History of Normandy and of England, repeatedly argues that history reveals Divine intentions for humanity and that, ultimately, we can understand God's will by studying history.  Augustin Thierry offers a more secular argument that studying European history reveals progress toward the civilizing of Europe:  "The establishment of the great modern states has been mainly the work of force…. Such a movement of destruction was, I am aware, inevitable.  However violent and illegitimate it may have been in its origin, its result has been the civilization of Europe" (History of the Conquest of England by the Normans, xxiii).    See Jewett's Sources.
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Witanagemôt:   The Witan or Witenagemot (variously spelled) was an Anglo-Saxon advisory assembly that included eminent people from a king's realm, including bishops, ealdormen, thanes, etc.  For further details see Johnson, The Normans in Europe, 148-9.   (Jewett's Sources).
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The grandsons of Leofric, who ruled half England:  See Sir Francis Palgrave (1788-1861), The History of Normandy and of England, Vol. 3, p. 290.
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wrecking: Wrecking, through the 19th century in Europe and the Americas, consisted of taking advantage of ships that foundered or wrecked near shore, by taking their cargo.  Sometimes, ships were lured into areas where they could be grounded and looted.  See Wikipedia.
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Greater in state and less in soul: See Edward Bulwer Lytton, Harold: The Last of the Saxon Kings, Volume 2 (B. Tauchnitz, 1848), p. 44.  (Jewett's Sources).
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Woden ... House of Cerdic: Wikipedia says "Woden or Wodan … is a major deity of Anglo-Saxon and Continental Germanic polytheism."
   Wikipedia also says that "Cerdic was probably the first King of Anglo-Saxon Wessex from 519 to 534, cited by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the founder of the kingdom of Wessex and ancestor of all its subsequent kings."
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his hand trembled:   This incident appears in Freeman, vol. 3, p. 162, but Jewett does not quote from this.   See Wace's Roman de Rou, p. 154, though Jewett does not quote from this translation, either. (Jewett's Sources).
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William of Poitiers: Wikipedia says, "William of Poitiers (c. 1020 – 1090) was a French priest of Norman origin and chaplain of Duke William of Normandy ..., for whom he chronicled the Norman Conquest of England in his Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum ("The Deeds of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England") or Gesta Guillelmi II ducis Normannorum. He had trained as a soldier before taking holy orders."
    Bulwer-Lytton in Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings, Volume 2, reports William of Portiers' characterization of Harold, p. 77. (Jewett's Sources).
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Saint John the Evangelist:  Wikipedia says "John the Evangelist ... was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Traditionally, he is identified as the author of the Gospel of John and other Johannine works in the New Testament — the three Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. He is also known as John of Patmos, John the Apostle and the Beloved Disciple. Some of these latter connections have been debated since about 200."
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translation: Eadward is removed from the material world to Heaven.
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He gathered up life’s embers: This is from Annie Fields (1834-1915), "The Last Contest of Ćschylus" in Under the Olive (1881).
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  Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College, with assistance from Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.


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