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The Normans
by Sarah Orne Jewett

Chapter XIV.

Dukes of the Normans


"Great men have reaching hands." -- SHAKESPEARE.

     So Harold was crowned king of England. Our business is chiefly with what the Normans thought about that event, and while London is divided between praises of the old king and hopes of the new one, and there are fears of what may follow from Earl Tostig's enmity; while the Witan are dispersing to their homes, and the exciting news travels faster than they do the length and breadth of the country, we must leave it all and imagine ourselves in Normandy.

     Duke William was at his park of Quevilly, near Rouen, and was on his way to the chase. He had been bending his bow -- the famous bow that was too strong for other men's hands -- and just as he gave it to the page who waited to carry it after him, a man-at-arms came straight to his side; they went apart together to speak secretly, while the bystanders watched them curiously and whispered that the eager messenger was an Englishman.

     "Eadward the king is dead," the duke was told, but that not unexpected news was only half the message. "Earl Harold is raised to the kingdom."

     There came an angry look into the duke's eyes, and the herald left him. William forgot his plans for the hunt; he strode by his retainers; he tied and untied his mantle absent-mindedly, and presently went down to the bank of the Seine again and crossed over in a boat to his castle hall. He entered silently, and nobody dared ask what misfortune had befallen him. His companions followed him and found him sitting on a bench, moving restlessly to and fro. Then he became quieter; he leaned his head against the great stone pillar and covered his face with his mantle. Long before, in the old Norse halls, where all the vikings lived together, if a man were sick or sorry or wished for any reason to be undisturbed, he sat on his own bench and covered his head with his cloak; there was no room where he could be alone; and after the old custom, in these later days, the knights of William's court left him to his thoughts. Then William Fitz-Osbern, the "bold-hearted," came into the quiet hall humming a tune. The awe-struck people who were clustered there asked him what was the matter; then the duke looked up.

     "It is in vain for you to try to hide the news," said the Seneschal. "It is blazing through the streets of Rouen. The Confessor is dead, and Harold holds the English kingdom."

     The duke answered gravely that he sorrowed both for the death of Eadward and for the faithlessness of Harold.

     "Arise and be doing," urges Fitz-Osbern. "There is no need for mourning. Cross the sea and snatch the kingdom out of the usurper's hand," and in this way stern thought and dire purpose were thrown into the duke's holiday. The messenger had brought a lighted torch in his hand that was equal to kindling great plans that winter day in Normandy.

     William and all his men, from the least soldier to the greatest, knew that if they wished for England the only way to get it was to fight for it.. There had never been such a proof of their mettle as this would be. The Normans who went to Italy had no such opponents as Harold and the rest of the Englishmen fighting on their own ground for their homes and their honor; but Norman courage shone brightest in these days. This is one of the places where we must least of all follow the duke's personal fortunes too closely, or forget that the best of the Normans were looking eagerly forward to the possession of new territory. Many of their cleverest men, too, were more than ready to punish the English for ejecting them from comfortable positions under Godwine's rule, and were anxious to reinstate themselves securely. There was no such perilous journey before the army as the followers of the Hautevilles had known, while their amazing stories of gain and glory incited the Normans at home to win themselves new fortunes. It is a proof that civilization and the arts of diplomacy were advancing, when we listen (and the adventurers listened too) while excuse after excuse was tendered for the great expedition. The news of Harold's accession was simply a welcome signal for action, but the heir of Rolf the Ganger was a politician, an astute wielder of public opinion, and his state-craft was now directed toward giving his desire to conquer England and reign over it a proper aspect in the eyes of other nations.

     The right of heritage was fast displacing everywhere the people's right to choose their kings. The feudal system was close and strong in its links, but while Harold had broken his oath of homage to William, that alone was not sufficient crime. Such obligations were not always unbreakable, and were too much a matter of formality and temporary expediency to warrant such an appeal to the common law of nations as William meant to make. As nearly as we can get at the truth of the matter, the chief argument against Harold the Usurper was on religious grounds -- on William's real or assumed promise of the succession from Eadward, and Harold's vow upon the holy relics of the saints at Rouen.** This at least was most criminal blasphemy. The Normans gloried in their own allegiance to the church. Their duke was blameless in private life and a sworn defender and upholder of the faith, and by this means a most formidable ally was easily won, in the character of Lanfranc the great archbishop.

     Lanfranc and William governed Normandy hand in hand. In tracing the history of this time the priest seems as familiar with secular affairs, with the course of the state and the army and foreign relations, as the duke was diligent in attending ecclesiastical synods and church services. It was a time of great rivalry and uncertainty for the papal crown; there was a pope and an anti-pope just then who were violent antagonists, but Archdeacon Hildebrand was already the guide and authority of the Holy See. Later he became the Pope famous in history as Gregory VII. We are startled to find that the expedition against England was made to take the shape of a crusade, even though England was building her own churches, and sending pilgrims to the Holy Land, and pouring wealth most generously into the church's coffers. "Priests and prelates were subject to the law like other men," that was the trouble; and "a land where the king and his Witan gave and took away the staff of the bishop was a land which, in the. eyes of Rome, was more dangerous than a land of Jews or Saracens." "It was a policy worthy of William to send to the threshold of the apostles to crave their blessing on his intended work of reducing the rebellious land, and it was a policy worthy of one greater than William himself, to make even William, for once in his life, the instrument of purposes yet more daring, yet more far-sighted, than his own. On the steps of the papal chair, and there alone, had William and Lanfranc to cope with an intellect loftier and more subtle than even theirs."

     William sent an embassy to Harold probably very soon after the receipt of the news of his coronation. The full account of both the demand and its reply have been forgotten, but it is certain that whatever the duke's commands were they were promptly disobeyed, and certain too that this was the result that William expected and even desired. He could add another grievance to his list of Harold's wrongdoings, and now, beside the original disloyalty, William could complain that his vassal had formally refused to keep his formal promise and obligation. Then he called a council of Norman nobles at Lillebonne and laid his plans before them.

     It was a famous company of counsellors and made up of the duke's oldest friends. There were William Fitz-Osbern, and the duke's brother Odo of Bayeux, whose priesthood was no hindrance to his good soldiery; Richard of Evreux, the grandson of Richard the Fearless; Roger of Beaumont and the three heroes of Mortemer; Walter Giffard; Hugh de Montfort and William of Warren; the Count of Mortain and Roger Montgomery and Count Robert of Eu. All these names we know, and familiar as they were in Normandy, they were, most of them, to strike deeper root in their new domain of England. We do not find that they objected now to William's plans, but urged only that they had no right to speak for the whole country, and that all the Norman barons ought to be called together to speak for themselves.

     This was a return to the fashions of Rolf's day, when the adventurers boasted on the banks of the Seine that they had no king to rule over them, and were all equal; that they only asked for what they could win with their swords. We do not find any other record of a parliament in Normandy; perhaps nothing had ever happened of late which so closely concerned every armed man within the Norman borders. The feudal barons had a right to speak now for themselves and their dependants, and in the great ducal hall of the castle at Lillebonne William duke told them his story and called upon them for help. He had a great wish to revenge Harold's treatment of him by force of arms, and asked the noble company of barons what aid they would render; with how many men and how many ships and with what a sum of money they would follow him and uphold the weighty and difficult enterprise.

     Now we find many of the barons almost unwilling; even doubtful of the possibility of conquering such a kingdom as England. After insisting that they had longed to go plundering across the Channel, and that the old love for fighting burned with as hot a fire as ever within their breasts, the chronicles say that this Norman parliament asked for time to talk things over in secret before the duke should have any answer. We are given a picture of them grouped around this and that pleader for or against the duke, and are told that they demurred, that they objected to crossing the sea to wage war, and that they feared the English. For a moment it appears as if the whole mind of the assembly were opposed to the undertaking. They even feared if they promised unusual supplies of men and treasure that William would forever keep them up to such a difficult standard of generosity. I must say that all this does not ring true or match at all with the Norman character of that time. It would not be strange if there were objectors among them, but it does not seem possible when they were so ready to go adventuring before and after this time; when they were after all separated by so short a time from Rolf the Ganger's piracies, that many could have been so seriously daunted by the prospect of such limited seafaring as crossing the Channel. It appears like an ingenious method of magnifying the greatness and splendor of the Norman victory, and the valiant leadership of the duke and his most trusted aids.

     William Fitz-Osbern was chosen to plead with the barons, and persuade them to follow the duke's banner. He reminded them that they were William's vassals, and that it would be unwise to disappoint him. William was a stern man and fearful as an enemy. If any among them loved their ease, and wished to avoid their lawful tribute of service, let them reflect that they were in the power of such a mighty lord and master. What was their money worth to them if the duke branded them as faithless cowards, and why did they wish to disgrace their names and take no part in this just and holy war against the usurper.

     These were the arguments we can fancy brave Fitz-Osbern giving them one by one if indeed they hung back and were close-fisted or afraid. They commissioned him at last to speak for them at the next hearing, and when he boldly promised for each man double his regular fee and allotment -- for the lord of twenty knights forty knights, and "for himself, of his love and zeal, sixty ships armed and equipped and filled with fighting men," the barons shouted at first "No, no!" and the hall at Lillebonne echoed with the noise.

     But it was all settled finally, and we are told that the duke himself talked with his barons one by one, and that at last they were as eager as he. The whole objection seems to have been made for fear that their doubled and extraordinary tribute should be made a precedent, but the duke promptly gave his word of honor that it should not be so, and their estates should not be permanently weighted beyond their ability. The scribes took down the record of the knights and soldiers that each baron had promised, and from this time there was a hum and stir of war-making in Normandy, and that spring there were more women than men in the fields tending the growing crops.

     The duke set himself seriously to work. All the barons of his duchy and all their men were not enough to depend upon for the overthrowing of England. William must appeal to his neighbors for help, and in this he was aided by the Pope's approval, and the blessing that was promised to those who would punish Harold and his countrymen, traitors to the Holy Church. The spoils of England were promised to all who would win a share in them, and adventurers flocked from east, north, and south to enroll themselves in the Norman ranks. Alan of Brittany was ready to command his forces in person and [aud] to come to William's assistance, and so was Eustace of Boulogne, but the French nobles who gathered about their young King Philip, still under Baldwin of Flanders's guardianship, were by no means willing to help forward any thing that would make their Norman rivals any more powerful than they were already. From Flanders there were plenty of adventurers, and some high noblemen who needed little urging to join their fortunes to such an expedition, and William sent embassies to more distant countries still, with better or worse results. There is a tradition that even the Normans of Sicily came northward in great numbers.

     The most important thing, next to carrying a sufficient force into England, was to leave the Norman borders secure from invasion. If they were repulsed in England and returned to find they had lost part of Normandy, that would be a sorry fate indeed, and the duke exerted himself in every way to leave his territory secure.

     The most powerful alliance was that with the papal court at Rome. Here Lanfranc could serve his adopted country to good effect. Hildebrand's power was making itself felt more and more, and it was he who most ardently desired and fostered the claim of the Church to a mastery of all the crowns of Christendom.** "The decree went forth, which declared Harold to be a usurper and William to be the lawful claimant of the English crown. It would even seem that it declared the English king and all his followers to be cut off from the communion of the faithful. William was sent forth as an avenger to chastise the wrong and perjury of his faithless vassal. But he was also sent forth as a missionary, to guide the erring English into the true path, to teach them due obedience to Christ's vicar, and to secure a more punctual payment of the temporal dues of his apostle. The cause of the invasion was blessed, and precious gifts were sent as the visible exponents of the blessing. A costly ring was sent, containing a relic, holier, it may be, than any on which Harold had sworn -- a hair of the prince of the apostles. And with the ring came a consecrated banner."*  These were, after all, more formidable weapons than the Norman arrows. They inspired not only courage, but a sense of duty and of righteous service of God. Alas for poor humanity that lends itself so readily to wrongdoing, and even hopes to win heaven by making this earth a place of bloodshed and treachery. Now, William had something besides English lands and high places for knight and priest alike on conquered soil -- he could give security and eminence in the world to come. Heaven itself had been promised by its chief representative on earth to those who would fight for the Duke of Normandy against England. Hildebrand had made a last appeal to the holy assembly of cardinals when he told the story of the profaned relics and Harold's broken oath, and had urged the willing fathers of the church to consider how pious and benevolent it would be to Christianize the barbarous and heathen Saxons. Nobody took pains to remember that the priesthood of England owned a third of the English lands, and ruled them with a rod of iron. So long as England would not bend the knee to Rome, what did all that matter?

     One significant thing happened at this time. Who should make his appearance at the duke's court but Tostig, the son of Godwine, eager, no doubt, to plot against Harold, and to take a sufficient revenge for the banishment and defeat by means of which he was then an outcast. He did not linger long, for the busy duke sent him quickly away, not uncommissioned for the war that was almost ready to begin.

     Harold also had set himself at work to gather his forces and to be in readiness for an attack which was sure to come. Another enemy was first in the field, for in the spring Tostig appeared in the Isle of Wight, the captain of a fleet of ships that were manned by Flemish and Norman men. He had received aid from William, and proceeded to wreak his vengeance upon the Kent and Sussex villages over which his father had once ruled. He does not appear to have gained any English allies, except at the seaport of Sandwich, where he probably hired some sailors; then he went northward from there with sixty ships and attacked the coast of Godwine's earldom. He made great havoc in the shore towns, but Eadwine and Morkere of Northumberland hurried to meet him with their troops and drove him away, so that with only twelve ships left he went to Scotland, where Malcolm, the Scottish king received him with a hearty welcome, and entertained him politely the rest of the summer. They had lately been sworn enemies, but now that Tostig was fighting against England, Malcolm put aside all bygone prejudice.

     In the summer of that eventful year, Tostig first proposed to the king of Denmark that he should come to England and help him to recover his earldom. Swegen had the good sense to refuse, and then the outlaw went on to Norway to make further proposals to Harold Hardrada, who also listened incredulously, but when Tostig suggested that Harold should be king of England, and that he would only ask to be under-king of the northern territory, that he would do homage to Harold and serve him loyally, the great Norwegian chieftain consented to make ready for an expedition. He seems to have been much like Rolf the Ganger, and a true, valiant viking at heart. The old saga whence the story comes makes us forget the plottings and claims of Rome and the glories of Norman court life; the accounts of Harold Hardrada's expedition are like a breath of cold wind from the Northern shores, and the sight of a shining dragon-ship stealing away between the high shores of a fiord, outward-bound for a bout of plundering. But the saga records also the fame and prowess of that other Harold, the son of Godwine, and magnifies the power of such an enemy.

     Perhaps the English king trusted at first in the ability of the northern earls to take care of their own territory, and only tried to stand guard over the southern coast.

     He gathered an army and kept it together all the latter part of the summer, a most unprecedented and difficult thing in those days; and with help from the local forces, or what we should call the militia, his soldiers kept guard along the shores of Sussex and Kent. We cannot estimate what a troublesome step forward in the art of warfare this was for Englishmen, who were used to quick forced marches and decisive battles, and a welcome dispersion after the cessation of whatever exciting cause or sudden summons had gathered them.

     Harold's ships patrolled the Channel and the foot-soldiers paced the downs, but food, always hard to obtain, became at last impossible, and in September the army broke ranks. Harold himself went back to London, whither the fleet was also sent, but on the way it met with disaster, and many of the ships were lost and many more began to leak and were reluctantly judged unseaworthy. The whole southern coast was left undefended; it was neither the king's fault nor the subjects' fault. Both had done their best, but the crops must be gathered then or not at all, and at any rate, the army was weakened by famine and a growing belief in the uncertainty of attack.

     Alas for Harold's peace of mind! In those very days William the Norman's host was clustering and gathering like bees just ready to swarm, on the coast of Normandy, and from the mouth of the Bergen fiord came Harold Hardrada with a great company, with a huge mass of treasure, such as had not for years and years floated away from a Northern haven. It seems as if he had determined to migrate, to crush the English usurper, and then to establish himself as Cnut had done in the richer southern kingdom. There must have been some knowledge in Norway of the state of things in England and Normandy, but this famous old adventurer was ready to fight whoever he met, and the Black Raven was flying at his masthead. Bad omens cast their shadows over this great expedition of the last of the sea-kings, but away he sailed to the Shetland Islands and left his wife and daughters there, while he gained new allies; and still farther south, Tostig came to meet him with a new army which he had gathered in Flanders. An Irish chieftain and a great lord from Iceland were there too, and down they all came upon the defenseless country that was marked as their prey, burning and destroying church and castle and humble homestead, daring the Englishmen to come out and fight and drive them away again. We have no time to trace their lawless campaign. The two northern earls summoned their vassals, but in a few days after the Northmen had landed they had taken, without much trouble it appears to us, the city of York, and news was hurriedly sent to the king of England.

     What a grievous message! Harold, the son of Godwine, was ill, his southern coast was undefended, still he could not forget the message that William had sent to him late in the summer by a spy who had crossed to Normandy, that the Normans would soon come and teach him how many they were and what they could do. But a holy abbot consoled the king by telling him that Eadward the Confessor had shown himself in a vision and assured his successor of certain victory.

     The prophecy was proved to be true; the king summoned his strength and his soldiers and marched to York. There King Harold was to set up his new kingdom; he had not the desire for revenge that filled Tostig's breast, and was anxious to prove himself a generous and wise ruler. As he came toward the walls which had been so easily won, the rival Harold's army comes in sight first a great cloud of dust like a whirlwind, and next the shining spears prick through and glitter ominously. A little later Harold of England sends a message to his brother Tostig. He shall have again his kingdom of Northumberland if he will be loyal; and Tostig sends back a message in his turn to ask what shall be the portion of Harold Hardrada. "Seven feet of English ground for his grave," says the other Harold, and the fight begins.

     Alas for the tall Northman, the winner of eighty castles from the Saracens, the scourge of Moslem and robber in Palestine; the ally of Sicily, of Russia, and the Greeks! Alas for the kingdom he had lightly lost in Norway! Alas for the wife and daughters who were watching all through those shortening September days in the Orkneys for the triumphant return of the fleet -- for Harold the sagaman and sea-king, who built his hopes too high. He may be fierce with the old rage of the Berserkers, and lay sturdily about him with his heavy two-handed sword; he may mow down great swaths of Englishmen like grain, but the moment comes when an arrow flies with its sharp whistle straight at his throat, and he falls dead, and his best fighters fall in heaps above him; the flag of the Black Raven of Norway is taken. Tostig is dead, and Harold of England is winner of that great day at Stamford Bridge, the last great victory that he and his men would ever win, the last fight of England before the Conquest. Out of the crowd of ships that had come from the North only four and twenty sailed away again, and Harold made peace with the Orkney-men and the Icelanders and the rest. Since that day there has been peace between England and the countries of the Northern Seas. Harold's last victory was with the past, one might say, with the Northmen of another age and time, as if the last tie of his country were broken with the old warfare and earlier enemies. New relationships were established, the final struggle for mastery was decided. The battle of Stamford Bridge might have been called a deadly game at jousting, and the English knight receives the prize and rides home the victor of the tournament. Yet that very day of triumph saw the approach of a new foe -- the Norman ships full of horses and men are ready to put out for the English shore. Harold must fight another battle and lose it, and a new order of things must begin in Britain. The Northmen and the Normans; it is a long step between the two, and yet England's past and her future meet; the swordsmen's arms that ache from one battle must try their strength again in another; but the Normans bring great gifts at the point of their arrows -- without them "England would have been mechanical, not artistic; brave, not chivalrous; the home of learning, not of thought."

     Three days after the fight Harold sits at a splendid banquet among his friends, and a breathless messenger comes in fleet-footed with bad news. Muster your axemen and lances, Harold, King of the English; the Normans have come like a flight of locusts and are landing on the coast of Kent.

Jewett's Note

Freeman, "The Norman Conquest."

Notes for Chapter 14

Shakespeare:    Henry VI Part 2 (Act 4, Scene 7)
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"snatch the kingdom out of the usurper's hand":  This account closely follows Freeman, vol. 3, pp. 172-174. 
(Jewett's Sources).
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holy relics of the saints at Rouen:  Jewett cites Freeman as the source of the idea William made his case for invasion primarily upon religious grounds.  See Freeman, Vol 3, Chapter 8, Section 2 for his discussion of William's claim to the English throne.  (Jewett's Sources).
     The Catholic Encyclopedia lists among the relics present at Rouen in the 11th Century those of these saints:  St. Ouen (Audoennus), St. Ansbert, St. Hugh, St. Remi, and St. Severus.  .
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the church: Jewett appears to be inconsistent about when she capitalizes references to the church.
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a pope and an anti-pope:  At Edward the Confessor's death in January 1066, the anti-pope was Paschall III. Born Guido of Crema, he was "the second anti-pope in the time of [Pope] Alexander III. He was elected in 1164 to succeed Cardinal Octavian, who, under the name of Victor IV, had warred so many years against Alexander III. To meet the demands of [Holy Roman Emperor] Frederick Barbarossa, he canonized Charlemagne in 1165, but this action was never ratified by the Church. He died in 1168.  The Catholic Encyclopedia
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more subtle than even theirs:  These two quotations are from Freeman, Vol. 3, The reign of Harold and the interregnum (1873), p. 191.
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costly ring a hair of the prince of the apostles consecrated banner:  The quotation is from Freeman, Volume 3, pp. 214-15.  Freeman's source is Wace.  The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies St. Peter as the Prince of Apostles: (Jewett's Sources).
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"home of learning, not of thought": Arthur Henry Johnson, The Normans in Europe, p. 166.  (Jewett's Sources).
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  Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College, with assistance from Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.



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