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William The Conqueror

William The Conqueror


William The ConquerorWilliam I., King of England and surnamed the Conqueror, was the sixth duke of Normandy in direct descent, from the famous Rollo. He was born in 1024, the natural son of Duke Robert le Diable, who had been captivated with the channs of Arletta, a tanner's daughter. In default of legitimate sons, William was accepted by the nobles as the heir, and in his eleventh year succeeded to the rule of the Duchy.


During bis minority anarchy prevailed ; but as be approached manhood he gradually established his authority, and when a general conspiracy was formed itt 1047, he first escaped by riding hard all night and afterwards completely defeated the rebels. In 1051 he married Matilda, Countess of Flanders, though the Church opposed the marriage as uncanonical, and a dispensation was not obtained until some years later. This alliance had greatly increased William's strength; but Henry I. of France, who had heretofore aided him, now turned against him, as becoming dangerous. Alternate war and truce succeeded until Henry's death in 1060; but William maintained his possessions, and by favorable chances soon enlarged them.


In 1051 William had visited England und had obtained from Edward the Confessor, the childless King of Saxon Englannd, at the instigation of the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, some promise or reason to regard himself as heir to the English throne. nut Harold, the son of the great Earl Godwin, was the bravest and most popular chieftain in that land, and by the people's choice the destined king. In 1065 Harold visited the ducal court and found himself in his rival's power. William made skillful use of the opportunity, requesting Harold to agree to assist him in obtaining the promised throne. When Harold assented he was required to do homage to William as the heir apparent before a full assembly of Nonnan barons. Finally the duke conducted him to the couucil-room, and there exacted an oath from his titular guest and real captive that Harold would fulfil his promises. Then William raised the cover from the chest on which the missal rested whieh Harold had touched when taking the oath, and showed that it continued all the most precious relics of saints in Normandy. Such is the Norman chronicler's account of this strange transaction.


Harold was then permitted to return to England, and both parties awaited the death of the Confessor. But when that death occurred in January, 1066, Harold assumed the crown, and renounced his oath as having been obtained by compulsion. Some English authorities consider both the oath and the renunciation doubtful. The Pope, however, supported William's claim to the crown of England, and sent him a ri ng and a banner as symbols that the blessing of Heaven was on his claim. In assertion of this claim William landed at Pevensey in England with 60,000 troops. Harold had just won, near York in the north of England, a grcat victory over his banished brother Tostig and the king of Norway. He now hastened southward by forced marches to meet the Norman invaders. In the great battle that ensued near Hastings on the 14th of October, King Harold's birthday, the Saxons, after all obstinate contest, were finally defeated, and Harold himself was slain.


William, having thus won the title of Conqueror, at once marched to London, and on Christmas day was solemnly crowned King of England. In consequence of his tyranny rebellions often occurred, but were quelled with the greatest severity. After one that he suppressed in the north he turned the whole country, between York and Durham, into a wilderness, and 100,000 of both sexes and all ages are said to have perished.


William divided the lands into baronies, as rewards for his faithful followers, thus introducing the feudal system. He reduced the property of the clergy to a Hke tenure, expelled the English churchmen and placed Normans in their stead. The record of the general survey of the kingdom, instituted by him, is still preserved, and is called the Domesday Book. By meats of it he obtained a complete account of all estates and their revenues. His New Forest, established solely for the pleasures of the chase, was acquired by the laying waste villages, convents and churches for thirty miles round. Poaching in this domain was made a capital offence. He not only divided the lands of the Saxons among his followers, but enforced the sole use of the Norman language in every department of government, and to prevent nocturnal conspiracies cnacted the Curfew law, which required the extinction of every light, at 8 o'clock in the evening, at the sound of the bell.


From his vigorous and stem administration of English affairs, 'William was recalled to the Continent, the king of France having incited the barons in Normandy to rebel. William invaded the Freuch dominions, but being injured by striking on the iron pommel of his saddle from the stumbling of his horse, he died September 9th, I087, near Rouen, in the sixty-third year of his age.




William with 60,000 Normans, landed in Sussex, England, on the 29th of September, 1066, and encamped near Hastings. Harold was at York, rejoicing over his hard-won victory over the Norwegian King Harold Hardmda. Sixteen days elapsed ere Harold's army, inferior in number and exhausted by hard marches, reached the Norman lines.


The Norman outposts were first aware of the coming Saxons, and falling back announced that the foe was advancing with furious speed. Harold hoped to surprise the enemy; but receiving intelligence of their position and strength, he suddenly changed his plans and fortified himself on the hill of Senlac, seven miles from Hastings. His position was a strong one surrounded by ditches and palisades. The Normans, quitting Hastings, occupied a position in front of the Saxons, who spent the night in feasting and the singing of their old patriotic songs, while, on the other hand, the Normans listened to the chanting of litanies by their priests, confessed themselves, and took the sacrament thousands at a time.


At the dawn of the eventful day-Saturday, October 14th, 1066-William's half brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, dressed in a coat of mail beneath his ecclesiastical robes, celebrated mass and pronounced his benediction on the troops. The Norman force was divided into three columns. Mounted on a magnificent charger, William was at the head of one column. He wore round his neck some of the relics on which Harold had sworn. The Pope's banner was borne aloft amidst the Norman host.


The battle began at 9 o'clock of the morning by the advance of the Normans to the foot of the hill. At the first sound of the trumpet, their whole line of archers shot forth their arrows, but with no effect. The heavy-foot immediately attacked the palisade, while a shower of javelins disordered their approach. Their infantry could make no breach. Their cavalry how charged upon the defenders; bnt their broadswords clashed in vain against the two-handed axes. Few who came within the sweep of an English axe ever lived to strike another blow. Rank after rank of the Norman chivalry pressed on to the unavailing task.


The English had well withstood their ground. The Normans lost heart: their auxiliaries on the left gave way. Horse and foot alike, they fled. Some English troops, despite of the injunctions of Harold, pursued the fugitives. The whole of William's left wing was thrown into utter confusion. The press of the fugitives disordered the centre ranks, and soon the whole of the assailing hosts was falling back. For the moment, the day seemed lost. But the strong heart of William failed him not, and by his single prowess and presence of mind he recalled his flying troops. He tore his helmet from his head, and called back his men to the attack." Madmen," he cried, "behold me. Why flee ye? Death is behind you, victory is before you. I live, and by God's grace I will conquer." With a spear, snatched, it may be, from some comrade, he met or pursued the fugitives,
driving them back by main force. The bold words and gestures of the Duke restored the spirits of his men, and his knights once more pressed on, sword in hand, around him.
The Breton infantry themselves, chased as they were across the field by the EngliSh, now turned and cut down their pursuers.


A new act in the awful drama of that day has now begun. The Duke himself, his relics round his neck, spurred on right in the teeth of the English King. Before William could come to hand-strokes with Harold, a spear, hurled by the hand of Earl Gyrth, checked his progress. The weapon so far missed its aim that the Duke was himself unhurt. But his noble Spanish horse, the first of three that died under him that day, fell to the ground. William rose to his feet Duke and Earl met face to face, and the English hero fell crushed beneath the stroke of the Duke's mace. The day might seem to be turning against England when a son of Godwin had fallen. Nor did he fall alone close at his side, Leofwine, fighting sword in hand, was smitten to the earth. Of the valiant band of sons who had Surrounded Godwin on the great day of his return, Harold now stood alone.

William, again mounted, was soon again dealing wounds and death among the defenders of England. But the deed aud the fate of Gyrth were soon repeated. The spear of
another Englishman brought William's horse to the ground, and hc, too, like Gyrlh, paid the penalty of his exploit by death at the Duke's own hand. The second attack had, indeed, to some extent prevailed j the barricade was now in some places broken down. The shield.wall still stood behind the palisade, and every Frenchman who bad pressed within the English enclosure had paid for his daring with his life. It was still plain that to scale the hill by any direct attack of the Norman horsemen was a hopeless undertaking.


William had marked with pleasure that the late flight of bis troops had beguiled a portion of the English to forsake their finn array and their strong position. If by any means any large portion of the English army could be drawn dowil from the heights, au entrance might be made at the points where the barricade was already weakened. He therefore ventured on a daring stratagem. He gave his orders accordingly. A portion of the army, seemingly the left wing, which had so lately fled in earnest, now again turned in apparent flight.


The English on the right wing, mainly the irregular levies, rushed down and pnrsued them with shonts of delight. But the pursned turned on the pursuing English, and the pursuers now themselves fled in earnest. Yet, undisciplined and foolhardy as their conduct had been, they found the meaus to take a special revenge for the fraud that had been played off upon them. The importance of the small outlying hill now came into full play. It was occupied and gallantly defended. With a shower of darts and stones they overwhelmed a body of French wlit. attacked them.


The men who had committed the great error of pursuing the apparent fugitives had thus, as far as they themselves were concerned, retrieved their error skillfully. But the error was none the less fatal to England. The Duke's great object was now gained; the main end of Harold's skillful tactics had been frustrated by the inconsiderate ardor of the least valuable portion of his troops. The pursuing English had left the most easily accessible portion of the hill open to the approach of the enemy. The Normans were at last on the hill. Instead of having to cut their way up the slope and through the palisades, they could now charge to the east, with a slight inclination of the ground in their favor, directly against the defenders of the Standard.


Nevertheless, the hill, narrow and in some places with steep sides, was by no means suited for tbe evolutions of cavalry, and, though the English palisade was gone, the English shield.wall was still a formidable hindrance in the way of the assailants. It was still the hardest of tasks to surround their bristling lines. The array of the English was so close that they moved only when they were dead, they stirred not at all while they were alive. That array of the shield-wall was still kept.


The fight had already been raging for six honrs, and as yet its result was far from certain. The two rivals never actually met William, we are told, sought earnestly to meet his enemy face to face, but never succeeded. Many of the best and bravest of Eugland had died, but not a man had fled; the Standard still waved as proudly as ever the King still fought beneath it. New efforts, new devices, were needed to overcome the resistance of the English, diminished as were their numbers. The Duke ordered his archers to shoot up in the air, that their arrows might, as it were, fall straight from heaven. The effect was immediate and fearful. No other device of the wily Duke that day did such frightful execution. Helmets were pierced; eyes were put out. There was one point of the hill at which the Norman bowmen were bidden specially to aim. As twilight was coming on, a mighty shower of arrows was launched on its deadly errand agaillst the defenders of the Standard. At last, an arrow, more charged with destiny than its fellows, falling like a bolt from heaven, pierced the King's right eye j he clutched convulsively at the weapon, he broke off the shaft, his axe dropped from his hand, and he sank in agony at the foot of the standard. His comrades still fought. Four Norman knights rushed upon him and despatched him with various wounds. The Latin poet of the battle describes this inglorious exploit with great glee.


Such was the measure which the boasted chivalry of Normandy meted out to a prince who had never dealt harshly or cruelly by either a domestic or a foreign foe. . Harold had fallen, as his valiant brothers had fallen before him. The event too truly showed that England had fallen with the sons of Godwin that, as ever in this age, everything turned on the life of one man. As long as there was a ray of light the personal following of King Harold continued the unequal strife. Quarter was neither given nor asked; not a man of the comitatus fled; not a man was taken captive. Under cover of the darkness, the light-armed took to flight.


Looking at the fight of Senlac simply as a battle, it is one of the most memorable in all military history. Two utterly opposite systems of warfare came into conflict under two commanders, each worthily matched against the other: the con'5unlluate skill with which Harold chose his position the wonderfnl readiness with which William formed and varied his plans as occasion served. The Normans came again and again to the charge they knew how to carry out successfully the elaborate stratagem of the feigned flight. Yet almost more admirable is the long stubborn endurance of the English, keeping their post through nine hours of constant defence.


A place of slaughter indeed it was, where, from morn till twilight the axe and javelin of England the lance and bow of Nonnandy had done their deadly work at the bidding of the two mightiest captaius upon earth. Dead and dying men lay close together nowhere were they heaped so thickly as around the fallen Standard of England. There, where the flower of England's nobility and soldiery lay stretched in death, the Conqueror knelt, gave his thanks to God, and bade his own banner to be planted. Then he took off his armor; his shield and helmet were seen to be din ted with many heavy blows, but the person of the Conqueror was unhurt. He was hailed by the loud applause of his troops, likening him to Roland and Oliver and all the heroes of old. Again he returned thanks to God, again he thanked his faithful followers, and sat dowll to eat and drink among the dead. EDWARD A. FREEMAN.


William The Conqueror

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