In the Days of William the Conqueror - E. M. Tappan

From Castle to Cottage

In the village, not far from the market-place, was the home of Fulbert, made larger and more comfortable. To keep out the cold draughts, the walls were hung with tapestry, a refinement of luxury never seen before in the cottage of a peasant, so that the little house was the wonder of all the people in the vicinity. There was also a chair, a real chair; clumsy and heavy, to be sure, but there was gilt on it, and the arms were carved, and, moreover, it was the only chair in the neighborhood, and that was fame. The family sat on stools at the table, of course; but then every one knew that they could use a chair if they chose.

Doda was not at all averse to letting her friends have a glimpse of her cooking utensils, and report said that some of them were made of copper, "Just as if they were in a king's kitchen," said the admiring people. When Fulbert and his family ate their dinner, they did not use plain wooden trenchers as did their neighbors, but a kind of pottery with thick, heavy glazing. They drank from wooden cups, to be sure, but the cups were edged with a rim of silver; and most astounding luxury of all, rumor said that they actually had all the wax candles that they chose to burn.

More than one armful of them was burned on the night that Duke Robert rode so furiously up and down the long hill. By and by all was still in the cottage. The duke was quiet in the castle, but before the sun was far above the horizon, he was again at the foot of the hill, and softly entering the door of the little house.

"Here he is, my lord, here he is," said the old nurse, "and he's even a lustier boy by daylight than he was by candlelight. It's a good thing that light of a wax candle shone on him first, for bees gather wax, and so he will be rich and powerful. Here's your boy, my lord," and she put the baby into the arms of its father, and drew aside the curtain that separated the outer from the inner room where Arletta lay. The duke would have known what to do on a battlefield with an enemy before him and with a sword in his hand, but with his quick-witted, sparkling Arletta lying pale and weak, and in his arms the little red bundle that seemed heavier than a suit of armor, he was as helpless as any other young father who is not a duke. Arletta smiled gently, and whispered:—

"Is he not a fine boy?"

"Indeed he is," said the duke, "and I'll do more for him than any one thinks. But what makes him shut up his hands so tight? Is anything the matter?" he said to the nurse.

"All babies do," said the nurse composedly, "but all babies don't do what he did last night; for when we laid him on the straw, he clutched a handful and he held on to it, and when he was put on the bed to sleep, he kept it in his hand, he did; and that means something, it does. Everybody that's had to do with babies knows that."

"What does it mean?" asked Duke Robert, looking at the nurse as if she alone could speak the words of wisdom.

"This is what it means—and it isn't myself alone that says it, for I heard my mother's mother say it when I was no higher than that—that whatever thing a child does first, that will he always do; and this child will reach out and take to himself, and what he takes he will hold, until the time comes that he will have more than any one dreams of."

"That is the tree in your dream," said Robert, turning to Arletta.

"Yes, and dreams mean something, too," said the nurse, who was so elated at having the duke for a listener that she had no idea when to stop. "When the lady Arletta told me what a dream she had had, that a tree arose from her body, and its branches spread out till they shaded all Normandy, I  knew what it meant; and I  knew what it meant when the boy clutched the straw. He's no common child."

"No, he's not," said the duke, looking at the baby with much respect mingled with a little alarm, for it was puckering up its face to do the duke knew not what; and when the first cry came forth, the warlike noble who never fled from his foes actually dropped his son into the nurse's arms and made his way into the open air as rapidly as possible, feeling very big and clumsy, and really trembling and glancing around him in dismay when his sword knocked against the heavy oaken chair in his hurried escape.

One week after its birth the baby was taken to the parish church to be baptized. Never before had there been such an assemblage to see the baptism of any infant. Falaise was quite an important place, not only because of its castle, but on account of its trade in leather and its manufacture of woollens. The people were not all humble peasants, some among them were well-to-do; and the country round about, rich in flocks and herds, was the home of many a prosperous vassal. The herdsmen left their flocks and the weavers their looms, the peasants willingly ran the risk of fines and penalties, and all flocked to the church to see the baptism of the child of a great noble. What would be his name? The crowds that pressed around the font had been all eyes, but when the priest asked:—

"What is the name of this child?" then they were all ears. They need not have been afraid of losing a word, for in a great voice that rang throughout the church Duke Robert said:—

William's baptism


"His name shall be William, and let all men know that he is named for William of the Long Sword, his ancestor."

Just within the church door was another William, one William Talvas, Earl of Belesme, who stood with angry eyes and grim, stern face.

"You have a namesake, Earl William," said the burgess of a neighboring town, who stood near him. "How do you like the robust son of your liege lord?"

"Shame on him, shame on him!" said the haughty chieftain bitterly. "My grandfather was a faithful friend of Robert's grandfather, and did him good service; and now for the sake of the whining grandson of a tanner, I and mine will be put to loss and dishonor. May shame and disgrace be his lot as long as he shall live!" and William Talvas, without waiting for the rest of the ceremony, flung himself out of the church and galloped furiously away, as if the very air of Falaise was poisoned by the little child at the font.

Arletta was soon taken to the stone castle, together with her father; mother, and her brother Walter, for Robert, in his delight at having in arms the "fair young son" for whom he had longed could not do enough for the lady and her family.

It was a gloomy place. Thick walls surrounded it, pierced by a formidable gate. Over the gateway was the heavy iron portcullis, ready to be dropped in a moment at the approach of a foe or a stranger; for in those times of sudden alarms any unknown man was a foe until he had shown himself a friend. Within the walls was a courtyard that might have been bright and pleasant, had it not been for the grim stone bulwarks that seemed to shut it away from all the cheerful, sunny world without. Here stood the keep. In its lowest depths were the cellars and the dungeons, where a lord might fling his captive enemies; and there, unless their friends were stronger than he, he might keep them without word or interference, until their bones strewed the damp stone floors that had been wet with the blood of many a wounded prisoner before them.

Above the dungeons was the hall. The windows were mere slits in the walls, so that the sunlight rarely entered; but there was a great cheery blaze in the fireplace, and it was the very heart of home to the feudal lord. Here the family sat. Here the lady of the castle and her maidens embroidered the lord's coat of arms on his standard, or, with the bright colors gleaming in the light of many candles, worked on the rich tapestries that were to be the comfort and the beauty of the home. Here the children of the family played about the glowing fire; and here the girls were taught to care for the sick and the wounded, to make the decorations for robes of ceremony, and to do all that might fall to the share of the lady of a castle. The boys made bows and arrows and wooden spears, and held mimic tournaments in the further corners of the great room. Then they would all gather around the father of the family as he told of some success in the hunting field; and the dogs, lying as near the fire as they had been able to press their way, would prick up their ears as they heard their names, and understood that it was their deeds that their master was praising.

Even more attentively did the household listen to the lord when he told of some warlike exploit, the repulse of an assault, or a successful attack upon some distant castle. Then the children would gather closer, and the lady would drop her embroidery, for when her lord was away, she was defender of the castle; her commands were obeyed, and it would be her skill or her ignorance that would save her home or lose it.

Duke Robert had made Fulbert his chamberlain, or guardian of the ducal robes of state, while the son Walter seems to have been a special watchman to care for the safety of his little nephew; for even when the child was in the cradle, there was more than one fierce warrior who, noting the duke's fondness for his son, feared loss to him and his, and would gladly have seen injury or death come to the grandchild of the tanner.

In this little time of peace Robert was happier than at any other period of his stormy life; but his happiness was soon interrupted, and by his own relatives. Robert was a hard rider, a ready fighter, and utterly fearless in time of danger. There were many possibilities that such a man would die by an early and violent death. Several of these relatives had counted upon their chances of succeeding to the inheritance; but with his devotion to the child at his castle, their hopes grew less, and they were the more ready to find cause of resentment in real or fancied wrongs. Some one whispered to Robert that his uncle, the Archbishop of Rouen, was assembling large numbers of fighting men at his own town of Evreux. Without waiting many days to inquire into the rights of the case, and whether or not there was actual danger of a revolt, Robert marched straightway against his warlike uncle, and besieged his stronghold so vigorously that the fighting prelate thought it best to take refuge under the sheltering care of the king of France.

As a warrior he had failed to overpower his energetic nephew, so he took what seems a rather unfair advantage of his priestly authority, and excommunicated him as a rebel against the church. By this decree all persons were forbidden to offer him food or shelter. They were to avoid him, as one whose touch would infect them with some deadly disease; and if mortal illness came upon him, he was to be buried without word of prayer or religious ceremony. Nor was this all, for the archbishop also laid Robert's duchy under an interdict. The churches were to be closed, no bells could be rung—and no one knew how many evil spirits might be hovering in the air that the sound of a church-bell would have dispersed—no marriage could receive the blessing of the church and no burial rites could be performed.

Even if this decree was not carried out with the most literal obedience, any duke, be he as fearless as the great Rollo himself, might well wish to make terms with an enemy who used such thunderbolts as his weapons. Peace was made between them, the archbishop was invited to return to Rouen—and Robert straightway fell into similar difficulties with another priestly relative, Hugh, Bishop of Bayeux. He, too, shut himself up in a stronghold, but Robert besieged him so effectually that he yielded.

More trouble was yet to come. Following the custom of the land, Robert, on his accession, had sent for his vassals to do him homage and swear to be faithful to him. Among them was William Talvas of Belesme. The old earl was not the man to change his mind lightly, and his scorn of Robert's child was as bitter as ever. With sullen rage the earl and his four sons debated what should be done.

"Never will I do homage to the father of the brat that I saw in the church!" said the earl. "There's no priest and there's no church that can free the grandson of a vile tanner from stain," he thundered; "and I'll swear no fealty and I'll do no homage to the man whose chamberlain is a tanner, the man who sits in his own hall beside a tanner's son, the man who is father to a tanner's grandchild. A tanner! A skinner of dead beasts! The meanest, lowest, most contemptible of all trades! There is not a serf in Alenšon that does not despise it. Call out our fighters! Fill the castle with arms! Strengthen the walls and the gates, and make the dungeons deeper!" and the old man sank upon a bench, exhausted by his own rage.

His orders were obeyed. The earl and his four sons and many other brave fighters shut themselves up in the stronghold of Alenšon. Robert's forces drew nearer. They surrounded the walls. They pressed closer and closer, so indomitable that the earl had no hope of victory, so watchful that he had no chance of escape. Fulk was slain, Robert, the second son, was severely wounded; and still, drawn up closely around the fortress, stood that line of resolute fighters. The earl yielded, and asked permission to beg pardon and to take the oath of fealty.

Now it had become a custom in the land that an unfaithful vassal should be forgiven only after great humiliations. The earl, never yielding in thought, whatever his lips might say, must stand before his conqueror, barefooted, half naked, with a horse's saddle strapped to his shoulders, and beg pardon for his unfaithfulness. This the earl did, trembling with cold as well as with rage.

The Duke of Normandy had become a man of power. His duchy had a matchless sea-coast. It bordered upon several of the great lordships that were some day to form a united France. It manufactured arms and cutlery and woollen goods, and it was rich in agricultural products. Its revenues flowed in so generously that even a lavishness like Robert's failed to affect them. The rightful king of the district then known as France looked upon the duke as his most potent friend. Great need had he of friends, for his mother, his younger brother, and a strong party were against him. The helpless king, fleeing from his enemies with an escort of only twelve attendants, came to Robert, his vassal, and begged for help to gain possession of his own kingdom.

Robert received the suppliant king with such honors and such richness of entertainment that he well merited the name of "Robert the Magnificent"; but no less did he deserve the title of "Robert the Devil" from his savage punishment of those who had rebelled against their sovereign. Henry's gratitude was equal to Robert's services, and he gave his ally a strip of borderland called the Vexin. Robert's dominions now extended almost to the city of Paris; and henceforth Normandy and France must stand or fall together.

In these stormy times the home of Arletta and her children, for now there was also a little daughter, had been by turns the frowning castle of grim gray stone at the brink of the precipice, and the sunny little cottage in the valley below it. When the duke was at home, they were with him in the castle; but when he was absent on his war-like expeditions, it was safer for them to be where in case of need they could more readily find a hiding-place among the homes of the poor. There was also another reason. When the lord was away, the lady of the castle must take command, as has been said before, if her home was attacked by enemies. When Robert was by the side of Arletta, he could bear down upon all disobedience with a heavy hand, and punish with the utmost severity the least disrespect shown to the mother of his child; but he knew well that in his absence not one of all his men-at-arms would obey the orders of a tanner's daughter. There would be rebellion and insurrection. It might be that the duke would lose his favorite castle.

So it was that the earliest memories of the little William were of being carried hurriedly from castle to cottage or from cottage to castle. He would hear the din of armor and the clashing of swords and spears. Then the duke, with a great company following him, would ride away on his war-horse, and when the little boy asked:—

"But, my mother, where is my father?" the answer would be:—

"He is fighting for the king of France," or "He has gone away to kill the men that wanted to kill him."

"And will he come home to Adelaide and me when he has killed them?"

"Yes," his mother would say.

"Then I hope he will kill a great many, and kill them very soon, so that he will come back to see us," the little boy would answer wistfully.

When the duke was on the return, his little son would listen for the first hoof-beats of his horse, and even if it was in the night, he would awake and call out joyfully:—

"Did you kill many men, father? Will anybody try to kill you if you stay with us now?" Then they would go to the castle, and there would be a feast in the great hall. The firelight would sparkle and glow, and flash upon the rows of shields and the clusters of spears on the wall. The child thought that the weird pictures which it made were the faces of the people that had been killed, and that they were trying to come down to sit at the long table and share the feast.

"You won't let them come down, will you, father?" he asked, pointing to the shields above his head.

"No," said his father, "but you shall have a shield if you like, and a sword, too." So the little boy had a tiny suit of armor made of quilted linen with metal rings sewn thickly over it, and a helmet and a lance and a sword and a little shield. When they were all on, they were so heavy that he could hardly stand, but he would stagger about happily under their weight and say proudly:—

"Now I'm a soldier just like my father, and when I'm a man, I'm going to ride on a big horse, and go off to kill people just as he does."

The nobles might refuse, so far as they dared, to allow their sons to be playmates of the grandson of a tanner; but to the children of the well-to-do burghers of Falaise it was an honor to play with the son of a duke; and the boys readily allowed the little fellow to take the lead in their games, and when he said:—

"I don't want to play marbles," or "I don't want to spin tops," they were ready to do whatever he suggested. One day he said:—

"I don't want to play morra, I don't want to hold my fingers up any more. I want to do what my father does and have some soldiers."

"But we  haven't any swords," said the boys, who had often envied the son of the duke his military outfit.

"My father will give you some if I ask him," he said confidently. And so it was, for soon every boy was provided with some kind of weapons or armor, and the little child became commander of a company of children. Up and down they marched to orders which the little fellow thought were like those that his father gave. One day he suddenly stood still and said:—

"My father doesn't go up and down the road. He takes castles. He said he did. We'll go and take the castle." So straight up to the gate marched the line of boys, led by their proud little commander. He beat upon the wall with the hilt of his tiny sword, and the porter began to swing open the gate.

"No, that isn't the way," said the boy indignantly. "Shut the gate and go and tell the duke to come down." The man obeyed, and the duke came at the command of this new sovereign. The little boy marched up to him with as long strides as his heavy armor and his short legs would permit and called out:—

"Are you the duke?"

"Yes," said his father in amazement.

"We've come to take the castle, and we'll kill everybody if you don't surrender."

The duke surrendered.