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

"Will You Yield?"

It was Lent when William landed in Normandy, but it became a season of rejoicing, for the whole land was wild with delight at the success of the duke. The Normans declared that he had brought over from England three times as much gold as there was in the whole of Gaul. Never had they seen such robes of state and such vestments for the church. They were especially curious to see the English nobles with their blue eyes, light flowing hair, long mustaches, and names that no Frenchman could pronounce. Most interesting of them all was the young Edgar. William did not recognize his claim to the throne, but he looked upon the boy as ranking highest among the English nobles, and treated him with special respect as well as affection.

The great celebration of Easter was to be held at Fécamp, the pretty town nestling by the little stream that flowed between the two ranges of hills. Here the great mass of the treasures and curiosities was brought, and here assembled William and his family, the English nobles, the Norman knights and higher clergy, and William's many guests from among his allies who had helped him to win these treasures.

At Fécamp was the old church built by William's great-grandfather, Richard the Fearless, and here was the Easter rejoicing to be. Silken tapestries worked by English hands hung from the roof-beams. Flowers were placed in every little recess. In at the eastern windows the morning sunlight shone through the stained glass and cast slowly moving flecks of brilliant color upon the white and gold vestments of the clergy.

All was light and brilliancy. The gleam of the precious stones that adorned the holy vessels of the altar was reflected in the vivid coloring of the dresses of the ladies of the court. One wore a long green garment edged with a band of gold embroidery. Over this was a tunic of deep blue with a gold belt fastened with a red cord and tassel, while a red mantle, with lining of white silk, served as the "dominical," or covering which women must wear when receiving the Holy Communion. Another wore a tunic of soft cream-colored woollen with a red belt. Her blue mantle was clasped at the neck with a golden clasp set with garnets. In her hand she carried a small blue bag. Over her head and falling down her back was a long white veil. Beside her was the wife of a noble in a pink tunic edged with purple and gold. Her mantle was of purple lined with light blue, and about her neck was a double string of softly gleaming pearls. Women usually wore their hair either flowing loosely or in four long braids falling in front, two on either side of the face. Often their foreheads were all ablaze with bands of jewels. The men were hardly less gorgeous, for their mantles were of every color that could be dreamed of, and they were fastened at the shoulder by clasps set with jewels from which the light flashed at every movement.

Most of William's life had been spent on the battle-field, in besieging the retreat of an enemy, or in the gloom of some dull gray castle, and it is no wonder that the hour of safety and quiet in the midst of joyful faces and brilliant gala attire gave him a happiness which it was not often his lot to enjoy.

After the Easter service came the feast, and that was splendid with the spoils of England. The English guests winced when they saw the drinking cups made of the horns of the wild bull, and bound top and bottom with bands of gold, and the golden dishes, incrusted with glowing jewels of red and blue and green and yellow, which had been familiar to them in other scenes of feasting, brought forth to grace this celebration of their conqueror. They must bear and be silent; the time might come—who could tell?

Two months later the church which Matilda had built at Caen was to be dedicated, and this was another splendid ceremonial. Before the voyage to England, William and Matilda had vowed to devote their little daughter Cecily to a convent life, and on this day the child was brought to the altar, solemnly set apart from her brothers and sisters, and specially given up to the service of the church.

The whole summer was a time of triumph and jubilee for duke and duchess. From one end of the duchy to the other they travelled, receiving everywhere the highest honor that the people could pay, and leaving all behind them rejoicing in the generosity of the gifts that William bestowed upon nobles and clergy, such gifts "as neither king nor emperor had ever made before," say the old chroniclers with delight. To the knights he gave horses richly caparisoned, each bearing a helmet and a shining coat of mail. There were beautiful mantles and jewelled swords, and hangings for their cold stone walls. Well might England tremble, for there seemed no end to his treasures. To the churches of Normandy he gave ingots of gold; copies of the Gospels, beautifully written on vellum, whose covers were inlaid with gold and precious stones; relics of saints and martyrs in cases that were worth a knight's ransom; censers of glowing copper of most elaborate workmanship, made in close imitation of the temple at Jerusalem or the great church at Rome. To the Pope were sent still greater gifts, and among them was the captured banner of Harold, representing to the Pope his own increasing power and the fealty of him who was the most powerful sovereign of western Europe.

William had wished to remain in Normandy and spend Christmas with his family, but there was trouble in England. Although he was called king of the whole country, his actual rule was over only the southeastern portion. To leave a land, nominally his kingdom, but practically unsubmissive, in charge of two men who, however firm rulers they might be, despised the people who were in their care, and who permitted the Normans to rob and oppress them as they would, could hardly fail to bring about revolt, and revolt there was from one end of the land to the other.

Fortunately for William, this rebellion had no general leader, and the revolters were not united. The feeling of bitterness was universal, but it showed itself first in one place and then in another, so that William could deal with the uprisings one by one. Matilda was already addressed as Queen, and he had hoped to carry her with him to England that she might be crowned; but this was no time for any coronation ceremonies, so once more he left her in Normandy as regent. His son Robert was thirteen, and William directed that she should rule in the name of the boy. Then he set sail for his kingdom.

He did not meet the English as a conqueror who had returned hastily from another land to suppress an uprising, but as their king who was ready to show kindness to his loyal subjects. He held the usual Christmas court, and received with much courtesy all who came to it. He listened to their suggestions, and as far as possible gave them whatever they asked.

The centre of the revolt in the west was the city of Exeter, and Exeter had shut itself up behind its strong old walls with their towers and battlements, and had made no acknowledgment of the Norman invader as its lawful king. It was a rich, haughty old city, with citizens who were proud of their independence, and were determined not to yield to this "no man's son" from over the seas.

These citizens went at the business of a revolt with some idea of system and union. There were many foreign merchants dwelling in Exeter, and these they induced to join the struggle. To the neighboring districts they sent messages urging them to unite against the invader. In Exeter dwelt the mother of Harold, and her mourning for her three sons was a constant reminder of the destruction and death that had come with the coming of William.

To this proud old city William sent a message:—

"William, King of England, asks that his city of Exeter receive him within its walls, and that its citizens swear to be faithful to him." Then the citizens replied boldly:—

"We will pay the tribute that we have been used to pay, but we will not take any oath to the king, nor will we admit him within our walls."

"No subjects do I receive on such conditions," answered William, and rode straight toward Exeter, ravaging the land about the city.

"The king is encamped for the night but four miles away," reported a spy. Then there was much debate within the town about what should be done.

"Our walls are thick and strong," said one; "let him come."

"The king is a terrible man," said another; "it is of no use to resist him. Never yet did he fail to work his will in whatever way he would."

"It may be," said one of the older men, "that he does not understand that our city has always been independent. Let us send a company forth to meet him and parley with him; then can we tell better what there is for us to do." So a company of the older men went forth to meet the king and parley with him; but when they saw the array of soldiers, they hesitated; and when in the midst of the soldiers, with a strong guard on either hand, they saw the hostages, young men of their city, who had been sent to dwell with Harold as a proof of the good-will of the town, they stopped short.

"That is my own son," said one of the men in horror, "the one in the blue tunic and the red mantle. Who knows what this cruel king will do to our children?"

"He is angry," said another; "parleying will do no good." They went forward, but at the first sight of William's face they saw that parley would, indeed, be useless. For a moment they were silent. Then the father of the hostage came forward trembling and said:—

"King William, we beg your forgiveness for the wild speeches that have been made. We are sent by the citizens of Exeter to meet you. The town will yield and open her gates when you come near."

"Is this the speech of all?" asked William sternly.

"Of all," they answered.

"Then I will go forward, and if the city shall fling wide its gates and, man by man, shall swear fealty to me, then will I grant it a free pardon."

The little group went back half in hope and half in fear.

"What did he say?" called the citizens, crowding eagerly about them; but when they knew, then were they indignant.

"You were not sent to surrender, but to parley," they said angrily.

"But he has our hostages, and one of them is my own boy," said the old man huskily.

"Your boy is no more to us than another," said the citizens brutally. "You have betrayed us. He is only the son of a traitor. Let what will come to a traitor's son." Then they piled up arrows and great stones and strengthened their walls and their gates. So it was that when William came near, the gates were closed, and on the top of the wall were men who shouted speeches of defiance to their king. William's face grew white with anger.

"Bring forward a hostage," he ordered, and the young man in the red mantle was led forward in the sight of the citizens.

"Put out his eyes," said the king. The soldiers hesitated. "Obey," said the king. "It may be that the city will yield. Let one die to save many."

An old man on the wall was listening intensely. "Take me," he cried, "King William, take me, and let my boy go." The agonized voice reached even to the ears of the king, but he shook his head. The old man's clasp on the battlement relaxed, and he fell dead at the foot of the wall.

"Will you yield?" called the king, but the citizens answered by a volley of arrows.

"Fire!" said William, and a fearful return was made. The citizens shot again, and were jubilant as they saw one soldier after another fall.

"Bring boiling water and stones and spears and battle-axes," the citizens shouted, for little companies of soldiers were creeping up to the wall. They held shields over their heads, and the shields were needed, for arrows were fired straight down at them, heavy stones were rolled from the walls, and boiling water was poured upon them; but the arrows glanced off from the stout shields, the heavy stones rolled harmless to the ground, and even the boiling water did little injury. These men were dragging ladders, and slowly and carefully they put them up against the wall. Then, still under the shelter of the shields, the soldiers swarmed up boldly; but the citizens thrust at them with their spears, and swung their terrible battle-axes. Not a man could get a footing on the walls.

William secures his kingdom


While all this hand-to-hand fighting was going on, William's men had brought up the unwieldy machines for slinging stones, and the arbalests, great crossbows on wheels, that would fire arrows with violence enough to send them through several persons. But the citizens, too, had slings and arbalests, and after seventeen days of such warfare William seemed no nearer victory than at first.

Meanwhile, afar off from the fighting, some of the soldiers had been digging a deep hole in the ground. Then they dug a tunnel from this hole toward the city, supporting the earth above them by strong wooden props. When they were sure that they were well under the wall, all the men left but one, and he soon followed them, setting fire to each prop as he went. Then the soldiers were drawn up nearer the city.

"See," cried the citizens on the wall, "he has stopped fighting. He will yield. William the conqueror is conquered. Let us—" But the wall was trembling under their feet. It shuddered and fell. The king's soldiers dashed through the breach, and the city was taken.

"What shall we do?" wailed the citizens. "He shows no mercy. Remember Alençon."

"In the name of the church we will go to him and beg for mercy," said a priest; and out of the open gates there went forth a pitiable company. First came the clergy bearing the cross, the Gospels, and the sacred vessels and relics of the church. After them came old men and fair young maidens. Last came the fighters, and with them were their wives and little children, and they all fell down before the king and begged for mercy.

Whether from policy or from kindness, William pardoned the repentant city, and forbade his soldiers to touch the property of the citizens. The only penalty that he demanded was an increase of tribute money and the destruction of two score of houses to make room for the castle which he intended to build. William marched on to the west through Devonshire and Cornwall. The land of those who rebelled was confiscated, and nearly all Cornwall, besides many rich manors of Devonshire and Somerset, was given to his brother Robert.

At last the king ventured to send for his queen. Once more his favorite "Mora" crossed the Channel, this time with a noble embassy, and returned with Matilda and a goodly company of knights and lords and ladies of the court. Some three centuries earlier, because of the crime of a wicked queen, it had been decreed that she who held the highest place in the land should be known as the king's wife, and not as the queen; but all this was forgotten, and Matilda was crowned at Westminster.

After the coronation there was a feast, and into the feasting hall came a newly appointed officer known as the "champion." Straight up and down the hall he rode, calling in a loud voice, "If any one denies that our most gracious sovereign lord William and his spouse Matilda are king and queen of England, he is a false-hearted traitor and a liar; and here I, as champion, do challenge him to single combat."

Several months later two thegns were talking of the coronation.

"No one ever heard before of a champion to prove that the king was king," said one.

"No one would ever dare to say that he was not king," said the other.

"Not without an army," said the first.

"It may be that some day we shall have a king who was born among us, even if he is not of our own people."

"Yes, after we and our children and our children's children are dead."

"Before then, perhaps. Have you not heard that in our own Yorkshire the queen has given birth to a son?"

"No," said the other; "is it true?"

"It is true, and something else is true, for the king says this boy shall be brought up as an Englishman, and shall learn to speak our language as well as that smooth, silly talk that they use at court."

"The king knows no English."

"True, but he says he will learn it."

"And so he would if it could be learned with a sword and a spear."

All of England south of the Thames was now under William's control, but there was trouble in the north. The northern earls, Edwin and Morcar, were at William's court, as was the boy Edgar. To Edgar, Morcar came one day and whispered:—

"Do you wish to be king?"

"Yes," said the boy.

"The north is free, and the north calls for you as its king. Will you go?" The boy agreed, and he and the two earls stole away from the court. Edwin had a special grievance because King William had promised him one of his daughters in marriage and had not yet been willing to give the earl his bride. William pursued, capturing one town after another on his way. The earls yielded, and Edgar fled with a third earl to Scotland.

Wherever William went, he conquered; and wherever he conquered, he distributed the forfeited land among his loyal subjects, generally Normans. All over the country rose the heavy, thick-walled castles with their square dungeon towers, saying ever to the helpless people, "Submit or be crushed."

On and on marched William. Nottingham yielded, and at York the trembling citizens hastened to meet him even before he had come near the walls of the city, and brought hostages and begged him to accept the keys of their city gates. How much against their will this was, is shown by the eagerness with which they admitted Edgar and his party only a few months later.

Now York was as important a town in the north as Exeter was in the south, and the king again hastened north and took a fearful revenge on the city. The story is that he would have marched on to Durham at break of day, but there was no break of day, for so heavy a darkness shut down upon the land that no man could see his neighbor. While the army stood in fear of what might happen, a voice chanted from out of the gloom:—

"Durham is the town of the holy Saint Cuthbert, and he it is who forbids you to harm his sacred city or even to enter it." It is just possible that William did not care to go any farther at that time, and had arranged the matter of the ghostly voice coming from the darkness, as he did once before when he wished to drive King Henry from Normandy. At any rate, he returned to London, but to a lonely palace, for the queen and the royal children had returned to Normandy, whose claims could be no longer neglected.

William might well have felt discouraged if he had known what the feeling was, for the sons of Harold came from Ireland and made an attempt to enter England from the west; and in the north the English were joyful over the coming of the Danes, whom they had been urging to join them as allies.

The boy Edgar and Waltheof, Earl of Northampton, were at the head of the army that now marched upon York. They captured the city and the Norman garrison; and if they had only been united, they might possibly have held the north against the king. As it was, they soon separated; it may be because of William's secret bribes to the Danes. Earl Waltheof yielded and paid homage to the king. William restored him to his estate and soon afterward gave him his niece Judith in marriage.

William had conquered the north, but the English who dwelt there might revolt at any moment, and at any moment the Humber might be filled with Danish ships. William's one purpose was to be master of England. Be the means harsh or gentle, he would be master. Never again should the north revolt. His favorite weapon was starvation rather than the sword. Starvation should meet every one who might venture to oppose his rule. He swept over the land like a flame of fire. To and fro, hither and thither, went the king and his men, leaving behind them ruined crops, smoking storehouses, and slaughtered animals. Property of every kind was burned. Pestilence came. Men sickened or starved, or became slaves to anyone that would give them a mouthful of food. Death was everywhere, but William had had his way, and never again did the north revolt.

And in York, the miserable, half-burned city, did the king of England determine to celebrate his Christmas. It should be kept with all ceremony, too, and the crown and the royal robes were brought to York, and within the walls of the half-ruined church, blackened by the fires of warfare, and with ruin and desolation and death on every side as far as the eye could see, the priests chanted the Christmas songs of gladness, and the king wore the crown which had been made sure by so fearful a sacrifice.