Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

William, Duke of Normandy

W ILLIAM, who was afterwards called the Conqueror, was the son of a certain Robert who was Duke of Normandy. It was said that, having been laid when he was born on the floor of the room, he took firm hold of the straw that covered it—for in those days straw was used for carpet even by rich and noble people. It was thought that this was a sign that when he should grow up he would be a great conqueror, who would keep fast hold of everything on which he might lay his hand.

When the boy was seven years old, his father the Duke called together the nobles of the country, and said to them, "I am resolved to journey to the place where our Lord Christ died and was buried. But because I know that this journey is full of dangers, I would have it settled who should be Duke in my place if I should die." The nobles answered him that it would be far better that he should stay at home, and do his duty in ruling his Duchy. But Duke Robert would not be persuaded. He was steadfastly resolved to go. And that it should be settled before he went who should succeed him all were agreed. Thereupon he brought before the nobles his young son William. "This is my son," he said; "he is but little, but he will grow; he is one of your own race, and he has been brought up among you." The Norman nobles were but ill pleased, for the boy's mother was nothing better than a tanner's daughter. Nevertheless they agreed to do as the Duke wished, for there was no one else whom they could agree to choose. Therefore they took the oaths and did homage to him. So Duke Robert set out, and died not many months afterwards on his journey.

The nobles, though they had sworn to have the young William for their Duke, were but little disposed to keep their oath. All through Normandy there was confusion and trouble; every man did as he pleased, making war upon his equals, and oppressing those who were below him. They slew with the sword, or poisoned first one and then another of the men who had charge of the young Duke, and more than once they came very near to killing the lad himself. Again and again did his mother's brother, Walter by name, save him by taking him from his castle, and hiding him in the cottages of the poor.

But now he was growing up and able to take care of himself. So, when a certain Thurstan, by the help of some French soldiers, seized the castle of Falaise, the young William, calling all loyal Normans to his help, attacked him, and had it not been for the coming of night, would have taken the castle by storm. Thurstan, seeing that he could not hold the place, gave it up, and was suffered to depart, on condition that he should never return to Normandy.

When William was about twenty years of age, all the nobles of Normandy made a great conspiracy against him. First they tried either to seize or slay him. It chanced that he was hunting at a certain castle of his. One night, when he had fallen into his first sleep, his jester burst into his room with his staff in his hand, and awoke him, crying out, "If you do not rise and fly for your life, you will never leave this place a living man." Thereupon the young Duke leapt from his bed, dressed himself in haste, and mounted his horse.

All that night he rode for his life. It was moonlight, and so he could see his way. There was a river to be crossed, but he came to it where the tide was low, and so he was able to pass it without danger. The ford by which he crossed was afterwards called "The Duke's Way." At sunrise he came to a certain place named Rye, where there was a church and castle. The lord of the place was one Hubert, a loyal man, who had no part in the conspiracy. Hubert was standing at his gate, and seeing the Duke ride by at full speed, called to him and asked why he rode at such haste. "I am flying for my life," said the Duke. Thereupon he ordered a fresh horse to be brought for him, and bade his three sons ride with him for a guard, not leaving him till they had lodged him safely in his castle at Falaise.

And now Duke William, not having sufficient strength among the loyal men of Normandy to meet the rebels, sought help from his over-lord, Henry, King of the French. King Henry granted his petition, and gathering soldiers from his own people, marched to help the Duke. It was not long before the two armies, the King and the Duke on the one side, and the rebels on the other, met in battle.

There was a certain lord among the rebels named Ralph. He was a powerful man, having among his followers one hundred and twenty knights, each with a banner of his own. This man had sworn that he would smite the Duke wherever he might find him. But now he began to repent of what he had done. It seemed to him a shameful thing to stand in arms against his rightful lord, and all the more so because the Duke had never done him any wrong. His knights also urged him to return to the Duke, while divers of those with whom he had conspired exhorted him to keep faith with them, and promised him great reward for so doing. For some time he stood doubtful; only he kept his men apart both from the one army and the other. When William saw what he was doing, he said to King Henry, "Those yonder are the men of Ralph of Tessar; he has no grudge against me; I doubt not but that they will soon be on my side." And so indeed it turned out, for Ralph took the advice of his knights. He bade them stay where they were, but he himself galloped across the field, and riding up to the Duke, struck him with his glove. Thus he performed his oath. Afterwards, when the battle was joined, he charged with his men against the rebels.

Fierce was the fight that day, a battle of knights against knights. Nowhere was it fiercer than where King Henry of France fought at the head of his men. Twice was the King struck down from his horse, and each time the warrior that struck him was himself slain. As for the Duke, he bore himself most bravely, and with better fortune than the King. He slew the most stalwart champion of the rebels with his own hand. As this man rode in the front rank, as if to challenge any that might dare to attack him, William charged him, using, not his lance, as was constantly the custom, but his sword. With this he smote the champion such a blow between the throat and the chest that the man fell dead from his horse.

Soon the rebels fled on every side. Many were slain in the battle, and many fell in the flight, but yet more perished in a flooded river which they were compelled to cross. The very mill-wheels, it is said, were stopped by the bodies of the dead.

It was on this day that William earned for the first time the name of Conqueror.

After this he sought to win for his wife, Matilda, daughter of Baldwin, Count of Flanders. It has been said that he courted her in a very strange fashion. First, for such is the story, he made his suit in a peaceable way through her father. Her answer was this: "I had sooner be a nun than the wife of a low-born man." When William heard this, he mounted his horse, and taking with him a few companions, rode to Bruges, in which town the lady was then living. He found her coming back from church, and leaping from his horse, seized her by the hair, and beat and kicked her. But when next Count Baldwin inquired of his daughter whether she was willing to take any man for a husband, she made this answer; "No husband will I have, except it be William the Norman."

However this may be, it is certain that the Pope forbade the marriage. There was some kindred between the two, and such were not permitted to marry except by special leave of the Pope. But William took no heed of the Pope's forbidding. Matilda became his wife; and, after awhile, the Pope granted him pardon.

There is no need to tell again what has been told already in the foregoing chapters; how William, getting Harold into his possession, made him swear to be his man; how he gathered together a great host, and coming to England, conquered King Harold in a great battle on the hill of Senlac. It is said that when he was leaping from his boat to the shore, he stumbled and fell. His companions were greatly troubled at this mishap, which seemed to them a bad beginning of the enterprise. He who had so great a thing to accomplish in England should not, they thought, stumble and fall so soon as he touched its shore. But William did not lose heart for a moment. Lifting up his hands, which were full of earth, he cried in a loud voice, "See! I have taken possession of this land of England."

The story of the battle also has been told; but this may be said, that as no man had more to win in this same battle, so no man bore himself more bravely. Many a warrior did he smite to the ground with the great mace which he was wont to carry; one of them was a brother of King Harold, one of the bravest and most stalwart warriors on the English side. Nor did he fail either in prudence, or such skill as a general should show. It may be said that, beyond all doubt, Harold and his Englishmen would have won the day at the battle of Senlac, had not William, Duke of Normandy showed himself so excellently good a soldier and leader.

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