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, King of England

F OR one-and-twenty years did the Conqueror reign in England. Not a little good did he do in his new kingdom. First of all, so strong and resolute was he, he made all men, however great and powerful they might be, understand that they must obey the laws. He caused equal justice to be administered between man and man. He forbade all buying and selling of slaves. He brought not a few learned men into the country, caused the clergy to do their duty better, and greatly encouraged the building of splendid churches.

Nevertheless the English people suffered many things at his hands. For, first, he was constrained to reward those who had helped him to win the kingdom, nor could he so reward but by spoiling others of goods and lands. Few indeed were the parishes throughout the whole country in which an Englishman was not dispossessed of his estate that it might be given to some follower of the King.

Then the English people again and again rebelled against him, and, being subdued, were, almost of necessity, severely treated. Lastly, he himself became more stern and more cruel, more selfish, more bent on having his own way and following his own pleasure without care or concern for others. Doubtless it was a good thing for England that it should have been conquered, even, one may say, that it should have been conquered by William of Normandy. Nevertheless it was but little of this good thing that came to the Englishmen of that time.

The trouble began with the very day on which Duke William was crowned, to wit the Christmas of the year in which he came to England. Fearing lest the people of London, who were ill-disposed to him, should attack him, he posted round the Abbey of Westminster, in which he was to be crowned, a great body of Norman soldiers. At the very moment when the Archbishop was putting the crown upon the King's head, asking the English that were in the church whether they were willing to have William, Duke of Normandy for their king, and the people had answered that they were so willing, there was a great cry outside. The soldiers had fallen upon the houses of the citizens, and had begun to plunder and set them on fire. The English that were in the church fled for their lives, and the Normans made haste to get their share of the spoil. So William was left alone in the church with the bishops and clerks. Still he would not have the matter delayed, and so was crowned. But when he swore that he would rule as justly as had any of the kings that had reigned before him, he added these words, "So that the people be true to me."

Many times did the English people rise against their Norman King. The fiercest of all their rebellions was in Northumberland, and this was most cruelly punished. He laid waste the whole land from north to south, from east to west. Every house was burnt with all that was in it; the stores of corn and hay and other food for man and beast were destroyed; the very animals were driven into the flames and burnt. For years to come the fields in many parts lay desolate, and the towns were without inhabitants.

This land of Northumbria he laid waste in his anger; to another region of England, in the south, he did the same for his pleasure. Of all things, that which William loved the best was hunting, and in order that he might enjoy this sport without hindrance, he cleared in the county of Hampshire a great space of land—thirty miles it was from end to end. Before it had been a flourishing region, fair and fertile, with many houses and churches. Now it was laid waste, given over to the beasts that the King loved to hunt. There seemed to be a curse on the place. Here one of the King's sons, Richard by name, was killed, struck by the bough of a tree, as he was hunting a stag; here, as will be told in the next chapter, another son, William, who reigned after him, met his death; here a grandson also perished by the chance blow from the arrow of a companion.

As he grew to be an old man, trouble upon trouble came upon William; nor had there ever been known, either in England or in Normandy, a darker time than the year in which he died. Grievous storms destroyed the harvest, so that many men died of hunger; many towns with their churches were burnt, London among them, with its great cathedral of St. Paul's; many evil deeds were done, and there were many wars.

As for William himself, he met his death in a war that he waged with King Philip of France. They were at variance about a certain district on the border of France and Normandy. The French King had taken possession of it, but King William claimed it as his own. He had been lying sick at Rouen, the chief town of the Duchy, and had been angered by a foolish jest of King Philip's. Rising from his bed, he rode forth to take vengeance. He wasted all the land that was in dispute between him and the French King, and when he came to the chief town that was in it, he burnt it, churches as well as houses, to the ground.

As he rode among the ruins, his horse put its foot on a piece of burning wood and stumbled. The King was thrown forward on the saddle and so grievously hurt, for he was very heavy, that he had to be carried home. There he lay dying for some weeks, and as he lay, he sorely repented him of his many misdeeds, confessing that he had caused the death of many thousands of innocent people, and had taken away their possessions by force from many. Two of his sons were with him—the eldest, Robert by name, had been banished. When he came to speak of who should have his kingdoms after him, he said, "Robert must have Normandy; it is his of right. As for England, I cannot give away that which is not mine, but my desire is, if it may be, that William, who has ever been faithful to me, may have it."

Then said Henry, his youngest son, "And what dost thou give me, my father?"  "Five thousand pounds of silver from my hoard," said the King. "But what good shall the silver do me, if I have no place in which to dwell?" The King answered, "Be patient, my son, and let thy elders go before thee." The King then bade William set out at once for England. Henry also left his father that he might make sure of getting his treasure. After this the King made provision for the building again of the churches which he had caused to be destroyed; he commanded that the rest of his treasure should be given to the poor, and for the building of churches and the like uses. Certain rebels whom he had cast into prison he ordered to be released. And so, having done what he could to make his peace with God and man, the Conqueror died.

But it was not to be that he should be buried in peace. As the body was being carried to the grave a fire broke out, and seemed likely to destroy a great part of the town. Most of those that followed the coffin left their place in the procession that they might save their possessions. Nor was this all. When the preacher had spoken of all the great deeds of the dead man, he said, "Let all that are here present pray for his soul; let them beg that God may forgive his trespasses against Him; let them forgive themselves anything in which he may have trespassed against them."

When he had said these words, a certain knight stood forward and said, "On this very ground whereon ye now stand, once stood my father's house. This man, whom ye are burying here to-day, took the land away from him by force and against all right, and built this church upon it. I now claim it for my own, and forbid you to bury the body of this robber within the borders of my lawful inheritance."

Thereupon the bishops inquired of them that stood by whether these things were so. When they heard that the man had spoken the truth, they covenanted with him that he should sell to them so much land as was needed for the grave for sixty shillings, and they promised that in due time they would pay him the full price for the whole. Thus was the Conqueror buried.

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