The Normans Conquer England
The descendants of Alfred, for three generations, were wise and strong men, and they succeeded in reuniting all England under one rule.
But after three generations a reckless and foolish King ruled England, called Ethelred the "Rede-less," or "Despiser of Counsel." In his time new bands of Danes invaded the country, in great numbers, intending to conquer the kingdom. Yet the land was so divided, by the jealousies of the great men and the weakness of the King, that Ethelred did not fight them, but paid them money to go elsewhere.
This only stirred up the Danes to renewed attacks, and each time they came the King paid them a still larger sum of money, which he obtained by laying upon the people a tax called "Danegeld." The Danegeld and the ravages of war together brought great poverty upon the land. The people became discontented, and the great men rebellious. Then King Ethelred did a foolish and wicked thing: he treacherously put to death, on a certain day, the Danes who were settled in England, for fear lest they might aid their invading brothers.
This deed caused Sweyn, King of Denmark, to swear a great oath that he would conquer the land and avenge his people. He came to England with a great fleet and a strong army. After a long war, in which the English never fought unitedly under a capable leader, Ethelred fled to Normandy, and his subjects acknowledged Sweyn as King of England (1014).
One month later, Sweyn died, and the Danish army chose his son Canute to succeed him. Then the English restored their old ruler, Ethelred; but he soon died, and after a short war Canute (in 1016) was accepted as King by the whole land.
At first Canute was very harsh, banishing or putting to death all the English leaders whom he feared. But when once he was firmly settled in power, he ruled with justice and wisdom, treating Danes and English alike. He sent his army back to Denmark, except a few thousand warriors called the "House-carls," whom he kept as a standing army. He placed Englishmen in the highest places, both in the church and in the state. He restored the good laws of the English, and ruled as if he were himself and Englishman. And though he ruled over Denmark and Norway as well as over England, he usually made his home among his English subjects.
At one time Canute, like thousands of other Christians, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, to see the Pope and to worship in Saint Peter's church. While he was there he wrote to his subjects in England a friendly letter, in which he said:
"Be it known to all of you, that I have humbly vowed to Almighty God henceforth to rule the kingdoms and the peoples subject to me with justice and mercy, giving just judgments in all matters. I therefore command all sheriffs and magistrates, throughout my whole kingdom, that they use no unjust violence to any man, rich or poor, but that all, high and low, rich or poor, shall enjoy alike impartial law."
Canute was King of England for nearly twenty years (1016-1035), giving to the land peace and good government. After his death his two sons, one after the other, ruled in England, each dying a few years after becoming King. Then (1042) the English chose as King a prince from the old English line, son of Ethelred the Redeless.
This King was so religious that he gained the name Edward "the Confessor." He would have been a good monk, but he made a poor King. He had lived most of his life in Normandy, and did not understand the English people. He loved the Normans, who had improved rapidly since their Viking ancestors settled in France, and were now more cultured than the English. Edward clung to them and listened to their advice, and placed them in high positions in England. But the Normans looked down upon the English, and treated them badly and oppressed them. The English, in turn, were jealous and resentful, and conflicts arose.
At last, under the lead of their most powerful man, Earl Godwin, the English took up arms and forced the King to dismiss the Normans from their positions. From that time, Earl Godwin was the greatest man in the kingdom, and after his death his son, Harold, rose to equal power.
Edward the Confessor died after a reign of twenty-four years (1042-1066), and was buried in the great church of Westminster, which he had built. Before his death, it is said, he prophesied great trouble for England. He left no son to succeed him, and the Witan, or council of "wise men," chose Earl Harold, son of Godwin, to be King.
Then the trouble which Edward prophesied speedily came upon the land, for William, Duke of Normandy, claimed the crown, and made ready to enforce his claim by war.
This William of Normandy had risen, through difficulties, to a position of great power in France. His father, who was duke before him, died when William was only seven or eight years old, leaving the boy to struggle against rebellions of powerful nobles. While still a child, his guardians were murdered and he was barely rescued by his uncle. Again, while he was a very young man, he was obliged to save himself by a long night ride alone. But, from and early age, William showed warlike power and decision of character beyond his years. When he came to manhood, he speedily subdued all rebellions and brought Normandy completely under his control. More than that, he invaded a neighboring district, in France, and compelled its count to acknowledge his supremacy. He thus became so powerful as to be almost the equal of the King of France himself.
Really, William had no right to the English crown, as Harold had been chosen by the Witan, and had been regularly crowned. The crown belonged to the nation, and the wise men could bestow it as they saw fit. But William declared that Edward had promised the English crown to him; and also that Harold, who had once been shipwrecked on the French coast, and had fallen into William's hands, had sworn a sacred oath to support him in becoming King of England. Therefore, when Edward died, William prepared to invade England, and to drive Harold from his newly won throne.
From Normandy, France, and elsewhere, William gathered warriors for his invasion. The Pope, who had a quarrel with England, blessed the expedition and sent a consecrated banner. After delaying some time for a favorable wind, the expedition set out, and landed without resistance. On leaping from his ship, William stumbled and fell flat upon his face. His followers exclaimed at this bad omen, but William's presence of mind prevented any injurious effect.
"By the splendor of God," he cried, "I hold England in my hands!"
Harold, meanwhile, prepared to resist. As the Chronicle says, he "gathered so great a ship force, and also a land force, as no King here in the land had done before, because it was made known to him that William would come hither and win this land; all as it afterward happened."
But while Harold was guarding the southern coast against the Normans, word was brought to him that the King of Norway had landed in the north of England with an army.
So Harold marched northward, to meet this new foe, leaving the southern coast unguarded. He won a great victory, for he slew the Norwegian king and destroyed his army. Then Harold returned at once to the south—only to learn that William had now crossed the Channel, and had landed on English soil.
Harold's army had lost many of its men. But he took his House-carls, together with such other men as he could gather, and marched toward Hastings. There he fortified a hill called Senlac, and awaited the attack of the Normans.
It was on October 14, 1066, that the decisive battle took place. Harold's men were on foot, and carried light javelins for hurling and swords or battle axes for striking. They were drawn up so that their shields overlapped one another, making a solid wall of defense. William had two kinds of warriors: crossbow men on foot, who were placed at the front; and, behind these, the knights on horseback, wearing iron caps and rude coats of mail, and carrying swords and strong lances.
One of the Norman knights asked that he might strike the first blow. When this was granted, he rode forward, tossing his sword in the air and catching it, and singing gaily an old song about the deeds of the great warrior, Roland. Two Englishmen fell by his hand before he himself was slain.
Then the battle began in earnest, and raged all day until sunset. In spite of their heavy horsemen, the Normans were unable to break the English line. Three horses were killed under William, but he received no injury. Once the cry went forth, "The Duke is down!" and the Normans began to give way. But William tore off his helmet, that they might better see his face, and cried:
"I live, and by God's help shall have the victory!"
At length, a portion of the Norman troops turned to flee, and some of the English, disobeying Harold's orders, left their line to go in pursuit. These English were then easily cut off and destroyed. William took a hint from this, and ordered a pretended flight of all the Normans. Large numbers of the English followed, and the Normans turned and cut them down.
But Harold and his two brothers, together with the House-carls, still stood firm, and swung their battle axes beneath the Golden Dragon banner of Wessex. At last an arrow, shot into the air by William's order, struck Harold in the eye, and he fell. The English then fled—all except the House-carls, who fought on until the last man was destroyed.
Thus William and his Normans conquered England. No further resistance was possible. Marching slowly toward London, he was acknowledged king by the Witan; and on Christmas Day, in the great church at Westminster, built by Edward, he put on the English crown.
The victory of the Normans was a turning point in English history. Britons, Romans, English, Danes, and Normans,—all made their conquests and left their successive impressions on the life of the island.
This however, is the last of the invasions.
Never afterward does a foreign foe take possession of English soil.
Henceforward, what England is to be is determined not by any
outside power, but by her own inhabitants.