Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

William the Conqueror—The Death of the King

W ILLIAM was ruler of the land, but English hearts never accepted him. Norman and Englishman lived side by side, yet a wide sea of hatred kept them apart.

As he had promised, William rewarded the Norman barons and nobles who had helped him to conquer England. He gave them the lands and goods of the conquered people, so it was not wonderful that there was fierce hatred between the two races.

The Normans were greedy, and they not only took the lands which William gave them, but they forced the English to pay large sums of money too. Every high position was filled by Normans, and the English were forced to be the servants and slaves of these proud Norman masters.

The Normans talked a great deal of "right," but the more they talked of right, the more wrong they did. The very sheriffs and judges, who ought to have seen that the laws were kept and that justice was done, were more greedy than thieves and robbers, and the king was greediest of all. He made the people pay tolls and taxes until they had hardly any money left. Much of this money he took away with him to France, much he kept locked up in his strong treasure-room.

As if he had not already spoiled enough of the country in battle, William next laid waste a great part in the south, simply because he was very fond of hunting and he wanted a good hunting-ground. He turned the people out of their houses, burning and ruining whole villages in order to make a great place in which to ride and hunt. He called this place the New Forest and it is so called to this day.

Having made this forest, William also made forest laws. These laws were very cruel. If any person was found hunting or killing the deer or other wild animals, his eyes were put out or his hands and ears were cut off. So the poor people, who had been driven from their homes dared not even kill the wild animals for food.

William did not do much that was kind, but some things which he did were wise. Among the wise things was the law which he made that all lights and fires must be put out at eight o'clock at night.

Nowadays we should think it very hard indeed if all fires and lights had to be put out at eight o'clock. But in those days people used to rise very early, and go to bed very early, so that it was not a great hardship. It was really a wise rule, because nearly all the houses were built of wood, and if people were careless and went to bed leaving large fires burning, the houses were apt to catch fire. In a town all built of wood, if one house caught fire sometimes a whole street would be burned to the ground before the fire could be put out.

By this wise law William made the danger of fires much less. Every night at eight o'clock a bell was rung. This bell was called "the curfew," from the French words "couvre feu" which mean "cover fire."

Another wise thing which William did was to make what is called the Domesday Book, or book of judgment. This was a very big book in which a description of all the great houses and lands in the kingdom was written down, with the names of the people to whom the land and houses belonged. This book was very useful at the time, and it has been very useful since. For one thing it shows us how much land was taken from the English and given to the Normans.

When William gave the Normans land he did not give it to them for nothing. In return they had to promise to come to help the King in battle and to bring men with them. The more land they got the more men they had to promise to provide in time of war. When William wished to know how many men a certain lord would bring to fight for him, he only needed to look at his great book to see how much land he had. This plan of paying for land by fighting was called the feudal system, and it lasted in England for many years.

William spent a great deal of time in Normandy, for, though he was proud to be King of England, he loved his Norman home far better. It was in Normandy that he died.

William had been fighting with the King of France, and, with his usual cruelty, he had burned a town belonging to that king. While William was riding about among the ruins, his horse stepped upon some hot ashes, stumbled, and he was thrown to the ground. William was by this time very fat and old, and the fall hurt him so much that in a few days he died.

Only two of William's sons were with him at the time. Robert, the eldest, had quarrelled with his father long before, and was far away. But, as he lay dying, William wished to be at peace with every one. He forgave Robert and left the crown of Normandy to him. "And," he said, "although the crown of England is not mine to give away, I should like William to have it." And the son, eager to claim his father's crown, seized the great signet ring which the dying king still wore, and drew it from his finger.

To Henry, his youngest son, William left a large sum of money.

Then William and Henry hurried off to England; the one to demand the crown, the other to make sure of his treasure. The great Conqueror was left to die alone.

A strange thing happened while William was being buried. Fire broke out in the streets just as it had done when he was being crowned. The people who were carrying the bier fled, so once more the Conqueror was left alone with a few priests. They would have buried him hurriedly but, as they began the service, a young man stepped forward and stopped them. "This ground," he said, "was taken from my father by the very king whom you now wish to bury here. He has no right to the land. It is mine, not his. I refuse to allow him to be buried in it."

So even in death the Conqueror was to find no resting-place. But the priests bargained with the young man, and at last, for the sum of sixty shillings, he allowed them to bury the King in his ground.

And there the Conqueror was at last laid to rest.

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