How the Northmen Conquered England
T HE Northmen had been settled in Normandy more than a hundred years, and one William—afterwards known to history as William the Conqueror—was ruling over the country. He had ruled since he was a little boy of seven years old, his father having died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The wise men of Normandy had objected to the appointment of one so young as their duke.
"He is little, but he will grow," said his father, as he bade them farewell.
The young Norman duke soon showed himself to be above his fellows. The spirit of the old Vikings seemed to be in him. He was a young giant in size, in strength, and in courage. His whole life was spent in mastering difficulties.
"No knight under heaven," confessed his enemies, "was William's peer."
Man and horse went down before his lance: no man could bend his bow. Pitiless as he was strong, he could refuse a grave to his fearless foe, Harold of England, at the close of his greatest victory. He cared not whether men hated or loved him. They neither loved him nor did they hate him. They feared him.
Now this William had made a friend of the King of England, whose name was Edward the Confessor. The young Norman duke had been over to visit England, and the King of England had been in Normandy, and had taken back a large number of Normans to England with him, which was bitterly resented by his Saxon subjects.
There was a Saxon earl called Harold, who was a very powerful man in England at this time. Very beautiful, too, was this Harold. He had long fair hair reaching to his shoulders in one thick curl, he had deep blue eyes which flashed brightly, and a smile that had already won the hearts of the English people. He too had been to Normandy, and knew well William, the Norman Duke. Indeed it had already dawned in the minds of both these men that they were rivals for the throne of England when the present king, Edward the Confessor, should die.
The day came, and Edward died in the arms of Harold the Saxon, who was at once proclaimed King of England amid the shouts of the people: "We choose thee, Harold, for our lord and king."
The Norman duke was in the forest at home trying some new arrows with some of his Norman knights. Suddenly a rider came at full speed, and drawing William aside, whispered hastily, "King Edward is dead, and Harold is king of all England!"
"Edward dead? Then England is mine," cried William.
But England was not his yet. Huge difficulties stood in his way, but he was accustomed to difficulties. He had no fleet, no ships to cross the Channel. His Norman knights too objected. They said he was rash, that it was not their duty to follow him over the seas to England.
But William's firm resolve won the day. Trees were cut down and ships were built. All through the long summer days the havens of Normandy were busy, building and manning their ships, until by August some six hundred were ready. Then they waited a whole month on the French coast for a south wind to blow them over to England. At last a south wind arose, and the fleet set sail in the night, the duke's own ship sailing first, with a huge lantern at the masthead to guide them. They landed near Pevensey, on the south coast of England, some twelve miles from Hastings, near which the great battle was so soon to be fought. An old story says as William stepped on English ground his foot slipped, and he fell. Rising with his hands full of earth, "I have taken possession of my kingdom," he said, "for the earth of England is in my hands."
When Harold the Saxon heard that William of Normandy was preparing to fight him for the English throne, he hurried south with his army. It was the 14th of October 1066 when the two armies met near Hastings for the final struggle. The night before the battle which was to decide the fate of England was spent by the Saxons over their fires, singing merrily, eating and drinking; spent by the Normans in prayer.
When morning dawned Harold and his army were found to be on the hill above Hastings, ready for the Norman attack. His bodyguard—men in full armour with huge axes—were grouped round the standard of the king. The rest of his army was composed of half-armed rustics, who, loving him, had flocked to his summons to fight with the stranger. Against these were arrayed the knighthood of Normandy. In front rode a minstrel, tossing his sword in the air and catching it again, as he chanted the song of Roland. All the fury of fight that glowed in his Norseman's blood spurred William the Conqueror onwards up the slopes with his men. Again and again they were driven back. Then a cry rang out that he was slain.
"I live," he cried, tearing off his helmet, "and, by God's help, I will conquer yet."
And he did. All day long the battle raged. The Normans were gaining the hill now. By six o'clock they had reached the standard and Harold's bodyguard. Suddenly William ordered his archers to shoot their arrows up in the air. As Harold raised his eyes an arrow struck one, and he fell.
"Fight on: conceal my death," he gasped.
Then, struggling to his feet, he tried to raise his battle-axe to deal another blow for his beloved country, but in vain. His strength was spent.
The battle was over. William the Norman had conquered England. Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, was dead. They laid him beneath a heap of stones on the "waste sea-shore."
"For," said William, "he kept the shore while he lived; let him guard it now he is dead."
So William the Conqueror was crowned King of England, and the Northmen entered at last into possession of the island they had long coveted.