Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of William the Conqueror by Eva March Tappan
In the Days of William the Conqueror by  Eva March Tappan

What He Has He Holds

"A ND what do you think of my misty kingdom?" asked King Edward of the Norman duke.

"That it is misty, but that it is a kingdom," said the duke laughingly, "and it is a kingdom that may become very great."

"It may, but only under a great king," said Edward. "My brother Alfred should have been the king. If my mother—but no, we will not speak of her. Alfred would have ruled it well. He would not have been unworthy of him whose name he bore. I am better fitted for the cloister and the cowl. Have you thought seriously of the matter for which I wished you to come to England?"

"I have," said William.

"You see what the land is and what the people are," said the king. "These English are a blunt race; not stupid, but slow. They can do a thing and do it well if it once occurs to them that they can do it. They make far better jewelry than we, but it has not yet entered their heads that they can build as fine churches as we. For their homes they are satisfied with what some of our villeins would despise; and it is all because it has not yet occurred to them that they can do better."

"It has occurred to them that they can eat and drink," said William.

"Yes," said the king; "and their feasts are not feasts, they are simply times of stuffing. They do not eat and drink to enjoy, but to see how much they can hold. One might as well shovel stones into a quicksand."

"They have a strange-sounding language," said William.

"Not a word of it do I know," said the king. "All around me are Normans. The Bishop of London is a Norman, and so is the Archbishop of Canterbury, so are all the people of my household. I must have men whose speech I can understand, and besides that, these English are fit only to serve Normans, not to rule them. But to our subject. You have done homage to me as to your liege lord, and I have promised you the crown of England at my death. Whether the English have any law about who shall follow me, I do not know, but surely a crown should belong to him who wears it. Be that as it may, I give it to you. I have not forgotten the kindness that your grandfather and your uncle showed me when I was a boy in Normandy, and I have not forgotten that your father lost ships and money in his attempt to give me the throne that belonged to me. I have much more to say to you, and to-morrow—"

"What is it?" asked the king, for a servant had drawn aside the curtain that hid the doorway. The servant bowed before the king and the duke.

"A messenger from over the seas would see the Duke of Normandy. He says that his errand is speedy and brooks no delay." Involuntarily William laid his hand on his sword. The king smiled at the motion.

"We will hope not," said he; "and yet to a soldier like you, to use the sword is to win glory." The messenger was admitted. He was travel-stained and dusty, and his dress bore every mark not only of a hasty journey but of a hasty departure from home. His Norman courtesy was almost forgotten, and after a slight obeisance to the king, he turned quickly to William and said:—

"My lord duke, there is trouble in Normandy. The Count of Eu rebels against your authority."

A hasty farewell did William and his knights bid to King Edward. Straight across the channel they sailed, and before the revolting count realized that they had left the shores of England, he found himself a prisoner in his own castle. Bold man as he was, he trembled and asked for conditions of surrender.

"Surrender without conditions," was William's reply, "or we storm the castle." The count remembered Alençon and surrendered. What should be done with the rebel was the next question. A hasty consultation was held between William and his barons.

"The count is a traitor. The punishment for treason is death," said one stern warrior, leaning on his shield.

"It is the custom of the country and a fitting penalty," said another.

"The Count of Eu is the cousin of my father," said William. "I will not send my own blood to the death of a traitor."

"He lived the life of a traitor," said a baron grimly, "and we are living the lives of honest vassals. We are giving you our blood and our service without stint, that there may be peace in your land. Will you hold back from just vengeance the man who is overthrowing all that we are trying to build up?" The young duke sat in silence a moment. Then he said:—

"My barons, you are older and more experienced and perhaps much wiser than I, and it might well be that I should yield to your advice on the battle-field and in the council-chamber, but this is neither. The Count of Eu is conquered. He has submitted. There is no more battle."

"There is council, though, or there ought to be," muttered one of the barons through his beard; but his ruler turned upon him fiercely and said:—

"There is not. By council a traitor may be hanged. So be it; but I am the duke, and I say that the cousin of my father shall not  be hanged. Banished he may be, hanged he shall not be."

"The young eagle begins to feel his wings," whispered one soldier to another, and not without a secret delight that their ruler had again shown himself to be one that would rule.

"If the traitor is once in the hands of the duke," said the other, "and is allowed to live, every traitor in the duchy will rise up against us."

"Then he must never be in the hands of the duke," said the first; and so among them they contrived a way by which the count might quietly disappear from the place of battle and make his escape. Every Norman rebel knew where to go when he was exiled from his own country, and the count fled straightway to the King of France. Henry had forgotten all about the assistance that William had given him. He greeted the count with much honor, and soon received him as one of his vassals and gave him a goodly piece of territory.

This revolt was a small matter, but there was trouble of a more serious nature to follow. Duke Robert had left two young half-brothers, Malger and the Count of Arques. The count had never been friendly to William, but he had made no open revolt, and had even fought under the duke's banner. Malger was a priest, and William by the advice of his council had made him Archbishop of Rouen. No tie of gratitude bound Malger, and although he readily accepted the high position, he determined to use his power to overthrow the nephew who had given it to him, and to put the Count of Arques on the ducal throne. No son of Arletta, said the archbishop, should ever hold the place of his brother Robert.

Some years earlier William had intrusted to his uncle the county of Arques, and the count had at once built a strong castle. It was on a narrow tongue of land, while the keep, standing on a hill at the point near where the tongue joined the mainland, shut off all hostile approach. Around the keep the count had dug a fosse of unusual depth and width. William had reason to suspect his uncle's loyalty, and therefore he filled this castle with a garrison of his own men whom he thought he could trust. Unfortunately, either they feared the threats of the count, or else they were not able to resist his bribes. At any rate, they soon swore allegiance to the revolter.

Straightway there broke out all over the district of Arques a frenzy of theft, robbery, and murder. Men who so readily broke their oath of fealty could not be trusted to keep their hands from the property of others. They seized upon the goods of merchants, and the crops upon which the very lives of the peasant farmers depended. The church, too, was a constant sufferer. Church and peasant united in an appeal to William.

The duke was at Valognes when the messenger came. Without an instant's delay, he buckled on his sword to set out for Arques.

"The King of France is making ready to assist the Count of Arques," added the messenger. William stood with his hand on his horse ready to spring into the saddle.

"Say you so?" he asked sternly. "Is this the truth that you are telling me?" The messenger raised his right hand.

"Strike this off if you find me false," said he. William dropped his horse's rein, and stood for some minutes silent and in deep thought.

"Be it so," he said half aloud. Then he turned to his waiting knights.

"Let those who love me follow me," he said; and they set out on as wild a gallop as that on which William had once before set out from this same castle of Valognes. They spurred their steeds. One horse after another was exhausted. Twice William's horse sank under him, and twice he sprang upon a fresh one. When he came in sight of the castle of Arques, his faithful knights were far behind him. Only six could endure that frantic ride. Just what William expected to do with six men against a mighty castle no one knows, for happily some loyal vassals had called out three hundred knights. Even this force was slender enough, so the vassals told him, for the whole district was in rebellion.

"All the more need to quiet one part of it," said the duke. "When those rebels once see me face to face, they will yield." William's courage aroused a new hope in the others. Wild shouts of loyalty and enthusiasm echoed and reëchoed. The faithful nobles waved their swords, their shields, their lances, anything, as they rallied eagerly about their commander.

"There they are!" he cried. "Let every brave man follow me," and he galloped furiously toward the hill. His quick eye had seen a company of the rebels winding up the steep. They were evidently returning from some marauding expedition, for they seemed to be carrying great loads, and their horses went slowly and wearily. Without a glance to see whether any one was supporting him, William galloped on, and his brave men followed. The men of Arques were overtaken close to the castle gate. They fought for only a few minutes, then they retreated to the castle for their lives, and the great gates closed behind them.

"They shall yield," cried William, "and not a drop of loyal Norman blood shall be shed." More of the faithful knights had arrived. Between the keep and the mainland, William dug a deep ditch and built a palisade. Then he put up quickly a wooden tower to shut off food and allies.

Inside the castle were the rebels, the Count of Arques and all the vassals whose military service he could command, together with many more whom the aid of his archbishop brother had enabled him to hire. Outside the castle were William's men, and on the way to help the rebels and to crush the faithful Normans between the castle and the forces of the king, came Henry, ruler of France, and sworn protector and friend of William of Normandy.

William might possibly have conquered the rebels before him, but the army of the king, coming upon him in the midst of the battle, would almost certainly have given the victory to the men of Arques. The whole district was in an uproar. No one knew from what direction aid might come for the rebels. Leaving part of his army to defend the wooden tower and shut off any hostile troops that might appear from the east, the duke set out to intercept any that might come from the other directions.

It was not long before some loyal friends sent word to the brave besiegers in the wooden tower that King Henry and his men were encamped not far away, ready to come to the aid of the castle of Arques. None too many men had the besiegers, but a party started at once to prevent the coming of the allies, slipping away silently in the darkness that the rebels might not know that the numbers of their foes were less.

Morning came, and the French soldiers started out merrily. The young knights caracoled their horses. They sang old love-songs, and they laid wagers with one another about how high the sun would be when the men of this troublesome duke would flee before them like so many crickets. Then they formed in marching order. First came the soldiers armed with pikes and battle-axes, a formidable advance-guard. Behind them followed the long train of baggage, engines of war, loads of weapons, tents, and provisions for themselves and for the beleaguered garrison. With this were the "scullions, cooks, and carters," whose business it was not to fight, but to care for all these things. Then came the king and the whole troop of horse and foot, well armed and ready to engage in whatever conflict might arise.

Steadily the long line marched on. Victory lay before them; they had no thought of fear. It was a pleasant, sunny way. Little birds sang over their heads, flowers were under their feet. One stalwart soldier stooped to pick a tiny white blossom. The next moment he lay dead with the little white flower fresh and fair in his stiffening hand. An enemy's arrow had struck him; and there was the Norman band, only a little company, so little that the Frenchmen laughed and shouted exultantly and turned upon them.

The Normans fled. Whither? No matter, it was easy to follow and capture them; and with cries of derision the whole force of the king pursued. Into a narrow valley ran the Normans, with apparently no thought save of escape from their foes. On either side were steep, heavily wooded hills. The Normans ran, and the Frenchmen followed.

Suddenly a hissing storm of steel-tipped arrows burst upon the lines of the French. Not a foeman was in sight save the disordered ranks that were fleeing before them, but high up on the hills on either hand were William's good archers. Behind every rock and every tree they had stood so motionless that the shy little animals of the wood had forgotten their first alarm, and had begun to run fearlessly about their feet. The disordered troops of the Normans instantly faced about, formed in line, and fell upon the French forces. These, shut into the valley by the Normans, were thrust back upon their own troops. Everywhere there was disorder and confusion. In the clouds of dust and sand, friends and companions in arms struck wildly at one another. The horses, bold to meet danger face to face, were terrified by a peril that they could not see. They freed themselves from all control, and ran wildly wherever there was a moment's break in the flash of swords. Still swept over them the terrible storm of arrows from the unseen foe. Lance and gonfalon were trampled into the dust. There were great writhing masses of dead and wounded; and, through it all, past where the happy little white flowers had grown and the yellow sunshine had brightened the mossy ground around them, there began to trickle slow, sullen streams of the red blood of brave men.


Still swept over them the terrible storm of arrows

Part of the army, led by the king himself, formed a wedge, and worked through to safety from immediate attack. They even went as far as Arques, but William's men were too strong for them, and they withdrew to the French boundaries, the king mortified and angry, and the soldiers talking sullenly to one another.

"Where is our vanguard, and where are our wings? What has this mighty king, this great man of battle, done with them?" And another would say:—

"Has he any more mousetraps to lead us into, this wise and valiant ruler of ours?"

Duke William, having prevented any aid from coming to the castle from either hand, returned to the wooden tower, not to fight, but to wait. Why should one fight when hunger would do the work? The Count of Arques had contrived to send a messenger to Henry begging for help, but no help came. The castle was swarming with defenders, but there was no food. To have many men is good in a fight, but it is not good in a famine. The white flag was run up.

"Promise us safety of life and limb, and we yield," said the starving garrison. The gates were thrown open, and out came a miserable company. With faces worn and haggard, and drawn by the pangs of hunger, tottering along on feet that could hardly support them, and resting their hands on horses that were too feeble to bear the weight of their masters—to see the proudest knights of the land in such a plight was indeed pitiable. Nor was this all; for some of them, knowing well that death was the punishment for such treason as theirs, and fearing that William's promise would not restrain his just resentment, came out bowed down by the weight of the saddles that were strapped to their shoulders, hoping by their humility to disarm his anger.

To William's honor be it said that he inflicted no further suffering upon these miserable men. He did not banish the count. He even permitted him to retain nearly all of his estate; and when the count finally withdrew of his own accord to the court of Boulogne, William granted the land to another member of the same family.

William had paid a visit to England, and he had returned and conquered a revolt in his duchy, but there was another matter which he had not forgotten in all his feasting and fighting. Matilda of Flanders was to be his wife, and he had waited for the Pope's permission about as long as his impatience would permit. Some five years it had been since he was forbidden to marry her, and for five years he had waited with apparent meekness and obedience to the Pope's command.

He was in a different position now from that of five years earlier. He was at the head of Normandy much more perfectly than he had been before, for he had shown that what he had he could hold. Moreover, he had good reason to believe that in due time he would be king of England. Was a king and duke to be refused a dispensation that any ordinary knight might hope to obtain? The Normans had powerful settlements in Italy. Jealousy and war had arisen, and the Pope had been a captive in the hands of the victorious Normans. He had thought of the Normans as a wild, only half-civilized people, and expected from them the most severe treatment. Much to his surprise, the Norman commander came to him at once in person and addressed him most respectfully, inviting him to the Norman camp, not as prisoner, but as guest. All the chief officers attended the Pope to the camp. The greatest courtesy was shown him, and he was entertained for several days with as much luxury as a camp could furnish. Then with a guard of honor, he was conducted to the city where he wished to remain. Leo IX was a sincere man. Understanding the nature of the Normans better, he absolved them from censure, and even blessed their arms. These Norman warriors had opposed him sword in hand. Would he who had so readily pardoned them refuse a dispensation to the greatest Norman of them all? William thought not. To give permission in advance was one thing; to pardon what was already done was another.

So it was that Duke William took matters into his own control and appealed to the Count of Flanders for the hand of Matilda. The count was pleased with the powerful alliance and gave with his daughter a generous dowry, land and money and costly robes and priceless jewels. A ruling sovereign must be married in his own territory, so the count set off with his daughter and a long procession of knights and nobles to cross the district of Ponthieu to the Norman frontier. A brilliant company it was. The ladies were in elegant attire, their mantles sparkling with jewels and gleaming with many rich colors. The knights wore their armor, and it shone and flashed in the sunshine. The horses were richly caparisoned, with bright stones glowing here and there in their trappings.

At Eu, the first castle over the Norman frontier, William met his bride. He wore armor, and his helmet and mantle both flashed with precious stones. So magnificent was this mantle and that of his bride, that both garments, together with the duke's helmet, were presented to the cathedral at Bayeux and were kept for at least four hundred years. The whole company rode to the church of Eu; and there some priest, who trusted to the power of William to free him from the censure of the Pope, pronounced the blessing of the church upon the couple who were to become the ancestors of the English sovereigns of to-day.

There were celebrations and feasts and entertainments of all sorts; then with all the honor that Normandy could show, the maiden of Flanders was escorted to the Norman capital of Rouen. The Count and Countess of Flanders and all the Flemish court accompanied her, and at Rouen there were again many days of festivity and merrymaking.

The Flemings went back to their own land, and William with the greatest pride and delight took his bride on a royal progress to see the towns and people of Normandy. It had been thirty years since Normandy had had a duchess, and this beautiful, cultivated woman found a sincere welcome wherever she went. The church dignitaries might be pleased or displeased; the masses of the Norman people rejoiced.

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