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

A Voice from the Cliff

T HIS marriage is thought to have taken place in 1053, when William was probably twenty-five years of age. His whole life had been a warfare, and one of his three decisive battles had been fought before he was twenty years old. This battle was Val-ès-dunes, and his victory settled the question of his supremacy in Normandy. He had conquered his own duchy, and he had shown that in all Europe there was no better commander than he. Two other great victories lay in the years before him. Nothing came to him by gift; everything must be won. Even for the hand of Matilda he had laid siege, and he had waited as he would have done to capture a city. His love for his wife was as earnest as was his vehemence on the field of battle. At last a gleam of happiness had come to him; but clouds were gathering, and in all his joy there were mutterings of a rising storm, of a battle that could not be fought with sword and lance.

"What do you think of our duke's marriage?" questioned a Norman knight of a priest.

"The lady Matilda is a gracious and beautiful woman," replied the priest.

"You priests are so cautious," laughed the knight. "Think you that the Pope will bless the marriage?"

"The gift of prophecy was not bestowed upon me," said the priest, smiling at the knight's apparent discomfiture.

"What would you do if you were Pope?" questioned the knight shrewdly.

"I am but a simple priest. Never could I even think of myself in so exalted a position as that of Father of the Church."

"I see there is no getting anything out of you," said the knight good-humoredly. "We'll drop it; but priest or no priest, I fancy that you know something about a good horse when you see one. Come with me on a hunt, and I'll lend you the best horse that you ever mounted. I presume you can think of some one who would be the better for a little wild meat. "

The hunt was successful, and on the return the knight said:—

"To make a man a priest does not seem to make him a coward. That was a close thing when the boar attacked you. Ought a bishop to be braver than a priest, and the Pope braver than a bishop?"

"I don't know about that," said the priest; "but at any rate, the Pope is no coward. They say that he picked up a leper who was at his door, took him on his shoulder, and laid him in his own bed. A man who will do that is a brave man. He cares not a straw who opposes him. He means to work reforms in the church, and when he has once said what he believes is right, there is no power that will make him change." The priest made his farewell, and the knight looked after him with a grim smile.

"They all tell the same story," said he. "Sometimes it needs only a question, sometimes a cup of wine or a ride, and sometimes a horse; but they all think alike. The Pope will never bless this marriage. There's a chance for Malger, and there's a chance for King Henry—and, mayhap, there's a chance for me," and he spurred his horse and rode away in the direction of the Norman capital, where abode Malger, Archbishop of Rouen.

With the custom of giving high positions in the church to any young relatives for whom the head of a powerful family might wish to provide, there could hardly fail to be bishops and archbishops who were unfit for their office. No one doubts that Malger was one of these. At the head of the church in Normandy he was, the chroniclers declare that more than one pope had refused him the snowy pallium, the sacred vestment which was the sign of his ecclesiastical rank.

At this man's door the knight knocked. Sounds of feasting and high revelry came from within. After some delay the door was opened a little way, and the servant said, with a grimace that one might interpret as he would,—

"The archbishop sees no one to-day; it is a fast-day."

"I think he will see me," said the knight. "Come here." He whispered a single word. The door was flung open, and in five minutes the archbishop had excused himself from his guests, and he and the knight were talking earnestly together in a private room, far away from listening ears.

"The trouble is that no one can foretell what that turbulent nephew of mine will do," said Malger; "he can turn in as many ways as the fiend himself."

"True," said the knight, "but what can he do? He has a sword, and he knows how to wield it; but there are knots that even so keen a weapon as his will not cut."

"Nine-tenths of the nobles in the duchy favor the marriage," said Malger.

"Yes, so eager are they to have an heir to the throne and a hope of lasting peace that they will favor anything," said the knight; "but there need not be peace unless you will it. It all lies in your hands. Think of it! An excommunication—an uprising—help from a certain foreign power—the Count of Arques on the ducal throne—and would your brother dare to neglect the weapon by which he had won his place?"

"But would the Pope support an excommunication that I might pronounce?"

"You mean that he does not always manifest a hearty approbation of what seems to you a desirable course?" said the knight with a knowing smile.

"That is perhaps a gentle way of putting it," said the archbishop ruefully.

"And has it occurred to you that if he sees you so zealous in the discharge of the duties of your office, so eager to uphold his decree that you even venture to oppose the will of a ruler like the duke—do you not think that you will win the favor not only of the Pope, but of all the powers of the church? You have a high position, but even you may rise. There are other fields than Normandy." The knight gazed fixedly for a moment at the archbishop's face. Then with a careless obeisance he withdrew. As he went from the house, he whispered to himself exultantly:—

"I've done it. Now for King Henry and a rich marriage and a great feoff."

Straightway Malger issued a decree of excommunication against William and Matilda, the two children of the church who had so boldly ventured to disregard her authority.

Well might Archbishop Malger say that no one could foretell the deed of his nephew. Without delay William laid before the Pope proofs of Malger's unfitness for his office. The Pope could censure William's marriage, but he was none the less bound to consider impartially a complaint of this kind coming from the ruler of a great duchy. The proofs were only too plentiful, and two years after the marriage the archbishop was deposed.

A louder voice than Malger's now spoke. It was the voice of one Lanfranc, prior of the convent of Bec. Lanfranc was a scholar, with an eloquence and logic worthy of his descent from a famous family of lawyers, a man whose honesty and keenness of intellect had won for him the favor and the confidence of the Norman duke. This was the man who, with nothing to gain by his opposition and much to lose, now spoke out boldly against the marriage, blaming equally duke and duchess.

The same madness which always seemed to overcome William at any insult offered to his mother, now burst forth at this censure of his wife. He drove Lanfranc from his convent and banished him from Normandy. His wrath knew no bounds. He ordered part, at least, of the lands of the monastery to be ravaged and some of the buildings belonging to the abbey to be burned.

Lanfranc prepared to leave the Norman territories, but he took care to withdraw by a road where he was almost sure to fall in with the duke. The exiled monk wore the humblest garb that his convent could furnish, and he was mounted on a lame horse—some say a horse with but three legs. A single servant, whose dress was certainly no better than that of his master, followed the man who had been at the head of a great convent and the friend of a great duke. William met this little procession face to face. Lanfranc and the lame horse made a simultaneous bow. The combination was irresistible, and the duke's stern lips twitched with grim amusement at the sight. The prior saw his opportunity. Pretending great eagerness to hasten, he belabored his poor beast and said:—

"Pardon, pardon, my lord, that I am so slow to obey your command. Indeed, I am going as fast as I can, but if you would only give me a better horse,—if you would perhaps exchange with me,—I should be far more obedient." Whoever got the better of William in a jest had won the day, and he said:—

"Never before did a criminal ask a gift of his judge. Supposing that I should not only give you a horse, but should more than make up all that you have lost, what would you do for me?"

"Whatever an honorable man can do for his prince," replied the prior steadily. William looked him full in the eyes.

"You know the thing that I want," said he, "and you know that you can get it if any one can. Will you do it?" Lanfranc was no coward. He returned to the full the searching look of the duke.

"William, Duke of Normandy," said he, "my own liege lord, many a favor have you done me, but not for all that you have done and all that it is in your power to do would I say that your marriage is according to the laws of the church to which we have both promised obedience."

"Go, then," said William angrily, "and never let me see your face again in Normandy." The duke rode away furiously, and Lanfranc hobbled along in the opposite direction. An hour later a cloud of dust arose behind the banished prior. It came nearer. Some one was galloping so madly that Lanfranc guided his sorry steed to the side of the road. The rider drew up his horse so suddenly that the poor animal almost fell backward. It was the duke.

"Lanfranc!" he called.

"My liege lord," answered the prior.

"Did you ever hear of such a thing as the forgiveness of a sin?"

"Yes, surely," said Lanfranc.

"You say that my marriage is not according to the law of the church. Very well. Will you go to Rome and say, 'The Duke of Normandy has broken a law of the church; but for pardon, for the Pope's confirmation of his marriage, he will as a thank-offering do whatever deed of charity the Pope shall command.' Will you say this, and will you do your best to bring it about?"

"I will."

"Then what are you waiting for?" cried William. "Give him the best horse that you have," he said to his attendants, who were standing at a little distance. "And do you," said he to Lanfranc, "do you get you back to your convent and put on your richest robes. Horses and guards will be at your door, and do you be on your way to Rome before the sun begins to sink. On the very day that a messenger arrives to tell me that you have secured a dispensation, I will rebuild all that has been destroyed; and I will give the abbey of Bec three times the value of what it has lost. As for you, if you are true to me, and if you prove yourself the man that I think you are, you shall one day hold positions that have never entered into your dreams. Now go." William embraced him and gave him the formal kiss of reconciliation, and the prior went on his way.

That William had a sincere regard for the welfare of the church is proved by the character of the men to whom he gave her highest honors in his duchy,—Lanfranc, Anselm, and Maurilius, men worthy in mind and in heart of all that the duke could bestow. His marriage manifested less of opposition to the law of the church than of confidence in her willingness to pardon. About a year after the marriage, his son Robert was born; and in his love for the child and the mother, the negotiations with the Pope and with his successors would have seemed slow indeed, had not his thoughts been so fully taken up by other matters that pressed upon him.

The king of France, a fickle, vacillating ally, had once shown himself a generous friend; now he appeared in the character of a bitter enemy. France had never ceased to look with envy upon the fertile expanse of Normandy. The French kingdom, strong or weak, as contrast with its neighbors might show it, began to fear before the ever increasing power of the duchy. Ought a vassal, who at best could not be called over-submissive to his suzerain, to control the district that shut France from the sea, even the very river whereon her capital was situated? Ought these Normans, only five generations removed from the heathen who had forced an unfortunate king to part with his territories, to hold a duchy which by its size, power, and position was a constant menace to the kingdom to which it owed service? Let William keep the northwest; the east should again belong to France.

So said the French, and King Henry and his army set out to overpower this too prosperous duke. The plan was for Henry to lead one division of the army into Normandy from the south, while his brother made an attack from the north upon the country about Rouen. To meet the advance from the north, William trusted some of his well-tried nobles; but to meet the advance from the south, King Henry and his great band of allies, William would trust no one but himself.

The Norman fighters assembled—and stood still. The French forces swept into Normandy from the north. They burned and they pillaged and they murdered. Churches or dwelling-houses, old men, young men, women, or children, it was all the same to them; and with a ferocity almost as savage as that of the Danes in their most savage days they ploughed their way, leaving want and suffering and death behind them. They encamped in the town of Mortemer. Every day there was burning and pillage of the country roundabout; every night there was feasting and drunkenness.

Just what was William about? There must be no battle, said this wise general of twenty-six years, until the whole Norman force could be brought together; and so all that the Normans attempted was to save what property they could, and to cut off small bodies of men who had strayed from the French troops.

At last the Normans were strong, and one dark night they marched silently to the town of Mortemer. It was just at the break of day. After a night of carousing, the Frenchmen were lost in a drunken slumber. Was it a bad dream? The houses were all ablaze. Where were their arms, their horses? What had happened? Was it the troops of Normandy or was it hosts of demons that were upon them? Half-dressed, half-armed, mad with pain, they were cut down on the steps, even in their beds. They attempted to fight their way out of the burning town, but the head of every street was guarded. They resisted furiously. From early in the morning till the middle of the afternoon they fought, but it was in vain. They were cut down till the little town was red with their blood.

A man of high rank was chosen to be the bearer of news like this to William's camp across the Seine.

"A Norman knight is riding swiftly up the hill," reported the sentinel.

"Our men are in trouble. Arm and make ready to got to them," ordered William; but the rider waved his gonfalon joyfully.

"There is no longer an enemy in Mortemer," said he; "all whose ransoms would be worth having are in the prisons of Normandy, the rest are slain."

"It is God that has given us the victory," said William reverently; "to Him be the thanks." King Henry was encamped not far away.

"Surprise routed one army," said William; "it may be that fright will rout the other." In the middle of the night the king and his men were aroused by a weird, solemn chanting from the top of a cliff which overhung their camp.

"Arouse, ye soldiers of France! Too long have your eyes been closed in slumber. Onward to Mortemer, to bury your friends who lie dead in the streets, slain by the swords of the Normans."

Before sunrise King Henry and his men had fled, caring for no plunder, no captives,—nothing but to get far away from the terrible duke.

The king was ready to make peace, and for three years there was peace. This was about as long as Henry could resist the temptation to attack the ever increasing power of the Normans. He set out with a great company of Frenchmen and their allies to plunder Normandy. With wrathful patience William gathered his knights together, and then again he waited. In Falaise he remained, while the Frenchmen cut a swath of fire and pillage through the country. Everywhere were William's spies, and when the moment came he struck.

Henry was on his return. He and his vanguard had crossed the river Dive at Varaville, and had climbed the cliffs on the eastern aide of the stream. The rear-guard and the great quantities of treasure that they had taken from the country had not yet come across. They were on a narrow causeway that was built out into the river at a place where it might be forded when the tide was low. William had secretly marched around the French lines, and now he fell suddenly upon the half of the army on the causeway. There was a terrible struggle, hopeless from the first. It is said that not one of the rear-guard escaped.

From the cliffs only just across the stream King Henry saw every movement. He saw his men struck down and taken captive, and to see was all that he could do. If his counsellors had not held him back, he would have plunged down the cliff in a hopeless attempt to rescue his knights; but the tide was coming in swiftly; only the most expert swimmers could cross the stream, and what could even they do with Norman arrows flying about them, and the lance and the terrible battle-axe waiting to receive them on the opposite shore? There was nothing for Henry to do but to save what men remained to him by a speedy flight from Norman territory.

This battle at the ford of Varaville was the end of the French invasions. Henry gladly made peace, and for the sake of it he offered to rebuild Tillières and restore it to Normandy. Two years later Henry died, and profiting perhaps by William's experience, he too threw himself upon the generosity of a foe, and left the guardianship of his little son to William's father-in-law, the Count of Flanders.

William had gained possession of his own country, and he had repelled the invasions of the ruler of another. He himself was to become an invader, but with a kind of lawfulness of claim so like that which is put forward a few years later that his conquest of Maine seems like a rehearsal of his conquest of England.

Count Herbert, driven from his inheritance of Maine, a large and fertile district south of Normandy, fled to William, became his vassal, and bequeathed to him the county of Maine.

"The land is mine, and I shall take it," said William; "but I shed no unnecessary drop of blood." With his usual policy of patience, he kept his hands from the chief city, Le Mans, but took one fortress after another and ravaged district after district. The people of Maine were finally exhausted. William held the whole country, and when he called upon Le Mans to surrender, it not only yielded, but flung open the gates with a welcome to William and to peace which was sincere in part, at any rate, for now there would be no more fighting. William had taken the city without shedding a drop of blood. Men greeted the duke as a saviour rather than a conqueror. Throughout the town his praises were shouted. A long procession swept out of the church chanting psalms of joy. He might almost have been entering his own Falaise, so great was the rejoicing.

William had yet another cause for happiness. Lanfranc had been doing his best in Rome, and finally the promised messenger came to William with the word that he had awaited so eagerly for six long years.

"The duke will not yield," Lanfranc had said, "and an interdict punishes the innocent in the kingdom as much as it does the guilty. Moreover, if the marriage is not confirmed, if by any means William should be forced to send Matilda back to Flanders, that will cause war. Ought not the Father of the Church to prevent bloodshed by mercy? Are there not heathen enough to kill without shedding Christian blood?"

Pope Nicholas yielded, and the marriage was formally confirmed by the church. The penance imposed was that William and Matilda should build four hospitals, one in each of the four chief towns of Normandy, and that they should build a convent for women and one for men. They obeyed, and the two noble abbeys of Caen are the memorial of the broken law of the church, of the penance, and of the pardon.

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