Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Eva March Tappan

William the Conqueror

T he Danes not only invaded France and settled in that land, but they won so much power in England that a little more than a century after the death of Alfred the Great, one of them drove away the weak king Ethelred and took possession of the English throne. The son of this Dane was the famous Canute. Canute was not only kind and just to his English subjects, but he seemed to love them and to wish to do his best for them. During his absence from England on one occasion, he left the government in the hands, not of a Dane, but of an Englishman. Canute was a very sensible man, and he disliked flattery more than kings are usually supposed to do. Once when his foolish courtiers assured him that even the sea would obey him, he bade them place his chair on the beach. Then he gravely ordered the ocean to retreat and not wet even the border of his robe. The courtiers stood about him in some alarm, for they were afraid of being punished for their untruthfulness. Soon the waves splashed the king, and then he turned to the flatterers and said gently, "He who is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, He is the one whom the earth and the sea and the heavens obey."


Canute Orders the Ocean to Retreat

Ethelred had fled to Normandy, and there his son Edward afterward known as the Confessor, grew up. His mother was a Norman, and his own ways of thinking were French rather than English. After Canute's two sons had died, the English sent for Edward to come and rule over them. The young Duke William of Normandy, a bold, ambitious man, was his friend and kinsman, and Edward promised to bequeath to him the English throne. After Edward had been in England a while, however, he learned that he could not give away the throne as if it were a bag of gold, but that the English people had something to say about who should rule them. When Edward died, therefore, they asked a brave Englishman named Harold to become their king.


The Wounding of Harold at the Battle of Hastings

Duke William of Normandy was indignant. He was a descendant of Rollo and was as energetic as the Viking himself. He set out with a great force of men and ships to seize the kingdom that he believed was justly his own. He sailed straight for the English coast, and not a ship came out to fight him. He landed at Pevensey near Hastings, and not a man cast a spear at him. He began to pillage the country, and no one opposed him. There were good reasons why the English were so quiet. One was that their fleet was made up of fishing vessels, which were now scattered here and there, for according to custom their owners were allowed at stated times to take them away in order to attend to their fishing. Secondly, the army was made up chiefly of farmers, and they had been permitted to go home to attend to their harvesting. Harold, meanwhile, was in the north with a few followers, repelling an invasion of the Danes, led by his brother Tostig and Harold Hardrada. These he conquered at Stamford Bridge; then, making a rapid march to the south he brought together what troops he could, and with no chance to train them, he fought a fierce battle with the Normans, and was defeated. It is possible that the invaders might not have won the day if they had not used a favorite trick of their pirate ancestors of pretending to run away. The English forgot their orders to keep in their places and dashed forward in pursuit. Then, when they were unprotected and scattered, the Normans suddenly turned upon them and overcame them, and Harold was slain. This was the famous battle of Hastings, or Senlac, one of the most important battles in all English history, because it decided that England should be ruled by the Normans. In France there are some very interesting pictures of this invasion embroidered upon a strip of linen seventy yards long called the Bayeux Tapestry. These pictures look as if a little child had drawn them, but there is a good deal of life in them, and they do tell the story. It is possible that they were worked by William's wife, Matilda, and her ladies in waiting.


Battle of Hastings
(From the Bayeux Tapestry)

After the battle of Senlac, William marched to London. No one dared to oppose him, and the chief men of the nation went to his camp and asked him to become their ruler. So on Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror, as he is known in history, was crowned king in Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of York.


William Entering London

The English watched anxiously to see how their new sovereign would treat them. Those who wished to keep their land had to go to him and swear to be faithful. The land of those who would not take the oath and of those who had fought at Hastings came into his hands, and he gave it to his Norman followers. He also gave the highest offices in church and state to Normans. That was natural; but it was hard for the English to bear, especially as the Normans looked upon them as rude, ignorant folk, much their inferiors. The English rose against William again and again. Four years after the battle of Hastings, a valiant leader named Hereward, with a large number of men, encamped on the Isle of Ely and resisted him for more than a year. William built a causeway through the marsh that surrounded the island, but for a long time his efforts to break up the Camp of Refuge, as it was called, were unsuccessful. Finally, through treachery some believe, the English were overcome. Hereward escaped, but this was the last rising of the English against their conqueror.


Hereward Watches the Building of the Causeway

William was severe, and those who broke his laws rarely escaped punishment, but even the English admitted that he was just. On one occasion he threw one of his own brothers into prison for wronging his English subjects. Three of his acts, however, they never forgave. One was his driving away the tenants from many thousand acres of land near his palace in Winchester. He may have done this to prevent any sudden attack upon him; but the people believed it was in order to provide him with a convenient hunting ground, the New Forest, as it was called; and they were angry. Again, they were indignant because he ordered that a curfew, or cover fire, bell should be rung every evening, and that at its sound all fires should be covered and all lights put out. William may have felt that this was necessary to prevent people from coming together at night to plot against him. Moreover, it was an old French custom to prevent the burning of houses; but the English objected stoutly to being told when they were to go to bed. On the whole, however, nothing else made them quite so angry as William's Doomsday Book (so called because its records were supposed to be final). In order to assess the taxes fairly, he sent men throughout the kingdom to find out just how much property each person owned. The men went into every house, barnyard, and sheepfold, and wrote in their accounts not only who held the land, but even how many animals there were. Then the English were enraged. They were afraid their taxes would be made larger; but, worse than that, they felt that it was a great insolence for strange men to come into their homes and write down the value of their property. They had to yield, however, to this and whatever else William thought best to do.


The Tower of London
(In the Center is the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror)

Altogether, the English people were not very happy, but to have such a king was really what they needed. They were a little slow and grave, while William was quick and liked a jest. They were good followers and steady fighters; while William was a bold leader and could change his plans on the battlefield in a moment if those that he had made failed.

William still ruled Normandy, and he had to go back and forth between the two countries. Normandy was a fief of France, that is, it was held by feudal tenure, but it was a most independent duchy, and was not at all afraid to resist the French king. In one of their struggles the city of Mantes was burned. When riding over the ruins, William was thrown from his horse, and afterward died of his injuries. The English royal family is descended from William the Conqueror and Matilda his wife, and Matilda was descended from Alfred the Great; therefore the present king of England represents both Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror.