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Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter VIII

A Child's History of England

Chapter VIII


UPON the ground where the brave Harold fell, William the Norman
afterwards founded an abbey, which, under the name of Battle Abbey,
was a rich and splendid place through many a troubled year, though
now it is a grey ruin overgrown with ivy. But the first work he
had to do, was to conquer the English thoroughly; and that, as you
know by this time, was hard work for any man.

He ravaged several counties; he burned and plundered many towns; he
laid waste scores upon scores of miles of pleasant country; he
destroyed innumerable lives. At length STIGAND, Archbishop of
Canterbury, with other representatives of the clergy and the
people, went to his camp, and submitted to him. EDGAR, the
insignificant son of Edmund Ironside, was proclaimed King by
others, but nothing came of it. He fled to Scotland afterwards,
where his sister, who was young and beautiful, married the Scottish
King. Edgar himself was not important enough for anybody to care
much about him.

On Christmas Day, William was crowned in Westminster Abbey, under
the title of WILLIAM THE FIRST; but he is best known as WILLIAM THE
CONQUEROR. It was a strange coronation. One of the bishops who
performed the ceremony asked the Normans, in French, if they would
have Duke William for their king? They answered Yes. Another of
the bishops put the same question to the Saxons, in English. They
too answered Yes, with a loud shout. The noise being heard by a
guard of Norman horse-soldiers outside, was mistaken for resistance
on the part of the English. The guard instantly set fire to the
neighbouring houses, and a tumult ensued; in the midst of which the
King, being left alone in the Abbey, with a few priests (and they
all being in a terrible fright together), was hurriedly crowned.
When the crown was placed upon his head, he swore to govern the
English as well as the best of their own monarchs. I dare say you
think, as I do, that if we except the Great Alfred, he might pretty
easily have done that.

Numbers of the English nobles had been killed in the last
disastrous battle. Their estates, and the estates of all the
nobles who had fought against him there, King William seized upon,
and gave to his own Norman knights and nobles. Many great English
families of the present time acquired their English lands in this
way, and are very proud of it.

But what is got by force must be maintained by force. These nobles
were obliged to build castles all over England, to defend their new
property; and, do what he would, the King could neither soothe nor
quell the nation as he wished. He gradually introduced the Norman
language and the Norman customs; yet, for a long time the great
body of the English remained sullen and revengeful. On his going
over to Normandy, to visit his subjects there, the oppressions of
his half-brother ODO, whom he left in charge of his English
kingdom, drove the people mad. The men of Kent even invited over,
to take possession of Dover, their old enemy Count Eustace of
Boulogne, who had led the fray when the Dover man was slain at his
own fireside. The men of Hereford, aided by the Welsh, and
commanded by a chief named EDRIC THE WILD, drove the Normans out of
their country. Some of those who had been dispossessed of their
lands, banded together in the North of England; some, in Scotland;
some, in the thick woods and marshes; and whensoever they could
fall upon the Normans, or upon the English who had submitted to the
Normans, they fought, despoiled, and murdered, like the desperate
outlaws that they were. Conspiracies were set on foot for a
general massacre of the Normans, like the old massacre of the
Danes. In short, the English were in a murderous mood all through
the kingdom.

King William, fearing he might lose his conquest, came back, and
tried to pacify the London people by soft words. He then set forth
to repress the country people by stern deeds. Among the towns
which he besieged, and where he killed and maimed the inhabitants
without any distinction, sparing none, young or old, armed or
unarmed, were Oxford, Warwick, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby,
Lincoln, York. In all these places, and in many others, fire and
sword worked their utmost horrors, and made the land dreadful to
behold. The streams and rivers were discoloured with blood; the
sky was blackened with smoke; the fields were wastes of ashes; the
waysides were heaped up with dead. Such are the fatal results of
conquest and ambition! Although William was a harsh and angry man,
I do not suppose that he deliberately meant to work this shocking
ruin, when he invaded England. But what he had got by the strong
hand, he could only keep by the strong hand, and in so doing he
made England a great grave.

Two sons of Harold, by name EDMUND and GODWIN, came over from
Ireland, with some ships, against the Normans, but were defeated.
This was scarcely done, when the outlaws in the woods so harassed
York, that the Governor sent to the King for help. The King
despatched a general and a large force to occupy the town of
Durham. The Bishop of that place met the general outside the town,
and warned him not to enter, as he would be in danger there. The
general cared nothing for the warning, and went in with all his
men. That night, on every hill within sight of Durham, signal
fires were seen to blaze. When the morning dawned, the English,
who had assembled in great strength, forced the gates, rushed into
the town, and slew the Normans every one. The English afterwards
besought the Danes to come and help them. The Danes came, with two
hundred and forty ships. The outlawed nobles joined them; they
captured York, and drove the Normans out of that city. Then,
William bribed the Danes to go away; and took such vengeance on the
English, that all the former fire and sword, smoke and ashes, death
and ruin, were nothing compared with it. In melancholy songs, and
doleful stories, it was still sung and told by cottage fires on
winter evenings, a hundred years afterwards, how, in those dreadful
days of the Normans, there was not, from the River Humber to the
River Tyne, one inhabited village left, nor one cultivated field -
how there was nothing but a dismal ruin, where the human creatures
and the beasts lay dead together.

The outlaws had, at this time, what they called a Camp of Refuge,
in the midst of the fens of Cambridgeshire. Protected by those
marshy grounds which were difficult of approach, they lay among the
reeds and rushes, and were hidden by the mists that rose up from
the watery earth. Now, there also was, at that time, over the sea
in Flanders, an Englishman named HEREWARD, whose father had died in
his absence, and whose property had been given to a Norman. When
he heard of this wrong that had been done him (from such of the
exiled English as chanced to wander into that country), he longed
for revenge; and joining the outlaws in their camp of refuge,
became their commander. He was so good a soldier, that the Normans
supposed him to be aided by enchantment. William, even after he
had made a road three miles in length across the Cambridgeshire
marshes, on purpose to attack this supposed enchanter, thought it
necessary to engage an old lady, who pretended to be a sorceress,
to come and do a little enchantment in the royal cause. For this
purpose she was pushed on before the troops in a wooden tower; but
Hereward very soon disposed of this unfortunate sorceress, by
burning her, tower and all. The monks of the convent of Ely near
at hand, however, who were fond of good living, and who found it
very uncomfortable to have the country blockaded and their supplies
of meat and drink cut off, showed the King a secret way of
surprising the camp. So Hereward was soon defeated. Whether he
afterwards died quietly, or whether he was killed after killing
sixteen of the men who attacked him (as some old rhymes relate that
he did), I cannot say. His defeat put an end to the Camp of
Refuge; and, very soon afterwards, the King, victorious both in
Scotland and in England, quelled the last rebellious English noble.
He then surrounded himself with Norman lords, enriched by the
property of English nobles; had a great survey made of all the land
in England, which was entered as the property of its new owners, on
a roll called Doomsday Book; obliged the people to put out their
fires and candles at a certain hour every night, on the ringing of
a bell which was called The Curfew; introduced the Norman dresses
and manners; made the Normans masters everywhere, and the English,
servants; turned out the English bishops, and put Normans in their
places; and showed himself to be the Conqueror indeed.

But, even with his own Normans, he had a restless life. They were
always hungering and thirsting for the riches of the English; and
the more he gave, the more they wanted. His priests were as greedy
as his soldiers. We know of only one Norman who plainly told his
master, the King, that he had come with him to England to do his
duty as a faithful servant, and that property taken by force from
other men had no charms for him. His name was GUILBERT. We should
not forget his name, for it is good to remember and to honour
honest men.

Besides all these troubles, William the Conqueror was troubled by
quarrels among his sons. He had three living. ROBERT, called
CURTHOSE, because of his short legs; WILLIAM, called RUFUS or the
Red, from the colour of his hair; and HENRY, fond of learning, and
called, in the Norman language, BEAUCLERC, or Fine-Scholar. When
Robert grew up, he asked of his father the government of Normandy,
which he had nominally possessed, as a child, under his mother,
MATILDA. The King refusing to grant it, Robert became jealous and
discontented; and happening one day, while in this temper, to be
ridiculed by his brothers, who threw water on him from a balcony as
he was walking before the door, he drew his sword, rushed up-
stairs, and was only prevented by the King himself from putting
them to death. That same night, he hotly departed with some
followers from his father's court, and endeavoured to take the
Castle of Rouen by surprise. Failing in this, he shut himself up
in another Castle in Normandy, which the King besieged, and where
Robert one day unhorsed and nearly killed him without knowing who
he was. His submission when he discovered his father, and the
intercession of the queen and others, reconciled them; but not
soundly; for Robert soon strayed abroad, and went from court to
court with his complaints. He was a gay, careless, thoughtless
fellow, spending all he got on musicians and dancers; but his
mother loved him, and often, against the King's command, supplied
him with money through a messenger named SAMSON. At length the
incensed King swore he would tear out Samson's eyes; and Samson,
thinking that his only hope of safety was in becoming a monk,
became one, went on such errands no more, and kept his eyes in his

All this time, from the turbulent day of his strange coronation,
the Conqueror had been struggling, you see, at any cost of cruelty
and bloodshed, to maintain what he had seized. All his reign, he
struggled still, with the same object ever before him. He was a
stern, bold man, and he succeeded in it.

He loved money, and was particular in his eating, but he had only
leisure to indulge one other passion, and that was his love of
hunting. He carried it to such a height that he ordered whole
villages and towns to be swept away to make forests for the deer.
Not satisfied with sixty-eight Royal Forests, he laid waste an
immense district, to form another in Hampshire, called the New
Forest. The many thousands of miserable peasants who saw their
little houses pulled down, and themselves and children turned into
the open country without a shelter, detested him for his merciless
addition to their many sufferings; and when, in the twenty-first
year of his reign (which proved to be the last), he went over to
Rouen, England was as full of hatred against him, as if every leaf
on every tree in all his Royal Forests had been a curse upon his
head. In the New Forest, his son Richard (for he had four sons)
had been gored to death by a Stag; and the people said that this so
cruelly-made Forest would yet be fatal to others of the Conqueror's

He was engaged in a dispute with the King of France about some
territory. While he stayed at Rouen, negotiating with that King,
he kept his bed and took medicines: being advised by his
physicians to do so, on account of having grown to an unwieldy
size. Word being brought to him that the King of France made light
of this, and joked about it, he swore in a great rage that he
should rue his jests. He assembled his army, marched into the
disputed territory, burnt - his old way! - the vines, the crops,
and fruit, and set the town of Mantes on fire. But, in an evil
hour; for, as he rode over the hot ruins, his horse, setting his
hoofs upon some burning embers, started, threw him forward against
the pommel of the saddle, and gave him a mortal hurt. For six
weeks he lay dying in a monastery near Rouen, and then made his
will, giving England to William, Normandy to Robert, and five
thousand pounds to Henry. And now, his violent deeds lay heavy on
his mind. He ordered money to be given to many English churches
and monasteries, and - which was much better repentance - released
his prisoners of state, some of whom had been confined in his
dungeons twenty years.

It was a September morning, and the sun was rising, when the King
was awakened from slumber by the sound of a church bell. 'What
bell is that?' he faintly asked. They told him it was the bell of
the chapel of Saint Mary. 'I commend my soul,' said he, 'to Mary!'
and died.

Think of his name, The Conqueror, and then consider how he lay in
death! The moment he was dead, his physicians, priests, and
nobles, not knowing what contest for the throne might now take
place, or what might happen in it, hastened away, each man for
himself and his own property; the mercenary servants of the court
began to rob and plunder; the body of the King, in the indecent
strife, was rolled from the bed, and lay alone, for hours, upon the
ground. O Conqueror, of whom so many great names are proud now, of
whom so many great names thought nothing then, it were better to
have conquered one true heart, than England!

By-and-by, the priests came creeping in with prayers and candles;
and a good knight, named HERLUIN, undertook (which no one else
would do) to convey the body to Caen, in Normandy, in order that it
might be buried in St. Stephen's church there, which the Conqueror
had founded. But fire, of which he had made such bad use in his
life, seemed to follow him of itself in death. A great
conflagration broke out in the town when the body was placed in the
church; and those present running out to extinguish the flames, it
was once again left alone.

It was not even buried in peace. It was about to be let down, in
its Royal robes, into a tomb near the high altar, in presence of a
great concourse of people, when a loud voice in the crowd cried
out, 'This ground is mine! Upon it, stood my father's house. This
King despoiled me of both ground and house to build this church.
In the great name of GOD, I here forbid his body to be covered with
the earth that is my right!' The priests and bishops present,
knowing the speaker's right, and knowing that the King had often
denied him justice, paid him down sixty shillings for the grave.
Even then, the corpse was not at rest. The tomb was too small, and
they tried to force it in. It broke, a dreadful smell arose, the
people hurried out into the air, and, for the third time, it was
left alone.

Where were the Conqueror's three sons, that they were not at their
father's burial? Robert was lounging among minstrels, dancers, and
gamesters, in France or Germany. Henry was carrying his five
thousand pounds safely away in a convenient chest he had got made.
William the Red was hurrying to England, to lay hands upon the
Royal treasure and the crown.

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