Public School History of England and Canada/England/Chapter 4




1. The Normans.—Edward, surnamed the Confessor on account of his being placed in the Calendar of Saints, was not wholly an English king, for his mother, Emma, was a Norman; and Edward himself had been brought up among the Normans, and in tastes and feelings was more Norman than English. We must explain who these Normans were, that now began to interfere in English affairs.

When England, in the time of Alfred, was troubled with the Northmen landing on her shores, France, too, was suffering from their ravages. Large boat-loads of these pirates sailed up the River Seine, and one band seized Rouen. The French king, being feeble and cowardly, gave a large tract of land along the Seine to Rollo, or Rolf, a famous chief of the Northmen, on condition that Rollo should become a Christian and settle quietly down. The land thus wrested from the French was called Normandy, and was ruled by Rollo and his descendants. After the Normans had been in France a while they became much more polished and civilized by being brought into contact with the French, who were a lively, quick-witted people with refined tastes for music, art, and architecture. Thus it came to pass that the Norsemen in France had a different language and were much more civilized than their kinsmen in England. It was among these people that Edward had been brought up, while his mother Emma was living in England as the wife of Cnut. Edward, too, it is said, was a fast friend of his cousin William, the young Duke of Normandy, and it was quite natural that when Edward became king of England he should favour the Normans who followed him into England. To these he gave high offices, much to the displeasure of the English; and, when William of Normandy later on visited him in England, Edward is said to have promised him the Crown.

2. Godwin.—Among others who were angry with the king for favouring foreigners was Godwin, Earl of Wessex, whose sister Edith, Edward had married. Godwin was a very powerful noble, and during Edward’s reign really did most of the ruling, for Edward spent his time in religious duties, and looking after the building of a great abbey called Westminster, on the banks of the Thames. Shortly after Edward’s reign began, Godwin and the king became unfriendly towards each other on account of the influence of Edward’s Norman favourites in the land. It happened that a quarrel arose between the people of Dover and some Normans in which several Normans were killed, and because Godwin would not punish his own countrymen without a fair trial, Godwin and his sons had to leave England for Flanders. While he was away the Normans did much as they pleased, and there was so much discontent in England that Edward had to permit Godwin to return. The Normans saw that their influence was at an end, and most of them went back to Normandy. Godwin now was the chief man in England, and when he died a few years later, his son Harold succeeded to his power, and ruled well for Edward, who cared little for aught save.his religious duties.

3. Harold.—Edward had no children, and the English people had begun to look to Harold as their future king. William of Normandy expected to be made king, but Edward invited over, from Hungary, Edward, the son of Edmund Ironsides, to succeed him. This man, however, died, and left a young son, Edgar, known afterwards as the Atheling. Harold and William were now the rival claimants for the throne. A story is told that once Harold was shipwrecked on the coast of Normandy, and falling into William’s hands was forced to take a solemn oath that he would help William to become king of England. To make the oath still more solemn, William, it is said, secretly placed sacred relics under the altar. However, when Edward was dying in 1066, he named Harold to succeed him, and the Witan gladly chose him to be their king.

4. Norwegian Invasion.—Harold was scarcely crowned before he had to do battle for his kingdom. Among his enemies was his own brother Tostig, who, having been exiled some time before, had gone to Norway. He now came back with the Norwegian King Hardrada, and sailing up the Humber landed with a large army in Yorkshire. Harold was watching the southern coast for the army of William of Normandy, who had gathered a large force of desperate men from different parts of Europe to invade and plunder England. William had sought and obtained the blessing of the Pope on his enterprise, because Harold had broken his solemn oath. As William did not immediately arrive, Harold marched to meet the Norwegian king. A great battle was fought at Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire, in which Tostig and Hardrada were both killed, and the Norwegian army defeated.

5. Battle of Hastings.—Hardly, however, had Harold’s army recovered from the effects of this battle when a messenger came to tell him that William had landed at Pevensey in Sussex. At once Harold hastened to meet this new invader, gathering, as he marched, the men of the south to his side to defend the country. He found the Normans encamped at Hastings, and at once began preparations for battle. In this Harold was not wise, for his men were worn out and tired with travel, while the Normans were fresh and strong. Harold was advised to lay the country waste, and starve William out; but this he would not do. On the 14th October, 1066, near a hill called Senlac, a little distance from Hastings, a famous battle began. It was to decide whether England was to be governed by the English or by the Normans. Both armies were brave and stubborn, but they fought very differently. The English fought, like their forefathers, on foot, closely ranked together, and defended by a breastwork of shields and palisades. Their weapons were javelins and two-handed axes. The Norman knights were used to fighting on horseback, man and horse being clad in mail. Besides, the Normans brought into battle archers whose arrows did deadly work. The English were posted on the face of the hill, and so long as they refused to stir the Normans could not break their ranks. The Normans in vain strove to break through the firm wall of English shields, and at one time so sturdy and fierce was the resistance of Harold’s men that the Normans began to give way, and a cry arose that William was slain. But William snatched off his helmet to show his followers that he was unhurt, and then making his warriors pretend to flee, led the English to pursue them. Then, an opening being made among the English shields, the horsemen turned, rode in and cut the English to pieces. Nevertheless, the battle lasted for many hours, for a chosen band of Harold’s men gathered round their king, and kept the Normans at bay. Then William ordered his archers to shoot their arrows upwards so that coming down they would strike the English on the head. One of these arrows pierced Harold’s eye, and he fell. His men fought stubbornly over his body, seeking to save their king, until they were cut down. At last Harold was slain by four Norman knights, and the battle was won by William. Harold’s body was given to his mother by the victor to be buried in its royal robes under a heap of stones near the battlefield.

With Harold ended the English kings, for William marched to London, and the Witan not being able to offer him any opposition chose him king. He did not claim the crown as a conqueror, but as the rightful heir of Edward the Confessor. As we shall see in the next chapter, it took William several years to get all England to accept him as king.