Public School History of England and Canada/England/Chapter 5




1. William I., or the Conqueror.—William, the son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and Arlotta, a tanner’s daughter, was crowned King of England on Christmas Day. He was a tall, strong man, who loved fighting and hunting. To those who stood in his way and opposed him, he was harsh and cruel; but in the main he loved order and just government. He made many good laws for the English, although in some instances he acted very sternly and tyrannically. But he would not allow any one else to oppress the people, and his strong hand kept his Norman followers under control.

2. Feudal System.—The men who helped William to gain the Battle of Hastings did so in the hope of gaining rich estates and fine homes in England. They fought for gain, and now that William had become king they looked to him to give them their reward. This William found he would have to do, as the English in the North and West were not fully conquered, and without the aid of his knights he could not keep his hold on the land. On the plea that all those who had fought under Harold were traitors, he took their lands and divided them among his Norman friends. Whenever a rising took place against his rule, he would crush it out with great cruelty, and then would keep the estates of the unfortunate rebels, or give them away to his friends. In this way most of the land of the English passed to the king and his greedy followers. But William did not give these lands for nothing. He made each landowner take an oath that whenever called upon he would aid the king with men and money, and under no circumstances would rebel against him. To prevent these Norman barons from becoming too powerful, he gave them their lands in different counties, so that they could not unite against him, or have too many followers in one place. These barons in turn gave out a portion of their estates to their followers, who also had to give aid to their “lord” when called upon. But William was afraid that his barons might get their men to fight against the king, as often happened in France and Germany, and so made each landowner take an oath to obey the king first, under pain of forfeiting his estates. This was all very different from the English system, by which each freeman held his own land. Now all the land was held from the king, directly or indirectly, and the “vassal” had to kneel bareheaded before him and place his hands in the king’s hands, and then swear to give faithful service. He then got from the king his ‘‘fief” or ‘‘feudum,” which was to belong to him and his heirs for ever. This mode of holding land is called the “Feudal System.” It was slightly known in England before William became king, for the English kings had been wont to give lands in somewhat the same fashion to their thanes or immediate followers.

3. Risings Against the Normans.—It took William more than three years to become master of all England. Shortly after his coronation he had to return to Normandy, and while he was absent the English in the West and North, aided by the Scots and Danes, rose against their oppressors. A massacre of Normans took place at York, and William hastened to take a terrible revenge. York was retaken from the English, and then William, to put a barrier between himself and the Scots, laid desolate the whole country between York and Durham. Everything was destroyed—towns, villages, crops, and cattle—and the poor inhabitants were left to starve, or were driven into Scotland. More than 100,000 innocent people lost their lives, and the land ceased to be cultivated for many years.

The only persons who now held out against William were a few hundred English outlaws under the leadership of Morkere and Hereward-the-Wake. This brave little band of patriots for nearly a year kept William at bay, by taking refuge in the Isle of Ely, where they were protected from attack by streams and fens. But in 1071 William built a causeway across the Fen, and the patriots were either killed, scattered, or forced to make their submission.

4. New Forest and Domesday Book.—There was now a forced peace in the land, and William made many changes, some of which were good, and some very bad. Among many cruel things which William did the worst was the laying waste of 90,000 acres of land in Hampshire to make a forest in which he could keep game and hunt. Much of this land was barren, but some of it was fertile, and the poor people living on it were driven out. William loved the “high deer,” and any man found killing his game was sentenced to have his eyes put out. To William a deer was more valuable than a man.

Another change of a different kind was the surveying of all England to find out how much land was cultivated, and how much forest, bog, and fen. In this way William was able to tell what taxes each person should pay. All these facts were written in a book called Domesday Book, because it was the book by which the Doom or final decision of the judges was given. It is from this book we get most of our knowledge of the condition of England at this time. It was prepared in 1086.

5. Chief Effects of the Norman Conquest.—Besides the New Forest and Domesday Book there were many other important results of bringing the Normans into England. William ruled with a strong hand, and by allowing complaints to be made before the King’s Court he kept his barons from oppressing the English. Sheriffs were appointed to look after the royal revenue from the shires where the laws of the English were allowed. He kept the Church under control, but allowed the clergy to have their own courts. Strong castles were built all over the land to keep the English in check. One of these arose on the banks of the Thames, and is called the Tower of London. But most important of all were the changes made in the social habits and customs of the English. The Normans were a courtly, refined people, with a love of music, art, learning, and architecture, while the English were coarse in their habits and tastes, and cared for little except eating, drinking, and brawling. At first the Normans and English did not intermingle, for the Normans despised the English as a rude and conquered people. After a time the two people came closer together, and then the good results of the Conquest were seen. The English became more refined, with higher and better tastes; and the Normans gained much from the English, who were a sturdy, honest, freedom-loving people. The language of the nation, too, was affected. For though it remained English many Norman-French words were added, especially words that tell of the social life and habits of the conquerors. With the Normans came also an increased commerce with the rest of Europe, the knowledge of many trades, and skill in many arts.

6. Death of William I.—William’s reign was a troubled one. When not putting down revolts in England, he was busy looking after his interests in Normandy, where the French king sought to injure him. Then his son Robert made war against him, and nearly killed him in battle. At last, in 1087, while attacking a town in France called Nantes, his horse stumbled and hurt him so severely that he died shortly afterwards at Rouen. He was succeeded by his second son, William Rufus.

7. Character of William Rufus.—The Conquerer left three sons, Robert, the eldest, William, and Henry. To Robert he left Normandy and Maine, but he named William to succeed him in England, because he knew that Robert was too weak and good-natured to keep his unruly barons in check. William Rufus, or the Red King, was as able and fierce as his father, but not so just and wise as a ruler. His one good quality was that he would not allow his barons to rob and oppress the English, that power he kept for himself. For that reason the English came to his aid against his brother Robert, whose cause the Norman barons supported. Robert landed with an army at Pevensey, near where the Battle of Hastings was fought, and William called upon the English to assist him. With their aid he defeated Robert and drove him out of the country.

8. Anselm and the King.—Among the great men who lived at this time was Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury.. He was a wise and good man, and in the Conqueror’s time had been Rufus’ tutor. So long as Lanfranc lived, Rufus governed fairly well, but when he died Rufus began to rob and oppress his people. To get money he kept high offices in the Church, such as bishoprics and abbacies, vacant. The incomes from these offices would then go into the king’s treasury. When Lanfranc died the king did not appoint his successor until after many years. Perhaps he would not have appointed any had he not become very ill. He then repented of his sins and forced the learned and gentle Anselm to become Archbishop. Anselm was very unwilling to take the crozier or crook of office, for he knew that the king, as soon as he was better, would forget to carry out the promises made when sick. And so it happened. No sooner had the king recovered than he began again his evil ways, and Anselm, having tried in vain to control him, was glad to leave the country. The king now had no one to restrain him, and from this time to the end of his reign, in every possible way, he robbed and plundered his subjects. One of his instruments in this work was Ralph Flambard, his Justiciar, or chief of the justices, who taxed the people heavily and unjustly.

9. The Crusades.—During this reign the Crusades began. Peter the Hermit, encouraged by the Pope, went through Europe preaching against the Turks, because they ill-treated Christian pilgrims who visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A multitude of people, sewing a colored cross (crux) on their arms, went forth from Europe to fight against the Turks. With them went Robert, William’s brother, having, however, first pledged his duchy to William for a sum of money with which to go on the expedition. This was in 1096. So while Robert was absent William governed both England and Normandy, and took English men and money into France to help him in his wars.

10. Death of Rufus, 1100 A.D.—The people groaned under their heavy burdens and the famine which now came; but the end was near. One day Rufus was hunting in the New Forest, and after a time being missed by his attendants they sought for him, only to find him dead, with an arrow in his breast. Some thought that he had been shot accidentally by Walter Tyrrell, while others, with perhaps good reason, believed that one of the many oppressed by the cruel forest laws had seized the opportunity to take the wicked king’s life. Rufus died “in his sins,” and his body was not given a religious burial. His brother Henry at once hastened to Winchester and seized the royal treasure, fearing Robert’s return from the Crusades. So Henry became king, Robert being absent in the Holy Land.

11. Henry 1.—Henry, the youngest son of the Conqueror, was a quiet thoughtful man, with so much learning for his time, that he was called ‘‘Beauclerc,” or ‘‘Fine Scholar.” Nevertheless he kept a firm hand on his barons, and as he knew that his throne depended on the good-will of the English, he gave them a “charter,” and restored the laws of Edward the Confessor. He relieved the people from many of their unjust burdens, and, to please the English still more, married Edith, the daughter of Malcolm of Scotland, and grand-daughter of Edmund Ironsides. All these things Henry did because he knew that when Robert returned from the Crusades he would claim the throne and would be supported by most of the barons. After a time Robert came home, and as expected, the barons rose in his favour. Peace, however, was made between the brothers, Robert receiving a pension from Henry. But Robert governed his duchy of Normandy so badly, that Henry went over with an army, and defeating him at the battle of Tenchebrai (A.D. 1106), took him prisoner. Robert remained in prison the rest of his life, while Henry ruled over both England and Normandy.

12. Henry’s Good Government.—Normans and English were now coming nearer together, and the union was made still closer by Henry’s good laws. Bishop Roger, his Justiciar, or chief judge, helped Henry to bring the revenues of the kingdom into order. The people got back their shire-moots, and the sheriffs every year went to the King’s Court to pay in the rents and taxes to the royal treasury. The money was paid out on a chequered cloth, and the room where this took place became known as the “Court of Exchequer.” The King’s justices, too, went from place to place each year to settle disputes, and to see no wrong was done.

In this reign many towns and cities bought from the king charters giving them the right to manage their own affairs. The Normans were accustomed to settle their disputes by ‘‘trial by battle,” which was a great public duel, whereas the English used the “ordeal.” The citizens of the towns were now not required to use the “trial by battle,” and their trade was freed from tolls. The good laws and good order in the land brought in people from abroad. Among others were the Flemings, who introduced the art of weaving wool.

13. Henry and the Church.—Henry, like William Rufus, had a dispute with Anselm, who had returned to England. It was about the right of electing bishops. Rufus had kept the bishoprics vacant, and to prevent this Anselm wanted to have the bishops elected by the clergy. Henry, on the other hand, wished Anselm to do ‘‘homage ” for the land of his See, or Archbishopric, and this Anselm at first refused to do, as it seemed to give Henry too much power in spiritual matters. Finally the matter was settled by Henry agreeing to the election of bishops by the clergy of the cathedrals, and by the bishops doing homage to the king for their lands.

14. Death of Henry, 1135 A.D.—The last days of Henry were very sad. His only son William was drowned while attempting to cross from Normandy to England. He then wished his daughter Matilda, the wife of the Count of Anjou, to succeed him; but this did not please the barons, who dislike the thought of being ruled by a woman. Henry, however, made his barons swear to support Matilda and her baby son. Soon after this Henry died, and the land was once more thrown into confusion by the disputes and wars of rivals for the throne.

15. Civil War.—Although the barons had sworn to support Matilda, yet the most of them chose Stephen, the son of Adela, the Conqueror’s daughter, to be their king. They did not care to have a woman rule over them, and they know that Stephen was weak and good-natured, and could not hinder them from having their own way. So Stephen came to England and was crowned king in Matilda’s absence. But Matilda’s uncle, David of Scotland, with the help of some of the barons, made war against Stephen in her behalf, and fought and lost the famous “Battle of the Standard” at Cowton Moor, in Yorkshire. This battle took place in 1138, and its name arose from the fact that the English had as their standard a ship’s mast hung with sacred banners. This was, however, only one of many battles fought between the barons who supported Stephen and those who supported Matilda. At one time Matilda was not victorious and Stephen was a prisoner; and then it was Stephen who was victorious and Matilda a prisoner. In 1147 Matilda, discouraged, left England for a time.

16. Misery of the People.—In no reign did the people suffer so much from the wickedness and cruelty of their rulers as in the reign of Stephen. The struggle between Stephen and Matilda left the barons to do as much as they liked. They built strong castles, coined money, and made war against one another. Their castles were nothing but robbers’ dens whence the barons came forth to plunder, slay, and burn. “They burnt houses and sacked towns. If they suspected any one of concealing his wealth, they carried him off to their castle, and there they tortured him to make him confess where his money was. They hanged men by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke. Some were hanged up by their thumbs, often by their heads, and burning things were hung on to their feet.” The people cried to Heaven for help, but for many years no help came. “Men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.”

17. Death of Stephen, A.D. 1154.—At last, after nineteen years of suffering, relief came. Stephen’s son died, and Henry, Matilda’s son, landed with an army in England to fight his own battles. Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, now used his influence with Stephen to put an end to this wretched strife. Stephen saw that he must, sooner or later, yield, now that he had no son to succeed him, and agreed that Henry should have the throne after his death. Not long after Stephen died, and Henry became king, peace was once more restored, and as we shall see, with peace and a strong ruler, the miseries of Stephen’s reign came to an end.