Page images
PDF
EPUB

of Gaul, which still bears the name of Normandy.

It was not merely by extreme valour and ready subordination to military discipline, that the Normans were preeminent among all the conquering races of the Gothic stock, but also by an instinctive faculty of appreciating and adopting the superior civilizations which they encountered. Thus Duke Rollo and his Scandinavian warriors readily embraced the creed, the language, the laws and the, arts, which France, in those troubled and evil times with which the Capetian dynasty commenced, still inherited from Imperial Rome and Imperial Charlemagne. “Ils adoptèrent les usages, les devoirs, la subordination que les capitulaires des empereurs et les rois avoient institués. Mais ce qu'ils apportèrent dans l'application de ces lois, ce fut l'esprit de vie, l'esprit de liberté, l'habitude de la subordination militaire, et l'intelligence d'un état politique qui conciliât la sureté de tous avec l'indépendance de chacun.” * So also in all chivalric feelings, in enthusiastic religious zeal, in almost idolatrous respect to females of gentle birth, in generous fondness for the nascent poetry of the time, in a keen intellectual relish for subtle thought and disputation, in a taste for architectural magnificence, and all courtly refinement and page

* Sismondi, “ Histoire de Français," vol. iii. p. 174.

antry, the Normans were the Paladins of the world. Their brilliant qualities were sullied by many darker traits of pride, of merciless cruelty, and of brutal contempt for the industry, the rights and the feelings of all, whom they considered the lower classes of mankind.

Their gradual blending with the Saxons softened these harsh and evil points of their national character, and in return they fired the duller Saxon mass with a new spirit of animation and power. As Campbell boldly expressed it, They highmettled the blood of our veins.Small had been the figure which England made in the world befor the coming over of the Normans; and without them she never would have emerged from insignificance. The authority of Gibbon may be taken as decisive, when he pronounces that, “ Assuredly England was a gainer by the Conquest.” And we may proudly adopt the comment of the Frenchman, Rapin, who, writing of the battle of Hastings more than a century ago, speaks of the revolution effected by it as, “ the first step by which England is arrived to that height of grandeur and glory we behold it in at present."*

The interest of this eventful struggle, by which William of Normandy became king of England, is materially enhanced by the high personal character of the competitors for our crown. They were three in number. One was a foreign prince from the North. One was a foreign prince from the South; and one was a native hero of the land. Harald Hardrada, the strongest and the most chivalric of the kings of Norway,* was the first; Duke William of Normandy was the second ; and the Saxon Harold, the son of Earl Godwin, was the third. Never was a nobler prize sought by nobler champions, or striven for more gallantly. The Saxon triumphed over the Norwegian, and the Norman triumphed over the Saxon; but Norse valour was never more conspicuous than when Harald Hardrada and his host fought and fell at Stamford Bridge ; nor did Saxons ever face their foes more bravely than our Harold and his men on the fatal day of Hastings.

* Rapin, “ Hist. England,” p. 164. See also on this point Sharon Turner, vol. iv. p. 72.

During the reign of King Edward the Confessor over this land, the claims of the Norwegian king to our crown were little thought of; and though Hardrada's predecessor, King Magnus of Norway, had on one occasion asserted that, by virtue of a compact with our former king, Hardicanute, he was entitled to the English throne, no serious attempt had been made to enforce his pretensions. But the rivalry of the Saxon Harold and the Norman William, was foreseen and bewailed by the Confessor, who was believed to have predicted on his deathbed the calamities that were impending over England. Duke William was King Edward's kinsman. Harold was the head of the most powerful noble house, next to the royal blood, in England; and, personally, he was the bravest and most popular chieftain in the land. King Edward was childless, and the nearest collateral heir was a puny unpromising boy. England had suffered too severely, during royal minorities, to make the accession of Edgar Atheling desirable; and long before King Edward's death, Earl Harold was the destined king of the nation's choice, though the favour of the Confessor was believed to lean towards the Norman duke.

* See in Snorre the Saga of Haraldi Hardrada.

A little time before the death of King Edward, Harold was in Normandy. The causes of the voyage of the Saxon earl to the continent are doubtful; but the fact of his having been, in 1065, at the ducal court, and in the power of his rival, is indisputable. William made skilful and unscrupulous use of the opportunity. Though Harold was treated with outward courtesy and friendship, he was made fully aware that his liberty and life depended on his compliance with the duke's requests. William said to him, in apparent confidence and cordiality, “ When King Edward and I once lived like brothers under the same roof, he promised that if ever he became king of England, he would make me heir to his throne. Ilarold, I wish that thou wouldst assist me to realize this promise.” Harold replied with expressions of assent; and further agreed, at William's request, to marry William's daughter, Adela, and to send over his own sister to be married to one of William’s barons. The crafty Norman was not content with this extorted promise; he determined to bind Harold by a more solemn pledge, the breach of which would be a weight on the spirit of the gallant Saxon, and a discouragement to others from adopting his cause. Before a full assembly of the Norman barons, Harold was required to do homage to Duke William, as the heir apparent of the English crown. Kneeling down, Harold placed his hands between those of the duke, and repeated the solemn form, by which he acknowledged the duke as his lord, and promised to him fealty and true service. But William exacted more. He had caused all the bones and relics of saints, that were preserved in the Norman monasteries and churches, to be collected into a chest, which was placed in the council room, covered over with a cloth of gold. On the chest of relics, which were thus concealed, was laid a missal. The duke then solemnly addressed his titular guest and real cap

« PreviousContinue »