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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

William the Norman (1066—1087.)

William the Norman (1066—1087.)

The leader of the freebooters, variously known as William the Bastard, William the Conqueror, and William the Great, was the son of a tanner's daughter and a Norman duke styled, for sufficient reasons, Robert the Devil. Duke Robert and his predecessors had established in their Neustrian conquest a system of government which William applied to England with sundry amplifications and refinements of his page 18 own. To him we are indebted for the feudal system and the game laws in all their rigour.

William de Jumiège, a Norman writer, gives us to understand that these boons were not always appreciated, even in Normandy, by the peasants and other unprivileged persons, who ought to have known better. They were unreasonable enough on one occasion to rebel, and the gentle Norman commander who corrected them, according to William de Jumiège, "cut off his prisoners' hands and feet, and sent them back in that helpless state to their comrades, to check them from such practices, and to be a warning to them not to expose themselves to something worse. And when the peasants received this lesson they returned to their proper places at the plough." Comment is unnecessary.

William's claim to be King of England was without legal or moral justification. The office had always been, and is now, simply one of trust, conferred by the representatives of the nation for the people's good, and not for the monarch's private advantage. However irregular at times may have been the practice, there is nothing more certain than that there resides in parliament plenary power to depose and to elect kings and queens as it has a mind. It is a right rooted in reason, and the practice of ten centuries. When the Long Parliament formally abolished royalty it resolved that "the office of king in this nation is unnecessary, burthensome, and dangerous." For one or all of these reasons the régime of the House of Brunswick might similarly be terminated tomorrow.

The Saxon Witanagemot never hesitated to deal sharply with perverse kings. Æthelwald, of Northumbria was deposed in 765; Alcred in 774; Sigeberht of Wessex in 755; Æthelbred II. in 1013, and Harthacnut in 1037.

Since the Conquest, Parliament in 1327 deposed Edward II. (the first King of England, curiously enough, whose reign had been made to date from the day following his predecessor's death, instead of from the ceremony of election and coronation); Richard II. in 1399, and James II. in 1688. In the case of Charles I., Parliament went a step further. It not merely took away the crown, but the head of the wearer also. Yea, "And what king's majesty," asks the immortal champion of English freedom, John Milton, "sitting on an page 19 exalted throne, ever shone so brightly as that of the people o England then did, when, shaking off that old superstition which had prevailed a long time, they gave judgment on the king himself, or rather on an enemy that had been their king, caught, as it were, in a net by his own laws, and scrupled not to inflict on him, being guilty, the same punishment which he would have inflicted on any other?" . . . "This," he continues, "is the God who uses to throw down proud and unruly kings, and utterly to extirpate them and their family. By his manifest impulse being set at work to recover our almost lost liberty, we went on in no obscure but an illustrious passage, pointed out and made plain to us by God Himself." We could put up with a hereditary line of Miltons; but they, alas! do not, like kings, run in families.

Generally, it is true, but not always, the National Council elected the monarch from a particular family. Cnut, the Dane, and Harold, the gallant but unfortunate English prince who fell at Hastings, had no blood relationship to the house of Cerdic. Harold, whose notions of Government seem singularly modern and enlightened, when William modestly demanded that England south of the Humber should be given up to him and his robber horde, proudly replied, "My royalty comes to me from my people, and, without my people's consent, I cannot lay it down." Indeed, it was not till the house of York, themselves usurpers, came on the scene that any serious attempt was made to treat England as if it were a private estate transmissible by primogeniture. To substitute the idea of territorial possession for that of personal and fiduciary office was the mischievous work of the lawyers, who are ever prone to fall into false analogies. Parliament, however, did not fail to reassert its old supremacy. As it had done in the case of the Fourth Henry, so it did in that of the Seventh. It set up a new royal stock, excluding the whole house of York.

To the Yorkist pretention of indefeasible hereditary right the Stuarts sought to add the still more preposterous claim of divine right. Bad gospel came to the aid of worse law. The Convention Parliament treated both without ceremony. For two months, from the 23rd of December to the 13th of February (1688-9), the monarchy was in abeyance. William and Mary, the dutiful nephew and daughter of the exiled page 20 James II., were then invested with regal power; and finally, in 1700, the succession was settled on Sophia of Hanover, granddaughter of James I., and the heirs of her body being Protestants, to the exclusion not merely of the direct line but of the elder children of Sophia's mother, Elizabeth.

The title of the present royal family to the throne is therefore a Parliamentary title, pure and simple, and what Parliament has bestowed it is clearly competent for Parliament to withdraw. All through the centuries royalty has been an unalleviated curse to the English people. It can no more change its essential character than can an Ethiopian his skin or a leopard his spots. A really Liberal Parliament, instead of manacling Ireland and garotting Egypt, would busy itself with the repeal of the Act of Settlement. The intellect and conscience of mankind are alike sick of kings and queens, limited and unlimited, small and great. "Unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous," should be written with an iron pen on every crown in Europe.

It is the boast of every snob in England that his ancestors "came over with the Conqueror." Well, ancestors, like other people, may be judged by the company they kept. Let us see, then, what manner of man this Conqueror was. Was he a benefactor of his species? Contemporary history is not silent with regard to his achievements. Take this as a sample:—The men of Northumbria were not partial to his kingship, and this is how, according to his unscrupulous panegyrist, Odericus Vitalis, he dealt with the region between Humber and Tyne : "He (the Conqueror) extended his posts over a space of one hundred miles; he smote most of the inhabitants with the edge of the avenging sword; he destroyed the hiding-places of the others; he laid waste their lands; he burned their houses with all that was therein. Nowhere else did William act with such cruelty, and in this instance he shamefully gave way to evil passions. While he scorned to rule his own wrath, he cut off the guilty and the innocent with equal severity. For, excited by anger, he bade the crops, and the herds, and the household stuff, and every description of food to be gathered in heaps and to be set light to and utterly destroyed altogether—so that all sustenance for man and beast should be at once wasted throughout all the region beyond the Humber. Hence there raged page 21 grievous want far and wide throughout England. Such a misery of famine involved the people that there perished of Christian human beings of either sex and of every age one hundred thousand." Truly a charming gentleman this to accompany in any enterprise!

But William could not always find convenient bodies of human beings to slaughter. There were unhappy intervals in his life when he was obliged to content himself with shedding the blood of the lower animals. He made many deer parks," says the Saxon Chronicle, "and he established laws so that whosoever killed a hart, or a hind, or a boar should be blinded; for William loved the high game as if he had been their father."

These fatherly instincts induced him to lay waste an immense area between Winchester and the sea. This tract, subsequently known as the New Forest, embraced sixty parishes, with their churches and villages. These were burned to the ground and the inhabitants left homeless. "So stern was he," says the Chronicle, "that no man durst gainsay his will. Rich men bemoaned and poor men shuddered; but he recked not the hatred of them all."

Howbeit, one good man there was who could not be induced to profit by William's villanies—the Monk Guitand. This faithful priest was summoned from Normandy to receive an English bishopric. He came, saw, and not merely declined the preferment, but asssigned reasons for conduct so unusual in an ecclesiastic. He was sick, he said, and perplexed with many doubts, sorrows, and frailties; but were he ten times fitter to guide others, he would never share in the spoils of blood. "When he thought of the crimes by which England had been won, he trembled to touch it, with all its wealth, as though it glowed with the fire of hell."

While engaged in the congenial task of burning the town of Mantes, William received a fatal injury, and died at Rouen, September 8th, 1087. No sooner was the breath out of his body than bishops, barons, physicians, courtiers fled in horror. The rabble burst into the apartment, stripped it of everything, leaving the monster's carcase naked on the floor. Of his sons, the eldest, Robert, was, at the time, in arms against him; the other two hurried off to secure their share of the spoil.

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It was left to a simple Norman knight, "for the honour of God and the Norman name," to secure sepulture for the tyrant's bones. He conveyed them to the Abbey Church at Caen, and had a grave dug for their reception between the choir and the altar. But even then a serious difficulty occured. The Bishop of Evreux had performed the obsequies, and the coffin was about to be lowered into the tomb, when there stood forward from the throng Oscelin Fitz-Arthur, and said, "The ground on which you stand was the site of my father's house. The man who lies dead before you, and for whom you bid us pray, took my father's land from him by force and by wrong, and here, by abuse of his ducal power, he built this church. I claim back the land; and I forbid, in the name of God, that the robber should be covered with ground that is mine, and that he should have a burial-place in my heritage." The truth of Fitz-Arthur's assertion was notorious, and the assembled prelates had to guarantee him ample compensation before the grave was permitted to close over the remains of the Conqueror of England, who had barbarously ordered the body of King Harold to be buried on the beach, like a felon's, below watermark.

By the time of William's death, all England, with insignificant exceptions, had been clutched by his cut-throat followers, while the royal revenue, which in Edward the Confessor's time stood at £40,000 per annum, had, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, reached the extraordinary sum of £1,061 10s. 10½d. per day!

The population of England at the time of the Conquest is set down with proximate accuracy at about two million souls. During the reigns of the Conqueror and his sons, what through the sword, famine, and exile, it was reduced probably by one-third, and not till the time of Charles II. was it found to have more than doubled itself; so frightful was the curse inflicted on the unhappy country by the swarm of thieves from whom royalty and aristocracy are proud to claim descent.