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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter III. — Norman Royalty

page 17

Chapter III.

Norman Royalty.

William came over the sea,

With bloody sword came he.

Cold heart and bloody hand

Now rule the English land.

Snorro's Saga.

To realise in some degree the manifold calamities that royalty has heaped on the English people it is not necessary to go beyond the period of the Norman Conquest. The fatal year of Hastings, 1066, will ever remain the blackest in our annals. In that year sixty thousand of the greatest ruffians that could be collected not merely in Normandy, but in all Europe, crossed the Channel, and by sheer brute force possessed themselves of the land. They succeeded in garotting the entire English people, and to this day their descendants, or rather their pretended descendants, on the throne, in the peerage, and in the magistracy, keep a tight grip on the nation's throat. Conquests there have been before and since in the world's history, but never one with results so widely, so enduringly disastrous. The policy of the Norman robber is illustrated to-day not less by the misery and degradation of the Irish peasant, the Indian ryot, and the Egyptian fellah, than by the squalor of the East-end of London and the ruin of agricultural England.

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.

page 22

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.

William Rufus (1087—1100.)

William the Conqueror was succeeded by his son, William Rufus—a greater villain even than his father, if his more limited opportunities are taken into account. His profligacy page 23 was scandalous in an age by no means squeamish. He broke into convents, regardless of the vows of the fair recluses, and men talked privately of even worse enormities. He was a meaner robber than his father. On one occasion he took money from a Jew whose son had turned Christian, undertaking to bring the young man back to Judaism. He did not succeed, but he kept half the fee for his royal advocacy. Fifty Saxons accused of poaching had successfully passed the ordeal of fire. Rufus punished them, nevertheless, declaring that God was an unjust judge.

His courtiers were a band of thieves and robbers. In the houses where they were quartered during royal progresses they insulted the ladies, and frequently burned before the owner's door such articles as they could neither conveniently carry off nor sell. "Never day dawned," says the Chronicle, "but he (Rufus) rose a worse man than he had lain down; never sun set but he lay down a worse man than he had risen."

One morning, fresh from a heavy debauch, he went out to hunt in the New Forest, and was some time afterwards found by certain poor charcoal-burners with the arrow of a hunter or an assassin (most probably the latter) in his breast. His younger brother Henry was in the Forest at the time, and may have known something about the transaction. At all events, he showed much alacrity in laying claim to the Crown. It was noted as a judgment of Heaven that Richard, William the Conqueror's second son, as well as a nephew of William Rufus, likewise came to violent ends in the New Forest.

Henry I. (1100—1135.)

Henry I., with better mental gifts than his brother, was a miracle of treachery, vindictiveness, and avarice. His praise of a man was a sure sign that he intended to ruin him. An old favourite boasted that he could build as magnificent a monastery as the king. Henry had him harassed by iniquitous law-suits till he died of a broken heart. Due de la Barre-en-Ouche, a literary knight, satirized him in a song. Henry had him seized and blinded, and the poor man dashed his brains out in despair. He was not even Henry's vassal. Juliana de Breteuil, the king's natural daughter, objecting to page 24 having her two children's eyes put out, was ordered by her amiable parent to be dragged through a frozen moat. When the last great sea-king, Magnus, was slain in Ireland he left in custody of a citizen of Lincoln an immense hoard of 20,000 lbs. in silver. Henry promptly threw the banker into a dungeon and appropriated the treasure. On the death of Gilbert, Bishop of London, Henry seized his effects. The holy man's silver and gold were carried to the king's exchequer in the episcopal boots.

The general pillage—taxation it could not be called—was passing belief. "Those who had nothing to give," says the faithful chronicler, "were driven from their humble dwellings, or, the doors being torn off their hinges, were left open to be plundered; or their miserable chattels being taken away, they were reduced to the extreme of poverty or in other way afflicted and tormented; while against those who were thought to possess something certain, new and imaginary offences were alleged; when not daring to defend themselves in a plea against the king, they were stripped of their property and plunged into misery."

His Saxon subjects he treated with undisguised contempt; while his only son, William, who, before his father's demise, providentially perished in the wreck of the White ship, had repeatedly threatened that when he came to the throne he would yoke them like beasts to the plough. A gluttonous feast of lampreys terminated Henry's career, but his death brought no redress to the miserable people.

Stephen (1135—1154.)

Stephen, nephew of the late king and grandson of the Conqueror, in defiance of his solemn oath of allegiance to Maud, Henry's daughter—kings' are like dicers' oaths—at once sought the kingly office, to which he was elected by the aldermen and Common Council of London! All the horrors of a disputed succession ensued—disputed successions and regencies are among the advantages of the monarchical system of government on which the admirers of royalty seldom enlarge. From end to end, the land was filled with rapine. Stephen was a mere swashbuckler; while Maud was an imperious, unfeeling woman, who could inspire no attachment. The perfection of human anarchy was attained. Everywhere frowning castles, built by forced labour, arose; page 25 their lords were undisguised bandits, who hauled men and women into their foul dens to rob them of their all. "Some," say the Chronicles, "they hanged up by the feet and smothered with foul smoke; others they hanged by the thumbs or the head, while fire was put to their feet; about the heads of others they knotted cords and bound them so that they went into the brain. Some were cast into pits where there were adders, snakes, and toads, and died there. Many of the castles had in them a 'loathy and grim,' which was a drag for the neck, such as hardly two or three men could lift. This was thus applied : being fastened to a beam, the sharp iron was placed round the man's neck, so that he could neither sit, nor lie, nor sleep, but must bear all this iron. Many thousands they wore out with hunger. To till the ground was to plough the sea. If two or three men were seen riding up to a town, all the inhabitants fled, taking them for plunderers. And this lasted, growing worse and worse, throughout Stephen's reign. Men said openly that Christ and his saints had gone to sleep."

It is the unspeakable misfortune of Englishmen that the true history of their monarchy has never yet been written by a competent hand. The Humes, Freemans, Froudes, Macaulays and Greens are scholars and polished writers, but the "root of the matter is not in them." They are respecters of persons, party advocates or word-painters, removed, it may be through no fault of their own, from all living contact and sympathy with the people. Comte's dictum, "The working class is not, properly speaking, a class at all, but constitutes the body of society; from it proceeds the various special classes which we regard as organs necessary to that body "—is the true key to universal history, and they comprehend it not. Royalty, aristocracy, and plutocracy are not organs necessary to the body of society. They are but excrescences. They exist only for reprobation and extinction. "By their fruits ye shall know them;" but by their fruits, alas! they have never been made known by historians to the people of England. Royalty and aristocracy have been treated by nearly all English analysts as if they were the body of society, for whom the workers live, move, and have their being. Wanted—a competent English Historian. None but Republicans and Democrats need apply.