William the Conqueror
E. A. Freeman
The history of England, like the land and its people, has been specially insular, and yet no land has undergone deeper influences from without. No land has owed more than England to the personal action of men not of native birth. Britain was truly called another world, in opposition to the world of the European mainland, the world of Rome. In every age the history of Britain is the history of an island, of an island great enough to form a world of itself. In speaking of Celts or Teutons in Britain, we are speaking, not simply of Celts and Teutons, but of Celts and Teutons parted from their kinsfolk on the mainland, and brought under the common influences of an island world. The land has seen several settlements from outside, but the settlers have always been brought under the spell of their insular position. Whenever settlement has not meant displacement, the new comers have been assimilated by the existing people of the land. When it has meant displacement, they have still become islanders, marked off from those whom they left behind by characteristics which were the direct result of settlement in an island world.
The history of Britain then, and specially the history of England, has been largely a history of elements absorbed and assimilated from without. But each of those elements has done somewhat to modify the mass into which it was absorbed. The English land and nation are not as they might have been if they had never in later times absorbed the Fleming, the French Huguenot, the German Palatine. Still less are they as they might have been, if they had not in earlier times absorbed the greater elements of the Dane and the Norman. Both were assimilated; but both modified the character and destiny of the people into whose substance they were absorbed. The conquerors from Normandy were silently and peacefully lost in the greater mass of the English people; still we can never be as if the Norman had never come among us. We ever bear about us the signs of his presence. Our colonists have carried those signs with them into distant lands, to remind men that settlers in America and Australia came from a land which the Norman once entered as a conqueror. But that those signs of his presence hold the place which they do hold in our mixed political being, that, badges of conquest as they are, no one feels them to be badges of conquest—all this comes of the fact that, if the Norman came as a conqueror, he came as a conqueror of a special, perhaps almost of an unique kind. The Norman Conquest of England has, in its nature and in its results, no exact parallel in history. And that it has no exact parallel in history is largely owing to the character and position of the man who wrought it. That the history of England for the last eight hundred years has been what it has been has largely come of the personal character of a single man. That we are what we are to this day largely comes of the fact that there was a moment when our national destiny might be said to hang on the will of a single man, and that that man was William, surnamed at different stages of his life and memory, the Bastard, the Conqueror, and the Great.
With perfect fitness then does William the Norman, William the Norman Conqueror of England, take his place in a series of English statesmen. That so it should be is characteristic of English history. Our history has been largely wrought for us by men who have come in from without, sometimes as conquerors, sometimes as the opposite of conquerors; but in whatever character they came, they had to put on the character of Englishmen, and to make their work an English work. From whatever land they came, on whatever mission they came, as statesmen they were English. William, the greatest of his class, is still but a member of a class. Along with him we must reckon a crowd of kings, bishops, and high officials in many ages of our history. Theodore of Tarsus and Cnut of Denmark, Lanfranc of Pavia and Anselm of Aosta, Randolf FlamSkald and Roger of Salisbury, Henry of Anjou and Simon of Montfort, are all written on a list of which William is but the foremost. The largest number come in William’s own generation and in the generations just before and after it. But the breed of England’s adopted children and rulers never died out. The name of William the Deliverer stands, if not beside that of his namesake the Conqueror, yet surely alongside of the lawgiver from Anjou. And we count among the later worthies of England not a few men sprung from other lands, who did and are doing their work among us, and who, as statesmen at least, must count as English. As we look along the whole line, even among the conquering kings and their immediate instruments, their work never takes the shape of the rooting up of the earlier institutions of the land. Those institutions are modified, sometimes silently by the mere growth of events, sometimes formally and of set purpose. Old institutions get new names; new institutions are set up alongside of them. But the old ones are never swept away; they sometimes die out; they are never abolished. This comes largely of the absorbing and assimilating power of the island world. But it comes no less of personal character and personal circumstances, and pre-eminently of the personal character of the Norman Conqueror and of the circumstances in which he found himself.
Our special business now is with the personal acts and character of William, and above all with his acts and character as an English statesman. But the English reign of William followed on his earlier Norman reign, and its character was largely the result of his earlier Norman reign. A man of the highest natural gifts, he had gone through such a schooling from his childhood upwards as falls to the lot of few princes. Before he undertook the conquest of England, he had in some sort to work the conquest of Normandy. Of the ordinary work of a sovereign in a warlike age, the defence of his own land, the annexation of other lands, William had his full share. With the land of his overlord he had dealings of the most opposite kinds. He had to call in the help of the French king to put down rebellion in the Norman duchy, and he had to drive back more than one invasion of the French king at the head of an united Norman people. He added Domfront and Maine to his dominions, and the conquest of Maine, the work as much of statesmanship as of warfare, was the rehearsal of the conquest of England. There, under circumstances strangely like those of England, he learned his trade as conqueror, he learned to practise on a narrower field the same arts which he afterwards practised on a wider. But after all, William’s own duchy was his special school; it was his life in his own duchy which specially helped to make him what he was. Surrounded by trials and difficulties almost from his cradle, he early learned the art of enduring trials and overcoming difficulties; he learned how to deal with men; he learned when to smite and when to spare; and it is not a little to his honour that, in the long course of such a reign as his, he almost always showed himself far more ready to spare than to smite.
Before then we can look at William as an English statesman, we must first look on him in the land in which he learned the art of statesmanship. We must see how one who started with all the disadvantages which are implied in his earlier surname of the Bastard came to win and to deserve his later surnames of the Conqueror and the Great.
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