William the Conqueror eBook

Edward Augustus Freeman
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 211 pages of information about William the Conqueror.

Now that the Norman duke has become an English king, his career as an English statesman strictly begins, and a wonderful career it is.  Its main principle was to respect formal legality wherever he could.  All William’s purposes were to be carried out, as far as possible, under cover of strict adherence to the law of the land of which he had become the lawful ruler.  He had sworn at his crowning to keep the laws of the land, and to rule his kingdom as well as any king that had gone before him.  And assuredly he meant to keep his oath.  But a foreign king, at the head of a foreign army, and who had his foreign followers to reward, could keep that oath only in its letter and not in its spirit.  But it is wonderful how nearly he came to keep it in the letter.  He contrived to do his most oppressive acts, to deprive Englishmen of their lands and offices, and to part them out among strangers, under cover of English law.  He could do this.  A smaller man would either have failed to carry out his purposes at all, or he could have carried them out only by reckless violence.  When we examine the administration of William more in detail, we shall see that its effects in the long run were rather to preserve than to destroy our ancient institutions.  He knew the strength of legal fictions; by legal fictions he conquered and he ruled.  But every legal fiction is outward homage to the principle of law, an outward protest against unlawful violence.  That England underwent a Norman Conquest did in the end only make her the more truly England.  But that this could be was because that conquest was wrought by the Bastard of Falaise and by none other.


The coronation of William had its effect in a moment.  It made him really king over part of England; it put him into a new position with regard to the rest.  As soon as there was a king, men flocked to swear oaths to him and become his men.  They came from shires where he had no real authority.  It was most likely now, rather than at Berkhampstead, that Edwin and Morkere at last made up their minds to acknowledge some king.  They became William’s men and received again their lands and earldoms as his grant.  Other chief men from the North also submitted and received their lands and honours again.  But Edwin and Morkere were not allowed to go back to their earldoms.  William thought it safer to keep them near himself, under the guise of honour—­Edwin was even promised one of his daughters in marriage—­but really half as prisoners, half as hostages.  Of the two other earls, Waltheof son of Siward, who held the shires of Northampton and Huntingdon, and Oswulf who held the earldom of Bernicia or modern Northumberland, we hear nothing at this moment.  As for Waltheof, it is strange if he were not at Senlac; it is strange if he were there and came away alive.  But we only know that he was in William’s

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William the Conqueror from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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