History of the Norman conquest of England



THE Norman Conquest is important, not as the beginning of English history but as its chief turning point. Its whole importance is that which belongs to a turning point. This conquest is an event which stands by itself in the history of Europe. It took place at a transitional period in the world's development. A kingdom which had hitherto been only Teutonic was brought within the sphere of the laws, manners and speech of the Romance nations.

At the very moment when Pope and Caesar held each other in the death-grasp a church which had hitherto maintained a sort of insular and barbaric independence was brought into a far more intimate connexion with the Roman See. The conquest of England by William wrought less immediate change than when the first English conquerors slew, expelled, or enslaved the whole nation of the vanquished Britons, or when Africa was subdued by Genseric. But it wrought a greater immediate change than the conquest of Sicily by Charles of Anjou. It brought with it not only a new dynasty, but a new nobility. It did not expel or transplant the English nation or any part of it; but it gradually deprived the leading men and families of England of their land and offices, and thrust them down into a secondary position under the alien intruders.

It must not be forgotten that the old English constitution survived the Norman Conquest. What the constitution had been under the Saxon Edgar, that it remained under William. The laws, with a few changes in detail, and also the language of the public documents, remained the same. The powers vested in King William and his Witan remained constitutionally the same as those which had been vested in King Edgar and his Witan a hundred years before.

I cannot too often repeat, for the saying is the very summing up of the whole history, that the Norman Conquest was not the wiping out of the constitution, the laws, the language, the national life of Englishmen. The English kingship gradually changed from the old Teutonic to the later medieval type; but the change began before the Norman Conquest.

Certain events indicate the remoter causes of the Norman Conquest. The accession of Edward at once brings us among the events that led immediately to that conquest; or, rather, we may look on the accession of this Saxon king as the first stage of the conquest itself. Sweyn and Canute, the Danes, had shown that it was possible for a foreign power to overcome England by force of arms.

The misgovernment of the sons of Canute hindered the formation of a lasting Danish dynasty in England. The throne of Cerdic was again filled by a son of Woden; but there can be no doubt that the shock given to the country by the Danish conquest, especially the way in which the ancient nobility was cut off in the long struggle with Sweyn and Canute, directly opened the way for the coming of the Norman. Edward did his best, wittingly or unwittingly, to make his path still easier. This he did by accustoming Englishmen to the sight of strangers--not national kinsmen like Canute's Danes, but Frenchmen, men of utterly alien speech and manners--enjoying every available place of honour or profit in the country.

The great national reaction under Godwin and Harold made England once more England for a few years. But this change, happy as it was, could not altogether do away with the effects of the French predilections of Edward. With Edward, then, the Norman Conquest really begins.

EDWARD is on the throne of England; Godwin, Leofric and Siward divide among them the administration of the realm. The next generation, the warriors of Stamford Bridge and Senlac, of York and Ely, are fast growing into maturity. Harold Haardraade is already pursuing his wild career of knight-errantry in distant lands, and is astonishing the world by his exploits in Russia and Sicily, at Constantinople and at Jerusalem.

The younger warriors of the Conquest, Edwin and Morcerf and Waltheof and Hereward, were probably born, but they must still have been in their cradles or in their mothers' arms. But, among the leaders of Church and state, Eldred, who lived to place the crown on the head both of Harold and of William, is already a great prelate, abbot of Tewkesbury, soon to succeed Lyfing in the chair of Worcester.

Tostig must have been on the verge of manhood; Sweyn and Harold were already men, bold and vigorous, ready to march at their father's bidding, and before long to affect the destiny of their country for evil and for good. Beyond the sea, William, still a boy in years but a man in conduct and counsel, is holding his own among the storms of a troubled minority, and learning those arts of the statesman and the warrior which fitted him to become the wisest ruler of Normandy, the last and greatest conqueror of England.

The struggle between Normans and Englishmen began with the accession of Edward in 1042, although the actual subjugation of England by force of arms was still twenty-four years distant. The thought of another Danish king was now hateful. "All folk chose Edward to King." As the son of Ethelred and Emma, the brother of the murdered and half-canonised Alfred, he had long been familiar to English imaginations. Edward, and Edward alone, stood forth as the heir of English royalty, the representative of English nationality. In his behalf the popular voice spoke out at once, and unmistakably. His popular election took place in June, immediately on the death of Hardicanute, and even before his burial. Edward, then, was king, and he reigned as every English king before him had reigned, by that union of popular election and royal descent which formed the essence of all ancient Teutonic kingship.

HE was crowned at Winchester, April 3, 1043. But by virtue of his peculiar character, his natural place was not on the throne of England, but at the head of a Norman abbey, for all his best qualities were those of a monk. Like his father, he was constantly under the dominion of favourities.

It was to the evil choice of his favourities during the early part of his reign that most of the misfortunes of his time were owing, and that a still more direct path was opened for the ambition of his Norman kinsman. In the latter part of his reign, either happy accident or returning good sense led him to a better choice. Without a guide he could reign but could not rule, but the good fortune of his later years gave him, in Harold, the wisest and noblest of all guides.





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