William of Normandy bears a name which must for ever stand forth among the foremost of mankind. No man that ever trod this earth was endowed with greater natural gifts; to no man was it ever granted to accomplish greater things. No man ever did his work more effectually at the moment; no man ever left his work behind him as more truly an abiding possession for all time. In his character one feature stands out pre-eminently above all others. Throughout, the whole of his career we admire in him the embodiment in the highest degree that human nature will allow of the fixed purpose and the unbending will.
We are too apt to look upon William as simply the conqueror of England. But so to do is to look at him only in his most splendid, but at the same time his least honourable, aspect. William learnt to become the conqueror of England only by first becoming the conqueror of Normandy and the conqueror of France. He found means to conquer Normandy by the help of France, and to conquer France by the help of Normandy.
In 1052, William paid his memorable visit to England. At that time both Normandy and England were at rest, enjoying peace. Visits of mere friendship and courtesy among sovereign princes were rare in those days. Such visits as those which William and Eustace of Boulogne paid at this time to this country were altogether novelties, and unlikely to be acceptable to the English mind. We may be sure that every patriotic Englishman looked with an evil eye on any French-speaking prince who made his way to the English court.
William came with a great following; he tarried awhile in his cousin's company; he went away loaded with gifts and honours. And we can hardly doubt that he went away encouraged by some kind of promise of succeeding to the kingdom which he now visited as a stranger. Direct heirs were lacking to the royal house, and William was Edward's kinsman. The moment was in every way favourable for suggesting to William on the one hand, to Edward on the other, the idea of an arrangement by which William should succeed to the English crown on Edward's death. The Norman writers are full of Edward's promise to William, and also of some kind of oath that Harold swore to him. Had either the promise or the oath been a pure Norman invention William could never have paraded both in the way that he did in the eyes of Europe.
I admit, then, some promise of Edward, some oath of Harold. But when the time came for Edward the Confessor to make his final recommendation of a successor, he certainly changed his purpose; for his last will, so far as such an expression can be used, was undoubtedly in favour of Harold.
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