In the tragedies of the next few months Hereward took no part; but they must be looked at near, in order to understand somewhat of the men who were afterwards mixed up with him for weal or woe.
When William went back to the South, the confederates, Child Edgar the Atheling, Gospatrick, and their friends, had come south again from Durham. It was undignified; a confession of weakness. If a Norman had likened them to mice coming out when the cat went away, none could blame him. But so they did; and Osbiorn and his Danes, landing in Humber-mouth, “were met” (says the Anglo–Saxon chronicle) “by Child Edgar and Earl Waltheof and Marlesweyn, and Earl Gospatrick with the men of Northumberland, riding and marching joyfully with an immense army”; not having the spirit of prophecy, or foreseeing those things which were coming on the earth.
To them repaired Edwin and Morcar, the two young Earls, Arkill and Karl, “the great Thanes,” or at least the four sons of Karl — for accounts differ — and what few else of the northern nobility Tosti had left unmurdered.
The men of Northumberland received the Danes with open arms. They would besiege York. They would storm the new Norman Keep. They would proclaim Edgar king at York.
In that Keep sat two men, one of whom knew his own mind, the other did not. One was William Malet, knight, one of the heroes of Hastings, a noble Norman, and châtelain of York Castle. The other was Archbishop Aldred.
Aldred seems to have been a man like too many more — pious and virtuous and harmless enough, and not without worldly prudence; but his prudence was of that sort which will surely swim with the stream, and “honor the powers that be,” if they be but prosperous enough. For after all, if success be not God, it is like enough to Him in some men’s eyes to do instead. So Archbishop Aldred had crowned Harold Godwinsson, when Harold’s star was in the ascendant. And who but Archbishop Aldred should crown William, when his star had cast Harold’s down from heaven? He would have crowned Satanas himself, had he only proved himself king de facto— as he asserts himself to be de jure— of this wicked world.
So Aldred, who had not only crowned William, but supported his power north of Humber by all means lawful, sat in York Keep, and looked at William Malet, wondering what he would do.
Malet would hold it to the last. As for the new keep, it was surely impregnable. The old walls — the Roman walls on which had floated the flag of Constantine the Great — were surely strong enough to keep out men without battering-rams, balistas, or artillery of any kind. What mattered Osbiorn’s two hundred and forty ships, and their crews of some ten or fifteen thousand men? What mattered the tens of thousands of Northern men, with Gospatrick at their head? Let them rage and rob round the walls. A messenger had galloped in from William in the Forest of Dean, to tell Malet to hold out to the last. He had galloped out again, bearing for answer, that the Normans could hold York for a year.
But the Archbishop’s heart misgave him, as from north and south at once came up the dark masses of two mighty armies, broke up into columns, and surged against every gate of the city at the same time. They had no battering-train to breach the ancient walls; but they had — and none knew it better than Aldred — hundreds of friends inside, who would throw open to them the gates.
One gate he could command from the Castle tower. His face turned pale as he saw a mob of armed townsmen rushing down the street towards it; a furious scuffle with the French guards; and then, through the gateway, the open champaign beyond, and a gleaming wave of axes, helms, and spears, pouring in, and up the street.
“The traitors!” he almost shrieked, as he turned and ran down the ladder to tell Malet below.
Malet was firm, but pale as Aldred.
“We must fight to the last,” said he, as he hurried down, commanding his men to sally at once en masse and clear the city.
The mistake was fatal. The French were entangled in the narrow streets. The houses, shut to them, were opened to the English and Danes; and, overwhelmed from above, as well as in front, the greater part of the Norman garrison perished in the first fight. The remnant were shut up in the Castle. The Danes and English seized the houses round, and shot from the windows at every loophole and embrasure where a Norman showed himself.
“Shoot fire upon the houses!” said Malet.
“You will not burn York? O God! is it come to this?”
“And why not York town, or York minster, or Rome itself, with the Pope inside it, rather than yield to barbarians?”
Archbishop Aldred went into his room, and lay down on his bed. Outside was the roar of the battle; and soon, louder and louder, the roar of flame. This was the end of his time-serving and king-making. And he said many prayers, and beat his breast; and then called to his chaplain for blankets, for he was very cold. “I have slain my own sheep!” he moaned, “slain my own sheep!”
His chaplain hapt him up in bed, and looked out of the window at the fight. There was no lull, neither was there any great advantage on either side. Only from the southward he could see fresh bodies of Danes coming across the plain.
“The carcass is here, and the eagles are gathered together. Fetch me the holy sacrament, Chaplain, and God be merciful to an unfaithful shepherd.”
The chaplain went.
“I have slain my own sheep!” moaned the archbishop. “I have given them up to the wolves — given my own minster, and all the treasures of the saints; and — and — I am very cold.”
When the chaplain came back with the blessed sacrament, Archbishop Aldred was more than cold; for he was already dead and stiff.
But William Malet would not yield. He and his Normans fought, day after day, with the energy of despair. They asked leave to put forth the body of the archbishop; and young Waltheof, who was a pious man, insisted that leave should be given.
So the archbishop’s coffin was thrust forth of the castle-gate, and the monks from the abbey came and bore it away, and buried it in the Cathedral church.
And then the fight went on, day after day, and more and more houses burned, till York was all aflame. On the eighth day the minster was in a light low over Archbishop Aldred’s new-made grave. All was burnt — minster, churches, old Roman palaces, and all the glories of Constantine the Great and the mythic past.
The besiegers, hewing and hammering gate after gate, had now won all but the Keep itself. Then Malet’s heart failed him. A wife he had, and children; and for their sake he turned coward and fled by night, with a few men-at-arms, across the burning ruins.
Then into what once was York the confederate Earls and Thanes marched in triumph, and proclaimed Edgar king — a king of dust and ashes.
And where were Edwin and Morcar the meanwhile? It is not told. Were they struggling against William at Stafford, or helping Edric the Wild and his Welshmen to besiege Chester? Probably they were aiding the insurrection — if not at these two points, still at some other of their great earldoms of Mercia and Chester. They seemed to triumph for a while: during the autumn of 1069 the greater part of England seemed lost to William. Many Normans packed up their plunder and went back to France; and those whose hearts were too stout to return showed no mercy to the English, even as William showed none. To crush the heart of the people by massacres and mutilations and devastations was the only hope of the invader; and thoroughly he did his work whenever he had a chance.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56