Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 3

The conduct of Edward the Confessor, King of England, in the story of Macbeth, was very generous and noble. He sent a large army and his General Siward to assist in dethroning the tyrant Macbeth, and placing Malcolm, the son of the murdered King Duncan, upon the throne; and we have seen how, with the assistance of Macduff, they fortunately succeeded. But King Edward never thought of taking any part of Scotland to himself in the confusion occasioned by the invasion; for he was a good man, and was not ambitious or covetous of what did not belong to him. It had been well both for England and Scotland that there had been more such good and moderate kings, as it would have prevented many great quarrels, long wars, and terrible bloodshed. But good King Edward the Confessor did not leave any children to succeed him on the throne. He was succeeded by a king called Harold, who was the last monarch of the Saxon race that ever reigned in England. The Saxons, you recollect, had conquered the Britons, and now there came a new enemy to attack the Saxons. These were the Normans, a people who came from France, but were not originally Frenchmen. Their forefathers were a colony of those Northern pirates, whom we mentioned before as plundering all the sea-coasts which promised them any booty. They were frequently called Northmen or Normans, as they came from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the other Northern regions. A large body of them landed on the north part of France, and compelled the King of that country to yield up to them the possession of a large territory, or province, called Neustria, the name of which was changed to Normandy, when it became the property of these Northmen, or Normans. This province was governed by the Norman chief who was called a duke, from a Latin word signifying a general. He exercised all the powers of a king within his dominion of Normandy, but, in consideration of his being possessed of a part of the territories of France, he acknowledged the king of that country for his sovereign, and became what was called his vassal.

This connexion of a king as sovereign, with his princes and great men as vassals, must be attended to and understood, in order that you may comprehend the history which follows. A great king, or sovereign prince, gave large provinces, or grants of land, to his dukes, earls, and noblemen; and each of these possessed nearly as much power, within his own district, as the king did in the rest of his dominions. But then the vassal, whether duke, earl, or lord, or whatever he was, was obliged to come with a certain number of men to assist the sovereign, when he was engaged in war; and in time of peace, he was bound to attend on his court when summoned, and do homage to him — that is, acknowledge that he was his master and liege lord. In like manner, the vassals of the crown, as they were called, divided the lands which the king had given them into estates, which they bestowed on knights and gentlemen, whom they thought fitted to follow them in war, and to attend them in peace; for they, too, held courts, and administered justice, each in his own province. Then the knights and gentlemen, who had these estates from the great nobles, distributed the property among an inferior class of proprietors, some of whom cultivated the land themselves, and others by means of husbandmen and peasants, who were treated as a sort of slaves, being bought and sold like brute beasts, along with the farms which they laboured.

Thus, when a great king, like that of France or England, went to war, he summoned all his crown vassals to attend him, with the number of armed men corresponding to his Fief, as it was called; that is, the territory which had been granted to each of them. The prince, duke, or earl, in order to obey the summons, called upon all the gentlemen to whom he had given estates, to attend his standard with their followers in arms. The gentlemen, in their turn, called on the franklins, a lower order of gentry, and upon the peasants; and thus the whole force of the kingdom was assembled in one array. This system of holding lands for military service, that is, for fighting for the sovereign when called upon, was called the FEUDAL SYSTEM. It was general throughout all Europe for a great many ages.

But as many of these great crown vassals, as, for example, the Dukes of Normandy, became extremely powerful, they were in the custom of making peace and war at their own hand, without the knowledge or consent of the King of France their sovereign. In the same manner, the vassals of those great dukes and princes frequently made war on each other, for war was the business of every one; while the poor bondsman, who cultivated the ground, was subjected to the greatest hardships, and plundered and ill-treated by whichever side had the better. The nobles and gentlemen fought on horseback, arrayed in armour of steel, richly ornamented with gold and silver, and were called knights or squires. They used long lances, with which they rode fiercely against each other, and heavy swords, or clubs or maces, to fight hand to hand, when the lance was broken. Inferior persons fought on foot, and were armed with bows and arrows, which, according to their form, were called long-bows, or cross-bows, and served to kill men at a distance, instead of guns and cannon, which were not then invented. The poor husbandmen were obliged to come to the field of battle with such arms as they had: and it was no uncommon thing to see a few of these knights and squires ride over and put to flight many hundreds of them; for the gentry were clothed in complete armour, so that they could receive little hurt, and the poor peasants had scarce clothes sufficient to cover them. You may see coats of the ancient armour preserved in the Tower of London and elsewhere, as matters of curiosity.

It was not a very happy time this, when there was scarcely any law, but the strong took every thing from the weak at their pleasure; for as almost all the inhabitants of the country were obliged to be soldiers, it naturally followed that they were engaged in continual fighting.

The great crown-vassals, in particular, made constant war upon one another, and sometimes upon the sovereign himself, though to do so was to incur the forfeiture of their fiefs, or the territories which he had bestowed upon them, and which he was enabled by law to recall when they became his enemies. But they took the opportunity, when they were tolerably certain that their prince would not have strength sufficient to punish them. In short, no one could maintain his right longer than he had the power of defending it; and this induced the more poor and helpless to throw themselves under the protection of the brave and powerful — acknowledge themselves their vassals and subjects, and do homage to them, in order that they might obtain their safeguard and patronage.

While things were in this state, William, the Duke of Normandy, and the leader of that valiant people whose ancestors had conquered that province, began, upon the death of good King Edward the Confessor, to consider the time as favourable for an attempt to conquer the wealthy kingdom of England. He pretended King Edward had named him his heir; but his surest reliance was upon a strong army of his brave Normans, to whom were joined many knights and squires from distant countries, who hoped, by assisting this Duke William in his proposed conquest, to obtain from him good English estates, under the regulations which I have described.

The Duke of Normandy landed [on the 28th of September, at Pevensey] in Sussex, in the year one thousand and sixty-six, after the birth of our blessed Saviour. He had an army of sixty thousand chosen men, for accomplishing his bold enterprise. Many gallant knights, who were not his subjects, joined him, in the hope of obtaining fame in arms, and estates, if his enterprise should prosper. Harold, who had succeeded Edward the Confessor on the throne of England, had been just engaged in repelling an attack upon England by the Norwegians, and was now called upon to oppose this new and more formidable invasion. He was, therefore, taken at considerable disadvantage.

The armies of England and Normandy engaged in a desperate battle near Hastings, and the victory was long obstinately contested. The Normans had a great advantage, from having amongst them large bands of archers, who used the long-bow, and greatly annoyed the English, who had but few bow-men to oppose them, and only short darts called javelins, which they threw from their hands, and which could do little hurt at a distance. Yet the victory remained doubtful, though the battle had lasted from nine in the morning until the close of the day, when an arrow pierced through King Harold’s head, and he fell dead on the spot. The English then retreated from the field, and Duke William used his advantage with so much skill and dexterity, that he made himself master of all England, and reigned there under the title of William the Conqueror. He divided great part of the rich country of England among his Norman followers, who held lands of him for military service, according to the rules of the feudal system, of which I gave you some account. The Anglo–Saxons, you may well suppose, were angry at this, and attempted several times to rise against King William, and drive him and his soldiers back to Normandy. But they were always defeated; and so King William became more severe towards these Anglo–Saxons, and took away their lands, and their high rank and appointments, until he left scarce any of them in possession of great estates, or offices of rank, but put his Normans above them, as masters, in every situation.

Thus the Saxons who had conquered the British as you have before read, were in their turn conquered by the Normans, deprived of their property, and reduced to be the servants of those proud foreigners. To this day, though several of the ancient nobility of England claim to be descended from the Normans, there is scarcely a nobleman, and very few of the gentry, who can show that they are descended of the Saxon blood; William the Conqueror took so much care to deprive the conquered people of all power and importance.

It must have been a sad state of matters in England, when the Normans were turning the Saxons out of their estates and habitations, and degrading them from being freemen into slaves. But good came out of it in the end; for these Normans were not only one of the bravest people that ever lived, but they were possessed of more learning and skill in the arts than the Saxons. They brought with them the art of building large and beautiful castles and churches composed of stone, whereas the Saxons had only miserable houses made of wood. The Normans introduced the use of the long-bow also, which became so general, that the English were accounted the best archers in the world, and gained many battles by their superiority in that military art. Besides these advantages, the Normans lived in a more civilized manner than the Saxons, and observed among each other the rules of civility and good-breeding, of which the Saxons were ignorant. The Norman barons were also great friends to national liberty, and would not allow their kings to do any thing contrary to their privileges, but resisted them whenever they attempted any thing beyond the power which was given to them by law. Schools were set up in various places by the Norman princes, and learning was encouraged. Large towns were founded in different places of the kingdom, and received favour from the Norman kings, who desired to have the assistance of the townsmen, in case of any dispute with their nobility. Thus the Norman Conquest, though a most unhappy and disastrous event at the time it took place, rendered England, in the end, a more wise, more civilized, and more powerful country than it had been before; and you will find many such cases in history, my dear child, in which, it has pleased the providence of God to bring great good out of what seems, at first sight, to be unmixed evil.


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