A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance

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41.

William the Conqueror as Man and as King

Source—The Saxon Chronicle. Translated by J. A. Giles (London, 1847), pp. 461–462.

William’s religious zeal

If any one would know what manner of man King William was, the glory that he obtained, and of how many lands he was lord, then will we describe him as we have known him, we who have looked upon him and who once lived at his court. This King William, of whom we are speaking, was a very wise and a great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors. He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure towards those who withstood his will. He founded a noble monastery on the spot where God permitted him to conquer England, and he established monks in it, and he made it very rich.1 In his days the great monastery at Canterbury was built,2 and many others also throughout England; moreover, this land was filled with monks who lived after the rule of St. Benedict; and such was the state of religion in his days that all who would might observe that which was prescribed by their respective orders.

His strong government

King William was also held in much reverence. He wore his crown three times every year when he was in England: at Easter he wore it at Winchester,3 at Pentecost at Westminster,4 and at Christmas at Gloucester.5 And at these times all the men of England were with him, archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls, thanes6 and knights.7 So also was he a very stern and a wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will, and he kept in prison those earls who acted against his pleasure. He removed bishops from their sees1 and abbots from their offices, and he imprisoned thanes, and at length he spared not his own brother Odo. This Odo was a very powerful bishop in Normandy. His see was that of Bayeux;2 and he was foremost to serve the king. He had an earldom in England, and when William was in Normandy he [Odo] was the first man in this country [England], and him did William cast into prison.3

The extent of his power

Amongst other things, the good order that William established is not to be forgotten. It was such that any man, who was himself aught, might travel over the kingdom with a bosom full of gold unmolested; and no man durst kill another, however great the injury he might have received from him. He reigned over England, and being sharp-sighted to his own interest, he surveyed the kingdom so thoroughly that there was not a single hide of land throughout the whole of which he knew not the possessor, and how much it was worth, and this he afterwards entered in his register.4 The land of the Britons [Wales] was under his sway, and he built castles therein; moreover he had full dominion over the Isle of Man;5 Scotland also was subject to him, from his great strength; the land of Normandy was his by inheritance, and he possessed the earldom of Maine;6 and had he lived two years longer, he would have subdued Ireland by his prowess, and that without a battle.7

His faults as a ruler

Truly there was much trouble in these times, and very great distress. He caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sternness, and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice, and greedily loved gain.1 He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. As he forbade killing the deer, so also the boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father. He also commanded concerning the hares, that they should go free.2 The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he recked nought of them; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or would keep their lands, or would hold their possessions, or would be maintained in their rights. Alas that any man should so exalt himself, and carry himself in his pride over all! May Almighty God show mercy to his soul, and grant him the forgiveness of his sins! We have written concerning him these things, both good and bad, that virtuous men may follow after the good, and wholly avoid the evil, and may go in the way that leadeth to the kingdom of heaven.

1 The story goes that just before entering the battle of Hastings in 1066 William made a vow that if successful he would establish a monastery on the site where Harold’s standard stood. The vow was fulfilled by the founding of the Abbey of St. Martin, or Battle Abbey, in the years 1070–1076. The monastery was not ready for consecration until 1094.

2 Christchurch. This cathedral monastery had been organized before the Conqueror’s day, but it was much increased in size and in importance by Lanfranc, William’s archbishop of Canterbury; and the great building which it occupied in the later Middle Ages was constructed at this time.

3 In Hampshire, in the southern part of the kingdom.

4 In Middlesex, near London.

5 On the Severn, in the modern county of Gloucester.

6 A thane (or thegn) was originally a young warrior; then one who became a noble by serving the king in arms; then the possessor of five hides of land. A hide was a measure of arable ground varying in extent at the time of William the Conqueror, but by Henry II.’s reign (1154–1189) fixed at about 100 acres. The thane before the Conquest occupied nearly the same position socially as the knight after it.

7 This assembly of dignitaries, summoned by the king three times a year, was the so-called Great Council, which in Norman times superseded the old Saxon witan. Its duties were mainly judicial. It acted also as an advisory body, but the king was not obliged to consult it or to carry out its recommendations [see p. 307, note 2].

1 The see of a bishop is his ecclesiastical office; the area over which his authority extends is more properly known as his diocese.

2 On the Orne River, near the English Channel.

3 Odo, though a churchman, was a man of brutal instincts and evil character. Through his high-handed course, both as a leading ecclesiastical dignitary in Normandy and as earl of Kent and vicegerent in England, he gave William no small amount of trouble. The king finally grew tired of his brother’s conduct and had him imprisoned in the town of Rouen where he was left for four years, or until the end of the reign (1087).

4 This was the famous Domesday Survey, begun in 1085.

5 In the Irish Sea.

6 Maine lay directly to the south of Normandy.

7 This statement is doubtful, though it is true that Lanfranc made a beginning by consecrating a number of bishops in Ireland.

1 All of the early Norman kings were greedy for money and apt to bear heavily upon the people in their efforts to get it. Englishmen were not accustomed to general taxation and felt the new régime to be a serious burden. There was consequently much complaint, but, as our historian says, William was strong enough to be able to ignore it.

2 Most of William’s harsh measures can be justified on the ground that they were designed to promote the ultimate welfare of his people. This is not true, however, of his elaborate forest laws, which undertook to deprive Englishmen of their accustomed freedom of hunting when and where they pleased. William’s love of the chase amounted to a passion and he was not satisfied with merely enacting such stringent measures as that the slayer of a hart or a hind in his forests should be blinded, but also set apart a great stretch of additional country, the so-called New Forest, as his own exclusive hunting grounds.

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Chicago: "William the Conqueror as Man and as King," A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951) (New York: American Book Company, 1908), 241–244. Original Sources, accessed July 4, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MR94MAV1GB7395T.

MLA: . "William the Conqueror as Man and as King." A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, edited by Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951), New York, American Book Company, 1908, pp. 241–244. Original Sources. 4 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MR94MAV1GB7395T.

Harvard: , 'William the Conqueror as Man and as King' in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance. cited in 1908, A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. , American Book Company, New York, pp.241–244. Original Sources, retrieved 4 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MR94MAV1GB7395T.