The History of The Kings of England 25

William of Malmesbury

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I am aware, that many persons think it unwise in me, to have written the history of the kings of my own time; alleging, that in such a work, truth is often made shipwreck of, while falsehood meets with support: because to relate the crimes of contemporaries, is attended with danger; their good actions with applause. Whence it arises, say they, that, as all things have, now, a natural tendency to evil rather than to good, the historian passes over any disgraceful transaction, however obvious, through timidity; and, for the sake of approbation, feigns good qualities, when he cannot find them. There are others, who, judging of us by their own indolence, deem us unequal to so great a task, and brand our undertaking with malignant censure. Wherefore, impelled by the reasoning of the one, or the contempt of the other, I had long since voluntarily retired to leisure and to silence: but after indulging in them for a time, the accustomed inclination for study again strongly beset me; as it was impossible for me to be unoccupied, and I knew not how to give myself up to those forensic avocations, which are beneath the notice of a literary character. To this was to be added the incitements of my friends, to whose suggestions, though only implied, I ought to pay regard: and they indeed gently urged me, already sufficiently disposed, to prosecute my undertaking. Animated, therefore, by the advice of those whom I love most affectionately, I advance to give them a lasting pledge of friendship from the stores of my research. Grateful also to those who are in fear for me, lest I should either excite hatred, or disguise the truth, I will, by the help of Christ, make such a return for their kindness, as neither to become odious, nor a falsifier. For I will describe, both what has been done well, or otherwise, in such wise, and so safely steer between Scylla and Charybdis, that my opinions shall not be concealed, though some matters may be omitted in my history. Moreover, to those who undervalue the labours of others, I make the same answer as St. Jerome formerly did to his critics; “Let them read if they like: if not, let them cast it aside; because I do not obtrude my work on the fastidious, but I dedicate it, if any think it worth their notice, to the studious;” which even these men will readily pronounce to be consonant to equity, unless they are of the number of those, of whom it is said; “Fools are easy to confute, but not so easy to restrain.” I will relate, then, in this, the fourth book of my work, every thing which may be said of William, son of William the Great, in such manner that neither shall the truth suffer, nor shall the dignity of the prince be obscured. Some matters also will be inserted in these pages, which in his time were calamitous in this country, or glorious elsewhere, as far as my knowledge extends. More especially, the pilgrimage of the Christians to Jerusalem, which it will be proper to annex in William then, the son of William, was born in Normandy many years before his father came to England; and being educated with extreme care by his parents, as he had naturally an ambitious mind, he at length reached the summit of dignity. He would no doubt have been a prince incomparable in our time, had not his father’s greatness eclipsed him; and had not the fates cut short his years too early for his maturer age to correct errors, contracted by the licentiousness of power, and the impetuosity of youth. When childhood was passed, he spent the period of youth in military occupations; in riding, throwing the dart, contending with his elders in obedience, with those of his own age in action: and he esteemed it injurious to his reputation, if he was not the foremost to take arms in military commotions; unless he was the first to challenge the adversary, or when challenged, to overcome him. To his father he was ever dutiful; always exerting himself in his sight in battle, ever at his side in peace. His hopes gradually expanding, he already aspired after the succession, especially on the rejection of his elder brother, while the tender age of the younger gave him no uneasiness. Thus, adopted as his successor by his father during his last illness, he set out to take possession of the kingdom ere the king had breathed his last: where being gladly received by the people, and obtaining the keys of the treasury, he by these means subjected all England to his will. Archbishop Lanfranc, the grand mover of every thing, had educated him, and made him a knight, and now he favoured his pretensions to the throne; by his authority and assistance William was crowned on the day of the saints Cosmas and Damian, and passed the remainder of the winter quietly and with general favour.

At the expiration of this period, in the beginning of spring, his first contention was with his uncle, Odo, bishop of Bayeux. For when Odo, on his release from confinement, as I have related, had firmly established his nephew, Robert, in the duchy of Normandy, he came to England, and received from the king the earldom of Kent. But when he saw every thing in the kingdom managed, not at his own pleasure, as formerly, for the administration of public affairs was now committed to William, bishop of Durham, he was moved with envy, and having revolted from the king, he tainted many others by insinuating, that the kingdom belonged to Robert, who was of gentler disposition, and whose youthful follies had been corrected by many adversities; that William, delicately brought up, and overbearing from that ferocity of mind which was manifest in his countenance, would dare every thing, in defiance of right and equity: that it must soon come to pass, that they would lose the honours they had already obtained with so much difficulty: that nothing was gained by the father’s death, if those whom he had cast into prison, were to be killed by the son. To this effect he used, at first, secretly to mutter, together with Roger Montgomery, Gosfrith, bishop of Coutances, with his nephew Robert earl of Northumberland, and others; afterwards they were more open in their clamours, repeating and disseminating them by letters and by emissaries. Moreover, even William, bishop of Durham, the confidential minister of the king, had joined in their treachery. This was matter of great concern to William, it is said; because, together with the breach of friendship, he was disappointed of the resources of the distant provinces. Odo now carried off” booty of every kind to Rochester, plundering the king’s revenues in Kent, and especially the lands of the archbishop; breathing eternal hatred against him, because, he said, it was by his advice, that his brother had cast him into chains. Nor was this assertion false: for when William the elder formerly complained to Lanfranc, that he was deserted by his brother: “Seize, and cast him into chains,” said he. “What !” replied the king, “he is a clergyman ! “Then the archbishop with playful archness, as Persius says, “balancing the objection with nice antithesis,” rejoined, “you will not seize the bishop of Bayeux, but confine the earl of Kent.”

The next year, as the sense of injuries ever grows keener from reconsideration, the king began carefully to examine, how he might revenge his griefs, and repay his brother for this insult. In consequence, by his practices, he bribed the garrison, and obtained possession of the castle of St. Vallery, the adjoining port, and the town which is called Albemarle. The earl had not the courage to resist, but, by means of ambassadors, acquainted his lord, the king of France, with the violence of his brother, and begged his assistance. The French king, inactive, and surfeited with daily gluttony, came hiccuping, through repletion, to the war: but, as he was making great professions, the money of the king of England met him by the way; with which his resolution being borne down, he unbuckled his armour, and went back to his gormandizing. In this manner, Normandy, for a long time, groaned under intestine war, sometimes one party, sometimes the other being victorious: the nobility, men of fickle temper, and faithful to neither brother, exciting their mutual fury. A few, better advised, attentive to their own advantage, for they had possessions in both countries, were mediators of a peace; the basis of which was, that the king should get possession of Maine for the earl; and the earl should cede to the king those castles which he already held, and the monastery of Feschamp. The treaty was ratified and confirmed by the oath of the nobles on both sides.

Not long after the king went abroad to execute these conditions. Each leader made great efforts to invade Maine; but when they had completed their preparations, and were just ready to proceed, an obstacle arose, through the spirit of Henry, the younger brother, loudly remonstrating against their covetousness, which had shared their paternal possessions between themselves, and blushed not at having left him almost destitute. In consequence he took possession of Mount St. Michael, and harassed, with constant sallies, the besieging forces of his brothers. During this siege, a noble specimen of disposition was exhibited, both by the king and by the earl: of compassion in the one, and of magnanimity in the other. I shall subjoin these instances, for the information of my readers.

The king, going out of his tent, and observing the enemy at a distance, proudly prancing, rushed unattended against a large party; spurred on by the impetuosity of his courage, and at the same time confident that none would dare resist him. Presently his horse, which he had that day purchased for fifteen marks of silver, being killed under him, he was thrown down, and for a long time dragged by his foot; the strength of his mail, however, prevented his being hurt. The soldier who had unhorsed him, was at this instant drawing his sword to strike him, when, terrified at the extremity of his danger, he cried out, “Hold, rascal, I am the king of England.” The whole troop trembled at the well-known voice of the prostrate monarch, and immediately raised him respectfully from the ground, and brought him another horse. Leaping into the saddle without waiting assistance, and darting a keen look on the by-standers: “Who unhorsed me ? said he. While the rest were silent through fear, the bold perpetrator of the deed readily defended himself, saying, “‘Twas I, who took you, not for a king, but for a soldier.” The king, soothed, and regaining the serenity of his countenance, exclaimed, “By the crucifix at Lucca,” for such was his oath, “henceforth thou shalt be mine, and, placed on my roll, shalt receive the recompense of this gallant service.” Nobly done, magnanimous king ! what encomium shall I pass on this speech ! Equal to Alexander the Great in glory; who, through admiration of his courage, preserved, unhurt, a Persian soldier, who had attempted to strike him from behind, but was frustrated in his design by the treachery of his sword.

But now to relate the compassion of the earl. When the blockade had so far proceeded that the besieged were in want of water, Henry sent mesjengers to Eobert, to expostulate with him on the thirst he endured, and to represent, that it was impious to deprive him of water, the common right of mankind: let him try his courage another way if he chose; and not employ the violence of the elements, but the valour of a soldier. On which, wrought upon by the natural tenderness of his disposition, he ordered his party to be more remiss in their duty where they kept guard, that his thirsty brother might not be deprived of water. This circumstance, when related to the king, who was always inclined to warmth of temper, made him say to the earl, “You well know how to carry on war indeed, who allow your enemies plenty of water: and pray, how shall we subdue them, if we indulge them in food and drink?” But he smiling, uttered this kind and truly laudable expression, “Oh, shame I should I suffer my brother to die with thirst ? and where shall we find another, if we lose him?” On this the king, deriding the mild temper of the man, put an end to the war without accomplishing his design; and as the commotions of the Scots and Welsh required his presence, he retired with both his brothers to his kingdom.

Immediately he led an expedition, first against the Welsh, and then against the Scots, in which he performed nothing worthy of his greatness; but lost many of his soldiers, and had his sumpter-horses intercepted. And, not only at that time, but frequently, in Wales, was fortune unfavourable to him; which may seem strange to any one, when the chance of war was generally on his side in other places. But it appears to me that the unevenness of the country, and the badness of the weather, as it assisted their rebellion, was also an impediment to his valour. But king Henry, who now reigns, a man of excellent talents, discovered a mode of counteracting their designs: which was, by stationing in their country the Flemings, to be a barrier to them, and constantly keep them within bounds. At that time, by the industry of earl Robert, who had long since gained the good graces of the Scot, the basis of a peace was laid between Malcolm and William. But various grounds of difference still existing on both sides, and justice wavering through their mutual animosity, Malcolm came of his own accord to Gloucester, a hearty solicitor for peace, so that it were on equitable conditions. He obtained, however, nothing more than permission to return uninjured to his kingdom: for the king disdained to take a man by subtlety, whom he might have conquered by arms. But the next winter he was dispatched by the party of Robert, earl of Northumberland, rather through stratagem than force. When his wife, Margaret, a woman distinguished for alms-giving and for chastity, heai”d of his death, disgusted with the continuance of life, she earnestly entreated of God to die. They were both remarkable for piety, but the queen more especially. For during her whole life, wherever she might be, she had twenty-four poor persons whom she supplied with meat and clothing. In Lent, waiting for the singing of the priests, she used to watch all night in the church, herself assisting at triple matins, of the Trinity, of the Cross, of St. Mary, and afterwards repeating the Psalter; with tears bedewing her garments, and agitating her breast. Departing from the church, she used to feed the poor; first three, then nine, then twenty-four, at last three hundred: herself standing by with the king, and pouring water on their hands. Edgar his son, when expelled by his uncle, was restored by William; assuredly with a noble compassion, and worthy of so great a personage, who, forgetting the injuries of the father, replaced the son, when suppliant, on his throne.

Greatness of soul was pre-eminent in the king, which, in process of time, he obscured by excessive severity; vices, indeed, in place of virtues, so insensibly crept into his bosom, that he could not distinguish them. The world doubted, for a long time, whither he would incline; what tendency his disposition would take. At first, as long as archbishop Lanfranc survived, he abstained from every crime; so that it might be hoped, he would be the very mirror of kings. After his death, for a time, he showed himself so variable, that the balance hung even betwixt vices and virtues. At last, however, in his latter years, the desire after good grew cold, and the crop of evil increased to ripeness: his liberality became prodigality; his magnanimity pride; his austerity cruelty. I may be allowed, with permission of the royal majesty, not to conceal the truth; for he feared God but little, man not at all. If any one shall say this is undiscerning, he will not be wrong; because wise men should observe this rule, “God ought to be feared at all times; man, according to circumstances.” He was, when abroad, and in public assemblies, of supercilious look, darting his threatening eye on the by-stander; and with assumed severity and ferocious voice, assailing such as conversed with him. From apprehension of poverty, and of the treachery of others, as may be conjectured, he was too much given to lucre, and to cruelty. At home and at table, with his intimate companions, he gave loose to levity and to mirth. He was a most facetious railer at any thing he had himself done amiss, in order that he might thus do away obloquy, and make it matter of jest. But I shall dilate somewhat on that liberality, in which he deceived himself; and afterwards on his other propensities, that I may manifest what great vices sprang up in him under the semblance of virtues.

For, in fact, there are two kinds of givers: the one is denominated prodigal, the other liberal. The prodigal are such as lavish their money on those things, of which they will leave either a transient, or perhaps no memory in this world; neither will they gain mercy by them from God. The liberal, are those who redeem the captive from the plunderer, assist the poor, or discharge the debts of their friends. We must give, therefore, but with discrimination and moderation; for many persons have exhausted their patrimony by giving inconsiderately. “For what can be more silly, than to take pains to be no longer able to do that which you do with pleasure ?” Some, therefore, when they have nothing to give turn to rapine, and get more hatred from those from whom they take, than good will from those to whom they give. We lament that thus it happened to this king; for, when in the very beginning of his reign, through fear of tumults, he had assembled soldiers, and denied them nothing, promising still greater remuneration hereafter; the consequence was, that as he had soon exhausted his father’s treasures, and had then but moderate revenues, his substance failed, though the spirit of giving remained, which, by habit, had almost become nature. He was a man who knew not how to take off from the price of any thing, or to judge of the value of goods; but the trader might sell him his commodity at whatever rate, or the soldier demand any pay he pleased. He was anxious that the cost of his clothes should be extravagant, and angry if they were purchased at a low price. One morning, indeed, while putting on his new boots, he asked his chamberlain what they cost; and when he replied, “Three shillings,” indignantly and in a rage he cried out, “You son of a whore, how long has the king worn boots of so paltry a price ? go, and bring me a pair worth a mark of silver.” He went, and bringing him a much cheaper pair, told him, falsely, that they cost as much as he had ordered: “Aye,” said the king, “these are suitable to royal majesty.” Thus his chamberlain used to charge him what he pleased for his clothes; acquiring by these means many things for his own advantage.

The fame of his generosity, therefore, pervaded all the West, and reached even to the East. Military men came to him out of every province on this side of the mountains, whom he rewarded most profusely. In consequence, when he had no longer aught to bestow, poor and exhausted, he turned his thoughts to rapine. The rapacity of his disposition was seconded by Ralph, the inciter of his covetousness; a clergyman of the lowest origin, but raised to eminence by his wit and subtlety. If at any time a royal edict issued, that England should pay a certain tribute, it was doubled by this plunderer of the rich, this exterminator of the poor, this confiscator of other men’s inheritance. He was an invincible pleader, as unrestrained in his words as in his actions; and equally furious against the meek or the turbulent. Wherefore some people used to laugh, and say, that he was the only man who knew how to employ his talents in this way, and cared for no one’s hatred, so that he could please his master. At this person’s suggestion, the sacred honours of the church, as the pastors died, were exposed to sale: for whenever the death of any bishop or abbot was announced, directly one of the king’s clerks was admitted, who made an inventory of every thing, and carried all future rents into the royal exchequer. In the meantime some person was sought out fit to supply the place of the deceased; not from proof of morals, but of money; and, at last, if I may so say, the empty honour was conferred, and even that purchased, at a great price. These things appeared the more disgraceful, because, in his father’s time, after the decease of a bishop or abbot, all rents were reserved entire, to be given up to the succeeding pastor; and persons truly meritorious, on account of their religion, were elected. But in the lapse of a very few years, every thing was changed. There was no man rich except the money-changer; no clerk, unless he was a lawyer; no priest, unless he was a farmer. Men of the meanest condition, or guilty of whatever crime, were listened to, if they could suggest any thing likely to be advantageous to the king: the halter was loosened from the robber’s neck, if he could promise any emolument to the sovereign. All military discipline being relaxed, the courtiers preyed upon the property of the country people, and consumed their substance, taking the very meat from the mouths of these wretched creatures. Then was there flowing hair and extravagant dress; and then was invented the fashion of shoes with curved points; then the model for young men was to rival women in delicacy of person, to mince their gait, to walk with loose gesture, and half naked. Enervated and effeminate, they unwillingly remained what nature had made them; the assailers of others’ chastity, prodigal of their own. Troops of pathics, and droves of harlots, followed the court; so that it was said, with justice, by a wise man, that England would be fortunate if Henry could reign; led to such an opinion, because he abhorred obscenity from his youth.

Here, were it necessary, I could add, that archbishop Anselm attempted to correct these abuses; but failing of the co-operation of his suffragans, he voluntarily quitted the kingdom, yielding to the depravity of the times. Anselm, than whom none ever was more tenacious of right; none in the present time so thoroughly learned; none so completely spiritual; the father of his country, the mirror of the world: he, when just about to set sail, after waiting in port for a wind, was rifled, as though he had been a public robber; all his bags and packages being brought out and ransacked. Of this man’s injuries I could speak farther, had the sun witnessed any thing more unjust than this single transaction, or were it not necessary to omit a relation, which has been anticipated by the eloquence of the very reverend Edmer.

Hence may be perceived how fierce a flame of evil burst forth from what the king conceived to be liberality. In repressing which as he did not manifest so much diligence as negligence, he incurred a degree of infamy, not only great, but scarcely to be wiped out. I think undeservedly, however; because he never could have exposed himself to such disgrace, had he only recollected the dignity of his station. I pass over, therefore, these matters slightly, and hasten in my composition, because I blush to relate the crimes of so great a king; rather giving my attention to refute and extenuate them.

The Jews in his reign gave proofs of their insolence towards God. At one time, at Rouen, they endeavoured to prevail, by means of presents, on some converted Jews, to return to Judaism; at another, at London, entering into controversy with our bishops; because the king, in jest, as I suppose, had said, that if they mastered the Christians in open argument, he would become one of their sect. The question therefore was agitated with much apprehension on the part of the bishops and clergy, fearful, through pious anxiety, for the Christian faith. From this contest, however, the Jews reaped nothing but confusion: though they used repeatedly to boast that they were vanquished, not by argument, but by power.

In later times, that is, about the ninth year of his reign, Robert, earl of Normandy, at the admonition of pope Urban, as Avill be related hereafter, took the resolution of going to Jerusalem, and pawned Normandy to his brother, for the sum of ten thousand marks. In consequence, an edict for an intolerable tax was circulated throughout England. On this the bishops and abbots, in great numbers, went to court, to complain of the injury; observing that they could not raise so great an impost, unless they drove away their wretched husbandmen altogether. To this the courtiers, with angry countenance, as usual, replied, “Have you not shrines adorned with gold and silver, full of dead men’s bones ? “deigning the petitioners no other answer. In consequence, perceiving the drift of the reply, they took off the gold from the shrines of their saints; robbed their crucifixes; melted their chalices; not for the service of the poor, but of the king’s exchequer. For almost every thing, which the holy parsimony of their ancestors had saved, was consumed by the rapacity of these freebooters.

Just so, too, were their proceedings against their vassals; first taking their money, then their land: neither the poor man’s poverty, nor the rich man’s abundance, protecting him. He so restricted the right of hunting, which he had formerly allowed, that it became a capital offence to take a stag. This extreme severity, which was tempered by no affabihty, was the cause of many conspiracies, among the nobility, against his safety: one of whom, Robert de Mowbray earl of Northumberland, in consequence of very high words between him and the king, retired to his province, with the intention of making powerful efforts against his lord; but William pursuing him, he was taken, and doomed to perpetual captivity. Another, William de Hou, being accused of treachery towards the king, challenged his accuser to single combat; but being unable to justify himself in the duel, he was deprived of his sight, and of his manhood. The same accusation involved many innocent and honourable men; among whom was William de Aldrey, a man of handsome person, who had stood godfather with the king. Being sentenced to be hanged, he made his confession to Osmund bishop of Salisbury, and was scourged at every church of the town. Parting his garments to the poor, he went naked to the gallows, often making the blood gush from his delicate flesh by falling on his knees upon the stones. He satisfied the minds of the bishop, and of the people who followed him to the place of punishment, by exclaiming, “God help my soul, and deliver it from evil, as I am free from the charge, of which I am accused: the sentence, indeed, passed upon me will not be revoked, but I wish all men to be certified of my innocence.” The bishop then, commending his soul to heaven, and sprinkling him with holy water, departed. At his execution, he manifested an admirable degree of courage; neither uttering a groan before, nor even a sigh, at the moment of his death.

But still there are some proofs of noble magnanimity in the king, the knowledge of which, I will not deny posterity. As he was once engaged in hunting in a certain forest, a foreign messenger acquainted him that the city of Mans, which he had lately added to his dominions on the departure of his brother, was besieged. Unprepared as he was, he turned his horse instantly, and shaped his journey to the sea. When his nobles reminded him, that it would be necessary to call out his troops, and put them in array; “I shall see,” said he, “who will follow me: do you think I shall not have people enough ? If I know the temper of the young men of my kingdom, they will even brave shipwreck to come to me.” In this manner he arrived, almost unattended, at the sea-coast. The sky at that time was overcast, the wind contrary, and a tempest swept the surface of the deep. When he determined to embark directly, the mariners besought him, to wait till the storm should subside, and the wind be favourable. “Why,” said William, “I have never heard of a king perishing by shipwreck: no, weigh anchor immediately, and you shall see the elements conspire to obey me.” When the report of his having crossed the sea reached the besiegers, they hastily retreated. One Helias, the author of the commotion, was taken; to whom, when brought before him, the king said jocularly, “I have you, master.” But he, whose haughty spirit, even in such threatening danger, knew not how to be prudent, or to speak submissively, replied, “You have taken me by chance; if I could escape, I know what I would do.” At this William, almost beside himself with rage, and seizing Helias, exclaimed, “You scoundrel ! and what would you do ? Begone, depart, fly: I give you leave to do whatever you can; and by the crucifix at Lucca, if you should conquer me, I will ask no return for this favour.” Nor did he falsify his word, but immediately suffered him to escape; rather admiring than following the fugitive. Who could believe this of an unlettered man ? And perhaps there may be some person, who, from reading Lucan, may falsely suppose, that William borrowed these examples from Julius Caesar; but he had neither inclination, nor leisure to attend to learning; it was rather the innate warmth of his temper, and his conscious valour which prompted him to such expressions. And indeed, if our religion would allow it, as the soul of Euphorbus was formerly said to have passed into Pythagoras of Samos, so might it equally be asserted, that the soul of Julius Cassar had migrated into king William.

He began and completed one very noble edifice, the palace in London; sparing no expense to manifest the greatness of his liberality. His disposition therefore the reader will be able to discover from the circumstances we have enumerated.

Should any one be desirous, however, to know the make of his person, he is to understand, that he was well set; his complexion florid, his hair yellow; of open countenance; different-coloured eyes, varying with certain glittering specks; of astonishing strength, though not very tall, and his belly rather projecting; of no eloquence, but remarkable for a hesitation of speech, especially when angry. Many sudden and sorrowful accidents happened in his time, which I shall arrange singly, according to the years of his reign; chiefly vouching for their truth on the credit of the Chronicles.

William of Malmesbury

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