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As a book for the fireside, or for a Reading Society, Mr. Knight's “Half-hours with the best Authors' will be found invaluable; while the student of history, who wishes to obtain the leading facts without the trouble of sifting them from the more bulky volumes, will find in “Hall-Hours of English History's that it has been admirably done to his hand. New ard elegant editions of both these works have lately been issued by our own publishers, Messrs. Fredk. Warne and Co., London.]
At the end of the year 1086, when he had been seated nineteen years upon the throne of England, William went over to the continent with a mighty army to wage war with Philip, King of France, for the possession of the city of Mantes and the country of the Vexin. But shortly after his arrival in Normandy he fell sick and kept his bed. As he had advanced in years he had grown excessively fat. King Philip said, as a good joke among his courtiers, that his cousin William was a long while lying in, but that no doubt there would be a fine churching as soon as he should be delivered. On hearing this coarse and insipid jest the Conqueror of England swore by the most terrible of his oaths by the splendour and birth of Christ—that he would be churched in Notre Dame, the Cathedral of Paris, and present so many wax torches that all France should be set in a blaze.* It was not until the end of July, 1087, that he was in a state to mount his war-horse. He soon came with fire and sword into the Vexin country. The corn was almost ready for the sickle, the grapes for the wine-press, when he marched his cavalry through the corn-fields and made his soldiery tear up the vines by the roots and cut down the pleasant trees. Mantes was soon taken, and consigned to the flames. Neither house nor cottage, nay, neither church nor monastery was spared. As the Conqueror rode up to view the ruin he had caused, his war-horse put his fore feet on some embers, or hot
* It was the custom for women at their churching to carry lighted tapers in their hands and present them at the altar.
cinders, and then swerved or plunged so violently that the heavy rider was thrown upon the high pommel of the saddle, and grievously bruised. The king dismounted in great pain, and never more put foot in stirrup. Forthwith quitting the burning town, he was carried slowly in a litter to Rouen, and again laid in his bed. It was soon evident to all, and even to himself, that his last hour was approaching. Being troubled by the noise and bustle of Rouen, and desirous of dying in a holy place, he made his people carry him to the monastery of St. Gervas, outside the city walls. He lingered for six weeks, during which he was surrounded by doctors, priests, and monks. On the nearer approach of death his heart softened, and though he preserved the kingly decorum and conversed calmly on the wonderful events of his life, he is said to have felt the vanity of all human grandeur, and a keen remorse for the crimes and cruelties he had committed. He sent money to Mantes to rebuild the churches and houses of religion he had burned, and he ordered large sums to be paid to the churches and monasteries in England, which he had plundered and impoverished. He released all his state prisoners, as well Saxon as others, some of whom had pined in dungeons for more than twenty years. Robert, his eldest son, who had had many violent quarrels with his father, was absent, but his two younger sons, William and Henry, who were successively kings of England, were assiduous round the death-bed, waiting impatiently for the declaration of his last will. A day or two before his death the Conqueror assembled some of his prelates and chief barons in his sick chamber, and raising himself in his bed, he with a solemn and ghastly countenance declared in their presence that he bequeathed the duchy of Normandy and its other dependencies to his eldest son, Robert. " As to the crown of England,”, said the dying monarch, “I bequeath it to no one, as I did not receive it, like the duchy of Normandy, in inheritance from my father, but acquired it by conquest and the shedding of blood with mine own good sword. The succession to that kingdom I therefore leave to the decision of God, only desiring most fervently that my son William, who hath ever been dutiful to me, may obtain it, and prosper
in it." “And what do you give unto me, oh ! my father ?” eagerly cried Prince Henry. “Five thousand pounds weight of silver out of my treasury.” “But what can I do with five thousand pounds of silver, if I have neither lands nor a home ?" Here the dying king put on the look of a prophet, and said, "Be patient, O Henry! and have trust in the Lord: suffer thy elder brothers to precede thee, and thy time will come after theirs." Henry the Beauclerc, and the craftiest and cleverest of the unloving brotherhood, went straight and drew the silver, which he weighed with great care, and then furnished himself with a strong coffer to keep his treasure in. William Rufus left the king's bedside at the same time, and, without waiting to see his father breathe his last, hastened over to England to seize the royal treasures deposited in Winchester castle and to look after his
About sunrise, on the 9th of September, the Conqueror was roused from a stupor into which he had fallen by the sound of bells. He eagerly inquired what the noise meant, and was told that they were ringing the hour of prime in the church of St. Mary. He lifted his clasped hands to heaven, and saying, "I recommend my soul to my Lady Mary, the holy mother of God," instantly expired. His last faint sigh was the signal for a general flight and scramble. The knights, priests, and doctors, who had passed the night near him, put on their spurs, mounted their horses, and galloped off to their several homes to have an eye to their own interests. The king's servants and some vassals of inferior rank proceeded to rifle the apartments of the arms, silver vessels, linen, and royal dresses, and then were to horse and away like their betters. Some took
one thing, some another; nothing worth the carrying was left behind-no, not so much as the bed-clothes. From prime to tierce, or for about three hours, the corpse of the mighty Conqueror, abandoned by sons, friends, servants, and all, lay in a state of almost perfect nakedness on the bare boards of the chamber in which he had expired. The citizens of Rouen either ran about the streets asking news and advice from every one they met, or busied themselves in concealing their money and valuables. At last the clergy and the monks recovered the use of their faculties, and thought of the decent duties owing to the mortal remains of their sovereign; and, arraying themselves in their best habits, and forming in order of procession, they went with crucifix, burning tapers, and incense, to pray over the abandoned and dishonoured body for the peace its soul. The Archbishop of Rouen ordained that the king should be interred at Caen in the church of St. Stephen, which he had built and royally endowed. But even now there was none to do it honour: his sons, his brothers, his relations, were all absent, -and of all the Conqueror's officers and rich vassals, not one was found to take charge of the obsequies. At length a poor knight, named Herluin, who lived in the neighbourhood, charged himself with the trouble and expense of the funeral, out of his natural good nature and love of God.” This poor and pious knight engaged the proper attendance and a wain; he conveyed the king's body on the cart to the banks of the Seine, and from thence in a barge down the river and its estuary to the city of Caen. Gilbert, Abbot of St. Stephen's, with all his monks, came out of Caen to meet the body, and other churchmen and the inhabitants of the city joining these, a considerable procession was formed. But as they went along a fire suddenly broke out in the town; laymen and clerks ran to extinguish it, and the abbot and his monks were left alone to conduct the remains of the king to the church which he had founded. Even the last burial service did not pass
undisturbed. The neighbouring bishops and abbots assembled for this solemn ceremony.
The mass and requiem had been said; the incense was filling the church with its holy perfume, the Bishop of Evreux had pronounced the panegyric, and the body was about to be lowered into the grave prepared for it in the church between the altar and the choir, when a man, suddenly rising in the crowd, exclaimed, with a loud and angry voice which made the prelates and monks to start and cross themselves—“ Bishop, the man whom thou hast praised was a robber! The very ground on which we are standing is mine, and is the site where my
father's house stood. He took it from me by violence, to build this church on it. I reclaim it as my right; and in the name of God, I forbid you to bury him here, or cover him with my glebe.” The man who spoke thus boldly was Asseline Fitz Arthur, who had often asked a just compensation from the king in his lifetime. Many of the persons present confirmed the truth of his statement; and, after some parley and chaffering, the bishop paid him sixty shillings for the grave alone, engaging to procure him hereafter the full value of the rest of his land. The body, dressed in royal robes, but without a coffin, was then lowered into the narrow tomb; the rest of the ceremony was hurried over, the people dispersed, the prelates went to their homes, and the abbot and monks of St. Stephen's went to their cloisters, leaving only one brother of the house to sprinkle holy water over the flat stone that covered the grave and to pray for the soul of the departed. The traveller may yet stand and muse over that grave in the quaint old Norman church at Caen; but the equestrian statue of the Conqueror, placed against one of the external pillars of the church, has been wantonly and barbarously mutilated.
(From " Half-Hours of English History.")