Edward the Confessor died in January , 1066.On Christmas Day in the same year William the Conqueror was crowned king in Westminster Abbey. It had been a terrible year for Englishmen. From the very beginning of it they had feared that evil things were going to happen, and when a comet began to flame in the sky , early in the summer , their fears were increased. To all Englishmen it seemed to foretell defeat. And defeat came upon them when Duke William landed at Pevensey , in Sussex ,and advanced to Hastings. King Harold rushed to meet him , but he and many of his faithful thanes were slain. The bravest of them gathered to make a last desperate fight round the English standarts ,and when they fell the days of English liberty were over for a long period.On the very spot where Harold and his men made their last stand the Norman conqueror built Battle Abbey to commemorate his victory. If you go there today, you will be shown the place where Harold fell.
It was a hard time for Englishmen. As William marched slowly by a round- about way to London, his men plundered the village so terribly that it took them many years to recover. His soldiers searched everywhere for food and all the things that an army needs. Villagers, flying in terror to the woods, saw their cattle driven off,their stored corn and hay carted away,and their houses burnt. This was the way in which William hoped to terrify Englishmen into submission. He was successful. On Christmas Day,1066,he was crowned king of the English by the Archbishop of York in Westminster Abbey.
Straightway he began to drive English nobles from their lands,for he said they had treacherously fought against their true king. And in their places he put Normans, who despised the English, and treated them cruelly. So in the year 1067,if you had been travelling about then, you would have seen parties of Normans riding through the country-side to take possession of the lands that William had given them in returm for their help at Hastings.These men , of couse,had Norman names, and if you look at a map of England today, you will see that some villages are still called by the names of the Norman lords to whom William gave them, for example, Norton Mandeville in Essex.Some Englishmen nowadays have Norman names, such as Harcout, Montgomery, Mantague.For a long time after the battle of Hastings no one who wished to be considered a gentleman spoke English;even little boys at school learnt their lessons in French, so that, when they grew up, they might be able to keep company with the rulers of the land and pretend they were Normans.
Let us imagine that we are visiting a village when it is new master rides into it.Our old English master, our thane, is dead, for he went off with his soldiers when Harold called for his help against the foreigner, and fell beside his king on the day of the battle of Hastings.All though the winter the villagers have starved, for they have had little corn & meat to live on,since William,s army went past on it is way to London.Their houses are in a ruinous condition, And the very barns have gone, for some of them were burnt & others pulled down to supply fuel for Norman camp fires.The old mill wheel has not turned since the village was sacked, for even the dam, which supplied the water, was hacked to bits by the soldiers.So when the new master rides into the village, he sees lean sterving men, women and children.There are fire-blackened ruins of English homes all around.Some small patches of growing corn can be seen, for even in starvation time men must save some seed for the next crop. But the fields are small compared with what they were.
How we hate this new-comer!How we should like to take vengeance on him and his men for all our sufferings, & for all the fathers & brothers who will never return from Hastings!But we dare do nothing, & say nothing.We can see that this man is no coward, for he rides into the middle of us, & looks all straight in the face.Rising in his stirrups, he calls in French : " I would have you know that King William has given me these lands & that you are my tenants now. Do your part faithfully, & I shall do mine.But if any man checks me in my just rights, let him beware".No Englishman understands a word, but everybody suspects what the speaker means well enough.
He makes his way to the thane's house, & there he meets the window & her daughter accompanied by the steward.He explains the lady that a small piece of land out of her husband's estate will be left to her.She knows that she will be very poor for the rest of her days, but she is to proud to ask for anything more and withdraws in silence with her daughter.
Then the Norman turns to the steward and calls for his accounts.He hopes to see out all the old thane's rights carefully set there; how he received so much hay every year from one man, so much corn from another, and so much meat from a third; and how Aelfgar and men like him work once a week for him all the year round and do extra work in harvest; and how Gurth and his equals do not work for the thane, but pay so much food. When the accounts are brought, he listens carefully as the stewards axplains each entry, for he wishes to know exactly how much the land that the king has given him is worth. The steward, of couse, says that the value has gone down very much in the last year.
A talk follows till far on into the night, and many questions are put by the master. How much land is there suitable for ploughing? How much of it did the old thane keep for his own use? How many bushels of corn come from each acre? Do the villagers know how to manure and drain the land properly? Is there any grassland that could be made to grow extra supplies of corn? "For," says lord, "my soldiers must have plenty to eat". "Yes," says the steward, "there is much land fit for the purpose.But do you propose to make the villagers work on this and do their other work as well? Remember, Sir, that there are fewer of them than there were". The Norman replies that he intends his villagers to do not only this, but much more besides. Indeed he goes so far as to say that the men like Gurth, who never worked but only paid food, shall now both pay and work, for more land must be cultivated. And he adds that he intends to increase the amounts of meat, hay, eggs, cheese, butter and other things that the villagers pay. So the stewards returns home in a thoughtful and unhappy state, for he sees hard times coming for his friends and does not like telling them about the extra work that they will have to do. The Norman also goes to bed, but not until he has gone round the house with his chief follower, and posted sentinels; for he has no wish to be murdered in his sleep by his new servants, as has happened to some of his friends.He and his followerds do not thing much of the old house. The old English thanes did not make their houses strong for defence, for they had nothing to fear from their villagers. But the Norman says:"We must have a safer place than this to sleep in, or our throats wiil all be cut some night".So the steward wiil hear if another piece of work for his friends in the village to do.
In the morning the Norman gets up early and goes on horseback round his land accompanied by the steward who listens to all his plans. He is told to have the mill dam repaired by next harvest, and a new whell put in. Then the master looks round for a position for a new house. He means to make it by throwing up a mound of earth and building a wooden tower on top of it. It is to be surrounded by a wall of earth and a ditch. He marks out the boundaries at once and orders the steward to have the digging commenced. Next he goes to the woods to look for timber. After the inspection he says:"Let me hear axes at work here when I come round tommorow". As he rides home he sees the old village church. The roof lets the rain in, and some of the timber of which the building is made rotting away. He indignantly says it's more like a brokendown stable than a house of God and swears in the name of Saint Valerie who sent the Normans a fair wind for their invasion, that he will build a stone church.
He has not been long back at the hall before Gurth and his friends ask to see him. When they are admitted to the hall, they say they have heard the word that is going round, how every villagers, big and little, is to work on the new fields, which the lord is going to fence in, and is to pay more food than ever before. They say that this is against the custom of the village. They paid food to the old thanes, because King Alfred ordered their forefathers to do so. But they never laboured like serfs on any man's land. They are free men, and when they have paid their dues, as King Alfred ordered, no man can ask them for more.
This bold speech has a terrible result. The new lord rises from his seat. His eyes are blazing with rage, and the villagers fear nothing less than death at the hands of the surrounding soldiers. " Custom !" the master shouts, "Custom! You talk to me about custom as though it ruled all. I and my friends won this land by the sword from you and traitors like you, who were in arms against your lawful King William. Traitors lie at the mercy of their conquerors and must be punished for their treachery. Custom will not protect you. Get you gone. Soldiers! Clear the hall".
For many days there is rage in the hearts of the villagers, for the smaller men like Aelfgar are ground to poverty by the new lord. Thus they feel the results of the Norman Conquest. All English feel them as well, and for five years to come there are angry rebellions in different parts of the land.