CHAPTER VIII. THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS, 1066.
"Eis vos la Bataille assemblee,
Dunc encore est grant renomee."
ROMAN DE ROU, 1. 3183.
Arletta's pretty feet twinkling in the brook gained her a duke's love, and gave us William the Conqueror. Had she not thus fascinated Duke Robert, the Liberal, of Normandy, Harold would not have fallen at Hastings, no Anglo-Norman dynasty could have arisen, no British empire. The reflection is Sir Francis Palgrave's: [History of Normandy and England, vol. i. p. 528.] and it is emphatically true. If any one should write a history of "Decisive loves that; have materially influenced the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes," the daughter of the tanner of Falaise would deserve a conspicuous place in his pages. But it is her son, the victor of Hastings, who is now the object of our attention; and no one, who appreciates the influence of England and her empire upon the destinies of the world, will ever rank that victory as one of secondary importance.
It is true that in the last century some writers of eminence on our history and laws mentioned the Norman Conquest in terms, from which it might be supposed that the battle of Hastings led to little more than the substitution of one royal family for another on the throne of this country, and to the garbling and changing of some of our laws through the "cunning of the Norman lawyers." But, at least since the appearance of the work of Augustin Thierry on the Norman Conquest, these forensic fallacies have been exploded. Thierry made his readers keenly appreciate the magnitude of that political and social catastrophe. He depicted in vivid colours the atrocious cruelties of the conquerors, and the sweeping and enduring innovations that they wrought, involving the overthrow of the ancient constitution, as well as of the last of the Saxon kings. In his pages we see new tribunals and tenures superseding the old ones, new divisions of race and class introduced, whole districts devastated to gratify the vengeance or the caprice of the new tyrant, the greater part of the lands of the English confiscated and divided among aliens, the very name of Englishmen turned into a reproach, the English language rejected as servile and barbarous, and all the high places in Church and State for upwards of a century filled exclusively by men of foreign race.
No less true than eloquent is Thierry's summing up of the social effects of the Norman Conquest on the generation that witnessed it, and on many of their successors. He tells his reader that "if he would form a just idea of England conquered by William of Normandy, he must figure to himself, not a mere change of political rule, not the triumph of one candidate over another candidate, of the man of one party over the man of another party; but the intrusion of one people into the bosom of another people, the violent placing of one society over another society, which it came to destroy, and the scattered fragments of which it retained only as personal property, or (to use the words of an old act) as 'the clothing of the soil:' he must not picture to himself on the one hand, William, a king and a despot - on the other, subjects of William's, high and low, rich and poor, all inhabiting England, and consequently all English; but he must imagine two nations, of one of which William is a member and the chief - two nations which (if the term must be used) were both subject to William, but as applied to which the word has quite different senses, meaning in the one case subordinate, in the other subjugated. He must consider that there are two countries, two soils, included in the same geographical circumference; that of the Normans rich and free, that of the Saxons poor and serving, vexed by RENT and TAILLAGE; the former full of spacious mansions, and walled and moated castles, the latter scattered over with huts and straw, and ruined hovels; that peopled with the happy and the idle, with men of the army and of the court, with knights and nobles, - this with men of pain and labour, with farmers and artizans: on the one side, luxury and insolence, on the other, misery and envy - not the envy of the poor at the sight of opulence they cannot reach, but the envy of the despoiled when in presence of the despoilers."
Perhaps the effect of Thierry's work has been to cast into the shade the ultimate good effects on England of the Norman Conquest. Yet these are as undeniable as are the miseries which that conquest inflicted on our Saxon ancestors from the time of the battle of Hastings to the time of the signing of the Great Charter at Runnymede. That last is the true epoch of English nationality: it is the epoch when Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon ceased to keep aloof from each other, the one in haughty scorn, the other in sullen abhorrence; and when all the free men of the land; whether barons, knights, yeomen, or burghers, combined to lay the foundations of English freedom.
Our Norman barons were the chiefs of that primary constitutional movement; those "iron barons" whom Chatham has so nobly eulogized. This alone should make England remember her obligations to the Norman Conquest, which planted far and wide, as a dominant class in her land, a martial nobility of the bravest and most energetic race that ever existed.