IX. THE FREE TOWNS
(2) At Laon in the next generation there was a wilder and more calamitous rising against the misrule of the bishop. His name was Waldric; he had been Chancellor to Henry I of England, and was elected by the chapter of Laon (1106) because of the great wealth which he had accumulated, none too honestly, in the course of his short official career. Much of his private fortune was expended in procuring the Pope's approval of his very irregular election. The remainder was soon squandered in extravagant and riotous living; and the bishop then began to exploit his seignorial rights in Laon. His extortions were the more resented since he kept no order; the environs of the city swarmed with brigands and footpads, and kidnappers were allowed to work their will inside the city. At length the burgesses seized an opportunity, when the bishop was away in England, to set up a commune. On his return he was obliged to accept the situation and to recognise the commune in return for a substantial payment. But he further recouped himself by debasing the local currency, till it was practically worthless; and he gratified his spite against the citizens by an atrocious crime. Professing to have discovered a conspiracy against his life, he arrested the Mayor and caused the unhappy man to be blinded by a black slave, whom he employed as his bodyguard and executioner. The friends of the Mayor complained to the Pope; but the bishop got before them with his own version of the story, and by the help of bribery secured an honourable acquittal. By the same arguments he induced the King to quash the charter of the commune, and then seemed master of the situation. But the men of Laon conspired to kill him as he was going in state to the cathedral; he was with difficulty rescued by his knights, and found it necessary to garrison the episcopal palace with villeins from his country estates. Arrogant as ever, he boasted of his power and the satisfaction that he would exact; the time was coming, he said, when his black slave should pull the noses of the most respected citizens, and the fellows would not dare to grunt. He was soon undeceived. The mob of Laon stormed the palace and massacred the defenders; they found the bishop in the cellars, disguised as a peasant and hiding in an empty cask; they dragged him forth by the hair of his head, and hacked him to pieces in the street (1112). When a calmer mood returned, the citizens were appalled at the prospect of the King's indignation. Those who were conscious of guilt fled from the city, which was left half-deserted. The barons and the serfs of the surrounding country swooped like vultures upon Laon, pillaged the empty houses and fought with one another for the spoil. For the next sixteen years the remnant of the citizens lived a miserable existence as the mere serfs of Waldric's successors. In 1128 the King permitted them to associate under a Mayor, for the better maintenance of the public peace; but they were denied the title of a commune, and continued to be subject to the jurisdiction of the bishop.
These dramas of oppression and retaliation, though characteristic in the sense that they reveal the worst faults and the best excuses of the communal movement, were happily exceptional in Northern France; not because oppression was rare, but because rebellions defeated their own object. No seignorial concessions were worth the parchment on which they were inscribed, without a confirmation from the King; and it was not the King's interest to condone sacrilege or overt treason against a feudal lord. Hence the founders of a North French commune preferred to keep their agitation within the bounds of law. They invoked the King's help, and he, for an adequate consideration, destroyed seignorial rights by a few strokes of the pen; which he did the more readily since his lawyers had formulated the doctrine that communes were tenants of the Crown, liable to military service and to taxation at the royal pleasure. From the close of the twelfth century there was a firm alliance between the Third Estate and the French monarchy. On the whole it was more advantageous to the King than to the communes. Under St. Louis and his successors, when the power of the feudatories was broken, the commune presented itself as an obstacle in the path of central government. On one pretext or another, here because of faction-fights and there for mismanagement of the communal finances, the cities lost their charters and passed under the rule of royal commissioners. It was a poor compensation that the Third Estate obtained the right of sending delegates to the States General of the Kingdom. Representation brought new liabilities without corresponding rights. The Third Estate, holding jealously aloof from the estates of the nobles and the clergy, was powerless against a determined sovereign.