Little is known of Edwin F. Roberts (1818–64), who is the author of this long-running series, originally titled A New History of England, and serialised in Reynolds’s Political Instructor between 1849 and 1850. That he was a Chartist is beyond doubt, and in May 1850 he became a regular contributor to Reynolds’s Newspaper. He must have despised the monarchy and its history as well, as the New History of England makes quite clear from the introduction. Every month a new instalment of Roberts’s long-forgotten radical history of England will be serialised here—for the first time since 1850!
A NEW HISTORY OF ENGLAND
Chapter One: William the Conqueror
The natural son of Robert Duke of Normandy, and Charlotte, daughter of a tanner, in Falaize. Born in 1024; died in 1087.
Emerson, speaking of History, writes, “Broader and deeper must we write our annals—from an ethical reformation, from an influx of ever new, ever sanative conscience—if we would truelier express our central and wide related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes.” Under this impression, and influenced by the consideration of this important and momentous crisis in the annals of the world, do we thus contemplate the chapters of which this is the commencement. Believing that the false hues which time and glory have shed over certain names should be taken away, and that the absolute fact which, in some shape or other, ever encompasses men, should be made prominent, we perceive that new voices are wanted to cry aloud and say to the people, “Ye have been misled by faith in old traditions; by credulity in respect to institutions, false and hollow as they are; by the pride, pomp, and circumstance of which ye are and have been the supporters, and from which ye have been the sufferers; and it is time that ye should know the truth, and be fooled by the gilded lie no longer.”
We maintain that the history of kings is the history of tyranny, and not the history of men or of humanity, in any individual or aggregate shape. We hold that the lives of monarchs form the genealogy of crime. From their lust after power, their thirst for conquest, their avaricious grasping after the goods and the property of others, spring those misfortunes which a people lament generations after in tears and blood. From this bloated tyranny, which feeds upon human flesh, and which grows greater as the years roll by into centuries, has the whole race of mankind drawn its endless and fertile source of wretchedness, famine, massacres, and legal assassination.
To show the growth of power, to exhibit in all its naked truth, how cupidity, combined with an inflexible determination, has blotted nations from the earth—how the desire of conquest has enslaved men, and how an insensate brigandism has driven others into crimes upon the most gigantic scale, we take one of those names from history, which unexampled ruffianism has made illustrious—one of the most remorseless tyrants that have cursed the world since the days of Nimrod or Alexander. Behold then—even as a vulture afar off scents the carnage of the battle—behold on the shores of Normandy a grim warrior—a certain robber-duke, almost nameless among men until this hour—one depending mainly upon his sword, also depending a little upon justice: that is, the plea which he put in as being a just one—namely, the promise of an imbecile and fanatic who looked upon Saxons and Saxdom in general, as but so many goods and chattels; including all that is most dear to man—that is to say, his family and his inheritance, which he could dispose of at pleasure!
This Norman also, while waiting for the death of Edward, surnamed “Saint” and “Confessor,” gathered his powers, his energies, and his capabilities together, in order that if he could not get this kingdom by fair means—that is, without resistance, he would obtain it by force and cut through all opposition; and hearing that Harold intended to rival him, he swears “by God’s teeth” that he will not be set aside. Thereupon he armed himself and followers, and sanctioned by the blessing of the Pope, he conceived himself equal to the meditated attempt. It is not a little instructive at this day, when even the long arm of William’s oppression reaches down to us, to observe more nearly how he came to lay claim at all, and exhibits in all its odious and detestable light the unprincipled selfishness of those who are supposed by a very poetic fiction indeed, to act with “royal grace;” to have respect for the rights of men—or indeed in any way to heed them, when their own royal and rampant passions are to be gratified.
Harold, son of Godwin, Duke of Wessex, after much intrigue, had come to the conclusion of setting up his claim to the kingdom. Edward, as we have stated, had already promised to bequeath his crown to William: he afterwards retracted this pledge, as he had then near to him the last of the old Saxon line in the person of Edgar Atheling, one of a family certainly dear to Saxon hearts. But William, little heeding the vacillation of the “Confessor,” and utterly despising the monkish monarch, looked past him, and beheld Harold alone with whom he should enter into a struggle for the mastery. In the mean time the Usurper, an intriguer of no common order, and as clever in stratagem as the Norman himself, had not been idle, and had so well arranged his plans, that he stepped into the throne at the moment of Edward’s death, almost without opposition. Favoured by the citizens of London, adopted by bishops and priests, connected with the most powerful of the English nobility by blood or by alliance, it would seem that fortune smiled upon him, and that a reign so prosperously begun should only terminate in the same manner. It might too have been better for England had he really remained king.
But William the Norman, having once resolved, was not a man to be easily shaken; for any remonstrance only confirmed the more an obstinacy like his. The Pope (Alexander II.) gave him aid, and thus turned the ancient barons in William’s favour, as these chiefs were no less devout than they were valorous in military enterprize. Alexander therefore denounced Harold as an usurper, uttered the fearful anathema against his followers, and denounced in those frightful and harrowing words which were of such might in those days to chill men’s hearts with fear, all who should in any way ally with Harold, or oppose his pious and faithful vassal William. We shall presently see how faithful he really was.
It must be remembered that the thunders of the church at this age were held to be more terrible than the thunders of heaven. Having steeped the people in ignorance to the very lips, and withdrawn from them the face of the Creator, by interposing themselves as the rightful and chosen mediators between God and man,—thus dead to all hope, temporal and spiritual, the people listened and trembled, for sometimes by interdict the harvests were left to rot, the churches were closed, the dead lay in the houses, or putrified in the streets—but reader, remark this also, whatever was the cause of contest between popes and rulers, the people always were the sufferers: it was at their cost that monarchs were called proud, haughty, great, victorious, or what not: it was on them taxes were levied, tithes exacted, fines extorted: between these powers men were bandied and jostled, robbed, pillaged, and slain; and -thus the great resistance which the Saxons might have effectually offered against the invader, was unnerved and shaken at the very outset.
The names of William’s officers and leaders, engaged with him on this expedition, appear in England at this day. They have multiplied and spread abroad. They seized, and yet hold the possessions which they wrested from the weaker. The historian writes thus:—“To these bold chieftains William held up the spoils of England as the prize of their valour, and, pointing to the opposite shore, called to them that there was the field on which they must erect trophies to their name, and fix their establishment.”
This, at all events, has the merit of being out-spoken and plain-spoken; and we certainly confess a liking to a bold open villain, much more than to one of your polished insidious scoundrels, who look into your face while stabbing you. This is therefore what these words amount to. William said—“Yonder is the booty—the broad lands and the plunder: kill me their king, who has no greater right than I there: secure me that crown, and then-help yourselves. I will give you law for it; and if there is none, I will make you one-cutter’s law; that
They shall seize who have the might,
And they shall keep who can:
therefore land on shore—the enemy is before you, and the sea behind you; burn the ships, destroy the galleys: forward is the word—we go back no more.”
Harold moreover sustained a great defection in his troops, which added to the Norman’s chances, in consequence of having refused to share the plunder and distribute the spoils of a Norwegian army that he had beaten, among his men. Whatever were his motives for so doing, he sustained a very considerable loss by it; while the rumour of William’s gifts and promises, pay, and license to plunder, drew many mercenaries to his banner; and the first step that William took towards the ruin of the people, was the buying of their own swords to turn them against their own breasts, until subsequently, in his French wars, the English nobility and yeomen constituted the flower of his invading army.
Landed at Pevensey, in Sussex, the Normans moved on to Hastings, where Harold and his army was drawn up, and on the 15th October, 1066, the battle was fought. William told his soldiers that they had every thing to fight for; adding with great aptitude, if “they conquered the kingdom at a blow, they were justly entitled to all its possessions, as the reward of their prosperous valour.” Good reader, is not this language applicable to the highwayman or the burglar, and with as much show of sense and reason? Let us see more of William’s powers of eloquence. Showing his men what lay before them on the one hand—wealth, possession, and power; while an ignominious death lay on the other, he adds, “that a perjured usurper, anathematised by the sovereign pontiff, and conscious of his own breach of faith, would be struck with terror at their appearance, and would prognosticate to himself that fate which his multiplied crimes had so justly merited.”
Thus was gained the battle of Hastings, and William, who is reported to have fought like some desperate robber in a melodrama, having horses repeatedly killed under him, was pronounced to be King of England, and was crowned in Westminster Abbey, the 26th Dec. 1066.
The tendency of tyranny and oppression is always that of lowering the standard of the human mind, of retarding advancement, and of debasing the might and intelligence of man. It appears to infuse itself by absorption in all surrounding it—either directly or indirectly—either by the influence of fear, or by the meanness of those who hope to profit by the lavish prodigality of the tyrant, who, to cement his power, robs the people in order to enrich his favourites. Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury; Aldred, Archbishop of York, and many nobles who had made a stand after the battle of Hastings, were among the first to crown the Conqueror as King; while Aldred, who anointed him, received the reward of this service in neglect, and died not long afterwards in poverty and of a broken heart.
What then with this example, and others (which in future chapters we shall adduce) before us—what is meant by the Divine Right of Kings! Had this fierce untameable man, who, led only by the instinct of plunder and blood, any right claim to have his position recognised by millions of people as a king by right divine? Could the authority of the pope, though submitted to by the whole world, constitute “right” in any sense of the word? If, even admitting that good may come of evil, we should seek for any beneficial results in a change of rule, we shall be woefully disappointed in looking for this good under the execrably tyrant’s reign, and compare it with the mild, gentle, patriarchal sway of most of the Saxon rulers.
For the form of government established by almost universal consent, by the old barbarous tribes of Germany, was that of a free republic, in the broadest sense of the word. The king was only considered as the first man among free men. He was subordinate to the community and was in all respects amenable to the laws he aided to establish. His name denoted a kind of moral superiority, a nobler intelligence. His name, from “Ganning,” was expressive of ability—cunning, in the wise sense of the term; not the cunning of vice, or the cleverness of a designing oppressor; and so long as he conformed to the simple habits of the people, and recognised them in a manner as his own children, he received from them respect and obedience.
Let not the reader mistake this for monarchy either: it was not the case—for there was no hereditary right understood, and but few quarrels appear to have arisen from this. If the presumptive successor was worthy of his father, then he reigned; if not, there was no hesitation about setting his claim aside and electing another.
The government of the Norman, then, was established upon the ruins of the Saxon constitution, which in William’s subsequent feudal laws was no longer to be recognised. His power was cemented in blood; and rapine, and murder, amplified with every species of atrocity and contempt, tended to exaggerate this iniquitous power, till it was consolidated; so that all future endeavours to fling the yoke of iron the people’s necks made England one vast charnel, from which the “smell of the blood” and “the smoke of the burning” rose like a hideous cloud, and covered the smiling heaven as with a pall.
William, possessed of the throne, had, as may be supposed, sufficient to do to hold his ground—and the robber who plunders you has to do no more; and having got possession of the treasures of Harold, he distributed great sums among his troops, so that the ruffians who followed him were bound soul and body by the rousing up of the worst passions of human nature—passions which make man a demon. The putting out of eyes—the cutting off of limbs—the maiming and torturing of thousands never numbered, were the only marks of humanity in him; while, to other chiefs, whether Normans, robbers by profession, or English renegades to their country, and butchers of their brethren, he gave full liberty to sail down the coasts, and repaid any act they did by plundering the inhabitants, and driving them to perish like beasts in times of famine. In the year 1070, the Northumbrians were roused by the sons of Harold, aided by some Welsh and Irish princes, together with Edgar Atheling, who proved to be no better than a king’s fool; and all that fertile country north of the Humber, to an extent of sixty miles, and stretching to the Tees, was laid waste by sword and fire: it is computed that 100,000 human beings were sacrificed to this man’s barbarity; while his wealth, obtained by seizure, confiscations, fines, and mostly in away at which humanity would shudder to read, amounted to upwards of nine millions of our money; remembering also that he was at no expense to keep his soldiery, it will easily be conceived to what an infamous and horrible extent the evil influence of William extended. It seems scarcely credible, a thing more like fiction than truth, and yet the annals of the country prove it to be incontestably true.
Finding, however, that there is in the breast of man a noble and innate principle, which in defiance of all power, and despite the fear of death and danger, will make him at last turn against tyranny and oppression, William determined to have recourse to the extremest means he could, and therefore he instituted the feudal laws in all their grim and frightful array against the English, who seemed yet determined to be free. By annihilating the language he would make them Norman in tongue as well as heart; by depriving them of their property he would disarm them of all means of revolt; by cruelty he would intimidate; and, finally, by utter extermination he would most decidedly set his mind at rest for ever on that head.
He therefore, in many instances, provoked the people to violence by the outrages which his troops committed in many parts of the country at the same instant, and even while absent in Normandy in 1067–8, he had secretly laid plans by which the people should be permitted to make some progress in insurrection, and on this pretext he took a dark and sanguinary revenge.
Having used as his tool the pope, together with the cardinals, bishops, abbots, &c., sufficiently long for his own purpose, he turned their arts against themselves; and though on the principle “that when rogues fall out honest people may come to their own, yet, tenacious and mercenary, he never relaxed his grasp on what he once possessed, and they who had assisted him to this toppling height of ambition, trusting to receive from him honours and rewards; on the contrary, he, in the first instance, refused to do the pope homage; and the whole ecclesiastical power, with little exception, fell deservedly under the same tyrannous yoke, and suffered from the same ruinous exactions. For, the better to unite the inharmonious parts of his new style of government (under the feudal law) which might serve to strengthen at home, and repel foreign force, he reduced the church revenues under same obnoxious system; and though he had found on his invasion and accession, that the popedom was of the most important uses to him, as we have already said, yet security made him bold, while it also rendered his ingratitude the more remarkable—to rob and not to share fairly—and therefore he subjected it to services which the clergy regarded as an irreligious infringement on their own rights. These men, who were ready to join with him in oppressing others, now that they felt it themselves, came with their Scriptures to say that, as the Levites of the land, they should do no labour, pay no dues, furnish no contingency, but receive intact their enormous claims drained from a beggared, pauperised, trampled people. This must be held as a very deserved retribution.
Wrong and injustice, however, are always in some lesser or greater degree punished here. There is an avenging angel ever stalking after the footsteps of blood and guilt, whether it be the step of royalty or the step of beggary, and William’s life presents to us the sad picture of a father at war with his own children—of a man always in danger of the assassin’s dagger—of a monarch dreading continual insurrection: scarcely a day shone that did not open in blood, so that he truly must have been familiar with dire and horrible thoughts.
Tacitus says “that if one could see into a tyrant’s heart, he would behold the most fearful spectacle in the universe;” and we may add that there can possibly be no hell equal to it: the heaving of remorse—the terrors of death which steal across it at times, when dim and shadowy the muffled throng of thousands pass by him in his visions, when all appears in the sanguine hues of blood, and the cries of his victims fill the air, his couch becomes the scene of horrors, outdoing even the frightful picture drawn in the bottomless pit of Danté.
William’s last war was with France in 1087, occasioned by some inroads which a few French barons made into Normandy; and William assured himself that they must have been encouraged in their bold aggression by Philip
To his remonstrances the French king replied with jests and railleries upon his corpulency, wondering why “his brother of England should be for so long in being delivered of his great belly;” a coarse expression, quite in the style of the time, to which the Conqueror replied in the same spirit in words which have however become memorable, from the war which followed, that “when he was up from his bed he would present the king with more lights at Nôtre Dame than he would ever have desired to see.” He afterwards led an army into the Isle de France, laying everything to waste with fire and sword; thus subjecting the people to atrocious outrages, because two kings chose to quarrel like a couple of felons.
It was during his progress in this war that an accident happened however, which deprived the world of a monster, only to be succeeded by others even worse, if that were possible. His horse starting aside, threw him forward on the pommel of his saddle, by which he sustained an internal injury; and gluttony, combined with drunkenness, having undermined his constitution, made his recovery impossible. He was borne in a litter to the monastery of St. Gervase, where the dismal prospect of his end coming upon him, his last hours were spent in remorse and agony for the horrible acts of cruelty and violence he had committed while holding his rule over England. He endowed abbacies and monasteries, and thus sought to buy forgiveness from the Diety he had offended, and died on the 9th Sept., 1087, in the 63rd year of his age, after having ruled England with a rod of iron for a period of twenty-three years.
Thus perished this renowned tyrant, leaving behind him a character for cruelty, oppression, ferocity, anger, and hatred, almost unparalleled. He had three sons and five daughters, one of the latter of whom married Stephen, of Blois, and by this means caused other future miseries to England, of which the reader shall know in due course.
No conqueror ever pushed his victorious power to a greater extent than William, and he was ably abetted by those who served him. It would be difficult to find in history anything like a parallel to the revolution which placed him on the throne. “Contumely,” says Hume, who defends him in many glaring instances, “seems even to have been wantonly added to oppression, and the natives were reduced to such a state of meanness and poverty that the English name became a term of reproach.”