The Conquest



Figure 345
Decorative initial I, Coloured

Such is the inscription to the forty-fifth compartment of the Bayeux Tapestry—in a great ship he passes the sea, and comes to Pevensey. The Bay of Pevensey is not now as it was on the 28th of September, A.D. 1066, when this great ship sailed into it, and a bold man, one whose stern will and powerful mind was to change the destiny of England, leaped upon the strand, and, falling upon his face, a great cry went forth that it was an evil omen,—but the omen was turned into a sign of gladness when he exclaimed, with his characteristic oath, “I have taken seisin of this land with both my hands.” The shores of the bay are now a dreary marsh, guarded by dungeon-looking towers, which were built to defend us from such another seisin (Fig. 349). The sea once covered this marsh, and the Norman army came a mile or so nearer to the chalk hills, beyond which they knew there was a land of tempting fertility. It must have been somewhat near the old Roman castle that the disembarkation took place, whose incidents are exhibited in the Bayeux Tapestry. Here were the horses removed from the ships; here each horseman mounted his own, and galloped about to look upon a land in which he saw no enemy; here were the oxen and the swine of the Saxon farmer slaughtered by those for whom they were fatted not; here was the cooking, and the dining, and the rude pomp of the confident Duke, who knew that his great foe was engaged in a distant conflict. The character of William of Normandy was so remarkable, and indeed was such an element of success in his daring attempt upon the English crown, that what is personally associated with him, even though it be found not in our own island, belongs to the antiquities of England. He was a stark man, as the Saxon chronicler describes him from personal knowledge, a man of unbending will and ruthless determination, but of too lofty a character to be needlessly cruel or wantonly destructive. Of his pre-eminent abilities there can be no question. Connected with such a man, then, his purposes and his success, the remains of his old Palace at Lillebonne (Fig. 345), which may be readily visited by those who traverse the Seine in its steam-boats, is an object of especial interest to an Englishman. For here was the great Council held for the invasion of England, and the attempt was determined against by the people collectively, but the wily chief separately won the assent of their leaders, and the collective voice was raised in vain. More intimately associated with the memory of the Conqueror is the Church of St. Etienne at Caen (Fig. 348) which he founded; and where, deserted by his family and his dependants, the dead body of the sovereign before whom all men had trembled was hurried to the grave, amidst fearful omens and the denunciations of one whom he had persecuted. The mutilated statue of William may be seen on the exterior of the same church (Fig. 347). In England we have one monument, connected in the same distinct manner with his personal character, whilst it is at the same time a memorial of his great triumph and the revolution which was its result—we mean Battle Abbey. When Harold heard

That duc Wyllam to Hastynges was ycome,

he gallantly set forward to meet him—but with an unequal force. He knew the strength of his enemy, but he did not quail before it. The chroniclers say that Harold’s spies reported that there were more priests in William’s camp than fighting men in that of Harold’s; and they add that the Saxon knew better than the spies that the supposed priests were good men-at-arms. Mr. Stothard, in his ‘Account of the Bayeux Tapestry,’ points out, with reference to the figures of the Normans, that “not only are their upper lips shaven, but nearly the whole of their heads excepting a portion of hair left in front.” He adds, “It is a curious circumstance in favour of the great antiquity of the Tapestry, that time has, I believe, handed down to us no other representation of this most singular fashion, and it appears to throw a new light on a fact which has perhaps been misunderstood: the report made by Harold’s spies, that the Normans were an army of priests, is well known. I should conjecture, from what appears in the Tapestry, that their resemblance to priests did not so much arise from the upper lip being shaven, as from the circumstance of the complete tonsure of the back part of the head.” Marching out from their entrenched camp at Hastings (Fig. 350), the Normans, all shaven and shorn, encountered the moustached Saxons on the 14th of October. The tapestry represents the Saxons fighting on foot, with javelin and battle-axe, bearing their shields with the old British characteristic of a boss in the centre. The Normans are on horseback, with their long shields and their pennoned lances. It is not for us to describe the terrible conflict. “The English,” says William of Malmesbury, “rendered all they owed to their country.” Harold and his two brothers fell at the foot of their standard which they had planted on the little hill of Senlac, and on this spot, whose name was subsequently changed to Bataille, was built Battle Abbey (Fig. 351). It was not the pride of the Conqueror alone that raised up this once magnificent monument. The stern man, the hot and passionate man, the man who took what he could get by right and unright, “was mild to good men who loved God.” And so he built Battle Abbey.

Robert of Gloucester has thus described, in his quaint verse, the foundation of Battle Abbey:

“King William bithougt him alsoe of that

Folke that, was forlorne,

And slayn also thorurg him

In the bataile biforne.

And ther as the bataile was,

An abbey he lete rere

Of Seint Martin, for the soules

That there slayn were.

And the monks wel ynoug

Feffed without fayle,

That is called in Englonde

Abbey of Bataile.”

Brown Willis tells us that in the fine old parish church of Battle was formerly hung up a table containing certain verses, of which the following remained:—

“This place of war is Battle called, because in battle here

Quite conquered and overthrown the English nation were.

This slaughter happened to them upon St. Ceelict’s day,

* St. Calixtus, October the 14th.

The year whereof......this number doth array.”

The politic Conqueror did wisely thus to change the associations, if it were possible, which belonged to this fatal spot. He could not obliterate the remembrance of the “day of bitterness,” the “day of death,” the “day stained with the blood of the brave” (Matthew of Westminster). Even the red soil of Senlac was held, with patriotic superstition, to exude real and fresh blood after a small shower, “as if intended for a testimony that the voice of so much Christian blood here shed does still cry from the earth to the Lord” (Gulielmus Neubrigensis). This Abbey of Bataille is unquestionably a place to be trodden with reverent contemplation by every Englishman who has heard of the great event that here took place, and has traced its greater consequences. He is of the mixed blood of the conquerors and the conquered. It has been written of him and his compatriots,—

“Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,

I see the lords of human kind pass by.”

His national character is founded upon the union of the Saxon determination and the Norman energy. As he treads the red soil of Senlac, if his reformed faith had not taught him otherwise he would breathe a petition for all the souls, Saxon and Norman, “that there slain were.” The Frenchman, whose imagination has been stirred by Thierry’s picturesque and philosophical history of the Norman Conquest, will tread this ground with no national prejudices; for the roll of Battle Abbey will show him that those inscribed as the followers of the Conqueror had Saxon as well as Norman names, and that some of the most illustrious of the names have long been the common property of England and of France. But the intelligent curiosity of the visitor to the little town of Battle will be somewhat checked, when he finds that the gates of the Abbey are rigidly closed against him except for a few hours of one day in the week. “The Abbey and grounds can be only seen on Monday,” truly says the Hastings Guide. Be it so. There is not much lost by the traveller who comes here on one of the other five days of the week. The sight of this place is a mortifying one. The remains of the fine cloisters have been turned into a dining-room, and, to use the words of the ‘Guide-Book,’ “Part of the site of the church is now a parterre which in summer exhibits a fine collection of Flora’s greatest beauties.” This was the very church whose high altar was described by the old writers to have stood on the spot where the body of Harold was found, covered with honourable wounds in the defence of his tattered standard. “Flora’s greatest beauties!” “Few persons,” adds the ‘Guide Book,’ “have the pleasure of admission.” We do not envy the few. If they can look upon this desecration of a spot so singularly venerable without a burning blush for some foregone barbarism, they must be made of different stuff from the brave who here fought to the death because they had a country which not only afforded them food and shelter, but the memory of great men and heroic deeds, which was to them an inheritance to be prized and defended.

The desecration of Battle Abbey of course began at the general pillage under Henry the Eighth. The Lord Cromwell’s Commissioners write to him that they have “cast their book” for the dispatch of the monks and household. They think that very small money can be made of the vestry, but they reckon the plunder of the church plate to amount to four hundred marks. Within three months after the surrender of the Abbey it was granted to Sir Anthony Browne; and he at once set about pulling down the church, the bell-tower, the sacristy, and the chapter-house. The spoiler became Viscount Montacute; and in this family Battle Abbey continued, till it was sold, in 1719, to Sir Thomas Webster. It has been held, and no doubt truly, that many of the great names that figure on the roll of Battle Abbey were those of very subordinate people in the army of the Conqueror; and it is possible that the descendants of some of those who roasted for the great Luke the newly slaughtered sheep on the strand at Pevensey may now look with contempt upon a patent of nobility not older than the days of the Stuarts. But, with all this, it is somewhat remarkable that Battle Abbey, with its aristocratic associations, should have fallen into the hands of a lineal descendant of the master-cook to Queen Elizabeth. Sir Thomas was an enterprising bustling man, who was singularly lucky in South Sea Stock, and had the merit of encouraging the agricultural improvements of Jethro Tull. For the succeeding century of Sir Whistlers and Sir Godfreys, the work of demolition and change has regularly gone forward. The view (Fig. 351) exhibits Battle Abbey as it was about the time that it went out of the Montacute family. Brown Willis, who wrote a little after the same period, thus describes it in his day:—“Though this abbey be demolished, yet the magnificence of it appears by the ruins of the cloisters, &c.,and by the largeness of the hall, kitchen, and gate-house, of which the last is entirely preserved. It is a noble pile, and in it are held sessions and other meetings, for this peculiar jurisdiction, which hath still great privileges belonging to it. What the hall was, when in its glory, may be guessed by its dimensions, its length above fifty of my paces; part of it is now used as a hay-barn; it was leaded, part of the lead yet remains, and the rest is tiled. As to the kitchen, it was so large as to contain five fire-places, and it was arched at top; but the extent of the whole abbey may be better measured by the compass of it, it being computed at no less than a mile about. In this church the Conqueror offered up his sword and royal robe, which he wore on the day of his coronation. The monks kept these till the suppression, and used to show them as great curiosities, and worthy the sight of their best friends, and all persons of distinction that happened to come thither: nor were they less careful about preserving a table of the Norman gentry which came into England with the Conqueror.

Horace Walpole has given us a notion of the condition of Battle Abbey, and the taste which presided over it, a century ago. He visited it in 1752, and tints writes to Mr. Bentley: “Battle Abbey stands at the end of the town, exactly as Warwick Castle does of Warwick; but the house of Webster have taken due care that it should not resemble it in anything else. A vast building which they call the old refectory, but which I believe was the original church, is now barn, coach-house, &c. The situation is noble, above the level of abbeys: what does remain of gateways and towers is beautiful, particularly the flat side of a cloister, which is now the front of the mansion-house. A Miss of the family has clothed a fragment of a portico with cockle-shells!

A general view of Battle Abbey in its present state may be best obtained by passing the old wall, and continuing on the Hastings road for about half a mile. A little valley will then have been crossed; and from the eminence on the south-east the modern building, with its feeble imitations of antiquity, and its few antiquarian realities, is offered pretty distinctly to the pedestrian’s eye. What is perhaps better than such a view, he may, from this spot, survey this remarkable battle-field, and understand its general character. The rights of property cannot shut him out from this satisfaction. The ancient gateway to the abbey, which stands boldly up in the principal street in the town of Battle, is of much more recent architecture than the original abbey. Some hold it to be of the time of Edward the Third; but the editor of the last edition of ‘Dugdale’s Monasticon’ considers it to be of that of Henry the Sixth (Fig. 358).

In the group (Fig. 340) we have given the seal of Battle Abbey, in the lower compartment on the right. The group also contains portraits of the Conqueror and of Harold, views of Pevensey and of Hastings, and a vignette of a Norman and Saxon soldier. The seal of Battle Abbey still remains in the Augmentation Office, attached to the deed of surrender in the time of Henry the Eighth. The side which our engraving represents exhibits a church, having an ornamented gateway and tower, with four turrets. This, there can be little doubt, represents the church which Sir Anthony Browne destroyed, as churches were destroyed in those days, by stripping the roof of its lead, and converting the timber into building-material or fire-wood.

* Horace Walpole was clearly in error in taking the hall, or refectory, for the church.

Figure spread at pages 88 and 89:

Time was left to do the rest in part; and as the columns and arches crumbled into ruin, the owners of the property mended their roads with the rich carvings, and turned the altar-tombs into paving-stones—until at last the prettiest of flower-gardens was laid out upon the sacred ground, and the rose and the pansy flourished in the earth which had been first enriched by the blood of the slaughtered Saxons, and grew richer and richer with the bones of buried monks, generation after generation. Truly this is a fitting place for “a fine collection of Flora’s greatest beauties.” We may be held to speak harshly of such matters; but, as this is the first time we have been called upon so to speak, it may be well that we say a few words as to the course we shall hold it our duty to pursue in all cases where the historical antiquities of our country, and especially where its ecclesiastical antiquities, are swept away upon the principle, just, no doubt, in the main, of doing what we will with our own. The right of private property has no other foundation whatever than the public good. If it could be demonstrated that the public good does not consist with the right of private property, the basis upon which it rests is irrevocably destroyed, and the superstructure falls. But it cannot be so demonstrated. The principle upon which the possessors of Battle Abbey, and a hundred other similar properties in this kingdom, retain their possessions, is a sure one, because it is the same principle that confirms to the humblest in the land the absolute control over the first guinea which he deposits in a Savings’ Bank. It would be no greater atrocity, perhaps not so great a one, to reclaim for the Church in the nineteenth century the lands and lordships of the Abbey of Battle, than it was for Henry the Eighth to despoil the Abbey of Battle of those lands and lordships in the sixteenth century. The possessions were wrung from their legal proprietors under the pretext of a voluntary surrender, “with the gibbet at their door.” The same process might be repeated under some such pretext of public good. The Church might be again plundered; the possessions of the nobility might be again confiscated; but it would only end in property changing hands. York and Canterbury would have new grantees, and a new Battle Abbey would have a new Sir Anthony Browne. But, looking at all the circumstances under which domains and endowments which are national, at least in their historical memories, have been for the most part originally granted, and are in some instances still possessed, we maintain not only that it is contrary to the spirit of the age, and opposed to the public good, that a continual process of demolition and desecration should go forward, but we hold that, under all just restrictions, the people have a distinct right to cultivate the spirit of nationality, of taste for the beautiful, of reverence for what is old and sacred, by a liberal admission to every fabric which is distinctly associated, in what remains of it, with the history of their country, and the arts and manners of their forefathers. It was once contemplated to form an association to prevent the continual destruction of our architectural antiquities. The association has not been formed. But, formed or not, it is no less the duty of those who address the public upon such matters to direct opinion into a right direction; and thus to control those who, in the pride of possession, disregard opinion. It is the continued assertion of this opinion which has at length thrown open the doors of our cathedrals, not so widely as they ought to be opened, but still wide enough to admit those who can pay a little for the sight of noble and inspiriting objects, which ought to be as patent as the blue sky and green trees. It is the assertion of this opinion which has stopped, in some degree, the new white-washing of the fine carved-work of our churches, and the blocking up of their windows and their arches by cumbrous monuments of the pride of the wealthy. But there is yet much to be clone. The squire of the parish must have his high pew lowered; and the vicar must learn to dispense with the dignity of his churchwarden’s seat blocking up the arch of his chancel. The funds of all cathedrals must in some measure be applied, as they are now in many cases, to the proper restoration of the beauty and grandeur of their tombs and chantries; and not to the destruction of all harmony and proportion, under the guidance of rash ignorance, as formerly at Salisbury. Sacred places which have been made hiding-holes for rubbish, like the Crypt at Canterbury, must be opened to the light. The guardians of our ecclesiastical edifices must, above all, be taught that the house of God was meant to be a house of beauty; and that their vile applications of mere utility, their tasteless stalls, their white paint, and their yellow plaster, for the purposes of hiding the glowing colours and the rich imagery of those who knew better than they what belonged to the devotional feeling, will no longer be endured as the badges of a pure and reformed religion; for that religion is not the cold and unimaginative thing which the puritanism of two centuries has endeavoured to degrade it into. We shall do our best not only to direct public attention to the antiquities of our country, and incidentally to the history of our country in a large sense, but we shall take care, as far as in us lies—disclaiming the slightest intention of giving offence to individuals—to contend for a liberal throwing open of those antiquities to the well conducted of the community, whatever be their social position; and to remonstrate against all wanton and ignorant destruction of those remains which wise governments and just individuals ought to have upheld, but which to our shame have in many cases been as recklessly destroyed as if the annals of our country had perished, and we of old England were a young democracy, rejoicing in our contempt for those feelings which belong as much to the honour and wisdom as to the poetry of civilized life.