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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Norman Council and the Assembly of Lillebonne
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
From ‘The History of the Norman Conquest of England’

THE CASE of William had thus to be brought to bear on the minds of his own people, on the minds of the neighboring countries whence he invited and looked for volunteers, on the minds of the foreign princes whose help or at least whose neutrality he asked for, and above all, on the minds of the Roman Pontiff and his advisers. The order of these various negotiations is not very clear, and in all probability all were being carried on at once. But there is little doubt that William’s first step, on receiving the refusal of Harold to surrender his crown,—or whatever else was the exact purport of the English King’s answer,—was to lay the matter before a select body of his most trusted counselors. The names of most of the men whom William thus honored with his special confidence are already familiar to us. They were the men of his own blood, the friends of his youth, the faithful vassals who had fought at his side against French invaders and Norman rebels. There was his brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, the lord of the castle by the waterfalls, the spoil of the banished Warling. And there was one closer than a brother,—the proud William the son of Osborn, the son of the faithful guardian of his childhood. There, perhaps the only priest in that gathering of warriors, was his other brother, Odo of Bayeux, soon to prove himself a warrior as stout of heart and as strong of arm as any of his race. There too, not otherwise renowned, was Iwun-al-Chapel, the husband of the sister of William, Robert, and Odo. There was a kinsman, nearer in legitimate succession to the stock of Rolf than William himself,—Richard of Evreux, the son of Robert the Archbishop, the grandson of Richard the Fearless. There was the true kinsman and vassal who guarded the frontier fortress of Eu, the brother of the traitor Busac and of the holy prelate of Lisieux. There was Roger of Beaumont, who rid the world of Roger of Toesny, and Ralph, the worthier grandson of that old foe of Normandy and mankind. There was Ralph’s companion in banishment, Hugh of Grantmesnil, and Roger of Montgomery, the loyal son-in-law of him who cursed the Bastard in his cradle. There too were the other worthies of the day of Mortemar, Walter Giffard and Hugh of Montfort, and William of Warren, the valiant youth who had received the chiefest guerdon of that memorable ambush. These men, chiefs of the great houses of Normandy, founders, some of them, of greater houses in England, were gathered together at their sovereign’s bidding. They were to be the first to share his counsels in the enterprise which he was planning, an enterprise planned against the land which with so many in that assembly was to become a second home, a home perhaps all the more cherished that it was won by the might of their own right hands.  1
  To this select Council the duke made his first appeal. He told them, what some of them at least knew well already, of the wrongs which he had suffered from Harold of England. It was his purpose to cross the sea, in order to assert his rights and to chastise the wrong-doer. With the help of God and with the loyal service of his faithful Normans, he doubted not his power to do what he purposed. He had gathered them together to know their minds upon the matter. Did they approve of his purpose? Did they deem the enterprise within his power? Were they ready themselves to help him to the uttermost to recover his right? The answer of the Norman leaders, the personal kinsmen and friends of their sovereign, was wise and constitutional. They approved his purpose; they deemed that the enterprise was not beyond the power of Normandy to accomplish. The valor of the Norman knighthood, the wealth of the Norman Church, was fully enough to put their duke in possession of all that he claimed. Their own personal service they pledged at once; they would follow him to the war; they would pledge, they would sell, their lands to cover the costs of the expedition. But they would not answer for others. Where all were to share in the work, all ought to share in the counsel. Those whom the duke had gathered together were not the whole baronage of Normandy. There were other wise and brave men in the duchy, whose arms were as strong, and whose counsel would be as sage, as those of the chosen party to whom he spoke. Let the duke call a larger meeting of all the barons of his duchy, and lay his designs before them.  2
  The duke hearkened to this advice, and he at once sent forth a summons for the gathering of a larger Assembly. This is the only time when we come across any details of the proceedings of a Norman Parliament. And we at once see how widely the political condition of Normandy differed from that of England. We see how much further England had advanced, or more truly, how much further Normandy had gone back, in the path of political freedom. The Norman Assembly which assembled to discuss the war against England was a widely different body from the Great Gemót which had voted for the restoration of Godwine. Godwine had made his speech before the King and all the people of the land. That people had met under the canopy of heaven, beneath the walls of the greatest city of the realm. But in William’s Assembly we hear of none but barons. The old Teutonic constitution had wholly died away from the memories of the descendants of the men who followed Rolf and Harold Blaatand. The immemorial democracy had passed away, and the later constitution of the mediæval States had not yet arisen. There was no Third Estate, because the personal right of every freeman to attend had altogether vanished, while the idea of the representation of particular privileged towns had not yet been heard of. And if the Third Order was wanting, the First Order was at least less prominent than it was in other lands. The wealth of the Church had been already pointed out as an important element in the duke’s ways and means, and both the wealth and the personal prowess of the Norman clergy were, when the day came, freely placed at William’s disposal. The peculiar tradition of Norman Assemblies, which shut out the clergy from all share in the national deliberations, seems now to have been relaxed. It is implied rather than asserted that the bishops of Normandy were present in the Assembly which now met; but it is clear that the main stress of the debates fell on the lay barons, and that the spirit of the Assembly was a spirit which was especially theirs.  3
  Narrow as was the constitution of the Assembly, it showed, when it met, no lack either of political foresight or of parliamentary boldness. In a society so aristocratically constituted as that of Normandy was, the nobles are in truth, in a political sense, the people, and we must expect to find in any gathering of nobles both the virtues and the vices of a real Popular Assembly. William had already consulted his Senate; he had now to bring his resolution, fortified by their approval, before the body which came as near as any body in Normandy could come to the character of an Assembly of the Norman people. The valiant gentlemen of Normandy, as wary as they were valiant, proved good guardians of the public purse, trusty keepers of what one knows not whether to call the rights of the nation or the privileges of their order. The duke laid his case before them. He told once more the tale of his own rights and of the wrong which Harold had done him. He said that his own mind was to assert his rights by force of arms. He would fain enter England in the course of the year on which they had entered. But without their help he could do nothing. Of his own he had neither ships enough nor men enough for such an enterprise. He would not ask whether they would help him in such a cause. He took their zeal and loyalty for granted; he asked only how many ships, how many men, each of his hearers would bring as a free-will offering.  4
  A Norman Assembly was not a body to be surprised into a hasty assent, even when the craft and the eloquence of William was brought to bear upon it. The barons asked for time to consider of their answer. They would debate among themselves, and they would let him know the conclusion to which they came. William was obliged to consent to this delay, and the Assembly broke up into knots, greater or smaller, each eagerly discussing the great question. Parties of fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, sixty, a hundred, gathered round this or that energetic speaker. Some professed their readiness to follow the duke; others were in debt, and were too poor to venture on such hazards. Other speakers set forth the dangers and difficulties of the enterprise. Normandy could not conquer England; their fair and flourishing land would be ruined by the attempt. The conquest of England was an undertaking beyond the power of a Roman emperor. Harold and his land were rich; they had wealth to take foreign kings and dukes into their service; their own forces were in mere numbers such as Normandy could not hope to strive against. They had abundance of tried soldiers, and above all, they had a mighty fleet, with crews skilled beyond other men in all that pertained to the warfare of the sea. How could a fleet be raised, how could the sailors be gathered together, how could they be taught, within a year’s space, to cope with such an enemy? The feeling of the Assembly was distinctly against so desperate an enterprise as the invasion of England. It seemed as if the hopes and schemes of William were about to be shattered in their beginning through the opposition of his own subjects.  5
  A daring though cunning attempt was now made by William Fitz-Osbern, the duke’s nearest personal friend, to cajole the Assembly into an assent to his master’s will. He appealed to their sense of feudal honor; they owed the duke service for their fiefs: let them come forward and do with a good heart all, and more than all, that their tenure of their fiefs bound them to. Let not their sovereign be driven to implore the services of his subjects. Let them rather forestall his will; let them win his favor by ready offerings even beyond their power to fulfill. He enlarged on the character of the lord with whom they had to deal. William’s jealous temper would not brook disappointment at their hands. It would be the worse for them in the end, if the duke should ever have to say that he had failed in his enterprise because they had failed in readiness to support him.  6
  The language of William Fitz-Osbern seems to have startled and perplexed even the stout hearts with whom he had to deal. The barons prayed him to be their spokesman with the duke. He knew their minds and could speak for them all, and they would be bound by what he said. But they gave him no direct commission to bind them to any consent to the duke’s demand. Their words indeed tended ominously the other way; they feared the sea,—so changed was the race which had once manned the ships of Rolf and Harold Blaatand,—and they were not bound to serve beyond it.  7
  A point seemed to have been gained, by the seeming license given by the Assembly to the duke’s most intimate friend to speak as he would in the name of the whole baronage. William Fitz-Osbern now spoke to the duke. He began with an exordium of almost cringing loyalty, setting forth how great was the zeal and affection of the Normans for their prince, and how there was no danger which they would not willingly undergo in his service. But the orator soon overshot his mark. He promised, in the name of the whole Assembly, that every man would not only cross the sea with the duke, but would bring with him double the contingent to which his holding bound him. The lord of twenty knights’ fees would serve with forty knights, and the lord of a hundred with two hundred. He himself, of his love and zeal, would furnish sixty ships, well equipped, and filled with fighting men.  8
  The barons now felt themselves taken in a snare. They were in nearly the same case as the king against whom they were called on to march. They had indeed promised; they had commissioned William Fitz-Osbern to speak in their names. But their commission had been stretched beyond all reasonable construction; their spokesman had pledged them to engagements which had never entered into their minds. Loud shouts of dissent rose through the hall. The mention of serving with double the regular contingent awakened special indignation. With a true parliamentary instinct, the Norman barons feared lest a consent to this demand should be drawn into a precedent, and lest their fiefs should be forever burthened with this double service. The shouts grew louder; the whole hall was in confusion; no speaker could be heard; no man would hearken to reason or render a reason for himself.  9
  The rash speech of William Fitz-Osbern had thus destroyed all hope of a regular parliamentary consent on the part of the Assembly. But it is possible that the duke gained in the end by the hazardous experiment of his seneschal. It is even possible that the manœuvre may have been concerted beforehand between him and his master. It was not likely that any persuasion could have brought the Assembly as a body to agree to the lavish offer of volunteer service which was put into its mouth by William Fitz-Osbern. There was no hope of carrying any such vote on a formal division. But the confusion which followed the speech of the seneschal hindered any formal division from being taken. The Assembly, in short, as an assembly, was broken up. The fagot was unloosed, and the sticks could now be broken one by one. The baronage of Normandy had lost all the strength of union; they were brought, one by one, within the reach of the personal fascinations of their sovereign. William conferred with each man apart; he employed all his arts on minds which, when no longer strengthened by the sympathy of a crowd, could not refuse anything that he asked. He pledged himself that the doubling of their services should not become a precedent; no man’s fief should be burthened with any charge beyond what it had borne from time immemorial. Men thus personally appealed to, brought in this way within the magic sphere of princely influence, were no longer slack to promise; and having once promised, they were not slack to fulfill. William had more than gained his point. If he had not gained the formal sanction of the Norman baronage to his expedition, he had won over each individual Norman baron to serve him as a volunteer. And wary as ever, William took heed that no man who had promised should draw back from his promise. His scribes and clerks were at hand, and the number of ships and soldiers promised by each baron was at once set down in a book. A Domesday of the conquerors was in short drawn up in the ducal hall at Lillebonne, a forerunner of the greater Domesday of the conquered, which twenty years later was brought to King William of England in his royal palace at Winchester.  10

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