Priests and nobles fled as the last breath left him, and the Conqueror's body lay naked and lonely on the floor
It was the genius of William which lifted him out of this mere north-man into a great general and a great statesman. The growth of the Norman power was jealously watched by Geoffry Martel, the Count of Anjou, and his influence succeeded in converting France from friend to foe. The danger changed William at once from the chivalrous knight-errant of Val-ès-dunes into a wary strategist. As the French army crossed the border he hung cautiously on its flanks, till a division which had encamped in the little town of Mortemer had been surprised and cut to pieces by his soldiers. A second division was still held at bay by the duke himself, when Ralph de Toesny, climbing up into a tree, shouted to them the news of their comrades' fall. "Up, up, Frenchmen! you sleep too long: go bury your friends that lie slain at Mortemer." A second and more formidable invasion four years later was met with the same cautious strategy. William hung on the Frenchmen's flank, looking coolly on while town and abbey were plundered, the Bessin ravaged, Caen sacked, and the invaders prepared to cross the Dive at Varaville and carry fire and sword into the rich land of Lisieux. But only half the army was over the river when the Duke fell suddenly upon its rear.
The fight raged till the rising of the tide cut the French forces, as William had foreseen, hopelccply in two. Huddled together on a narrow causeway, swept by the Norman arrows, knights, footmen, and baggage train were involved in the same ruin. Not a man escaped, and the French king, who had been forced to look on helplessly from the opposite bank, fled home to die. The death of Geoffry Martel left William without a rival among the princes of France. Maine, the border land between Norman and Angevin, and which had for the last ten years been held by Anjou, submitted without a struggle to his rule. Britanny, which had joined the league of his foes, was reduced to submission by a single march.
All this activity abroad was far from distracting the Duke's attention from Normandy itself. It was hard to secure peace and order in a land filled with turbulent robber-lords. "The Normans must be trodden down and kept under foot," said one of their poets, "for he only who bridles them may use them at his need." William " could never love a robber." His stern protection of trader and peasant roused the baronage through his first ten years to incessant revolt. His very kinsfolk headed the discontent, and summoned the French king to their aid. But the victories of Mortemer and Varaville left the rebels at his mercy. Some rotted in his dungeons, some were driven into exile, and joined the conquerors of Apulia and Sicily. The land settled down into peace and order, and William turned to the reform of the Church. Malger, the Archbishop of Rouen, a mere hunting and feasting prelate, was summarily deposed, and his place filled by Mauritius, a French ecclesiastic of piety and learning. Frequent councils under the Duke's guidance amended the morals of the clergy. The school of Bec, as we have seen, had become a centre of education; and William, with the keen insight into men which formed so marked a feature in his genius, selected its prior as his chief adviser.
In a strife with the Papacy which the Duke had provoked by his marriage with Matilda of Flanders, Lanfranc took the side of Rome, and his opposition had been punished by a sentence of banishment. The Prior set out on a lame horse, the only one his house could afford, and was overtaken by the Duke, impatient that he should quit Normandy. " Give me a better horse and I shall go the quicker," replied the imperturbable Lombard, and the Duke's wrath passed into laughter and good-will. From that hour Lanfranc became his minister and counsellor, whether for affairs in the duchy itself or for the more daring schemes of ambition which were opened up to him by the position of England.
For half a century the two countries had been drawing nearer together. At the close of the reign of Richard the Fearless the Danish descents upon the English coast had found support in Normandy, and their fleet had wintered in her ports. It was to revenge these attacks that aethelred had despatched a fleet across the Channel to ravage the Cotentin, but the fleet was repulsed, and the strife appeased by aethelred's marriage with Emma, a sister of Richard the Good. aethelred with his children found shelter in Normandy from the Danish kings, and, if Norman accounts arc to be trusted, contrary winds alone prevented a Norman fleet from undertaking their restoration. [The peaceful recall of Eadward to the throne seemed to open England to Norman ambition, and Godwine was no sooner banished than Duke William appeared at the English court, and received, as he afterwards asserted, a promise of succession to its throne from the King. Such a promise, unconfirmed by the national assembly of the Wise Men, was utterly valueless, and for the moment Godwine's recall, put an end to William's hopes.
They are said to have been revived by a storm which threw Harold, while cruising in the Channel, on the French coast, and William forced him to swear on the relics of saints to support the Duke's claim as the price of his own return to England: but the news of the King's death was at once followed by that of Harold's accession, and after a burst of furious passion the Duke prepared to enforce his claim by arms. William did not claim the Crown. He claimed simply the right which he afterwards used when his sword had won it, of presenting himself for election by the nation, and he believed himself entitled so to present himself by the direct commendation of the Confessor. The actual election of Harold which stood in his way, hurried as it was, he did not recognize as valid. But with this constitutional claim was inextricably mingled his resentment at the private wrong which Harold had done him, and a resolve to exact vengeance on the man whom he regarded as untrue to his oath.