Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 7The Norman barons fought for their independence against Duke William [Pg xxvi] with all the determination of those Norse chiefs who would not acknowledge the overlordship of Harold Fairhair, but fled to colonise Iceland when he made himself King of Norway. The seafaring instincts which drove the Vikings to harry other lands in like manner drove the Normans to piratical plundering up and down the English Channel, and, when they had settled in England, led to continual sea-fights in the Channel between English and French, hardy Kentish and Norman, or Cornish and Breton, sailors, with a common strain of fighting blood, and a common love of the sea.
The Norman Conquest of England was but one instance of Norman activity: Sicily, Italy, Constantinople, even Antioch, and the Holy Land itself, showed in time Norman states, Norman laws, Norman civilisation, and all alike felt the impulse of Norman energy and inspiration. England lay ready to hand for Norman invasion—the hope of peaceable succession to the saintly Edward the Confessor had to be abandoned by William; the gradual permeation of sluggish England with Norman earls, churchmen, courtiers, had been comprehended and checked by Earl Godwin and his sons (themselves of Danish race); but there still remained the way of open war and an appeal to religious zeal; and this way William took. There was genius as well as statesmanship in the idea of combining a personal claim to the throne held by Harold the usurper with a crusading summons against the schismatic and heretical English, who refused obedience to the true successor of St. Peter. The success of the idea was its justification: the success of the expedition proved the need that England had of some new leaven to energise the sluggish temperament of her sons. The Norman Conquest not only revived and quickened, but unified and solidified the English nation. The tyranny of the Norman nobles, [Pg xxvii] held in check at first only by the tyranny of the Norman king, was the factor in mediæval English life that made for a national consciousness; it also helped the appreciation of the heroism of revolt against tyranny which is seen in Hereward the Wake, in Robin Hood, in William of Cloudeslee, and in many other English hero-rebels; but it gradually led men to a realization of their own rights as Englishmen. When all men alike felt themselves sons of England, the days were past when Norman and Saxon were aliens to each other, and Norman robber soon became as truly English as Danish viking, Anglo-Saxon seafarer, or Celtic settler. Then the full value of the Norman infusion was seen in quicker intellectual apprehension, nimbler wit, a keener sense of reverence, a more spiritual piety, a more refined courtesy, and a more enlightened perception of the value of law. The materialism of the original Saxon race was successively modified by many influences, and not least of these was the Norman Conquest.
From the Norman Conquest onward England has welcomed men of many nations—French, Flemings, Germans, Dutch: men brought by war, by trade, by love of adventure, by religion; traders, refugees, exiles, all have found in her a hospitable shelter and a second home, and all have come to love the “grey old mother” that counted them among her sons and grew to think them her own in very truth.
Geographically, also, we must recognise the admixture of races in our islands. The farthest western borders show most strongly the type of man whom we can imagine the Iberian to have been: Western Ireland, the Hebrides, Central and South Wales, and Cornwall are still inhabited by folk of Iberian descent. The blue-eyed Celt yet dwells in the Highlands and the greater part of Wales and the Marches—Hereford and Shropshire, [Pg xxviii] and as far as Worcestershire and Cheshire; still the Dales of Cumberland, the Fen Country, East Anglia, and the Isle of Man show traces of Danish blood, speech, manners, and customs; still the slow, stolid Saxon inhabits the lands south of the Thames from Sussex to Hampshire and Dorset. The Angle has settled permanently over the Lowlands of Scotland, with the Celt along the western fringe, and Flemish blood shows its traces in Pembroke on the one side (“Little England beyond Wales”) and in Norfolk on the other.