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BEFORE THE CONQUEST

Far distant as 1066 is, there are previous and pleasing records of their doings too romantic and readable to be missed. In the early struggles of Duke William against the rebellious earls of Normandy, supercilious exceedingly as to his love-birth by Arlotta, the daughter of the tanner of Falaise, Hubert Sinclair, earl of Rye, figures, with these same sons of his, afterwards so famous, as the most loyal of vassals, according to his oath to Duke Robert, saint and devil, father of the brave boy.

In 1047 it was only by the watchfulness of his fool that William's life was saved from conspirators who at opportunity would not do things by halves. Both Freeman and Cohen have described that terrible midnight gallop and pursuit. Though taken from Wace's Roman du Rou, they give full credence to the narrative; such rhyme being then the trustworthy and almost only medium of history. Cohen, better known as Sir Francis Palgrave, refers to the Voie du Duc as present geographical corroboration of the truth of the duke's ride. He also shows that the tale, in its best parts, could only have been told by William himself. The escape from Valognes, in the Cotentin, after the sudden alarum by the court-fool, has been digested by Freeman.

‘The duke arose, half dressed in haste, leaped on his horse, seemingly alone, and rode for his life all that night. A bright moon guided him, and he pressed on till he reached the estuary formed by the rivers Ouve and Vire. There the ebbing tide supplied a ford, which was afterwards known as the Duke's Way. William crossed in safety, and landed in the district of Bayeux, near the church of Saint Clement. He entered the building and prayed for God's help on his way.

His natural course would now have been to strike for Bayeux, but the city was in the hands of his enemies; he determined therefore to keep the line between Bayeux and the sea, and thus to take his chance of reaching the loyal districts. As the sun rose he drew near to the church and castle of Rye, the dwelling-place of a faithful vassal named Hubert. The lord of Rye was standing at his own gate between the church and the mound on which his castle was raised. William was still urging on his foaming horse past the gate, but Hubert knew and stopped his sovereign, and asked the cause of this headlong ride. He heard that the duke was flying for his life before his enemies. He welcomed his prince to his house, he set him on a fresh horse, he bade his three sons ride by his side and never leave him till he was safely lodged in his own castle of Falaise. The command of their father was faithfully executed by his loyal sons. We are not surprised to hear that the house of Rye rose high in William's favour.’

In the ancient rhymes the tale is told with poetic fulness of question, answer, and narrative. Dramatic as well as historic interest, makes the several pages which the story occupies, to nearly a couple of hundred lines, full of colour, and well worth special reading, the old French in which they are written being easy enough to understand. A modest recent biography of William the Conqueror by Lamb, not “Elia”, gives much pictorial detail of this dangerous personal conspiracy in favour of Guy for duke, his aunt's son. Hubert himself, after the birds have flown, gets on horseback to guide the pursuers, leads them all roads but the right one, and saves his prince. The duke triumphed over these deadly enemies of his then, and Hubert had such favour with him that before the invasion of England he had promised to make him dapifer or seneschal of that kingdom, when it should come into his possession.

But this adventure was not the only cause of Hubert's popularity. In the difficulties of choosing his successor, Edward the Confessor thought often of William, his cousin of Normandy. Secretly he sent him a message by Goscelin of Winchester, an English merchant accustomed to traveling on the Continent. William must appoint his most trustworthy and capable subject to come to England to receive the king's mandates and the symbols of bequeathing the kingdom. A council of the earls was held, and no one could be induced to risk his life in such an embassy to what they all considered a barbarous nation. The cruelties perpetrated at Guildford shortly before, in the seizure and murder by Earl Godwin and his sons of Prince Alfred and the Norman nobles who accompanied him, were unanswerable arguments to all invitations to the high office. It was not fifty years yet since its guests the Danes were massacred on St.Brice's dreadful day.

Hubert Sinclair offered his services; and, with prophecies of tragedy, there was universal applause for his gallantry. He was appointed ambassador and executor between the princes. To impress the barbaric nation, he had a specially magnificent following. There is a highly picturesque description in monkish Latin, of the great equipage, grand pomp, horses housed brilliantly, “terrible with foaming”, and men in parti-coloured and attractive garments. The result followed that the embassy was received in special honour by the people and the king. The mission, further, was wholly successful, and Hubert brought back to Normandy all the mandates as well as the peculiar symbols which made his master heir to the crown of England. Some relics of the saints, a golden hunting-horn, and a stag's head, were the peculiar signs of possession to come. It is said that it was on his return from his successful visit that he had the appropriate promise of the dapifership of England.

Such transaction explains the sympathy of the pope and the religious world with William's expedition in 1066, to secure his rights from the usurping private nobleman, Harold, who had rebel blood in him enough to lead a stronger mind than his astray. The blessing of the Norman banner, a kind of earliest oriflamme, could have been no inconsiderate act, as giddy pleaders seem to hint. The world was always as far as possible ruled by fact, and no time was more honestly sincere in polity or religion than those centuries. The duke himself was as religiously inclined always as he was a cultivator of refined morality. Whether the story of Harold's oath is true or fable, he was out of account except as a king by violence, and, even for England then, law and order had some existence.

Of the reality of this mission of Hubert's there is the illustrative fact that Edward the Confessor, a well-known favourer of Normans, gave him a perpetual grant of the estate called Esce in The Domesday Book, now Ashe in Hampshire, says Freeman. In the time of King Edward the Confessor it is noted as having been held under Earl Harold. If not the very first land possessed by a Sinclair in England of which there is record, it is perhaps the most generally interesting by its historic association. As shall appear, there are indications of even earlier connection, but Ashe has very particular interest in respect to this kind of antiquity.

Hubert was not wanting either, in generosity on his part. He left at least one substantial mark of his visit. If he did not altogether establish the church of St.Mary, West-Cheap, London, he gave it great gifts. He had the advowson of it, and his family after him. That it was ordinarily in the Conqueror's time called New Church, is corroborative proof that he was the founder of it. Religious munificence was the highest type of honour then next to bravery and counsel.

It may have been that his lands in England brought him often there; and such strong sympathy with London's religious condition as is implied by this ecclesiastical connection, would seem to point to some continued presence. Few have been so fortunate as to have even so much of their good deeds chronicled for posterity as Hubert of Rye has had, but there is not further mention of him after his return to Normandy to quell the Cenomannic rising. He did not hold the dapifership he had been promised, but it is more than probable that he lived to see his youngest son Eudo enjoying the fruits of their loyal deeds towards the king, in this the position next to royalty itself.

The Rye family was a branch of the Sinclairs, lords of the castle of St.Lo, which Palgrave says gradually gathered around it the well-known town of that name in the Cotentin. They again had come to reside there from St.Clare, whence the local name, upon that historic river Epte which flows into the Seine not far from Rouen. There Rollo got his dukedom acknowledged by the king of France. The earls of Senlis to the east, in the direction of Paris, had gained great possessions; other members traceable from this castle of St.Clare, which the Germans would call the “Schloss Stamm” of the kin.

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