Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


That strip of intricate needlework, nineteen inches broad and two hundred and ten feet eleven inches in length, called the Bayeux tapestry, which hung long in the cathedral there, is one of the worlds greatest historical monuments. Its art is only second to the high burden of history it carries. Those graceful Norman warriors in armour have no sufficient counterparts except among the sculptures of the ancient Greeks. There is the same fine masterful spirit in the whole composition. Straining after passing effect is completely absent, which is one of the best tests of the immortality of any art. The whole tale of the union of England with Normandy goes on, picture after picture, with a clear unconsciousness as of the free processions on the frieze of a Greek temple. Harold's visit, his aid in war, the oath, the embarkation, the landing, the battle: what history in words has ever excelled this work of fair ladies' hands in suggestiveness as to what is beautiful in woman or noble in man ? Were there absolutely nothing further extant as to the kind of people the Normans were, the proof should stand complete in this, of the existence of one of the world's polished nations. And such confidence in woman as is implied by committing the celebration of their fame to female wit, shows that those warriors couki bear what is considered the last test of manly culture, the wise devotion to woman which brings her up to choicest womanhood, as it does the man to his best manhood.

No raid of Gothic savages was it of which William was the successful leader. Rather had England the unspeakable good fortune of being taken into hand, for high training, by a nation of cultivated masters of the best life then existent. This country would, but for the Normans, probably now be little in advance of Russia or Sweden. It is only when one goes fairly within the records of our law and politics that he can dream of what we owe to the high civilisation planted so fortunately here by the accident of a disputed succession. And this island was not the only part of the world benefited by these same true ladies and gentlemen. Even the seemingly indifferent fact, that the conquerors of Hastings were shaven like priests, has its suggestive analogy with the habit at Rome in the height of its civilisation. But there are clearer or less subtle indications of the artistic condition of this people. Whence did the admired Gothic architecture come except from their genius. The arch, which is allowed to them, was the origin of all that is distinctive in the Christian form of building. Their manly curve rose into the pointed, rather effeminate arch; their powerfully barred window developed into the floral; their dignified column sprang into the spiritual but spasmodic buttress. If the Doric holds its own among the Greek modes, the Norman is equally stubborn in its claim on rational admiration. Corinthian luxuriance and Christian superfluity of form and decoration, if splendid arrivals, were sure indications that decay had begun. Let there be, however, no depreciation of the several stages of any art; for, like all other growths, they must rise, blossom, and fall. It is of importance to remember that, as with discoveries generally, most honour belongs to the planting of such trees of life for man. Had there been marble rather than freestone quarries near Caen, as Athens had, there certainly should have been new births in sculpture as well as architecture.

The Norman needed only scope to excel in whatever he tried. History is full of what action was open to him in those centuries. He had far more than his share of all that was being done greatest in the world then. To sing new chansons, to form chivalries and literatures, to shape kingdoms out of Anglo-Saxon or Pelasgian mobs, to lay new foundations in art, to make manhood and womanhood glories of leadership and reverent devotional following, who has been than he a better master ? The art of life is the finish of all other arts, which are but its handmaidens; and he would be a presumptuous modern who might risk thinking that of this, the divine art, he knows more than did the elect of Normandy in the eleventh century.

Religion was there in its best strength before it began the downward path of sensual monasticism and clerical wealth and sloth. The historians are afflicted with spiritual blindness who are not affected by the frightful contrast, on that decisive battlefield, of men preparing for death or victory under the sublime influence and regulated awe of a cultivated worship, to men howling like beasts over what intoxicating liquors they could secure to hide their own barbarity from themselves, and to give them some false hope and courage against the bright army of intellect arrayed in front of them, under all the sanctions of religion and the rights of men and states. It would have been England's loss beyond words that her Saxons had gained that day. The sleep of intellect would have continued for centuries, and the ghouls of barbarism and all the gluttonies should have had their new lease of prolonged wassail.

Like all other human things, the Norman civilisation only went too swiftly and far when some of its paths to excellence opened, and its best aid, religion, became its greatest snare. Where did the Christian world look for its perfect crusaders when the madness seized entire Europe that the Mohammedans ought to be exterminated ? Over-wrought by the high honour they paid to culture and worship in their own country, the Normans were only too ready for the wild cry of Peter the Hermit. Their natural bravery and love of adventure, added to their great devotion to refinement of which the church was then chief or next to chief embodiment, made Normandy for centuries the arsenal of men, money, and weapons in the gallant but false and fatal expeditions which a fanatical state of church culture began, and a scheming condition of ecclesiastical rule found it policy to continue.

Enough is gained for present purpose if the homeland where these Sinclairs who settled in England had their training, is recognised as being in the eleventh century the noblest heart-centre of the world. The dullest men thence could not but aid by their mere presence most nations, if only they brought with them the outward ordinary manners of that land. To get souls from it as bright as ever stepped on its soil, was the luck that statesmen covet for the countries they hold dear. Not nothi were these chief strangers, like many of the Conqueror's followers who have since achieved distinction here, but souls who knew, as long lines of ancestors did before them, the best secrets of the civilisation of their times. What Thucydides said of Greece before the Peloponnesian war could not be said of Normandy then: “Greatness was not in it, neither as to wars nor other things”. If the determined missionaries it sent to our island were of another temper than the modern ones of persuasive ineffective smile in a political world of moral suasion, this has been all the better for England. It will take a long and difficult process to make the ordinary mind understand that nothing best is got except through struggle of bitter but, to noble natures, ennobling kind. It is irritating to read some of the old chroniclers, of Saxon blood, maundering about the tyranny of these genuine rulers, as if the fault of unreasoning violence had not to be continually met by skill and energy, even to the correspondent severity of punishment proper to command.

That historians living in these days of science and maturer judgment can be found who join in those wails of ignorant slothful monks, and of the men whose eternal type of character is symbolled by praise of good old times which never existed, and abuse of the present which always calls for them to be up and doing, is one of the inexplicable phenomena which appear amid very general mental advance. What better good can man do than drill, at whatever cost, his disorganised and therefore savage or helpless fellows into such shape as will save them from being continually devoured, in respect of their substance and lives, by any accidental hordes that have gained first elements of unity ? As a calculation of spilt blood, it is probable that a visit to these unprotected shores, in the Celtic and Saxon periods, of the war-vessels laden with the sea-kings and their pirate soldiers, was more destructive than several of the pitched battles which the sullen unreasonableness of the Angles made necessary. This great difference must also never be lost sight of, that Norman battle was against men in arms, while by invasions of a shapeless country the defenceless and the weak suffer.

If they suffered at Norman hands, as in the Yorkshire destruction by fire and sword, historians (as chroniclers and the unthinking multitude cannot be expected to see things from the right point of view) should recognise, for themselves in the first place, and then show those whom they address, how rulers, to be rulers at all, could not escape the heavy burdens of ordering such punishment and preparation to be made in the face of the actual problem. Danes and Scots to the north in their many thousands, rebels behind without any right ground of rebellion, Normandy seething with aristocratic ambitions; what with these and hundreds of other elements only fully experienced or realisable by and to those who are at the centres of such combinations, the terrible but necessary wasting of Yorkshire had in it more of the nature of calamities which occur in the material world than those of man's doing. It should never be overlooked that even kings must do the best they can, and that the game of all life is one of success or failure. The charge of inhumanity so foolishly cast about without appreciation of the stern necessity and logic of facts, is not the best sign of thorough intellectual culture and ability. It is venial that those low on the steps of training should clamour about tyrannies and injustices; for thus, in their shortness of vision and hand-to-mouth living, wise rule and essential justice often, indeed almost always, appear to them. The philosophic historians, like the statesmen, should address themselves to the inmost facts of their problems when they mean to influence the strong minds.

It was at Caen, and around it, that the most characteristic culture of the dukedom existed. Rouen, the other lung as it were of the country, had political life more active than the artistic and religious. Not far from the borders, it had acquired a French spirit to considerable extent. It was in Basse-Normandie that the richest state of feeling and action had its cradle and home. The district of the Cotentin supplied almost all the names of which our aristocracy are proud. The largest sharers in the partition of England were the neighbours of the duke at his castle of Falaise.

Geoffrey, bishop of Coustance, who celebrated mass on the field of Hastings before the battle, was one of the luckiest of his followers in securing lands. The castle of St.Lo was in his diocese, and it is easy to understand that there was frequent communication all round among those leaders who were in the royal compass of Caen. In 890 history shows this castle besieged by Rollo, and the then bishop of Coustance was slain, the Norsemen gaining the place by cutting off the water. It would be valuable to know if it was in the possession of the family who held it in the eleventh century, and that all this time they had the benefit of the very best surroundings of the country's excellence in government, art, and religion; or if they were of the conquerors, and therefore later. A visit to Caen and its companion towns gives sufficient indication of the superiority the humanities reached at the early periods.

The conquest of England was misfortune in the end for Normandy. Its annexation to France killed the originality and vigour of its artistic as well as political life; and it is one of the many things which ask mourning, why so promising a sphere of possible new and perfected production should have been blotted out, so to speak, by crass political necessities and troubles. Take Normandy away from France, and where, even as things went, are you to look in it for excellences that can be called European, not to say worldwide ? But enough. Let the way now be considered clearer to follow some of the Sinclairs after they have added England to the land of their birth as another sphere for energy.

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page