Writers great and small have excelled themselves in describing and moralising over the death and burial, or want of burial, of William the Conqueror. His corpulence; the fatal stumble of his horse, in a city's ashes; the king's hurt; the deathbed, with its repentance of crimes, as the weak souls call his inherent religious manliness of confession according to the best ritual of his period; the division of his kingdom and treasures; his advices, sage as his own practice had been, as to ruling the two peoples; the supposed shameful neglect by his courtiers, and his own very sons, of his corpse: all these are the commonplace themes of varied and mostly silly comment. It is plebeian rather than aristocratic virtue, to cry, and keep crying, over spilt milk, even if that noblest of all lost liquids, or gases, or higher essences, a truly regal soul. No mistake, on the part of historian or parochial superstitious moralist, is greater than reckoning the ways of rulers by common tables, fitted only for the multitude. The subject has been worn threadbare. There is only the necessity now, to protest inexorably against the miserable carping and maudlin superstition that are the stock of the great majority of those who have, with the daring of fools, not with the awe of angels certainly, attempted to expound the final chapter of the great king's life, and the opening one of his son's reign in England.
If any scandal, as this is understood in court circles, occurred before or after that scene of scenes, where the dying monarch did his dying duties as royally as he had lived, in the presence of his three sons and his greatest offices, Eudo Sinclair as being his first deserves all the blame. Had any wrong been really done, was it possible that he could have prospered afterwards as he did ? Let the dead bury their dead, is an aphorism always clearly known by the greatest men. The state is before the highest man, its king when alive. Departed, Vive le roi, is the true sentiment of the deepest statesman. Normans cling to fact too well, to be lost, and to lose others, especially the tender and young, in Eastern ghoulish howls of lamentation or in modern exuberance of undertakers' feathers. Shows for the mobs, and welcome, as they teach something to those who are essentially unshapely; but the art of rule needs masterly strokes, and the sternest design.
Possibly no more difficult problem was ever given to a man, to solve by skill of head and heart, than Eudo got from his sovereign; and the Conqueror, if he could have risen from the grave to give his approval, would, in the spirit of all his own splendid actions as a king, give that dapifer according to his own heart his best tribute for loyalty of pursuing his will. William Rufus, his second and most faithful soldierly son, must be king of England at any expense of exertion, not to say of lifeless ceremonial. His mind was fixed on this. Let the less dutiful Robert, the eldest, have Normandy, let Henry get large treasure, but William Rufus for England.
‘Eudo Fitz-Hubert, more usually called Eudo Dapifer, from the office which he held placing him in immediate relation to the royal person, earnestly moved Rufus to the enterprise. It was the tradition in Eudo's family that he thus exerted himself in pursuance of the Conqueror's instructions. Nor would this be otherwise than consistent with William's experience and feelings. In one sense he owed the crown to Hubert's promptness and adroitness, and these qualities had descended to Hubert's son’. The historian takes the “Herbert” form of spelling the name, it is correct but hardly very material to add.
Scarcely had the life left the body of the monarch, as the croakers grumble and disparage, when the fierce necessity of the case compelled the leading personages into action. Bishop Odo, the too renowned earl of Kent, and brother of the Conqueror, took also the side of Rufus; a fact quite sufficient of itself to answer the cavillings at funereal neglect.
‘These two supporting Rufus, formed the nucleus of his party. Eudo Dapifer was first in action, wisely not before the castle or in the open field, but assailing the heart of the empire. All the treasure amassed by the Conqueror was deposited in the vaults of Winchester. Whither Eudo proceeded, and treating with William de Ponte-Arche (equally accommodating in the next reign) induced him to surrender the keys. Hence the high steward proceeded rapidly along the coast. Dover, Pevensey, Hastings, and the other principal castles on the seaboard were visited by him. His known station constituted his letter of credence. He boldly quoted Rufus as “the king”, and the garrisons promised obedience and allegiance to the soldier's friend, the Conqueror's favoured son ’.
This account by Palgrave, if a little deduction be made for the absence of the English idiom, and also for the want of literary sanity in the Jewish nature, as is shown by his over-graphical splay enthusiasm, is as explanatory as true.
That it was thus Rufus got possession of England is the received narrative of historians, and Freeman also raises no real obstacle to the fame of Eudo. Indeed, the highest tribute of all comes to him from this quarter, because of the extremely little love lost in every other Norman's case with the barrister for the Anglo-Saxons. Speaking of “the house of Rye”, he says,
‘We can hardly grudge them their share in the lands of England, when we find that Eudes, the son of Hubert, the king's dapifer, and sheriff of Essex, was not only the founder of the great house of Saint John at Colchester, but won a purer fame as one of the very few Normans in high authority who knew how to win the love and confidence of the conquered English’.
In other more characteristic passages the same personal esteem for Eudo is to be seen.
‘Among those to whose grasp the lands and homes of Englishmen were thus handed over, we come across many names familiar to us in our Norman history, to some of whom we should not grudge any amount of wealth and honour in their own land. The men whose exploits we could follow with delight below the steep of Arques, or among the burning streets of Mortemer, now meet us again in a less pleasing form, as intruders in the shire which gave birth to Alfred, William of Eu, Ralph of Toesny, etc. .…’
‘Here we see the lands which Eudo of Rye, Eudo of Colchester, the worthy son of the faithful Hubert, received as the reward of his own and his father's loyalty….’
Carte, in his able History of England, has this passage,
‘In the meantime his friend Eudo, son of Hubert of Rie, and steward to the Conqueror, had visited William de Pontedelarche and all the governors of castles and fortresses in Kent and Sussex, and having engaged these in favour of Rufus, came to Winchester’.
‘Eudo, high-treasurer, and Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, were very serviceable to young William on this occasion. The first had secured Dover, Winchester, Pevensey, Hastings, and other places on the south coast. Moreover, he delivered to him the late king's treasures, which amounted to sixty thousand pounds in money, besides plate and jewels of a much greater value’.
For this The Bromton Chronicle is given as authority.
Tindal makes the doubtful correction that Eudo was not the high-treasurer, but steward. Dapifer included both offices.
It is in the Monasticon by Sir William Dugdale, the valued and famous collection of papers and charters connected with the monasteries and churches of the Anglican province of Roman Catholicism before the Reformation, that the fullest account of this peculiar but effective conquest of England by Eudo's political skill is to be found in print. The Latin MS. whence he copied is in good preservation in the old monkish print-like hand at the British Museum among the collection Cottoniana, and it boasts of not only a pictorial headpiece, but of side illuminations, with the names of the abbots of Colchester Abbey included within them.
The gist of the story has been given from Palgrave, but here are some additions to the narrative. With the king dying apud Cadomum, in Normandy, the Latin goes on to say, Eudo, getting authority from his sovereign, embraced the opportunity of pressing William Rufus, juniorem, to master the situation. Then Eudo, having crossed into England, and having reached Winchester, gained over William of Ponte-Arce so far that he gave him possession of the keys of the treasury of Winchester, of which William was keeper.
Next, Eudo speedily made for the castle of Dover, and bound the garrison by their honour and oath to deliver the keys of their fortified position to no one except at his direction. The very same thing he did at Pevensey Castle, at Hastings Castle, and at all the other maritime castles, allowing it to be understood that the king, requiring to make some delay for state reasons in Normandy, wished to have special security as to all the fortifications of England, and that being seneschal he was the right person in absence of royalty to receive such assurance. Entirely successful in this swift revolution of affairs, he returned to Winchester, and openly proclaimed William Rufus, who had arrived there, the new king of England.
The Latin account finishes with this pregnant sentence:
‘So, while the rest of the nobles are disputing in Normandy, about the succession to the kingdom, meanwhile, by the zeal and actions of Eudo, William the younger is elected, consecrated, and confirmed as king, in England’. Thus bloodless a coup d'etat in so military if not violent a period, is one of the greatest triumphs the world has known of statecraft, in the noblest sense of the word, as the system of finest art by which a people is ruled to its greatest possible happiness according to its circumstances and political growth.