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Five years after the combat at Varaville, William really began to deserve, though not as yet to receive, the name of Conqueror. For he now did a work second only to the conquest of England. He won the city of Le Mans and the whole land of Maine. Between the tale of Maine and the tale of England there is much of direct likeness. Both lands were won against the will of their inhabitants; but both conquests were made with an elaborate show of legal right. William's earlier conquests in Maine had been won, not from any count of Maine, but from Geoffrey of Anjou, who had occupied the country to the prejudice of two successive counts, Hugh and Herbert. He had further imprisoned the Bishop of Le Mans, Gervase of the house of Belleme, though the King of the French had at his request granted to the Count of Anjou for life royal rights over the bishopric of Le Mans. The bishops of Le Mans, who thus, unlike the bishops of Normandy, held their temporalities of the distant king and not of the local count, held a very independent position. The citizens of Le Mans too had large privileges and a high spirit to defend them; the city was in a marked way the head of the district. Thus it commonly carried with it the action of the whole country. In Maine there were three rival powers, the prince, the Church, and the people. The position of the counts was further weakened by the claims to their homage made by the princes on either side of them in Normandy and Anjou; the position of the Bishop, vassal, till Gervase's late act, of the King only, was really a higher one. Geoffrey had been received at Le Mans with the good will of the citizens, and both Bishop and Count sought shelter with William. Gervase was removed from the strife by promotion to the highest place in the French kingdom, the archbishopric of Rheims. The young Count Herbert, driven from his county, commended himself to William. He became his man; he agreed to hold his dominions of him, and to marry one of his daughters. If he died childless, his father-in-law was to take the fief into his own hands. But to unite the old and new dynasties, Herbert's youngest sister Margaret was to marry William's eldest son Robert. If female descent went for anything, it is not clear why Herbert passed by the rights of his two elder sisters, Gersendis, wife of Azo Marquess of Liguria, and Paula, wife of John of La Fleche on the borders of Maine and Anjou. And sons both of Gersendis and of Paula did actually reign at Le Mans, while no child either of Herbert or of Margaret ever came into being.
If Herbert ever actually got possession of his country, his possession of it was short. He died in 1063 before either of the contemplated marriages had been carried out. William therefore stood towards Maine as he expected to stand with regard to England. The sovereign of each country had made a formal settlement of his dominions in his favour. It was to be seen whether those who were most immediately concerned would accept that settlement. Was the rule either of Maine or of England to be handed over in this way, like a mere property, without the people who were to be ruled speaking their minds on the matter? What the people of England said to this question in 1066 we shall hear presently; what the people of Maine said in 1063 we hear now. We know not why they had submitted to the Angevin count; they had now no mind to merge their country in the dominions of the Norman duke. The Bishop was neutral; but the nobles and the citizens of Le Mans were of one mind in refusing William's demand to be received as count by virtue of the agreement with Herbert. They chose rulers for themselves. Passing by Gersendis and Paula and their sons, they sent for Herbert's aunt Biota and her husband Walter Count of Mantes. Strangely enough, Walter, son of Godgifu daughter of AEthelred, was a possible, though not a likely, candidate for the rule of England as well as of Maine. The people of Maine are not likely to have thought of this bit of genealogy. But it was doubtless present to the minds alike of William and of Harold.
William thus, for the first but not for the last time, claimed the rule of a people who had no mind to have him as their ruler. Yet, morally worthless as were his claims over Maine, in the merely technical way of looking at things, he had more to say than most princes have who annex the lands of their neighbours. He had a perfectly good right by the terms of the agreement with Herbert. And it might be argued by any who admitted the Norman claim to the homage of Maine, that on the failure of male heirs the country reverted to the overlord. Yet female succession was now coming in. Anjou had passed to the sons of Geoffrey's sister; it had not fallen back to the French king. There was thus a twofold answer to William's claim, that Herbert could not grant away even the rights of his sisters, still less the rights of his people. Still it was characteristic of William that he had a case that might be plausibly argued. The people of Maine had fallen back on the old Teutonic right. They had chosen a prince connected with the old stock, but who was not the next heir according to any rule of succession. Walter was hardly worthy of such an exceptional honour; he showed no more energy in Maine than his brother Ralph had shown in England. The city was defended by Geoffrey, lord of Mayenne, a valiant man who fills a large place in the local history. But no valour or skill could withstand William's plan of warfare. He invaded Maine in much the same sort in which he had defended Normandy. He gave out that he wished to win Maine without shedding man's blood. He fought no battles; he did not attack the city, which he left to be the last spot that should be devoured. He harried the open country, he occupied the smaller posts, till the citizens were driven, against Geoffrey's will, to surrender. William entered Le Mans; he was received, we are told, with joy. When men make the best of a bad bargain, they sometimes persuade themselves that they are really pleased. William, as ever, shed no blood; he harmed none of the men who had become his subjects; but Le Mans was to be bridled; its citizens needed a castle and a Norman garrison to keep them in their new allegiance. Walter and Biota surrendered their claims on Maine and became William's guests at Falaise. Meanwhile Geoffrey of Mayenne refused to submit, and withstood the new Count of Maine in his stronghold. William laid siege to Mayenne, and took it by the favoured Norman argument of fire. All Maine was now in the hands of the Conqueror.
William had now made a greater conquest than any Norman duke had made before him. He had won a county and a noble city, and he had won them, in the ideas of his own age, with honour. Are we to believe that he sullied his conquest by putting his late competitors, his present guests, to death by poison? They died conveniently for him, and they died in his own house. Such a death was strange; but strange things do happen. William gradually came to shrink from no crime for which he could find a technical defence; but no advocate could have said anything on behalf of the poisoning of Walter and Biota. Another member of the house of Maine, Margaret the betrothed of his son Robert, died about the same time; and her at least William had every motive to keep alive. One who was more dangerous than Walter, if he suffered anything, only suffered banishment. Of Geoffrey of Mayenne we hear no more till William had again to fight for the possession of Maine.
William had thus, in the year 1063, reached the height of his power and fame as a continental prince. In a conquest on Gaulish soil he had rehearsed the greater conquest which he was before long to make beyond sea. Three years, eventful in England, outwardly uneventful in Normandy, still part us from William's second visit to our shores. But in the course of these three years one event must have happened, which, without a blow being struck or a treaty being signed, did more for his hopes than any battle or any treaty. At some unrecorded time, but at a time which must come within these years, Harold Earl of the West-Saxons became the guest and the man of William Duke of the Normans.
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William the Conqueror -by- E.A. Freeman