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There was therefore nothing to lead William to make any large changes in the letter of the English law. The powers of a King of the English, wielded as he knew how to wield them, made him as great as he could wish to be. Once granting the original wrong of his coming at all and bringing a host of strangers with him, there is singularly little to blame in the acts of the Conqueror. Of bloodshed, of wanton interference with law and usage, there is wonderfully little. Englishmen and Normans were held to have settled down in peace under the equal protection of King William. The two races were drawing together; the process was beginning which, a hundred years later, made it impossible, in any rank but the highest and the lowest, to distinguish Norman from Englishman. Among the smaller landowners and the townsfolk this intermingling had already begun, while earls and bishops were not yet so exclusively Norman, nor had the free churls of England as yet sunk so low as at a later stage. Still some legislation was needed to settle the relations of the two races. King William proclaimed the "renewal of the law of King Edward." This phrase has often been misunderstood; it is a common form when peace and good order are restored after a period of disturbance. The last reign which is looked back to as to a time of good government becomes the standard of good government, and it is agreed between king and people, between contending races or parties, that things shall be as they were in the days of the model ruler. So we hear in Normandy of the renewal of the law of Rolf, and in England of the renewal of the law of Cnut. So at an earlier time Danes and Englishmen agreed in the renewal of the law of Edgar. So now Normans and Englishmen agreed in the renewal of the law of Edward. There was no code either of Edward's or of William's making. William simply bound himself to rule as Edward had ruled. But in restoring the law of King Edward, he added, "with the additions which I have decreed for the advantage of the people of the English."
These few words are indeed weighty. The little legislation of William's reign takes throughout the shape of additions. Nothing old is repealed; a few new enactments are set up by the side of the old ones. And these words describe, not only William's actual legislation, but the widest general effect of his coming. The Norman Conquest did little towards any direct abolition of the older English laws or institutions. But it set up some new institutions alongside of old ones; and it brought in not a few names, habits, and ways of looking at things, which gradually did their work. In England no man has pulled down; many have added and modified. Our law is still the law of King Edward with the additions of King William. Some old institutions took new names; some new institutions with new names sprang up by the side of old ones. Sometimes the old has lasted, sometimes the new. We still have a KING and not a ROY; but he gathers round him a PARLIAMENT and not a VITENAGEMOT. We have a SHERIFF and not a VISCOUNT; but his district is more commonly called a COUNTY than a SHIRE. But COUNTY and SHIRE are French and English for the same thing, and "parliament" is simply French for the "deep speech" which King William had with his Witan. The National Assembly of England has changed its name and its constitution more than once; but it has never been changed by any sudden revolution, never till later times by any formal enactment. There was no moment when one kind of assembly supplanted another. And this has come because our Conqueror was, both by his disposition and his circumstances, led to act as a preserver and not as a destroyer.
The greatest recorded acts of William, administrative and legislative, come in the last days of his reign. But there are several enactments of William belonging to various periods of his reign, and some of them to this first moment of peace. Here we distinctly see William as an English statesman, as a statesman who knew how to work a radical change under conservative forms. One enactment, perhaps the earliest of all, provided for the safety of the strangers who had come with him to subdue and to settle in the land. The murder of a Norman by an Englishman, especially of a Norman intruder by a dispossessed Englishman, was a thing that doubtless often happened. William therefore provides for the safety of those whom he calls "the men whom I brought with me or who have come after me;" that is, the warriors of Senlac, Exeter, and York. These men are put within his own peace; wrong done to them is wrong done to the King, his crown and dignity. If the murderer cannot be found, the lord and, failing him, the hundred, must make payment to the King. Of this grew the presentment of ENGLISHRY, one of the few formal badges of distinction between the conquering and the conquered race. Its practical need could not have lasted beyond a generation or two, but it went on as a form ages after it had lost all meaning. An unknown corpse, unless it could be proved that the dead man was English, was assumed to be that of a man who had come with King William, and the fine was levied. Some other enactments were needed when two nations lived side by side in the same land. As in earlier times, Roman and barbarian each kept his own law, so now for some purposes the Frenchman--"Francigena"--and the Englishman kept their own law. This is chiefly with regard to the modes of appealing to God's judgement in doubtful cases. The English did this by ordeal, the Normans by wager of battle. When a man of one nation appealed a man of the other, the accused chose the mode of trial. If an Englishman appealed a Frenchman and declined to prove his charge either way, the Frenchman might clear himself by oath. But these privileges were strictly confined to Frenchmen who had come with William and after him. Frenchmen who had in Edward's time settled in England as the land of their own choice, reckoned as Englishmen. Other enactments, fresh enactments of older laws, touched both races. The slave trade was rife in its worst form; men were sold out of the land, chiefly to the Danes of Ireland. Earlier kings had denounced the crime, and earlier bishops had preached against it. William denounced it again under the penalty of forfeiture of all lands and goods, and Saint Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, persuaded the chief offenders, Englishmen of Bristol, to give up their darling sin for a season. Yet in the next reign Anselm and his synod had once more to denounce the crime under spiritual penalties, when they had no longer the strong arm of William to enforce them.
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William the Conqueror -by- E.A. Freeman