Old and New London is a treasure chest for anyone interested in the city, and hunting down old volumes can be a lot of fun. Here Walter Thornbury parts the mist of history to paint a vivid picture of William the Conqueror‘s coronation at Westminster Abbey. Close your eyes and you can hear the clanking of swords and armour, the crackle of flames and shouts of acclamation.
It was on Christmas Day, in the year 1066, that the new Abbey of Westminster, the last work of Edward the Confessor, was chosen as the place for the coronation of the first of our Norman kings, William the Conqueror. The suburbs, the streets of London, and all the approaches to the Abbey, we are told, were lined with double rows of soldiers, horse and foot. The Conqueror rode through the ranks, and entered the Abbey Church, attended by 260 of his warlike chiefs, by many priests and monks, and a considerable number of the English who had been gained over to act a part in the pageantry.
At the opening of the ceremony one of William’s prelates, Geoffrey, the Bishop of Coutances, asked the Normans, in the French language, if they were of opinion that their chief should take the title of King of England; and then the Archbishop of York asked the English if they would have William the Norman for their king. The reply on either side was given by acclamation in the affirmative, and the shouts and cheers thus raised were so loud that they startled the foreign cavalry stationed round the Abbey. The troops took the confused noise for a cry of alarm raised by their friends, and as they had received orders to be on the alert and ready to act in case of any seditious movement, they rushed to the English houses nearest the Abbey and set fire to them all. A few, thinking to succour their betrayed duke, and the nobles they served, ran to the church, where, at sight of their naked swords and the smoke and flames that were rising, the tumult soon became as great as that without its walls. The Normans fancied the whole population of London and its neighbourhood had risen against them; while the English imagined that they had been duped by a vain show, and drawn together, unarmed and defenceless, that they might be massacred.
Both parties ran out of the Abbey, and the ceremony was interrupted, though William, left almost alone in the church, or with none but Archbishop Aldred and some terrified priests of both nations near to him at the altar, decidedly refused to postpone the celebration. The service was therefore completed amidst these bad auguries, but in the utmost hurry and confusion; and the Conqueror took the usual coronation oath of the Anglo-Saxon kings, making, as an addition of his own, the solemn promise that he would treat the English people as well as the best of their kings had done.
Meanwhile the commotion without still continued, and it is not mentioned at what hour of the day or night the conflagration ended. The English who had been at the Abbey ran to extinguish the fire—the Normans, it is said, to plunder and otherwise profit by the disorder; but it appears that some of the latter exerted themselves to stop the progress of the flames, and to put an end to a riot peculiarly unpalatable to their master, whose anxious wish was certainly, at that time, to conciliate the two nations.