Of all the coronations in England, the saddest and most grim, and yet perhaps that which more than any other carried with it the promise of a great future, was that of William the Conqueror.
This great and terrible soldier, having burnt the southern outskirts of the City of London on the Surrey bank and forced a crossing of the Thames at Walling ford, had descended on London from the north.
Betrayed by their own leaders, including most of the dignitaries of the Church, who were quick to follow the promptings of reason and self-interest, the Saxons had the unspeakable humiliation of seeing the usurper and conqueror crowned on the anniversary of Christ's birth.
For William, a true Norman, had a strong feeling for form and law, and he was resolved to let no ceremony pass that could strengthen his claim to be regarded as King of England. He therefore elected to be crowned on Christmas Day, with all the splendour and magnificence that a conquered and terrified city could observe.
But human constancy - or, as perhaps most would have put it, obstinacy - produced an obstacle. Ever since the unction of Kings had been introduced into England, it had been an unbroken custom for the Archbishop of Canterbury to officiate and place the crown on the royal head. But Stigand the Archbishop was made of different stuff to his fellows, and flatly refused "to crown one who was covered with the blood of men and the invader of others' rights."
Fortunately the tempo and manner of England prevailed, and this unusual conduct was quickly compromised by the good sense of a more moderate and pliable prelate.
The Archbishop of York knew his duty or at least his interest and readily complied. William was crowned King of England with every sacred and time-hallowed rite his heart could desire.
It was an accident of faith that, at the very moment the crown was placed upon the head of this elected and consecrated King, his Norman guards, mistaking the customary acclamations of the spectators for a popular uprising, fell upon the people outside and put them to the sword while firing the surrounding houses, until their leader's appearance in his Coronation robes at the Abbey door quieted their barbaric fears.
Meanwhile the congregation had fled precipitately from the building. A few priests, however, had wisely remained, and the ceremony was concluded, with few onlookers, but without further interruption.
Nevertheless, even in this turbulent crowning the seeds were sown of future good. William, in his Coronation Oath, swore to "maintain the Church of God and all Christian people in true peace; to prohibit all orders of men from committing injustice and oppression, and to enjoin the observance of equity and mercy in all judgments."
And, though he may not have intended to have done so, he and his successors did actually accomplish something of this kind their strength of purpose, jealousy of all rivalry from their own coevals and immediate subordinates, and their strong Norman sense of law, order, and precedent made England a country in which something more than barbaric feudal anarchy could grow to maturity.
The King's Peace began to establish itself in the most remote and turbulent places; presently it penetrated into the fierce anarchical valleys of Wales and even crossed St. George's Channel.
That bloodstained, flame-lit Christmas Day in the Abbey was the beginning of British history as we know it today. The future of a new kind of world, and of an empire and firm peace wider and stronger even than that of fabulous, fallen Rome, was in it.