The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris




The Death of the Red King

William of normandy, by the grace of God and iron mace, had made himself king of England. An iron king he proved, savage, ruthless, the descendant of a few generations of pirate Norsemen, and himself a pirate in blood and temper. England strained uneasily under the harsh rein which he placed upon it, and he harried the country mercilessly, turning a great area of fertile land into a desert. That he might have a hunting-park near the royal palace, he laid waste all the land that lay between Winchester and the sea, planting there, in place of the homes destroyed and families driven out, what became known as the "New Forest." Nothing angered the English more than this ruthless act. A law had been passed that any one caught killing a deer in William's new hunting-grounds should have his eyes put out. Men prayed for retribution. It came. The New Forest proved fatal to the race of the Conqueror. In 1081 his oldest son Richard mortally wounded himself within its precincts. In May of the year 1100 his grandson Richard, son of Duke Robert, was killed there by a stray arrow. And, as if to emphasize more strongly this work of retribution, two months afterwards William Rufus, the Red King, the son of the Conqueror, was slain in the same manner within its leafy shades.

William Rufus—William II. of England—was, like all his Norman ancestors, fond of the chase. When there were no men to be killed, these fierce old dukes and kings solaced themselves with the slaughter of beasts. In early summer of the year 1100 the Red King was at Winchester Castle, on the skirts of the New Forest. Thence he rode to Malwood-Keep, a favorite hunting-lodge in the forest. Boon companions were with him, numbers of them, one of them a French knight named Sir Walter Tyrrell, the king's favorite. Here the days were spent in the delights of the chase, the nights in feasting and carousing, and all went merrily.

Around them spread far and wide the umbrageous lanes and alleys of the New Forest, trees of every variety, oaks in greatest number, crowding the soil. As yet there were no trees of mighty girth. The forest was young. Few of its trees had more than a quarter-century of growth, except where more ancient woodland had been included. The place was solitary, tenanted only by the deer which had replaced man upon its soil, and by smaller creatures of wing and fur. Rarely a human foot trod there, save when the king's hunting retinue swept through its verdant aisles and woke its solitary depths with the cheerful notes of the hunting-horn. The savage laws of the Conqueror kept all others but the most daring poachers from its aisles.

Such was the stage set for the tragedy which we have to relate. The story goes that rough jests passed at Malwood-Keep between Tyrrell and the king, ending in anger, as jests are apt to. William boasted that he would carry an army through France to the Alps. Tyrrell, heated with wine, answered that he might find France a net easier to enter than to escape from. The hearers remembered these bitter words afterwards.

On the night before the fatal day it is said that cries of terror came from the king's bedchamber. The attendants rushed thither, only to find that the monarch had been the victim of nightmare. When morning came he laughed the incident to scorn, saying that dreams were fit to scare only old women and children. His companions were not so easily satisfied. Those were days when all men's souls were open to omens good and bad. They earnestly advised him not to hunt that day. William jested at their fears, vowed that no dream should scare him from the chase, yet, uneasy at heart, perhaps, let the hours pass without calling for his horse. Midday came. Dinner was served. William ate and drank with unusual freedom. Wine warmed his blood and drove off his clinging doubts. He rose from the table and ordered his horse to be brought. The day was young enough still to strike a deer, he said.

The king was in high spirits. He joked freely with his guests as he mounted his horse and prepared for the chase. As he sat in his saddle a woodman presented him six new arrows. He examined them, declared that they were well-made and proper shafts, and put four of them in his quiver, handing the other two to Walter Tyrrell.

"These are for you," he said. "Good marksmen should have good arms."

Tyrrell took them, thanked William for the gift, and the hunting-party was about to start, when there appeared a monk who asked to speak with the king.

"I come from the convent of St. Peter, at Gloucester," he said. "The abbot bids me give a message to your majesty."

"Abbot Serlon; a good Norman he," said the king. "What would he say?"

"Your majesty," said the monk, with great humility, "he bids me state that one of his monks has dreamed a dream of evil omen. He deems the king should know it."

"A dream!" declared the king. "Has he sent you hither to carry shadows? Well, tell me your dream. Time presses."

"The dream was this. The monk, in his sleep, saw Jesus Christ sitting on a throne, and at his feet kneeled a woman, who supplicated him in these words: ‘Saviour of the human race, look down with pity on thy people groaning under the yoke of William.'"

The king greeted this message with a loud laugh.

"Do they take me for an Englishman, with their dreams?" he asked. "Do they fancy that I am fool enough to give up my plans because a monk dreams or an old woman sneezes? Go, tell your abbot I have heard his story. Come, Walter de Poiz, to horse!"

The train swept away, leaving the monkish messenger alone, the king's disdainful laugh still in his ears. With William were his brother Henry, long at odds with him, now reconciled, William de Bretnil, and several other nobles. Quickly they vanished among the thickly clustering trees, and soon broke up into small groups, each of which took its own route through the forest. Walter Tyrrell alone remained with the king, their dogs hunting together.

That was the last that was seen of William, the Red King, alive. When the hunters returned he was not with them. Tyrrell, too, was missing. What had become of them? Search was made, but neither could be found, and doubt and trouble of soul pervaded Malwood-Keep.

The shades of night were fast gathering when a poor charcoal-burner, passing with his cart through the forest, came upon a dead body stretched bleeding upon the grass. An arrow had pierced its breast. Lifting it into his cart, wrapped in old linen, he jogged slowly onward, the blood still dripping and staining the ground as he passed. Not till he reached the hunting-lodge did he discover that it was the corpse of a king he had found in the forest depths. The dead body was that of William II. of England.

Tyrrell had disappeared. In vain they sought him. He was nowhere to be found. Suspicion rested on him. He had murdered the king, men said, and fled the land.

Mystery has ever since shrouded the death of the Red King. Tyrrell lived to tell his tale. It was probably a true one, though many doubted it. The Frenchman had quarrelled with the king, men said, and had murdered him from revenge. Just why he should have murdered so powerful a friend and patron, for a taunt passed in jest, was far from evident.

Tyrrell's story is as follows: He and the king had taken their stations, opposite one another, waiting the work of the woodsmen who were beating up the game. Each had an arrow in his cross-bow, his finger on the trigger, eagerly listening for the distant sounds which would indicate the coming of game. As they stood thus intent, a large stag suddenly broke from the bushes and sprang into the space between them.

William drew, but the bow-string broke in his hand. The stag, startled at the sound, stood confused, looking suspiciously around. The king signed to Tyrrell to shoot, but the latter, for some reason, did not obey. William grew impatient, and called out,—

"Shoot, Walter, shoot, in the devil's name!"

Shoot he did. An instant afterwards the king fell without word or moan. Tyrrell's arrow had struck a tree, and, glancing, pierced the king's breast; or it may be that an arrow from a more distant bow had struck him. When Tyrrell reached his side he was dead.

The French knight knew what would follow if he fell into the hands of the king's companions. He could not hope to make people credit his tale. Mounting his horse, he rode with all speed through the forest, not drawing rein till the coast was reached. He had far outridden the news of the tragedy. Taking ship here, he crossed over in haste to Normandy, and thence made his way to France, not drawing a breath free from care till he felt the soil of his native land beneath his feet. There he lived to a good age and died in peace, his life diversified by a crusading visit to the Holy Land.

The end of the Red King resembled that of his father. The Conqueror had been deserted before he had fairly ceased breathing, his body left half clad on the bare boards of his chamber, while some of his attendants rifled the palace, others hastened to offer their services to his son. The same scenes followed the Red King's death. His body was left to the charcoal-burner's cart, clotted with blood, to be conveyed to Winchester, while his brother Henry rode post-haste thither to seize the royal treasure, and the train of courtiers rode as rapid a course, to look after their several interests.

Reaching the royal palace, Henry imperiously demanded the keys of the king's treasure-chamber. Before he received them William de Breteuil entered, breathless with haste, and bade the keepers not to deliver them.

"Thou and I," he said to Henry, "ought loyally to keep the faith which we promised to thy brother, Duke Robert; he has received our oath of homage, and, absent or present, he has the right."

But what was faith, what an oath, when a crown was the prize? A quarrel followed; Henry drew his sword; the people around supported him; soon he had the treasure and the royal regalia; Robert might have the right, he had the kingdom.

There is tradition connected with the Red King's death. A stirrup hangs in Lyndhurst Hall, said to be that which he used on that fatal day. The charcoal-burner was named Purkess. There are Purkesses still in the village of Minstead, near where William Rufus died. And the story runs that the earthly possessions of the Purkess family have ever since been a single horse and cart. A stone marks the spot where the king fell, on it is the inscription,—

"Here stood the oak tree on which the arrow, shot by Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William II., surnamed Rufus, on the breast; of which stroke he instantly died on the second of August, 1100.

"That the spot where an event so memorable had happened might not hereafter be unknown, this stone was set up by John, Lord Delaware, who had seen the tree growing in this place, anno 1745"

We may end by saying that England was revenged; the retribution for which her children had prayed had overtaken the race of the pirate king. That broad domain of Saxon England, which William the Conqueror had wrested from its owners to make himself a hunting-forest, was reddened with the blood of two of his sons and a grandson. The hand of Heaven had fallen on that cruel race. The New Forest was consecrated in the blood of one the Norman kings.