William the Conqueror made himself a playground in the New Forest, driving whole villages off the land. But did karma pay him back?
The year 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest when William the Conqueror - also known as William the Bastard - killed the Anglo Saxon King Harold and led his Norman knights to the takeover of England.
If you are following the Norman Conquest Trail, visiting important locations of the momentous year 1066 and its aftermath, take a side trip into the New Forest National Park to visit The Rufus Stone. There you can discover a little-known story about how the bloody fate of William's offspring may have been the New Forester's revenge.
First Some Background About the New Forest
Details of exactly what happened when William the Conqueror created the New Forest, some 90,000 acres in Hampshire and Dorset, are a bit fuzzy. But what is known that around 1079, William decided he needed a hunting ground with special laws to protect "beasts of the chase" (deer and wild boar) and the land they grazed.
An area of 150 square miles of woodlands, moorlands, heaths , and meadows was cleared of villages for William's pleasure. Some reports claim that 36 churches were demolished suggesting that 36 parishes, or villages, were destroyed and the inhabitants driven off the land.
That could be an exaggeration. Some experts say that area in question may have been suitable for grazing but it was not fertile enough for sufficient farming to support 36 villages. The truth may never be known. But what is known is that some people were driven from their homes and William imposed harsh laws to protect his beasts.
In the years that followed, three of William's descendants, including two of his sons and a grandson, died under mysterious circumstances in the New Forest:
- Richard, William the Conqueror's second son was killed in the forest in a hunting accident in 1081, allegedly while spear hunting for deer. William's sons did not get along and were notorious rivals. In fact, William's oldest son, Robert Curthose, who became Duke of Normandy, was actually arrested by his father and led a failed insurrection against him. So was Richard's death an accident?
- King William II known as William Rufus was William the Conqueror's third son and succeeded his father to the throne of England. He was known to be brutal and arbitrary and was unpopular with his fellow nobles. On August 2, 1100, while hunting with a party of nobles (that included his brother and heir, Henry I), he was allegedly struck by an arrow, shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell, that ricocheted off an oak tree with such force that it penetrated his heart, killing him instantly. The Rufus Stone, pictured here, marks the spot. His body was later taken, in a cart, to Winchester Cathedral.
- Richard, William I's Grandson was the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror's oldest son Robert. While his father spent time as a knight errant in France, before finally becoming Duke of Normandy, this Richard appears to have grown up in the royal court of England. In May of either 1099 or 1100 (reports disagree) he was caught in the neck by a tree branch and died while chasing deer on horseback in the New Forest.
So Did William Rufus Die by Accident?
So goes the official story. The Rufus Stone, above, was erected near the oak tree. The legend on it reads:
"Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August anno 1100."
"That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten; the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place."
But was it really an accident? Consider these facts:
- Sir Walter Tyrrell raced back to France and disappeared immediately.
- Nobody really liked William Rufus, especially the nobles who were with him on that day.
- His brother, who would become King when he died, was also part of the hunting party.
- Most telling of all, the King's body was simply abandoned where it fell. No one from the Royal family made any attempt to bring it back to court for a funeral worthy of a king. Eventually, a man named Purkis, a local forester, found the body and brought it to Winchester Cathedral in his cart.
How to Find The Rufus Stone
You can visit the peaceful site of The Rufus Stone and decide for yourself. There's a small parking area right across the road and most days New Forest ponies will be munching the grass nearby. Park wardens advise you to treat them as wild animals, but they don't seem worried by human or canine presence.
The stone is down a narrow road off the A31 halfway between the Stoney Cross and Cadnam exits. It's a left turn off the eastbound lane. You cannot turn into this road - or even see it from the westbound lane. If you are entering the park from the east, you'll have to continue west past Stoney Cross and change directions as soon as you can after that. The road is well signposted. There is free parking across the road and a pub a bit further along.