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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Historical Hot Spot of the Week!

Today's historical hot spot is the Rufus Stone, deep in the heart of the New Forest in Hampshire. I had the pleasure of a week's holiday in the New Forest last month and it was absolutely wonderful; peaceful, relaxing, the perfect place to unwind and read lots of good books. We visited the Rufus Stone on a frosty morning when no one else was about. The forest has a very strong, historic atmosphere, and never more so than when standing on the spot where one of the least likeable of English kings was killed hundreds of years ago.

According to the New Forest website, it was in this very place (allegedly, but let's not spoil the story by quibbling over location) in 1100AD that William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, was killed by an arrow whilst on a hunting expedition. No one like William II very much. Apparently he was given the nickname Rufus because he had red hair and a ruddy complexion but he also had a vile temper and treated people very badly. On August 2nd 1100 he was out with a party of nobles in the New Forest hunting deer and wild boar (in the days before boar were eradicated in England through too much hunting!) The New Forest had been designated a royal hunting ground by his father - "New" in the sense that it was a Norman hunting ground as opposed to the older Saxon royal forests.

An arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell, supposedly aimed at a deer, ricocheted off a nearby oak tree and pierced the King's chest, puncturing his lung and killing him. Sir Walter Tyrrell fled, afraid of being tried for murder, but since most people were pleased to see the back of William Rufus, no one pursued him. Rufus's body was put onto a cart belonging to a local charcoal burner named Purkis and was jolted away to Winchester Cathedral for burial. Henry I became king and made a better job of it than his brother had, by most people's reckoning.

This is in fact one of the first conspiracy theories in English history, because it has been suggested that Sir Walter, who was one of the best archers in the country, intended to kill the king all along and had been paid to do so by the ambitious Henry. Accident or murder? You decide.

The original oak tree was destroyed in the nineteenth century by souvenir hunters who kept taking away chunks of the wood. There is a very old oak tree next to the stone which is thought to be a direct descendant of the original. Victorian tourists also graffitied on the stone that was placed to mark the spot where William Rufus had died. The current monument was erected in 1841 and contains that stone inside. 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. King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church of that city."

"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. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden."

On another walk in the forest we visited the remains of King John's hunting lodge. Yes, it was just a few humps in the ground, as you can see in the photo, but the imagination of a history lover can do a lot with that! Clearly the unfortunate accident suffered by his ancestor hadn't put another unpopular English king off hunting in the New Forest!


Jenna Dawlish said...

I've driven past signs for the Rufus stone sooo many times, but never knew what on earth it was! Thanks Nicola, lovely article as ever.

kate tremayne said...

I loved this post Nichola and your idea that the murder of Rufus was a conspiracy plot. As he was so unpopular the manner of his death has made him into folklore legend. The new forest is a great place to wander and get inspiration for an historical writer. After Cornwall and Dartmoor it is one of my favourite places to imagine myself living in another age.

Nicola Cornick said...

I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the article, Jenna and Kate. Kate, it sounds as though like me you gravitate towards those places with a very rich historical atmosphere and lots of legends and folklore. We're so fortunate that Britain is full of such places. We're never going to run short of inspiration and of places to go to refresh our creative spirit!