Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Red King

A S the Conqueror had desired, when he lay dying, that his son William should have England, so it came to pass. Seventeen days after his father's death he was crowned King, having first sworn that he would maintain justice and mercy throughout the realm, and that he would duly preserve all the rights of the Church. He was not indeed permitted to possess himself of this great inheritance altogether in peace. Some of the great nobles were ill-pleased that William should be King in the place of Robert the eldest son, who was of an easier temper, and might be ruled by them; it vexed them also that a division should be made between Normandy and England. For these reasons they rebelled against King William, Robert also sending across the sea some soldiers to help them. The King thereupon resorted to the English for help, promising them that their taxes should be lighter, that the laws should be made better, and more justly administered. This help the people willingly gave, so that the rebellion was speedily brought to an end.

But when the Red King—for so they called him from the colour of his hair and his face—felt that he was safe upon his throne, he broke all his promises. Never had England a king more careless of his word, more given to oppression, never one that had less regard either for God or for man. He was especially greedy of money, not caring by what wrong and injustice he got it, and spending it when got in all extravagant and wicked ways. Thus when a bishopric or an abbey became vacant by the death of its possessor, William would not suffer any one to be elected or appointed, but took all the revenue for himself. In this way, when the good Archbishop Lanfranc, who had crowned him, died, he kept the archbishopric vacant for four years, taking all the revenues for himself. Only when he fell sick, believing that he was about to die, he repented, and gave the office to a certain monk, Anselm by name, who had reproved him for his wickedness, and exhorted him to repent. But when he recovered, he forgot all his good resolutions, and persevered in his evil ways till the very day of his death. The manner of his death was this. He died, as more than one of his house had died before, in the New Forest. He had passed a restless night, so disturbed by bad dreams that he called for his servants to watch by his bedside.

Before the sun rose one of his attendants entered his chamber, and told him of a dream which a certain monk had had, which seemed to mean some evil that was to happen to the King. William laughed. "The man," he said, "dreams like a monk; give him a hundred shillings." Nevertheless, by the advice of his servants, he gave up the intention that he had of hunting, and remained at home. But after dinner he changed his mind, and rode out into the Forest. Before long he was left alone, his companions having gone different ways in the pursuit of game. What happened afterwards was never known for certain. It was commonly reported at the time that one Walter Tyrrell, shooting at a deer, struck a tree with the arrow, which, glancing off, wounded the King to death; and that he, seeing what he had done, rode off at full speed to the coast, where he took ship, and sailed to the Holy Land. But Walter Tyrrell, when he came back to England, took a solemn oath that he had not been that day in that part of the Forest, and had not even seen the King. That he was murdered by some one seems likely, for indeed there were many that had reason to hate him. A peasant, passing through the Forest about sunset, found the King lying dead upon the ground, with an arrow in his breast. The man put the body into his cart, and carried it to Winchester. There it was buried the next day, in the Cathedral, but without prayer or hymn.

Two good qualities the Red King had, and, as far as we can see, two only. He was faithful and obedient to his father, who regarded him more than his other sons. And he was brave. This story is told of him, that having heard that a certain noble in his dominions abroad had rebelled against him, he took horse forthwith, crying out, "Let all that love me follow." When he reached the coast, he found the weather very stormy, and the captain of the ship in which he wished to cross the sea was unwilling to set sail. "Hold thy peace, man," said William, "kings are never drowned."

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