W ILLIAM RUFUS, or the Red as he was called, from the colour of his hair, took the ring from his father's hand and hurried off to seize the throne of England, without waiting even till the Conqueror should die. In little more than a fortnight the crown was upon the head of William Rufus, and England had another Norman king.
But even the Norman nobles were not pleased with their new king. The Conqueror had ruled them with an iron hand, and they had hoped, when he was dead, to have some one who would be less severe. They wanted Robert, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, because they knew that he was much less harsh than William, and they thought that they would be able to do what they liked if Robert were king. So they rebelled against William the Red and asked Robert to come to England to fight for the crown.
Now the English hated to have a Norman king, but they hated the Norman nobles even more. Although William the Red was Norman he had lived in England ever since he had been about six years old. He could speak English, which the Conqueror could never learn to do, and which the Confessor had never cared to do.
So William the Red appealed to the English people. He said to them, "If you stand by me and fight for me, I will reward you. I will take away some of the heavy taxes, I will give you more liberty, and I will not allow the Norman barons to oppress you."
So the English people fought for their Norman king, and they beat the Norman nobles. Robert was obliged to fly back to France, and William the Red, with the help of the English people, sat safely on the English throne.
But as soon as he was safe, William forgot about his promises. He oppressed the people as much as ever, and they were almost more unhappy than they had been in the time of his father.
The Red King was wicked and greedy. He stole money from every one, even from the churches, and spent it on his own pleasure. Little good can be said of him except that he was fearless. Still when he was ill, and thought he might die, he became frightened because of the wicked things he had done, and promised to do better. But as soon as he was well again he forgot his fears and was as wicked as before. He was not truly a brave man, and he was very cruel.
One day William the Red went to hunt with his friends in the New Forest—that forest which his father had made by destroying so many villages. Before the hunting-party started, a man came to the King and gave him six beautiful new arrows. The King admired them very much and he gave one of them to his friend, Walter Tyrrell, who was a very good shot, saying, "The best arrows should be given to him who knows best how to use them."
It was a gay scene. The King in his rich hunting-dress rode first. His friends and servants, gayly dressed, followed. There was much talking and laughing and barking of dogs.
As they rode into the forest, the frightened deer fled before them, and soon every one was eagerly following the chase. In the many paths of the forest, the King became separated from his friends. The nobles did not notice that the King was not among them, for it often happened in hunting that a few would be separated from the others. When the hunt was over, one by one the hunting-party returned to the palace. Only the King did not return—the King and one noble, Walter Tyrrell.
What had happened?
As the shadows began to lengthen and the sun to set, the people of his household became uneasy. Who was with the King? Who saw him last?
As the question was asked, a peasant's cart came slowly up the street. It was a rough wooden cart drawn by an old white horse, led by a peasant in poor and shabby clothes.
The question was answered. In the cart the King, who so short a time before had ridden gayly away, lay dead, with an arrow through his heart.
"Who has done this?" asked the barons, seizing the peasant. "Villain, answer."
"I know naught of it, my lords," replied the man. "I was passing through the forest on my way home when I found this man lying dead as you see him. I bethought me that it was the King, so I brought him thither."
How William the Red was killed can never be known. Some people say that Walter Tyrrell, while aiming at a deer, hit the king by mistake, that the arrow struck a tree and, glancing off, pierced the king in the breast and killed him. These people think that Walter Tyrrell frightened at what he had done, fled away as fast as he could; that he fled to the seashore, got into a ship and sailed over to France.
Certain it is that Walter Tyrrell did run away that day, and did not return to England for many years. But when he came back, he vowed very solemnly that he had not done the deed and that he had not even been near the King that day when he died.
There was no sorrow for the dead king. He was hated so much that, when he was buried, no bell was rung, no prayers were said, and when some time after the tower of the church fell, people said it was because of the wickedness of William, the Red King, who lay buried there.