19th Century

A Chartist History of England (1849-50): William Rufus | Edwin Roberts

Little is known of Edwin F. Roberts (1818–64), who is the author of this long-running series, originally titled A New History of England, and serialised in Reynolds’s Political Instructor between 1849 and 1850.[1] That he was a Chartist and republican will be apparent from his interpretation of events, and in May 1850 he became a regular contributor to Reynolds’s Newspaper.

Every month a new instalment, transcribed by Stephen Basdeo, of Roberts’s long-forgotten radical history of England will be serialised here—for the first time since 1850!

Read the first chapter on William the Conqueror.

Great Seal of William Rufus

Chapter Two: William Rufus

William Rufus, the second son of the Conqueror, surnamed Rufus or the Red Prince from the colour of his hair, was at Gerras, near Grenoble, when his father died; but a letter being written by the Conqueror to Lanfranc, then the primate, recommending him to create his son King of England (Normandy and Maine being left to his eldest son Robert), William hastened the moment he had procured this, to take measures for securing the crown. The right of primogeniture was however violated in this matter, for Robert, who had rebelled against his father, and deeply incurred his anger, was thus deprived of his rights (according to law) and William had reasons to apprehend resistance to the mandate which made him king.

His first act was to secure all the strong fortresses that he could along the southern coasts, such as Dover, Pevensey and Hastings, and by pretended authority from the late king he obtained possession of the treasury at Winchester, which amounted to a very considerable sum. Lanfranc for many reasons willingly seconded his effort, because after having educated him, and bestowed upon him the honour of knighthood, he supposed the monarch would be as tractable as the pupil had been. He therefore assembled such of his bishops and nobility as he could, and proceeded to crown him. This took place in 1087. This measure would, to a certain extent, prevent men from rising against a recognized authority, and awe those who might have proved refractory, but who, he thought, would not dare to contest the claims of one whose rights were sanctioned by the head of the church.

The division of Normandy from England, gave great umbrage and dissatisfaction to the nobles, many of whom held large possessions in both these countries; and the favourite doctrine of holding the fiefs (under one head) in all their integrity had become an important principle of those times. It would be impossible to serve two masters, whose interests were not connected in any shape or way, and whose very relationship would be more likely to make the ties of consanguinity which existed between them, deepen from rivalry into utter hatred. They must either sacrifice their ancient possessions, or their newly acquired property, and the con sequences of this state of insecurity, vacillation, and doubt, were soon made evident. Robert’s claim to Normandy was clear enough, and even his right to the crown of England provided he chose to make it, might be established by law, custom and arms; while personally, despite of all drawbacks, he is said to have possessed so many favourable traits as to leave Rufus nothing but the blackest qualities of treachery and in gratitude as his characteristics.

In order to build or to subvert, it requires only that the passions of men be played with. It is ignoble after all to trace back these gigantic catastrophes of history, and find that they originate in causes so puerile and so remote that they appear to have only a connexion in the most indirect degree. To the envious feelings of Odo, bishop of Baieux, and Robert, Earl of Montaigne, who were jealous of the great credit and reputation that Lanfrance enjoyed, may be attributed the attempt which was made to deprive William of his crown. Courts and nobles, both of Norman and of English descent were engaged in the plot, and the highest names in the land were found in the list of the revolted. But while the blow was as yet in suspense, a powerful army being expected from Normandy, and hostilities, on a small scale, even begun in many places, still the strife did not take any decided form, or shape, for many were doubtful of the results of such a course.

William Rufus saw the dangerous situation in which he was placed. One might be tempted to say that the same course of action among the cruel—the tyrannical –the powerful must invariably betray a grovelling and base nature. Place such a man in a perilous condition and he will fawn and cringe at the feet of those whom he has formerly trampled, and when danger is past, will again cast them aside as worthless. The only thing left for William to do, was to engage as many of his English subjects on his side as possible, and as there was little inducement for men voluntarily to spring around his banner, the tyrant offered them many advantages, such as immunity from several obnoxious imposts, charters for markets, the privilege of hunting in the royal forests, protection from the barons—in fact promises of every kind were lavishly made without the remotest intention on his part of performing them.

He was soon enabled to shew his adversaries a bold front, and while his foes were waiting help from Normandy, he suddenly marched into Kent, where his uncle Odo of Baieux, and Robert of Montaigne, had seized the castles of Pevensey and Rochester. These he reduced by famine, and banishing the conquered nobles, he confiscated their estates. This energetic step, together with the indolence of his brother Robert, made the proposed Norman success of no avail. Submission or flight were the only resources of the discomfited barons. Some few were pardoned, many were attainted, and the forfeited estates were bestowed upon the Norman nobles who had been faithful to him. The silence of the chroniclers best explains in what manner the King rewarded the English who had been his chief support.

Freed from the dangers attending these insurrections, Rufus in the moment of his security turned his back upon those who had so stoutly befriended him, and his promises were broken and thrown to the winds. The people found themselves still at the mercy of their feudal lords and the very attempts to make their condition known to the king, only aggravated their evils by rousing the almost insane fury of a man whose violence became proverbial. For a length of time his wanton and tyrannical disposition was repressed by the influence of Lanfranc, until the primate died, and the administration of the king became arbitrary to a decree of despotism altogether oriental. Life, liberty, and property lay at his mercy. Even the powers of the church, then in those days so tremendous, were disregarded. The temporalities of all vacant abbeys and bishoprics were seized upon without the slightest ceremony. Successors were delayed to be appointed, in order that he might profit by the revenues derived from the treasures, or the produce of the lands, and he set up to open sale such sees as he thought most likely to bring in the highest purchase money.

In the year 1090, William thought himself sufficiently powerful to make an attack upon Normandy. The indolent disposition of Robert had emboldened the Norman barons to become arrogant in conduct, and to exhibit an independency of his authority, little consistent with their oaths as subjects, and the peace of the land was distracted with their quarrels. Two of them were bribed by William to give up to him the fortresses of St. Valori and Albemarle. This example was imitated by several others; Philip of France, whose vassal Count Robert was, being deterred from interposing by large gifts sent him from William, who had policy enough of a certain kind, but one which is always the resort of men, who, like him, could command neither friendship or esteem.

William embarked for Normandy in order to wrest his brother’s possessions from him, but the war which seemed inevitable was stayed by the interposition of the nobles who had so many interests in both countries, and upon whom the sense of self-interest had more weight than any moral justice they might have seen in the matter. William, however, obtained all the advantage which this warlike bubble produced in the cession of some towns, and a territory in Normandy; and a treaty of mutual assistance was entered into, each brother stipulating, that either of them dying, the survivor should inherit both dominions, an agreement that met with no objection, as either might be supposed the rightful heir (failing one) of all that their father once possessed. Prince Henry, the brother who had sided with Robert, being totally neglected, was so reduced that after being besieged by William and Robert in the fortress of St. Michael’s Mount, despoiled of all his patrimony, he wandered about a fugitive for a considerable time in a state of utter destitution.

The whole of this period was one of internal wrangling and intestine war between the nobles. While the king sat at ease in his court, his barons made frays, fought out their quarrels, despoiled the country, set villages on fire, and otherwise kept up that perpetual turmoil which marks this and the like periods. The public wars were alone inconsequential either in the loss of life or their results, good or bad. After this disturbance in Normandy hostilities of a short duration sprang up with Scotland, and that country did homage to England for the crown (Malcolm being the Scotch king), and for two years this peace continued. Being of a bold and warlike temperament, however, in 1093 he levied war upon England, and devastated Northumberland, but was killed in a desperate skirmish at Alnwick, and for some years the regular succession of the Scottish crown was thus interrupted.

Disturbances also broke out afresh in Normandy, and William ordered an army of twenty thousand men to follow him to that country, but, at the instigation of his minister, he exacted ten shillings a head from them in lieu of their service and dismissed them. With this money he is said to have done more than he could else have effected, with all his army. A rising on the Welsh borders prevented his using all the advantages he had gained, and a cleverly ramified conspiracy among his own nobles was a more serious event than all, for it was proposed to dethrone him, and place his cousin Stephen on the throne.

The crusades, which occurred at this time, convulsed the whole social fabric through the world; and nations, as it were, emptied themselves of their myriads in order that they might perish upon the plains of Gallilee. This extra ordinary and gigantic movement of all ranks and classes of people, of every civilised nation under heaven, was first set in motion by a fanatic monk, called Peter the Hermit. The sole object was to rescue the sepulchre of the Saviour from the hands of infidels, of whom stories so exaggerated and ridiculous, were told, that the marvels of the Arabian Nights are grave and quiet commonplaces by comparison; so wild and absurd were they that it is difficult to account for the avidity with which men swallow down the huge the measureless falsehoods retailed to them. Be it as it may, one universal frenzy made every interest forgotten. Quarrels and battles were laid aside. Hostile interests were reconciled, and the greater part of the mighty armies assembled for transit from Constantinople to Asia were attacked and cut to pieces in Phrygia. It is roundly computed that the remains of at least two millions of men made the plains of Esdraelen, and other places of Palestine, one vast Golgotha. The sacrifice of all prospects of property, crowns, dynasties, dukedoms and estates, was made on all hands alike with only one exception:—William Rufus, with a placidity—an indifference that implied a total want, of that fervid temperament said to spring from enthusiasm or an excited imagination, remained at home, and profited largely in the immediate results of this fanatical crisis, for his brother Robert, casting off his natural indolence, had enlisted himself in the crusades, and offered his dominions to William for the sum of ten thousand marks, which was accepted, though the money was raised by the most violent, cruel and despotic means., Profane to impiety, rapacious to an extent that made his life one wholesale robbery, he appears to have viewed this extravagant chivalry, which at least was sincere in its purpose, like a knavish broker, who watches every opportunity of purchase or exchange, the moment that any circumstance gives him an unfair advantage over those whom he may have selected for plundering. Not only did the phlegmatic temper of the king check the spirit of adventure (so far as the crusades went) among his people, but the insulated position of England prevented that direct personal intercourse with the continent which might have brought rumours of an exaggerated kind to the doors, and thus quickened the spirit of men who were afterwards among the foremost in the field.

When Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, the King retained in his own hands the revenues of the see, but terrified by a sudden and dangerous illness, he was induced to make atonement for this usage of the patrimony of the church, and for this purpose selected Anselm, abbot of Bec, in Normandy, to fill the vacant chair. At first, this priest most obstinately refused to accept this dignity, but the determination of the king, made inflexible by the fear of death, a period for which he was at any time little prepared, overruled the church man, and he was at last prevailed upon to accept the badge of spiritual distinction. William soon recovering, his passions raged with still greater violence than ever. The monks and churchmen of the time speak with the most acrimonious bitterness of his rapacity, his tyranny and his licentiousness, and there is no reason to believe that they have, in any instance, overdrawn the dark and criminal stains in his character.

There is an ostentation of humility in men who have adopted the church as their “mother,” which becomes, in many instances, pride and obstinacy, parallel to the attributes of Lucifer himself, and Anselm was such a one. A quarrel on this ground, between himself and the king, rose to such a height that William summoned a synod, at Rockingham, in order to depose him from the office he had forced upon the bold, untractable churchman, and Anselm was compelled to retire to France, while William was menaced with excommunication; Pope Urban having received Anselm with great favour, considering him a martyr to the King’s impious intolerance. With singular inconsistency, however, while the Church sternly exacted the fealty due by its own vassals, it decreed that it was execrable on the part of the King and his barons to make their serfs grovel on their knees, and placing their two hands between those of their superiors, thus perpetuating the feudal oath, that life and limbs should be at their disposal when called upon to go forth to the field.

The additions which William made to his dominions by conquest and by chicanery, gave him no increase of power, because those territories were still in a most revolted state, and the French monarch, who had accepted all the gifts that William made him, finding, it may be presumed, that this source was exhausted, encouraged the continual insurrections which took place in Normandy, probably having an eye to their seizure for himself when opportunity should serve. Inconsequence of these differences, William was on one occasion compelled to inflict a summary punishment on one of his rebellious nobles. Helic, lord of la Hecke (in Anjou), besieged the garrison of Mans (1099), and William, who received news of this when hunting, hastened to Dartmouth and insisted on putting to sea, in spite of a dreadful tempest that arose. By this energetic measure he delivered the citadel from the menaced danger, and pursued the formidable baron into his own territory, but a severe wound compelled the King to return, and raising the siege of Majol in 1100, he sailed for England.

The Crusades still continued their extraordinary influence, in spite of the appalling sacrifice of life attending them, and William, Earl of Poitiers, and Duke of Guienne, offered to mortgage his estate to William, who gladly seized the opportunity; but the bargain was scarcely struck, when he was assassinated in the New Forest. Walter Tyrrel, a French chevalier of great address and skill in archery, had received some unpardonable insult from the king which he was resolved to avenge. On one occasion, while hunting, the opportunity offered itself. Bending his bow at a stag, at the very moment the King made his appearance from an opening of the forest, the arrow pretended to be aimed at the animal, found its way to the heart of Rufus, who instantly fell dead from his horse. This was attributed to the accidental striking of the arrow against a tree and rebounding back from it to William’s breast; but the fact of the rumoured wrong and the instantaneous flight of Tyrrel leave no doubt as to the truth. William died on the 2nd of August 1100. His interment was conducted without attendance or ceremony, and with such indecent haste (supposing that, as a human being, any sympathy could be felt with him), as proves the little estimation in which he was held. “His courtiers were negligent in performing the last duties to a master who was so ill-beloved; and every one was too much occupied in the important object of fixing his successor to attend to the funeral of a dead sovereign.”

His memory, unrelieved by one noble trait, one magnanimous action, or one pure sentiment, comes down to us in chronicles, lay and secular, as one violent and tyrannical. A perfidious friend, an encroaching neighbour, a heartless and ungenerous relation, he drew upon himself the hatred of all who knew him, whether a subject or a noble. If he did possess abilities they do not show themselves in any of his actions. To purchase additions to his dominions may exhibit a diseased craving to possess more than he knows what to do with, and to rob his people in order to pay off his liabilities for them, betrays a genius for diplomacy little larger than that of a barbarous pirate who scours the seas in search of plunder. He is said to have made additions to the Tower, and to have built Westminster Hall and London Bridge; what these monuments of the skill of his age may have been cannot, we opine, be well ascertained, as, ages after, they were so altered, that nothing of the original structures could exist. William was killed in the thirteenth year of his reign and the fortieth of his age, and having never married, he left no legitimate son or daughter to inherit the throne.

Circa 1100, William II (1056 – 1100) King of England from 1087, the 3rd son of William the Conqueror, also known as Rufus (the Red). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

[1] Original citation: Edwin F. Roberts, ‘A New History of England: William Rufus’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 17 November 1849, 12–13.