[The Finding of the Body of Rufus]
Engraver: E. Dalziel
1862, rpt. 1910
8.5 cm wide by 13 cm high
Illustration for "England Under William the Second, Called Rufus," chapter 9 in Dickens's A Child's History of England in the Centenary Edition
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use this image without prior permission for any scholar or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Upon a day in August, the Red King, now reconciled with his brother, ["Henry Beauclerc"] Fine-Scholar, came with a great train to hunt in the New Forest. Fine-Scholar was of the party. They were a merry party, and had lain all night at Malwood-Keep, a hunting-lodge in the forest, where they had made good cheer, both at supper and breakfast, and had drunk a deal of wine. The party dispersed in various directions, as the custom of hunters then was. The King took with him only SIR WALTER TYRREL, who was a famous sportsman, and to whom he had given, before they mounted horse that morning, two fine arrows.
The last time the King was ever seen alive, he was riding with Sir Walter Tyrrel, and their dogs were hunting together.
It was almost night, when a poor charcoal-burner, passing through the forest with his cart, came upon the solitary body of a dead man, shot with an arrow in the breast, and still bleeding. He got it into his cart. It was the body of the King. Shaken and tumbled, with its red beard all whitened with lime and clotted with blood, it was driven in the cart by the charcoal-burner next day to Winchester Cathedral, where it was received and buried.
Sir Walter Tyrrel, who escaped to Normandy, and claimed the protection of the King of France, swore in France that the Red King was suddenly shot dead by an arrow from an unseen hand, while they were hunting together; that he was fearful of being suspected as the King's murderer; and that he instantly set spurs to his horse, and fled to the sea-shore. Others declared that the King and Sir Walter Tyrrel were hunting in company, a little before sunset, standing in bushes opposite one another, when a stag came between them. That the King drew his bow and took aim, but the string broke. That the King then cried, "Shoot, Walter, in the Devil's name!" That Sir Walter shot. That the arrow glanced against a tree, was turned aside from the stag, and struck the King from his horse, dead.
By whose hand the Red King really fell, and whether that hand despatched the arrow to his breast by accident or by design, is only known to GOD. Some think his brother may have caused him to be killed; but the Red King had made so many enemies, both among priests and people, that suspicion may reasonably rest upon a less unnatural murderer. Men know no more than that he was found dead in the New Forest, which the suffering people had regarded as a doomed ground for his race. [Chapter 9, "England Under William the Second, Called Rufus"]
Although Charles Dickens seems to have approved of — and even admired — constitutional monarchs like William III and Victoria, he detested such absolute despots like Henry VIII. Despite the fact that his intended audience was originally his own children and that at the time of telling Dickens was already in his late thirties, the tone he that adopts when discussing William Rufus reminds us of the younger Dickens — the twenty-year-old Radical-Liberal sympathiser and journalist of 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill. For thirteen years, Dickens has just told his auditors, the Red King had terrorised and exploited the people of England and of Normandy, asserting his father's cruel laws over the New Forest, and bringing "torture and death . . . upon the peasantry" — to say nothing of his vicious quarrels with the church and members of his own family. His ignominious death in the woods Dickens regards as nothing less than poetic justice, God's judgment upon a cruel and tyrannous ruler.
Stone's illustration in which a humble peasant is shocked when he stumbles upon the Red King's corpse in the twilight is consistent with Dickens's tacit judgment that tyrants are ephemeral, but the people endure. Apparently, it is a summer night (if we may judge by the foliage and the slipper of a moon, right) in a forest — a setting consistent with the date of 2 August 1100; on the ground, having fallen from his horse, lies sprawled the slender body of the forty-four year-old king, his hunting bow with broken string beside him. Since Dickens does not mention that Rufus broke the shaft of the arrow that pierced him, Stone shows an intact and fully fledged arrow. Although Dickens does not mention the precise site of the murder or hunting accident, recreational walkers in the New Forest in the nineteenth century would have known of the five-foot "Rufus Stone," erected late in the eighteenth century, that marked the spot. Indeed, the scene was not specifically identified by historians until John Leland asserted in 1530 that Rufus's body was discovered at Thorougham, now "Park Farm" on the Beaulieu estates. The untimely death of the arrogant ruler was the subject of many a painting and print in the nineteenth century by such artists as Henry Payne and Alphonse de Neuville. On stage and screen, Rufus has been portrayed by Peter Firth in the 1990 teleplay Blood Royal: William the Conqueror. Whereas other graphic artists have chosen to depict the precise moment at which Rufus, on horseback and weapon in hand, died by Tyrrel's arrow, Marcus Stone has elected to leave the actual circumstances of the Red King's death a mystery for the reader to ponder and imagine. Stone offers not action but a memento mori to accompany Dickens's equivocal account. An interesting detail is Stone's depicting the peasant who discovers the body as physically and facially similar to Rufus, the only real difference between the two middle-aged men being their clothing, for Rufus the aristocrat wears a hunting suit of rich fabric and the charcoal-burner mere homespun.
Ironically, having survived so many battles in a particularly violent period in English history, the physically imposing warrior-king likely died of an accident, reaffirming the old adage "Pride goeth before a fall." The popularity of the image of the death of William Rufus suggests, to quote Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Macbeth that "nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it" (I, iv, 8-9).
Avery, Gillian, ed. Charles Dickens: "A Holiday Romance" and Other Writings for Children with All the Original Illustrations. Everyman edition. London: J. M. Dent, 1995.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England. Il. J. McLean Ralston. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England in Works. Centenary Edition. 36 vols. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910-12.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England, il. Marcus Stone in the Illustrated Library Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1862.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England, il. Harry Furniss in the Charles Dickens Library Edition, vol. 3. London: educational Book, 1910.
Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.
Last modified 14 March 2013