by Debra Brown
Monarchy Part I~ The Dark Ages House of Wessex
Monarchy Part II~ William the Conqueror
Rufus built the Great Hall of Westminster according to his grand scale ambitions. It was the largest secular space north of the alps, used for feasting and entertainments. He would sit on an elevated plane, crowned, robed and enthroned. The choirs would sing in Latin, wishing him long life and victory. The gap between rich and poor increased, and those with money began to dress extravagantly. Men wore flamboyant, puffed up tunics and curved, pointy-toed shoes. Women wore more and more extravagant jewelry. Rufus himself, or William II, surrounded himself with "half-naked", long-haired young men according to contemporary accounts.
England's French-speaking barons often owned estates both in England and Normandy- thus, they owed some of their allegiance to William's older brother, Duke Robert. Robert was staking his claim to the English throne, and some of the barons united in his support just a year after William's coronation. William crushed the revolt, and in 1090, he invaded Normandy to subdue Robert. He also repelled attempts by Malcolm III of Scotland and an uprising by barons in Northumberland.
William, like his father, loved hunting. William I had taken over huge areas of countryside, 90,000 acres, for his own use; Rufus took 20,000 more and made the rules of the oppressive Forest Law even harsher. (You might be interested in Judith Arnopp's The Forest Dwellers, a fictional work about some of those who were expelled from their homes in the New Forest by these kings.) Killing a deer was punished by death. Men were maimed just for shooting at one. The punishment for simply disturbing a deer was blinding. These rules were considered un-English and were a constant reminder that William Rufus was a foreigner, ruling and oppressing England.
Who killed William Rufus? It has never been proved. One account says that he accidentally killed himself. Others stated that a Norman lord named Walter Tirel shot him. Tirel fled the country and always maintained his innocence. Interestingly, as soon as the king was dead, Henry seized power with suspicious ease. He wasted no time in mourning his brother. He rushed to Winchester, seized the royal crown and rode off to London to have himself crowned. His claim to the throne was dubious. Rufus and his older brother Robert, still Duke of Normandy, had agreed to be heirs to each other. Robert was known to be on his way home from the Crusades with a reputation for chivalry and a young wife who could bear him sons. There was no time to waste.
Henry's Charter of Liberty was followed by all the kings up until the Magna Carta, and was copied fairly closely therein. He also set up the Curia Regis, or King's Council, to settle disputes between the monarch and the people. He married a Scottish princess, Edith, who was descended directly from Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor, which helped him to placate both the Scottish and Saxons to some degree. She did, however, adopt the Norman name Matilda, and their two children were named Matilda and William.
A problem arose. Galloping inflation set in when the silver money began to be mixed with tin. England's stable currency had been the envy of Europe for three centuries. Henry arrested the one hundred and fifty men who had worked in the mint and put them on trial. Ninety four of them were found guilty and were punished with barbaric severity. Even though these men were not Normans, but Englishmen of high status, the people were behind Henry in the matter. The coinage must be protected at any cost.
For Henry, the greatest problem of all was the death of his young heir, William, at age seventeen. William was returning to England from Normandy in a ship. It crashed against rocks because of the drinking on board, and though William was safely put into a boat, he insisted on returning to the area to save his sister. It was only his sister who survived, of the two. (My error. After comments below, I discussed this with Elizabeth. The only survivor was a butcher. William had an illegitimate sister aboard the ship who also died. His sister Matilda was, at the time, living as Empress Consort of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.)
Henry was said to have never smiled again. He was now faced with the need to choose a new heir to the throne. His nephew Stephen had no Saxon blood, something that had been important to Henry for his heir, and he so chose instead his daughter, Matilda, a descendant of Alfred. We'll see how well that goes in the next post of the series!
The Monarchy of Britain by Josephine Ross
The Complete Idiot's Guide to British Royalty by Richard Buskin
The Documentary "Monarchy" with David Starkey
Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire.