Friday, November 21, 2014

Dreaming the strange death of a Norman king

The year is 1100, and William II, called William Rufus (William the Red) is the second Norman king of England. He's a rapacious, rowdy, brawling character who has earned a lot of opposition, including that of the great scholar Anselm who is now Archbishop of Canterbury. The king has forced Anselm into exile.
    Anselm has a vision: the “saints of England” are applying to God to deal with the Norman thug on the throne. God summons Saint Alban into his presence and hands him a flaming arrow. And God says, “Behold the death of the man you complain of before me.” Saint Alban takes the arrow and says he will deliver it to “a wicked spirit”, so the arrow will be “an avenger of sins.” In Anselm’s vision, the arrow is thrown from the sky and comes down like a fiery comet.|
    At the same time, or soon afterwards, William Rufus was struck by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest; he died the same night.
    Before the news reached Anselm, the archbishop was already journeying back to his cathedral, confident that the arrow fired in his vision had actually reached its mark, flying from the realm of the Aevum (for the medieval imagination, this was the dimension between the world of time and the world of eternity) into the kingdom of England. He received word of the fatal hunting incident as he entered Canterbury.
     The story soon spread across Europe that the cleric Anselm had the power to destroy kings through his prayers and visions.
This account comes down to us from a chronicler known as Matthew of Westminster (also identified as Matthew of Paris). Modern scholarship suggests that the author may have stretched his facts more than a little. It appears that at the time of the king’s death, Anselm was in France – and did not return to his see until after five years of bargaining and jockeying with William II’s successor, Henry I.
      According to other chronicles, William II had his own premonitory dreams – in the most terrifying of which he saw blood spurting from his body until it darkened the sky.    
      It is fascinating that on the morning of his death, the king received a dream warning he took seriously. Robert FitzHammon brought William Rufus word that a monk had dreamed that he saw the king trying to bite off the legs of a figure of Christ on the cross. In the monk’sdream, the Christ figure came alive and smashed him to the ground. The king lay under Christ’s feet, belching fire and smoke from his mouth until the air was dark.
       The king was sufficiently rattled to order FitzHammon to give the monk a hundred shillings and “bid him dreame of better fortune to our person.” [Holinshed Chronicles 3:44] Holinshed reports that the king remained so troubled by the dream that he delayed going out to hunt until after lunch – at which he drank copiously – instead of riding out at dawn aswas his custom.

Sources: The vision of Anselm is in Matthew of Westminster, Flowers of History. The monk’s dream is in Holinshed’s Chronicles 3:4. See Frank Barlow, William Rufus (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983) and C. Warren Hollister,  “The Strange Death of William Rufus”, in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies. Vol 48, no.4 (October, 1973).

Image: Death of William Rufus, lithograph by Alphonse de Neuville, 1895

1 comment:

Susan Morgan said...

I am very grateful you took the time to research this story and then to write about it. Thank you!