The Normon Castles, Domesday, the New Forest and the Death of William Rufus.

There is an opinion, which probably may have been too hastily taken up, that previous to the invasion of William of Normandy there were few or no castles or towers of defence in England; and that to this circumstance may be attributed the eventual success which followed his daring inroad. This opinion has had the support of many eminent antiquaries, amongst others of Sir William Dugdale. It is scarcely necessary for us to discuss this point; and therefore, when we come presently to speak of Conisborough Castle, we shall touch very slightly upon the belief of some that it was a Saxon work. That the Conqueror erected castles, and impelled his barons to their erection in every part of the kingdom, there can be no doubt. His energy was so great in this mode of defence and protection, that an old Latin chronicler says that he wearied all England with their erection. The general plan of a Norman castle is exhibited in Fig. 346. The keep or dungeon (the tall central building) is numbered 1; the chapel 2; the stable 3; the inner bailey 4; the outer bailey 5; the barbacan 6; the mount for the execution of justice 7; the soldiers’ lodgings 8. The following clear and accurate description, by an eminent architect, in the ‘Pictorial History of England,’ will assist the reader’s notion of a Norman castle as conveyed by this ancient plan:—“The Anglo-Norman castle occupied a considerable space of ground, sometimes several acres, and usually consisted of three principal divisions—the outer or lower Ballium (Anglicè Bailey) or court, the inner or upper court, and the keep. The outer circumference of the whole was defended by a lofty and solid perpendicular wall strengthened at intervals by towers, and surrounded by a ditch or moat. Flights of steps led to the top of this rampart, which was protected by a parapet, embattled and pierced in different directions by loop-holes or chinks, and œillets, through which missiles might be discharged without exposing the men. The ramparts of Rockingham Castle, according to Leland, were embattled on both sides, ‘so that if the area were won, the castle keepers might defend the walls.’ The entrance through the outer wall into the lower court was defended by the barbacan, which in some cases was a regular outwork, covering the approach to the bridge across the ditch; but the few bar-bacans which remain consist only of a gateway in advance of the main gate, with which it was connected by a narrow open passage commanded by the ramparts on both sides. Such a work remained until lately attached to several of the gates of York, and still remains, though of a later date, at Warwick Castle [Fig. 362 exhibits the construction of a barbacan in that of Walmgate Bar, York]. The entrance archway, besides the massive gates, was crossed by the portcullis, which could be instantaneously dropped upon any emergency, and the crown of the arch was pierced with holes, through which melted lead and pitch, and heavy missiles, could be cast upon the assailants below. A second rampart, similar to the first, separated the lower from the upper court, in which were placed the habitable buildings, including the keep, the relative position of which varied with the nature of the site. It was generally elevated upon a high artificial mound, and sometimes enclosed by outworks of its own. The keep bore the same relation to the rest of the castle that the citadel bears to a fortified town. It was the last retreat of the garrison, and contained the apartments of the baron or commandant. In form the Anglo-Norman keeps are varied, and not always regular; but in those of the larger size rectangular plans are the most common, and of the smaller class many are circular. The solidity of their construction is so great, that we find them retaining at least their outward form in the midst of the most dilapidated ruin. Time and violence appear to have assaulted them in vain, and even the love of change has respected them through successive generations.”

Conisborough Castle, which is pronounced by Mr. King to be of the earliest Saxon times “before the conversion of that people to Christianity,” is held by later antiquaries in its extent and arrangement to be a fair representation of the Norman keeps of the smaller class. It is situated in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in the wapentake of Strafforth, and, standing on a steep knowl, commands a splendid view of the winding course of the river Don. It was formerly entered by a drawbridge over a deep fosse. Leland speaks of “the castle standing on a rocket of stone, and ditched. The walls of it have been strong and full of towers.” By the walls the old topographer means those which surround the keep, which Pennant in his time described as “seemingly circular and having the remains of four small rounders.” The keep, of which a good part is still entire, is a most remarkable building. It was originally four stories high, and is of a circular form, being about twenty-two feet diameter inside. The walls are fifteen feet thick, and they are flanked by six projecting turrets, or square buttresses, running from the top to the bottom, and expanding at the base. The external appearance of the keep does not at first give the impression of its really circular form (Fig. 357). The ground floor or base is described by Pennant as a noisome dungeon of vast depth, at the bottom of which is a draw-well. Fig. 354 exhibits the form of the second story; the steps are numbered 1, the entrance 2, the stairs to the third story 3, the opening to the vaulted story or dungeon below 4. Fig. 355 shows the third story; the stairs from the second floor are numbered 5, the window 6, a closet which shows that our forefathers possessed conveniences which have been thought a modern invention 8, stairs to the fourth story 9; the chimney is numbered 7, and in this and the floor above it is remarkable that the construction of a chimney was not only perfectly well known, but that the form of the opening projecting over the hearth exhibited a degree of elegance which might recommend itself to the tasteless fire-place builders of eight centuries later (Fig. 353). The fourth story is indicated in Fig. 356; a small but well decorated hexagon room, undoubtedly used as a chapel, formed out of the thickness of the wall and the turret, is numbered 10, the stairs from the third floor 11, the window 12, the chimney 13, the stairs to the platform 14. From this platform there are entrances to six small rooms formed in the six turrets which rise above the parapet. Such were the conveniences of one of the smaller keeps, possessing only a store-room or dungeon, a sort of hall of entrance, two living rooms, and a chapel, with six pigeon-holes where the retainers slept or cooked their food. Of the larger keeps we shall have particularly to speak when we come to notice the more complete establishment of the feudal system under the immediate successors of the Conqueror. At present we shall content ourselves with a brief description of the Castle of Richmond in Yorkshire, the grant of whose site to its first possessor is distinctly associated with William the Conqueror.

The charter by which the king bestowed the lands of the brave and unfortunate Saxon Earl Edwin upon one of his own followers is thus given by Camden:—“I William, surnamed Bastard, King of England, do give and grant to thee, my nephew, Alan Earl Bretagne, and to thy heirs for ever, all the villages and lands which of late belonged to Earl Edwin, in Yorkshire, with the knight’s fees and other liberties and customs, as freely and honourably as the same Edwin held them. Dated from our siege before York.” Here then, on this noble hill, nearly encompassed by the river Swale, amidst a landscape of wild beauty, almost of stern grandeur, stands this Castle of Riche-mount, and some of the streets in the little town at its feet have still their Norman names. Alan of Bretagne quickly set to work to defend the broad lands which his kinsman had bestowed upon him, by gathering round him a powerful band safe from attack on this fortressed hill. The castle has been a ruin for three centuries. Even in Leland’s time it was a “mere ruin.” But yet the great keep, whose walls are ninety-nine feet in height, and eleven in thickness, still defies the wind and the frost, as it once set at nought the battering-ram and the scaling-ladder (Fig. 361). Turrets rise above these walls from the four corners. The keep consisted originally of three stories. The roofs of the two upper stories have now fallen in. There are the ruins of two smaller towers to the south-east and south-west angles of the walls (Fig. 360). The view on the town side is given in Fig. 359.

The grant of lands by the Conqueror to Alan the Breton is represented in a very curious illumination in the register of the Honour of Richmond (Fig. 352). The prolonged resistance made to the power of the Norman invaders in the north brought pillage and slaughter upon the inhabitants of the towns, and confiscation of their lands upon the native chiefs. Villages and manors were given away by scores in every district, to some fortunate follower of the stranger king. It is in Domesday Book, the most extraordinary record of the feudal times, that we can trace the course of the spoliation of the original proprietors of the soil, and the waste and depopulation that had preceded any condition approaching to a tranquil settlement of the country. This book, of which a specimen is given in Fig. 363, is unquestionably the most remarkable monument of the Norman Conquest. No other country possesses so complete a record of the state of society nearly eight centuries ago, as this presents in its registration of the lands of England. By special permission it may be seen in the Chapterhouse at Westminster. It was formerly kept in the Exchequer under three different locks and keys. The book familiarly so called really consists of two volumes—one a large folio, the other a quarto, the material of each being vellum. The date of the survey, as indicated in one of these volumes, is 1086. Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Durham were not included as counties in the survey, though parts of Westmoreland and Cumberland are taken. There never was a record which more strikingly exhibited the consequences of invasion and forcible seizure of property. The value of all the estates was to be triply estimated; as that value stood in the time of Edward the Confessor, at the time of its bestowal by the king, and at the formation of the survey. It was found that twenty years after the Conquest the rental of the kingdom was one fourth less than in the time of the Confessor; and the return was made upon oath. The Saxon chronicler looks upon the Domesday Book as one of the many evidences of the Conqueror’s grasping disposition; for he tells us that not a hide or yard land, not an ox, cow, or hog, was omitted in the census. Later historians have cried up the survey as a monument of the Conqueror’s genius for administration. Thierry holds it only to be the result of his special position as chief of the conquering army. This sensible historian has shown, in his notice of Domesday Book, how complete was the spoliation of the Saxon proprietors within twenty years,—so complete that the Norman robbers actually record their quarrels with each other for what they call their inheritance. Describing the document generally, he says, “The king’s name was placed at the head, with a list of his domains and revenues in the county; then followed the names of the chief and inferior proprietors, in the order of their military ranks and their territorial wealth. The Saxons who, by special favour, had been spared in the great spoliation, were found only in the lowest schedule: for the small number of that race who still continued to be free proprietors, or tenants-in-chief of the king, as the conquerors expressed it, were such only for slender domains. They were inscribed at the end of each chapter under the names of thanes of the king, or by some other designation of domestic service in the royal household. The rest of the names of an Anglo-Saxon form, that are scattered here and there through the roll, belong to farmers holding by a precarious title a few fractions, larger or smaller, of the domains of the Norman earls, barons, knights, Serjeants, and bowmen.

The Saxon annalist quaintly writes of the first William, “so much he loved the high deer as if he had been their father; he made laws that whosoever should slay hart or hind, him man should blind.” The depopulation and misery occasioned by the formation of the New Forest have been perhaps somewhat over-stated. A forest undoubtedly existed in this district in the Saxon times; the Conqueror enlarged its circuit and gave it a fresh name. But even William of Jumieges, chaplain to the Conqueror, admits the devastation, in his notice of the deaths of William Rufus and his brother Richard in this Forest:—“There were many who held that the two sons of William the king perished by the judgment of God in these woods, since for the extension of the forest he had destroyed many towns and churches within its circuit.” It is this circumstantial statement and popular belief which inspired Mr. William Stewart Rose’s spirited little poem of the Red King:—

“Now fast beside the pathway stood

 A ruin’d village, shagg’d with wood,

A melancholy place;

 The ruthless Conqueror cast down

(We worth the deed) that little town,

To lengthen out his chace.

“Amongst the fragments of the church,

 A raven there had found a perch,—

She flicker’d with her wing;

 She stirr’d not, she, for voice or shout,

 She moved not for that revel-rout,

But croak’d upon the king.”

Figure spread at pages 92 and 93:

Figure 375
Chantry Chapel, Warwick
Figure 377
Painted Window. Two Saxon Earls of Mercia, And Seven Norman Earls of Chester.

But Mr. Rose does not rest the machinery of his ballad upon tradition alone, or the assertions of prejudiced chroniclers. Adverting to the disbelief of Voltaire in the early history of the New Forest, he points out, in his notes to the poem, what Voltaire did not know, that ‘Domesday-Book’ establishes the fact that many thousand acres were afforested after the time of Edward the Confessor. The testimony which Mr. Rose himself supplied from his local knowledge is exceedingly curious. “The idea that no vestiges of ancient buildings yet exist in the New Forest, is utterly unfounded, though the fact is certainly little known, and almost confined to the small circle of keepers and ancient inhabitants. In many spots, though no ruins are visible above ground, either the enceinte of erections is to be traced, by the elevation of the earth, or fragments of building-materials have been discovered on turning up the surface. The names also of those places would almost, if other evidence were wanting, substantiate the general fact, and even the nature of each individual edifice. . . . . The total rasure of buildings, and the scanty remains of materials under the surface, appear at first a singular circumstance. But it is to be observed, that the mansions, and even the churches of the Anglo-Saxons, were built of the slightest materials, frequently of wood; and that of all countries a forest is the least favourable to the preservation of ruins. As they are the property of the crown, neither the pride nor interest of individuals is concerned in their preservation. . . . . This absence of remains of ruins above the surface need not, therefore, lead us to despair of further discoveries, and these are, perhaps, yet designated by the names of places. May we not consider the termination of ham and ton, yet annexed to some woodlands, as evidence of the former existence of hamlets and towns?” The historical truth, as it appears to us, may be collected from these interesting notices of Mr. Rose’s local researches. The remains of buildings are few, and scattered over a considerable district. The names which still exist afford the best indication that the abodes of men were formerly more numerous. The truth lies between the scepticism of Voltaire as to any depopulation having taken place, and the poetical exaggeration of Pope, in his ‘Windsor Forest:’—

“The fields are ravished from industrious swains,

 From men their cities, and from gods their fanes:

 The levelled towns with weeds lie covered o’er;

 The hollow winds through naked temples roar.”

The fact is, that from the very nature of the soil no large population could have been here supported in days of imperfect agriculture. The lower lands are for the most part marshy; the higher ridges are sterile sand. Gilpin has sensibly pointed this out in his book on ‘Forest Scenery:’—“How could William have spread such depopulation in a country which, from the nature of it, must have been from the first very thinly inhabited? The ancient Ytene was undoubtedly a woody tract long before the times of William. Voltaire’s idea, therefore, of planting a forest is absurd, and is founded on a total ignorance of the country. He took his ideas merely from a French forest, which is artificially planted, and laid out in vistas and alleys. It is probable that William rather opened his chaces by cutting down wood, than that he had occasion to plant more. Besides, though the internal strata of the soil of New Forest are admirably adapted to produce timber, yet the surface of it is in general poor, and could never have admitted, even if the times had allowed, any high degree of cultivation.” But, whatever view we take of this historical question, the scenery of the New Forest is indissolubly associated with the memory of the two first Norman hunter-kings. There is probably no place in England which in its general aspect appears for centuries to have undergone so little change. The very people are unchanged. After walking in a summer afternoon for several miles amongst thick glades, guided only by the course of the declining sun,

“Over hill, over dale,

 Thorough bush, thorough briar,”

we came, in the low ground between Beaulieu and Denny Lodge, upon two peasants gathering a miserable crop of rowan. To our questions as to the proper path, they gave a grin, which expressed as much cunning as idiotcy, and pointed to a course which led us directly to the edge of a bog. They were low of stature, and coarse in feature. The collar of the Saxon slave was not upon their necks, but they were the descendants of the slave, through a long line who had been here toiling in hopeless ignorance for seven centuries. Their mental chains have never been loosened. A mile or two farther we encountered a tall and erect man, in a peculiar costume, half peasant, half huntsman. He had the frank manners of one of nature’s gentlemen, and insisted upon going with us a part of the way which we sought to Lyndhurst. His family, too, had been settled here, time out of mind. He was the descendant of the Norman huntsman, who had been trusted and encouraged, whilst the Saxon churl was feared and oppressed. There is a lesson still to be taught by the condition of the two races in the primitive wilds of the New Forest.

But we are digressing from our proper theme. In these thick coverts we find not many trees, and especially oaks, of that enormous size which indicates the growth of centuries. The forest has been neglected. Trees of every variety, with underwood in proportion, have oppressed each the other’s luxuriance. Now and then a vigorous tree has shot up above its neighbours; but the general aspect is that of continuous wood, of very slow and stunted growth, with occasional ranges of low wet land almost wholly devoid of wood. There are many spots, undoubtedly, of what we call picturesque beauty; but the primitive solitariness of the place is its great charm. We are speaking, of course, of those parts which must be visited by a pedestrian; for the high roads necessarily lead through the most cultivated lands, passing through a few villages which have nothing of the air of belonging to so wild and primitive a region. Lyndhurst, the prettiest of towns, is the capital of the Forest. Here its courts, with their peculiar jurisdiction, are held in a hall of no great antiquity; but in that hall hangs the stirrup which tradition, from time immemorial, asserts was attached to the saddle from which William Rufus fell, when struck by the glancing arrow of Walter Tyrell. There is a circumstance even more remarkably associated with tradition, to be found in the little village of Minestead. It is recorded that the man who picked up the body of the Red king was named Purkess; that he was a charcoal-burner; and that he conveyed the body to Winchester in the cart which he employed in his trade. Over the door of a little shop in that village we saw the name of Purkess in 1843—a veritable relic of the old times. Mr. Rose has recorded the fact in prose and verse, of the charcoal-burner’s descendants still living in this spot, and still possessing one horse and cart, and no more:—

“A Minestead churl, whose wonted trade

Was burning charcoal in the glade,

Outstretch’d amid the gorse

The monarch found; and ill his wain

He raised, and to St. Swithin’s fane

Convey’d the bleeding corse.


And still, so runs our forest creed,

Flourish the pious woodman’s seed

Even in the selfsame spot:

One horse and cart their little store,

Like their forefather’s, neither more

Nor less the children’s lot.


And still, in merry Lyndhurst hall,

Red William’s stirrup decks the wall;

Who lists, the sight may see;

And a fair stone, in green Malwood,

Informs the traveller where stood

The memorable tree.”

The “fair stone,” which was erected by Lord Delaware in 1745, is now put into an iron case, of supreme ugliness; and we are informed as follows:—“This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced, this more durable memorial, with the original inscriptions, was erected in the year 1841, by William Sturges Bourne, Warden.” Another century will see whether this boast of durability will be of any account. In the time of Leland, there was a chapel built upon the spot. It would be a wise act of the Crown, to whom this land belongs, to found a school here—a better way of continuing a record than Lord Delaware’s stone, or Mr. Sturges Bourne’s iron. The history of their country, its constitution, its privileges—the duties and the rights of Englishmen—things which are not taught to the children of our labouring millions—might worthily commence to be taught on the spot where the Norman tyrant fell, leaving successors who one by one came to acknowledge that the people were something not to be despised or neglected. The following is the inscription on the original stone, which is represented at Fig. 370:—

“Here stood the oak-tree on which an arrow, shot by Sir Walter Tyrrel, at a stag, glanced, and struck King William II., surnamed Rufus, on the breast; of which stroke he instantly died, on the second of August, 1100.

“King William II., surnamed Rufus, being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart belonging to one Purkess, and drawn from hence to Winchester, and buried in the cathedral church of that city.

“That the spot where an event so memorable had happened might not hereafter be unknown, this stone was set up by John Lord Delaware, who had seen the tree growing in this place, anno 1745.”

Figure spread at pages 96 and 97:

Figure 379
Decorative Cap “T’’ With Flowers
Figure 381
381.—St. Mary’s Chapel, Hastings Cliff Castle.
Figure 382
382.—Alnwick Castle.
Figure 383
383.—Rock of Bamborough with Castle.
Figure 389
Plate 3.—Rochester Castle.—Interior.

In the Cathedral Church of Winchester, which Dr. Milner terms the “ancient mausoleum of royalty” (Fig. 372), is the tomb of William Rufus. “It consists of English grey marble, being of form that is dos d’âne; and is raised about two feet above the ground” (Fig. 371). The tomb of the Red King was violated during the parliamentary war in the time of Charles I., and there was found within it “the dust of the king, some pieces of cloth embroidered with gold, a large gold ring, and a small silver chalice.” The bones had been enshrined in the time of King Stephen. What remained of these earthy fragments in the sixteenth century had become mixed with the bones of Canute and his queen, and of bishops of good and evil repute. Bishop Fox caused them all to be deposited in one of the mouldering chests which in this Cathedral attract the gaze of the stranger, and carry him, if he be of a contemplative turn, into some such speculations as those of Hamlet, when he traced the noble dust of Alexander till he found it stopping a bunghole.