On May 3, a couple of days ago, I posted a little article at our “Not Without a Fight!” blog on the interpretation of King William Rufus’s death by medieval English historians and, thereafter, by generations of the British people. Rufus was the third son of William I or William the Conqueror, he who famously defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Rufus, who succeeded his father on the throne with the latter’s death in 1087, died in mysterious circumstances in 1100 in a place called the “New Forest.” This “New Forest” was a huge area declared by fiat as a hunting preserve for William the Conqueror and his noble friends in 1079. It was very unpopular, according to medieval English historians anyway, among English commoners and especially those displaced by the King’s bold edict. These same historians were fond of attributing Rufus’s death, as well as the deaths of two other members of William I’s family, to divine retribution for the King’s destruction of locals’ homes, livelihoods, villages, and churches with the New Forest’s creation.
More recent historical study — beginning, oddly enough, with a commentary on this history by Voltaire in 1753 – has questioned whether William I’s New Forest was as disruptive to local communities as medieval historians claimed. Despite more than a little evidence that undermines the old, medieval account, that account seems to have survived quite well in the popular mind or English folklore.
Now, you might be wondering why I would have bothered to recount this story on a blog site devoted to the looming economic and social crisis faced by U.S. counties with considerable acreages of national forest. Well, it all began a couple of weeks ago when our old TV gave out. We bought a new TV and its remote came with a Netflix button, for streaming videos from that source. One of the shows I began watching via this new source was David Starkey’s brilliant, 17-installment series on the history of the British monarchy. As it happens, the series’ third program briefly touched on the story of the New Forest’s creation, King Rufus’s untimely accidental death, and the place of these events in British historical memory. My immediate reaction was: “I can use this!”
Well, it struck me that the locking up of our national forests – by which I mean, in this case, the great decline in logging and forest management activity over the past two decades – has a very, very long history: i.e., stretching all the way back to the creation William the Conqueror’s New Forest in 1079. That’s very nearly a thousand years ago. It also struck me also that the persistence of the divine punishment interpretation of Rufus’s death in the English historical memory represents a kind of long term – indeed, very long-term! – symbolic price William the Conquer had to pay for his love of hunting and his creation of the New Forest. That price, in turn, might strike a cautionary note for today’s officialdom and their green friends, where these folks are (or appear to be) happy with the prospect of shutting down the multi-use of our national forests.
So that was my thought process. Unfortunately, the blog post didn’t communicate all of that as well as it might have – indeed, or even as well as I’ve communicated it here. Nevertheless I’d like to invite members of this list to have a look at this NWAF! post when and if they have a moment to spare for some very old history.
— Ron Roizen