It tells, of course, of the death of King William II, aka William Rufus, who succeeded his father William (the Conqueror) in 1087, and was killed whilst on a hunting trip in the New Forest on 2nd August 1100; today the Rufus Stone marks the spot.
Historians are divided as to whether this was simply a hunting accident, or an assassination. Either is entirely plausible. The fact that, immediately afterwards, his brother Henry rushed off to Winchester to seize the treasury, and had himself crowned just days later in London without waiting for either the Archbishop of Canterbury of York to arrive, might support the idea that this was a premeditated killing. But equally it might just be evidence of quick thinking on Henry’s part – you didn’t get far as a member of the Norman, Angevin or Plantagenet royal families if you weren’t prepared to take the bull by the horns, and snatch at every opportunity for self-advancement.
I had always assumed that the song dates from the later nineteenth century (it begins “800 years ago, sir”). In fact I’ve just found it as ‘The Ballad of William Rufus’, seven verses long, in The Romance of the Scarlet Leaf: And Other Poems; with Adaptations from the Provençal Troubadours by Lyndhurst-based versifier Hamilton Aide, published 1865 by Edward Moxon & Co. There is a note to say “This ballad has become popular in the New Forest. Several of the songs that follow have been set to music, and are published”. The songs in question are not traditional or anonymous verses which the author has rescued from obscurity, they are by Aine himself. ‘The Ballad of William Rufus’ was popular enough to be quoted in Two Knapsacks A Novel of Canadian Summer Life by John Campbell (1840-1904). Somehow it must also have made its way to Suffolk. I wonder if Roy Last might have learned it at school?
The song has been rarely collected in tradition. Cecil Sharp got a version from the rather wonderfully monikered Theophilus George Pritchard at Compton Martin, Somerset in December 1905. And there is a version in Vaughan Williams’ MS, noted in 1954 from New Forest artist Juanita Berlin – here’s a 1956 Pathé film about Juanita and her husband Sven, if you’re interested.
The song’s use in the New Forest – as a spoken prologue to a Mummers’ play – is also mentioned in Chapter 2 of The Fire Kindlers: The Story Of The Purkis Family, a (slightly fanciful) family history written in the late 1930s by Leslie S. Purkis. The Purkis family, it seems, were historically charcoal burners in the New Forest. And legend has it that it was a member of the family who discovered the dead king’s body, and carried it in his cart to Winchester.