Home of The Forest Dwellers
photographs property of JudithArnopp and CherryWathall
As a child I spent many holidays in the New Forest. In those days we were permitted to camp where we chose; there were no camp sites, no shower blocks, very few other tents and certainly no caravans. I drew on those days when I wrote my novel The Forest Dwellers in 2009.
It was autumn, the forest canopy a blaze of gold with a milky mist curling about the heath. The new day smelt fresh; a hint of thyme and the tang of coming winter tickling our noses. A fox ran across our path and disappeared into the wood and, farther off, we heard the bark of rutting deer, the cry of a curlew.
I recalled playing beneath the wide green canopy of beech, wading in the amber coloured streams and breathing in the stiff Solent breeze. Even though I now live far away in Wales, the soft wildness of the New Forest stayed with me and the scent and sounds of the wood echo through the centuries to provide a back drop for Ælf and Alys, and Leo.
There is something about the forest in the late afternoon. The aromas are richer, the sounds more musical, the shadows deeper and the broken light more dazzling. I am not a man given to fancy but, as we rode through that silent glade, it was as if the wood were holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit Hampshire and rediscover that lost perfect place of my childhood. It took some looking but, a short walk away from the caravans and campers, I found it. It was concealed in the quieter, lonelier spots and as I ventured deeper into the forest I swear I could hear the song of Ælf's bowstring and the gentle laughter of the people who lived and died there so long ago.
I visited Boldre church. Not the structure where Alys and Ælf worship in my story but a newer 12th century building. The woodland around it has been cleared now but the peace remains and the birdsong is just as loud. I half-closed my eyes and imagined it as it might once have been.
A light drizzle began to fall soon after we left the camp and by the time the wooden shingles of the church roof came into sight, we were all mired to the knees. Boldre church was an ancient structure built by the first Christians ever to venture as far as Ytene. The wooden walls were full of rot and the flagstone aisle had subsided so far into the boggy soil that it drove the congregation toward the altar whether they wanted to reach it or not.
It was colder than death. I looked around at the pinched noses of my fellows and acknowledged to myself that at least hell would be warmer. Beside me, Alys clutched a warming stone beneath her cloak. Its heat must have dwindled by now but she refused to give up on the tiny remnant of comfort that lingered. Sensing me looking at her, she smiled cheerfully, a glimmer of snot at her nostril. At her side, Leo shifted from foot to foot, bored and frustrated; he wanted to leave as badly as me. I guessed he was wishing he had not been swayed by Alys’ wiles and had stayed at camp with the other men, and it wasn’t long before I felt that way too.
By the time the droning priest had reached the end of his sermon, people were stamping their feet and clapping their arms to warm their blood. But, at last, the service was at an end and we tumbled from the church door to find gentle snow had begun to fall.
We trudged home through the darkening wood. The snow provided a muffler that made Alys’ song about a lonely seaman ring out clear across the wood. I tried to join in but my voice creaked and jarred beside her crystal notes, so I stopped and just listened instead.
The scent of snow was heavy in the air, although not much penetrated the canopy of the wood. The wind had risen and above us, the naked branches clashed together, sounding like two giant fellows fighting with staves. We wrapped our cloaks tight about our bodies, put our heads down and trod a fresh route home. None of us ever used the same way twice if we could help it, for that would lead to tracks and we needed to remain invisible.
The Forest Dwellers tells the story of the ordinary people and how they suffered when William the Conqueror and his successor, William Rufus, enforested the land for their own use. The Domesday Book tells us that in 1065, before the invasion, the villages cleared for the main part of the forest consisted of an estimated five hundred families, possibly two thousand men, women and children. This estimate does not allow for slaves, personal retainers or men working under villeins, it only represents the landowners or occupiers. Not a huge number when compared with the devastation caused elsewhere by the conquering Normans but enough, I think, to generate a considerable local resentment. Yet the atrocities that went on there are largely unremarked. F. Baring sums up the situation in his essay The Making of the New Forest:
“Apparently the evictions were not, in the opinion of the analysts, so large, compared with the devastation caused by the Conquest in other parts, as to call for mention in summing William’s reign and character; but there was more than enough for men to say that his son’s death in the forest was a judgment from a heaven …”
In other words, the local population resented the Norman rule enough to see the death of the Norman king’s sons in the forest as divine justice.
The tree whipped away from us, whistled through the air and smashed into the rider, sending him crashing from his mount. A great squawking of birds flew into the air and then everything settled again and the forest was quiet. The riderless horse galloped off into the trees.
The Norman, his fine cloak spoiled, lay broken on the woodland floor. Alys and I leaned over him. He was young, his face and chest lacerated, but he was breathing faintly, a trickle of blood at his mouth. I cursed that he was not dead.
As I delved further into the period, I became absorbed into the age-old mystery of “who killed William Rufus.” Much ink has been wasted on speculation, but it is undeniable that the truth died with the king in August 1100.
For many years, it was believed that Walter Tyrell was responsible, and that belief has become legend. Historians have reconstructed the hunting scene, investigated the main protagonists and pieced together a patchwork of evidence so faded with age as to be indecipherable.
All was still, the golden canopy quiet, the rusty waters of the river rushing over its pebbled bed. Some distance away, a stand of undergrowth seemed to tremble in the stillness. I sensed that a creature hid there but what it was, I did not know. And neither did Flān.
Today, most historians agree that the king’s brother, shortly to become King Henry I, and the man to benefit most from the king’s death, was the probable person behind the deed and I tend to agree. It is more than probable that whoever shot the arrow was just a paid assassin. That is not to say I believe it was Tyrell, for not only did he not benefit personally from the killing, but the denial that he upheld until his death was supported by Abbot Suger, who reported in his Life of Louis VI that he “had often heard Tirel, at a time when he had nothing to hope or fear, affirm on the solemnest oath that on the fateful day he neither went into that part of the wood where the king was nor even caught sight of him in the wood.”
The Anglo Saxon chronicle states that “The King was shot by one of his men.” Geoffrey Gaimer stated, “We do not know who shot the king.” And Gerald of Wales wrote, “The King was shot by Ranulf of Aquis.”
Clearly, it was as much a mystery at the time as it is now, possibly a mystery encouraged by the new monarch, and it will unfortunately have to remain so. However, to quote L. M. Montgomery, a mystery does provide splendid ‘scope for the imagination’.
The trigger for my story was the obvious fact that it could have been anyone; the list of grievances against Rufus was long and there were many of people in the forest that day who may have borne a grudge. We will never know the real truth of who shot the fatal arrow, but I can speculate along with the rest and have immense fun in the process. The characters, both fictional and historical merge and play out their tale against a beautiful backdrop. A sharp contrast to the attrocities that take place within it.
There is a word in the Welsh language, ‘Hireath’ which describes an intense longing for home, or the feeling that home provides. It is a sharp ache for an unattainable time or people who have gone or have changed. Each character longs for what was destroyed by the invading Normans; they know they can never reach it, or experience it again but they persist in hoping.
We forded the river and I saw again the rusty rambling stream, smelled the brackish bog where emerald grass sent up tender, springtime shoots. Further along the river, stunted oaks and aspen leaned over the bank, their twisted roots dabbling in the water. I was taken back to happier days and I’d not have been surprised had Ælf suddenly appeared with a brace of hare slung over her shoulder and a basket of fish in her hand.
I stress again that The Forest Dwellers is a work of fiction, based on a great deal of research in an attempt to paint the lost world of the pre-conquest foresters. you can read it on Kindle, paperback or free on Kindle Unlimited. To purchase please click on the link: mybook.to/theforestdwellers
Twelve years after the Norman invasion a girl is molested in the forest by three Norman soldiers. Leo the huntsman stops the attack the only way he can ... violently. His actions trigger a chain of events that will end only with the death of a king.
The Forest Dwellers is a tale of oppression, sexual manipulation and vengeance.
Available in paperback and kindle.