The Rime of King William
||This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (May 2009)|
The Rime of King William is an Old English poem that tells the death of William the Conqueror. The Rime was a part of the only entry for the year of 1087 (though improperly dated 1086) in the “Peterborough Chronicle/Laud Manuscript.” In this entry there is a thorough history and account of the life of King William. The entry in its entirety is regarded “as containing the best contemporary estimate of William’s achievements and character as seen by a reasonably objective Englishman” (Bartlett, 89). As a resource, earlier writers drew from this in a more literal sense, while later historians referred to it more liberally. The text in its original language can be found in The Peterborough Chronicle 1070-1154, edited by Cecily Clark. A modern translation can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated by G.N. Garmonsway. A more recent modern translation of The Rime of King William is also published below by David Wallace and can be found in the 2002 edition of The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature on p15-16.
The Rime of King William
He had castles built
and poor men terribly oppressed.
The king was severe
and he took many marks of gold and
hundreds of pounds of silver from
All this he took from the people,
and with great injustice
from his subjects,
out of trivial desire.
He had fallen into avarice
and he loved greediness above
He established many deer preserves
and he set up many laws concerning
such that whoever killed a hart or a
should be blinded.
He forbade (hunting of) harts
and also of boars.
He loved the wild deer
as if he were their father.
And he also decreed that the hares
should be allowed to fun free.
His great men complained of it,
and his poor men lamented it;
but he was so severe
that he ignored all their needs.
But they had to follow above all else
the king’s will,
if they wanted to live
or hold on to land,
land or property (or esteem)
or have his good favour.
Woe, that any man
should be so proud
as to raise himself above all men.
May almighty God show mercy on
and forgive him his sins.
(Wallace, D, 2002, p15-16.)
The original text
Castelas he let wyrcean,
7 earme men swiðe swencean.
Se cyng wæs swa swiðe stearc,
7 benam of his underþeoddan manig marc
goldes 7 ma hundred punda seolfres.
-Det he nam be wihte
7 mid micelan unrihte
of his landleode,
for litte[l]re neode.
He wæs on gitsunge befeallan,
7 grædinæsse he lufode mid ealle
He sætte mycel deorfrið,
7 he lægde laga þærwið
þet swa hwa swa sloge heort oððe hinde,
þet hine man sceolde blendian.
He forbead þa heortas,
swylce eac þa baras.
Swa swiðe he lufode þa headeor
swilce he wære heora fæder.
Eac he sætte be þam haran
þet hi mosten freo faran.
His rice men hit mændon,
7 þa earme men hit beceorodan;
ac he [wæs] swa stið
þet he ne rohte heora eallra nið.
Ac hi moston mid ealle
þes cynges wille folgian,
gif hi woldon libban,
oððe land habban,
land oððe eahta,
oððe wel his sehta.
Walawa, þet ænig man
sceolde modigan swa,
hine sylf upp ahebban
7 ofer ealle men tellan.
Se ælmihtiga God cyþæ his saule mildheortnisse,
7 do him his synna forgifenesse!
(Stefan Jurasinski, 2004, The Rime of King William and its Analogues, Neophilologus 88: 131–144, p.133)
The Rime itself is a short twenty-seven lines and is more of a criticism of King William rather than praise of his reign. It also acts as a summation of that year’s entry. The author appears to have chosen a few points that he/she may have found particularly interesting and turned them into a poem within the entry for the year.
The author of this Rime, as with many Old English texts, is unknown, but the author does offer an important detail earlier in his entry. “The one definite piece of information which he gives is that he was a member of William’s household" (Whiting, 91-92).
- Þonne wille we be him awritan swa swa we hine ageaton, Þe him on locodon an ore on his hirede weredon.
- [Then shall he write of him, as we have known him, who have ourselves seen him and at time dwelt in his court.] (Garmonsway, 219)
So, at one point the author was a member of the royal household. When and for how long is not sure. Beyond this, there are no other facts offered but it is safe to assume that the author was a monk or a member of a religious house.
This poem has been criticized for being immature and “a garbled attempt at rhyming poetry: a poem without regular metre, formalized lineation or coherent imagery” (Lerer, 7). Many other scholars support this criticism. Professors George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie did not include the Rime in their six-volume “Anglo Saxon Poetic Records.” The simple fact that his poem was not included speaks volumes of the opinions of many scholars. Its value as a representation of Old English literature as well as the quality of the poem, simply as a poem, is called into question. The end rhyming is unlike the alliterative Old English poetry, which is the basis for most scholarly criticism. Bartlett Whiting refers to the Rime as having “a lack of technical merit,” referring to the sudden jump from prose of the formal entry, to that of the “rough and ready verse” (89). With its end-rhymes it is often taken as an example of the transition to Middle English.
No matter the quality of Rime’s rhymes, the spelling of this Rime was used to age both the text itself as well as chart morphology in Old English texts. Whiting refers to the specific dropping of the final n, a seemingly simple change. This actually represents the change (in late Old English) of inflectional syllables as well as the strength of the spelling tradition in the future (Whiting, 89).
While this poem may never reach the modern fame of Beowulf, it does serve scholars as “An elegy for an age as much as for a king, this entry as a whole constitutes a powerfully literary, and literate, response to the legacies of pre-Conquest English writing” (Lerer, 12). The text offers both the political time line (the twenty first year that William I ruled) and a religious time line (one thousand eighty-seven years after the birth of Jesus Christ). Within the form of the lament for King William it expresses the indignation of the English at the introduction of the Norman forest laws. Stefan Jurasinski has shown that it is most likely by the compiler of the Peterborough Chronicle himself and that it stands at the head of a developing tradition of literary polemics against the injustice of the forest law (“The Rime of King William and It’s Analogues”).
The author of the entry sets the tone of the Rime by not beginning commonly, “on Þisum geare” (translated as ‘in this year’). Rather than begin as all of the other yearly entries, this entry is immediately described in a more complex and detailed manner. The Rime is filled with the same emotion that reveals closeness to the events that most tales did not have. Just as in an encyclopedia, each year stated the events of that year without biased or emotion. The author of the Rime does quite the opposite when he describes the King’s forest laws. The author explains, “He loved the wild deer as if he were their father. And he also decreed that the hares should be allowed to run free” (Lerer, 16-17). Though this may seem innocuous, the King is supposed to act as the father of the people, who at this point, are starving. The author points out that King William would rather sacrifice the lives of his people to allow wild deer run free. He acts ironically, allowing the animals to live while condemning his own people to death.
This excerpt acts as an historical reference but also acts as a means to understand what the people were going through at the time. In reference to his death as well as their style of living Whiting refers to J.S. Westlake’s interpretation of the Rime: The whole passage seems to be derived from at least two ballads against the Norman conqueror…It would seem that the chronicler had to be original in telling of the Conqueror’s virtues; but for the vices, he had plenty of popular material at hand. The unhappy people were in no mood to exalt his virtues, and, for the description of these, the chronicler was forced to rely on his own literary sources (Whiting, 93).
Though Whiting seems to agree with the interpretation of Westlake he does question the validity of his belief that there were “popular materials.” In this time literacy and literature was common only to the wealthy, the author was radical in that he was able to use literature against the wealthy. The King of England was revealed in his own elegy to his own people, by his own people.
- Bartlett J. Whiting, '"The Rime of King William", Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies, Eds. T. A. Kirby and H. B. Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins) 1949.
- Clark, Cecily. The Peterborough Chronicles. First. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
- Garmonsway, G.N. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. First. London: J.M. Dent & Sons LTD., 1953.
- Lerer, Seth. The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. “Old English and Its Afterlife.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Jurankski, Stefan. " The Rime of King William and its Analogues", Neophilologus, 88.1, (January 2004), pp. 131-144.
- Wallace, David, 2002 (ed.) The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, Cambridge University Press, The Rime of King William p15-16.