NOSTALGIA: Terrifying encounter in Sussex’s heart of darkness

The mysterious death of William Rufus while out hunting
The mysterious death of William Rufus while out hunting

It’s a story of a vanished landscape, the death of a king and a strange vision which happened nearly a thousand years ago.

Andredsweald, the Forest of Anderida, covered much of Sussex and was a thick forest which even until the Middle Ages was supposed to have hidden thieves and criminals on the run in its dark recesses.

It was also in this Sussex heart of darkness the place where Robert de Moratin encountered a terrifying ghost.

Robert de Mortain was the half brother of William the Conqueror and although it appears he actually spent little time in England (preferring Normandy) he is one of the few people known to have fought alongside William at the Battle of Hastings.

In fact the Bayeaux Tapestry shows him with William and his other brother Odo of Bayeaux eating a feast at Pevensey on the day the Normans landed in Sussex 950 years ago.

He had actually personally contributed 120 ships to the invasion.

He remained a loyal supporter of William and was rewarded with lands at Pevensey, but things were going to take an unexpected turn.

William I died in 1088 and was succeeded by William II (William Rufus) one of his three sons.

However, Norman barons led a revolt against William Rufus and were joined by Robert de Mortain and Odo.

They were besieged at Pevensey Castle with the army outside the walls being commanded by William II himself.

They managed to hold out for six weeks till gradually the food supplies dwindled and inevitably they had to surrender, although amazingly enough Robert was still allowed to keep ownership of the castle.

Unsurprisingly, William Rufus was not a popular king and had many accusations levelled against him.

His only interests were said to be hunting and feasting and he was said to have happily left Bishoprics vacant so he could personally spend the money and was accused of being addicted to every vice, particularly ‘lust’.

He was hunting when he met his suspicious and early death. Riding in a hunting party in the New Forest he was supposedly hit by an arrow fired by accident by one of the party, Walter Tirel. The arrow passed through his chest and one of his lungs, killing him.

According to some accounts the party left the body lying on the forest floor and made off, leaving the bloody corpse to be discovered by a peasant. Was it murder or an accident? No-one really knows.

Just at the same time Robert de Mortain was hunting in the forest of Anderida and spotted something coming towards him.

As it crashed through the trees he was horrified to see a large black goat and on its back was the body of William Rufus ‘all black and naked, and wounded through the midst of his breast’.The Earl, obviously feeling incredibly brave, shouted at the ghost to ask whose body he was carrying, to which the spectral beast replied, “I am carrying your King to judgement, yea, that tyrant William Rufus: for I am an evil spirit, and the revenger of the malice he bore to the church of God.”

What’s the truth of this ghost story from the murky mists of time nearly a thousand years ago?

Robert de Mortain actually died in 1090 whilst William Rufus died in 1100 so the timings do not seem right. Then again it seems terrible to ruin many a good story by facts.

Robert Stevens, 
Sussex Ghost Walks

www.sussexguidedwalks.co.uk

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