The earliest document in the Norfolk Record Office is an undated charter from King William Rufus (William II, third son of William the Conqueror) to Herbert de Losinga, Bishop of Thetford in 1090 (DCN 41/16), granting ‘hunting rights and a free warren.’ The Bishop moved the see to Norwich from Thetford in 1094, so the charter pre-dates that move.
Rufus was an interesting character. Ruling from 1087-1100, he was, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, generally ‘hated by almost all his people’, as well as by his nobles because he was cruel, godless, dissolute and scornful of the English and their customs. Despite his bad press, Rufus, who earned this nickname because of his bright red hair and florid complexion, was an effective soldier.
Soon after he became King in 1087, there was a rebellion, led in Norwich by Roger Bigod, Constable of Norwich Castle and King’s bailiff, in support of Rufus’s older brother Robert Curthose. Curthose had been made Duke of Normandy, but many people wanted him to be King of England instead of Rufus. For a while, Bigod ravaged the local countryside, bringing back plunder to the castle, while the brothers fought it out in Normandy. Rufus eventually crushed Curthose’s forces, bribed the English nobles for their loyalty and put down the rebellion.
Such was the importance of the charter during the middle ages that it was inspected and reissued on several occasions by different monarchs, as was another charter from Rufus to Bishop Herbert, the original of which has disappeared. The Norfolk Record Office holds the inspeximuses (Latin for ‘we have inspected’) issued by Edward I (1306) and Edward IV (1474) whereby the two charters were inspected and confirmed. The document references for these records are DCN 41/9, DCN 41/10, DCN 41/11 and DCN 41/83.
Rufus’s first charter was even used as a point of reference in a document (DCN 90/10) as late as 1905, when a Mr Bardwell referred to it, in a case he brought claiming that no tithes were payable to Lakenham Church, as the then incumbent, Mr Fox, had maintained.
Rufus, who never married and had no legitimate children, met his end in 1100 in a hunting accident in the New Forest from an arrow wound to the chest. It was not thought for certain to be murder, but many people, especially men of the church, thought it an act of God and thus a fitting end for a wicked king.
The nobles who were hunting with Rufus abandoned his body because the law and order of the kingdom died with the King, and they had to rush home to make sure their estates were secure. Rufus’s younger brother, Henry, was crowned as Henry I within days, and legend has it that a local charcoal-burner took the dead King’s body on his cart to Winchester Cathedral where he was buried.