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.
What is it?
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:
Þonne wille we be him awritan swa swa we hine ageaton, Þe him on locodon an ore on his hirede weredon” (Whiting, 91-92),
[Then shall he write of jobs online, 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 lived in the home of King William. 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 Phillip 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). Though this poem may never reach the modern fame of Beowulf, but 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.
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