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Image by Gaven O'Keefe 1988

Over the years, Margaret Murray has come to be regarded as something of an authority on witchcraft, based upon her two books, "The God of the Witches" and "The Witch Cult in Western Europe". More recently, doubt has been cast upon the historical accuracy of these books, but she nevertheless remains a significant influence in the thoughts and beliefs of modern Wicca.

I feel that Ms Murray is guilty of one fundamental crime; that of presenting historical "evidence" to support romantic theories that she would have liked to be true. She is not the first, and I am certain will not be the last, to delve selectively into historical records and construct a plausible story be revealing only part of the facts. Any "history" can be open to doubt, and even conjecture, but not manipulation to the degree which Ms Murray achieves.

For example: in her book, "The God of the Witches", Ms Murray presents her case to prove "Divine Kingship" for Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, Thomas a'Becket and William Rufus, suggesting that there are many similarities between their respective deaths, and that each was a willing sacrifice. I feel that her reasoning is, at best, dubious, and the claims supported by selective evidence, ignoring all reports that are contrary to her theory. A closer examination of the life of William Rufus should illustrate this.

William the Conqueror had four sons: Robert, the eldest; Richard, who died in an accident in the New Forest in 1075; William Rufus, who ruled England between 1087 and 1100, and Henry, who was to become King Henry I of England in 1100. Tradition has it that Rufus met his death at the hands of Walter Tyrrel, a French nobleman, during a hunting party in the New Forest on 2nd August 1100.

For her principle sources on the life of William Rufus, Ms Murray gives William of Malmesbury and Ordericus Vitalis, both Christian monks whose chronicles have the character one would expect of 12th century Christians, where all references to paganism are suitably disguised, or translated to the work of the devil.

Rufus is condemned by them for supporting the Jews; taking money from the Church (although there were no complaints when he handed it out to the Church!); for holding vacant clerical offices in his own hands (for later sale to the highest bidder!); and for allowing the court to wear, "flowing hair and extravagant dress; and then was invented the fashion of shoes with curved points; then the model for young men was to rival women in the delicacy of person, to mince their gait, to walk with loose gesture, and half naked." (William of Malmesbury).

But, they also praised Rufus for being strong, fearless, and a defender of his people. However, there is no mention by either chronicler of Rufus allowing or encouraging pagan festivals, nor of his own participation in any pagan feasts; a curious omission in Christian chronicles about the life of a "pagan" King. Rufus is castigated by the monks for many things, and it seems likely that had there been any indication of his adherence to a pre-Christian religion, they would have reported such indiscretions with glee!

In order to prove her theory of Rufus's divine sacrifice, Ms Murray quotes (selectively) from William of Malmesbury and Ordericus Vitalis at some length, and conveniently ignores any passage which serves to cast doubt upon the veracity of her argument.

She stresses that Rufus knew of his impending demise, and went willingly as a victim. She repeats the story from William of Malmesbury that the King could not sleep the night before his death, and therefore "ordered lights to be brought to his bedchamber and made his chamberlains enter and talk with him. All the forenoon of that fatal day he occupied himself with serious business, and how well he did this is shown by the fact that there was no confusion or loss of time in the appointment and crowning of his successor."

The exact quote from William of Malmesbury is as follows: "The day before the King died, he dreamed that he was let blood by a surgeon; and that the stream, reaching to heaven, clouded the light, and intercepted the day. Calling on St Mary for protection, he suddenly awoke, commanded a light to be brought, and forbade his attendants to leave him. They then watched with him several hours until daylight." Perhaps a closer interpretation of this story is fear of a nightmare, rather than a planned discussion with his advisors concerning matters of state!

For the story concerning the succession, we have to refer to Ordericus Vitalis, who has this to say: "Prince Henry lost no time in riding as fast as his horse could carry him to Winchester, where the royal treasure was kept, and imperiously demanded the keys from the keepers, as the lawful heir. William de Breteuil arrived at the same instant with breathless haste, for he anticipated Henry's deep policy and was resolved to oppose it." As history informs us, Henry carried the day to become King, but only after much argument and drawing his sword to defend his right against that of his older brother, Robert of Normandy.

Both William of Malmesbury and Ordericus Vitalis report events preceding and following the death of Rufus. Ms Murray makes much of Ordericus's account of Rufus handing sharp arrows to Walter Tyrrel saying, "it is right that the sharpest arrows should be given to him who knows how to deal deadly strokes with them", implying that the King knew Tyrrel would be his executioner. However, the prelude to this quote, which Ms Murray ignores, suggests something quite different "...an armourer came in and presented to him (Rufus) six arrows. The King immediately took them with great satisfaction, praising the work, and unconscious of what was to happen, kept four of them himself and held out the other two to Walter Tyrrel."

Quite apart from her selective use of contemporary chronicles, Ms Murray fails to take into account the rather complex political situation of England and Normandy in the twelfth century (and again, in her accounts of the deaths of Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc and Thomas a'Becket). The suggestion that Rufus went willingly to his death is not consistent with his active campaign to extend the power of the English throne. His brother Robert had already pawned the Duchy of Normandy to him for the sum of 10,000 marks in order to raise funds to fight in the Crusades, and the Earl of Poitiers sent ambassadors to discuss with Rufus a similar scheme, where the Duchy of Aquitaine, and all territories controlled by the Earl would be mortgaged to the English throne in return for money to take an army to the Crusades. Arrangements were made for Rufus, accompanied by a large body of cavalry, to spend Christmas of the year 1100 at Poitiers to finalise the deal; not the plans of someone who intended to die at Lammas!

However, it is clear that Rufus' political skills would not endear him to other European nobles and Church leaders, who could undoubtedly envisage the power of England growing under a King who was fearless in battle, ambitious, and giving scant regard to the wishes of the Christian Church.

Whilst Ms Murray offers no theory to support the choice of Tyrrel as Rufus's executioner, he was a French nobleman who immediately fled to his castle in France after the King's death. That would seem to be an admirable choice of assassin to rid mainland Europe of an ambitious and clever King. Ms Murray does make much of the fact that Rufus's death was known within a few hours in Italy and several parts of England, and that in Belgium, the Abbot of Clugny knew the day before the event, but does not draw the obvious conclusion - that the death was indeed premeditated, but through a desire to place a King upon the English throne who would not prove a threat to the rest of Europe, and who was keen to submit to the power of the Christian Church.

One of Henry's first acts after ascending to the throne of England was to restore the Duchy of Normandy to Robert, and the proposed discussion between the English King and the Earl of Poitiers was cancelled. It would seem that Henry I lived up to Europe's expectations.

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