The New Forest Incident
Willem the Conqueror raised an army and invaded England in the 1060s, eventually succeeding in taking the throne. His invasion was met with resistance from all over England as well as Wales and the Danelaw in Northumbria, but he and his men quashed all uprisings, killing the menfolk of many English noble families in the process. Willem withdrew the titles of the now male-deprived noble families and replaced them with new Norman nobility.
As the Normans were unwavering followers of the Church, they were a double threat to the Hycathic community. Yet in these times, the codes of the Temple of Hycath still absolutely prohibited the use of magic to kill or harm humans, even in self-defence. This left many Hycathae unable to retaliate against the invaders. Meredith Eymor was one of them; she lost her father and uncle during the attack on their home city of Coventry and swore to dedicate her life to avenging their deaths. Together with Elspeth Sherman, she began forming an underground Hycath movement, for which she recruited other Hycathae who had lost their status similarly and were eager to take action.
Upon his death in 1087, Willem the Conqueror’s throne passed to his son Willem Rufus, who developed an obsession with hunting Hycathae and Hycathi, killing men and women alike. He stated privately that God had sent him on a mission to “cleanse” the Earth from these “abominations”, whilst euphemistically referring to these purges as “hunting rides” in more public settings.
With the threat against them dramatically increasing and already suffering tremendous losses, Hycathic communities like the one at Coventry coalesced around other significant English cities and towns. They operated on a policy of safety in numbers and encouraged networking and the sharing of knowledge. Sybil Hart and Gwendolen Read, two of the Hycathae later implicated in the King’s death, emerged as leaders of their own communities during these years, in Winchester and Bath respectively. By 1100, the Hycathae and Hycathi of England were stronger and more organised than ever before.
The exact circumstances surrounding King Willem’s death are not fully known, in part due to the necessary secrecy of Hycathic affairs at this time in history. Modern historical understanding of the incident makes use of accounts from both human and Hycathic sources.
In his Gesta Regum Anglorum – Chronicles of the English Kings – published in 1125, pre-Hycathic English chronicler William of Malmesbury writes that Willem travelled to the New Forest in order to hunt, together with a band of men, including his brother Henry and skilled archer Walter Tirel. Willem and Tirel broke off from the rest of their men at some point. Willem’s mortally wounded body was later found in the forest, with Tirel nowhere to be seen. The death was taken to be an unfortunate but understandable hunting accident and was overshadowed within days by the crowning of Henry as King of England. Any suspicion that there was fell firmly on Tirel, the perfect scapegoat; some even believed that Henry had employed Tirel to kill his brother.
Many modern historians have speculated that Malmesbury, a learned man, deduced or at least suspected Hycathic involvement in the King’s death. Indeed, Malmesbury’s account includes a nightmare suffered by Willem in the early hours of 2 August, which he described to his courtiers. In this nightmare, a surgeon was bleeding him when, all of a sudden, a jet of blood shot from his wound and morphed into the image of a woman, who declared that he would soon meet with her. The suggestion that this was a vision of Hecate is widely accepted. Malmesbury also described that while being carted to Winchester from the scene, the King’s body dripped steaming blood. The relative lack of knowledge about Hycathism at this time, coupled with the small number of men who had access to Malmesbury’s writings, likely ensured that no great uproar happened. Nottingham historian Dr. Joseph Rake is among those who suggest that King Henry himself, now protecting his daughter Maud’s secret Hycathic identity, might have had Malmesbury’s account suppressed.
Tirel had, in fact, fled into exile in France, where he was sheltered by Abbot Suger, a chronicler in his own right. Suger gained Tirel’s confidence, and wrote an account in which the archer recalled following King Willem into the depths of the forest, where they both saw “shapes of women” moving among the trees. Tirel claimed that the King shot at one, hitting her in the leg with his arrow, but as he himself raised his bow, a hand clasped him and he lost consciousness. When he awoke, he discovered the King’s body, which had steam emanating from its wounds, and fled in terror. This account was preserved in the Abbey of St-Denis in Paris, where Suger was based, for many years, and was only discovered by English historians after the First Hycath War.
Documents relating to the affairs of the Oculus at this time confirm that there was, in fact, a small band of Hycathae living nomadically in the woods of the New Forest at the time of the incident, making it certain that King Willem intentionally set out to hunt Hycathae. They also confirm that the King was killed by the boiling of his blood.
These documents also relate how the Oculus were furious when they discovered that magic had been used to kill the King and immediately set about their own investigations. Members of that same band of forest Hycathae mentioned sighting Sybil, Meredith and Gwendolen near the attack site that day, and all three were soon apprehended to face trial before the Octal.
Trial by the Oculus
Sybil, Meredith and Gwendolen pleaded not guilty to the transgression from the start, arguing that they were acting in self-defence against a merciless King who savagely and systematically oppressed Hycathism. In an act of protest, they stood in solidarity with one another, each refusing to name which of them committed the final act of murder.
It was immediately clear that the final act of murder could only have been committed by Sybil or Gwendolen, the Cynthae of the trio. Meredith, a Baethla, did not have the power to boil blood. Nevertheless, accessory charges would also be brought and, noting the three women’s solidarity pact, the Oculus felt it appropriate to proceed with a firm ruling as an example to other Hycathae. They were prepared to reckon all three.
The trio drew on their connections and influence to mount a case for their defence. Elspeth Sherman, a long-time advocate for reform of the Hycathic codes, rallied the Coventry community to Meredith’s aid, providing expert testimony and moral support. Sybil’s acolytes from Winchester testified that they had made several attempts to reach out to the nomadic Hycathae in the New Forest and offer them sanctuary, all of which came to nothing.
The Octal herself stood firm for much of the trial, even as other members of the Oculus began to express support for the defendants. In time, however, the spirited testimonies for the defence convinced her that the Temple of Hycath was under a great enough threat that they could no longer rely on a rigid interpretation of the code. She led the Oculus in passing a new code that would allow Hycathae to use their magic against humans in the case of self-defence, when facing a credible threat of death or serious harm.
In the light of this new code, the trio’s actions were ruled an act of self-defence, and they regained their freedom. This would become a watershed moment in Hycathic history, for the first time allowing them to truly fight back against the many ordeals they faced. It is generally accepted among historians that this change in the Hycathic code was instrumental in creating the environment in which Empress Matilda ‘Maud’ Beauclerc started the First Hycath War.