The Tree of Justice

(These notes by Donald Mackenzie and Philip Holberton, are largely based on those written by Donald Mackenzie for the OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies (1995) with the kind permission of Oxford University Press. Except where stated otherwise, the page numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of Rewards and Fairies (1910, and frequently reprinted since).


This story was first published in The Delineator in February 1910, and collected in Rewards and Fairies later in the same year, followed by the poem “A Carol”.

The story

The children meet the Norman knight Sir Richard Dalyngridge, (whom they had encountered in three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill) and hear a dark tangled tale of Normans and Saxons. Some forty years after the Conquest, the Normans hold the land, but the people are mostly Saxon, and there is little love between the two. A Norman knight who has hanged his forester’s son is found soon after with three arrows through his coat. In retribution the King, Henry I, has had twenty-six Saxons hanged.

The King is on his way to war in Normandy, but decides to hunt in the Sussex woods before he departs, so as to show himself ‘debonair’ to the people. Richard and Hugh gather a line of beaters from local villages to drive the deer before the King. Some Norman knights shoot at the beaters, with a crude jest – ‘Ware Senlac arrows !’ – about the defeat of the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. One of the beaters – an old old man in the dress of a pilgrim – answers them in Saxon, ‘Ware Red William’s arrow !’, recalling the death of Wiliam Rufus, the previous King, who had been shot dead in the New Forest.

The King hears that a beater had cried treason during the shoot, and asks who is responsible for him. It is Rahere, the jester, who passes the matter off as a jest, bidding the King hang the old man. Everyone laughs, and there is no punishment. That evening Richard is summoned to the King’s tent to tell the tale of his ‘joyous venture’ down the coast of Africa. The King calls for Hugh the Saxon knight, who had been there too, and Hugh comes in with the old mad Saxon pilgrim. He is sick at heart to have discovered that the old man is King Harold of England, who had escaped from the Battle of Hastings, and wandered half-mad ever since from shrine to shrine.

When King Henry is told the truth he speaks courteously to Harold, and gives him a goblet of wine. Rahere challenges the company to show respect to the old man, and no-one, King or Bishop or Baron, gainsays him. Harold dies on Hugh’s shoulder in the presence of the King.


For the historical situation see the head note to “Old Men at Pevensey”. Legends of Harold surviving Hastings and living on into old age as an anchorite are documented in E A Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest (Clarendon Press 1867-79), iii. 514-17 and 758-62. Freeman describes the legend of Harold’s survival as a hermit, visiting many shrines and settling in a cell at Chester. Kipling makes him a wandering beggar. (See also R. L. Green, Kipling and the Children, 204-5.)

Some critical comments

J M S Tompkins (p. 84) analyses the tale, linking it, inter alia, with the earlier and much simpler `The Man who Was’ in Life’s Handicap. She goes on to observe:

The return of Harold… involves separate tests for King Henry, Brother Hugh, Rahere the King’s jester, and even, in a minor way, for De Aquila. It occurs at a moment of tension, when the Saxons are driving game for their Norman masters… King Henry is not tested to the full, for Harold dies. Hugh’s response is self-forgetful service and an anguish that is the measure of the tragic fall.

… Rahere has protected Harold, knowing who he was and keeping his secret, while he `can make shift to bide his doom under the open sky’. Now he offers him to Henry and his court, partly under compulsion and partly in a bold game to deflect the trouble that has arisen between Norman and Saxon at the beat.

But, deeper than this, we are to remember the ‘halfpriest’, who brings his man to confession, knowing his death is near. Harold’s long penance for his broken oath is over; no man in the King’s court, baron or bishop, dares judge him. He takes good comfort, and dies on the breast of the truest knight of his house.

The dominant image of the tree of justice appears first as a reinforcement of the conception of Norman rule. Sir Richard finds the keeper’s victims nailed to a beech, and says that in his time that sort of tree bore heavier fruit. The threat of the gallows hangs over the countryside during the King’s sport. When Harold is exposed in the King’s court, he too is nailed to the tree of justice, though he is not judged. Nails and the tree bring in, by more than a verbal association, the thought of crucifixion, and suggest the long crucifixion of Harold’s sufferings.

Notes on the Text

[Page 307] “The Ballad of Minepit Shaw”   As Janice Lingley points out in the notes on the poem, there are a geographical and thematic links to the story.

[Page 311, line 13] Ridley the keeper Gamekeepers were responsible for protecting the pheasants and other game against poachers and such ‘vermin’ as are described here, stoats, weasels, and birds of prey like kestrels and owls.

[Page 313, line 27] Tenchebrai The battle in Normandy in 1106, when Henry I defeated his brother Robert Duke of Normandy, and ended his pretensions to the English crown.

[Page 313, line 33] mail Chain mail was made of interlocking links of steel. Worn over leather it gave a good deal of protection against missiles or weapons.

[Page 314, line 4] arrow sheaves bundles of arrows.

[Page 314, line 15] debonair pleasant, unembarrassed.

[Page 315, line 3] mellay (melee) confused struggle or crowd.

[Page 317, line 20] senlac arrows the arrows the Normans used against the Saxons at the battle Kipling (after Freeman) calls ‘Senlac’ or ‘Santlache’. It is called ‘The Battle of Hastings’ in most English history books.

[Page 318, line 21] Rahere In the `Essay on the Ancient Minstrels’ which prefaces Percy’s Reliques, Rahere the King’s minstrel is mentioned as founding the Priory and hospital of St Bartholomew, Smithfield, London in 1102. (Cf. the poem “Rahere” in Debits and Credits.)

Kipling may have drawn on Hone’s Everyday Book which, under 5 Sept., describes Rahere as a minstrel, notes that minstrels were `sometimes jugglers and buffoons’, and quotes a description of Rahere as one who `ofte haunted the kyng’s palice … and amonge the noysefull presse of that tumultuous courte, enforsed himself with jolitie and carnal suavite’.

[Page 318, line 30] Pum-quum-sum a garbled version of Horace, Odes, IV. vii. 21-4. A translation of the lines is given in what follows, and is mis-attributed to Virgil.

[Page 319, line 9] Virgilius the Sorcerer for medieval legends of Virgil as a magician see Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages (trans. E. F. M. Benecke, 1895), Part II.

[Page 319, line 18] Earl Godwin the father of King Harold, to whom Hugh was related, hence ‘my kinsman’ at line 25.

[Page 320, line 16] Welansford This was ‘Weland’s Ford’ (see “Weland’s Sword” in Puck of Pook’s Hill).

[Page 323, line 14] bauble bladder An inflated pig’s badder on a stick, often carried by a jester.

[Page 323, line 21] Anselm see “Old Men at Pevensey”.

[Page 323, line 30] ‘I don’t understand’ This is an example of the multi-layered nature of the stories in this collection. The reader often understands more than the children.

[Page 326, line 32] Saxon Samson cf. Judges 16,3: ‘And Samson … arose at midnight, and took the doors of the gate of the city, and the two posts, and went away with them, bar and all…’

[Page 327, line 10] Stamford Bridge Harald Hardrada, King of Norway and another claimant to the English throne, invaded England with Harold’s estranged brother Tostig, in Sept. 1066. They were defeated and killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on September 25th. Harold and his army then marched over two hundred miles south to face the Normans at Hastings on October 14th, less than three weeks later.

[Page 327, line 28] the Great Duke William the Conqueror.

[Page 327, line 30] caught me at Rouen Harold, while a ‘guest’ of William’s, is said to have been tricked or trapped into promising to assist in making the latter King of England.

[Page 330, line 5] Edward the Confessor Harold’s predecessor as King of England (1042-66). He is supposed to have designated Harold as his heir on his death-bed, although he had earlier promised the crown to William.

[Page 330, line 22] house-carles the household troops of the king.

[Page 335, line 4] in the dik In the ditch.