ONE day, it being observed that William was absorbed in deep thought, his courtiers ventured to inquire the cause of such profound abstraction. "I am speculating," said the monarch, "on what may be the fate of my sons after my death." "Your majesty," replied the wise men of the court, "the fate of your sons will depend upon their conduct, and their conduct will depend upon their respective characters; permit us to make a few inquiries, and we shall soon be able to tell you that which you wish to know." The king signifying his approbation, the wise men consulted together, and agreed to put questions separately to the three princes, who were then young. The first who entered the room was Robert, afterwards known by the surname of Courthose. "Fair sir," said one of the wise men, "answer me a question - If God had made you a bird, what bird would you wish to have been?" Robert answered: "A hawk, because it resembles most a courteous and gallant knight" William Rufus next entered, and his answer to the same question was: "I would be an eagle, because it is a strong and powerful bird, and feared by all other birds, and therefore it is king over them all." Lastly, came the younger brother Henry, who had received a learned education, and was on that account known by the surname of Beauclerc. His choice was a starling, "Because it is a debonnaire and simple bird and gains its living without injury to any one, and never seeks to rob or grieve its neighbour." The wise men returned immediately to the king. Robert, they said, would be bold and valiant, and would gain renown and honour, but he would finally be overcome by violence, and die in prison. William would be powerful and strong as the eagle, but feared and hated for his cruelty and violence, until he ended a wicked life by a bad death. But Henry would be wise, prudent, and peaceful, unless when actually compelled to engage in war, and would die in peace after gaining wide possessions. So when King William lay on his death-bed he remembered the saying of his wise men, and bequeathed Normandy to Robert, England to William, and his own treasures, without land, to his younger son Henry, who eventually became king of both countries, and reigned long and prosperously.
This story, which most probably is of Eastern origin, is frequently told under various circumstances by medieval writers. A Latin manuscript, of the thirteenth century, relates it in the following form:--
A wealthy English baron, whose broad lands extended over a large extent of England and Wales, had three sons; when lying on his death-bed he called them to him, and said: "If you were compelled to become birds, tell me what bird each of you would choose to resemble?" The eldest said: "I would be a hawk, because it is a noble bird, and lives by rapine." The second said: "I would be a starling, because it is a social bird, and flies in coveys." The youngest said: "I would be a swan, because it has a long neck, so that if I had anything in my heart to say, I should have plenty of time for reflection before it came to my mouth." When the father had heard them, he said to the first: "Thou, my son, as I perceive, desirest to live by rapine; I will therefore bequeath thee my possessions in England, because it is a land of peace and justice, and thou canst not rob in it with impunity." To the second he said: "Because thou lovest society, I will bequeath thee my lands in Wales, which is a land of discord and war, in order that thy courtesy may soften down the malice of the natives." And then turning to the youngest, he said: "To thee I bequeath no land at all, because thou art wise, and wilt gain enough by thy wisdom." And as he foretold, the youngest son profited by his wisdom, and became Lord Chief-Justice of England, which in those times was the next dignity to that of king.
1 Chambers's Book of Days, vol. ii. p. 328.