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The Death of William II (Rufus)

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 02 Aug

The Death of William II (Rufus) 

 -      2nd August 1100  -




Accident or assassination?  “William Rufus had a red face, yellow hair, different coloured eyes, astonishing strength, though not very tall and his belly rather projecting. He had a stutter, especially when angry.


The day before the king died he dreamt that he went to heaven. The next day he went into the forest. He was attended by a few persons. Walter Tirel remained with him, while the others, were on the chase. The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him. The stag was still running and the king, followed it a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun's rays. At this instant Walter decided to kill another stag. Oh, gracious God! The arrow pierced the king's breast.

On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the arrow where it projected from his body. This accelerated his death. Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless, he leapt upon his horse, and escaped with the utmost speed. Indeed there were none to pursue him: some helped his flight; others felt sorry for him.

The king's body was placed on a cart and conveyed to the cathedral at Winchester; blood dripped from the body all the way. Here he was buried within the tower. The next year, the tower fell down.”


This was the story written by William of Malmesbury in his book, Chronicle of the Kings of the English, around the year 1128, 28 years after the death of William II, known as Rufus due to his ruddy complexion.  William of Malmesbury was born around 1095. His father was a Norman and he became Benedictine monk at Malmesbury. William could speak many different languages, he used different primary sources and is considered one of the most important historians of the period.


So what did happen to William on the day in August in the New Forest? There is much conjecture among historians about whether William II was assassinated or killed by accident. The facts however are these.


William had become King in 1087 on the death of his father, William I. The eldest son, Robert, had been given the Duchy of Normandy and the favoured third son, William the throne of England. The second son, Richard, had died in 1075 in a hunting accident in the New Forest before being buried in Winchester – a rather strange and eerie coincidence. In 1088 his uncle, Odo, had revolted on behalf of Robert who he felt had a better claim to the throne. However when Robert failed to show up and take part in the rebellion it fizzled out. The following year William laid claim to Normandy and waged war against his brother, Robert, and defeated him. Normandy was mortgaged to William for 10,000 Marks; money that was raised by increasing taxes in England.


William was not a popular monarch for many reasons. As William of Malmesbury said, “He was a man much pitied by the clergy... he had a soul which they could not save... He was loved by his soldiers but hated by the people because he caused them to be plundered.” He had fallen out with the clergy. Whenever he needed money he raided a monastery. He left Bishoprics open so that he could claim the revenues from them. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, left England in 1097 to seek the advice of the Pope back in Rome he seized his estates.  Unlike his father he was not a committed Christian. The Conqueror had given large amounts of money to the Church – Rufus did quite the opposite. He also upset the barons by imposing high taxes and stealing property. Whenever they claimed they could not pay he told them to plunder the church too.


On August 2nd 1100 he was part of a hunting party in the New Forest, around Brockenhurst, with Gilbert de Clare, his brother Roger and Walter Tirel, who was married to their sister Adelize. Also present was William’s younger brother Henry. As William of Malmesbury describes, Tirel shot at a stag in the sunset, missed and struck Rufus in the chest. Within minutes he was dead. Tirel jumped onto a horse and galloped away. He made for the coast and sailed for France where he stayed in the company of Abbot Suger, the confessor to Louis VII of France. He never returned to England. Everyone else hurriedly left the scene too. William was eventually found by a peasant and taken on a cart to Winchester. The events are very unclear.


His brother, Henry, rushed straight for Winchester where the treasury was kept. He declared himself King with the support of Gilbert de Clare, and was crowned 3 days later on August 5th by Maurice, Bishop of London, as the two Archbishops were a long way away. Anselm was still in France and the Archbishop of York, Thomas, was in Ripon. Henry immediately issued a coronation charter to give legitimacy to his reign and stated that he would abandon William II’s policies toward the Church, stop Royal abuses to the barons and return to the calm of the days of Edward the Confessor by establishing “A firm peace”.


Many thought Robert should have been appointed King. Many of the barons, and indeed Henry himself, had sworn an oath of homage to him. However he was still returning from crusade and Henry claimed that he had a better claim as he was born to a ruling king and queen. Later on Robert did threaten to invade but a deal was struck and Henry agreed to give him an annual payment of £2000.


So who had the most to gain from William’s death? Undoubtedly Henry and the de Clare family. They were handsomely rewarded for their loyalty, Tirel was pardoned and his son allowed to keep his estates in England.


Abbot Suger was later to say that, “I have heard him [Tirel] swear that on the day in question, he was not in the part of the forest where the King was nor ever saw him in the forest at all. If this was the case then why did Tirel flee abroad?


No one reportedly saw the arrow that killed William. There is no real evidence that this was a deliberate act and in a court of law today you would never be able to convict beyond reasonable doubt as most evidence is circumstantial. However the unseemly haste of Henry in claiming the throne, the timing when the only contender was away in the East, the dissatisfaction over the rule of William and the subsequent events and loyalties of key barons add up to a distinctly murky possibility that this was far more than a simple hunting accident.


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