THE MURDER OF KING RUFUS (WILLIAM II OF ENGLAND)

Death of William Rufus, lithograph by Alphonse de Neuville, 1895

Death of William Rufus, lithograph by Alphonse de Neuville, 1895

William was born in 1056, the third son of William the Conqueror, he was more commonly referred to as William the Red or William Rufus due to his rugged red appearance. He was never married nor did he have any children, legitimate or otherwise.

When William I died in 1087 he left his title and lands in Normandy to his eldest son Robert. He left England to his favourite son William. His second son had died in a hunting accident in the New Forest, something of a deadly trend in this family as his grandson also died some years later in the New Forest. In September 1087 William Rufus was crowned king, however, he soon faced rebellion among the Norman barons. They had been whipped up by his uncle Bishop Odo of Bayeux (Earl of Kent and commissioner of the Bayeux tapestry) in favour of his elder brother Robert but it failed as the English Barons stayed loyal to Rufus.

Rufus was never a popular king. He was capable of great mood swings and many at court were never quite sure which side of him they would be met with. He had spent many years feuding with his elder brother Robert and unlike his father he wasn’t really a committed Christian and would often raid the monasteries to pay for his wars with Scotland, Wales and abroad. He also heavily taxed the people of England. In short there were many people who would have been happy to see the king meet his end and many people who would benefit from it directly too. Shortly before his death William VII, Count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine, was planning a crusade to the recently captured Jerusalem and looked to Rufus to mortgage his lands for a substantial amount of money. Enough to take 300,000 well equipped men on crusade with him. This troubled not only the King of France but many barons who held land nearby, and his own brother Robert. If the count of Poitou was to die on crusade or be unable to pay back the loan, Rufus would own a considerable amount of lands. More than those of France itself. Rufus had the money for the loan and was very keen indeed to make the deal.

William II of England, from the Stowe Manuscript

William II of England, from the Stowe Manuscript

A few days before the King’s death a close friend came to the King informing him of a monk’s sermon in which he had described a vision he had of the king’s death. Rufus was not worried, he laughed about it and even sent the monk some money. However, the night before he went on his final hunt he had a fortuitous dream himself. He dreamed that he was being bled by his doctors when a stream of blood shot from his chest and darkened the sun and turned the sky red. When he woke up with a cry his servants stayed with him and the next day his friends were said to have tried to persuade him not to test the truth of his dreams. Although still being shaken, he prepared to go hunting. He ate a hearty lunch and drank plenty to quell his nerves. There are a few accounts of the Kings death and they probably originate from the huntsman who would have had a good vantage point of the whole hunt and how it came to end.

According to Orderic Vitalis (An English chronicler and Benedictine monk), after finishing his meal Rufus pulled on his boots and as he was laughing with his friends a smith arrived and offered him six arrows. He was very pleased with them and kept four for himself and chose to hand the other two to Walter Tirel, the man who would come to shoot him in the heart. It is then that Vitalis gave the story a rather dramatic twist when he wrote that the King then said to Tirel ‘it is only right that the sharpest arrows should go to the man who knows how to shoot the deadliest shot’. This seems to have been a rather biblical embellishment by the monk rather like Christ’s words to Judas at the last supper.

There were many eminent men in the party including the King’s own brother, Count Henry. As they headed towards Brockenhurst in the New Forest it is said that Henry’s bow string broke so he went to find a villager to mend it. Whist there an old lady told him she had had a vision that Henry would be king very soon. Although all these visions sound very dramatic, there may be some truth in them if it were that rumours were abound of an assassination plot against Rufus. Meanwhile, King Rufus headed into the forest. When a king hunted it was etiquette that a more favourable hunter stood behind him so if the King missed his shot the better hunter would nail the prey and the king could pass the kill off as his own. Today the kings ‘better’ hunter was Tirel.

Another contemporary writer of the time, Geoffrei Gaimar, seems to have been an eye witness. He says that when the hunting party took up their stations the king was in the densest part of the forest, close to a marsh. He dismounted his horse and tensed his bow, the rest of the party fanned out into a circle. Walter dismounted near an Elder tree (very descriptive so probably a first-hand eyewitness account from a forest huntsman) close to the king. The King himself had his eye on a rather large stag and as the herd passed by he took aim, as he did so, so did Tirel who let go of one of his barbed arrows and struck King Rufus in the heart. One account says that Rufus was already dead as he hit the ground, the others say he cried out. Either way Tirel did not hang around to find out, he mounted his horse and rode straight to Calais and a life of exile in France.

Rufus Stone in the New Forest National Park, site of the death of King William

Rufus Stone in the New Forest National Park, site of the death of King William

Gaimar says that after snapping off the head of the arrow the king fell upon the wound and after crying out the king asked for the host but being in the middle of the forest there was nobody to administer it. Instead a huntsman is said to have given him grass as a substitute, intending it as communion.
The party is said to have disbanded in a hurry with the king’s brother Henry riding straight to Winchester for the treasury and a bid to become King Henry I, which was achieved. Some loyal servants are said to have carried King Rufus body to Winchester Cathedral still bleeding (worryingly this would medically mean he was still alive and dying) and it is reported nobody offered alms for prayers for his soul and that when all was said and done only the prostitutes mourned for his loss and the loss of their revenue.

It is quite possible that this was just a hunting accident. They happened frequently then as they do now and as I mentioned before had taken the lives of his brother and nephew. Some said this was the forest’s retribution for William the Conqueror taking the forest for himself and his beasts. It is more probable that this was either a plot by the King of France or even his brothers for it would have been too risky to have let a man like William II to have become even more powerful than he already was seated on the Throne of England.

GJ