King William II (William Rufus)

King William II (William Rufus)

William Rufus (the Red), the second surviving son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, was born in about 1056. As a child he was educated by Lanfranc of Pavia. When he was a young man he obtained the name Rufus because of his ruddy complexion.

In 1077, his brother Robert Curthose suggested that he should become the ruler of Normandy and Maine. When William the Conqueror refused, Robert rebelled and attempted to seize Rouen. William Rufus took the side of his father and helped him put down the rebellion. Robert was forced to flee and established himself at Gerberoi. Robert was besieged at Gerberoi and during the fighting Rufus was wounded. In 1080 Matilda of Flanders managed to persuade her husband and son to end their feud.

Just before William the Conqueror died he decided that William Rufus, rather than his older brother, Robert Curthose, should be king of England. He was crowned by Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on 26th September, 1087.

The following year some Normans, includingOdo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain, Richard Fitz Gilbert, William Fitz Osbern and Geoffrey of Coutances, led a rebellion against the rule of Rufus in order to place Robert Curthose on the throne. However most Normans in England remained loyal and Rufus and his army successfully attacked the rebel strongholds at Tonbridge, Pevensey and Rochester. The leaders of the revolt were exiled to Normandy.

In 1091 William Rufus invaded Normandy. He established his headquarters at Eu and such was the size of his army that Robert Curthose agreed a peace settlement. This gave William Rufus control over large areas of Normandy. The two men also agreed on a joint campaign to take Maine and Cotentin, an area that Curthose had sold to his brother Henry Beauclerk. In the summer of 1091 Henry was forced to surrender Cotentin after a siege of fifteen days.

William Rufus returned to England in August 1091 and soon afterwards marched against King Malcolm III, whose Scots army had invaded the country in his absence. The campaign was a success and Malcolm was forced to submit at the Firth of Forth.

In March 1094 William Rufus went on another expedition to Normandy. To pay for the campaign he imposed heavy taxes on the people of England. Some of this money was used to bribe Philip of France not to support Robert Curthose. After paying his Norman soldiers to continue the war, he returned to England.

In 1095 William Rufus decided to bring Robert of Mowbray, the Earl of Northumberland, to justice. He took Newcastle and Tynemouth before besieging Mowbray at Bamborough. William was forced to end this campaign when he heard the Welsh had captured Montgomery. By the time he reached the area the Welsh had abandoned Montgomery and had withdrawn to the mountains.

William Rufus was very unpopular with the Church. Unlike his father, William the Conqueror, Rufus was not a committed Christian. His father's policy of spending considerable sums of money on the Church was reversed. When Rufus needed to raise money, he raided monasteries.

In 1096 William Rufus imposed a new tax on his barons. When they complained they did not have this money, William Rufus suggested that they should rob the shrines of the saints. Later that year William Rufus seized the property of Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, while he was in Rome.

Over the next few months William Rufus was involved in military campaigns in Wales, Scotland and Normandy. In January 1098 his forces captured Maine and besieged Le Mans. He also fought a war against Philip of France but after facing stubborn resistance he agreed a truce in April 1099.

On 2nd August 1100, King William Rufus went hunting at Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Gilbert de Clare and his younger brother, Roger of Clare, were with the king. Another man in the hunting party was Walter Tirel, who was married to Richard de Clare's daughter, Adelize. Also present was William Rufus' younger brother Henry. During the hunt, Walter Tirel fired an arrow at a stag. The arrow missed the animal and hit William Rufus in the chest. Within a few minutes the king was dead. Tirel jumped on his horse and made off at great speed. He escaped to France and never returned again to England.

Most people expected Robert Curthose to become king. However, his younger brother Henry Beauclerk decided to take quick action to gain the throne. As soon as he realised William Rufus was dead, Henry rushed to Winchester where the government's money was kept. After gaining control of the treasury, Henry declared he was the new king. Supported by Gilbert de Clare and Roger of Clare, Henry was crowned king on 5th August. Although Robert threatened to invade England, he eventually agreed to do a deal with Henry. In return for an annual payment of £2,000, Robert accepted Henry as king of England.

King Henry I generously rewarded the Clare family for their loyalty. Although Walter Tirel never returned to England, his son was allowed to keep his father's estates. Some people suspected that Henry and the Clare family had planned the murder of William Rufus. Others accepted that William Rufus' death was an accident. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Clare family obtained considerable benefit from the death of William Rufus.

Primary Sources

(S1) William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of the English (c1128)

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.

(S2) John Horace Round, Feudal England (1895)

Gilbert and Roger, sons of Richard de Clare, who were present at Brockenhurst when the King was killed... were brothers-in-law of Walter Tirel... Richard, another brother-in-law, was promptly selected to be Abbot of Ely by King Henry I, who further gave the see of Winchester to William Giffard, another member of the same powerful family circle.

(S3) Frank Barlow, William Rufus (1983)

Historians... have hinted that barons... perhaps led by the Clares... had arranged William's death. But there is not a shred of good evidence and the theory merely avoids the obvious. Hunting accidents were, after all, not uncommon.

(S4) William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of the English (c1128)

The day before the king died he dreamt that he went to heaven. He suddenly awoke. He commanded a light to be brought, and forbade his attendants to leave him.

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... 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.

William Rufus died in 1100... aged forty years. 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.