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William II of England

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William II
King of the English
William II, from the Stowe Manuscript
Reign 9 September 1087– 2 August 1100
Coronation 26 September 1087
Predecessor William I
Successor Henry I
Father William I
Mother Matilda of Flanders
Burial Winchester Cathedral, Winchester

William II (c. 1056 – 2 August 1100), the third son of William I of England (William the Conqueror), was King of England from 1087 until 1100, with powers also over Normandy, and influence in Scotland. He was less successful in extending control into Wales. William is commonly known as 'William Rufus', perhaps because of his red-faced appearance.

Although William was an effective soldier, he was a ruthless ruler and, it seems, was little liked by those he governed: according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was 'hated by almost all his people.' However, chroniclers tended to take a dim view of William's reign, arguably on account of his long and difficult struggles with the Church: these chroniclers were themselves generally products of the Church, and so might be expected to report him somewhat negatively. Thus William was roundly denounced in his time and after his death for presiding over what was held to be a dissolute court, in terms which, in modern times, have raised questions over his sexuality. According to Norman tradition, William scorned the English and their culture.

William seems to have been a flamboyant character, and his reign was marked by his bellicose temperament. He did not marry, nor did he produce any offspring, legitimate or otherwise. His chief minister was Ranulf Flambard, whom he appointed Bishop of Durham in 1099: this was a political appointment, to a see that was also a great fiefdom.

Early years

William's exact date of birth is unknown, but it was sometime between the years 1056 and 1060. He was the third of four sons, born in his father's Duchy of Normandy, which would be inherited in due course by his elder brother, Robert Curthose. During his youth, he was educated under the eye of Lanfranc, and seemed destined to be a great lord but not a king, until the death of the Conqueror's second son, Richard, put William next in line for the English succession. His father's favourite son, William succeeded to the throne of England on his father's death, but there was always hostility between him and his eldest brother, though they became reconciled after an attempted coup in 1091 by the youngest brother, Henry.

Relations between the three brothers had never been excellent. Orderic Vitalis relates an incident that took place at L'Aigle, in 1077 or 1078: William and Henry, having grown bored with casting dice, decided to make mischief by pouring stinking water on their brother Robert from an upper gallery, thus infuriating and shaming him. A brawl broke out, and their father King William I was forced to intercede to restore order.


According to William of Malmesbury, William Rufus was 'well set; his complexion florid, his hair yellow; of open countenance; different coloured eyes, varying with certain glittering specks; of astonishing strength, though not very tall, and his belly rather projecting.'

England and France

The division of William the Conqueror's lands into two parts presented a dilemma for those nobles who held land on both sides of the Channel. Since the younger William and his brother Robert were natural rivals, these nobles worried that they could not hope to please both of their lords, and thus ran the risk of losing the favour of one ruler or the other, or both. The only solution, as they saw it, was to unite England and Normandy once more under one ruler. The pursuit of this aim led them to revolt against William in favour of Robert in the Rebellion of 1088, under the leadership of the powerful Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who was a half-brother of William the Conqueror. As Robert failed to appear in England to rally his supporters, William won the support of the English with silver and promises of better government, and defeated the rebellion, thus securing his authority. In 1091 he invaded Normandy, crushing Robert's forces and forcing him to cede a portion of his lands. The two made up their differences and William agreed to help Robert recover lands lost to France, notably Maine. This plan was later abandoned, but William continued to pursue a ferociously warlike defence of his French possessions and interests to the end of his life, exemplified by his response to the attempt by Elias de la Flèche, Count of Maine, to take Le Mans in 1099.

Thus William Rufus was secure in the most powerful kingdom in Europe, given the contemporary eclipse of the Salian emperors. As in Normandy, his bishops and abbots were bound to him by feudal obligations; and his right of investiture in the Norman tradition prevailed within his kingdom, during the age of the Investiture Controversy that brought excommunication upon the Salian Emperor Henry IV. Anglo-Norman royal institutions reached an efficiency hitherto unknown in medieval Europe, and the king's personal power, through an effective and loyal chancery, penetrated to the local level to an extent unmatched in France. Without the Capetians' ideological trappings of an anointed monarchy forever entangled with the hierarchy of the Church, the king's administration and law unified the realm, rendering him relatively impervious to papal condemnation.

Relations with the Church, and personal beliefs

Less than two years after becoming king, William II lost his father William I's advisor and confidant, the Italian-Norman Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury. After Lanfranc's death, the king delayed appointing a new archbishop for many years, appropriating ecclesiastical revenues in the interim. In panic owing to serious illness in 1093, William nominated as archbishop another Norman-Italian, Anselm of Bec – considered the greatest theologian of his generation – but this led to a long period of animosity between Church and State, Anselm being a stronger supporter of the Gregorian reforms in the Church than Lanfranc. William and Anselm disagreed on a range of ecclesiastical issues, in the course of which the king declared to Anselm that Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred. The English clergy, beholden to the king for their preferments and livings, were unable to support Anselm publicly. In 1095 William called a council at Rockingham to bring Anselm to heel, but the archbishop remained firm. In October 1097, Anselm went into exile, taking his case to the Pope. The diplomatic and flexible Urban II, a new pope, was involved in a major conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who supported an antipope. Reluctant to make another enemy, Urban came to a concordat with William Rufus, whereby William recognized Urban as pope, and Urban gave sanction to the Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical status quo. Anselm remained in exile, and William was able to claim the revenues of the archbishop of Canterbury to the end of his reign.

However, this conflict was symptomatic of medieval English politics, as exemplified by the murder of Thomas Becket during the reign of the later Norman king Henry II of England, and indeed by Henry VIII's actions centuries later, and as such should not be seen as a defect of William II's reign in particular. Of course, contemporary churchmen were themselves not above engaging in such politics: it is reported that, when Archbishop Lanfranc suggested to William I that he imprison the rebellious bishop Odo of Bayeux, he exclaimed 'What! he is a clergyman'. Lanfranc retorted that 'you will not seize the bishop of Bayeux, but confine the earl of Kent': Odo was both bishop of Bayeux, and earl of Kent. Also, while we have the complaints of contemporaries regarding William II's personal behaviour, on the other hand he was instrumental in assisting the foundation of Bermondsey Abbey, endowing it with the manor of Bermondsey; and it is reported that his 'customary oath' was 'By the Face at Lucca!' It seems reasonable to suppose that such details are indicative of William II's personal beliefs.

War and rebellion

William Rufus inherited the Anglo-Norman settlement detailed in Domesday Book, a survey undertaken at his father's command, essentially for the purposes of taxation, which could not have been undertaken anywhere else in Europe at that time, and is a sign of the control of the English monarchy. If he was less effective than his father in containing the Norman lords' propensity for rebellion and violence, through charisma, or political skills, he was forceful in resisting its effects. In 1095, Robert de Mowbray, the earl of Northumbria, refused to attend the Curia Regis, the thrice-annual court where the King announced his governmental decisions to the great lords. William led an army against Robert and defeated him. Robert was dispossessed and imprisoned, and another noble, William of Eu, accused of treachery, was blinded and castrated.

In external affairs, William had some successes. In 1091 he repulsed an invasion by King Malcolm III of Scotland, forcing Malcolm to pay homage. In 1092 he built a castle at Carlisle, taking control of Cumbria, which had previously been claimed by the Scots. Subsequently, the two kings quarreled over Malcolm's possessions in England, and Malcolm again invaded, ravaging Northumbria. At the Battle of Alnwick, on 13 November 1093, Malcolm was ambushed by Norman forces led by Robert de Mowbray. Malcolm and his son Edward were slain and Malcolm III's brother Donald seized the throne. William supported Malcolm's son Duncan, who held power for a short time, and then another of Malcolm's sons, Edgar. Edgar conquered Lothian in 1094 and eventually removed Donald in 1097 with William's aid in a campaign led by Edgar Ætheling. Edgar recognised William's authority over Lothian and attended William's court.

William made unsuccessful forays into Wales in 1096 and 1097.

In 1096, William's brother Robert Curthose joined the First Crusade. He needed money to fund this venture, and pledged his Duchy of Normandy to William in return for a payment of 10,000 marks—a sum equalling about one-fourth of William's annual revenue. In a display of the effectiveness of English taxation, William raised the money by levying a special, heavy, and much-resented tax upon the whole of England. William then ruled Normandy as regent in Robert's absence—Robert did not return until September 1100, one month after William's death.

As regent for his brother Robert in Normandy, William campaigned in France from 1097 to 1099. He secured northern Maine but failed to seize the French-controlled part of the Vexin region. At the time of his death, he was planning to invade Aquitaine, in southwestern France.

Death in the New Forest

Death of William Rufus. Lithograph, 1895

Perhaps the most memorable event in the life of William Rufus was his death, which occurred while William was hunting in the New Forest. He was killed by an arrow through the lung, but the circumstances remain unclear.

On a bright August day in 1100, William organised a hunting trip in the New Forest. An account by Orderic Vitalis describes the preparations for the hunt: armourer came in and presented to [William] six arrows. The King immediately took them with great satisfaction, praising the work, and unconscious of what was to happen, kept four of them himself and held out the other two to Walter Tyrrel... saying 'It is only right that the sharpest be given to the man who knows how to shoot the deadliest shots.'

On the subsequent hunt, the party spread out as they chased their prey, and William, in the company of Walter Tyrell (or Tirel), Lord of Poix, became separated from the others. It was the last time that William was seen alive.

William was found the next day by a group of local peasants, lying dead in the woods with an arrow wound to his chest. William's body was abandoned by the nobles at the place where he fell, because the law and order of the kingdom died with the king, and they had to flee to their English or Norman estates to secure their interests. William's younger brother, Henry, hastened to Winchester to secure the royal treasury, then to London, where he was crowned within days, before either archbishop could arrive. Legend has it that it was left to a local charcoal-burner named Purkis to take the king's body to Winchester Cathedral on his cart.

According to the chroniclers, William's death was not murder. Walter and William had been hunting together when Walter let loose a wild shot that, instead of hitting the stag he aimed for, struck William in the chest. Walter tried to help him, but there was nothing he could do. Fearing that he would be charged with murder, Walter panicked, leapt onto his horse, and fled. A version of this tale is given by William of Malmesbury:

The day before the king died he dreamed that he was let blood by a surgeon, and that the stream, reaching to heaven, clouded the light and intercepted the day. ...he suddenly awoke, commanded a light to be brought, and forbade his attendants to leave him... After dinner he went into the forest, attended by few persons... [Walter Tirel] alone had remained with him, while the others, employed in the chase, were dispersed as chance directed. The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him; and, keenly gazing, followed it, still running, a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun's rays. At this instant Walter [attempted] to transfix another stag... [but] unknowingly, and without power to prevent it, O gracious God! pierced [the king's] breast with a fatal arrow.

On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the weapon where it projected from his body, and then falling upon the wound, he accelerated his death. Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless and speechless he leaped swiftly upon his horse, and escaped by spurring him to his utmost speed. Indeed there was none to pursue him, some conniving at his flight, others pitying him, and all intent on other matters. Some began to fortify their dwellings, others to plunder, and the rest to look out for a new king.

A few countrymen conveyed the body, placed on a cart, to the cathedral at Winchester, the blood dripping from it all the way. Here it was committed to the ground within the tower, attended by many of the nobility... Next year the tower fell... [William Rufus] died in [1100]... aged above forty years... He was a man much to be pitied by the clergy, for throwing away the soul they laboured to save; to be beloved by stipendiary soldiers for the multitude of his gifts; but not to be lamented by the people, because he suffered their substance to be plundered.

To the chroniclers - men of the Church - such an ' act of God' was a just end for a wicked king. Over the following centuries, the obvious suggestion that one of William's enemies may have had a hand in this extraordinary event has repeatedly been made: chroniclers of the time point out themselves that Walter was renowned as a keen bowman, and thus was unlikely to have fired such an impetuous shot. Moreover, William's brother Henry, who was among the hunting party that day, benefited directly from William's death, shortly thereafter being crowned king.

Abbot Suger, another chronicler, was Tirel's friend and sheltered him in his French exile. He said later:

It was laid to the charge of a certain noble, Walter Tirel, that he had shot the king with an arrow; but I have often heard him, when he had nothing to fear nor to hope, solemnly swear that on the day in question he was not in the part of the forest where the king was hunting, nor ever saw him in the forest at all.

William's remains are in Winchester Cathedral, scattered among royal mortuary chests positioned on the presbytery screen, flanking the choir.

The Rufus Stone

A stone known as the Rufus Stone marks the spot where some believe he fell. grid reference SU270124

The inscription on the Rufus Stone reads:

Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100. King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church, of that city.

The current monument is made of cast iron and was erected in 1865.

Fictional treatments

William Rufus is a major character in Valerie Anand's historical novel, King of the Wood (1989).

He is also a major character in Parke Godwin's Robin and the King (1993), the second volume in Godwin's reinterpretation of the Robin Hood legend.

William II is indirectly the subject of two historical novels by George Shipway, called The Paladin and The Wolf Time. The main character of the novels is Walter Tirel (or Tyrell) the supposed assassin of King William, and the main thrust of the plot of the novels is that the assassination was engineered by Henry.

The death of William Rufus is portrayed in Edward Rutherfurd's fictionalised history of the New Forest, called The Forest (novel) (2000). In Rutherfurd's version of events, the King's death takes place nowhere near the Rufus Stone, and Walter Tyrrell is framed for it by the powerful Clare family. Also, Purkiss is a clever story teller who manages (much later) to convince Charles II that one of his ancestors had been involved.

Flambard's Confession (1984) by Marilyn Durham purports to tell the story of William Rufus' reign through the eyes of his right-hand man, Ranulf Flambard.

William Rufus and his relationship with Tyrell is mentioned and the manner of his death is included in Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris.

William Rufus is a character in Stephen R. Lawhead's King Raven Trilogy about Robin Hood.

On television, William was portrayed by Peter Firth in the 1990 play Blood Royal: William the Conqueror.

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