William II, also called “Rufus,” was the second son of William I (“The Conqueror”) and was king of England from 1087 – 1100. William Rufus, in advance of the news of the death of his father, hurried from Normandy to Winchester, and with the support of Archbishop Lanfranc, gained the approval of enough barons and prelates, and on the seventeenth day after the Conqueror’s death, Archbishop Lanfranc crowned him as the new King of England.
Rufus, according to many chroniclers, ruled with a heavy hand and was not well thought of by his subjects. One of the first orders he issued was that all English nobles, previously freed by his father, should once again be incarcerated.
Meanwhile his brother, Duke Robert of Normandy and eldest son of William the Conqueror, was also discontent with Rufus, and he had supporters in England and Normandy, seeing as many barons held estates in both countries. Bishop Odo, half-uncle of Robert, had it in my mind to unseat Rufus and place Robert on the throne, with the promise from Duke Robert that he would send an army across the channel to support his confederates in England. William II in turn gained the support of prominent Anglo-Saxon chieftains and marched on Rochester Castle against Bishop Odo, where the bishop surrendered the castle, and the movement in favor of Robert in England ended.
The fighting, however, did not end there. The duchy of Normandy fell into anarchy due to Robert’s inability to manage his realm, and William II gathered and army and sailed across to France. Before the armies came to battle, the king of France stepped in as a mediator, and the two brothers signed a treaty at Caen. William came out of the deal in better shape, as the king of France granted to him sizable possessions in Normandy and the agreement that the duchy would revert to him if Robert died first.
Prince Henry, the third son of William the Conqueror, was displeased with this outcome, and he revolted against his brothers. The two eldest brothers came together and besieged Henry in his castle fortress of St. Michael, and finally, Henry capitulated. William and Robert forced their youngest brother to give up all his possessions and then allowed him to retire into Brittany.
For the next five years, William Rufus fought to defend his kingdom against the Scots and the Welsh, and he continued his struggle with his brother in Normandy, until, in 1096, Robert joined the call of Pope Urban II to journey to the Holy Land and take back Jerusalem from the “infidels.” Robert, however, did not have enough money to raise an army of soldiers to accompany him, and so, he sold the duchy of Normandy to his brother William for five years for the sum of ten thousand pounds. William readily agreed and took possession of the province.
In the summer of 1100, a powerful baron from Normandy, Walter Tirel (Tyrrel), came to visit the king, and after a grand feast, William asked Walter if he would like to accompany him on a hunt in the New Forest. Orderic Vitalis, a contemporary English chronicler, described the preparation for the hunt:
… an armourer came in and presented to him (Rufus) 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.
While hunting, Walter took aim at a deer swiftly moving toward the hills, and his arrow missed the stag and pierced Rufus in the chest. According to Peter of Blois (1135 – 1203):
The king fell to the earth, and instantly died; upon which, the body being laid by a few countrymen in a cart, was carried back to the palace, and on the morrow was buried, with but few manifestations of grief, and in an humble tomb; for all his servants were busily attending to their own interests, and few or none cared for the royal funeral.
Again showing William was not well liked by the people he ruled.
Walter, fearing he would be accused of murder, escaped and crossed the English channel back to Normandy. There is the suggestion of conspiracy, that Tyrrel purposely missed the deer and hit the king with his arrow. Abbot Suger, a contemporary chronicler and friend of Tyrell, dispelled this theory:
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.
Whether Rufus’ death was murder or an accident — his brother Henry directly benefited from the king’s death and was shortly after crowned king himself — we will never know the truth of the circumstances entirely. It’s my belief, from my readings, that it was an accidental death. A stone known as the Rufus Stone now marks the spot where it is believed he died. Its inscription 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.
Ridpath, John Clark. History of the World. The Jones Brothers Publishing Company, 1940.
Peter of Blois. Medieval Sourcebook.