The death of William Rufus – accident or murder

king-william-rufus-william-ii-house-of-normandy-1087-1100-1351385894_bOn the 2nd August 1100 William Rufus or rather William II of England, who was born in 1056, had a nasty accident whilst hunting at Brockenhurst in the New Forest.  He’d been king since 1087 and demonstrated that being the eldest son of the previous monarch wasn’t the most necessary of qualifications for taking over the job at that time.

William was the third of William the Conqueror’s four sons. Robert Curthose, the eldest son inherited Normandy which was viewed as the greater part of William’s patrimony.  There were also the usual family relationships to be considered as well as fate. The second son Richard died in 1075 whilst, er, hunting in the New Forest.  William the Conqueror’s youngest son, named Henry, was left money.

William Rufus was not satisfied with England but then he’d never particularly liked his brother Robert either. There is an account of him emptying a chamberpot over Robert’s head for a joke in his youth.  Before long William Rufus and Robert were at war.  William the Conqueror’s nobility had a bit of a problem.  Many of them owned land in both Normandy and England.  It was difficult to decide which one of the brothers they should effectively rebel against.  Ultimately each man made his brother his heir – demonstrating that neither of them could gain the upper hand. Eventually Robert felt secure enough to go off on a crusade and leave William in charge of Normandy in his absence.

Meanwhile the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was not overly delighted with William Rufus.  The chronicler described him as “harsh and severe” though it seems unlikely that it would have been possible to rule in those times if one were approachable and cuddly.  The Anglo Saxon Chronicle suggested that William was advised by evil councillors when it came to extorting heavy taxes from his subjects.  One reason for William’s need for cash were his wars.  It was the Rufus who took on the Scots with regard to the ownership of Cumberland and he also made a less successful foray in Wales.  Then of course there was his war with his brother over Normandy.

So, back to 2nd August 1100.  The hunting party was composed of Gilbert and Roger de Clare.  There was also a man named Walter Tirel the would-be son-in-law of  Richard de Clare.  William Rufus’s little brother Henry was also on the scene.

The day hadn’t begun well.  A messenger had arrived from the Abbot of Gloucester with the news that a monk had dreamed that the king would be killed in the event of him going hunting that day.  William was not impressed.   He wasn’t terribly impressed with the Church full stop.  He was inclined to mock clerics. In another version of the same story it was a friend who arrived with news of an unsettling area,  The group split into two parties in order to better chase the deer.  William was with Tirel.  Apparently there were two deer; one for each man.

William of Malmsebury chronicled what happened next:

“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. …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…”

Instead of shooting a deer Tirel had shot the king through the chest and to make matters worse William tried to remove the arrow, thus hastening his death.  To all intents and purposes it looked very much like a tragic accident, although clearly there were those who had their doubts.  The Orderic Vitalis also contains an account of events.  It said that the sharpest arrows go to the man who knows how to inflict the deadliest shots.  Aside, rather understandably from Tirel fleeing the scene, instead of collecting up his brother’s body, Prince Henry dashed off to the treasury at Winchester and having secured it, declared himself to be the new king of England becoming Henry I on 5th August.  The de Clare’s were his key supporters and were handsomely rewarded by the new king.

Various historians have argued that the descriptions make it unlikely for Tirel to have been the murderer.  They talk about trajectory, distance and the account of the arrow that killed William glancing off the deer meaning that the arrow was more likely to have lost its power.  Mason’s biography of William Rufus, published in 2005 suggests that he was assassinated by a French agent. Mason puts forward the theory that William was planning to invade France and that Prince Louis effectively had him replaced with Henry who was not likely to be so bellicose. Mason pins the blame on Raoul d’ Equesnes who was in the household of Walter Tirel.

The evidence for it not being a genuine hunting accident nearly a thousand years down the line is circumstantial.  Usually it is pointed out that Tirel was not pursued, that Henry did rather well out of William’s untimely death and that the de Clare family didn’t do so badly either.

Tirel, having scarpered to one of his castles in France entertained Louis very shortly after William Rufus’s death.   Tirel never returned to England but not only was he not physically pursued he wasn’t pursued by the law either so his English estates were passed on to his children on his death.


The English forces which were gathered around the Solent ready for William Rufus  to invade France were sent home very shortly after Henry declared himself king.


William Rufus’s body was found by a charcoal burner and it was he who transported  the body back to Winchester.  The image of William from the Stowe Chronicle shows him clutching an arrow.

Mason, Emma. (2005)  William II: Rufus the Red King.

11 thoughts on “The death of William Rufus – accident or murder

  1. One of my best interests is this incident. Having lived near by that Rufus Stone in my youth ones thoughts run to murder as warned. Funny isnt it that William Tirrel relative of same name was with Richard 111 and involved with murder even then. as far as Bill of Malmsebury is thus concerned I see it as if he did not know he made it up sort of history buff. So long ago as you say we may never really know but I think he in waiting may have had a hand in it so mention by a monk who was an Abbot who knew the royal family, or how good was that guess? Our Henry would stop at nothing to be crowned I say.

    • I rather enjoy William of Malmsebury’s tall tales. There does seem to be something in the murder theory – of which Henry is only one possible contender.

  2. My mind is still not made up as to whether William Rufus was murdered, or not. If this article was taken at face value it would seem that he had been murdered. But, this article has a few problems. The earliest statement of the event was in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which noted that the king was “shot by an arrow by one of his own men.” Later chroniclers added the name of the killer, Walter Tirel, although the description of events was later embroidered with other details that may or may not be true.The first mention of the man who shot WR called him “Walter Thurold”. Only later did it become Tirel. Walter Tirel was said to be an excellent bowman, it would be out of character for him to take an impetuous shot that would have bounced off a tree. Abbot Suger, another chronicler, was Tirel’s friend and sheltered him in France. He said, “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.” None of the earliest chronicles mention any names of who was in the hunting party. The dream (which was supposedly had by WR, not a monk) was first mentioned by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. He was a poet hired by King Henry II of England to write “Chronique des ducs de Normandie”, an account of Henry’s ancestors and Benoît hated how WR treated the church…not the most reliable source. I’d be interested to know what sources the author used for this article. By declaring the dream story as true and giving the names of those supposedly in the hunting party she makes us question the veracity of the rest of the article.

    • Dear Lily9999 – who is “she” ? If you mean me then I would politely point out that this is a blog post not an academic paper. If it were there would be all sorts of endnotes, it would be considerably longer (well outside the remit of a post) with all sorts of caveats and the language used would be decidedly different. The “author” thanks all of you identified in the plural “us” for your comments and notes that the secondary source used for this post is listed at the end of the post and the primary sources from which the information originally came are in the content of the post. I told the story as told by later medieval chroniclers. I also said that medieval kings weren’t cuddly….which last time I checked wasn’t a particularly academic turn of phrase. I also described William’s death as a “nasty accident,” and used words such as “account.” In all honesty I’m not sure if you meant to be helpful or were sharpening your academic claws. In either event I would point out that rather a lot of history is about circumstantial evidence, chronicler embroidery, viewpoint and political agenda, not to mention a good deal of sticking the jigsaw bits together. The most important thing about a blog like the History Jar is that if people are sufficiently interested they can go away and research a topic for themselves. If anyone is foolish enough to use a blog post for anything academic without going away and delving around a good deal further then that is up to them but not something that I would encourage. Popular history should be interesting and it should tell a story – because otherwise people switch off. Your comments are knowledgable and well argued – why did you finish by attacking the post and by inference the “author”? There’s no need for it. I’m more than happy to discuss post content, to acknowledge where readers have really interesting insights and to acknowledge that I usually learn something from what they have to say.

    • Instead of shooting a deer Tirel shot the king through the chest with an arrow. It may have been an accident. It may have been murder. No one knows for sure. No one has ever accused me of being nerdy before – I usually get complaints that my use of language isn’t academic enough.

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