Early sources on the death of William Rufus

William Rufus pictured in the Stowe Manuscript

I’ve stated before that we all like a good conspiracy theory – and why not- sometimes though the theory grows with the retelling.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle  which is one of the earliest accounts of William’s untimely demise is terse. “In the morning after Lammas King William when hunting was shot by an arrow by one of his own men.” Similarly Eadmer, who is St Anselm’s first biographer, states that when the news that William had been killed arrived at the monastery where Anselm was staying that Anselm sobbed for the soul of the king and wished that he had died – the inference being that Anselm had a better chance of Heaven than the “Red King” who was definitely not on the list of the Church’s ten most saintly people. There was however, no suggestion, that he had been murdered.

If anything the accounts that followed wished to create a moral story. Peter of Blois’s account saw the Devil make an appearance whilst William of Malmesbury mentions dreams amongst other portents. In both cases there is no suggestion that William’s death is anything other than a hunting accident. Orderic Vitalis discusses other royal hunting accidents.

Matthew Paris has the arrow that killed William ricocheting off a tree where as earlier accounts have Walter Tirel taking a shot at a second deer but having the sun in his eyes. A later account, 1889, includes the sound of argument and broken bow strings. The broken bow string belonged to Prince Henry and that can be found in Wace’s account of William’s death. Wace was born about 1110 and he wrote his La Roman de Rou in about 1160.

It should probably be noted that William’s likely killer, Walter Tirel, was a patron of the Benedictines. He had links with Bec and let’s face it there’s the additional problem of Henry I’s undignified rush for the treasury in Winchester and the Crown of England. It is very easy to see henry making a bid for the crown, especially as his and William’s elder brother Robert Curthose was on his way back from the First Crusade with a wealthy bride – were she to have children then Henry’s claim would dwindle. Alternatively if you were a Norman prince you probably had to cease opportunities when they came up in order to gain the power you craved.

I have posted elsewhere about the possibility of the Clare family being involved in a conspiracy to finish William and as always there’s more than one argument to be made as well as rather a lot of circumstantial evidence to unpick. It’s certainly provided rather a lot of novelists with material.

William Rufus – the red

King William II – a name that we don’t tend to use – it’s usually Rufus. Bynames which described a person’s appearance crop up a lot in medieval history. It was a habit that gradually disappeared from the naming of English monarchs but in continental Europe there were a whole series of Charleses who rejoiced in bynames such as “fat,” “bald,” “simple,” not to mention a number of King Louis who were pious or who stammered.

Eadmer of Canterbury never uses his byname whilst a slightly later writer, William of Malmesbury does call him King William Rufus and spends some time describing him whereas Geoffrey de Gaimar who wrote before 1140 explains that he was called Rufus on account of his hair colouring.

It’s Orderic Vitalis who calls him William Rufus throughout his account and its probably from him that the name has stuck.

William was a third child after Robert and Richard and as as such may well have been intended, initially at least, for the church. If this was indeed the case he may have been more literate than historians give him credit for. Usually Henry II is identified as the first post-Conquest literate King of England. Essentially if you were going to be a knight and land owner you did not need to be able to read and write – someone else could do it for you.

As a third son his birth was not particularly auspicious – so history down not know the date.

We know that part of his education was overseen by Lanfranc of Bec who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He could have been placed in monastic care from the age of five which might go some way towards explaining his antipathy towards the Church.

Richard died and William’s role in life may have been amended to reflect this. As Robert grew to adulthood he rebelled against his father. Again, William’s standing in society would have been affected by this but it is important to note that a boy’s military training began at the age of twelve and young William was noted for his aptitude in warfare in a family and court that trained hard in combat so if he had been destined for the church William changed his plan early on.

Popular quiz knowledge jumps William from his name to his death in the New Forest. For those with a greater knowledge base is the idea that he was a tad on the villainous side – which is impressive given that his father purportedly laid waste to the north and died being haunted due to the atrocities he committed. The idea of the villainous red king comes from the writings of Eadmer of Canterbury who tells the story of St Anselm. If Anselm is the hero of the tale, William Rufus is the villain.

Later writers took up Eadmer’s position, added the views of Henry I’s chroniclers who often denigrated William to “big up” Henry and his legal reforms – turning Henry into Beauclerk or the Lion of Justice whilst William resides in the role of avaricious thwarter of the church with a questionmark about his sexuality. The Anglo -Saxon Chronicle stated that William was “abhorrent to God.”

All of which seems a bit unfair given that William put down his uncle’s rebellion in short order (admittedly he reneged on the promises that he had made to the militia); secured his country’s northern borders and exerted control over his treasury (by failing to appoint bishops and abbots so he could draw the income from the vacant bishoprics and monasteries.) It was Rufus who cemented his father’s conquest of England using techniques familiar to any medieval king worth his salt.

Revisionist historians have argued that actually Henry benefited from his brother’s policies and that William has suffered on account of negative press. It cannot have helped that he alienated the Church and that they were the chroniclers of the period. It’s probably not good press when a saint attacks you for your licentious behaviour!