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.

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.