William II (c. 1056 – August 2, 1100) was King of the English from 26 September 1087 until his death in 1100, with powers over Normandy and influence in Scotland. He was less successful in extending control into Wales. The third son of William the Conqueror, he is commonly referred to as William Rufus (Rufus being Latin for “the Red”), perhaps because of his ruddy appearance or, more likely, due to having red hair as a child that grew out in later life.
William’s exact date of birth is not known, but it was some time between the years 1056 and 1060. He was the third of four sons born to William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, the eldest being Robert Curthose, the second Richard, and the youngest Henry.
Richard died in a hunting accident in the New Forest in a collision with an overhanging branch, probably in 1070 or shortly afterwards. He was buried at Winchester Cathedral.
Richard is sometimes referred to as the “Duke of Bernay”, as if part of his father’s continental possessions, as in Burke’s Peerage; this is a mistake based on the misinterpretation of a 16th-century inscription on his tomb, which was also intended for the Earl Beorn, nephew of Cnut the Great.
William Rufus Becomes King of the English
William I “The Conqueror” left England towards the end of 1086. Following his arrival back on the continent he married his daughter Constance to Duke Alan of Brittany, in furtherance of his policy of seeking allies against the French kings.
William’s son Robert, still allied with the French king, appears to have been active in stirring up trouble, enough so that William led an expedition against the French Vexin in July 1087. While seizing Mantes, William either fell ill or was injured by the pommel of his saddle.
He was taken to the priory of Saint Gervase at Rouen. The dying King William I left Normandy to Robert, and the custody of England was given to William’s second surviving son on the assumption that he would become king. The youngest son, Henry, received money.
After entrusting England to his second son, the elder William sent the younger William Rufus back to England on September 7 or 8 bearing a letter to Lanfranc ordering the archbishop to aid the new king. William the Conqueror died September 9, 1087 and William Rufus succeeded to the throne of England on September 26, 1087.
William Rufus became William II, King of the English, while the eldest son, Robert Curthose, became Robert II, Duke of Normandy.
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 English 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 William 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.
William II was thus secure in his kingdom. 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 Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich IV.
The king’s personal power, through an effective and loyal chancery, penetrated to the local level to an extent unmatched in France. The king’s administration and law unified the realm, rendering him relatively impervious to papal condemnation. In 1097 he commenced the original Westminster Hall, built “to impress his subjects with the power and majesty of his authority”.
Less than two years after becoming king, William II lost his father’s adviser and confidant, the Italian-Norman Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury. After Lanfranc’s death in 1089, 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 – 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 II and Anselm disagreed on a range of ecclesiastical issues, in the course of which the king declared of 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 II 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 Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich IV, who supported Antipope Clement III.
Reluctant to make another enemy, Pope Urban II came to a concordat with William, whereby William recognised 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.
William went hunting on August 2, 1100 in the New Forest, probably near Brockenhurst, and was killed by an arrow through the lung, though the circumstances remain unclear. 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, a nobleman named Walter Tirel, although the description of events was later embroidered with other details that may or may not be true.
The first mention of any location more exact than the New Forest comes from John Leland, who wrote in 1530 that William died at Thorougham, a placename that is no longer used, but that probably referred to a location on what is now Park Farm on the Beaulieu estates. A memorial stone in the grounds of Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire, states “Remember King William Rufus who died in these parts then known as Truham whilst hunting on 2nd August 1100”.
The king’s body was abandoned by the nobles at the place where he fell. An arrow maker, Eli Parratt, later found the body. 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.
William of Malmesbury, in his account of William II’s death, stated that the body was taken to Winchester Cathedral by a few countrymen, including Eli who discovered the body.
To the chroniclers, men of the Church, such an “act of God” was a just end for a wicked king, and was regarded as a fitting demise for a ruler who came into conflict with the religious orders to which they belonged.
Over the following centuries, the obvious suggestion that one of William’s enemies had a hand in this event has repeatedly been made: chroniclers of the time point out themselves that Tirel was renowned as a keen bowman, and thus was unlikely to have loosed such an impetuous shot.
Moreover, Bartlett says that rivalry between brothers was the pattern of political conflict in this period. William’s brother Henry was among the hunting party that day and succeeded him as king.
Modern scholars have reopened the question, and some have found the assassination theory credible or compelling, but the theory is not universally accepted.
Barlow says that accidents were common and there is not enough hard evidence to prove murder. Bartlett notes that hunting was dangerous. Poole says the facts “look ugly” and “seem to suggest a plot.” John Gillingham points out that if Henry had planned to murder William it would have been in his interest to wait until a later time.
It looked as though there would soon be a war between William and his brother Robert, which would result in one of them being eliminated, thus opening the way for Henry to acquire both England and Normandy through a single assassination.
Tirel fled immediately. Henry had the most to gain by his brother’s death. Indeed, Henry’s actions “seem to be premeditated: wholly disregarding his dead brother, he rode straight for Winchester, seized the treasury (always the first act of a usurping king), and the next day had himself elected.”
William’s remains are in Winchester Cathedral, scattered among royal mortuary chests positioned on the presbytery screen, flanking the choir. His skull appears to be missing, but some long bones may remain.
William II was an effective soldier, but 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 and abhorrent to God.”
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 clerics, and so might be expected to report him somewhat negatively.
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. The particulars of the king’s relationship with the people of England are not credibly documented.
Contemporaries of William II, as well as those writing after his death, roundly denounced him for presiding over what these dissenters considered a dissolute court. In keeping with the tradition of Norman leaders, William II scorned the English and the English culture.
Contemporaries of William II raised concerns about a court dominated by homosexuality and effeminacy, although this appears to have had more to do with their luxurious attire than with sexual practices.
Citing the traditions of Wilton Abbey in the 1140s, Herman of Tournai wrote that the abbess had ordered the Scottish Princess Edith (later Matilda, wife of Henry I) to take the veil in order to protect her from the lust of William Rufus, which angered Edith’s father because of the effect it might have on her prospects of marriage.
The historian Emma Mason has noted that while during his reign William himself was never openly accused of homosexuality, in the decades after his death numerous medieval writers spoke of this and a few began to describe him as a “sodomite”.
Modern historians cannot state with certainty whether William was homosexual or not; however, he never took a wife or a mistress, or fathered any children. As a bachelor king without an heir, William would have been pressed to take a wife and would have had numerous proposals for marriage.
That he never accepted any of these proposals nor had any relations with women may show that he either had no desire for women, or he may have taken a vow of chastity or celibacy.
Barlow said that the Welsh chronicles claim that Henry was able to succeed to the throne because his brother had made use of concubines and thus died childless, although no illegitimate offspring are named.
Barlow also allows that William may have been sterile. Noting that no “favourites” were identified, and that William’s “baronial friends and companions were mostly married men”, despite having concluded that the chroniclers were “hostile and biased witnesses”, Barlow considers that “there seems no reason why they should have invented this particular charge” (of homosexuality) and states that, in his opinion, “On the whole the evidence points to the king’s bisexuality“.