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The Mysterious Death of Red William

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William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, ruled England for 10 turbulent years. He was killed by one of his close friends in what many at the time claimed was a terrible accident. Others are not so sure.
William Rufus was not a bad king – at least, not by the standard of the times. The third son of William the Conqueror, he had inherited the throne of England at his father's insistance, usurping the claim of his eldest brother, Robert.

His reign was a bloody one. Almost immediately after his coronation in 1090,  his Uncle, Bishop Odo of Bayeaux (in Normandy) organised a revolt against Rufus and in favour of his brother Robert (who held the Duchy of Normandy). Odo and Robert were no match for the wild King, however, and the revolt was soon quelled – although both retained their titles.

Next, Rufus defeated Malcolm III of Scotland, replacing him with the compliant Englishman Edgar Aetheling. He also put down a revolt by the Duke of Northumberland and, later, regained control of the entirety of his father's inheritance when his unpopular brother mortgaged the Duchy of Normandy to him and then left on crusade.

And so Rufus had acheived what every good king of the day should do – revolts had been quelled, traditional enemies subjugated, and peace restored to the Kingdom.

Read the contemporary chronicles, however, and you might think otherwise. Indeed, Peter of Blois (you can read an extract of his chonicle here), declared that Rufus' reign was so frightful that there were:

...thunders terrifying the earth, lightnings and thunderbolts most frequent, deluging showers without number, winds of the most astonishing violence, and whirlwinds that shook the towers of churches and levelled them with the ground.

Strong words indeed.

It is easy to see why the chroniclers took such a dim view of Rufus, because all literate men of the day were men of the Church, and Rufus, well he had no time for the Church – and especially for those who rated the power of the Pope above his own. He ran the saintly Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury into exile, he treated the pronouncements of the clerics with bitter sarcasm and, worst of all, he kept vacant church positions for himself – and pocketed their income.

On a bright August day in 1100, 10 years after his coronation, Rufus organised a hunting trip in the New Forest. The party spread out as they chased their prey, and Rufus, in the company of Walter Tirel, Lord of Poix, became separated from the others. It was the last time that Rufus was seen alive.

By the time Rufus was found (by a group of local peasants) lying dead in the woods with an arrow piercing his lungs, Walter Tirel was on his way to France.

According to the chroniclers, it was not murder. Walter and Rufus had been hunting together when Walter let loose a wild shot that, instead of hitting the stag he aimed for, struck Rufus in the chest. Rufus fell heavily onto the shaft of the arrow, driving it deep into him and sealing his fate. Walter tried to help him, but there was nothing he could do. Fearing that he would be charged with murder, Walter panicked, leapt onto his horse, and fled.

To the chroniclers, such an 'Act of God' was an entirely apt and just end for a wicked king.

Others are not so sure. They point out that even the chroniclers admit that Walter was reknowned as a keen bowman, and unlikely to fire such an impetuous shot. And why did Rufus' brother Henry, who was among the hunting party that day, insist that there should be no pursuit of Rufus' killer? In fact, Henry instead left immediately for London, where he was then crowned king in place of Rufus.

Was Rufus' death masterminded by his brother Henry? We will never know. All the evidence has long since rotted into oblivion, leaving only Rufus's Tomb as a reminder of that fateful day. Perhaps, however the final words on the matter should be left to Abbot Suger, another chronicler, who was Tirel's friend and who sheltered him in his French exile:

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.

Rufus, in case you were wondering, was William's nickname. It means 'red' - and another, more minor mystery of Rufus' life is why he was so called. Some accounts suggest that he had red hair, or perhaps a ruddy face. Others, notably his lifelong foes the chroniclers, insist that he was given his nickname for his foul and violent temper.

Rufus died 900 years ago on August 2nd, 1100. You can read more about his life at the Columbia Encyclopaedia. In Minstead, a village in the New Forest, a memorial stone was raised in the eighteenth century to mark the place where Rufus died.

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Copyright 2001 Dr Tom J Rees. All rights reserved.