Sunday, 2 August 2020

The Death of William Rufus: Accident or Assassination?

On 2nd August 1100 King William II was killed while hunting in the New Forest.

William, also know as "Rufus" owing to ruddy complexion and red hair, was the third son of William the Conqueror. The eldest son Robert Curthose inherited William’s lands in Normandy, the second son Richard died in 1075 while hunting in the New Forest. The youngest son Henry was left no lands but was the only one of William’s four sons born in England.

The Death of Rufus (William II), Alexander Davis Cooper, 1866

William Rufus came to the throne in 1087; his reign witnessed the rule of one of the most unpopular Kings of England, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle described him as “harsh and severe” and “hated by almost all his people”. He was constantly at odds with his elder brother Robert across the channel and at war with the Scots and Welsh. He increased the tax burden to fund his war machine. He was often at odds with the church; relations deteriorated to such a degree that the Archbishop of Canterbury went into exile.

William Rufus was staying at Winchester, and having rejected a plea for reconciliation with the Archbishop, declared he would go hunting the next day.

The day started with news that a monk had dreamed that William Rufus would die in a hunting incident that day. William scoffed at the prophecy and carried on with his plans to go hunting. The party ventured into the New Forest, a Royal hunting ground as designated by his father William the Conqueror.

William Rufus was with Walter Tyrrell, said to be an excellent marksman. An arrow shot by Tyrrell had missed his prey and rebounded of a tree and through the chest of the Rufus. It could simply have been a genuine hunting incident but immediate events cast doubt on this.

Tyrrell immediately fled to France. Stories claim he had a blacksmith shod his horse with shoes reversed so that he could not be tracked. It seems he needn’t have wasted his time as no one set after him in pursuit. Even so, Tyrrell is said to have never returned to England.

The lifeless body of the king was left in the forest with no reports of any attempts to save him. His younger brother Henry, also hunting in the forest that day in the same royal party, immediately set off to Winchester to secure the Treasury and was crowned King of England within three days. A forest charcoal burner eventually took William’s body to Winchester in a cart where he endured a simple burial.

Some historians have speculated that the death of William Rufus was no accident but an assassination on the orders of Henry; the Rufus had never married and having no offspring had no heir to the throne. However, Henry’s dash to secure the treasury and rapid coronation may have been simply to secure the throne of England and deter any aspirations of his elder brother Robert of Normandy who was on Crusade at the time.. It seems we will never know for certain.

Yet, theories abound of course; it has even been claimed that the Rufus had been killed by a French agent as the English king was planning to invade Normandy. Henry was installed on the English throne as he had no aspirations to do so.

In a woodland clearing off the A31 road between Cadnam and Stoney Cross in Hampshire, is a metre high iron memorial erected in 1841, replacing an earlier one erected in 1745. The adjacent oak tree is said to be a descendant of the original tree that the deadly arrow deflected off and pierced the King’s lung. Nearby is an inn called the Sir Walter Tyrrell.

The Rufus Stone

The memorial is inscribed on three sides:

"Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100."

"King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church of that city."

"That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten, the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden."

However, historians asserts that this is not the place where William Rufus fell. In 1530 John Leland, the antiquary to King Henry VIII, claimed that the King died at a place recorded in Domesday called Thorougham (Truham). This village was lost during the formation of the New Forest by William the Conqueror around 1079; the site is likely to be at Park Farm, Beaulieu.

Henry I was King of England from 1100 until his death in 1135. On his death civil war broke out in England due to a succession crisis. His son William had died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, bringing Henry to name his daughter (and half sister to William) Matilda as his heir. Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois claimed the English crown and a period of conflict known as The Anarchy ensued. The war run to a stalemate, finally concluding in 1153 with agreement in the Treaty of Winchester that Matilda's eldest son Henry (Curtmantle) would succeed to the throne on the death of Stephen of Blois.

Stephen fell ill and died earlier than expected in in 1154 and Henry was crowned King Henry II of England the first Plantagenet king of England.

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