William II (Rufus), the third son of William the Conqueror, ascended to the English throne upon his father’s death in 1087. Thirteen years later, he died in circumstances that have never been fully explained: accident, as the regicide claimed, or murder? Perhaps that lack of a concrete explanation has something to do with reports, these nine hundred years and more, of his apparition, staggering from the place where he met his death.
He was named for his father–Guillaume in French, William in English–and acquired the nickname Rufus for his sandy hair and red complexion.
Rufus was never trained for the kingship. His eldest brother, Richard, William I’s heir, who should have been king, died in a hunting accident in Hampshire’s New Forest in 1081. On his deathbed, in 1087, the Conqueror bestowed his duchy of Normandy on his second son, Robert Curthose, and the throne of England, then considered a lesser holding, on his favorite son, William.
William Rufus was, when he ascended the throne, around thirty years old. In his first year as ruler of a kingdom still not reconciled to Norman rule, he was challenged for the throne by his older brother, Duke Robert. William, by promising lower taxes and certain privileges to the English nobles, garnered enough support among them to fight off invaders led by his brother. When the immediate crisis passed, and Robert had retreated back across the Channel, Rufus reneged on his promises. So his nobles detested him.
So did the English peasantry, angry because he and his court would make progresses through the country that consumed food and other resources that communities could ill afford to lose. He also shut off more land to farming and to hunting, creating forest areas in which no one but he and his nobles were allowed to hunt, thus depriving the peasantry of even more resources.
Most of all, though, he was hated by England’s clergy. The country was still, as was Europe, Catholic, and William won himself disgust and disapproval from the English clergy by installing Normans in high church positions and by refusing to fill certain vacancies in church office at all, keeping the revenues raised in those areas for the crown.
That particular offense was quite common among post-Conquest rulers. However, there were other sins laid at William Rufus’s door that were considered damnable by the church chroniclers of the day, although they never specified in writing what those vices were. They merely muttered darkly that William had far too many handsome young men at court, that he–unlike his brothers, both of whom fathered notable numbers of illegitimate children, and were married multiple times–seemed to have no female mistresses and no inclination to marry and father an heir.
Even those vices, though, were not the darkest ones. William openly mocked the clergy, refused (save for a brief conversion during a severe illness) to observe fast days, attend mass or say prayers, and at one point was even heard to say “God rot him!” of a newly-elected pope.
Perhaps all these hatreds, taken together, would account for the manner and handling of his death.
On the evening of August 2, 1100, William and seven trusted companions were hunting in the New Forest. The group included his younger brother Henry and William’s favorite hunting companion, one Walter Tirel or Tyrel.
Sometime around seven PM, Tirel would later claim, he and William were at a stand separate from the rest of the party when a deer rushed past, driven into the pair’s line of fire by forest wardens. Tirel claimed later that he had shot at the deer but his aim was off; the arrow ricocheted off an oak tree and struck the king in the chest. Rufus, he said, tried to pull the shaft out but only succeeded in breaking it off; losing blood rapidly, he pitched forward onto his face and drove the shaft through his heart. He was dead almost instantly.
The hunting party summoned no priest, nor even took the body back to the nearest village–a small place called Minstead. William was left lying in the woods where he fell. His brother Henry made hell for leather to the cathedral town of Winchester, where he essentially claimed the throne for his own by securing the royal treasury. Three days later he had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey in London.
Tirel promptly rushed off to the coast and boarded a ship bound for France, beyond the reach of any law that might have been inclined to arrest him for regicide. On the way, so the story goes, he stopped long enough to wash his hands in a pond on the grounds of a private home called Castle Malwood.
William’s body was found, after all the nobles had left, by a charcoal burner called Purkis, who placed it on a cart and took it some eighteen miles to Winchester Cathedral, with blood droplets falling at every step.
The monks of Winchester left the body lying overnight. They never cleaned it, said no masses over it. The next day, without ceremony, it was buried beneath the floor of the cathedral tower.
So what are we, nine hundred years and more later, to make of this odd death? Some have theorized that the death was some sort of ritual sacrifice, basing that thought on the unproven notion that William was a practitioner of some pagan religion. Others point the finger squarely at Henry, the younger brother who succeeded William on the throne; William, who distrusted his younger brother, had specifically disinherited him, in which case the throne would have gone to the older brother Robert, Duke of Normandy.
Robert did try to take the throne from this young upstart, only to be captured and imprisoned, with Henry claiming overlordship of Normandy, until Robert’s death in 1134.
It’s said that, for nine hundred eleven years now, every new forest warden who takes up duties in the New Forest is told a secret: the truth of what actually happened on that spot, now marked with a memorial known as the Rufus Stone, so long ago.
Others say that, on every August 2, the waters of the pond at Castle Malwood turn red, as they did when Walter Tirel washed his hands there.
And there are reports that, on August 2, William’s ghost is seen moving along the path Purkis took to the cathedral, following the trail of his own blood.
Carolly Erickson, Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs (2003)
Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History: The Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More (2003)
John Michell, The Traveler’s Key to Sacred England: A Guide to the Legends, Lore and Landscape of England’s Sacred Places (1988)
Richard Jones, Haunted Britain and Ireland (2002)
Eric Maple, Supernatural England (1977)