William II of England

William II
By the Grace of God, King of the English
Reign 9 Sep,1087 - 2 Aug,1100
Coronation 26 Sep 1087
Queen Never married
Issue Died without posterity
Royal House Norman
Father William I (c. 1028-1087)
Mother Matilda of Flanders (1031-1083)
Born c. 1056
Died 2 August 1100
New Forest
Buried Winchester Cathedral
English Royalty
House of Normandy

William I
   Robert Curthose
   William Rufus
   Adela of Blois
   Henry Beauclerc
William II
Henry I
   Empress Matilda
   William Adelin
   Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester
   Eustace IV of Boulogne
   William of Blois
   Marie of Boulogne

William II (called "Rufus", perhaps because of his red-faced appearance) (c. 1056 – 2 August 1100) was the second son of William the Conqueror and was King of England from 1087 until 1100, with powers also over Normandy, and influence in Scotland. He was less successful in extending his control in Wales.

Although William was an effective soldier, he was a ruthless ruler and was little liked by those he governed; according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was "hated by almost all his people." The chroniclers of his time took a dim view of Rufus because many literate men of the day were men of the Church, against which Rufus fought hard and long; and in Norman tradition, William Rufus scorned the Anglo-Saxons and their culture. (Cantor 1993, p 280)

William himself seems to have been a flamboyant character, and his reign was marked by his bellicose temperament. He never married or had illegitimate children; William's favourite was Ranulf Flambard, whom he appointed Bishop of Durham in 1099, an appointment based on political requirements, for a see that was at the same time a great feudal fief. It has been suggested that William was homosexual.

Early years

William's exact date of birth is unknown, but it was sometime between the years 1056 and 1060. He was a third son, born in his father's duchy of Normandy, which would be inherited in due course by his elder brother, Robert Curthose. During his youth, he was educated under the eye of Lanfranc and seemingly destined to be a great lord but not a king, until the death of the Conqueror's second son put him in the line of succession. His father's favourite son, William succeeded to the throne of England on his father's death, but there was always hostility between him and his eldest brother — though they became reconciled after an attempted coup in 1091 by their youngest brother, Henry.

Relations between the three brothers had never been excellent; Orderic Vitalis relates an incident that took place at Laigle, in 1077 or 1078: William and Henry, having grown bored with casting dice, decided to make mischief by pouring stinking water on their brother Robert from an upper gallery, thus infuriating and shaming him. A brawl broke out, and their father King William was forced to intercede and restore order.


According to William of Malmesbury, William Rufus was "thickset and muscular with a protruding belly; a dandy dressed in the height of fashion, however outrageous, he wore his blond hair long, parted in the centre and off the face so that his forehead was bare; and in his red, choleric face were eyes of changeable colour, speckled with flecks of light" (Barlow).

England and France

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 Channel. Since the younger William and 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 of them). 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. Robert failed to appear in England to rally his supporters, and William won the support of the English with silver and promises of better government, and defeated the rebellion, thus securing his authority. In 1090 he 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.

Thus William Rufus was secure in the most powerful kingdom in Europe (with the contemporary eclipse of the Salian Emperors) and, within England, the least trammelled by feudal obligations. As in Normandy, his bishops and abbots were bound to him by feudal obligations; and his right of investiture in the Norman tradition was unquestioned within the kingdom, during the age of the Investiture Controversy that brought excommunication upon the Salian Emperor Henry IV. Anglo-Norman royal institutions reached an efficiency unknown in medieval Europe, and the king's personal power through an effective and loyal chancery penetrated to the local level to an extent unmatched in France. Without the Capetians' ideological trappings of an anointed monarchy forever entangled with the hierarchy of the Church, the King's administration and the King's law unified the kingdom, rendering the English King relatively impervious to papal condemnation, as the reign of William Rufus demonstrated.

Power struggles

William Rufus inherited the Anglo-Norman settlement whose details are reflected in Domesday Book (1086), a survey that could not have been undertaken anywhere in Europe at that time and a signal of the control of the monarchy; but he did not inherit William's charisma nor political skills. Within a few years, he lost William's advisor and confidante, the Italian-Norman archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, in 1089.

Much of William's reign was spent feuding with the church; after the death of Lanfranc, he delayed appointing a new archbishop while he appropriated ecclesiastical revenues in the interim, which was protracted, and for this he was much criticised. Finally, in a time of panic during William's serious illness in 1093, another Norman-Italian was made Archbishop of Canterbury — Anselm of Bec, the greatest theologian of his generation — and this led to a long period of animosity between church and state. Anselm was a stronger supporter of the Gregorian reforms in the Church than Lanfranc had been. William and Anselm disagreed on a range of ecclesiastical issues, and the English clergy, beholden to the king for their preferments and livings, were unable to support Anselm publicly. William called a council at Rockingham in 1095 to bring Anselm to heel, but the churchman appealed to Rome. In October 1097, Anselm went into exile, taking his case to the Pope. The new pope was the diplomatic and flexible Cluniac Urban II who was not in a position to make further royal enemies. The Emperor of Germany supported an antipope, and Urban came to a concordat with William Rufus: William recognized Urban as pope, and Urban gave sanction to the Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical status quo. William was able to claim the revenues of the archbishopric of Canterbury as long as Anselm remained in exile, and Anselm remained in exile until the reign of William's successor, Henry I.

William Rufus was less capable than his father at channelling the Norman lords' propensity for indiscipline and violence. In 1095, Robert de Mowbray, the earl of Northumbria, would not come to William's Curia Regis the thrice-annual court where decisions were made and delivered to the great lords, and William subsequently led an army against him and defeated him; the earl was dispossessed and imprisoned. Another noble, William of Eu, was also accused of treachery and blinded and castrated. That same year, William II also made an unsuccessful foray into Wales. He tried again in 1097 with an equal lack of success. He returned to Normandy in 1097 and from then until 1099 campaigned in France, securing and holding northern Maine, but failing to seize the French-controlled part of the Vexin region. At the time of his death, he was planning to occupy Aquitaine in south-western France.

William also quarrelled with the Scottish king, Malcolm III, forcing him to pay homage in 1091, and seizing the border city of Carlisle and Cumbria in 1092. At the Battle of Alnwick, November 13, 1093 Malcolm and his son Edward were slain and Malcolm III's brother Donald seized the throne. William supported Malcolm's son Duncan, who held power for a short time, and then Edgar, who conquered Lothian in 1094 and finally removed Donald in 1097 with William's aid in a campaign led by Edgar Ætheling. Edgar recognised William's authority over Lothian and attended William's court.

In 1096, William's brother Robert Curthose joined the First Crusade. He needed money to fund this venture, and pledged his duchy to William in return for a payment of 10,000 marks — a sum equalling about one-fourth of William's annual revenue. In a display of the effectiveness of Norman taxation inaugurated by the Conqueror, William raised the money by levying a special, heavy, and much-resented tax upon the whole of England. William then ruled Normandy as regent in Robert's absence—Robert did not return until September 1100, one month after William's death.

The Court of William II

William Rufus had a notorious disregard for the church; his most passionate detractors are found among clergymen. Eadmer relates two incidents in which William Rufus either convinced converted Jews to return to Judaism, or attempted to do so. During his quarrels with Anselm of Canterbury, the king declared that "he hated him much yesterday, that he hated him much today, and that he would hate him more and more tomorrow and every other day."

William of Malmesbury decries William Rufus' court, which he describes as being filled by "effeminate" young men in extravagant clothes mincing about in "shoes with curved points". Orderic Vitalis makes mention of the "fornicators and sodomites" who held favour during William Rufus' reign, and remarks approvingly that when Henry became king, one of his first acts was to have his courtiers shorn of their long hair.

The unusual death of William II

Death of William Rufus. Lithograph, 1895
Death of William Rufus. Lithograph, 1895

Perhaps the most memorable event in the life of William Rufus was his death, which occurred while William was hunting in the New Forest. He was killed by an arrow through the heart, but the circumstances remain unclear.

On a bright August day in 1100, William organised a hunting trip in the New Forest. An account by Orderic Vitalis described the preparations for the hunt:

...an armourer came in and presented to him (Rufus) six arrows. The King immediately took them with great satisfaction, praising the work, and unconscious of what was to happen, kept four of them himself and held out the other two to Walter Tyrrel... saying It is only right that the sharpest be given to the man who knows how to shoot the deadliest shots.

On the subsequent hunt, the party spread out as they chased their prey, and William, in the company of Walter Tirel (or Tyrell), Lord of Poix, became separated from the others. It was the last time that William was seen alive.

William was found the next day by a group of local peasants, lying dead in the woods with an arrow piercing his lungs. William's body was abandoned by the nobles at the place where he fell, because the law and order of the kingdom died with the king, and they had to flee to their English or Norman estates to secure their interests. Legend has it that it was left to a local charcoal-burner named Purkis to take the king's body to Winchester Cathedral on his cart.

According to the chroniclers, William's death was not murder. Walter and William had been hunting together when Walter let loose a wild shot that, instead of hitting the stag he aimed for, struck William in the chest. 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. A version of this tale is given by William of Malmesbury in his Chronicle of the Kings of the English (c. 1128):

The day before the king died he dreamt that he went to heaven. He suddenly awoke. He commanded a light to be brought, and forbade his attendants to leave him. The next day he went into the forest... He was attended by a few persons... Walter Tirel remained with him, while the others, were on the chase. 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. Oh, gracious God! the arrow pierced the king's breast.
On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the arrow where it projected from his body... This accelerated his death. 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; others felt sorry for him.
The king's body was placed on a cart and conveyed to the cathedral at Winchester... blood dripped from the body all the way. Here he was buried within the tower. The next year, the tower fell down. William Rufus died in 1100... aged forty years. He was a man much pitied by the clergy... he had a soul which they could not save... He was loved by his soldiers but hated by the people because he caused them to be plundered.

To some chroniclers, such an 'Act of God' was a just end for a wicked king. However, over the centuries, the obvious suggestion that one of William's many enemies may have had a hand in this extraordinary event has been repeatedly made. Even chroniclers of the time point out that Walter was renowned as a keen bowman, and unlikely to fire such an impetuous shot. And William's brother Henry, who was among the hunting party that day, benefited directly from William's death, as he was shortly thereafter crowned king.

Abbot Suger, another chronicler, was Tirel's friend and sheltered him in his French exile. He said later:

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.

The Rufus Stone

Rufus Stone
Rufus Stone

A stone known as the Rufus Stone marks the spot where some believe he fell.

The inscription on the Rufus Stone reads:

Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrell 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.

The current monument is made of cast iron and was erected in 1865.

Fictional treatments

William Rufus is a major character in Valerie Anand's historical novel, King of the Wood (1989).

He is also a major character in Parke Godwin's Robin and the King (1993), the second volume in Godwin's reinterpretation of the Robin Hood legend.

William II is indirectly the subject of two historical novels by George Shipway, called The Paladin and The Wolf Time. The main character of the novels is Walter Tirel (or Tyrell) the supposed assassin of King William, and the main thrust of the plot of the novels is that the assassination was engineered by Henry.

The death of William Rufus is portrayed in Edward Rutherfurd's fictionalised history of the New Forest, called The Forest (2001). In Rutherfurd's version of events, the King's death takes place nowhere near the Rufus Stone, and Walter Tyrrell is framed for it by the powerful Clare family. Also, Purkiss is a clever story teller who manages (much later) to convince Charles II that one of his ancestors had been involved.

Flambard's Confession (1984) by Marilyn Durham purports to tell the story of William Rufus' reign through the eyes of his right-hand man, Ranulf Flambard.


  • Barlow, Frank. William Rufus. Berkeley, CA : University of California, 1983. ISBN 0300082916
  • Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages pp 280–84. ISBN 0-06-092553-1
  • Douglas, David C. William the Conqueror; the Norman impact upon England. Berkeley, CA : University of California, 1964. ISBN 0520003500
  • Hollister, C. Warren. "The Strange Death of William Rufus." Speculum, 48.4 (1973): 637-653.
  • Mason, Emma. "William Rufus: myth and reality." Journal of Medieval History, 3.1 (1977): 1-20.
  • Warren, W. L. "The Death of William Rufus." History Today, 9 (1959)
Preceded by:
William I
King of England
9 September 1087–2 August 1100
Succeeded by:
Henry I
Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

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