William Rufus. Dulwich Picture Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Rufus the Red – Assassination or Accident?

Being the third son of William the Conqueror would set anyone up for a challenging life. With a father like that, you’re either going to grow up a bullish and

William Rufus. Dulwich Picture Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William Rufus. Dulwich Picture Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

greedy tyrant, or a blathering mass of jelly. William Rufus – William II, aka Rufus the Red due to his red hair and hot temper – took the former option and did it with aplomb.

Interestingly, history seems to make little reference to this detested king, focusing more on his father and successor brother, Henry I. However, during his thirteen-year reign, he was surprisingly successful at managing peace across his lands, whilst also needling the church, the Scots, and the Welsh from time to time too. Thus, though it’s possible that his legacy has got lost in the mists of time because  he left no heir and never married, it’s most probably because his reign was sandwiched between William the Conqueror – one of the most famous English kings – and Henry I, a king who was very aligned with the church. Remember, it was the clergy and monks who were, after all, the chroniclers of the time.

The Death of William the Conqueror

When William the Conqueror (William I) died in 1087, England was pretty glad to see the back of him. Not only had he invaded, taken over, and changed things for ever more, but he’d been brutal into the bargain. Then add to that the fact that he actually spent most of his time in France, and you can see why a few noses were piqued.

However, though William I’s demise was not lamented, he was canny with how he split his estate on his deathbed. To his eldest son, Robert, who had become an enemy he’d battled him many times, he left the Duchy of Normandy. To his second son, William Rufus, he left England. And to his remaining son, Henry, he simply left some money – but that didn’t remove him from the picture. More of him later.

Rufus the Red’s Lot – England

With his father out of the way, Rufus had a few things to consider. England wouldn’t have been his first choice; he’d have preferred Normandy. And his brother, Robert, was not his best mate; there are stories of him tipping the contents of his chamber pot over Robert’s head when they were children, and the relationship had sunk further from there.

However, what was of major significance was that William I had created a weird dynamic between Robert, Rufus, and the barons who served each leader. Bearing in mind the Conqueror’s background, it’s no surprise that much of the nobility under him had land in both Normandy and England. However, with two warring leaders facing off to each other across the water, their allegiances were split. On the one hand, if they supported Robert, Rufus would no doubt make them pay for their disloyalty and snatch back their English assets. But on the other hand, if they supported Rufus, Robert would no doubt do something similar.

Rufus’s Relationship with his People and the Church

He was not a popular ruler. In addition to his harsh demeanour, he favoured heavy taxation to fund his fighting aspirations. North, south, and west, his beady eyes had a target. And though he enjoyed a measure of success against the Scots with respect to Cumberland, he was less successful against Wales… and Normandy, his brother’s stronghold, was a different matter.

As with his relationship with his people, so was his relationship with the church. In his childhood, he was tutored by the Abbot of Caen, which gave him a close insight into monastic life. With a father as colourful as his, it may be no surprise that this lifestyle was not something he connected with. Thus, when his elder brother, Richard, died in a hunting accident in 1075, and he was brought back to his father to serve by his side, his disaffection for the church will not have been rebuffed. The Conqueror was a bully to the church, and Rufus will have watched his father dishing it out plentifully.

When Rufus came to the throne, he often neglected to fill bishopric seats and instead appropriated their incomes for himself instead. His relationship with the Bishop of Canterbury, Anselm, was particularly strained. A tension he probably played on to his advantage, for his bullying eventually saw the bishop flee into exile, which left his sizeable income to be snaffled up by the king too.

The Night Before the Hunt

What’s known for sure is that Rufus was killed by an arrow whilst out hunting in the New Forest on August 2nd, 1100. However, the circumstances that surround that event are shrouded in uncertainty… even within the Chronicles.

The chronicler, William of Malmesbury, penned details of Rufus’s death whilst he was writing The History of the English Kings some twenty years later. He wasn’t Rufus’s biggest fan, however, and his slant on things suggests that Rufus had it coming to him.

Amongst the writings of the events, Rufus is said to have had a strange dream the night before he died. He dreamt of being bled and blood suddenly spurting upwards, hiding the sun, and settling darkness across the land. It was a dream that shook him so hard he needed company to fall back asleep again.

And his wasn’t the only dream to be written about. Apparently, a monk also dreamt of strange events. He saw the king striding arrogantly into the church and seizing the crucifix. In his scornful way, he then proceeded to bite at the arms and legs of the figure, until it sprung to life and fought back. With flames suddenly springing from William’s mouth, he then fell back… the devil clearly buried deep within him.

The Abbott of Gloucester had written urgently to the king to warn him of the monk’s dream. However, Rufus was not one for listening to the wittering tongues of the clergy. Instead, he feasted and drank to sooth his fears from his own dream before heading off on his hunting trip.

The Hunting Party

The hunting party consisted of Rufus; Gilbert de Clare and his brother, Roger; Walter Tirel, their brother-in-law; and Henry. As the hunting group headed into the New Forest, they spread out. It transpired that Rufus and Walter Tirel were left together. Rufus spotted a stag and fired an arrow, but it merely grazed the beast, which then ran off. As he followed its path, he had to shield his eyes from the sun, and at that moment, Tirel shot at a second stag. Tirel’s arrow, however, found a different target. It plunged deep into the king’s breast. Rufus’s hand must have automatically grabbed at the arrow and tried to pull it out. The end broke off and he fell to the ground, most likely speeding up the inevitable.

Of course, Tirel will have rushed across to find the king dead. He then must have decided this wasn’t the moment to hang around – regicide being no small thing – for he scarpered. But when Rufus was discovered, surprisingly it seems no one bothered to give chase. Instead, rather than taking the steps you’d expect honourable men to take when finding their king dead, it appears that they left Rufus’s body too. And it was a charcoal burner called Purkis who finally discovered him, loaded the king into a cart, and transported him to Winchester Cathedral. Lovely mates, eh?!

With his elder brother in Normandy, Henry immediately sped to Winchester, where the king’s coffers were held. With control of the money, he was then able to seize the throne, and he was crowned king just three days later on August 5th.

Question Marks Abounded

Many questions hovered on everyone’s lips. Was Tirel an assassin in the employ of the new king? Or was this simply a fateful hunting accident? Hunting was a dangerous sport and deaths were not uncommon. However, what followed could suggest he did indeed carry out the dastardly deed.

The first thing Tirel did was flee to France. Now, he may have decided to do that simply because the finger of suspicion would have naturally fallen on him. But he may have done it because he was guilty. However, guilt isn’t enough to understand this state of affairs… motive is critical too.

Many have suspected that he was tasked with this job by Henry. Henry had, after all, seemed very ready to grab the throne once it had happened. However, fratricide was deemed even then to be a very ungodly thing to do. Henry will have been aware of this and he wouldn’t have wanted anything to undermine his reign. Let’s face it his brother, Robert, wouldn’t have been happy about not getting a look in for the throne and he’d have grabbed at any chance to destabilise things.

Thus, Henry’s involvement will always be a matter of conjecture. However, what is of note, is that not only did no one pursue Tirel to drag him back to England to answer for his crime, but his son was allowed to inherit all his English wealth. Usually, in the event of a crime, a man’s wealth would be forfeit to the crown, so this was an extremely unusual turn of events.

Thus whether it was simple opportunism or fatal skulduggery on Henry’s part, we will never know. But it’s all highly suspect.

Rufus the Red’s Legacy

When Henry snatched the throne, he issued a royal proclamation called the Coronation Edict. This edict was probably an attempt to pacify the clergy quickly. Henry was, after all, a believer and the antithesis of his brother when it came to matters of the cloth.

The edict set out a series of rights of the church, landowners, heirs, and… believe it or not… widows. According to some writers, when things flared up a hundred years later between King John and the barons, the Coronation Edict was dusted off. It’s reading a century after it was written then inspired an updated version that eventually became Magna Carta. And, if this is the case, perhaps Rufus the Red should have a greater prominence in our thoughts for having unwittingly been the motivation for the original text that then influenced one of the most significant documents in English history.


If you’d like to find out more about the death of William the Conqueror’s death, it’s worth a read. Just click here. Bearing in mind the import of the man in English history, the days after his demise are somewhat surprising.