Friday, December 2, 2011

The Mysterious Death of King William the Second

by Judith Arnopp

The New Forest is a timeless place, many areas remaining unchanged since medieval times. If you venture away from the tourist spots you will find ancient woodlands, rusty coloured streams and vast areas of heath that seem to belong to another era.

As a child, I spent so much time in The New Forest that it became like a second home. Even now, forty odd years later, the aroma of heather, the tang of the pine, the vague hint of the salty Solent evokes those wonderful days. The tales of William Rufus and the ‘Rufus Stone’ were familiar, repeated over and over until they became part of my psyche. I could easily imagine him riding out to hunt with the hounds baying and the pennants casting an unnatural splash of colour on the woodland.

A few years ago when I was looking around for ideas for my next novel, the name William Rufus seemed to jump from nowhere into my head and I quickly determined that The New Forest would provide an ideal setting for my story; a story that was already embedded in the British consciousness. The mystery surrounding the death of William Rufus.

The early Norman period is very much neglected in fiction. Perhaps the events were too long ago for to us to properly engage with, or maybe publishers are just not prepared to take the risk of straying too far from their beloved Tudors. As a lover of early British history I think there is a place for fiction set earlier in the calendar and so I went ahead regardless. The Forest Dwellers is not just the story of Rufus but the early Norman regime and the mysterious deaths of the Conqueror’s sons form the backdrop to the fiction of Ælf and Alys.

The Domesday Book tells us that in 1065, before the invasion, the villages cleared for the main part of the forest consisted of an estimated five hundred families, possibly two thousand men, women and children. This estimate does not allow for slaves, personal retainers or men working under villains, it only represents the landowners or occupiers. Not a huge number when compared with devastation caused elsewhere by the conquering Normans but enough, I think, to generate a considerable amount of resentment. The defeated Saxon population of England did not welcome the Normans; all over Britain there are accounts of uprisings and dissent. There were Saxons who fought and lost, those who retired into obscurity to die in poverty and want, and there were those that collaborated, pretended to accept Norman authority. In the forest new rules meant that making a living was impossible – punishment was harsh and frequent but life went on, people lived and died in oppression while memories of the old way of life slowly faded. The thing that remained unchanged was hatred and resentment for the Norman interloper.

Like the Saxon kings before them, the Normans were lovers of the hunt but whereas Harold and his predecessors were content to share the forest with the commoners, the Normans were less tolerant.

King William the first had four sons, Robert (known as Curthose, later to become Duke of Normandy); Richard, who died young; William (known as Rufus, his father’s successor as King William the second); and Henry (known as Beauclerc, later to become Henry 1). The king’s second son, Richard, should have inherited the English throne but he predeceased his father. Records of Prince Richard’s death are scarce, most simply relate that he was killed during a chase in The New Forest.

Fatal hunting accidents were not uncommon but losing his heir to the English throne was King William’s first major blow. The people of the forest would undoubtedly have seen it as divine retribution and there would certainly have been no mourning or pity among the commoners. It occurred to me that, perhaps, twenty years later, the memory of the first royal death in the forest gave life to the more mysterious demise of his brother, King William Rufus.

According to William of Malmesbury, William Rufus was ‘well set; his complexion florid, his hair yellow; of open countenance; different coloured eyes, varying with certain glittering specks; of astonishing strength, though not very tall, and his belly rather projecting.’

Not a very flattering picture and, all in all, William seems to have been a complex fellow. He was popular among his companions but his relationship with his brothers was volatile and the church regarded the king almost as an anti-Christ. Rufus was a very luke-warm Christian and not above selling church positions to the highest bidder rather than filling them by appointment. He left many positions empty, depriving the church of revenue and pocketing the income himself.

The most recorded characteristics of the king seem to have been his love of hunting, rich cuisine (particularly eels), a predilection for young male companions and excessive monetary greed. He was a man of eclectic tastes, his companions at court were reported as effeminate, adopting ridiculous fashions and wearing their hair long. Some say he was homosexual, some that he was not but there are no recorded offspring, either legitimate or otherwise but this does not mean that he did not father any children. A man like Rufus would be more than capable of ignoring his responsibilities. In The Forest Dwellers, which is a fictional tale, he is an amiable but selfish man whose sexual impartiality eventually leads to his downfall.

On the day of his last hunt Rufus had been taken ill and the outing was postponed but quite late in the evening the king, deciding he was well enough after all, called up the horses and the party rode off into the forest. The company consisted of many powerful magnates that were close to the king, among then his brother, Henry Beauclerc, and Rufus’ friend, Sir Walter Tyrell. The Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle states that ‘on the morning after Lammas Day, the king William was shot with an arrow in hunting by a man of his’. (Anglo Saxon Chronicle (E) 1099). Another chronicler, Geoffrey Gaimer stated, ‘We do not know who shot the king,’ and Gerald of Wales wrote, ‘The King was shot by Ranulf of Aquis.’ Research into Ranulf of Aquis draws a blank, there is no clear indication of who he was but what is clear is that Rufus’ death was as much a mystery then as it is now.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle goes on to say what a wicked fellow Rufus had been but it must be remembered that the church had many grievances with Rufus. In fact all contemporary accounts written of William Rufus are the work of those with an agenda against him, so the picture we have of him is distorted.

At the time there seems to have been little fuss made about who shot the fatal arrow but Rufus was dead, his body abandoned in the forest while his erstwhile companions fled to secure their holdings and their place in the court of the new king.

Tradition has it that Rufus’ body remained where it fell until it was picked up by a charcoal burner named Purkiss, and taken to Winchester for burial. Rufus’ brother, Henry, being in the right place at the right time, became the next monarch and perhaps had a reason for not pursuing the truth – perhaps he was complicit in his brother’s death, perhaps not.

Later historians and fictional representations of the tale point the finger at Sir Walter Tyrell, Lord of Piox de Picardie in France and friend of the king. The night before the hunt Rufus is said to have presented Tyrell with two rather splendid arrows with the words ‘to the good archer, the good arrows.’ It was one of these arrows that was later found embedded in the king’s heart. Allegedly Tyrell shot at a stag but the arrow deflected and lodged in the king’s chest. Tyrell, on seeing what he’d done, fled to France.

Tyrell was never pursued for his crime, perhaps it suited the new king that he was never found and questioned, perhaps he housed dangerous truths. Some say he was Henry’s man, paid well for his services but, although Henry undoubtedly had the best motive, Tyrell spent his remaining years exiled in France, receiving no reward and never speaking out against the English king. Therefore, his involvement seems unlikely and one chronicler, Abbot Suger, maintained until he died that, ‘It was laid to the charge of a certain noble, Walter Thurold, 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 fact remains that almost a thousand years have passed since that day and during those centuries, historians have been over and over the story, seeking a culprit, patching together fact and fiction, mismatching truth with legend until the real story is totally lost in speculation. I suppose the main message I want to make in The Forest Dwellers is this – The forest was teeming with people that day, it could have been anyone!’

The Forest Dwellers is an action packed adventure, peopled with plausible characters. You will find no ‘goodies’ and no ‘badies’ just complex humans, struggling to survive in an unkind world.

The Forest Dwellers - Judith Arnopp. ISBN: 978-1-908603-0

Peaceweaver - Judith Arnopp. ISBN: 978-1849234771

The Song of Heledd – Judith Arnopp – available in 2012

Further Reading

Baring, Francis Henry, Domesday Tables for the counties of Surrey, Berkshire, Middlesex, Hertford, Buckingham and Bedford and for the The New Forest: With an Appendix on the Battle of Hastings (London: St Catherine Street Press, 1909)

Barlow, Frank, William Rufus, (London: Yale University press, 2000)

Bartlett, Robert, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000)

Doherty, Paul, The Death of the Red King (London: Greenwich Exchange, 2006)

Ginnell-Milne, Duncan, The Killing of William Rufus: An investigation into the New Forest, (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1968)

Mason, Emma William II: Rufus the Red King (Stroud: Tempus, 2005)

Poole, A. L., Domesday Book to Magna Carta 1087- 1216 (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1987)

Round, J. H., Feudal England: Historical Studies on the eleventh and twelfth centuries (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964)

Domesday Book, ed. by John Morris, (Chichester: Phillimore, 1982)

Illustrations: with thanks to

Cherry Wathall



  1. It sounds so vacant emotionally- being forced out of your home and into the forest to live. So cold and wet, and you probably weren't supposed to hunt the king's game. Why not starve.

  2. It's a little known fact, but important to all this, that Winchester--now a provincial town--was the capital of England in the Middle Ages.

    So the story, which you've not mentioned here, that upon the instant of Rufus's death, Henry, soon to the II, rode hell-for-leather to secure the treasury in the capital makes more sense. Because the distance from the Rufus Stone (the monument at the place of Rufus's death) to Winchester is do-able. Whereas the New Forest to London is a journey of over 80 miles.

    Anyway. There was a funeral cortege of sorts for Rufus. There's a blue plaque on Bell Street in the town of Romsey stating that the body of William Rufus was carried down Bell Street as they passed through the town on the way to Winchester.

    I don't know, is William Rufus one of those who's entombed in Winchester Cathedral?

  3. I too spent many childhood hours in the New Forest, it was a popular destination for my family when I was growing up as it was less than an hour from where we lived. Those family outings gave me a deep-seated love of the forest areas of our country. I loved reading The Forest Dwellers because I could vividly see its setting. It's great to read a book set in such a little-used era of history. More, Judith, please!

  4. Very interesting post packed with lots of information. I'm always loved the idea of the forest - we've lost our wild places mostly now.

  5. Love the New Forest - detest Duke William and not too keen on his sons either!

    Interesting that William II had a lot in common with Edward the Confessor - love of hunting, fine clothes, very effeminate. I'm fairly certain the family line was dominated by homosexuality. (Edward had no offspring either & Duke William was noted, during his lifetime, for NOT being a womaniser. He "did his duty" with his wife (my words) but did not take lovers or mistresses - wasn't interested. In my view, what a pity he was interested in his wife! *laugh*
    Hooray for Harold II of England, boo to the Normans!

  6. Re: Debra's comment - I think the point Judith makes is that many people were happily living as forest dwellers before the Conquest, and that they were forced out of the forest by the rules of the new regime, as they were no longer allowed to hunt or carry out the forestry pursuits of their ancestors.
    What a fascinating post, as indeed is the novel. 'The Forest Dwellers' opens up to scrutiny a rarely examined part of our history, well done Judith!

  7. Glad you all enjoyed my post. when I was a child I used to love imaging Rufus the Red charging about among the trees.

    I'm with you, Helen, I dont paint a pretty picture of the Normans at all :))

    M.M. Bennetts - in The Forest Dwellers some of my characters go to Winchester for an audience with William the first.

  8. I often get an almost overwhemling desire to go back to The New Forest, like Judy said, we thought of it as home though we lived in Hertfordshire. I think it amusing the William got a stone to remeber him by but Walter Tyrell got a pub!!!!
    An interesting read Judy, and Cherry's pictures set it off.

  9. I love reading about this time period because so much was happening. I cannot imagine being a conquered people who lost so much of their personal identity in so short a time. After reading what you said about the Saxon kings and nobles sharing the forest, it makes me do the 'what-if' about English history though I know some good things must have come from the Norman culture (can't recall any at the moment).
    I have your book and look forward to the read.

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Thanks to Judith Arnopp author of The Forest Dwellers, an action packed adventure, peopled with plausible characters for sharing this article and pictures illustrating The Mysterious Death of King William the Second.

  11. Even when Julius Caesar arrived in England he described it as massively under cultivation. The monastic chroniclers, as I understand, reviled William for destroying villages -- presumably with their surrounding lands under cultivation -- in order to plant a forest for needed ship timber. In obliterating the villages, William took away churches and their incomes -- never a popular move with the monks who wrote the chronicles. In William Rufus's time would the forest be newly planted? Spindly young oaks? How much was forested before the Conqueror's time? Many fiefs had some forest lands -- a chase. Did William merely interplant existing old chases to create an extensive forest?

  12. Very interesting post, Judith. I've read both "The Forest" by Edward Rutherford and the Valerie Anand novel on the same period (the titles escapes me, I'm afraid), and they give quite different accounts. I'd be keen to read your book too.

  13. There are so many differing opinions from accident, murder, pagan sacrifice, i guess we will never know for sure.

  14. Henriette, I think the Anand book (the name escapes me too)involved the pagan ritual killing didnt it? Mine is a more down to earth but just as unlikely scenario, I wasnt presenting a serious answer to the mystery :))

    Katherine, at that time the word 'forest' denoted an area set aside as hunting land that consisted of heath and woodland, it didn't refer to tree planting. The area that became the New Forest was already used as royal hunting grounds by Cnut, Edward the Confessor and Harold (and probably before that time) but William extended the area of 'forest' considerably and threw out the tennants whereas his predecessors had let them live on and help maintain the land.

  15. Where did William II live?


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