William Rufus was the second Norman king of England, reigning from the death of the William the Conqueror in 1087 to his death in 1100. His death – being hit by an arrow whilst hunting in the New Forest – has never failed to engage historians and lay-readers, probably due to the oddity of the incident. Recently I’ve been reading into the period of the Norman conquest, primarily searching for information to the Norman earls of Cornwall (such as Robert of Mortain). However, my research was slightly derailed by looking further into the contending theories about Rufus’ death.
Rufus doesn’t seem to have been too much of a pleasant character. The name ‘Rufus’ was attached to him on account of his ‘flaming hair’: the Red King. Bryant (1953) writes of Rufus as being ‘a bad man – reckless, vicious, illiterate, cruel and blasphemous’. Whilst Warren (1959) goes even further by calling him ‘patently ungodly’ and how ‘for thirteen years from his accession in 1087 he flourished in his wickedness’. Even closer contemporary accounts are as severe; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Rufus was ‘hated by almost all his people and abhorrent to God’. However, despite all of this, William the Conqueror favoured Rufus due to his loyalty, and conferred the kingdom to him.
Various legends have evolved, including the different plots and conspiracies as to his untimely end. That it was his younger brother Henry – the future King Henry I – attempting to nudge his brother out of the picture, or more wild ones that suggest that Rufus was ‘the sacrificial victim of a pagan fertility cult’. William of Malmesbury’s account from the 12th century reveals a graphic story:
“After dinner he went into the forest with a small number of attendants. Among these the most intimate with the king was Walter surnamed Tirel, who had come from France attracted by the liberality of the king. This man alone remained with him while the others were widely scattered in the chase. The sun was now setting, and the king drawing his bow let fly an arrow which slightly wounded a stag which passed before him.
He ran in pursuit, keeping his gaze rigidly fixed on the quarry, and holding up his hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s rays. At this instant Walter, forming in his mind a project which seemed good to him, tried to transfix another stag which happened to come near him while the king’s attention was otherwise occupied. And thus it was that unwittingly and quite unable to prevent it (oh, gracious God), he pierced the king’s breast with a fatal arrow.
When the king received the wound he uttered not a word, but breaking off the shaft of the arrow where it struck out of his body he fell to the ground, thus accelerating his own death. Walter immediately ran up, but finding the king unconscious and speechless, he lept quickly on his horse and escaped at full gallop. Indeed there was no one to pursue him. Some connived at his flight; others pitied him.”
Whatever the truth, the reality was that his death in 1100 closed his brief thirteen year reign. The kingdom did not go to his older brother, Robert, who had inherited the Duchy of Normandy. Instead, the younger brother Henry snatched his moment of glory and had himself crowned three days after Rufus’ death. It inaugurated a three-decade period of relative peace in the kingdom, and eventually saw Henry return to Normandy to defeat his brother at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. The squabbling of this Norman royal family engulfed all areas of the kingdom, and this is the very connection of the Cornish earls: both Robert of Mortain and his son, William, were dragged into the intrigue and rebellions. Generally to their detriment.