King William Rufus – the Unpopular Norman King of England

King William Rufus was the third, and possibly favourite son of the Norman conqueror William I. After an unusual set of circumstances, William inherited the throne of England at the age of 30, despite having two older brothers, Robert and Richard.

Due to his red hair and fiery temperament, William had the sobriquet William Rufus or William the Red. Then, as king, he gained the third title William II of England.

King William Rufus was an unpopular king, especially with the church, as he showed little piety or morality. But as a great soldier, William continued in his father’s footsteps to push the Norman occupation across England. However, feuds between William and his older brother caused instability throughout the reign.

King William Rufus and his Accession to the Throne

King William Rufus remained loyal to his father, William the Conqueror, unlike his elder brother Robert. Robert Curthose, Duke or Normandy, first fell out with his father in 1077, when his younger brothers, William Rufus and Henry, threw a full chamber pot over him! Enraged by this, Robert set upon them only to be stopped by their father. William I refused to punish his younger sons, which infuriated Robert even more. In rebellion, Robert and his supporters attempted to siege Rouen, which ultimately failed. He then fled to Flanders and proceeded to cause further problems for his father.

With Robert now out of favour, Richard, the second son of William I, was next in line to the throne. Tragically, he died in a hunting accident in the New Forest in 1075. William I could now name his third son William Rufus as his rightful heir, despite Robert’s legitimate claim.

In 1087, William the Conqueror was dying from either illness or injury. William Rufus made the swift race to London, to claim the throne of England. There he was crowned king two weeks after his father’s death.

Rebellion of 1088

Robert Curthose brother to King William Rufus

With the sudden coronation of King William Rufus, over the more suited Robert Duke of Normandy, tensions began to rise. William ruled England, while Robert ruled Normandy. Nobles were unsure which side to follow, and were afraid of losing support of either ruler. King William Rufus was rather unpopular, with his arrogance and hot temper, and Robert became the popular choice.

In 1088, Robert with the support of many nobles, including the powerful Bishop Odo of Bayeux (William I’s half brother), revolted against King William. They began to pillage William’s lands, prompting the king to react, which he did. King William Rufus offered money and lands to those who sided with him. He then grew support with regional garrisons by promising better law and order throughout England. Finally, William attacked Pevensey Castle and captured Bishop Odo.

Meanwhile, Robert’s army never arrived from Normandy. Poor weather forced them to retreat, which weakened the rebellion considerably. King William Rufus destroyed the last rebellion outpost, with the siege on Rochester Castle, forcing the rebellion to surrender. Bishop Odo had his assets stripped, then forced into exile in Normandy.

In 1089, King William Rufus set his sights on Robert’s Normandy. William paid off many Norman barons in exchange for their support, reducing Robert’s influence. With little choice, Robert mortgaged the duchy of Normandy to William for 10,000 marks, financing his First Crusade to the Holy Land.

Campaigns in Scotland and Wales

King William Rufus excelled in military strategy and warfare, despite his lack of support. He led campaigns against Scotland, from 1091 to 1097; and increased his control over the Welsh Marcher Lords and Princes.

The Battle of Alnwick

King Malcolm III of Scotland invaded Newcastle, attempting to retake lands originally owned by Edgar Aethling (given to him by Robert, William’s brother). However, Malcolm withdrew when he learned of the approaching English army.

In 1092, Malcolm invaded again, this time into Cumbria to siege a new castle built by William at Carlisle. William invited Malcolm to a negotiation meeting in Gloucester, but insisted the dispute be judged by English barons. Malcolm refused to accept this and returned to Scotland to gather his army. Malcolm invaded England once more, this time ravaging Northumbria with incredible hostility.

The Battle of Alnwick ensued in 1093, with Malcolm beginning a siege on Alnwick. Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria and governor of Bamburgh Castle, arrived in force to relieve the siege. Catching the Scottish army by surprise, Robert’s army killed Malcolm and his son Edward. The Scottish army retreated back to Scotland.

Malcolm’s brother Donald seized the Scottish throne. However, Donald was soon removed (slain or exiled) from power by Malcolm’s son, Edgar, with the William’s support.

King William Rufus and the Church

King William Rufus did not like the power and wealth the church held, nor was he a religious man. The church, in turn, disapproved of William’s lack of piety and interest in religion. In 1089, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, died. William refused to nominate a successor for three years. Finally William appointed Anselm, considered to be the greatest theologian of his generation. However, William and Anselm disagreed on many issues, and their relationship suffered. King William Rufus is quoted:

Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.

By 1097, Anselm fled abroad as their relationship hit rock bottom. The Pope Urban II bluntly refused King William Rufus demands to depose Anselm, and while Anselm remained in exile, William continued to claim the Archbishop’s revenues.

King William Rufus – Accidental Death or Murder?

King William Rufus had a short, turbulent reign. His death only added to the turbulence. On 2 August 1100, William went hunting in the New Forest with four others, including his younger brother Henry. The hunting party split up into groups, and William partnered up with the excellent archer, Walter Tirel. William had six arrows, and he gave Walter the two sharpest, quoting:

Bon archer, bonnes fleches (To the good archer, good arrows)

During the hunt, William and Walter came upon a stag. Walter fired off an arrow towards the advancing beast, which missed, glancing a nearby tree, and hit King William Rufus in the chest! The king died within minutes. Rather mysteriously, William died in the same area, and by the same method, as his older brother Richard thirty years previous!

King William Rufus Death

The hunting party gathered around the dead king, and pointed out that the arrow was Walter’s. Walter denied shooting the king on purpose, realising this could be portrayed as murder. He fled on his horse to a ship for Normandy. On route to the ship, he covered his tracks by having a blacksmith switch his horse’s shoes to face backwards. However, no-one pursued him.

The rest of the hunting party left the king’s body in the woods. Henry, William’s younger brother, left the scene immediately and headed to Winchester to secure the treasury. Meanwhile, a local peasant stumbled across the king’s body a few hours later, and took it to Winchester on the back of a cart. William was buried under the tower of Winchester Cathedral with no state funeral. After securing the treasury, Henry travelled swiftly on to London to be crowned. Robert could not return from the Crusades in time to stop him.

King William Rufus Stone

Was William’s death an accidental misguided shot at a stag?

Or did Henry seize his opportunity to take the throne?

Some historians even argue that Walter Tirel was employed by a French agent, to assassinate the king. The French king could have arranged the assassination, to put the lesser threat of Henry on the throne? After all, Henry cancelled plans to invade France soon after his coronation…the mystery continues.

Today, the Rufus Stone marks the spot where King William Rufus died.

King William Rufus Facts

  • William Rufus was born in 1056, Normandy
  • His father was William the Conqueror, Duke or Normandy and King of England
  • His mother was Matilda of Flanders
  • The coronation was on 26 September 1087 at Westminster Abbey, aged 30
  • William Rufus never married, and never fathered any children
  • He died on 2 August 1100 in the New Forest, Hampshire aged 43
  • His death was seen as an accident, however, historians suggest it could have been murder

Image Source for the Rufus Stone

3 thoughts on “King William Rufus – the Unpopular Norman King of England”

  1. I was fascinated by your article regarding this period in history. Previously , I had read a novel by Edward Rutherford entitled The New Forest. This informative piece gave me an historical backround I was unaware of to date. Thankyou.


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