Sunday, 29 January 2017

When brothers won't share - the curious case of William Rufus (ruled 1087-1100)

That William II - known as Rufus because of either his red-faced complexion or his propensity to anger quickly - succeeded his father to the throne of England, despite being William the Conqueror's third son, tells a story of its own and gives some insight into the troubles that lay ahead.

At his death in September 1087, William the Conqueror had ruled Normandy for, in effect if not in fact, over fifty years and his family had held it for considerably longer. England, however, had only been added to his possessions a mere twenty-one years previously. Whether we like it or not, England, as wealthy as it might have been at the time, was not the most not the most prized asset up for grabs.

William had three surviving sons amongst whom to divide his estate; a fourth, Richard (the second born son), had - spookily enough - been killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest around 1075. The eldest son, Robert (known as Curthose on account of the fact that he was a bit of a short-arse and thus his leggings were not the longest) was bequeathed the duchy of Normandy as was in keeping with the rules of primo-geniture (first born) in that land.

No doubt in an attempt to be even handed between the three sons, perhaps to try and stave off future conflict, William then gave England to his third son, William Rufus. The fourth son, Henry (keep him in mind for later), was given no land but instead inherited 5,000 pounds of silver to ease the pain.

Despite these best intentions, this settlement caused turmoil both amongst the sons and the barons alike, many of whom owned estates on both sides of the channel and were thus caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When, rather than if, Robert and William were to fall out, they would be forced to pick sides and therefore would risk losing their estates if they chose wrong.

That the brothers were not best of friends is well illustrated from an incident that supposedly took place around 1077/78 when William would have been around 17 years old. He and his brother, Henry, had been playing dice when - growing bored - they cooked up a prank to play on Robert. You can imagine that the eldest brother might have had a "considerably better than you" attitude to his younger siblings which no doubt made them feel the need to take him down a peg or two. The details are not entirely clear but it seems they waited until he was passing below the gallery on which they stood and then either emptied the contents of a chamber pot on his head or urinated on him. Either way it would not have been particularly pleasant.

But hey! We've all done that to our older brothers, right?  Boys will be boys and all that? Robert didn't find it funny, though, and laid into his brothers so furiously that eventually William senior had to break it up. You can imagine how he must have been annoyed to be distracted from his work: "Don't make me come in there! You'll feel the back of my hand if I do." etc etc.

Anyway, sure enough, it was not long after the father's death that the problems began. A number of nobles felt that the best outcome all round would be if the two lands were united under one of the brothers which, combined with the natural sense of conflict between the three men, led to a number of plots over the succeeding years. Added to this mix was the character of the men themselves. Robert appeared to be a thoroughly ineffectual ruler, unwilling to stand up to the unruly excesses of the barons in Normandy. William, on the other hand, while he could be wise and decisive, was interested in little other than hunting and military exploits. Chroniclers of the time described him as vain, capricious, ill-tempered, blasphemous and contemptuous of religion. His apparent cruelty and greed was enough to see many nobles side with Robert in the first rebellion of his reign in the late 1080s. Robert - being next to useless, however - failed to capitalise on what could have been a golden opportunity to combine both lands by not coming to England to lead the uprising. It was relatively simple, therefore, for William Rufus to crush the rebels before too much longer.

With a free hand, William was now able to use his position to exploit his subjects and abuse his power as much as he liked. Exorbitant inheritance taxes were levied, heavy court fines were imposed and enforced rigorously. He saved the church for special attention, seeing them as little more than a huge corporation to be taxed to the hilt. He deliberately left empty bishoprics vacant for ages so that he could claim the unused salary. He clearly had no fear of the threatened eternal damnation for his actions.

Whilst he was not the best of chaps, it should be remembered that chroniclers tended to be religious men and you annoyed them at your peril as they would have the last laugh in that it was they who got to write the history by which you would be remembered. The finger was also pointed firmly at his morals. He never married and there was no mention of lovers or bastard offspring and it was claimed that he often engaged in sodomy. To the modern observer, it is pretty clear that he king was homosexual. No big deal, right? But at the time this was an affront to God and a threat to the kingdom as one of the key duties of the king was to secure the succession but providing an heir. Interestingly, even as recently as the early 1950s a text book I have described him as "one of the worst kings in respect of his morals." Our more enlightened times are a thing of the relatively recent past and are as yet still not that well-established in all corners of the world.

Enough of that! Let's get to the subject of William's curious death while hunting. It's fair to say that, since 1066, a decent number of kings have died violently in one way or another. But once you rule out battle (Richard I and III), execution (Charles I) and deposition (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI and Edward V), then William Rufus seems to be the only case I can call to mind of a king of England who was killed by accident - or was he? Are we dealing with a fatal accident or a deadly conspiracy?

On the day in question, William was in fine fettle; he loved hunting above all else. In terms of his choice of royal day-out it was the best larks evs. Also in his party were a number of other nobles, key amongst whom were: his younger brother, Henry (Aha! He's back!), the brothers Gilbert and Roger de Clare and Walter Tirel who was Lord of Poix in Ponthieu and brother-in-law to the de Clares. Shortly before they set off, a letter from the Abbot of Gloucester was delivered which warned of a monk who'd had a vision of the king's death. William, however, scoffed at the nonsensical "dreams of snoring monks" and rode off into the forest.

As the story goes, the party became separated as the chase got underway, Rufus and Tirel finding themselves alone. Startled by a stag that came out of nowhere, Tirel supposedly loosed an arrow which missed, deflected off an oak tree and struck the king in his chest, piercing his lung. What happened next is what has given rise to claims of a conspiracy. First of all, Tirel immediately fled overseas. Was this because he was worried he might be punished for his negligence or rather because he had been paid to carry out the evil deed and needed to make himself scarce? You ain't seen me, right?  Either way, he was supposed to be an accomplished bowman so it is doubtful that he would be so rash as to take such a risky shot. That said, hunting accidents were not uncommon; remember William's own brother had died twenty-five years earlier in the same forest.

More telling, though, is the behaviour of Henry. Rather than care for his wounded brother or oversee the transport of his body to nearby Winchester, he chose instead to abandon Rufus and ride with all speed to Winchester where he seized the treasury. A day later he had himself elected king and was crowned two days later in Westminster Abbey before either Archbishop could arrive. Why the haste if this was not a premeditated plan? Seizing the treasury so quickly is particularly telling as possession of the royal coffers effectively conferred power onto the person who held them.

Once Henry was king (Henry I for those that worry about such things), he was at pains to lavish favour on the de Clare brothers. Perhaps this was reward for their support in the conspiracy?

So what of William Rufus? His body lay abandoned while everyone else rushed off to secure their positions for whatever reason. He was eventually found by a charcoal burner named Purkiss, who unceremoniously dumped the body in the back of his cart and took it to Winchester where the king was hastily buried beneath the tower. That the tower then collapsed a few years later was taken as a sign - by the church - that he was ill-favoured by God due to the evil actions during his reign. His death, to them, was quite simply an act of God and nothing more than he deserved.


  1. But at the time this was an affront to God and a threat to the kingdom as one of the key duties of the king was to secure the >succession but providing an heir.< A duty in which Edward the Confessor and the Emperor Henry II had also failed, but since they were married and in good standing with the Church this was excused with the cover-story of a pious _mariage blanc_.

  2. True. Though Henry I had many children though only one legitimate male survived to adulthood- only to be lost on the white ship. Another of my blogs dealt with that ....