King William II, Rufus: Interesting Facts and Stories

Rufus means “red,” which indicates his complexion. This nickname distinguishes him from his father William I, the Conqueror. He ruled from 1087-1100. The most widely known fact about Rufus is his death under suspicious circumstances, while he was hunting. Accident or murder?

Let’s get into this post by situating his family connections.

GENEALOGICAL TABLES

From David C. Douglas (see below for reference):

 

Next, from C. Warren Hollister’s Henry I (Yale English Monarchs series):

From Dan Jones’s Plantagenets (Source):

Here is the encyclopedia of Medieval France‘s table about the early Capetians:

The Capetians have their own posts at this website. Start with Philip I, and scroll down to the other links.

BASIC FACTS AND STORIES

One Medieval historian who was born around 1085 may have actually seen Rufus. The monk-historian wrote a description of the king:

He was squarely built, with a ruddy [red] complexion, light blond hair swept back so as to leave his forehead clear, his sparkling eyes speckled with gleaming flecks, physically strong despite his modest height, but somewhat paunchy … In public and in assemblies his bearing was haughty and stiff. He would stare at people with a menacing look in his eyes and intimidate those he was speaking to by adopting a harsh tone and a studied severity.

In private and in the chamber with his friends he was easy-going and relied a great deal on joking. He was in particular a most eloquent critic of his own mistakes, ensuring thereby that any resentment at what he had done dissolved into laughter (qtd. in Gillingham 12-13)

Intimidating … severe look … easy-going in private … disarming people with jokes … a varied king.

  1. Rufus was born in about 1058, but that date is not sure.
  2. His earliest education was probably overseen by his mother, but then he entered a male world of military exercises: Horsemanship and weapons training.
  3. In 1091 he made a foolhardy solo attack on an enemy, and his horse was killed under him. He was dragged along the ground by his foot. Only his hauberk saved him.
  4. One of his oldest brothers Richard died from wounds suffered while hunting in the New Forest. Rufus became the second oldest surviving son.
  5. His brothers: Robert (older than Rufus) and Henry (younger than Rufus), the future King Henry I.
  6. Rufus and Henry were trained in the household of the Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury. Both were knighted by the Archbishop, Henry in 1086, as an eighteen-year-old, Rufus at an unknown date, but probably at eighteen as well (by 1079).
  7. Here are seven knightly accomplishments that a young man had to do: Swimming, falconry, song-writing, chess (newly fashionable), riding, archery, and combat.
  8. One day at the Battle of Gerberoi (France), Rufus and Henry were standing in the upper gallery of a house in Laigle (Normandy, France) playing dice. Robert and his friends were standing below them. Rufus and Henry urinated on Robert and his friends below. A fight broke out, and they had to be separated.
  9. This story indicates future sibling rivalry on a grand scale—inheriting their father’s kingdoms. Would Robert get them or would William junior (Rufus)? What about Henry?
  10. The problem is that Robert joined forces with his father’s enemies. In the Battle of Gerberoi, Robert wounded and unhorsed his father, but didn’t kill him. In contrast, Rufus stayed by his father’s side and displayed loyalty.
  11. Their mother died in Nov 1083, and she was the peacemaker between her sons, so conflict ensued.
  12. In July 1087, Rufus’s father was fighting his way through the Vexin, a disputed territory between Paris (where the King of France ruled and his so-called Ile de France) and Normandy. William the Conqueror was so obese that he was the butt of jokes. He died after torching the town of Mantes, from exhaustion, the heat of the fire, and internal injury when his horse stumbled in the chaos.
  13. His two sons were summoned to the king’s side, but not Robert. Only his son Henry was in attendance at his father’s death.
  14. Incidentally, William the Conqueror was so overweight that the attendants at the burial at Caen, France, tried to push the body into a stone sarcophagus, but the bloated body burst, filling the church with a stench.
  15. William I, the Conqueror, bequeathed a fortune in cash to Henry. Now what about Robert and Rufus? William forgave his oldest son of all his sins and gave him the duchy of Normandy. Without waiting Rufus went up to England and took control of the huge treasury at Winchester Cathedral.
  16. On Sunday, 26 Sep 1087, seventeen days from his father’s death, William junior was anointed and crowned king at Canterbury by Archbishop Lanfranc. All present swore fealty (religious and ritualistic loyalty). He became William II.
  17. William II took on a conciliatory and generous outlook, which misfired.
  18. One warm day in July, people gathered outside in the Norman city of Touques, and they were surprised to learn he was on board the ship. Normally important people’s arrival was announced with fanfare, but this time the king was in a hurry to take care of problems that just erupted. He arrived unannounced. He was his own herald and laughed, as he answered the crowd’s question. He rode off on a local priest’s horse, and the people ran alongside and applauded.
  19. Revolt after revolt broke out in England and Normandy, and the great lords and earls fortified their castles and seized parts of neighboring territories.
  20. But Rufus suppressed them all effectively and ruthlessly. At Rochester, for example, his artillery destroyed a wooden castle and damaged cathedral property.
  21. One hint says that he was a man of few words. In a court case against the bishop of Durham in November 1088 on a charge of treason, his words are recorded, and they were sharp and blunt and brief.
  22. So why was Rufus so successful? Robert failed to send support to England, the local lords there capitulated. Maybe England didn’t matter to Robert as much as the rich counties and duchies in France. Also Rufus was determined, was an effective general in siege warfare, and led a navy that blockaded supply lines. By 1088, success. He could enjoy his kingship for a while, until Henry came along and the next piece of turmoil from Robert.
  23. Henry wanted their mother’s properties in England, but Rufus saw no reason to give them to him. Henry had done nothing to help his older brother.
  24. In Christendom at this time, churches got their lands from the generosity of powerful landlords, and none more powerful than the king. These powerful secular rulers selected bishops, abbots, and priests.
  25. The major churches were wealthy. According to the Domesday Book (1086), the church owned twenty-five percent of England. Rich men offered lots of money to become bishops. Then they had to offer fighting men to serve the king.
  26. In 1093, Rufus, falling ill, selected Anselm to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, but Anselm didn’t offer much money, maybe £500 for the richer see of Canterbury, contrasted with Robert Bloet who offered £5000 to be Bishop of Lincoln.
  27. Anselm was a thorn in Rufus’s side. Reform movements emerged at this time, like the secular authorities having no say in selecting church leaders. Anselm also begged the pope’s permission to resign and leave England, because the archbishop and the king didn’t see eye to eye.
  28. An odd story: The king believed in a trial by ordeal when a crime was committed without witnesses. For example, fifty men were accused of poaching the king’s deer, and they had to walk three paces holding hot iron. If their hands healed well three days later, they were released.
  29. Their hand did heal well, and the accused were released. The king was disappointed. (In the twelfth century, people turned against the ordeal, and by 1215 the pope prohibited priests from participating in it.)
  30. In one Medieval historian’s account, William II was tolerant of Jews. A Jewish father asked the king to tell his son to come back to the faith of their fathers, for the son had converted to Christianity. The new convert refused to be intimidated, and Rufus was put to shame, so he let the convert go. However, Rufus often intimidated other young converts, some of whom feared pogroms, and forced them to return to Judaism.
  31. In one case Christians and Jews were prompted to debate. Rufus said if the Jews win, he would convert to Judaism. Christians were declared the winner, but the Jews complained they had been beaten by passion, not rational argument.
  32. In other words, historians who lived during and after Rufus’s time, were upset that he was a “Jew lover.” But he had no doubts about Christianity. He just seemed too relaxed about it, which didn’t suit the taste of churchmen.
  33. Now what about Rufus’s sexual orientation? Recent scholars say that he was gay. He never got married and bore children. The word sodomy was thrown around in Rufus’s day. Further, he didn’t seem interested in banning homosexuality, to Anselm’s complaint.
  34. However, one historian today points out that sodomy back then meant non-reproductive sex. Also, when moralists back then criticized Rufus for vices, it is for heterosexual misconduct, not homosexuality. When moralists could have criticized him for homosexuality, they remained quiet. As for his not banning homosexuality, it is one thing not to ban it; it is another to conclude he was one. He was simply of lax morals.
  35. As for his remaining single, he died in the hunting accident (or murder) when he was only forty. Aristocrats, especially kings, often delayed marriage for the moment politics or regional alliances helped to secure their reign or a new territory. Politics shifted around.
  36. When Rufus went out on campaign or a “progress,” great crowds followed the wagon train, including “hordes of whores.” It was like a licensed brothel. So, once again, his morals were lax.
  37. One Medieval historian who was a contemporary of Rufus said that the king “never married, but was insatiably addicted to obscene fornication and frequent adulteries, giving his subjects a damnable example of shameful debauchery.”
  38. Bottom line: The evidence is not clear that he was gay. The texts are silent, and even indicate he was heterosexual. But this is not preclude the possibility—the probability—that some of his courtiers or hired help were gay.
  39. Just because Rufus won the peace in 1088 doesn’t mean things would remain peaceful.
  40. At this time Philip I was the king of France, and his territory was no bigger than other counties or duchies in France, so he was not all that powerful. He wanted to help Robert against Rufus because it is the principle of divide and conquer: He couldn’t allow Rufus to get too powerful by his controlling England and Normandy.
  41. Philip mustered an army for Robert, but Rufus bought him off. Says Medieval historian William of Malmesbury about Philip: “The king of France, though lazy and surfeited with daily gluttony, came belching and hiccupping to the war, but the money of the king of England met him on the way, with which his resolution melted; he unbuckled his sword-belt and returned to his banqueting.”
  42. Next, a certain rich and influential commoner named Conan Pilatus in Rouen, the capital of Normandy, agitated against duke Robert, for Rufus had turned Conan into his ally with money. Robert visited Rouen, and Conan hatched a plot. While Robert was asleep in Rouen Castle, Conan’s followers would open the gates to Reginald of Warrenne and some of Rufus’s household troops, after they had ridden through the night. But Robert found out about the plot and sent for his younger brother Henry for help.
  43. On 3 Nov 1090, the battle for Rouen began inside the town, which was wracked with hand-to-hand and street-to-street combat. Robert retreated to direct the fighting from afar, while Henry stayed and fought. Henry took Conan up to the tower of the castle and threw him off. The tower is known as “Conan’s Jump” or “Conan’s Leap,” to this day.
  44. In the aftermath of the battle, Robert appeared cowardly, and Henry brave. This difference between the two just about ensured that people wanted Henry to be the next king, if Rufus died young and without an heir.
  45. However, in Feb 1091 Rufus made a crossing with an army, and Robert had to submit, so he formally recognized Rufus’s overlordship. They made a pact that if one died young without a legitimate heir, then the other would get England and Normandy. Henry didn’t like to be cut out because he had served Robert at Rouen in 1090.
  46. Henry captured Mont St. Michel surrounded by fast tides, and Robert and Rufus surrounded it. In a moment of compassion, Robert let Henry leave, when the younger brother had run out of fresh water. Rufus was furious, even though one of Henry’s knights had caught Rufus and shown mercy by letting him go. Robert explained that he could let Henry die of thirst.
  47. From 1093 to 1095, William Rufus and Robert fought because Robert believed William had not helped him conqueror Maine, but William was busy with Scotland. They came to blows, and this time Robert got the better of Rufus because Philip of France helped him. He could not be bought off this time. Rufus sought an alliance with Henry, and in 1095 he harassed Robert in Normandy.
  48. Then in Nov 1095 Pope Urban called the first Crusade to stop aggressive Islamic jihad, which was blocking trade and pilgrimage routes. Robert decided to go and mortgaged Normandy to Rufus. Robert left for Jerusalem in Sep 1096.
  49. But Rufus couldn’t act just yet because Scotland dragged him northward or Wales westward. In 1097, after battles, King Malcolm and Margaret’s second son Edgar was Rufus’s choice to succeed to the Scottish throne. Rufus supplied troops and after resistance set him up on the throne. Margaret’s son Edgar, Alexander, and David, one after the other, ruled as English client kings. The English-Scottish border was peaceful until 1136.
  50. William II conquered Maine, a rich county in France.
  51. As for Wales, Rufus did not make much headway there.
  52. Now what about life at royal court and a few buildings?
  53. Patronage means that the leader supports his followers with rewards of land and cash. This can breed rivalry and competition in court. One prominent man was annoyed by the delay of knighting thirty young men who had worked their way through the knightly system. Their leader rebelled and had the young men’s hair shorn out of fashion. Rufus walked in and laughed and made twenty of his men cut off their hair too. The point: Rufus could deescalate a tense court by jokes and laughter.
  54. The king could get into wearing bling—jewels and crown—on state occasions. One courtier shouted, “I see God!” when he saw Rufus decked out in gold and precious stones. The king liked expensive shoes. One of his valets supplied him with a cheaper pair and the king yelled at him: You SOB! Since when has a king worn such cheap shoes? Get me some that cost twice as much!” This regal conspicuous display was meant to overawe his subjects, since kings are like gods to them (or so they hoped).
  55. Westminster Hall, the hall of Norwich castle, and Exchequer Hall in Caen, France, were built at his command and still stand today. He put a large marble throne in it.
  56. Westminster Hall was the biggest one ever built in Medieval England and the largest in Europe. However, Rufus said, “not half as big enough.” It survived the fire of 1834 and was the heart of England’s government for almost 800 years.
  57. French chivalry was very strict and honorable. Examples follow.
  58. Parole means word in French. One day Rufus was coming with a relief army to Ballon, in 1098. The prisoners in the garrison asked for release. He did, but only on parole. He fed them a good meal, but some of the king’s men objected. Maybe some of them would escape. Rufus, however, said there was no way knights would break their word; they would not escape.
  59. Rufus ransomed men captured in war quickly. One unintended consequence: his enemies fought hard to capture the king’s men so the enemies could make money from the ransoms. But good thing: The enemies fought to capture, not to kill.
  60. It was difficult to capture a castle, so Rufus used starvation to root out the people taking refuge there. The goal was to get the lord of the castle to switch sides by economic pressure because when the peasants couldn’t work, the lord lost his income.
  61. William II, Rufus, was an expert commander. He knew about supply lines and ensured that his army was well-enough provisioned. Contemporary or slightly later historians said he could have marched all the way to Rome.
  62. One nickname that has been forgotten is “Longsword,” which indicates his fighting prowess.
  63. So … was William II, Rufus, the Red king, a rogue who hated the church, or did he honor the church by building churches and holy houses? In Normandy, the churchmen liked him and even asked for relief from Robert. In England the church wrote bad things about William II, because they were powerful in relatively stable England (more stable than in Normandy, where neighbors to that duchy challenged it.
  64. Was he gay because he never got married or fathered children, or was he straight or bi-sexual? He died unmarried and childless.
  65. William II was overshadowed by his father William I, the Conqueror. Junior had not taken as much territory as his father, but who did? The Conqueror’s grandson, Henry II, would look back on his grandfather’s reign as the gold standard. William II was trust aside, even though he was an excellent military commander.
  66. Walter Tirel, lord of Poix in northeast France, shot the fatal arrow in New Forest. The arrow went through his heart. The hunting party was probably drunk.
  67. Henry was in the hunting party.
  68. Was it an accident or by design? The suspects with the motives were his older brother (a) Robert, (b) his younger brother Henry, (c) the King of France, and (d) even the pope.
  69. His hunting party scattered when he fell, as if he was a slaughtered beast. Peasants had to carry off his body. Maybe the great men didn’t want to be blamed or they looked to their own opportunity—siding either with Robert of Henry.
  70. The problem with basing conclusions only on motives is that one needs to move to the next step and look for evidence of the cause of death, on 2 Aug 1100.
  71. The evidence is simple enough. He was killed by an arrow.
  72. There is not enough collateral evidence to conclude that one of those four persons is the guilty one, though Henry had the strongest and immediate motive and the means.
  73. However, we will never know with certainty whether it was by accident or design.
  74. He was buried in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire.
  75. While Robert Curthose was out of the country, lolling around in southern Italy, returning from the Holy Land.
  76. Their younger brother Henry was crowned king at Westminster Abbey on 5 Aug.

HOUSES OF NORMANDY AND BLOIS

Rolf or Rollo the Viking

William Longsword, a Norman

Richard I, Norman Marquis and Count

Richard II, Duke of Normandy

Robert I, Duke of Normandy

William the Conqueror

Matilda, Wife and Queen of William the Conqueror

William II, Rufus

Henry I

Stephen

Matilda, Empress

RELATED

Henry II, Plantagenet

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Richard I

King John

Henry III

Edward I Plantagenet

William Longsword and His Life in the Medieval Age and His American Descendants

Royal gateway ancestors of the Northeast

Royal gateway ancestors of the Middle Colonies

Royal gateway ancestors of Virginia

SOURCES

Marjorie Chibnall, The Normans (Blackwell, 2000).

Ian Crofton, The Kings and Queens of England (Metro Books, 2006).

David Crouch, The Normans: The History of the Dynasty (Hambledon and London, 2002).

David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (UC P, 1964).

John Gillingham, William II, the Red King, Penguin Monarchs (New York: Allen Lane, 2015)

C. Warren Hollister, Henry I. Yale English Monarchs. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Completed and edited by Amanda Clark Frost.

Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (New York: 2014).

Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, eds. William W. Kibler and Grover A. Zinn (New York: Garland, 1995).

The Plantagenet Encyclopedia: An Alphabetical Guide to 400 Years of English History, gen. ed. Elizabeth Hallam, (Crescent Books, 1996).

Charles Philips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain (New York: Metro Books, 2009).

Douglas Richardson, Royal Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families (Salt Lake: Published Privately, 2013).

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