Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Death of William Rufus

Recent posts have talked about the sons of William the Conqueror: how he left the kingdom to his second son, William Rufus; how the eldest, Robert Curthose, had a temper and was shunted off to Normandy; how the youngest, Henry, took the throne upon his older brother's death during a hunting accident. We haven't yet talked about the hunting accident.

from Ridpath's Universal History (1895) 
If it was an accident.

On 2 August, 1100, King William II, called "Rufus" (probably on account of a red face), went hunting with a party of men that included his younger brother, Henry. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that he was "shot by an arrow by one of his own men." A later reference says an arrow glanced off a tree and went through his lung.

Details are scant. This was somewhere in the New Forest; the exact location is unknown, although later legend has picked a spot. In fact, a few centuries later, a stone was erected purporting to be on the site of the oak tree from which the arrow glanced.

William of Malmesbury claims that an archer named Walter Tyrell was responsible for the errant arrow, despite the fact that he was considered an excellent shot. Rather than carry the king's body back for burial, the hunting party left it there. Henry rushed to Winchester to seize control of the treasury and declare himself king; he was confirmed the next day. A peasant later came across the body and caused it to be brought to Winchester for burial.

Some historians claim that, if Henry wanted his brother killed, he would have waited; that William and Robert were headed for inevitable conflict, and that he merely had to wait until one of them eliminated the other, and assassinate the remaining brother. We know, however, that Robert was still away on the First Crusade, the money for which he had been given by William. At that time, it looked like Henry's elder brothers were getting along. Henry might also have been aware of the agreement between his brothers to be each other's heir. If Henry wanted his chance to be king, he had to seize it and consolidate power while Robert was far away and in no position to assert his claim. Henry also used his coronation charter, the Charter of Liberties, to cement the loyalty of the nobles.

We will never know for certain if William's death was an accident, but the situation so clearly benefitted his younger brother that it is difficult to shake the suspicion that it was engineered.

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