King William II of England was killed by an arrow while out hunting on Thursday 2nd August 1100 (at the spot marked by the stone in the photo). Most historians say that this was an accident, and that the stray arrow was fired by Walter Tyrel, one of William’s companions. However, there is the intriguing possibility that it was not an accident after all.
Death in the Forest
The New Forest is the best known of the many hunting reserves that William’s father, King William I (the Conqueror), had created in England for his personal use. It occupies a large part of south-west Hampshire (and a small bit of Wiltshire) and it exists today as one of England’s national parks. It is a mixture of woodland (both broadleaved and coniferous) and open lowland moorland, with relatively little cultivated or pasture land. There are parts that King William would recognise were he able to visit it today.
The hunting consisted of shooting arrows at deer as they ran past stands where the hunters were positioned. The deer were chased into a channel between trees and bushes that provided suitably hidden sites for the stands. If one hunter missed, a companion on the other side of the channel would probably hit.
However, if a huntsman were to swing round with his crossbow as the deer passed, and then miss, there was the possibility that he could shoot a fellow huntsman on the other side. That is what appears to have happened in this case.
King William (who is always known as William Rufus because of his florid complexion) was hit full in the chest. He is believed to have fallen forward and driven the arrow further into himself as he fell. He would have died almost instantly.
Accident or murder?
The reported behaviour of William’s fellow hunters, immediately after his death, has given rise to much speculation as to what really happened.
Walter Tyrel, who was a close personal friend of the King, did not raise the alarm and send for help. Instead he got on his horse and rode straight for the coast, from where he took a boat for France.
He does not appear to have been alone in fleeing the scene, because William had other companions with him at the time. It was left to some local farm labourers (possibly the beaters who had been driving the deer) to find the body and take it on a cart to Winchester, dripping blood as it did so.
If the death was purely accidental, why did everyone present suddenly get a guilty conscience and run off as fast as they could? It is possible that, under the circumstances, Tyrel and the others believed that they would have been hard pressed to prove their innocence and they feared the prospect of being tortured until they confessed to a crime they had not committed. Thoughts of self-preservation might easily have been uppermost in their minds.
Flight was not therefore necessarily an admission of guilt. It could well have been the most logical choice to make. Walter Tyrel never admitted to firing the fatal arrow, aimed either at the king or the deer, so he clearly believed that somebody else did. He may indeed have had his suspicions about who the guilty party was, but he had no intention of hanging around until he was forced to say what he knew.
Who wanted Rufus dead?
In any case of suspected murder, the finger of suspicion points at whoever has most to gain from the death of the victim. When that victim is a monarch, the obvious beneficiary is the next in line to the throne. However, that poses a problem in the case of William Rufus.
The three sons of William the Conqueror
King William I had three sons who lived to adulthood, namely Robert (probably born in 1054), William (born between 1056 and 1060) and Henry (probably born in 1068). As is clear from the dates given, there is some uncertainty about their actual ages, but the order of their births is clear enough, as is the fact that Henry was, by some, margin, the youngest of the three.
King William I was the legitimate Duke of Normandy and King of England by conquest. He neither liked nor trusted any of his sons (and they felt the same way about each other). William had no intention of rewarding any of them by naming them as his sole heir, so Robert got Normandy (to which he was entitled by right of primogeniture), and William became King of England (where there was, up to that time, no firm tradition of the eldest son automatically inheriting the throne). Henry was allowed some land in Normandy, to keep him quiet.
The heir of William Rufus
William Rufus, although married, had no children. He may even have been homosexual (Walter Tyrel may have been more than just a “close friend”). The question of who would be the next king of England was therefore to be decided.
In 1091 Rufus persuaded the barons to nominate big brother Robert as his heir, and Henry agreed to this, although how willingly he did so is another matter. Clearly, if Robert was to have heirs, that would push Henry out of the line of succession altogether. He would need to take drastic action to ensure his path to the English throne.
An approaching crisis
The situation in August 1100 was that Duke Robert was on his way back from the Holy Land where he had been taking part in the First Crusade. In order to raise funds for the Crusade he had mortgaged Normandy to William, who was therefore now the monarch of both parts of the Norman Empire.
On his way back, Robert had found a wife for himself, a wealthy Italian heiress named Sybilla. He therefore had the means both to buy back Normandy (and thus threaten Henry’s property there) and produce an heir. Henry could see that any prospect of advancing himself could disappear very quickly. Within a few weeks, Robert would be home, so if he was to take action it would be now or never.
After Rufus died
Henry was a member of the party on the hunt in the New Forest but he was not alongside William when the fatal shot was fired. He was a mile or so away, making arrows. However, when he heard about William’s death he leapt on his horse and made straight for Winchester where the royal treasury was held. Having seized the treasury he set out for London where he had himself crowned king three days later.
Henry had therefore beaten brother Robert to the throne, and he would later campaign against Robert to make sure that there was no threat from that direction. Henry’s decisive action in the New Forest was therefore something of a “coup d’etat” that took everyone by surprise.
Did Henry order his brother’s murder?
It is entirely possible. It would have been no problem at all for Henry to have placed an assassin in the undergrowth to shoot William at the opportune moment and then slip away to report back to Henry that the deed was done. Walter Tyrel and the others may well have been witnesses to the murder and realised that they were in considerable danger from Henry, who would have had a very strong motive to silence them should any awkward questions be asked. It is no wonder, if that is the case, that they made themselves scarce as soon as possible.
It all adds up, in that the brothers loathed each other and each would do anything to further their own cause at the expense of the other two. The answer to the question posed earlier, as to who had most to gain from William’s death, is easy to answer. Henry had motive and opportunity for murder, and no moral compunction to stop him from taking advantage of that opportunity.
© John Welford