William II (or "William Rufus" from his ruddy complexion) was the son of William the Conqueror, king of England. William's older brother Robert had been given their father's lands in Normandy, so William Rufus was named as the heir to the other portion of William the Conqueror's lands, and came to the throne in 1087.

William was not all that popular a ruler; the Church hated him, both because he was probably homosexual (never married, never known to have a mistress, and William of Malmesbury reports that at his court young men were seen to "mince their gait, to walk with loose gestures and half naked"), and because he delayed appointing abbots and bishops to be able to receive money from Church lands while they had no one in charge of them. Also, since Robert and William weren't always on good terms, nobles who had lands on both sides of the English Channel had a difficult time keeping on both their good sides.

William Rufus died on 2 August 1100, accidentally shot by one of his knights (Sir Walter Tyrell) while stag-hunting. (The place in the New Forest in Hampshire where it happened is marked with a stone called the Rufus Stone. -- thanks, Gritchka!) He was so disliked that only a group of peasants would load his body onto a cart for burial, and the clergy refused to perform religious rites over the corpse. He was succeeded on the throne by his younger brother Henry I.

also known as William Rufus or 'William the Red'
King of England (1087-1100)
Born c1056 Died 1100

William Rufus

He was known to his contemporaries as 'William Rufus' in order to distinguish him from his father, universally known as William the Bastard. Why he was known as 'Rufus' or Red William is not totally clear; some say it it was because of his red-faced complexion, whilst others suggest that it might have been because of his quick temper. One thing howver is known, it was not down to the colour of his hair, which as William of Malmesbury tells us, was yellow.1

The Disputed Succession

Although he was the son and successor of William I as king of England he had an older brother Robert Curthose who became Robert II, duke of Normandy; hence the united Anglo-Norman realm established by William I was divided into two on his death.

The circumstances in which he came to the throne are unclear and a matter of some historical dispute. There are those that argue that the divided succession was entirely in accordance with William I's wishes on the matter and that he was angry with his eldest son Robert Curthose for allying himself with the French king Philip I. There are equally those that argue the opposite believing that there was a party in England that doubted (with some justification) Robert's capabilities as a ruler, and promoted William Rufus despite his father's wishes on the matter.

Whatever the truth of the matter, opinion amongst the Norman community in England was not unanimous, Robert Curthose had his supporters, the most prominent of which was William I's brother Odo of Bayeux, but William Rufus seems to have been to retain the support of the majority of the Norman nobility in England as well as the native English and the revolt of the Earls was fairly rapidly quashed.

As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes clear, having "promised them the best law there ever was in this land and forbade every unjust tax and granted men their woods and coursing" William did not make good on his promises - "but it did not last long". Like many politicians before and after William paid no regard to his pledges once he'd gained power and, if anything, increased the burden of taxation on the land.

In 1095 this prompted another of those regular occurences of the time, a revolt in the north, with this one led by Robert of Mowbray the earl of Northumberland. The revolt was supressed with the usual brutality and Robert of Mowbray spent the remainder of his life in prison.

William and Normandy

Having dealt with the opposition in England, William next proceeded to Normandy to deal with his brother. In 1090 he landed in Normandy but was unable to achieve any decisive military result and opened negotiatons with his brother. By the beginning of 1091 they had settled their differences and reached an agreement on their respective spheres of influence.A principle feature of this agreement was that they agreed to mutually remove younger brother Henry Beauclerk from the succession to both Normandy and England and also to disposses Henry from his holdings in the Cotentin. They also agreed to conduct a joint campaign to try and recover Maine.

Within a few years however they had quarreled over their agreement of 1091, William again invaded Normandy in 1094 and this time bribed Philip I of France to withdraw his support from Robert, thereby undermining one of the key supports of Robert's rule. Further conflict was however avoided by persuading brother Robert that it would be a good idea if he went along on the First Crusade. William even agreed to fund the whole expedition and lent Robert 10,000 marks on the security of Normandy itself.

By 1096 Robert was on his way to the Holy Land leaving William free to pursue the family's interests in France without treading on poor Robert's toes. For most of the period between 1097 and 1099 William was therefore campaigning in France, re-establishing Norman control of northern Maine but failing in his attempt to seize the French Vexin.

William and Wales

During the initial revolt against him in 1088 much of the support generated by Odo of Bayeux came from the Norman nobility sat in the English-Wales borderlands. Men like Robert of Montgomery, Bernard of Neufmarche, Roger of Lacy and Gilbert of Clare all joined the revolt reflecting a general disatisfaction with royal policy towards Wales.2

William seems to have adopted the simple expedient of buying the support of this important group of men by allowing them free reign to expand into Wales as they saw fit. In the short term this move appeared to have settled the Welsh question as by 1093 most of Wales had been subjugated by various Norman conquerors and the very men who first opposed William in 1088.

However in 1094 the Welsh rose in a widespread rebellion against their new Norman masters and in both 1095 and 1097 William found it necessary to lead expeditions into Wales in an attempt to quash the revolt. Neither was particularly successful and in 1099 William found it more politic to reach an accomomodation with the Welsh kings of Gwynedd and Powys rather than risk further involvement in what must have been seen as a distraction from the more important issue of his campaigns in France.3

William and Scotland

William had more success against the Scots; whilst he had been away in Normandy in 1090-1091, the king of Scots Malcolm III invaded the north; but when William Rufus returned to England in August 1091 he promptly marched north to counter the threat and forced Malcolm's submission at the Firth of Forth and effectively re-imposed the conditions of the earlier Treaty of Abernathy established by his father.

The following year he felt sufficiently confident of his command of the north to seize control of Carlisle and southern Strathclyde from the Scots; Carlise was subsequently to be fortified and garrisoned as the north-western outpost of Norman England an act of extreme provocation as far as Malcom III was concerned.

Malcolm reacted by invading England once more in November 1093, but he was defeated and killed together with his son Edward at the battle of Alnwick. The Scottish throne was then taken by Malcolm's brother Donald Bane. This gave William the opportunity to promote the alternative claim of Malcolm's oldest surviving son Edgar, who with William's support gained control of the Scottish throne in 1097.

William was thus able to impose a settlement of the question of the border between the respect domains of the kings of the Scots and the English; the Scots got to keep control of Lothian, whilst Strathclyde was partitoned, with the portion of that old kingdom south of the Cheviots becoming English.4

William and the Church

William does not seem to have been a particularly religous man. In fact, not to put to fine a point on it, he viewed the church with contempt, and frequently refused to appoint bishops or abbots so that he could enjoy the revenues of their benefices himself.

Despite his appointment of Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, he quarralled bitterly with him over this very issue of church appointments and as a result drove Anselm into exile in 1097. Such was his antagonism to the church that Pope Urban II would have excommunicated him had not Anselm himself intervened and persuaded him otherwise. (Presumably on the basis that excommunication would only make things worse.)

He also made efforts from early on in his reign to levy heavy taxes on the English church, which again made him very unpopular with the clergy whose standard of living was therefore reduced. He was consequently not well liked within the church and a considerable party of opposition to his rule grew up.

The death of William

On the 2nd August 1100 William went on a hunting trip in the New Forest. The story told at the time was that he was in the company of one Walter Tirel, the Lord of Poix, when Walter aimed at stag, missed, hit William Rufus in the chest, who then fell awkwardly onto the arrow, driving it deep into his chest and killing him outright. 5 Walter, seeing that William was dead, panicked and fled to France fearful that he would be blamed and punished for the tragedy.

To many of his contemporaries this was nothing more than divine retribution against an impious man and there appear to have been few arguments when Henry ordered that there should be no pursuit of his brother's killer, and promptly left for Winchester to seize control of the treasury and then onwards to London where he had himself crowned king three days later.

The best that can be said of is that he took advantage of the opportunity afforded him. But the suspicion remains that William's death was not quite the accident it was made out to be. The French chronicler Abbot Suger, with whom Tirel saught sanctuary, later wrote that;

It was laid to the charge of a certain noble, Walter Tirel, that he had shot the king with an arrow; but I have often heard him, when he had nothing to fear nor to hope, solemnly swear that on the day in question he was not in the part of the forest where the king was hunting, nor ever saw him in the forest at all.

A statement which only serves to deepen the mystery.

A more modern and perhaps more cynical view that it it was most likely that William was killed on the orders of the future Henry I and that Walter Tirel was merely a convenient scapegoat.

In any event William's body was thrown on a cart and taken to Winchester Cathedral, "blood dripped from the body all the way" according to William of Malmesbury. He was buried within the tower at the cathedral, which promptly fell down the following year.


It is generally assumed that he was a homosexual based on the rather pointed remarks by William of Malmesbury regarding the effeminancy of some of his courtiers and that he never married and perhaps more to the point never had any illegitimate children.

Other than that William earned himself the contemporary reputation of being brutal and corrupt tyrant, but he was no better or worse than the rest of his family in that regard; it was simply that his rather off-hand approach to the church earned him the universal disapproval of the clerics of the time amongst whose number were of course, all the contemporary chroniclers and historians. He faced the same problems as did his father who preceeded him and his brother who succeeded him, and dealt with them in a similar way.

The most tangible legacy of his reign was the annexation of southern Strathclyde and its transformation into the English counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported;

the King William travelled north to Carlisle with a very great army and restored the town, and raised the castle, and drove out Dolfinwho earlier ruled the land there and set the castle with his men
And also arranged for a settlement of the area around Carlisle to support his military occupation of the area and later "sent very many peasants there with women and with livestock, to live there to till the land".

This was the last significant English boundary adjustment after which England began to take something close to its modern shape and extent.


1 According to William of Malmesbury from the Gesta Regum Anglorum;

William Rufus had a red face, yellow hair, different coloured eyes... astonishing strength, though not very tall and his belly rather projecting... he had a stutter, especially when angry
Quoted by the www.spartacus.schoolnet source.

2 Which generally speaking under William I, had been one of restraint.

3 Gruffudd ap Cynan was recognised as ruler of a somewhat truncated Gwynedd whilst Cadwgan ap Bleddyn was confirmed as king of an enlarged and revived Powys.

4 This was naturally not the final settlement of the issue, Edgar's successor David I for one sought to re-occupy southern Strathclyde, but the modern Scotland-England border essentially follows the line established by William.

5 Ironically his brother Richard had also died in a hunting accident in the New Forest earlier in the year 1081.

6 Carlisle it seems had been effectively abandoned after a Danish raid in the ninth century. This Anglo-Norman resettlement of Carlise is why later chroniclers make a distinction between the 'men of Carlisle' and the 'Cumbrians'.


David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)

Articles on William Rufus at:-

TJ Rees The Mysterious Death of Red William at

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