William Rufus, otherwise known as William II of England, sighed reluctantly, “Oh go on then! I’ll get my coat.”
It was probably the most fateful sentence ever uttered by an English Monarch.
Of course, he probably didn’t use those exact words, but he did agree to go hunting in the New Forest with his friends.
By the end of the day, he would rather have wished he hadn’t.
However, we better start the story at the beginning.
Who was William II, Otherwise known as William Rufus?
William’s other older brother, Richard, had died in a tragic hunting accident in The New Forest…
It would seem that history had a funny habit of repeating itself.
William Rufus had been on the throne for almost thirteen years. He had a bit of a fractus relationship with the nobles and certainly did not get on with the church. The clerics accused him of all sorts of different things; in return, the King banished the Archbishop of Canterbury from the shores of his kingdom.
However, he’d managed to survive this long. He was now in his forties, was robust, powerful, and according to reports, had something of a beer belly. He liked nothing more than a night out with his friends having a few pints.
Then he had a dream!
William Rufus’ dream
When he went to bed, he was all geared up to go out hunting in The New Forest with his friends the next day.
However, he had this rather terrible nightmare.
The story was written by poet, Benoit de Sainte-Maure. Albeit this story was written years after Rufus’ death.
He dreamt he entered a huge, splendid and beautiful church; even though he felt like praying, his mind kept turning to other things. He was seized with an unbelievable hunger, and so violent and all-consuming was it that he felt as if he was growing weak and about to faint, almost to the point where he would eat his own hands. And this he would have done, had there been no alternative. His gaze then fell on the altar where he saw – or so he thought – a huge stag that had been killed. In order to avoid the great act of apostasy he was about to commit on himself, he approached the animal with the intention of eating some of it, since his one and only desire was for food. At that very moment he was stretching out his hand, he suddenly realised – and it seemed to him to be absolutely certain – that it was in fact a man’s body still bleeding from the wound that had killed him. He was seized with fear and revulsion at such a hideous sight. He dreamt he entered a huge, splendid and beautiful church; even though he felt like praying, his mind kept turning to other things. He was seized with an unbelievable hunger, and so violent and all-consuming was it that he felt as if he was growing weak and about to faint, almost to the point where he would eat his own hands. And this he would have done, had there been no alternative. His gaze then fell on the altar where he saw – or so he thought – a huge stag that had been killed. In order to avoid the great act of apostasy he was about to commit on himself, he approached the animal with the intention of eating some of it, since his one and only desire was for food. At that very moment he was stretching out his hand, he suddenly realised – and it seemed to him to be absolutely certain – that it was in fact a man’s body still bleeding from the wound that had killed him. He was seized with fear and revulsion at such a hideous sight.
But so great was hunger, and so strong was his craving for food, that he was unable, despite every effort he could make, to prevent himself from being forced to eat some of it. He makes as if to pull off the man’s hand, but the whole of the arm comes away from the body. This he immediately devours, and then, not being satisfied, wants to seize hold of the second hand also, since his hunger had not diminished in the least. Fearful and terror stricken, he pulls it towards him, still attached to the arm, and eats it, but still his appetite is not satisfied.
His hunger grew and grew but could not be sated. Biting savagely into the bone and flesh, he eats one of the feet, then the whole of the leg right up to the body. At this he feels twice as hungry as before, so without the slightest hesitation he immediately sets about devouring the second leg as well. This, however, is to no avail, for it has little or no effect on his hunger. At this moment, the man’s face comes into view, and this also he feels an urge to eat. But the spectacle he beholds is a death-inducing one: an absolutely terrifying pair of eyes, so horrible and hideous and so excruciating to look at that all the remains is for him to die, and for his heart to cease beating in his breast.
When he woke the following day, 2nd August 1100, William wasn’t too keen to go out hunting in The New Forest.
However, his mates and brother soon appeared, and they persuaded him to go out.
Some accounts suggest they almost accused him of cowardice if he didn’t go out hunting with them. After all, who would believe a dream meant anything.
William Rufus’ hunting trip in the New Forest
To cut a long story short, Tirel drew his bow, took a shot at the stag, and hit the King right in the heart.
He then rushed to the King and removed the arrow, causing even worse damage. The King died through blood loss.
Tirel fled. Eventually, he turned up in France, denying he had ever seen the King that particular day.
William of Malmesbury wrote that
“The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him… The stag was still running… The king, followed it a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun’s rays. At this instant Walter decided to kill another stag. …Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless, he leapt upon his horse, and escaped with the utmost speed. Indeed there were none to pursue him: some helped his flight…”
It has all the hallmarks of a tragic accident and a man fleeing, knowing perfectly well that he would be accused of regicide, even though it wasn’t his fault.
What happened next was disturbing. The rest of the party discovered the body, and they left it there.
Henry fled to Winchester to stake a claim to the Royal Treasury. Once he secured that, he headed to London and Westminster Abbey to crown himself King of England.
As the crown was placed on his head, for all he knew the body and his brother could still be lying in The New Forest.
What happened to William Rufus’ body?
His body, or what remains of it, lies in the royal mortuary chests on the presbytery screen of the Cathedral. The skull is certainly missing.
There is now a monument called the Rufus stone that marks the spot he fell. It is close to Minstead. However, this location could have been made up as a good story to tell Charles II when he visited.
Was William Rufus’ death murder?
But when detectives investigate a murder, they tend to look at those who would benefit from the victim’s death.
There was only one person that did benefit, William’s younger brother Henry.
If you look at the evidence, it seems rather suspicious, to say the least.
Let’s ignore the dream and say that probably it never happened; it just makes for a great story. (We like great stories here!)
Let’s assume that his friends did turn up and had to coax him into going out. Why did they have to pressurise him? Why didn’t they accept that the King didn’t fancy going hunting that day? It seems pretty simple… they had their devious plans in place.
When they got to the forest, the hunting party split up. We have no idea who decided who would go with who. But it seems to make sense that if someone were going to kill the King, it would be good that there would only be two of them present so there could be no witnesses.
There is a lot of talks that Walter Tirel was the best archer in the land. Does skilled marksman miss a stag? I mean, if you have ever seen a stag up close, you will know they are pretty big. Not only that, he misses the stag and hits the King, right in the middle of his chest? It seems almost unbelievable.
Then we have Henry’s actions. They are hardly those of a grief-stricken brother. Instead of showing concern and ensuring his brother’s body was secured, and a decent burial was arranged, his first concern was getting his hands on the money. Once that was secure, he wanted that crown on his head.
He knew we needed to be quick because the last thing he needed was his older brother Robert Curthose appearing from Normandy and attempting to crown himself King.
This terrible “accident” whilst hunting has all the hallmarks of a carefully prepared and planned murder.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time a King of England had been murdered, neither would it be the last.