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King William II Rufus: Sibling Rivalry and a Suspicious Death

History has given us some exceptional stories, heroes and villains. What do you think happened to King William II Rufus on 2nd August 1100?

King William II Rufus of England reigned 1087-1100.

King William II Rufus of England reigned 1087-1100.

William the Conqueror’s Son

Born circa 1056 in Normandy, King William II of England was also known as William II Rufus because of his mess of red hair and ruddy complexion (“rufus” meaning “red”). His father was William, Duke of Normandy, and his mother was Matilda of Flanders. In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, ended the rule of the Anglo-Saxons in England and was proclaimed King William I, William the Conqueror.

William Rufus had at least nine siblings; as the 3rd son of the then duke, it was expected that he would take holy orders. However, when his next eldest brother died in a riding accident in the early 1070s William Rufus’ career path altered. He was prepared for the day when he’d inherit a significant amount of his father’s territories.

The relationships between William Rufus and his brothers Robert Curthose and Henry were always fractious. They were rivals. William Rufus was his father’s favourite.

Shown highlighted in pink are William the Conqueror's lands in 1087.

Shown highlighted in pink are William the Conqueror's lands in 1087.

Tension: William II Rufus and Robert II Curthose

William I decided in 1087 that upon his death, his eldest son Robert Curthose would cross the English Channel and rule as Robert II Curthose, Duke of Normandy, and William Rufus would rule in England. The next son, Henry, was to receive Matilda of Flanders English estates and approximately £5000 of silver.

William I died on the 9th September 1087. As promised, Robert II Curthose was made Duke of Normandy, and William II Rufus was placed in control of the Kingdom of England. Henry received his silver but no English lands.

The ruling brothers continued to vacillate between being enemies and allies. William II Rufus supported his brother against the King of France's designs on Normandy but happily waged war from 1089-1096 and challenged Robert Curthose's rule himself. He eventually forced his elder brother to be his subordinate.

Henry was caught in the middle of his brothers' power games, and the English and Norman nobles finally lost patience and moved to eliminate the problem.

The Revolts of 1088 and 1095

The nobles planned to reunite Normandy and England under the same king, and they chose Robert II Curthose as their best option. Needless to say, William II Rufus was wholly opposed to the resulting revolt led by his half-uncle Bishop Odo of Bayeaux.

William II Rufus promised his English subjects that he would cut taxes, and they settled down. The English king didn’t keep his promise, and a 2nd revolt organised by the Earl of Northumberland in 1095 was brutally suppressed. The nobles feared for their lives and did not challenge their king again.

He suppressed a Scottish rebellion and had King Malcolm III of Scotland killed in 1893; he dominated the Welsh, and his attempts to undermine the church’s power forced St. Anselm, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, to flee England in 1097.

William II Rufus' death depicted in the 1895 publication Ridpath's Universal History.

William II Rufus' death depicted in the 1895 publication Ridpath's Universal History.

King William II Rufus’ Suspicious Death

In 1096 Robert II Curthose set out to fight in the First Crusade. To raise funds, he mortgaged Normandy to William II Rufus, and the younger brother was appointed regent in Normandy. They entered into a pact that if either brother died, the other would rule over both England and Normandy. Robert II Curthose remained at the crusades for the next four years.

On the 2nd August 1100, William II Rufus rode from Winchester Palace to the royal hunting grounds in the New Forest (situated in present-day Hampshire and Wiltshire) with a party that included his younger brother Henry and the nobleman Walter Tirel, sometimes spelt Tyrel or Tyrell.

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While hunting, William II Rufus fired an arrow at a stag, but he missed it and called out to Walter Tirel, who he was alone with at the time, to take aim at the stag. Walter’s arrow penetrated the king’s back and killed him. Walter Tirel fled on his horse and took refuge in France.

Henry Claims the Throne of England

The king’s body was discovered by farmers the following morning, and it was taken to Winchester Cathedral on a farming cart. The nobles dispersed to their estates to maintain peace after the sudden loss of William II Rufus. His burial was quickly and quietly carried out.

According to the agreement, Robert II Curthose was now King Robert I of England, Duke of Normandy. A messenger was sent to locate him. Henry seized his opportunity and claimed the English throne, taking control of Winchester Palace and the treasury. The nobles swore allegiance to Henry, and just three days after William II Rufus’ death, Henry I was crowned at Westminster Abbey by Maurice, Bishop of London. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, would normally have officiated at the coronation, but he was in exile.

Speculation swirled:

  • Walter Tirel was known to be an excellent shot. How could he miss the stag and kill his king? Was it an accident or murder? There was no evidence of murder, but there was also nothing that confirmed that an accident claimed the king’s life.
  • Was it possible that Walter Tirel innocently misfired his arrow and fled the country for fear of being accused of treason or murder?
  • Did Tirel assassinate William II Rufus on Henry’s orders? Henry benefitted hugely from his brother’s death.
  • As an alternative option, riding and hunting accidents were common. Three members of the royal family had died in such accidents since 1070. Was the king number four in a series of unfortunate occurrences?
William II Rufus memorial on the grounds of Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.

William II Rufus memorial on the grounds of Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.

Robert II Curthose Versus Henry I

Robert II Curthose made the long journey from the Holy Land to Europe to defend his right to sit on England's throne. Years of bloodshed followed.

In 1106 Henry subsumed Normandy into his kingdom. Robert II Curthose was imprisoned in Devizes Castle in Wiltshire and Cardiff Castle in Wales. He died on the 3rd February 1134 in Cardiff, and he was buried in Gloucester Cathedral.

Henry I died 20 months later. A catastrophic civil war called "The Anarchy" followed. For most of the next two decades, Henry's heir Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois spilled blood deciding who was the rightful monarch. You can learn more here:

Rest in Peace or Disquiet?

In 1107 the tower in Winchester Cathedral situated near William II Rufus’ grave collapsed. His remains were blamed. Was this a signal that foul play had brought about his demise? His bones were relocated within the cathedral during Henry VIII’s reign, seemingly without incident.

In 1642, during the 1st English Civil War, the parliamentarians desecrated the graves of former English kings and queens buried in the cathedral and scattered their bones. These bones were later placed in mortuary chests, but they were unidentifiable.

Since 2012 scientists have been trying to restore the 23 skeletons to their correct chests.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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