The main thing to remember about royal power in England in the 11th and 12th Centuries is how crude it could be. William the Conqueror, who died on 9 September 1087, and who had prevailed in a closely-fought battle at Hastings to seize the English Crown, apparently had such a fit of conscience-spilling on his deathbed that he refused to name any of his sons as his heir. In many ways, this was understandable: only nine years previously he had gone to war against his eldest surviving son Robert – and had come off worse, being forced to hand Robert the Duchy of Normandy. By rights, as the eldest son, Robert should then have succeeded as Robert I of England, but William refused to name either him, or either of his next sons, William and Henry, as the next king (the Conqueror’s eldest son, Richard, had been killed in 1074, in a hunting accident…).
As it turned out, it was William (known as “Rufus” because of his red hair) who would succeed, by virtue simply of being closest to the royal treasury at Winchester at the time. He was crowned on 26 September 1087. He would turn out to be quite a different ruler to his father, being notable for his greater capacity for cruelty, but was also known to be malicious and treacherous in his dealings with others. Opponents to his policies would face mutilation or worse. He delayed appointing a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and in the intervening period seized the appropriate rents for himself (thus making himself instantly unpopular with church clerics – who at the time served as the historians of their day). As if to scandalize the Church even further, the new king may well have been homosexual…
For all his ruthlessness, William Rufus proved to be as able a military commander as his father, and successfully defended his kingdom from both the Welsh kings and the inevitable challenges from his older brother Robert. He even managed to secure an alliance with Robert that proved strong enough for both men to launch two successful wars against Malcolm III of Scotland – the second of which culminated in Malcolm’s death at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093, and England’s annexation of Cumbria.
Military victories, however, weren’t enough to make up for a poor image in the eyes of the Church, which wasn’t helped by William’s decision in 1097 to banish Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury – apparently as a cynical diversion tactic after a military reverse in Wales. What’s more, there was no guarantee that his brothers Robert and Henry (who proved to be even more treacherous and ruthless) wouldn’t make trouble for him at some point. The likelihood of Robert doing so was reduced greatly in 1096, when the eldest of the Conqueror’s sons went on to join what turned out to be the First Crusade to the Holy Land – almost certainly much to William’s relief. Such intrigue, however, has only fuelled ongoing speculation over the truth behind Rufus’s shocking death four years later.
While hunting in the New Forest, on August 2 1100, William was struck in the chest by an arrow, with the bowman in question fleeing the scene – and, later, the country. Henry was hunting in the area at the time, and as soon as he heard about his brother’s death he rode straight to Winchester to grab the royal treasury – as William had done so nearly thirteen years before on their father’s death. OK, this doesn’t necessarily mean Henry had had a hand in William’s death: it could just as easily have been ordered by Robert, and Henry’s response was motivated as much by the need for continuity and to keep order, as by outrage over his brother’s sudden demise. Rufus’s biographer, Frank Barlow, isn’t convinced by the conspiracy theories:
Historians… have hinted that barons… had arranged William’s death. But there is not a shred of good evidence and the theory merely avoids the obvious. Hunting accidents were, after all, not uncommon.
Such hunting accidents (if they were accidents) had, moreover, also put paid to William’s big brother Richard, and also to his favourite nephew in May 1100. Then again, how exactly is it possible “accidentally” to shoot the King of England? The controversy continues…