William Rufus was the third son and first successor of William the Conqueror. Born around 1060, his father was then Duke of Normandy, only adding England to his domains six years later when he was triumphant at the Battle of Hastings, becoming King William I.
Young William became known as ‘Rufus’ on account of his ruddy complexion or red hair, though it is difficult to determine whether this nickname was widely used during his lifetime. In accordance with the customs of the time and of his status in society, he would have had a good education, as well as military training and religious instruction. He became his father’s favourite son, preferred above his older brothers, Robert and Richard, and his younger brother, Henry.
A few years after his father became King of England, William Rufus found himself promoted in the succession by the death of his brother Richard. His good relationship with his father also proved to be in stark contrast to the attempts of the first-born Robert (nicknamed ‘Curthose’ on account of his ‘short legs’, or stature) to assert his independence as impatient heir to the duchy of Normandy, which led to an open quarrel between father and son in c.1078, though they were reconciled soon afterwards. In the 1080s, William spent time on both sides of the Channel, usually in his father’s company.
In 1087, William the Conqueror was injured in battle, and on his deathbed at Rouen, he pondered the inheritance he would bequeath to his sons. It seems to have been accepted that Robert would succeed him in Normandy, but just days before his death it is claimed that he dispatched his loyal son William to claim the throne of England. As such, his namesake was crowned by Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Westminster Abbey on 26 September 1087. Thus, at the age of twenty-seven years, Rufus became King William II.
The majority of the barons and the prelates of the English Church supported William, but some, such as Odo, bishop of Bayeux (who, as William the Conqueror’s half-brother, held substantial territory in England, including Kent) rose in rebellion in the name of the ‘rightful heir’, Robert Curthose, in 1088. William quashed this early threat, and set about consolidating his authority following it. The younger brother, Henry, divided his loyalty between the King of England and the Duke of Normandy during this time, perhaps ‘hedging his bets’ or more likely exhausting more than once the patience and generosity of the two rulers.
In his private life, William Rufus was denounced by contemporary chroniclers for his immorality, and he was suspected of being homosexual. It is true that he never married, though this would have been expected of him for the benefits of diplomacy and to secure the succession. His court may have lacked the presence of a queen and her ladies, but it was reported that the men in the king’s company wore their hair long and dressed extravagantly. Historians are inconclusive about the nature of William’s sexuality; there are no records of him having sired any illegitimate children if he had mistresses, though neither are there any specific references to any male favourites. It is worth noting that the majority of contemporary chroniclers were celibate clergymen, which may have led them to have exaggerated their accounts of the bachelor-king.
By 1090, Normandy was in a state of anarchy, and William Rufus sent troops to intervene in the north of the duchy. In February 1091, he personally crossed the Channel from Dover or Hastings, making Eu his base. Yet, when the time came to face his brother, it was in peace rather than war, for they reached terms in the treaty of Rouen. Each were to receive lands from the other and each was named as the other’s heir. William also aided Robert in suppressing a rebellion in Maine by their younger brother, Henry, who was forced to take sanctuary in the monastery of Mont St Michel. The two not only accepted his plea for surrender in April 1091, but permitted his freedom also, and it is likely he went into exile in France.
The reconciliation of king and duke was further cemented when the two sailed to England in July 1091 to deal with threats from the Scots and Welsh. It was Robert who mediated a peace between William and King Malcolm III of Scotland, though shortly afterwards the brothers quarrelled and the elder sailed back to Normandy before the year was through, and hostilities with Scotland and Wales would continue. One notable achievement of William during this time was that he took back the old English territory of Cumbria from the Scots with the conquest of Carlisle in 1092, which enabled him to strengthen England’s northern border.
William’s meeting with Robert in Normandy in 1094 did little to improve relations between the two. Henry, meanwhile, was restored to the favour of his brother, the King of England, who had to face another Welsh revolt and a baronial uprising.
In 1096, Robert embarked on the First Crusade to the Holy Land and a papal legate negotiated that William would act as guardian of Normandy in his absence, a role that led him to spend much time on the continent, until Robert began his journey back to Normandy in 1099.
In 1100, William Rufus was hunting in the New Forest, England, when a stray arrow pierced his heart. Although generally accepted as an accident, some historians have claimed that the king was assassinated. Whatever the motives, it was not Robert Curthose but one of William’s companions on that day who seized the initiative – his younger brother, Henry, who rode first to Winchester to secure the royal treasury and then to London to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, adjacent to the royal palace that houses William II’s longest-standing legacy, the Great Hall. The new king, Henry II, had his brother buried in Winchester Cathedral.
* * * * *
The main source for this article was Frank Barlow’s comprehensive biography ‘William Rufus’ (available for free on Google Books) and the entry for William II on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The pictures used are in the public domain (Wikipedia).