Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: William II

[An image showing Who Are All These Kings?: William II]William II was King of England during the late 11th century.

He was known as Rufus, not as is often assumed because of red hair, but because of his ruddy complexion, which became more pronounced during intoxication. He was stockily built, and had a short temper.

The third son of William of Normandy, who became William I after the Battle of Hastings, he was born in Normandy in1057.

When William I died in 1087, the Duchy of Normandy was inherited by his eldest son Robert, while William Rufus became King of England, being crowned at Westminster Abbey.

The two were always at odds with each other, and when Robert had rebelled towards the end of his father's reign, William had stayed loyal. In 1088, there was a rebellion on Robert's behalf, led by Bishop Odo in Kent, but this was quickly put down. In retaliation, William attacked Normandy with no more success.

A younger brother, Henry, attempted a coup in 1091, and this united Robert and William against him. William however showed himself to be a skilled negotiator and brokered an agreement which benefited all three, later bringing Robert over to take part in an expedition against Malcolm III of Scotland.

When Robert joined the First Crusade in 1096, he pawned Normandy to William, who from then on acted as Regent in the Duchy. William managed to regain lands in France which Robert had lost.

There is no doubt that William liked England very much, and attempted to rule the land justly. He was a good soldier, popular with other soldiers, but had little time for the church. It is possible that he was an adherent of an older religion than Christianity, but more likely that he was simply not very religious. Certainly he was disliked intensely by the clergy, and it should not be forgotten that it was they who wrote the chronicles.

They would also have disapproved of William's homosexuality.

William attempted conquests in Wales, and although he was partly repulsed a number of Welsh princes recognised him as overlord.

He also played a part in the tangled Scottish politics of the time, and when Malcolm was killed after talks at Carlisle, during which he ceded Cumbria to England, William encouraged insurrections, eventually supporting Malcolm's son Edgar as King. Edgar from then on acknowledged William, if only unofficially, as overlord.

When Lanfranc, his father's appointee as Archbishop of Canterbury, died in1089, William did not see the need to replace him, and siphoned off the revenues involved for his own benefit. This was obviously resented by the clergy.

He was widely urged to appoint Lanfranc's friend Anselm as successor, but initially refused to do so. But in 1092, William fell ill and believed that he was dying, and at that point he relented and invited Anselm to accept the position. Anselm was not very keen, but agreed under pressure from his colleagues.

There was also a political difficulty within the church, as it was the time of the Great Schism, with one Pope in Rome and another in Ravenna. William tried to sort it out as it affected England, but Anselm felt it should have been decided by himself, not the King. The position became so intolerable that Anselm went into self imposed exile in 1097.

William's lasting memorial is the magnificent Westminster Hall in London.

William's death has always had a great deal of mystery about it. He was out hunting in the New Forest on a Summer evening when he was killed by an arrow.

It was claimed as an accident, and that the arrow had been aimed at a fleeing deer. The man who shot the arrow was said to have been Sir Walter Tyrrell, who was probably the best archer in the land and unlikely to kill the King by mistake. But Tyrrell said that he was nowhere near at time. It might have been an accident, or an assassination on behalf of his brother Robert or of the church.

Or it might have been done on behalf of the younger brother Henry. After William's body had been unceremoniously taken by cart for burial at Winchester Cathedral, Henry was suspiciously close and sufficiently well organised to be able to take over the Kingdom as Henry I immediately.

William, not surprisingly, had never married and probably had no children, although it is sometimes claimed that he had an illegitimate son, Berstrand. His bad press was no doubt almost entirely the work of the church, who had good reason to dislike him but in all probability exaggerated his bad points.