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The Rufus Stone in the New Forest, England, from sometime between 1890 and 1900. (Public Domain)

The Rufus Stone: Memorial to William Rufus, Unpopular Norman King of England

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The Rufus Stone is a memorial in the New Forest, England. The stone is alleged to mark the location where William II, the second Norman king of England, met his death. In reality, however, the exact location of William’s death is not really known. Nevertheless, such doubts have not affected the Rufus Stone, and the monument still stands in the same spot where it was erected centuries ago.

Sibling Rivalry: The Diabolical Quarrel That Arose Between the King’s Sons

In 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold II, was defeated by William I, Duke of Normandy, at the Battle of Hastings . This marked the beginning of the House of Normandy, which ruled England for almost 70 years. Known as William the Conqueror , William I reigned until his death in 1087. He was succeeded by his third son, William II. The Duchy of Normandy, however, went to the new king’s elder brother, Robert, nicknamed Curthose, meaning “short stockings”.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which shows the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror up until the Battle of Hastings in 1066  (Public domain)

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which shows the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror up until the Battle of Hastings in 1066  ( Public domain )

William II is commonly known as William Rufus (meaning “red” in Latin), apparently due to his ruddy complexion. He was born around 1056, and was his father’s favorite son. Unfortunately, little is known about young William’s life prior to his ascension to the throne of England. A story about William’s youth is related by Orderic Vitalis, an English chronicler who was a contemporary of William and his brothers. According to Orderic Vitalis, the incident occurred at the village of L’Aigle, where their father, William the Conqueror, was preparing for a campaign against the Corbonnais. Although the chronicler does not mention the date of the incident, historians have speculated that it took place around 1077. Orderic Vitalis describes a prank played by William and his brother Henry, on their older brother Robert:

“…, William Rufus and Henry, …, and thinking their strength equal to their brother Robert’s, were indignant that he alone should make pretensions to their father’s inheritance, and affect equality with the king among the crowd of parasites who paid their court to himself. In consequence they came to the castle of L’Aigle to visit Robert, who was sojourning in the house of Robert Calcege, and there began to play dice in the gallery, as the custom of military men is. They then made a great noise, and threw water on Robert and his hangers-on who were underneath.”

Urged on by his followers, Robert attempted to reprimand his brothers, and a quarrel soon ensued. The princes only stopped fighting when the king intervened. However Robert was unsatisfied, left the following night, and attempted to seize the castle at Rouen by surprise. Robert’s plot was discovered and foiled. Once Robert and his supporters were repelled from the castle, word was sent to King William about the whole affair. Enraged, their father ordered the arrest of the traitors, but Robert managed to flee from Normandy. The prank played by William and Henry on Robert, and the quarrel that followed, would have dire consequences in the future, as Orderic Vitalis wrote, “a diabolical quarrel arose between the king’s sons, from which sprung afterwards endless contentions and crimes.”

The three brothers, William Rufus on the left (Public Domain), Robert Curthose in the middle (Public Domain), and the future Henry I on the right (British Library / Public Domain).

The three brothers, William Rufus on the left ( Public Domain ), Robert Curthose in the middle ( Public Domain ), and the future Henry I on the right ( British Library / Public Domain ).

King of England, with Fraternal Struggles

Indeed, for the rest of his life, Robert did not enjoy cordial relations with his father and brothers, and some even sought to exploit these divisions for their own benefit. The division of Norman lands between William and Robert was regarded as a problem by their barons, especially those who had lands in both England and Normandy. These barons had to please both lords, which was quite impossible, since the two brothers hated each other. Therefore, they were very much in favor of England and Normandy being controlled by a single ruler. Since Robert was considered to be the weaker of the two, the barons decided to throw their support behind him, so that they could easily control him once he gained the English throne.

In 1088, a rebellion, instigated by the king’s half-uncle, Odo of Bayeux, broke out in England. The rebellion, however, soon collapsed, partly due to Robert’s failure to arrive in England. In addition, the king won the support of his people by promising to cut taxes, and to institute efficient government. After the rebellion was suppressed, however, William reneged on his promises. This caused discontent amongst his subjects, and eventually led to another rebellion in 1095. Whilst dealing with these internal problems, William was also engaged in external military operations. In 1091, for example, he fought against the Scots, and succeeded in forcing Malcolm III of Scotland to recognize his overlordship. Malcolm attacked England in 1093, but was killed in an ambush near Alnwick, Northumbria. William also managed to extend his authority into Wales.

The Norman King William II Becomes Increasingly Unpopular

Although king of England, William Rufus was most interested in Normandy, which he was hoping to seize from his brother. In 1089, William laid claim to the duchy, and declared war on his brother. Robert was eventually defeated, and reduced by his brother to the status of a subordinate ally. The war ended in 1096. In that same year, the First Crusade was launched. Robert had taken the cross, and left Europe for the Holy Land. As he needed money to fund his military expedition, the duke mortgaged Normandy to his brother for 10000 marks. William, in turn, raised this sum by levying a heavy tax across his kingdom. During Robert’s absence, William ruled Normandy as regent.

Although William was now in control of both England and Normandy (at least until Robert’s return), he had become very unpopular. As a Norman, William would have already been unpopular amongst his Anglo-Saxon subjects. By reneging on his promises, and levying the heavy tax in 1096, the king managed to lose his popularity amongst his Norman supporters as well. Moreover, William antagonized the Church. For example, the king is alleged to have deliberately left bishoprics vacant, so that he could make use of their revenues. William is also reported to have had many arguments with Saint Anselm of Canterbury. Relations between the two men deteriorated to such an extent that the saint left England in 1097, four years after assuming the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. Saint Anselm had gone to Rome to seek the pope’s advice, and William pounced on the opportunity to seize his estates. Saint Anselm only return to England after William’s death.

Legend has it that William Rufus was killed by Sir Walter Tyrrell while out hunting in the New Forest. Whether it was an accident or an assassination, we’ll never know. (John Cassell / Public Domain)

Legend has it that William Rufus was killed by Sir Walter Tyrrell while out hunting in the New Forest. Whether it was an accident or an assassination, we’ll never know. (John Cassell / Public Domain )

Accident or Assassination? The Death of William Rufus

Considering William’s unpopularity, it would not be entirely surprising if his enemies were plotting to kill him. William Rufus ruled England until 1100, and died on the 2 nd of August that year. It is widely accepted that the king’s death was caused by an unfortunate hunting accident. Still, not everyone agrees with this explanation, and there have been suspicions over the ages that the so-called accident was in fact an assassination. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , which provides the earliest known account of William’s death, the events of his death: “And thereafter on the morning after Lammas day was the King William shot in hunting, by an arrow from his own men, and afterwards brought to Winchester, and buried in the cathedral.”

William Rufus is said to have been killed by an arrow while hunting, his death depicted in this 14th century manuscript. (Public Domain)

William Rufus is said to have been killed by an arrow while hunting, his death depicted in this 14 th century manuscript. ( Public Domain )

The account of William’s death has been embellished by later chroniclers. In William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England , for example, the king’s killer is identified as a nobleman by the name of Walter Tirel:

At this instant Walter, conceiving a noble exploit, which was while the king’s attention was otherwise occupied to transfix another stag which by chance came near him, unknowingly, and without power to prevent it, Oh, gracious God! pierced his breast with a fatal arrow.” 

Although neither chronicle mentions the exact location of William’s death, it is understood that the incident took place in the New Forest. In Medieval England, forests were areas of land preserved exclusively for the hunting of ‘beasts of chase’ by the king and the nobility. The New Forest, which covers southwest Hampshire and southeast Wiltshire, was designated as a royal forest by William I in 1079. It was only several centuries after William’s death that more exact locations of the fatal accident / assassination were given. Writing during the 16 th century, for instance, the antiquarian John Leland claimed that William was killed at a place called Thorougham. Although this place name has fallen out of use, it has been speculated that this is now Park Farm on the Beaulieu estates.

The Rufus Stone: Monument to William Rufus

More famous, however, is the claim that William died near the village of Minstead, which is where the Rufus Stone enters the picture. The story of this monument begins in the 17 th century, during the reign of Charles II . At that time, the most popular version of the story was that the arrow that killed William had ricochet off an oak tree before piercing the king. Therefore, when Charles visited the area, he was shown the tree that supposedly caused the king’s death. In the following century, the tree was cut and burnt down. In its place, a monument, the Rufus Stone, was erected.

The Rufus Stone amid oak trees in the New Forest, Hampshire

The Rufus Stone amid oak trees in the New Forest, Hampshire. (Ethan Doyle White /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Rufus Stone was set up by the John, Lord de la Warr, in 1745. This original monument was 1.78 m (5 ft. 10 in) high, and topped by a stone ball. An inscription was added to the Rufus Stone to commemorate the visit of George III and his wife, Charlotte, to the site in 1789. However, over time the monument was vandalized and defaced. As a consequence, the original Rufus Stone was replaced in 1841. The new monument is three-sided, and maintains the original inscription (with a small addition at the end), which is as follows:

“Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100.

King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church of that city.

That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten, the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden.”

Lamented by Few: What Happened After William Rufus Died?

The story that William’s body was transported to Winchester on a cart can be found in the Chronicle of the Kings of England . William of Malmesbury does not mention any Purkis, but “a few countrymen” who conveyed the king’s body to the city. It seems that the character of Purkis was a later addition to the story. The chronicler also mentions what happened to Tirel after realizing he had killed William, as well as during the aftermath of the king’s death. Tirel, who was afraid that he would be punished for regicide, immediately fled from the scene. No one, however, pursued him, as they were more concerned with other matters. William had died without leaving an heir, so the kingdom was plunged into chaos. According to the chronicler: “Some began to fortify their dwellings; others to plunder; and the rest to look out for a new king.”

William Rufus was succeeded by his brother Henry I after his sudden death.  ( Public Domain)

William Rufus was succeeded by his brother Henry I after his sudden death.  ( Public Domain )

The two main contenders for the English throne at the time of William’s death were his two brothers, Robert and Henry. Robert had not returned from the crusade, and only arrived in Europe in a month after the king’s death. Henry, on the other hand, was in England, and immediately seized the throne. It has been speculated that Tirel may have been working for Henry, and that he received orders to kill the king during the hunt. In any event, William, being an unpopular king, was not missed by many. As William of Malmesbury puts it: “Here it was committed to the ground within the tower, attended by many of the nobility, though lamented by few.”

The New Forest has since been designated a National Park and parts of it can now be visited by the public. The Rufus Stone is one of its many attractions, and is an understated reminder of the event that occurred almost a thousand years ago, be it an unfortunate hunting accident, or an assassination motivated by sibling rivalry.

Top image: The Rufus Stone in the New Forest, England, from sometime between 1890 and 1900. ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren

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