Who Killed William Rufus? A Great Medieval Mystery

History does not remember King William Rufus very fondly. This immoral, vain and ill-tempered man, the younger son of William the Conqueror, came to the throne in 1087 and on August 2nd 1100, died while hunting in the New Forest. Was his death a tragic accident or was he the victim of a fatal conspiracy?

Our fullest account of that day comes from Orderic Vitalis. He tells us that Rufus was in a good mood that morning and that he had dined with the hunting party, made up of William’s youngest brother, Henry, and Gilbert de Clare and his younger brother, Roger of Clare. Also present was Walter Tirel who was married to Richard de Clare’s daughter, Adelize. While getting dressed for the hunt, a smith presented Rufus with six arrows of which he kept four for himself and gave the other two to Tirel.

According to Orderic, Rufus said “it is only right that the sharpest arrows go to the man who knows how to inflict the deadliest shots.”

A Bad Omen?

Before the party set off, a letter arrived from the Abbott of Gloucester. It warned of a monk’s vision of the king’s death. Rufus dismissed the letter, saying that he had no interest in the “dreams of snoring monks.” With that, the party made their way into the forest.

Accident or Murder?

The party split off into groups, leaving Rufus and Walter Tirel together. Tirel took a shot at a stag coming towards them but his arrow missed and landed in the King’s chest. Rufus was dead within minutes and Tirel fled the scene and returned to France.

Rufus’ younger brother, Henry, galloped to Winchester to secure the crown, while Rufus was carted back by his servants “like a wild boar stuck with spears.”

It is certainly possible that Rufus’ death was an accident. Perhaps Tirel fled the scene because he feared that he would take the blame. It was not unheard of to die in such a way; Rufus had lost his elder brother and one of his cousins from an arrow in the New Forest. But doubts still remain about this theory. The young Henry had much to gain from his brother’s death and, once he had been crowned, he was particularly generous to the de Clare family. Was this a reward for helping him to murder Rufus?

An act of divine punishment?

In her 2005 biography, Dr Emma Mason argues that Rufus was assassinated by a French agent, Raoul d’Equesnes, who was in the employ of Walter Tirel. She maintains that Rufus was assembling an army on the south coast of England with plans to invade France. On hearing of this, the French king arranged to have Rufus assassinated and replaced with his younger, and less-threatening brother, Henry. The fact that Henry cancelled the plans for invasion shortly after his coronation certainly lends weight to her argument.

Contemporary writers believed that Rufus’ death was an act of divine punishment. He had been an evil king, he had mocked the Church and so he paid the ultimate price. But accident, murder or act of God, Rufus’ death continues to catch our imaginations as one of the greatest medieval mysteries.

Kaye Jones
Read more in 1066: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.