On this day in history : 2nd August 1100 – King William II of England is killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest – after supposedly being mistaken for a deer….

William II of England – Public domain

William was the third son of William the Conqueror and was often known as William Rufus on account of his ruddy complexion and red hair…. He was not a popular king; as well as levying heavy taxes on his subjects he was considered as a harsh, severe and ruthless monarch….a barbarian, with no respect for his people…. He wasn’t on particularly good terms with the Church either….

The story goes, according to Malmesbury in his circa 1128 book ‘Chronicle of the Kings of the English’, something like this…. William had an ominous dream, which filled him with trepidation…. But nevertheless, the following afternoon he went into the forest, near to Brockenhurst, on a hunting expedition…. Whilst most of the party went on the chase William remained, attended by Frenchman Walter Tyrrell, Lord of Poix…. As the sun began to go down a stag ran through the trees nearby – the King took up his bow and fired an arrow – but only managed to slightly wound the stag…. As the King stood, with his hand shielding his eyes against the sun to watch the stag run, Walter attempted a shot…. But the arrow struck William – and Walter jumped on his horse and fled….

Whilst it had always been widely accepted that William’s death was an accident there has also always been the niggling question as to whether he was actually assassinated…. Some believe Walter was acting on behalf of William’s younger brother, Henry, who had a wish to claim the throne….

Indeed, when looking at the story that emerges from what the historians have pieced together, it does seem to be a little more than simply a tragic accident…. The hunting party consisted of William Rufus, Walter Tyrrell, Gilbert and Roger de Clare and William’s younger brother Henry…. The party divided into two groups in order to chase the deer and wild boar…. Walter, who was the King’s best archer, paired with the King – and it does appear that he fired the fatal arrow…. Some accounts say he saw a movement in the trees and fired, thinking it to be a deer…. Others say he fired an arrow to finish off the stag that the King had wounded – only for it to hit an oak tree, bounce back and strike William in the chest, piercing his lung…. By breaking off the arrow William managed to speed up his own death…. Walter, fearing the consequences, fled to France never to return….

Death of William II – Lithograph 1895 – Public domain

Henry’s reaction was a little suspicious…. Instead of claiming his brother’s body he dashed off to the Treasury at Winchester to declare himself the new King of England…. The de Clares, being loyal supporters of Henry, were rewarded handsomely for their loyalty…. Nobody went after Walter…. William Rufus’s body was found by a charcoal burner – and it was he who carried the dead king back to Winchester….

In recent years there has been some doubt cast on the exact location of William’s death – some think it may have actually happened in the Beaulieu area…. But at the place where legend says it occurred stands the Rufus Stone….and inscribed upon it….

‘Here stood the oak tree, on which the 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’….

A mature oak tree stands alongside….not the original one of course – but perhaps from one of its acorns?

The Rufus Stone – Image credit : David Hunt – own work – Public domain

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