Sunday, October 2, 2011

The mysterious death of the Red King, William II

“And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?” Gen. 4:9

If you were born the fourth son of William the Conqueror, with little-to-no-hope of surpassing your station in the feudal hierarchy, would you change the course of history?  How ruthless could you be?  Would fratricide enter your mind?

On the warm summer afternoon of August 2, 1100, King William II of England went on a hunting expedition in the woods of New Forest.  Contemporary chronicles differ on the other members of the hunting party, but most agree that the king’s younger brother Henry Beauclerk was in attendance.  Hunting expeditions could be extremely dangerous in the medieval era; William’s brother Richard died in a collision while hunting.  One of Richard’s bastard sons died after being shot in New Forest.

The Great Seal  of William Rufus, the Red King

William’s life would be cut down in a similar fashion.  One of the hunting party – in later chronicles identified as Walter Tirel – missed a stag and shot the king, killing him.  No eyewitness testimonies of the death of the Red King survive the ages.  This lacuna in what was obviously a significant moment of British monarchial history could have several meanings.  In one scenario, the loss of the king was indeed a tragic, but accidental, death.  In another scenario, the death of the king, Henry Beauclerk’s hasty, twenty-two mile ride to the Winchester exchequer to seize the royal treasury and Tirel’s flight to France were an indication of murder most foul. 

Rufus' Stone, New Forest

Henry Beauclerk was not even the next in line for the throne; that distinction fell to his older brother Robert Curthose.  Henry’s reputation with his own brothers prior to William’s death was that of a calculating young man.  William and Robert had signed an agreement of accession, in part a response to Henry’s maneuverings upon the death of the princes’ father William the Conqueror.  By either a premeditated move of Henry’s or by the convenience of fate, Robert, the legal heir to the throne, was returning from a stint as a crusader and had not yet reached English soil. 

Although Robert Curthose stood to gain much of Normandy – a financial boon – he still challenged his younger brother’s crown and led a force to England in 1101 and again in 1106.  Henry defeated his brother in 1106, but the five years of repeated challenges to Henry’s authority as king do not suggest a weak “conspiracy theory” of William II’s death or his shrewd younger brother’s hand in the matter.

Henry I, enthroned

Later chronicles begin to suggest a relationship with members of the dead king’s hunting party – members who had heretofore remained unnamed – Gilbert and Robert de Clare.  Walter Tirel was their brother-in-law.  The Clares supported Henry’s bid for the throne after William’s death in the woods, but as historian C. Warren Hollister has found, their rewards did not exceed that of any other feudal lords who also supported the new king. 

Significantly, one of the chroniclers of the age, Henry of Huntingdon, does not suggest a treacherous murder of King William II, though he is himself quite critical of King Henry.  Legend, superstition, and lack of evidence contributed to the suspicion of Henry as murderer.  William II’s own anticlerical stance did not endear him to chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury (c.1095-1143), a monk who wrote of several omens of William’s death, such as a crucifix kicking the king, or the Red King’s vision of his own blood spurting from his body toward the heavens. 

William of Malmesbury

So what happened in the woods that August afternoon? These conflicting and enhanced accounts make it difficult to suss out a satisfying answer. 

Was William’s death murder? Medieval-csi values your input. Weigh in on the comments section.

Next time: Henry I’s gruesome death