Little is known of the early days of William Rufus. He was the third son of William
the Conqueror, born in 1057 before the invasion and conquest of England by the Normans
in 1066. It is known that as a child he spent much of his time in the care of Archbishop
Lanfranc. Other than this his childhood is very much a mystery, with little documentary
evidence to suggest what his early days were like. At some point he acquired the
nickname of William Rufus, or Red Face, either because he was naturally flushed or
else because of his habit of turning red when he was drunk or in a rage, which was
As an adult, however, William's life is very well documented. As the third son of
William and Matilda he was not expected to rise to any great political prominence.
To become a lord but not a king was his destiny. The death of Richard, the second
son of William and Matilda changed this position though, and it was increasingly
clear in the latter days of the Conqueror's reign that William would play a great
role in the Norman Empire.
William's loyalty to his father never erred. He was at his side throughout the rebellions
of Robert, the eldest of the Conqueror's sons, and was thought by many to have gained
favor over the natural heir to the Norman lands. Upon William the Conqueror's death,
however Robert was granted Normandy. For the loyal William there was the prize of
William was crowned King of England on 26 September 1087. He faced an immediate rebellion
on the part of some of his barons, which he crushed ruthlessly, although he was not
especially cruel by the standards of his era. His inheritance was relatively secure,
his father having crushed most of the Saxon resistance to his throne. When his elder
brother Robert went on Crusade in 1096, William loaned him a vast amount of money
for which he pledged the duchy of Normandy. William ruled Normandy in his brother's
absence and so was in effect now heir to all of the Conqueror's empire. William Rufus
in the period 1089 to 1099 proved himself to be quite ruthless, and an extremely
capable politician using a combination of force, bribery and persuasion to increase
the size and wealth of his domain. He got into the usual disputes with the church,
including a long and bitter feud with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, but unlike
his descendant Henry the Second with Thomas Becket, Rufus satisfied himself with
exiling the archbishop and did not have him murdered, which was considered merciful
by his contemporaries.
Most kings with such military success behind them would be remembered as being heroes.
William Rufus however is often lost in history books or referred to in a negative
light. This stems from the source of historical documents from the time. Most contemporary
accounts of life in the Norman Empire were written by monks, and William was not
very highly thought of by monks. He has been accused of being a homosexual, although
the only thing that might be construed as proof of this was the fact that he never
married. Perhaps he just didn't like women. In any case, there is no contemporary
evidence that Rufus was perverted. The fact is that as medieval monarchs went, Rufus
was no worse than most and a lot better than some.
The oddest thing about William Rufus's life was his death.
It was while planning further wars and conquests that William died. He was hunting
in the New Forest, England, when an arrow struck him in the chest. Whether this was
an accident or deliberate is the subject of debate, with either being feasible. On
his death his younger brother Henry, who seems to have been hovering in the district
for no apparent reason, immediately rode hard for Winchester and seized the royal
treasury, which guaranteed him the funds to proclaim himself king and buy the loyalty
of the Anglo-Norman barons. A good case can be made that Henry had his brother assassinated
in order to seize his throne.
But the oddest version of the story is that William the Second was a follower of
what anthropologist Margaret Murray called the Old Religion, the pre-Christian pagan
cults of Western Europe with their nature gods and goddesses, and that his death
was in fact a ritual sacrifice. Many ancient pagan religions followed some version
of what is known as the Osiris cycle; when a magical King was created and then sacrificed
in order to insure bountiful harvests, avert the wrath of the gods, etc. The idea
being that the gods were more pleased with the blood of a king than some goat or
William Rufus was killed on August the first, 1100, Lammas Day in the Christian calendar,
but also one of the four intersolstices or pagan equinoxes. To this day the four
main "witches' sabbaths" followed by assorted witchy cults are Hallowmass or Samhain
(October 31st), Candlemas (February 2nd), Beltane or Walpurgis Night (April 30th),
and Lammas or Lughnasadh (August 1st.) The alleged hunting accident happened as Rufus
was entering his 14th (2x7) regnal year.
The circumstances surrounding his death are certainly curious. As history records
it, William was on a hunting expedition in the New Forest (where Gerald Gardner's
coven would make their home centuries later) on August 1st. The tale tells us that
William was shot "accidentally" by his friend, Sir Walter Tyrrel, with a crossbow
bolt, which ricocheted off a tree as it flew towards a stag. One version has Tyrrel
refusing at first to shoot, and Rufus standing up and saying "Shoot, Tyrrel, in the
name of God!" (Or the gods?) The tale differs in describing the wound, according
to different sources. Some say his eye was pierced, others his chest. Either way,
he was killed and his blood spilled on the earth.
Two interesting facts also might jump out at those who see signs and omens in everything:
the stag is a symbol of one of the main gods of the witches; Herne the Hunter, and
William II was almost certainly a pagan. His habit of swearing "by the sweet face
of Lucca" (a pagan goddess) was so well known as his most serious oath that enemies
were known to capitulate bloodlessly in argument or war upon hearing this oath. (No
wonder he was in bad odor with the Church!)
On the other hand, Walter Tyrrel fled to France, and he swore until the end of his
days that the death of the Red King at his hands was nothing more than a tragic accident.
If anyone has a yen to read an absolutely rip-roaring, swashbuckling medieval adventure
story, go to Alibris or your local library and see if you can get hold of the two
George Shipway novels "The Paladin" and "The Wolf Time." These books are a fictionalized
biography of Walter Tyrrel, the knight accused of regicide on that day in the forest
so long ago. They're worth the read.