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 The Death of William Rufus - Part 1

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PostSubject: The Death of William Rufus - Part 1   Sun Nov 02, 2008 4:45 am

The Death of William Rufus

William Rufus, King of England, met his death in a hunting accident in the New Forest (2/8/1100). He was “accidentally” killed by an arrow loosed from the bow of one Sir Walter Tyrell, 3rd Lord of Poix. After Rufus was struck down, Tyrell panicked and fled to France. As a result of his death, Rufus’ brother Henry seized the English throne for himself and was crowned King of England.

William of Malmesbury in his "Chronicle of the Kings of the English" (c. 1128) had this to say:
“The next day he went into the forest... He was attended by a few persons... Walter Tirel remained with him, while the others, were on the chase. The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him... The stag was still running... The king, followed it a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun's rays. At this instant Walter decided to kill another stag. Oh, gracious God! the arrow pierced the king's breast.

On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the arrow where it projected from his body... This accelerated his death. Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless, he leapt upon his horse, and escaped with the utmost speed. Indeed there were none to pursue him: some helped his flight; others felt sorry for him. The king's body was placed on a cart and conveyed to the cathedral at Winchester... blood dripped from the body all the way. Here he was buried within the tower.”


For his own part, Henry, now King of England, issued Tyrell with a pardon. This action alone has led many to conclude that Henry was somehow behind the death of his brother.

These are the “facts” such as they are and such as they have come down to us through the ages.

But there are a number of other, most intriguing, points to consider.
(1) - Tyrell was innocent.
(2) - That this was an accident.
(3) - That this was a premeditated murder instigated by Henry.
(4) - That this was a premeditated murder instigated by a third party.


Scenario 1 - Innocent:
From the safety of France, Tyrell claimed that his was innocent of the death of the King William.

Abbot Suger, Confessor to King Louis VII of France, was apparently a friend of Tyrell’s and provided him with a safe haven following his flight from England. Abbot Suger claimed that: “but I have often heard him, when he had nothing to fear nor to hope, solemnly swear that on the day in question he was not in the part of the forest where the king was hunting, nor ever saw him in the forest at all.”

So, why flee - why not just claim to have become separated from the King and was elsewhere in the New Forest; or, why not claim to have just come upon the dying King. There were no witnesses to the actual death - Tyrell could only have been accused if he had been seen with the King by others.


Scenario 2 - Accident:
It was claimed that Tyrell “let loose a wild shot at a passing stag. However, instead of striking the stag as intended, the arrow pierced William in the chest, puncturing his lungs.”

However, could a man whom many claimed “knows how to shoot the deadliest shots” have been so reckless or careless in his aim?

Peter of Blois (1070 - c.1117) writes: “The said Walter, the author of his death, though unwittingly so, escaped from the midst of them, crossed the sea, and arrived safe home in Normandy.”

“Tyrrel, without informing any one of the accident, put spurs to his horse, hastened to the sea-shore, embarked for France, and joined the crusade in an expedition to Jerusalem; a penance which he imposed on himself for this involuntary crime.” (Source: David Hume "The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688", Foreword by William B. Todd, 6 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1983). Vol. 1.)

It was not uncommon for deaths to occur accidentally when hunting - even today, hunters are often mistake for their prey and are killed or wounded by other hunters. Carelessness is not atypical of one period of history alone.

Again, why flee. Tyrell could not have known the mood of Henry nor expected clemency for the death of the King, no matter how accidental, hence his immediate flight.


Scenario 3 - Murder by Henry:
Henry himself directly benefited from the death of his older brother - this was a well known fact.

Henry was himself a part of the hunting group that day in the New Forest, though not, as Henry himself points out, with his brother William. Henry maintained that he was in another part of the New Forest when Rufus met his end.

But, if involved, could Henry have been assured of his own position. Henry had an older brother, Robert Duke of Normandy - there was always the chance that Robert might seize the throne for himself or be acclaimed King. Even during the reign of Rufus there had been a rebellion in favour of Robert - William was disliked and Robert was popular. Henry’s own position was uncertain.

Henry’s hasty journey to secure the Treasury at Winchester and then have himself crowned King. Henry, however, had nothing to fear from Robert who was on Crusade at the time of Rufus’ death.

In fact, William Rufus was not the only member of the Conqueror's family to meet an untimely death in the New Forest:
  • Richard, Duke of Bernay, second son of William the Conqueror of Matilda of Flanders (c.1075 - 1081); brother of William II Rufus, Henry I and Robert of Normandy.
  • Henry, son of Robert of Normandy (above) and Sybilla of Conversano.
  • Richard, illegitimate son of Robert of Normandy (d.1100).


What better place to rid oneself of witnesses or potential rivals for the throne than to arrange a “hunting accident”. Suspicion would not fall so easily upon one’s head - I guess a more than lack of direct heirs (excluding Robert whom Henry later imprisoned for the term of his natural life) left the throne well and truly open for Henry I.

And as for Henry I pardoning Tyrell, one would assume he did so for one of three reasons:
(1) Tyrell really was innocent;
(2) it really was an accident; or
(3) Tyrell actually did kill William on behalf of Henry.

William of Malmesbury writes, in his "Chronicle of the Kings of the English" (c. 1128): “he leapt upon his horse, and escaped with the utmost speed. Indeed there were none to pursue him: some helped his flight; others felt sorry for him.”


Scenario 4 - Revenge:
So what exactly was Tyrell’s role - was he the instrument of death of a “third party” bent on revenge. Quite possibly - so what are the known facts about Tyrell.

(1) Walter Tyrell was born in England (c.1065) and yet was made Lord of Poix - in Ponthieu, France. Poix wasn’t associated with Normandy (at the time) - in fact, Poix was some fifteen miles from Amiens, and its lordship was of considerable importance.

Walter has been identified by Pere Anselme who “occurs in an agreement with the [Ralf] Count of Amiens, 1087, and who, with his wife "Adelice," founded the Priory of St. Denis de Poix [confirmed by Geoffrey, Bishop of Amiens], and built the Abbey of St. Pierre de Sélincourt.” (Source: JH Round “Feudal England” 1895).

Walter Tyrell was not one of those who came to England at the time of the Conquest (1066) - though it has been suggested that he was possibly the grandson of one Walter Tyrell who led a company from Poix at Senlac (1066). JH Round in his 1895 "Feudal England" claims Tyrell was actually a Frenchman, being the third of that name to bear the title.

So what exactly was Tyrell doing at the court of the English King.

The following article, The Royal Hunt, claims that Tyrell was not actually a member of William's household but instead was invited on the hunt to discuss "political matters".

Peter of Blois says: “For there had come from Normandy, to visit king William, a very powerful baron, Walter Tirel by name. The king received him with the most lavish hospitality, and having honored him with a seat at his table, was pleased, after the banquet was concluded, to give him an invitation to join him in the sport of hunting.”

So, what political matters were afoot that were so important that Tyrell was invited to hunt alone with the King - away from prying eyes and eavesdroppers.

At the time of Rufus’ death, he was engaged in a rebellion of nobles in County of Maine, who were supported by the French King.

Let us consider the following excerpts from David Hume’s "The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688":
“ ….. he found the province of Maine still exposed to his intrigues and incursions” - this being the intrigues of the French King [1097].

“William, who was hunting in the new forest, when he received intelligence of this hostile attempt, was so provoked, that he immediately turned his horse, and galloped to the sea-shore at Dartmouth; declaring, that he would not stop a moment till he had taken vengeance for the offence” [1099].

“By this vigour and celerity, he delivered the citadel of Mans from its present danger; and pursuing Helie into his own territories, he laid siege to Majol, a small castle in those parts: But a wound, which he received before this place, obliged him to raise the siege; and he returned to England.” [1100].

The Lordship of Poix was associated with the County of Maine. Could Walter Tyrell have been about to change his allegiance from Maine (and thus France), and turn towards England? Was Walter a spy for England (against France) at the court of Maine?

(2) We know that Tyrell made an advantageous marriage to one Adelize (1069 - 1138), the daughter of Richard Fitz Gilbert. This, it seems to me, to be quite remarkable considering Tyrell’s lack of serious "political" connections with the Conqueror and his family - before the hunting incident.


(3) It was said that Tyrell was one of Rufus’ “favourites”. Is there any evidence of this - well, Tyrell alone was with Rufus hunting in the New Forest. Most other members of the Court were quite apart from the King.

Was there any evidence of the allegation that Tyrell argued with Rufus the night before the hunt? None that was mentioned by any of the contemporary chroniclers.



End of Part One

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