Posted on: June 3, 2014

The unexplained death of King William II is one of the great mysteries of English royal history. Was it a tragic hunting-accident, or was he deliberately bumped off? It still tantalises many historians and crime writers to this day.

William Rufus (so nicknamed because of his reddish appearance) was the son of King William the Conqueror, who took the throne after defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William’s elder brother, Robert, was granted Normandy on the death of the Conqueror, whilst William was handed England. Robert’s illegitimate son, Richard, spent a lot of time at William’s court and, curiously, in 1099, he was killed in a hunting-accident in the New Forest. A year later his uncle was to meet the same fate.

The Conqueror had been a ruthlessly efficient and brutal king, and it seems his son inherited these traits. By all accounts William had been a brave soldier, but he had made himself pretty universally unpopular, most particularly with the Church, who disapproved of his bawdy lifestyle. William was flagrantly in-your-face homosexual, and he openly mocked the Church. He had also inherited his father’s filthy temper. Rufus once reacted to an opponent by having his eyes put out and his testicles cut off!

The day before Rufus’s death the Abbot of Shrewsbury had preached a sermon warning that the wicked King was incurring the prospect of divine vengeance with his ways. His timing couldn’t have been more spot-on.

On the morning of 2 August 1100 the King woke up feeling disturbed, haunted by a bad dream. Nonetheless he set off with a party of friends on a hunting-trip to the New Forest. The forest is a large and stunningly beautiful area in the south of England, created by the Conqueror especially for hunting-purposes. To this day it remains an area boasting its fair share of tales of ghosts, witchcraft and numerous other mysteries. The events of this August day in 1100 were to be just one of many.

No one seems entirely certain exactly what happened on that day. According to Wikipedia the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ recorded simply that the King had been shot by an arrow by one of his own men. Was it some Donald Rumsfeld-style of dubious hunting-accident, or was it outright regicide? There is some scepticism over the accident claim, as the main culprit, Sir Walter Tyrrel (or Tirel) was a crack-shot. Mystery piles on mystery, when it is said that Rufus handed his own arrows to Tyrrel, with the ominous words “Be sure to aim at the mark. Walter, take good care to carry out the orders I give you”.

Tyrerel took aim at a stag, but the arrow bounced back and hit Rufus squarely in the chest. The hunting-party broke up in panic, and everyone fled the scene, most particularly Tyrrell who immediately jumped on his horse and fled abroad. Apparently he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and died there, all the while protesting his innocence.

The poor old King was left lying there, abandoned on the ground, until a humble peasant, a charcoal-burner by trade, stumbled upon him, and loaded him unceremoniously onto his cart to take him to Winchester Cathedral. I love this part of the story. I just have images of some Baldrick-clone appearing on the scene, going “blimey, the King’s been shot! Better get him on the cart I spose”. No one else seemed to be giving a thought to William’s remains. Everyone else was too preoccupied with sorting out who the next king was going to be, and William’s younger brother (who would become Henry I), took himself off to Winchester, and immediately demanded the keys to the Treasury!

Meanwhile, the monks at Winchester Cathedral were appalled and embarrassed at finding the King’s corpse on their hands. They buried him without any ceremony whatsoever. When a tower of the cathedral fell down a few years later, they blamed it on the curse of the wicked King’s corpse.

In her book ‘The ABC OF Witchcraft’ Doreen Valiente tries to explain the King’s death as a ritual killing, pointing to dark Pagan tales from the Forest, which would centre on the ritual sacrifice of the King (very ‘Wicker Man’), and ties this into the date, 2nd August, as being the day after Lammas, one of the four great Pagan festivals of the year. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m more inclined to go for an organised coup myself. Perhaps the death of the king’s nephew in a hunting-accident the year before had given the conspirators the idea? Who knows?

The descendants of the charcoal-burner continued to live in the Forest until the 19th century, when the family line finally died out. It is said that even up to the 18th century they would proudly show off the axle of the cart on which their ancestor had carried the King’s remains.

The location of the King’s death is now marked by a simple stone. There is some debate as to whether this is the actual spot where the King met his maker, or whether it was simply put here because King Charles II decided that this was the most likely spot where the lethal arrow had bounced off a tree and embedded itself in the King’s chest.

In true British fashion, a nearby pub is named after Sir Walter Tyrell. And someone has bizarrely scratched “I HEART HUNTING ACCIDENTS” on the stone itself. Somehow I doubt William Rufus would agree with that one.



In his book ‘The Twelve Ghosts of Christmas’, Tom Slemen relates the gruesome tale of two blood-stained spectres who are reputed to haunt the Minstead area of the Forest around Christmas-time.  They were thought to be two young women who were bound naked, with their tongues nailed to a tree by a local witch.  They couldn’t move from the tree without pulling their tongues out.  There are indeed some very dark tales to be found in the New Forest.



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