Histories of Norman England are more often than not focused on William I, better known as the Conqueror, or his youngest son, who later became Henry I. Yet, the life and tribulations of his chosen successor, favoured son and namesake William II have remained relatively ignored.
The most well known discussions about William Rufus surround his sexuality; he never married and never produced any heirs, legitimate or illegitimate. This led to many at the time and more recently bringing into question his sexuality. It has been a frequent area of contention, with some suggesting he was homosexual as there was no indication that he was impotent or infertile. His most frequent advisor and friend Ranulf Flambard, appointed Bishop of Durham in 1099, was often implicated as being William’s most obvious and regular sexual partner. That being said, there is little or no evidence to suggest that Flambard was homosexual, other than the musings that he spent lots of time with William and that William surrounded himself with ‘attractive’ men.
The debate about Williams’s sexuality is all in all a futile one, with little evidence to support either side of the discussion. These accusations of sodomy would however have been particularly beneficial to a Church that was deeply angered and upset by William’s rule.
William II had a fractured relationship with the Church as he often kept bishop’s positions empty, allowing him to appropriate their incomes. In particular, relations were poor with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, who felt so aggrieved at William’s rule he eventually fled into exile and sought the help and advice of Pope Urban II in 1097. Urban negotiated and the issue was resolved with William, but Anselm remained in exile until the end of William’s reign in 1100. This presented William with an opportunity, one that he gratefully seized. Anselm’s self exile left the revenues of the Archbishop of Canterbury vacant; William was thus able to claim these funds until the end of his reign.
Where William lacked respect and support from the Church, he most certainly had it from the army. He was a consummate tactician and military leader who understood the importance of having loyalty from his army, Norman lords undoubtedly having a propensity for uprisings and rebellions! Whilst he could not successfully contain the secular ambitions of his nobles, he did use force to keep them in line.
In 1095, the Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray rose in rebellion and refused to attend a meeting of nobles. William raised an army and took to the field; he successfully routed de Mowbray’s forces and imprisoned him, seizing his lands and estates.
William also effectively brought to heel a Scottish kingdom that was constantly hostile towards him. Malcolm III, King of Scotland invaded William’s kingdom on numerous occasions, most notably in 1091 when he was soundly defeated by William’s forces, forced to offer homage to William and to acknowledge him as overlord. Later in 1093 an army sent by William, under the command of the later imprisoned de Mowbray successfully defeated Malcolm at the Battle of Alnwick; this resulted in the death of Malcolm and his son Edward. These victories were a particularly good result for William; it threw Scotland into a succession dispute and disarray, allowing him to assert control on a previously fractured and problematic region. This control came through the long-held Norman tradition of castle building, for instance the construction of the castle at Carlisle in 1092 brought the previous Scottish territories of Westmoreland and Cumberland under English lordship.
The last event that William II’s reign is remembered for is nearly as well discussed as his supposed homosexuality: his death. On a hunting expedition in the New Forest with his brother Henry and numerous others, an arrow pierced William’s chest and entered his lungs. He died not long after. It has been argued that his death was an assassination plot by his brother Henry, who not long after his older brother’s death, raced to be crowned king before anyone could contest him.
The supposed assassin Walter Tirel fled to France following the incident, which over time commentators have viewed as an admission of guilt. Yet hunting was not a particularly safe or well managed sport at the time, hunting accidents occurred frequently and were often fatal. Tirels’ flight could well have just been the fact that he had killed, even if accidentally, the King of England. In addition, fratricide was considered a hugely ungodly act and particularly heinous crime that would have undermined Henry’s rule from the outset if even a whisper of it had taken hold in the country. This truth is, much like the rumours and discussions on Williams’ sexuality, his death is and will likely remain a mystery.
William II was clearly a divisive ruler, but he successfully extended Norman control over England, Scotland and, slightly less successfully, along the Welsh border. He effectively restored peace in Normandy and ensured there was reasonably orderly rule in England. All in all, William has been portrayed as a brutal and malicious ruler, who gave into his vices more frequently than not. Yet, for these supposed pitfalls, he was clearly an effective ruler whose image may well have been distorted by the enemies he made at the time.
Thomas Cripps attended the School of Oriental and African Studies from 2012 and studied history. He has since continued his historical studies and set up his own business as a writer, academic editor and tutor.