Dreams of Blood – The Mysterious Death of King William Rufus

Posted by Censor Librorum on Oct 29, 2019 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Bishops, History, Lesbians & Gays, Politics, Saints

King William II of England, also called William Rufus, was killed by an arrow while he was hunting in New Forest on August 2, 1100.  It was a fortuitous death for his younger brother, Henry Beauclerc, who became King Henry I three days later.  It was a convenient death for Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, who battled King William constantly over church revenues and appointments and could now return from exile in France.  It was also providential for King Philip I of France.  King William regularly sent military expeditions to extend his influence and lands in Normandy, Maine and the Vexin.  William Rufus was planning a new campaign in France when he was killed. His successor, King Henry I, immediately cancelled it.

For centuries, the generally accepted explanation for King William’s death was a hunting accident.  That is possible. His older brother, Richard, was killed in a hunting accident in New Forest. But William’s death by an errant arrow was never completely accepted.  Some writers and scholars believe that he was assassinated in order to put his brother on the throne.  Could Henry Beauclerc, some nobles and the French king have colluded to kill him during a hunt?  Could rumors of a possible assassination attempt circulate through monasteries in England and France? Archbishop Anselm and other high-ranking clerics certainly lent support to the killing; they justified it as divine intervention by God to remove an evil and immoral king. 

William’s death is wrapped in several other mysteries. Why the large number of dreams foreshadowing his death? Were they inspired by rumor or gossip? The victim, his friends and enemies all dreamed of his death by an arrow. Why did Walter Tirel  abandon William’s body and leave for France so abruptly?

                Two Homosexuals – William and Anselm

The death of King William II may have had its roots in his struggles with Archbishop Anselm.  The king needed money for his soldiers and military campaigns.  To fund them, he left the sees vacant and pocketed the revenues himself.  Archbishop Anselm was a proponent of the Gregorian Reforms, eliminating secular investiture of bishops and married priests. A clash was inevitable.

It’s easy to speculate that both men were homosexual.  William, even as king, never married, had no offspring, and no reported mistresses or liaisons with women. One clerical chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, described the men at court as having too tight tunics, pointed shoes and hair down their backs like whores. The court was full of “sodomites.”

Anselm’s homoerotic emotions are evident in his passionate letters to fellow monks. They are full of yearning, desire, and anguish. We don’t know if he physically acted on his feelings.  Either way, they are quite a contrast to his admonishment to King William to rid his court and kingdom of homosexuality. Anselm asked the king’s leave to call a national synod of bishops. William responded: “What will you talk about in your council?” “The sin of Sodom,” answered Anselm, “to say nothing of other detestable vices which have become rampant. Only let the king and the primate unite their authority, and this new and monstrous growth of evil may be rooted out.” The king asked, “And what good will come of this matter for you?” “For me, perhaps nothing,” replied Anselm, “but something I hope, for God and for thyself.” “Enough!” rejoined the king, “speak no more on this subject.”

Both men disliked one another. William hated Anselm’s maneuvering. Anselm was extremely frustrated by William’s intransigence and went into exile.

 William’s Death – Accident or Assassination?

All the accounts of William’s death agree that he was killed by an arrow while hunting in New Forest on August 2, 1100.  The most complete account of the day comes from the Anglo-Norman monk, Orderic Vitalis. He wrote that King William dined with the hunting party, which was made up of William’s youngest brother, Henry, Walter Tirel, and Gilbert de Clare and his younger brother, Roger de Clare.  Walter Tirel was married to Richard de Clare’s daughter.  He had recently arrived in England from France. William had been presented with six arrows by his armorer the night before. Taking four for himself, he gave two to Tirel, saying, “Bon archer, bonnes fleches.” (“To the good archer, the good arrows.”) According to Orderic, William said, “It is only right that the sharpest arrows go to the man who knows how to inflict the deadliest shots.” 

William of Malmesbury in his Chronicle of the Kings of the English (1128) described the hunt: “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 for 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 pieced 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.”  What were the sources of William of Malmesbury’s account of King William’s death and Walter Tirel’s flight from the forest?  He doesn’t say.  He implied that Walter Tirel killed William but didn’t state it.

The Peterborough Abbey’s version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that “on the morning after Lammas Day, the king William was shot with an arrow in hunting by a man of his.” Another chronicler, Geoffrey Gaimer stated, “We do not know who shot the king.” Gerald of Wales wrote, “The King was shot by Ranulf of Aquis.” Research into Ranulf of Aquis draws a blank; there is no indication of who he was. Could Gerald of Wales have meant Ralph of Aix, the armorer of King William?

In her 2008 book, King Rufus, The Life and Mysterious Death of King William II of England, Dr. Emma Mason argues that King William was assassinated by a French agent, Raoul d’Equesnes, who was in the household of Walter Tirel.  No one knows exactly who the killer was, but most people and historians assume it was Walter Tirel.  Could he have killed the king and fled England safely without a plan and accomplices? 

Walter Tirel was never charged for the crime and never returned to England. His son was allowed to keep his estates.  Abbot Sugar of St. Denis, historian, statesman and confidant of French kings, maintained Walter Tirel was innocent. “It was laid to the charge of a certain noble, Walter Thurold,” Sugar writes, “that he had shot the king with an arrow: 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.”

Who Benefited from King William’s Death?

      1. His brother, Henry, who became King of England three days later.

2. Archbishop Anselm, who returned to Canterbury from exile in France.

3. King Philip I of France – King Henry immediately cancelled King William’s plans for an invasion of France

  1. The de Clare family – close to King Henry, attained great wealth and prominence.

Missing Clues

  1. Where were the different members of the hunting party when the king was shot?

2. Who alerted Henry that William had been killed?

3. Why didn’t other members of the hunting party try to help the wounded king?

4. Why wasn’t the fletching of the arrow that killed King William identified?

5. Who assisted Walter Tirel in his escape from New Forest?

6. Why is there no mention of any attempt by Henry to find his brother’s killer?

Dreams of Blood and Death

Medieval people were interested in dreams and attempted to interpret them. Often a dream would be seen as a sign of future events, or a divine warning that someone needed to change their ways.  There are many accounts of dreams predicting the death of King William by an arrow. They all occurred just before or the day of the hunt. Was Archbishop Anselm privy to a plot to assassinate King William? Were senior clerics complicit in a plot to replace the king?  They could argue that their dreams justified his death as a just punishment from God.

King William II: There are two dreams attributed to the king.  In one version, the king dreamed that he was being bled by a surgeon who opened a vein in his arm.  A stream of blood spurt into the sky blocking out the sun.  The king awoke in terror and called for his servants to stay with him until dawn. In another story from clerical chronicler, William of Malmesbury, William “dreamt that he went to hell and the Devil said to him ‘I can’t wait for tomorrow because we can finally meet in person!’ He commanded a light to be brought and forbade his attendants to leave him.”  The king decided to forgo the hunt but changed his mind in the early afternoon when his good spirits returned.

Robert FitzHamon:  Anglo-Norman baron and magnate, related to William I and friend to William II – had many ominous dreams in the days leading up to the king’s killing. FitzHamon also reported the dream of a “foreign monk” to the king on the morning of the hunt: The monk has seen the king enter a church, “looking scornfully around the congregation with his usual haughty and insolent air.” He seized the rood (a crucifix) tearing apart its arms and legs. The figure of Christ lost patience and gave King William a kick in the mouth. He fell, and flames and smoke issued from his mouth, putting out the light of the stars.  William laughed at FitzHamon’s story, “He is a monk, and dreams for money like a monk: give him this,” handing FitzHamon a hundred shillings.

William Mortain, Earl of Cornwall:  Son of William I’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain. While out walking in the woods, the earl encountered a large black hairy goat carrying the figure of the king. The goat spoke to him, saying he was taking the king to his judgement.

Peter de Melvis:  He dreamt that he met a rough peasant man in Devonshire bearing a bloody arrow, who said to him, “With this dart your king was killed today.”

Fulchered, Abbot of Shrewsbury:  French-born Fulchered delivered a prophetic sermon at Gloucester Abbey (Serlo’s abbey) on August 1, 1100 – the day before William II was killed. “England is allowed to become a heritage trodden under foot by the profane, because the land is full of iniquity. Its whole body is spotted by the leprosy of a universal iniquity, and infected by the disease of sin from the crown of the head to the sole of the feet. Unbridled pride stalks abroad, swelling, if I may say it, above the stars of heaven. Dissolute lust pollutes not only vessels of clay, but those of gold, and insatiable avarice devours all it can lay its hands on. But lo! A sudden change of affairs is threatened. The libertines shall not always bear rule, the Lord God will come to judgement of the open enemies of his spouse, and strike Moab and Edom with the sword of his signal vengeance…The bow of divine vengeance is bent on the reprobate, and the swift arrow taken from the quiver is ready to wound. The blow will soon be struck, but the man who is wise enough to correct his sins will avoid the infliction.”

Serlo, Abbot of Gloucester:  Serlo was a Benedictine monk who was Norman by birth and a former chaplain to William I.  He had the respect of William II, who described him as “a good abbot and sensible old man.”  William was about to set out on the hunt when he received a message from Serlo, informing him of a recent vision one of his monks had experienced.  “I saw the Lord Jesus seated on a lofty throne, and the glorious host of heaven, with the company of the saints, standing round. But while, in my ecstasy, I was lost in wonder, and my attention fixed deeply on such an extraordinary spectacle, I beheld a virgin resplendent with light cast herself at the feet of the Lord Jesus, and humbly address to him this petition – ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, for whom Thou didst shed Thy precious blood when hanging on the cross, look now in compassion on Thy people which now groans under the yoke of William. Thou avenger of wickedness, and most just of all men, take vengeance, I beseech Thee, on my behalf, of this William, and deliver me out of his hands; for, as far as lies in his power, he has polluted me, and grievously afflicted me.’ The Lord replied, ‘Be patient and wait awhile, and soon you will be amply revenged of him.’” The King finished reading the message and laughed. “Does Serlo,” he asked, “think that I believe in the visions of every snoring monk? Does it take me for an Englishman, who puts his faith in the dreams of every old woman?”

Prior (Bernard?) of Dunstable: The prior had a dream in which he saw William’s armorer, Ralph of Aix, present a sheaf containing five arrows to the king.  The prior felt this boded misfortune but did not tell anyone.

Unknown Monk: While chanting on the morning of William’s death, he saw through his closed eyes a person holding out a paper which was written, “King William is dead.” When he opened his eyes, the person was gone.

Hugh, Abbot of Cluny:  St. Hugh, or Hugh the Great, was a powerful and influential leader. He had a personal reputation as a wise and savvy diplomat.  Hugh advised Pope Gregory VII in his investiture controversy with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. The abbot told Archbishop Anselm he dreamed about King William’s death. In his dream William had been summoned before God and condemned.  The king was killed the next day. 

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury:  Anselm was in Lyons, France when he received news that King William was dead. In the middle of the night, an “angelic youth” appeared to Brother Adams, Anselm’s guard, and said to him, “Know for certain the controversy between Archbishop Anselm and King William is decided.” 

The episode was described in Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History) a chronicle compiled by various hands, but linked to two monks, Roger Wendover and Matthew Paris.  The Flowers of History also detailed Anselm’s dream about William’s death and his return to England.  “By the impiety and injustice of William Rufus, Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was driven into exile, and remained there til he saw in a vision of the night that all the saints of England were complaining to the Most High of the tyranny of King William, who was destroying his churches. And God said, “Let Alban, the proto-martyr of the English come hither,” and he gave him an arrow which was on fire, saying, “Behold the death of the man of whom you complain before me.” And the blessed Alban, receiving the arrow, said, “And I will give it to a wicked spirit, an avenger of sins,” and saying this he threw it down to earth, and it flew through the air like a comet. And immediately Archbishop Anselm perceived in the spirit that the king, having been shot by an arrow, died that night. And accordingly, at the first light of the morning, having celebrated mass, he ordered his vestments, and his books, and other movables, to be got in readiness, and immediately set out on his journey to his church. And when he came near it, he heard that King William had been shot by an arrow that very night, and was dead.”

Anselm reputedly wept or sobbed when he received news of King William’s death.  The people around him were astonished by his reaction.

 

Was there a Plot to Kill the King?

Yes, based on the number of dreams and premonitions. I believe Abbot Serlo caught wind of a plot and tried to warn William.  Archbishop Anselm may have heard rumors of a plot and started on his way back to England to reclaim his see at Canterbury. I think that Anselm wasn’t directly involved in the assassination, but he didn’t do anything to stop it. The abbots, bishops and other members of the hierarchy may not have known who killed William, but since they believed they would fare better under his younger brother, Henry, justified his death as a divine punishment. 

Who Killed the King?

Based on circumstantial evidence and intuition, I believe that it was one of the de Clares with the full knowledge and support of Henry. Walter Tirel was with the king when he was killed, or found the body, and the others told him to flee since he would be blamed. Tirel was never charged since King Henry and the others knew he was innocent.

Further Reading:

My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries by Rictor Norton (1998) – Best Beloved Brother – The Gay Love Letters of Saint Anselm

King Rufus: The Life and Mysterious Death of William II of England by Dr. Emma Mason (2008)

The Strange Death of William Rufus by C. Warren Hollister (1973)

The Death of the Red King by Paul Doherty (2006)

 

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