The Life of William II
William’s exact date of birth is not known for certain, but he is thought to have been born some time between 1056 and 1060. William was the third of four sons born to William the Conqueror, who was then the Duke of Normandy. While William was young, he was educated by Lanfrac, the Archbishop of Canterbury. William was intelligent and seemed destined to become a great lord, but not King of England. However, a sudden change in circumstances altered William’s destiny. In 1080, Robert led a major rebellion against his father, as the result of a prank played on him by William and their youngest brother, Henry. A year later, the sudden death of William’s brother Richard, the Duke of Bernay and the second son of William the Conqueror, in 1081 following a hunting accident in the New Forest, put William in line to succeed his father as the King of England. In spite of his ascension to the English throne in 1087, there was much hostility between William and his oldest brother. However, William and Robert were reconciled following an attempted coup by William’s youngest brother, Henry, who would eventually rule England as Henry I.
The Reign of William II
Following the death of William the Conqueror, the division of his lands presented problems for members of the nobility with holdings in both France and England. Since William and Robert were natural rivals, the nobility on both sides of the English Channel was afraid of losing favour with one or both rulers. This led to a revolt against William, in favour of Robert, in 1088. However, Robert failed to appear in England, to support his followers there. As a result, William won back the support of his subjects with gold and promises of better government. In 1091, William invaded Normandy, inflicting a massive defeat on Robert’s army and forcing him to cede territory to William. William promised to help Robert reclaim land that had been lost to other members of the French nobility. This plan was eventually abandoned, but William remained committed to defending his French possessions for the rest of his reign.
In 1089, Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury and William’s tutor, died. In the wake of his death, William was reluctant to appoint a new Archbishop, mainly because he was funnelling the ecclesiastical revenue meant for the Church into the royal treasury. In 1095, following a serious illness, William appointed Anselm, a Benedictine Monk and the Abbot of Caen in France, to the office of Archbishop. This led to a long period of conflict between William and Anselm, who supported the Gregorian reforms which were being implemented in other parts of Europe. At one point in the conflict, William wrote, “Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hated him with greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and there after I shall hate him with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.”
In 1095, William convened a council at Rockingham, where he intended to bring Anselm to heel. William was not successful and Anselm would not yield. In 1097, Anselm went into exile, taking his case to the newly elected Pope Urban II. However, Urban was embroiled in a conflict with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, over the investiture of priests and bishops and could not afford to make another enemy. Pope Urban agreed to support the status quo in England, in exchange for William’s support in the Investiture Controversy. Anselm remained in exile, while William continued to collect Church revenues for the rest of his reign.
The Death of William II
Even though William lacked his father’s ability to forestall the nobles’ propensity for rebellion, he was equally as effective in resisting its effects. In 1095, Robert de Mowbray, the Earl of Northumberland, refused to attend the Curia Regis. The Curia Regis was a royal court that was convened three times per year, and at which William announced changes in government policy. William raised an army and quickly subdued Robert’s uprising, He also punished William of Eu, blinding and castrating him for treason.
The most famous incident from the reign of William II concerns the manner of his death.
In a curious twist of fate, William was killed in a hunting accident in August, 1100, in the New Forest, 20 years after the death of his brother, Richard. The exact circumstances of William’s death are uncertain. It is known that he was shot in the chest with an arrow by William Tyrell, the Lord of Poix, and died almost instantly. According to the primary sources, Tyrell was an excellent archer and as a result, some modern historians contend that William was the victim of a conspiracy. Tyrell and the other nobles abandoned the King where he fell. His body was discovered the next day by a group of peasants who brought the King’s remains to Winchester Cathedral, where William was given a royal funeral.
Following the death of William II on August 2, 1100, his youngest brother, Henry I, became King of England.
Barlow, Frank, William Rufus, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1983.
Cantor, Norman F., The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Harper Collins, 1993
Mason, Emma, William II: Rufus, the Red King, Tempus, 2005.
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