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William II - 1087-1100

Key Facts about William II

William II, known as Rufus because of his ruddy complexion and pale hair, was the third son of William the Conqueror. He was unswervingly loyal to his father, who chose him to inherit his kingdom, rather than his elder son Robert, whom he made Duke of Normandy. Richard, the second son, had been killed in a hunting accident; and the youngest son, Henry (later to become Henry I), was given £5,000 in silver.

The existence of two strong men in charge of two parts of the Norman kingdom gave rise to difficulties for William, for the lords who owned estates in both territories were worried about the conditions of tenure from each ruler. William II had strong character and continued his father's transformation of England into a unified and well organized kingdom.

In 1088 he putdown a rebellion of barons who supported his brother Robert and repelled an invasion by the Scots led by Malcolm III. He also suppressed a rising of lords in North Wales. Thanks to Robert's enthusiasm for the First Crusade and his need of money for the enterprise, William gained a hold on Normandy by giving his brother a mortgage on the duchy. This gave him increasing authority abroad.

During his reign several great churches were started, notably Durham Cathedral, but William was not a notable supporter of the Church from which he extracted taxes to pay for his own schemes for the government of England.He sneered at Christianity. When Church posts fell vacant he simply refused to fill them, seizing the money for himself. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the saintly Anselm, preached fiercely against Rufus's homosexual lifestyle, but Rufus was openly contemptuous and made the Archbishop's life so difficult that the poor old man fled to live in Rome. Rufus simply grabbed his property.

The story of Rufus's reign is a sordid account of rebellions, skirmishes, deceit, broken promises and savage violence. Mutilations were common and horrific. Once, when a nobleman was accused of treason, Rufus had his eyes pulled out and his testicles cut off. No one has spoken well of Rufus, either during his lifetime or since.

One positive and valuable legacy from Rufus, however, is Westminster Hall, for he was directly and personally responsible for this historic building. The great hall, almost 240 feet long and 68 feet wide, was built in 1097-9, and has witnessed countless scenes of royal splendour. The last king to lie in state there was George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II, and Winston Churchill also lay in state there when he died in 1965. In a famous boast Rufus said that this huge hall was 'a mere bed-chamber' compared with the palace he intended to build beside it. But fate intervened and he was dead before he could even start his new palace.

William was an active man, fond of sport, and was killed by an arrow fired by his friend Walter Tyrrell while hunting in the New Forest.

The death of William Rufus, will always remain a mystery. Was it an accident, or was it murder? Certainly, a charcoal-burner called Purkiss found his corpse in a leafy glade, and all the king's hunting-companions had fled. (The man under most suspicion, Sir Walter Tyrell, never returned to England, dying later in the Holy Land.) Purkiss covered the king's body, which still had the arrow sticking out, andtrundled it by cart to Winchester. The monks in the cathedral there were terrified to see the king's corpse. They quickly buried it under one of the towers without any of the proper rites of the Church. And when the tower fell down a few years later, everyone was convinced that it was a judgement of God, showing displeasure that such a wicked man as Rufus should have been buried there.

As for Purkiss the charcoal-burner, he was rewarded with an acre or two of land in the New Forest and his descendants lived there well into the nineteenth century. A Purkiss of the eighteenth century is said to have still possessed the axle, made of yew, of the original cart. And there are Purkisses in the area still, claiming lineal descent from the old charcoal-burner who chanced to find the dead king. The place where Rufus is supposed to have been found is marked in the New Forest by a memorial called the Rufus Stone, easily marked for motorists about half a mile off the A34 from Bournemouth to Winchester.

Key Events during the Reign of William II

1087 - William II accedes to the throne on the death of his father, William I.

1089 - Archbishop Lanfranc dies the archbishopric remains vacant for four years.

1090 - William wages war on his brother Robert in Normandy.

1091 - William defeats an invasion of England led by Malcolm III of Scotland.

1093 - Malcolm III and the Scots invade England again. They are defeated and Malcolm is killed at the Battle of Alnwick. Anselm is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

1095 - William suppresses a baronial revolt in Northumbria.

1097 - Following a row with William, Anselm is exiled to Rome and William seizes his estates. King Donald Bane of Scotland is deposed and is succeeded by Edgar, son of Malcolm III.

1098 - William invades North Wales to suppress a Welsh rebellion against the Norman border lords.

1100 - William is killed by an arrow while out hunting with friends in the New Forest.

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