• A London Student

William II - A Soldier

William II, nicknamed William Rufus either due to a Ruddy Complexion or red hair in childhood was born between 1056 and 1060, before the Norman Conquest. Although he was the third son of Matilda of Flanders and William the Conqueror, one of his older brothers, Richard of Normandy died in 1074 (aged from fourteen to eighteen) while hunting in the New Forest. Therefore as the second surviving son, feudal custom dictated that he was heir to the throne of England; his older brother Robert would become Duke of Normandy. Very little is known about his childhood, although he would have spent his early years in Normandy, this before the conquest. After that it is hard to place him. Given that Richard died in the New Forest, there is a high chance that William would have also regularly visited England, especially once it was apparent that he was the heir. William was also reported as the Conqueror's favourite son - something that definitely would have contributed to friction between him and Robert who was often at odds with their father.

William succeeded the throne of England on William I's death in Normandy on 9th September 1087. By the beginning of the next year, England was in rebellion. This was a slightly different rebellion to the ones in William the Conqueror's reign, and was dealt with in a very different way. This rebellion was led by Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, who had been the Conqueror's half-brothers by his mother, Herleva's marriage to a Norman Noble, Herluin de Conteville. Many of the Norman Noblemen of this time had estates on both sides of the channel, and were worried that their lands may suffer as a result of the rivalry between Robert and William (the Duke of Normandy and the King of England). The plan was therefore to put Robert on the Throne of England to solve this problem. As you can imagine, William wasn't very keen on that idea.


William didn't rely on military might as his father had, and instead made an effort to win over his new subjects. He promised those who sided with him money and land, and promised to cut taxes on England's inhabitants, and bring in an efficient government. Then he behaved like the Conqueror, laying siege to Pevensey Castle which fell after six weeks, and led to the capture of Odo of Bayeux. You are probably surprised that Robert hadn't sent some soldiers to assist this rebellion, given that it was trying to get the crown for him... He did try to, but they were prevented from arriving by bad weather. William quickly took Rochester Castle and then it was all over, helped by Robert's absence.


The next year, William invaded Normandy, where he defeated Robert, and reduced him to a smaller role, although exactly what that was is a little unclear. At the end of this war, plans were laid for the brothers to instead become allies, to reclaim Maine, which had been lost. However these plans came to nothing. After this, relations between the brothers deteriorated and there may have been an ongoing war until 1096, although this is a little unclear as well.


The other major event of 1089 was that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the Conqueror's advisers and confidants died. William delayed having a new Archbishop of Canterbury for the next four years, until he eventually nominated Anselm whilst seriously ill. Anselm was a great theologian. William recovered from this illness, and so began a large period of disagreement between Church and State,


In 1091, William led an army North to repulse advances made by King Malcolm III of Scotland, and forced Malcolm to pay homage. He followed up this victory against the constantly hostile Scotland by building a castle in Carlisle in true Norman style. With this castle also came the return of Westmorland and Cumberland (whether this was in a treaty or military conquest is unclear). However the two rulers were soon disputing what possessions Malcolm had in England, and as a result, he invaded again in 1093. This invasion was soon halted with the Battle of Alnwick where Robert de Mowbray ambushed the Scottish force on the 13th November, killing both King Malcolm III of Scotland (who had reigned since 1058, when he had defeated Macbeth in battle) and his eldest son Edward.


Malcolm would be succeeded by his brother, Donald III, although he did have six surviving sons (Duncan, Edmund, Ethlered, Edgar, Alexander and David, four of whom would be King of Scotland after or in between Donald's two short reigns). This victory over Scotland would throw the monarchy into disarray and allowed William to assert control and cause pandemonium through supporting claimants to the throne.


In 1095, William Rufus faced another rebellion by the Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray, whom he defeated, stripping de Mowbray of his lands, and imprisoning him. The other ringleaders of this rebellion were treated with such brutality that it was the last rebellion faced in William's reign. Also in 1095, William called Anslem, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to council in Rockingham, but the Archbishop remained firm in his belief in the Gregorian Reforms, the element that had caused friction between them originally.


Now for a brief bit about the Welsh. The Welsh hadn't made conquest particularly hard in the reign of William the Conqueror with Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, King of Gwynedd and Powys, being killed in 1075. The following Civil War had allowed Norman Earls to seize much of Wales, including Gwynedd. South Wales had already been invaded by the Conqueror himself, and Dyfed had been divided between Normans. However, in 1094, the Welsh began to fight back, winning territories back, and driving out the Normans. In 1095, William had an unsuccessful attempt of crushing this rebellion, and would have another go in 1097, but the Welsh had finally got a strong leader in Gruffudd ap Cynan, and then his son, Owain Gwynedd. They would spend the next almost two-hundred years trying to drive the Normans out, ending with Llywleyn the Last's struggles against Edward I in the 1280's.


Back to William, Pope Urban II began to preach for a Crusade.


Among those who caught Crusading fever was Robert, William's brother, the diminished Duke of Normandy. In 1096, Robert mortgaged Normandy to William for 10,000 marks (a sum which was raised via heavy taxation on England, which thoroughly upset the peasants). This was essential to Robert's crusading plans, as he otherwise couldn't afford it, and also worked out well for ambitious William. As a result, 1097 was a very busy year for William. Once William had finished his two failed forays in Wales, he sailed for Normandy spending the next two years fighting the French. He quickly took back Maine, but had several failed attempts on the Vexin.


In 1100, William II was killed while hunting in the New Forest by an arrow that was supposedly misfired, although it is possible that it was an assassination by the order of Henry, William's younger brother. With Robert still away on Crusade, it was an opportune moment to strike, making the circumstances of his death more suspicious.


William Rufus is an interesting character, often portrayed as brutal or cruel. After the rebellion of 1095, another of the leaders, William of Eu was blinded and castrated on Rufus' orders. However, it is worth noting that he has probably been shown as overly malicious, as a result of his feud with the Church over Archbishop Anslem, given that Chroniclers of the time were generally within the Church. William was a soldier. A ruthless soldier. That is the usual description (apart from "Rufus"). But I have struggled to find anything that makes him any worse or any more brutal than his father, the Conqueror, who faced far more Rebellions but wasn't as hated by his own nobles as William Rufus (with the possible exceptions of Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar). The most likely reason for this was that the Conqueror was deeply respected by his own Nobles, and it was expected that Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers would show him in a negative light, given that he had taken over the Kingdom. William was the successor of the Conqueror, not an easy role, and was probably given less leniency as a result.


The final thing that is worth touching upon is is sexuality. William is not known to have had any mistresses, concubines or any illegitimate children, and never got married despite probable pressure at court. We can assume that he would have received many marriage proposals as one of the most powerful rulers in Europe (the Holy Roman Empire was not at its best in the late 1000's). It is possible that he may have taken a Vow of Chasity, but that is one of many possible suggestions. In later centuries, he was referred to as a "sodomite", although given that this was never used by writers in his reign, this may have been anti-Norman bored Clerics fabricating tales.


The one thing that can be known for sure is that William Rufus was an effective ruler, like his father had been before him, a trait that can also be seen in Henry I (although not Robert). Whilst he was ruthless and disliked, he was a brilliant soldier - a far better soldier than a King.