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The mysterious death of England’s second King William

In August 1100, England’s second King William died in strange circumstances and was buried quietly at Winchester Cathedral. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Henry, hastened to London to claim power. What really happened to the king?

Today we’re looking at a royal history mystery involving the death of a king. What happened to William II of England?

As the third son of William the Conqueror, William II had already made his mark before he even became king. His exact date of birth is not known but it is accepted that it took place around 1056 in Normandy, France. He had two older brothers, Robert Curthose and Richard, and a younger brother named Henry. His early years aren’t covered in great detail by chroniclers of the time although as the reign of William the Conqueror went on, his relationships with all his sons went through strained times.

Upon his death in 1087, William I bequeathed the Duchy of Normandy to his eldest son, Robert Curthose, and the throne of England to William (Richard had been killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest sometime in 1075). William II’s coronation was held on 26 September 1087. The youngest son, Henry, received 5,000 pounds of sterling silver and the English estates of his mother, Queen Matilda’.

There was no love lost between William II and his older brother and in 1088 the nobles of England and Normandy mounted a rebellion to unify the kingdom and the duchy with a single ruler over both—they favoured Robert. William was, however, able to gain the trust and support of the English lords by promising them resources as well as administrative changes and his cause was helped by the fact that Robert never crossed the channel to England to shore up support.

William went on to invade Normandy in 1091 and gained some lands there, but agreed later to help Robert when he went on the First Crusade in 1096. Robert mortgaged the duchy to William II and the brothers—both unmarried and childless—agreed that if either died without issue, they’d unite the kingdom and the duchy under one ruler: the surviving brother. While Robert was away on the First Crusade, William II acted as his regent.

William II also fought against the Scots, staving off an invasion in 1091 and forcing Malcolm III, the King of the Scots, to acknowledge his rule. In 1093, another Scottish revolt led to Malcolm III’s death and William II maintaining Scottish kings as vassals.

His reign was marked by battles, both temporal and with the church in England. However, he never gave any real indication of intending to marry or produce heirs. He was but he never moved to marry or produce heirs, and on On 2 August 1100, William II decided to go on a hunting trip in the New Forest where he met his end.

What Happened to William II?

While hunting that August day, he was shot through the lung with an arrow and succumbed to his injuries. His hunting party included Sir Walter Tyrell, often considered to be the man who made the fatal shot. Also present were William’s younger brother, Henry, and several other noblemen.

The story goes that William II was separated from the rest of the group while chasing a stag and when he missed with his arrow, he commanded Tyrell to aim and shoot. The arrow struck the king instead and killed him.

At the time, William II’s death was viewed as an unfortunate accident but there were whispers that he had been murdered on the orders of Henry, who promptly seized the English throne.

At any rate, William II’s body was left in the New Forest while Henry rode to Winchester to claim the throne and seize the royal treasury. Tyrell fled to France aboard a ship. The other noblemen rode back to their homes to ensure their property was intact after the death of the king and the crowning of a new one. A peasant found William II’s body several days later and carried his body, aboard a cart, to Winchester Cathedral where he was buried without pomp.

The place where William II is said to have died is marked with the Rufus Stone (named as such because William II’s nickname during his lifetime was William Rufus for his ruddy complexion and red hair). The stone reads:

“Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100.

“King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church of that city.

“That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten, the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden.”

Whether a simple hunting accident or an assassination attempt, the truth behind William II’s death has never been confirmed.

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About author

Jess Ilse is the Assistant Editor at Royal Central. She specialises in the British, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Royal Families and has been following royalty since Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Jess has provided commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Jess works in communications and her debut novel THE MAJESTIC SISTERS will publish in Fall 2024.