On 2nd August 1100, while hunting in the New Forest, William II met his maker at the end of an arrow. It was deemed an accident, and yet something about that day continues to raise eyebrows. Could the Red King have been murdered?
The mysterious death of King William II—nicknamed William Rufus or the Red King because of his ruddy complexion—is one of the first things I remember learning about in History when I got to secondary school. It stuck with me because of the mystery and conspiracy theory that continues to surround the incident to this day.
Our view of the hunting expedition on 2nd August 1100 is murky at best. Contemporary chroniclers have tried to piece together the events, but all of them had agendas and none were eyewitnesses. The earliest mention of the event is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records that William II was “shot by an arrow by one of his own men”. Later chroniclers gave the name of William’s killer as nobleman Walter Tyrrell, sometimes spelled Tyrell or Tirel.
The most extensive contemporary account comes from William of Malmesbury, writing in circa 1128—so still almost 30 years after the event. He says that the king dreamed he was going to Hell the night before the hunt and that the Devil had said to him, “I can’t wait for tomorrow because we can finally meet in person!”
The next morning, William and his hunting party headed out into the New Forest. Walter Tyrrell was present. So was William’s younger brother, Henry, along with several other lords. William forbade them from leaving his side but, as the hunt began, William and Tyrrell ended up separated from the rest. Apparently, Tyrrell went to shoot a stag but missed, his arrow plunging into the king’s chest.
Tyrrell fled the scene and hightailed it to France. The king’s body was discovered by a poor charcoal-burner called Purkis, who placed the body in his cart and conveyed it to Winchester Cathedral.