The New Forest
Someone has to tell the story of history, and until relatively recently historians were churchmen. If the Church didn't like you then a good write up was unlikely. William II was not a religious man. He was brave, enjoyed hunting, fought when he had to, was probably homosexual, and did not have much time for religion. In fact he might even have gone so far as to poke fun at the Church! This did not go down well with monks who had to write about him. In the Anglo Saxon Chronicle claims were made that William was hated by most of his people, but all we can really be sure of is that monks did not much like him. Another primary source of information about the Norman kings is provided by Orderic Vitalis, a monk of Saint-Evroult in Normandy. Judith Green says of Orderic: "Truth for such an author was more than an issue of strict accuracy and impartial reporting. Truth had a moral dimension" (Henry I by Judith Green P 3). The story of William II is a reminder that the truth of history means different things to different people.
Details of William's childhood are sketchy. He was the third son of William the Conqueror and was born sometime between 1056 and 1060. His education, according to William of Malmesbury, was looked after by Archbishop Lanfranc. Knowing of William's later impatience with the Church, the relationship between lively young boy and Archbishop must have been an interesting one. The only other recorded incident of William's childhood is reported by Orderic Vitalis, and may be fictitious. Allegedly the Conqueror, preparing for a military expedition, was lodging in l'Aigle with his three sons, Robert, William Rufus and Henry. Henry and William Rufus, who got on well with their father were playing dice in an upper gallery. Perhaps they were irritated with their arrogant older brother who had been nagging the Conqueror to make him Duke of Normandy. The two younger boys decided to pour water down on the head of Robert who was holding court with his companions below. Robert did not see the funny side of his soaking. He flew into a rage and was only briefly placated by the Conqueror. The next morning Robert and his companions left for Rouen, capital of Normandy, and plotted revenge. Frustrated at his father's refusal to make him a duke, and furious that William and Henry had poured water on him, Robert decided to hit back by trying to storm the citadel at Rouen. Eventually peace was restored, but relations remained uneasy. Not surprisingly the Conqueror was fond of William Rufus, the boy who was willing to defend his father from a nagging son with a jug of water. When the Conqueror was mortally injured in 1087 and taken to the priory of Saint-Gervas, William Rufus and Henry attended him there. Robert was absent. The gathered nobles had to talk the king round to offering Robert the dukedom of Normandy. The king, however, was more than happy to grant England to William. Mindful of potential power struggles William was told to leave immediately for his new kingdom, and the new king was to hear of his father's death on 9th September 1087 during his journey to England.
William II's coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 26th September 1087. In accordance with his father's will William distributed much of the Conqueror's wealth to the Church, leaving his own resources seriously depleted. Knowing what we know of William's attitude towards the Church, it must have been painful for him to give away all this money, but William was a dutiful son and he did what the will required. William also restored Bishop Odo, who his father had imprisoned, to his former position as Earl of Kent. Given Odo's history of rebellion this was a generous, but risky move. By the beginning of 1088 William's generosity was beginning to work against him. Probably under the influence of Odo, many of England's nobles were preparing to transfer their allegiance to the Conqueror's eldest son, Robert. William then decided that it was time to start getting tough, and he struck against his enemies in Kent. Attacks were mounted against Odo's strongholds at Rochester Castle and Tonbridge Castle. Tonbridge was taken first, followed by a move on Rochester. Odo fled to Pevensey Castle, which was forced into surrender by siege. Rochester was then defeated using similar tactics. By autumn of 1088 William had showed his strength and the situation was much calmer.
In the years that followed William probably showed "meritorious qualities both as a man and as a king" (The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 by Frank Barlow P146). But it is hard to see those qualities through the eyes of ecclesiastical historians. After dutifully giving up his father's wealth to the Church, William then decided that the section of society that could best bear heavy taxation was the extremely wealthy Church. William wanted a reunion of England and Normandy and in large measure used wealth taxed from the Church to follow his ambitions against Robert. The struggle between William and Robert went on for many years, fluctuating between truce and inconclusive warfare. This seemingly endless struggle came to an end in 1094 when Pope Urban preached a famous sermon at Clermont calling for men to crusade in the Holy Land. This idea caught Robert's imagination. Memorably Frank Barlow says the Crusades appealed to "the bored and the restless," and points out that few of the major Norman nobles, and none of the English answered the Pope's call. "But for the frustrated and the failures the Crusade was a heaven sent chance" ( The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042- 1216 P164). Robert, more interested in the romance of kingship than its nitty gritty reality, embraced the idea of crusade with enthusiasm. William, much more level-headed, didn't. To pay for his trip, Robert asked William for 10,000 marks, with the dukedom of Normandy as surety for payment. William immediately realised this was a good deal, and crossed the Channel with the money. Inevitably it had been extracted from the Church. The ecclesiastical authorities might have complained bitterly, but William knew that they could hardly refuse to provide money, given its purpose to send Robert on crusade. William must have chuckled to himself. He was going to buy Normandy with the Church's money, all because of a silly idea that Christians had to go and fight in the Holy Land.
Robert went off on his crusade, while William became ruler of Normandy in all but name. He ruled with his usual mixture of no nonsense firmness and humour. In June 1099 William was hunting in the New Forest when he heard news that a rebellion had broken out at Le Mans in Normandy. The king rode immediately to the coast and demanded that the master of a small boat take him across the Channel, even though a ferocious storm was raging. When the captain objected William jollied him along by saying that he had never heard of a king drowning before. Getting to Normandy William relieved Le Mans, harried the countryside in the area as punishment, and was back hunting and enjoying himself in the New Forest by the end of September. Job done.
It was in the New Forest on 2nd of August the following year that William was accidentally killed by a stray arrow. It had probably been fired by his friend Walter Tirel. Some historians have tried to find a murderous conspiracy in events, although there is no evidence for this. Naturally the Church claimed that William's death was punishment for his sins, and his main sin was that he did not take the Church seriously. Chroniclers reported visions and portents. According to William of Malmesbury the Devil appeared to men in woods and by-ways, and a few weeks before William's death a spring at Finchampstead apparently ran red with blood. Then an unnamed monk was supposed to have had a dream about William entering a church, looking around scornfully at the congregation and being struck dead. A letter from Abbot Salo warned of a monk's vision of the king's death. This particular warning is actually supposed to have been passed on to William himself. In his reported reply, we see William's general attitude to such things: "Does he take me for an Englishman? Let them put off their journeys and business because some old woman has sneezed or had a bad dream! Not me!" (quoted in Henry I by Judith Green P39).
William has a refreshingly, startlingly, modern outlook. Of course the Church got its own back by making an accident into divine retribution, backed up by dreams from conveniently unnamed monks. Hunting was dangerous. But this did not stop God apparently shooting William with a stray arrow. No doubt William would have shaken his head in exasperation at the idea.
Frank Barlow writes the following epitaph for William:
William "confirmed the royal power in England and he restored the ducal rights in Normandy, yet never made a sad labour of his humdrum task. He was a buffoon with a purpose, a jester who accepted his father's mantle but spread it in extravagant caprice" (The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 P169).