In the early hours of Thursday, 2 August 1100, the second Norman king of England, William Rufus, was asleep at his New Forest hunting lodge when he had a nightmare. According to one chronicler, he dreamt “that he was let blood by a surgeon, and that the stream, reaching to heaven, clouded the light and intercepted the day”. In another version, William dreamed that he met the Devil, who said that he was looking forward to seeing him the next day. Either way, waking with a start, the king shouted for his servants to bring a light. It was obvious that the dream had seriously worried him.
By lunchtime, however, William had recovered his spirits. It was a lovely sunny day: a perfect day, his friends suggested, for an afternoon in the saddle. While they were getting ready, an armourer presented six arrows to the king. William took four for himself; the others he handed to one of his companions, the Anglo-French nobleman Walter Tirel, Lord of Poix, who had a reputation as a fine marksman. “Bon archer, bonnes flèches,” Rufus said with a smile: “Good arrows for a good shot.”
As William Rufus galloped into the woods that afternoon, he must have looked the very model of a medieval king. Forty years old, the third son of William the Conqueror, he cut an imposing figure. The chronicler William of Malmesbury described him as “well set; his complexion florid, his hair yellow; of open countenance; different coloured eyes, varying with certain glittering specks; of astonishing strength, though not very tall, and his belly rather projecting”.
Hot-tempered and sometimes boorish, he was nevertheless a good-humoured, generous man, who liked nothing better than drinking and joking with his cronies. Contemporaries were often shocked by his blasphemy and disregard for the church, as well as by rumours of homosexual goings-on. But by medieval standards his regime seemed eminently stable.
It was late afternoon when William Rufus divided up his hunting party. Most of his courtiers remained with his younger brother, Henry, while the king rode off with Walter Tirel into the heart of the forest. What happened next remains something of a mystery, but the most famous version belongs to William of Malmesbury. “The sun was now declining,” he writes, “when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him; and, keenly gazing, followed it, still running, a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun’s rays. At this moment Walter tried to transfix another stag, but – oh, gracious God! – unknowingly, and without power to prevent it, he pierced the king’s breast with a fatal arrow.”
Realising the extent of his mistake, Walter Tirel panicked, spurred his horse and fled. According to a French chronicler, he later turned up across the channel, where he claimed that he had never been with the king that day at all.
Many contemporary observers were sceptical that a first-class marksman could have made such a terrible mistake; some wondered whether Tirel had been put up to it by the king’s brother Henry, who was conveniently close by (but not too close) when it happened. But the truth is that we will never know.
What we do know, though, is what happened next. When William’s courtiers found the body, blood was still pouring from the wound. Carried to Winchester in a cart, it left a trail of blood behind it. In the meantime, the king’s brother Henry was making some frantic calculations. His older brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, was returning from the First Crusade; if Henry acted quickly, he could be king before Robert had even realised what had happened. With a handful of courtiers, he rode as fast as he could towards Winchester, intent on securing the royal treasury. Once he had the money, he reckoned, everything else would follow. That night he reached Winchester; three days later, he was crowned king at Westminster.
It took Henry six years to see off Robert’s claim, but those first hours were crucial. Almost overnight, William Rufus was forgotten, and one of the most successful, stable and important reigns in English history had begun.
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.
This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine