Amidst the spreading Oaks of the New Forest stands a solitary stone, once ten foot high with a ball on top, now truncated and protected from vandals. Known as the Rufus Stone, it is the memorial to a slain king, William II, one of England’s most mysterious and little known Norman Kings.
On the stone, which only dates from the reign of Charles II and is not sited where the event it commemorates actually happened, is an inscription:
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.
William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, is one of those historical figures who has attracted lots of mythology but about whom little is actually known. Due to his nickname, frequently he is described in modern writings as red-headed, but in the medieval Malmesbury Chronicle, he is said to be ‘yellow haired’ with a very red face that grew more florid when enraged.
It is claimed William was cruel and unpopular, but there is little written evidence of what his cruelty exactly consisted of. He did implement high taxation, treating his English subjects with disdain, but his main folly seemed to be in defying and even ridiculing the Church. (The Anglo Saxon Chronicle said he was ‘abhorrent to God’.) The Church loathed him, and the clerics of the day spoke peevishly of his possible sodomy (he never married, nor had any known illegitimate children), his dissolute court and the fact he wore his hair nearly as long as a woman’s as well as enormously extended pointy shoes!
Despite his unpopularity, Rufus was a capable soldier, making forays into Scotland and putting down a serious revolt in Northumberland.
It is his unusual death however, for which he which is best remembered , and here the folklore has grown and flourished most. On August 2, the day after the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasad, Christianised as Lammas, William was out hunting in the forest with his brother Henry, a lord called William Tirel/Tyrell/Tyrrell and others of his entourage. Apparently, the night before he had been gripped by evil dreams in which he had been kicked by an angry cross, and this put him in an evil mood. As the party spotted a stag amidst the trees, he turned to Tirel, the best archer in the party and shouted, “Shoot, in the name of God, shoot!”
Tirel shot and the arrow struck not the deer but the king, entering his lung. He tried to draw it out but collapsed, falling on the shaft and driving the arrow in deeper.
No one helped the dying king. Tirel immediately spurred his horse onwards and fled for France. The King’s brother Henry, not bothering with any niceties for the newly deceased King’s body, rushed for the nearby city of Winchester where he seized the treasury, then promptly rode to London where he claimed the crown before his other brother, Robert Curthose, who was away on the First Crusade, could hear of William’s demise.
It was, reportedly, two humble peasants who recovered William’s corpse, dumping it unceremoniously into a cart and carrying it to Winchester, with blood dripping through the cart-slats all the way along the road. In the great cathedral, Rufus was hastily buried in a plain chest tomb ( and some bones believed to be his still remain there, although the skull is missing.)
The Church of the day believed God had stricken down William for his wickedness, but later historians began to speak of murder and a potential plot to remove him from the throne. Henry was definitely present at the death and certainly had the most to gain; his actions when the King was stricken down were also not exactly those of a loving brother. Tirel was said to be an excellent archer and most unlikely to have missed his target in such a disastrous manner.
In the earlier 20th century the story was given another twist—anthropologist Margaret Murray wrote about Rufus being a pagan who was sacrificed in an ancient Lammas harvest rite because he was ‘infertile’ and hence would bring famine and plague to England. (The chroniclers did in fact say that in Rufus’ reign, “thunders terrifying the earth, lightnings and thunderbolts most frequent, deluging showers without number, winds of the most astonishing violence, and whirlwinds that shook the towers of churches and levelled them with the ground.”
As ‘proof’ Murray pointed to the auspicious date of death at Lammas and to the fact another young royal relative had died in an identical manner earlier that year…on May 2, the day after old Beltaine. She thought of this earlier death as a ‘proxy’ for the king himself, but when England did not flourish after the substitute was sacrificed, Rufus himself had to die. The peasants who allowed Rufus’ blood to flow onto the earth on the journey to Winchester were also seen as continuing some sort of ancientritual practice.
Pretty wild, unlikely stuff, intriguing though it is.
So Henry became Henry I and Tirel in France remained free and unpunished. Who killed Rufus, and whether it was an accident or murder (ritual or otherwise) remains another unsolved medieval mystery (although I would personally put my money on Henry.) As for Tirel’s involvement, his name was in fact not immediately associated with the death; the Anglo Saxon Chronicle just says the King was ‘shot by one of his own men.’ Tirel’s name only appears in later writing, although he does seem to have fled England (and his daughter Adeliza was married to one of the men Henry took with him when he seized the treasury.)
It is a slightly strange and interesting coincidence that this surname for a possible ‘King killer’ is so similar to that of James Tyrell/Tyrrell who has been accused of overseeing the deaths of Edward V and his brother Richard of York in the Tower 383 years later, another figure obscured by time and by later mythologising.