William Rufus, third son of the Conqueror, became King of England upon his fathers death in 1087. As third son it had never been assumed that William would rise to such a position. However his elder brother, Richard, passed away leaving him to inherit England and his eldest brother receiving Normandy. Rufus’ reign saw regular clashes with his brother over the rule of both England and Normandy. William Rufus eventually wrestled control. William is remembered by chroniclers for his military prowess. He is also heavily documented for his, often criticised, handling of the Norman Church in England. William Rufus died whilst hunting in the New Forest in 1100.
Little is known of the early days of William Rufus. He was the third child of the conqueror, born before the invasion of England in 1057. It is known that as a child he spent much of his time in the care of Archbishop Lanfranc. Other than this his childhood is very much a mystery, with little documentary evidence to suggest what his early days were like.
As an adult however William’s life is very well documented. As the third son of William and Matilda he was not expected to rise to any great political prominence, a Lord but not a King was his destiny. The death of Richard, the second son of William and Matilda changed this position though and it was increasingly clear in the latter days of the conquerors reign that William would play a great role in the Norman empire.
William’s loyalty to his father never erred. He was at his side throughout the rebellions of Robert, the eldest of the conquerors sons, and was thought by many to have gained favour over the natural heir to the Norman lands. Upon William the conquerors death however Robert was granted Normandy. For the loyal William there was the prize of England.
William was crowned King of England on 26 September 1087. His inheritance was relatively secure, his father having crushed most of the resistance to his throne. However the very fact that he was King proved to be a problem. The feudal lords of England had also land in Normandy, meaning that they now owed homage to two lords rather than one. To complicate issues these two lords, William and Robert, were not on the best of terms and so the barons were faced with a dilemma. Pleasing one brother may anger the other, meaning that providing good, loyal service to either of them was a problem.
The outcome of this split of loyalties was a plot amongst the barons to depose William. This plot would allow the barons to have just one feudal lord, making their lives easier. The plot failed, Robert never appeared in England and in failing to do so never allowed the discontent to turn into open support for his claim to the crown. William however was not so slow. He claimed Normandy as his own in 1089 and made moves to wrestle control from his brother. Control of England had made him extremely wealthy and these riches were used to buy support and increase his influence in the Province. Robert’s position was increasingly under threat as support for his rule gradually waned and his brothers influence and power grew.
William got what he wanted in 1096 when his brother answered Pope Urban’s call for a crusade. William used this opportunity to take control. His brother could not finance the crusade and so William levied a tax on England (Dangeld) to purchase the right to rule Normandy in his absence. This 3 year ‘lease’ granted William the right to do as he pleased during his brothers absence and gave him every opportunity to ensure that the duchy would not return to his brother upon his return.
Under William’s reign the Norman empire in France again was on the ascendancy as his troops recaptured Maine and Vexin, both lost under Roberts rule. In England he raised troops and successfully defeated the rebellion of the Earl of Northumberland and turned his forces on the Welsh and the Scots. William Rufus in the period 1089 to 1099 proved himself to be quite ruthless, and an extremely capable politician using a combination of force, bribery and persuasion to increase the size and wealth of his domain.
Most Kings with such military success behind them would be remembered as being heroes, William Rufus however is often lost in History books or referred to in a negative light. This stems from the source of Historical documents from the time. Most contemporary accounts of life in the Norman Empire were written by monks, and William was not very highly thought of by monks.
William, as did many other Kings, used the church to his advantage. Following the death of Lanfranc his rule became more extravagant and his court was far less sober than that of his father. This in itself proved enough to upset the bishops. William though also used the church for financial gain. his levy of danegeld in 1095 was imposed, we can assume from documentary evidence, on the church and its lands. This was an unusual step which cost the church dearly. He was also slow to make appointments of bishops and abbots. This weakened the strength of the church, made it devoid of leadership and enabled the crown to take taxes that, under normal circumstances, would have been paid directly to the church. William did this to the extent that 12 abbeys and 3 bishoprics were directly controlled by the crown at one stage of his reign.
Even when making appointments William incurred the displeasure of the church. His appointment of Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury proved disastrous as he intended for Anselm to cooperate with his demands. Instead Anselm announced the English churches support for Urban’s claim to the papacy: there were two popes at the time, both claiming to be the ‘true’ Pope, England had not recognised ether of the claimants until Anselms appointment. William hounded Anselm and refused to accept the decrees being made. This type of conflict, where the Churches freedoms and the proposed reforms being made by Anselm are refuted and rejected by the monarch, leads invariably to monks, priests and bishops becoming disloyal. Hence evidence abut William Rufus’ reign tends to focus upon the negative, upon his poor relationship with the church and his seemingly unjust handling of church affairs. Such was the extent of his tampering with the church that Anselm eventually sailed to France and left the estates of Canterbury for William to with as he pleased.
Nevertheless some of the accounts of William do point to his strengths, even Anselms biographer comments upon his successes on the battlefield, saying, “in war and in the acquisition of territory he enjoyed such success that you would think the whole world smiling upon him.”
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It was whilst planning further wars and conquests that William died. He was hunting in the New Forest, England, when an arrow struck him in the chest. Whether this was an accident or deliberate is the subject of debate with either being feasible.
William Rufus was a King who, like his father, was an adept politician, a brutal leader and an excellent leader. His territories grew in size over the course of his reign and England was a more dominant force within Europe than on the day of his crowning as King of England. His dealings with the church show his ruthless nature and the manner in which these issues were viewed at the time demonstrate a change in the way that the papacy was prepared to involve itself in the domestic affairs of kingdoms.
William had never married and had no children. His lands were left to the Conquerors fourth son, Henry.
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