Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William II
WILLIAM II (d. 1100), king of England, third son of William II, duke of Normandy (afterwards king of England; see William the Conqueror), and his wife Matilda of Flanders [q. v.], was probably born between 1056 and 1060. He was educated and knighted by Lanfranc [q. v.] In 1074 or 1077 he and one of his brothers—either Henry or Richard—had a quarrel with their eldest brother, Robert [see Robert, Duke of Normandy], which served as a pretext for Robert's rebellion against their father [for details see Henry I]. In the war which followed William fought on his father's side, and was wounded in a skirmish at Gerberoi, 1079. The Conqueror on his deathbed declared that William had always been a dutiful son, and sent him on 8 Sept. 1087 to England with a letter to Lanfranc desiring the archbishop to make him king ‘if he deemed it might justly be done.’ William sailed from Touques, taking with him two English prisoners whom the dying Conqueror had just released, Morkere, earl of Northumbria [q. v.], and Wulfnoth, brother of Harold. He led them to Winchester, and there put them again in prison, where he kept them the rest of their lives. On 26 Sept. Lanfranc crowned him at Westminster.
The new king was of middle height, square-built and strong, with a broad forehead, eyes of varying colour and marked with white specks, yellowish hair, and a complexion so ruddy that the nickname derived from it—‘Rufus,’ ‘the Red’—is used by contemporaries not only as an epithet to distinguish him from his father, but even as a substitute for his real name. Immediately after his coronation he returned to Winchester, to make from the treasury there a lavish distribution of gifts to the churches and alms to the poor of his realm for the good of his father's soul. He returned to keep Christmas in London; and it seems to have been on this occasion that he restored the earldom of Kent to his uncle, Odo, bishop of Bayeux [q. v.], and, according to one account, made him justiciar. The king's chief minister and confidant, however, was William of St. Calais, bishop of Durham [see Carilef, William de]. Within three months Odo was at the head of a plot formed by the Norman barons in England to dethrone William Rufus, whose temper was too stern and masterful to please them, and set his ‘more tractable’ brother, Duke Robert of Normandy, in his place, and the plot was secretly joined by the bishop of Durham. ‘When the king understood these things, and what treason they did towards him, then was he greatly disturbed in his mood. Then he sent after the English men’ (in contradistinction to the Normans) ‘and set forth to them his need, and prayed their help, and promised them the best laws that ever were in this land, and that he would forbid all unjust taxation, and give them back their woods and their hunting.’ A crowd of enthusiastic Englishmen gathered round him in London and followed him to attack the strongholds of the rebels in Kent. Tunbridge Castle was stormed, Pevensey starved into surrender, and Odo forced to promise that his chief fortress, Rochester, should be given up without resistance. Odo, however, was false to his promise [for details see Odo]. The enraged king then issued a second proclamation, summoning to his aid ‘every man, French and English, who would not be called nithing,’ to an Englishman the most shameful of epithets. Backed by the increase of forces which this appeal brought him, by the archbishop, and by most of the landowners of Kent, whose estates Odo's followers had been ravaging, William laid siege to Rochester (May 1088), won its surrender, and banished Odo from the realm. The English clamoured for Odo's death; but Rufus had promised him and all the Rochester garrison their lives, and would not break his knightly word. On 2 Nov. the bishop of Durham was tried before the king's court at Salisbury. He refused to acknowledge its jurisdiction and appealed to Rome; the king compelled him to give up Durham castle, and then let him follow Odo over sea [for details see Carilef, William de].
Thus secure in England, William laid before a great council at Winchester, at Easter 1090, a proposal for the invasion of Normandy. The council unanimously assented to the project; but before William took the field he secured a foothold in the duchy by other means. ‘By his cunning or by his treasures’ he gained several castles on its eastern side; ‘therein he set his knights, and they did harm upon the land, harrying and burning.’ King Philip of France came to support Duke Robert, but was induced to withdraw, ‘for the love or for the mickle treasure’ of the English king: and Rouen itself would have fallen into the hands of William's soldiers but for the action of his youngest brother Henry [see Henry I]. William himself went to Normandy at Candlemas 1091, fixed his headquarters at Eu, and was speedily joined by such a crowd of adherents that Robert hastened to come to terms. By a treaty made either at Rouen or at Caen it was agreed that so much of Normandy as had already acknowledged William's rule should remain subject to him; that the two brothers should co-operate to recover such of their father's territories as Robert had lost, viz. the Cotentin, which he had sold to Henry, and Maine, which had thrown off the Norman yoke; that these territories, when regained, should belong to Robert, except two fortresses in the Cotentin—Cherbourg and the Mont St. Michel, which William claimed as the price of his help; and that if either Robert or William died childless his dominions should pass to the survivor. King and duke attacked the Cotentin in Lent 1091; in a month they had won it, all but the Mont St. Michel, and even this Henry was forced to surrender after a siege of fifteen days. In August William returned to England, and at once marched against the king of Scots, Malcolm III [q. v.], who had invaded England during his absence. Malcolm was induced to do homage to the English king at the ‘Scot-water’ (the Firth of Forth) by the mediation of Robert, who had come to England with Rufus, and of Edgar the Ætheling [q. v.], who had just been banished from Normandy at Rufus's instigation. Just before Christmas the king and the duke again quarrelled, and the duke returned home.
In 1092 William ‘fared north to Carlisle, and restored the city and built the castle, and drove out Dolfin (who till then held the land), and set the castle with his men; then he turned south again, and sent many churlish folk, with wives and cattle, to dwell in the land and till it.’ This restoration of a deserted city and colonisation of a district which had become practically a no-man's-land is the one good deed done for England by William the Red. His sole merit as a ruler was that he kept his realm in peace with a strong hand, and ‘was terrible to thieves and robbers;’ but the peace was hollow; one class of ‘thieves and robbers’ formed an exception to his severity, the knights and soldiers of his own personal following, whom he ‘suffered to ravage the lands of the country folk with impunity.’ He ‘was always seeking subjects of contention, and contriving pretences whereby he might heap up money. As he was keen in exacting, so he was prodigal in distributing his ill-gotten gains; displaying the claws of a harpy, the extravagance of a Cleopatra, and the shamelessness of both.’ ‘He was very stern and cruel over his land and his men, and with all his neighbours, and very terrible; and through evil men's counsels, which were ever pleasing to him, and through his own covetousness, he was ever tormenting the people with soldiering and with ungelds, forasmuch as in his days all right fell down and all unright, for God and for the world, uprose.’ Of his private life it is impossible to speak. The one influence which held him in check was removed by Lanfranc's death on 24 May 1089. Thenceforth ‘God's churches he brought low, and all the bishoprics and abbacies, whose elders died in his time, he either sold for money, or held in his own hand, and set them to farm.’ So abject was the terror he inspired that when at Christmas 1092 the bishops and nobles at last plucked up courage to make some effort to obtain the appointment of a new primate, they asked the king, not to grant their desire, but to give them leave to offer public prayers that he might be led to grant it, a request to which he scornfully acceded. At the end of February 1093 he fell sick at Alvestone (Gloucestershire); he was carried to Gloucester, and there, believing himself at the point of death, ‘he made many promises to God to lead his own life aright and give peace and security to God's churches, and never more to sell them for money, and to have all right laws among his people.’ He began his reformation by investing Anselm with the archbishopric of Canterbury on 6 March [for details see Anselm, Saint]. By Easter, however, he had recovered his health, and forthwith ‘he forsook all the good laws that he had promised us.’
Malcolm of Scotland now sent to demand the fulfilment of the promises which Rufus had made to him. Rufus answered by inviting or summoning Malcolm to come and speak with him at Gloucester on 24 Aug., and sending Eadgar to escort him thither ‘with mickle worship.’ ‘But when he came he was not deemed worthy either to have speech with our king, nor to receive fulfilment of the promises which had been made him, and so they parted with mickle discord.’ The consequence was that Malcolm on his return home invaded Northumberland. He was intercepted and slain on 13 Nov. by the Mowbrays [see Malcolm III and Mowbray, Robert de], whereupon the Scots chose a new king, Donald Bane, who drove out Malcolm's English or Norman followers, and compelled his children by his English wife, St. Margaret [q. v.], to seek shelter in England. Malcolm's eldest son Duncan [see Duncan II, who was already at the English court, at once did homage to William for the Scottish crown, and soon won it by the help of followers whom William allowed him to collect in England; but by the end of the year he was slain, and Donald restored. William was too busy with the affairs of Normandy to heed those of Scotland. At Christmas 1093 he received an embassy from his brother Robert, calling on him to fulfil his part of the treaty of 1091. William at once resolved upon an expedition to Normandy, and summoned a great council to meet him on Candlemas day (1094) at Hastings, where he proposed to embark. Contrary winds detained him there for six weeks. He was present at the consecration of Battle Abbey on 11 Feb. He had already rejected, as insufficient, the contribution which Anselm had offered for the expenses of the coming campaign; he now answered Anselm's remonstrances on the state of the realm by declaring that he ‘would do nothing for’ the archbishop unless bribed by a larger offering, and when Anselm refused to make any further offering at all, drove him away with words of insult and hatred [for details see Anselm, Saint]. On 19 March William crossed into Normandy. He had an interview with Robert, but they could not agree; at a second meeting the case was laid before the guarantors of the treaty of 1091, and these unanimously declared William guilty of breach of faith. He, however, ‘would not acknowledge this, nor keep the conditions,’ and the brothers parted to make ready for war. William fixed his headquarters at Eu. For a while the luck went against him. Payments to mercenaries and bribes to enemies exhausted his treasury. Heavy taxes were imposed on England, but their proceeds came in too slowly. At last ‘the king bade call out twenty thousand Englishmen to help him in Normandy.’ When they assembled at Hastings, however, Ranulf Flambard [q. v.], ‘by the king's command,’ took from each man the ten shillings provided him by his shire for his expenses, and sent the men back to their homes, and the 10,000l. over sea to Rufus. With part of this sum Rufus again bribed Philip of France to withdraw his support from Robert. With part he seems to have bribed his own Norman adherents to carry on the war for him, while he himself returned to England on 29 Dec.
Early in 1095 a question arose between William and Anselm as to the latter's right to acknowledge one of the two rival popes without the king's permission. A great council met at Rockingham, 11 March, nominally to discuss this point, but really, in William's intention, to bring Anselm to ruin. Anselm, however, proved more than a match for the king, and a ‘truce’ was made between them, to last till 20 May. Meanwhile Rufus secretly endeavoured to obtain Anselm's deprivation from Pope Urban, through the legate Walter of Albano; but Urban and Walter caught him in his own trap, and on 20 May he was forced to make formal reconciliation with the primate [for details see Anselm, Saint]. Throughout the spring William had been unsuccessfully endeavouring to bring the Earl of Northumberland, Robert of Mowbray, to justice, first for an act of robbery, and next for a defiance of the royal authority which was in fact part of a widespread plot against the king himself [for details see Mowbray, Robert de]. In June the king marched upon Northumberland. He took Newcastle and Tynemouth, and besieged Mowbray in Bamborough. Bamborough, however, proved hard to win; so, after building a tower over against it, and leaving a strong force to continue the siege, William at Michaelmas turned southward. He was met by tidings that the Welsh had taken Montgomery. He at once summoned his host, marched into Wales, and by 1 Nov. was at Snowdon; but the Welsh withdrew into their mountains, out of reach of his cavalry; so he ‘went homeward, for he saw that he could do no more there in the winter.’ Meanwhile Mowbray had been captured, and his capture broke up the plot of which he was the head. On 13 Jan. 1096 the king held a great court at Salisbury, and meted out stern punishment to the traitors.
In the spring of 1096 Robert of Normandy, having taken the cross and wanting money for his crusade, pledged his duchy to William—whether for three years, five years, or simply for the term, whatever it might be, of his own absence—for ten thousand marks. The raising of this almost paltry sum was made by the king an excuse for levying such ‘manifold ungelds’ that the lay barons had to fleece their under-tenants to the uttermost; and it is said that some of the bishops and abbots ventured on a protest against the royal demands, which they declared they could not satisfy without driving to despair the poor tillers of the soil. William's officers then suggested that they should rob the shrines of the saints instead, and they dared not refuse to adopt the suggestion. In September Rufus went to Normandy, met Robert, paid him the stipulated sum, and was left in possession of the duchy. On Easter eve (4 April 1097), he returned to England. Immediately afterwards he held a great council at Windsor; then he marched into Wales and brought the Welsh to submission, but only for a moment. Scarcely had he turned his back when they rose more defiantly than ever. He set off at midsummer at the head of a host of mingled horse and foot, ‘that he might slay all the men of Wales; but he hardly succeeded in capturing or slaying one of them,’ while his own army suffered many losses of ‘men and horses and other things.’ In August he came back to England and held another council, at which, for the second time, he refused Anselm's request for leave to go to Rome. At a council at Winchester, on 14–15 Oct., he met the same request by telling the archbishop that he might go, but that his temporalities should be seized if he went. Though this time he silently accepted Anselm's blessing ere they parted, he carried out his threat; and when Anselm wrote to him from Rome he refused to receive the letter, and swore ‘by the Holy Face of Lucca’—his customary oath—that if the bearer did not hasten to quit his dominions his eyes should be torn out.
About the time of his final quarrel with Anselm (August 1097), William had sanctioned an expedition of the Ætheling Eadgar into Scotland, for the purpose of dethroning Donald Bane and establishing another Eadgar, the Ætheling's nephew, on the throne. This expedition was successful, and William's claim to supremacy over the Scottish crown was acknowledged by the new sovereign [see Edgar]. William now addressed to Philip of France a demand for the cession of the Vexin, the land for which William the Conqueror had died fighting against the same king. Such a demand was in effect a declaration of war, and on 11 Nov. William crossed the sea with his army of mercenaries. He made, however, little progress throughout the winter, and in January 1098 he turned upon Maine, which in 1091 he had promised to recover, or help to recover, for the Duke of Normandy. It was a saying of Rufus that ‘no man can keep all his promises,’ and this promise was one which he had shown no desire to fulfil until 1096, when Normandy passed from his brother's hands to his own, and when Count Elias of Maine, desiring to take the cross, sought to assure the peace of his county during his absence by acknowledging the suzerainty of the new ruler of Normandy and requesting his license to depart. William answered by a demand for the absolute surrender of Maine, and, when Elias refused, threatened him with instant war. It was, however, not till January 1098 that he found time to fulfil the threat, and then he took little personal share in the war, which was carried on for him chiefly by Robert of Bellême [q. v.] On 28 April Elias was captured by Bellême. William immediately summoned all the forces—‘French, Burgundian, Flemish, British, and men of other neighbouring lands’—who would come to him for his liberal pay, to meet him at Alençon in June for the conquest of Maine. He besieged Le Mans, but was forced by lack of fodder to raise the siege. In August, however, some rather obscure negotiations ended in the surrender of the city to him, on condition that he should set Elias free. William entered Le Mans in triumph. On his return to Rouen Elias was brought before him and proposed to enter his service, with the avowed object of thereby earning his restoration to the countship of Maine. At the instigation of Robert of Meulan [see Beaumont, Robert, d. 1118], William refused his request. Elias then declared he would strive to regain his heritage by force; William scornfully bade him begone and do his worst. On 27 Sept. the Red King again attacked the Vexin. He was joined by the Duke of Aquitaine; but though the war dragged on through the winter, the allies could make no real progress against the stubborn resistance of the French, and at last Rufus agreed to a truce, which enabled him to return to England at Easter (10 April) 1099. At Pentecost (19 May) he ‘held his court for the first time in his new building at Westminster,’ the building of which the present Westminster Hall is the successor and representative. In June Elias regained possession of Le Mans. This news reached William as he was setting out from Clarendon to hunt in the New Forest. He set spurs to his horse and rode off alone straight to Southampton, sprang on board the first ship he saw, and, though it was a crazy old vessel and a storm was gathering, bade the crew put to sea at once. In vain they remonstrated. ‘Kings never drown,’ said Rufus. Next morning he landed at Touques. He rode to Bonneville, mustered his troops, and marched upon Le Mans. Its castles were still held by the garrisons which he had left there. Elias, thus placed between two fires, evacuated the city and withdrew to the southern border of Maine. Rufus followed him and laid siege to his castle of Mayet, but after a narrow escape of being killed by a stone thrown at him from its walls, he was persuaded by his followers to raise the siege. He then returned to Le Mans, and punished the cathedral chapter for having dared, two years before, to choose themselves a bishop without his leave, by driving out the canons who had consented to the election. The bishop himself was accused of having permitted Elias to use the towers of the cathedral as bases of operations against the castle. William bade him pull the towers down, and he seems to have been ultimately compelled to execute the order.
At Michaelmas William returned to England. At Christmas he held his court at Gloucester; at Easter 1100 he was at Winchester; at Whitsuntide at Westminster. In the course of the summer he received an offer of the duchy of Aquitaine, to hold in pledge during its ruler's intended absence in the Holy Land. He then ordered the construction of a large fleet and the levy of an immense host, with which he prepared to cross the sea, keep the returning Duke Robert out of Normandy, and win for himself the mastery of all western Gaul from the Channel to the Garonne. ‘Where will you keep next Christmas?’ asked one of his companions at a hunting party in the New Forest (seemingly at Brockenhurst) on 1 Aug. ‘At Poitiers,’ was William's reply. But ‘thereafter on the morrow was the king William shot off with an arrow from his own men in hunting.’ These words of the English ‘Chronicle’ sum up all that is certainly known as to the manner of the Red King's death. Whether the arrow was shot by Walter Tirel [q. v.] or by some one else, whether it was aimed at the king or hit him by accident, remains undetermined. His ‘own men’ dispersed at once, and it was left to the peasantry of the neighbourhood to wrap the bleeding corpse in coarse cloths, lay it in a cart, and bring it to Winchester. There next day it was buried, ‘out of reverence for the regal dignity,’ in the cathedral under the central tower; but no religious service accompanied or followed the burial.
Although no sovereign ever did more, both by his public and private conduct, to deserve and provoke excommunication, the church had spared Rufus hitherto, probably from fear of goading him to yet further depths of wickedness. The pope indeed had threatened him once (April 1099), but had been induced by Anselm to refrain from executing the threat. But now the clergy of Winchester, backed by the English people, dared to decide for themselves, and to act on their decision, that the dead man was beyond the pale of Christian fellowship. They said no mass, they tolled no bell, they suffered his brother and his friends to make no offerings for the soul of the king of whose life and reign the English chronicler gives this terrible summary: ‘Though I hesitate to say it, all things that are loathsome to God and to earnest men were customary in this land in his time; and therefore he was loathsome to wellnigh all his people, and abominable to God, as his end showed, forasmuch as he departed in the midst of his unrighteousness, without repentance and without expiation.’ The fall of the cathedral tower seven years later confirmed the popular belief that he who lay beneath it was unfit for Christian burial. In recent times the Red King's tomb—a black marble slab, of the form known as dos-d'âne, and without any inscription—has been removed into the lady-chapel. He was unmarried, and his kingdom was seized by his younger brother Henry I [q. v.]
[William II has been so exhaustively dealt with by Freeman in his Norman Conquest (vol. v.) and his Reign of William Rufus that it is needless to give here more than a brief enumeration of the chief original authorities: the English Chronicle, Eadmer, Florence of Worcester, Ordericus Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, and Henry of Huntingdon. For the minor authorities see Freeman's footnotes and appendices.]