On August 2, 1100 England’s King William II was shot with an arrow while hunting in the New Forest. His party scattered and his body was eventually carted away unceremoniously. Since then, the question has lingered, was this an accident or an act of political assassination? No one was ever tried for a crime and hunting was certainly a dangerous sport, but the fact remained, there were many who stood to gain from William’s death, some of whom were in the forest with him that day.
Our view of the hunting expedition is murky at best and has been pieced together by contemporary chroniclers, all of whom had agendas and none of whom were eyewitnesses. What becomes clear is that William’s demise was shrouded in mystery from the get-go, and yet there was little sense of urgency in filling in any of the blanks.
The story goes that on the evening of August 1st William presented his friend, Sir Walter Tyrell, with a bow and a set of arrows inscribed with the words, “To the good archer, the good arrows.” The next day, William wasn’t feeling well and the hunt was postponed, until, after eating a large meal, he decided he felt better and summoned the assembled lords. Alongside the King and Tyrell was William’s younger brother, Henry Beauclerc. They set off for the New Forest, which served as royal hunting ground for the Norman kings. At some point, Tyrell and William peeled off in a smaller party and it was then that Tyrell, aiming for a stag, accidentally killed his friend, the arrow piercing William in the chest.
The lords fled the scene, leaving William’s body where it fell. Tyrell quickly rode for the coast and boarded a ship for France, while Henry cantered to Winchester to claim his brother’s throne. The end result was that three days later, he was crowned King Henry I at Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His coronation charter reversed several of William’s policies and left his promises – like war with France – unfulfilled. Within three months, Henry married Matilda of Scotland, daughter of King Malcolm III. And within three years, the succession had been secured by the births of Matilda of England and William Adelin.
William’s body, meanwhile, was eventually interred at Winchester Cathedral, his death left as an unfortunate and un-examined accident.
That may very well be the case – as many historians have pointed out, if hunting is dangerous today, it was considerably more so in the 12th century and it wasn’t uncommon for men to die thanks to rogue arrows. Indeed, William’s older brother, Richard, had died in similar circumstances in the very same New Forest 25 years before.
And yet…something about the incident has always raised eyebrows, both in William’s time and in the subsequent centuries. There was something a little neat about it, a little too fortuitous for all of William’s enemies. Part of that comes from who William and Henry were and the relationship between the two brothers.
Both men were sons of William I, more commonly known as William the Conqueror, and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, however neither was the firstborn. That honor instead went to Robert Curthose who inherited the duchy of Normandy upon their father’s death in 1087. The second brother, Richard, already dead, England was left to the third son, William. And Henry, the youngest? He was given some money and some English lands that had belonged to his mother. If you sense a disparity then you’re not alone – so did Henry.
The Conqueror’s sons famously didn’t get along, not with their father and certainly not with each other. They were quite fond of raising arms against one another, as evidenced by how many times Robert and William attempted to conquer each other’s territory. Henry usually played middle man, shuttling back and forth to whichever one stood to reward him the most, but more often than not he was opposed to William.
It wasn’t difficult to go against William, a quality any number of magnates shared. In 1396 he had come to an agreement with Robert in which he funded his brother joining the First Crusade in exchange for the pledge of Normandy. Problem was, William could only afford to help finance the campaign by levying a crippling tax on the English, which was wildly unappreciated. He spent 1397 to 1399 campaigning in France, drawing the ire of King Philip I and it was reported at the time of his death in 1100 that he was planning conquer Aquitaine.
Thus, there were any number of men who had motive to kill William, most of whom benefited from Henry’s accession.
The most obvious suspect is Henry himself, mostly from his alacrity to charge towards the city and claim his brother’s crown, but also from their history of sparring. The other favorite theory is that the assassination was financed by the French king to put off the Aquitaine campaign, a narrative supported by Tyrell’s flight to France and Henry’s immediate cancellation of the invasion.
Then again, all of that might just have been happy coincidence. Tyrell might have fled because he was afraid of retribution, even if only for an accidental killing of a king. Given that William was unmarried and childless, Henry might have already expected to eventually ascend his brother’s throne. And King Philip might have just been an unwitting beneficiary of Henry’s more moderate foreign policy.
More than a few contemporary writers believed William’s death was an act of divine punishment. William’s position towards the church – the clergy in particular – was seen by many was oppressive. At one point, William had said of his Archbishop of Canterbury:
“Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.”
In light of religious temperament in the 11th century, it’s not difficult to see how such a stance would be seen as punishable by a vengeful god.
Alas, what really happened is lost to us, but the reign of Henry I ended up largely successful and he competently ruled England for the next 35 years. RIP William II, I suppose.