1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William II., King of England

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WILLIAM II. (c. 1056-1100), king of England, surnamed Rufus, was the third son of William I. by his queen Matilda of Flanders. Rufus was born some years before the conquest of England, but the exact date is uncertain. He seems to have been his father's favourite son, and constantly appears in the Conqueror's company, although like his brothers he was carefully excluded from any share in the government either of England or Normandy. A squabble with Rufus was the immediate cause of Robert's first rupture with the Conqueror; in the ensuing civil war we find Rufus bearing arms on the royal side (1077-1080). On this death-bed the Conqueror was inclined to disinherit his eldest son in favour of Rufus, who, by the early death of Prince Richard, was now left second in the order of succession. The king's advisers, however, used their influence to obtain a partition; Normandy was accordingly bequeathed to Robert, while Rufus was designated as the son on whom the Conqueror desired that the kingdom of England should devolve. With the help of Lanfranc the English were easily induced to accept this arrangement. Rufus was crowned at Westminster on the 26th of September 1087, fifteen days after the death of his father.

It may be in part the fault of our authorities that the reign of Rufus presents itself to us as a series of episodes between which the connexion is often of the slightest. In his domestic administration we can trace a certain continuity of purpose, and in his dealings with the Welsh and Scots he proceeded, though intermittently, along the broad lines of policy which his father had marked out. Beyond the Channel he busied himself with schemes, first for the reunion of England and Normandy, then for the aggrandisement of Normandy at the expense of France. But his attention was perpetually distracted by the exigencies of the moment. He threw himself into each particular design with unreflecting impetuosity, but never completed what had been well begun. The violence, the irregularity, the shamelessness of his private life are faithfully reflected in his public career. Even in cases where his general purpose could be justified, his methods of execution were crudely conceived, brutal and shortsighted. Rufus may well stand as the typical product of early feudalism. He was not without valour or glimmerings of chivalry, but perfidious to his equals, oppressive to his subjects, contemptuous of religion; with no sense of his responsibilities, and possessed by a fixed determination to exact the last farthing of his rights. The first year of his reign was troubled by a general conspiracy among the baronage, who took up arms for Robert in the name of the hereditary principle, but with the secret design of substituting a weak and indolent for a ruthless and energetic sovereign. Local risings in Norfolk, Somerset and the Welsh marches were easily repressed by the king's lieutenants. The castles of Kent and Sussex offered a more formidable resistance, since their lords were in direct communication with Robert of Normandy, and were led by the able Odo of Bayeux (q.v.), the king's uncle, who had been released from prison at the opening of the reign. Rufus, however, made an earnest appeal to the native English, promising good laws, the abolition of unjust taxes and redress for those who had suffered by the afforestments of the late king. These promises, which he never attempted to fulfil, served the purpose of the moment. Followed by large contingents of the national militia he successfully laid siege to the strongholds of the rebels. They were leniently treated, and the arch-conspirator, Odo of Bayeux, left England under a safe-conduct to sow fresh seeds of discord in Normandy. But Rufus resolved to take vengeance on his brother, and two years later invaded eastern Normandy. Encountering little resistance—for under Robert's rule the duchy had relapsed into a state of anarchy—he might have expelled the duke with no great trouble. But in 1091 a treaty was hastily patched up. Rufus retained the eastern marches of the duchy, and also received certain seaports. In return he undertook to aid Robert in reducing the rebellious county of Maine, and in recovering the Cotentin from their younger brother, Henry Beauclerk, to whom it had been pledged by the impecunious duke. The last part of the agreement was duly executed. But Rufus then recrossed the Channel to chastise the Scots who in his absence had raided the north country. By a march to the Firth of Forth he vindicated English honour; Malcolm III. of Scotland prudently purchased his withdrawal, by doing homage (Aug. 1091) on the same terms which William I. had imposed in 1072. Next year Rufus broke the treaty by seizing the stronghold of Carlisle and the other lands held or claimed by Malcolm in Cumberland and Westmorland. Malcolm in vain demanded satisfaction; while attempting reprisals on Northumberland he was slain in an obscure skirmish (1093). Rufus immediately put forward a candidate for the vacant throne; and this policy, though at first unsuccessful, finally resulted in the accession of Edgar (1097), a son of Malcolm, who had acknowledged the English overlordship. Carlisle remained an English possession; in the next reign Cumberland and Westmorland appear as shires in the accounts of the Exchequer. The Scottish policy of Rufus, though legally unjustifiable, was thus comparatively successful. In dealing with the Welsh he was less fortunate. Three campaigns which he conducted in North Wales, during 1095 and 1097, yielded no tangible result. The expansion of the Welsh marches in this reign was due to the enterprise of individual adventurers.

The affairs of Wales and Scotland did not prevent Rufus from resuming his designs on Normandy at the first opportunity. Robert was rash enough to reproach his brother with nonfulfilment of the terms arranged in 1091; and Rufus seized the excuse for a second invasion of the duchy (1094). Less prosperous than the first, and interrupted by a baronial conspiracy, which kept Rufus in England for the whole of 1095, this enterprise found an unexpected termination. Robert resolved to go upon Crusade and, to obtain the necessary funds, gave Normandy in pledge to his brother (1096). There can be no doubt that Rufus intended to remain in lasting possession of this rich security. The interests of Normandy at once became the first consideration of his policy. In 1098-1099 he recovered Maine at the cost of a vast expenditure on mercenaries, and commenced operations for the recovery of the Vexin. Early in 1100 he accepted a proposal, made by William IX. of Aquitaine, that he should take over that duchy on terms similar to those arranged in the case of Normandy. Contemporaries were startled at the rapid progress of the king's ambitions, and saw the direct interposition of heaven in the fate which cut them short. On the 2nd of August 1100 Rufus fell, in the New Forest, the victim of an arrow from an unknown hand. The common story names Walter Tirel, who was certainly close at hand and fled the country without venturing to abide the issue of a trial. But a certain Ralph of Aix is also accused; and Tirel, from a safe distance, solemnly protested his innocence.

It remains to notice the main features of the domestic administration which made the names of William and his minister, Ralph Flambard, infamous. Respecting the grievances of the laity we have few specific details. But we are told that the “moots” all over England were “driven” in the interests of the king; which perhaps means that aids were extorted from the shire-courts. We also learn that the forest-laws were rigorously administered; that the king revived, for certain offences, the death-penalty which his father had abolished; that all men were vexed by unjust gelds and the feudal classes by unscrupulous misinterpretations of the customs relating to the incidents of wardship, marriage and relief. On one occasion the militia were summoned in considerable numbers for a Norman expedition, which was no part of their duty; but when they arrived at the sea-coast they were bidden to hand over their journey money and go home. The incident is not uninstructive as a side-light on the king's finance. As to the oppression of the church we are more fully informed; after allowing for exaggeration there still remains evidence enough to prove that the ecclesiastical policy of Rufus was unscrupulously venal. Vacant sees and abbacies were either kept for years in the hands of the king, who claimed the right of a feudal guardian to appropriate the revenues so long as the vacancy continued; or they were openly sold to the highest bidder. The history of Anselm's relations with the king is fully narrated by the biographer Eadmer. Anselm received the see of Canterbury in 1093, after it had been in the king's hands for upwards of four years. William made the appointment in a moment of repentance, when sick and at death's door. But he resented Anselm's demand for full restitution of the temporalities and his refusal to make any payment, in the nature of an aid or relief, which might be construed as simoniacal. Other grounds of quarrel were found in the reproofs which the primate aimed at the vices of the court, and in his requests for leave to hold a church-council and initiate reforms. Finally, in 1095, Anselm exasperated the king by insisting on his right to recognize Urban II. as the lawful pope. By the “customs” of the Conqueror it had been the rule that no pope should be recognized in England without the king's permission; and Rufus was unwilling that the English Church should be committed to either party in the papal schism which had already lasted fifteen years. Anselm, on the other hand, asserted that he had accepted the primacy on the distinct condition that he should be allowed to acknowledge Urban. The dispute came before a great council which was held at Rockingham (Feb. 25, 1095). The king demanded that the assembly should adjudge Anselm guilty of contumacy, and was supported by the bishops. The lay barons, however, showed their ill-will towards the king's general policy by taking Anselm's part. Rufus was forced to give way. He recognized Urban, but entered upon intrigues at Rome to procure the suspension of the archbishop. Finding that Urban would not betray a loyal supporter, the king fell back upon his authority as a feudal suzerain. He taxed Anselm with having failed to provide a satisfactory quota of knights for the Welsh war (1097). The archbishop, seeing that he was never to be left in peace, and despairing of an opportunity to effect the reforms on which his heart was set, demanded urgently that he should be allowed to leave England for the purpose of visiting Urban. Both the king and the barons suspected that this was the first step towards an appeal to the pope's jurisdiction against that of the royal court. Leave was at first refused; but ultimately, as Anselm continued to press his demand, he was suffered to depart, not without experiencing some petty insults on his way (Oct. 1097). The motive of the king's apparent clemency was soon revealed. He seized the estates of the archbishopric, and kept them in his own hands for the future. The friends of the archbishop were thus justified in their assertion that the zeal of Rufus for his father's “customs” was a mere cloak for avarice and tyranny.

In appearance William II. was unattractive; bull-necked, with sloping shoulders, extremely corpulent and awkward in his gait. His long locks and clean-shaven face marked his predilection for the new-fangled fashions which contemporary ecclesiastics were never weary of denouncing. His features were strongly marked and coarse, his eyes grey and deeply set; he owed his nickname to the fiery hue of his complexion. He stuttered violently and in moments of passion was almost inarticulate. His familiar conversation was witty and blasphemous. He was surrounded by a circle of vicious parasites, and no semblance of decorum was maintained in his household. His character was assailed by the darkest rumours which he never attempted to confute. He died unmarried and without issue.

The main authorities for the reign are the Peterborough Chronicle (ed. C. Plummer, 2 vols., Oxford, 1892-1899); Eadmer's Vita Anselms and Historia Novorum (ed. M. Rule, “Rolls” series, 1884); William of Malmesbury's De gestis regum (ed. W. Stubbs, “Rolls” series, 2 vols., 1887-1889); Orderic Vitalis' Historia ecclesiastica (ed. A. le Prévost, 5 vols., Paris, 1838-1855). Of modern works the most exhaustive is E. A. Freeman's Reign of William Rufus (2 vols., Oxford, 1882). See also J. H. Round's Feudal England (London, 1895).  (H. W. C. D.)