Just past Stoney Cross, in a woodland clearing down a leafy lane off the busy east-bound A31 in Hampshire, is a memorial to one of England’s least popular kings. We are told that William II, known as ‘Rufus’ and who ruled from 1087-1100, was a really nasty piece of work – a cruel, merciless, tyrant – and so on. He probably was, though you do wonder whether the average peasant would have known the difference between one monarch and another; there weren’t too many that helped old ladies safely across the road or took in homeless kittens. But the bad press comes from people who could write, which in those days meant almost exclusively churchmen. And guess what? – William was rather good at diverting church money into his own coffers, which wouldn’t have won him many fans on Sunday mornings. Apparently, he also flaunted his homosexuality and encouraged effeminate fashions at court; I’m thinking pastel shades rather than all those heavy reds and golds? So all in all, perhaps William wasn’t what they wanted him to be.
Anyway, William was the third, and favourite, son of William I, the Conqueror. His memorial, the Rufus Stone, allegedly marks the spot where he was mortally hit by the sharp end of an arrow whilst hunting. It was apparently unintentional– the story is that one of the royal party, a renowned marksman named Sir Walter Tyrrell, shot at a stag; the arrow missed, hit a tree, and bounced off into the king, piercing his lung. Perhaps it did a couple of loops along the way – you know how these things go sometimes; was it really an accident? Mystery also surrounds the location, which some sources say was further south, near to Beaulieu. But the memorial is where it is. And perhaps it’s appropriate that Rufus died anywhere in this forest, the New Forest, which was cleared and designated a royal hunting ground by his father. Who knows how much misery that caused? Oddly enough, Rufus’ brother, Richard, also died in a hunting accident in the same forest, 30 years earlier. Some suggested that the loss of two of the Conqueror’s sons thereabouts was a divine retribution. Today, the New Forest is a National Park and one of the loveliest corners of southern England.
Why was William called ‘Rufus’? He has also been referred to as ‘the Red King.’ This might have been because he had red hair or, more probably, a ruddy skin. A contemporary, William of Malmesbury, wrote, “William Rufus had a red face, yellow hair, different coloured eyes…”. He also said that the king was astonishingly strong, with a protruding belly and a stutter, especially when angry. I don’t know if they ever met. By all accounts, William II was a reasonably successful soldier. In 1091, he beat back an invasion in the North West by Malcolm III of Scotland, taking Westmoreland and Cumberland (now Cumbria). While he was there, he built Carlisle Castle. Malcolm II was subsequently killed at the battle of Alnwick, on the other side of the country, in 1093.
Rufus was described in the English Chronicle as “loathsome to well nigh all his people.” Perhaps we can deduce something of his popularity by the manner of his passing. Walter Tyrell swiftly legged it to France, but was not pursued. It seems no one was particularly bothered about the dead king’s corpse either. This was eventually loaded onto a cart by Purkis the Charcoal Burner and wheeled to Winchester, bleeding en route. Coincidentally, Henry, William’s brother, was also hunting in the forest at the time of William’s demise – some accounts suggest nearby, or even as part of the same party. And despite the claim of his older brother Robert ‘Curthose’ to be next in line for the throne, Henry was crowned King Henry I in Winchester just 3 days after William’s death. Well, well, well.
You won’t stay long at Rufus Stone. Except for the memorial, erected in 1841 and replacing an earlier one placed there in 1745, there’s not a lot to see. The original tree (that the arrow allegedly struck) has of course long gone. But the one near to the memorial is supposed to be a descendant. It is a pleasant spot though, so you can take a stroll. And if you’re in the New Forest, or heading east in that part of the world, you can’t really pass it by can you?