William the ‘Red-faced’ was the second son of William, Duke of Normandy and William I of England, a.k.a. the Conquerer (q.v.). He was bad-tempered, wily and unpopular, and certainly not a chip off the old block. His father had made himself King of England, turning out the Saxon dynasty and replacing their language with Norman French, which was used officially in local and national government almost up to the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. Latin was universally used in the Church. When the Conquerer died, Rufus succeeded but not without considerable opposition from the barons of England, led by his own uncle, Odo Bishop of Bayeux, who wanted the older brother Robert on the throne. The Bishop’s rebellion was crushed first in 1088, as was a second attempt in 1095.
William Rufus was glad when Robert went off on a crusade (the First, 1096), because his absence helped Rufus to secure Normandy for himself, though he explained that he was doing it ‘for England’. His chief enemy was the Church, and the appointment by the Pope of Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury was heavily resisted by William. Anselm was however popular with the London mob, whose unruly members hated the King.
The Conquerer had designed and planted the New Forest near Southampton, a huge area turned into a hunting field for royalty and nobles alone. Any peasant found trying to kill animals to feed the starving family was hanged.
William Rufus loved hunting above all sports, and was engaged in a massive hunt when he was struck down by a well-aimed arrow and died on the spot.
This fortunate death at forty-four led suspiciously quickly to the accession of the Conquerer’s fourth and youngest son, Henry. He had quietly seized the Treasury just before the ‘accident’ happened to his brother in the New Forest. There was a king’s crown on his head only three days after Rufus’ demise. Robert, busy on his crusade, had no time to get back to England before the youngest son became Henry I, ruling strongly and well for nearly seventy years.
When Robert, who was the older brother remember, complained, Henry gave him the whole of Normandy as a present, plus an annual pension of 2000 pounds, an immense fortune in 1101.
It was not enough to prevent Robert from claiming he had been treated treacherously. He stayed in his castles in Normandy, complaining to the Pope, so Henry invaded Normandy in 1106 and defeated his older brother at the battle of Tinchebrai. Robert was captured and imprisoned in Cardiff Castle until his death in 1134.
The French King (Louis VI) thought it would be a convenient moment to grab Normandy for himself, but Henry defeated him in two campaigns (1111 – 13; & 1116 – 20) and held on to the Duchy. Meanwhile Archbishop Anselm insisted on appointing bishops without consulting either the King or his Council, and Henry clashed with his archbishop, not for the first or last time.
Henry improved royal administration, made the royal family richer, and extended judicial systems, at the same time making them clearer and explicable even to the poorer educated. He introduced a new legal code that in fact was a well-made rehash of old Saxon laws, calling it the Leges Henrici Primi. Everything seemed to going well until Henry lost his only legitimate son Henry in a storm while he sailed from Normandy to England. This drowning broke the King’s heart. It was also a disaster for England, as when Henry died in 1135 he had to be succeeded by his nephew Stephen. Though the latter was neither a bad king nor a bad man, the succession brought England into anarchy, in a momentous series of wars fought between Henry’s daughter Matilda, who thought she should be Queen, and Stephen who had actually been crowned. Most historians agree that suspicion must lie on Henry’s head in the question of William Rufus’ death in the New Forest, if only because Henry had done everything necessary before the hunting accident to ensure his own smooth succession. It is also likely that Henry, the Pope and Anselm were responsible for persuading Robert to be miles away on a crusade at the crucial moment.