Not all historians believe King William Rufus's death was an accident, regardless of what his younger brother Henry said. There are many who do not believe in coincidences. And perhaps they have a point, especially when you look at the unfortunate bad luck that seems to have followed a lot of royals who've died ‘unexpectedly’ at the exact same time as family members were queueing up impatiently waiting for their turn to sit on the throne. The story goes like this.
It was a beautiful warm summer’s day in August 1100. The sun was shining brightly and a warm breeze rustled softly through the trees as William Rufus and his hunting party entered the New Forest. As the hunters spread out to chase their prey, an arrow, perhaps grazing a stag first, entered the king’s breast. He fell forward, driving it through his lung, and he died on the spot.
It seems Walter Tyrell, Lord of Poix, had let loose a wild shot, but instead of hitting the stag he’d aimed for, the arrow struck William in the chest. Walter apparently tried to help him, but there was nothing he could do. Fearing that he would be charged with murder, Walter panicked. He left William's body lying at the exact place where he fell and leapt onto his horse, and fled. Other nobles in the hunting party, perhaps with a little insight on what could happen to them as well, followed suit and fled, possibly with the thought of securing their personal estates before the bad news circulated.
There were two questions being asked. The first one was ‘How could Walter Tyrell make such a reckless and dangerous shot when his reputation as an excellent archer was well known? The second question was ‘Where was his younger brother Henry when this happened?’
Everyone knew that the brothers fought incessantly and Henry was definitely among the hunting party. Except no one could find him. So … where was he?
If Henry was not guilty of the murder of his brother, he certainly wasted no time mourning him either. Henry had made straight for the royal treasury at Winchester with lightning speed and demanded entry after a loud argument with the caretakers. Apparently in his haste, he’d left his brother’s body lying in the forest and it wasn’t until two days later that a local charcoal-burner found it and took it to Winchester Cathedral in the back of his cart. By then, Henry was fully funded and crowned in London before an archbishop could even arrive on the scene.
For the next twenty years, Henry looked like he had the Midas touch. He owned Normandy, he was the King of England and he had a daughter plus an heir, William Atherling aged sixteen, who was his undisputable successor. There was nothing else that Henry could want for. But then the winter of 1120 arrived.
William Atherling was a privileged youth pandered to on both sides of the channel and nothing was deprived him from richly embroidered silk garments stitched in gold to attendants and titles. William was to be the next king in a brilliantly planned peace and he'd been in Normandy for a celebration marking the end if his childhood and beginning of his manhood, his coming out party. He'd been crowned Duke of Normandy and he was the heir to the English throne. The world was his oyster.
Just before Christmas, along with 200 young members of the Anglo-Saxon nobility elite, friends and cousins, William boarded a ship called the White Ship to journey home. On board as well was his half-brother and half sister, both illegitimate children from a brood of twenty-two from various mothers. Together this group were the golden generation of the nobility and they only ever travelled in style.
William had chosen this ship because the reputation was that it was the fastest, safest and most luxurious ship there was. It was packed to the rafters with happy, inebriated teenagers hell-bent on celebrating and William had good reason to celebrate along with his friends, family and crew.
In hindsight, a well-lubricated crew was probably not the best choice to bring the young prince back home to England. His cousin, Stephen of Blois, was also due to leave on the same ship bound for England but it was the excuse of an upset stomach that excluded him from the festivities and forced him to wait it out for the next one the following day.
The White Ship may have been fast but she didn’t even make it out of the Benfleur harbour. Whether it was a simple navigational error or a result of over indulging, no one will ever know. Within minutes of leaving the shore, the White Ship crashed on sharp rocks and a hole was punched in the prow of the ship. Freezing water flooded in.
A vision of terrified passengers, screaming as they were hurled into the water, comes to mind and the brocaded clothes would have become heavy very soon, making it impossible to swim or even tread water.
The immediate priority had been to save the prince. A lifeboat was found for William Atherling and he was already on his way to safety when he heard the cries of his half-sister behind him. It was a fatal decision that made him turn back to rescue her.
His sister wasn’t alone. As the boat approached her, other passengers in the water scrambled to clamber aboard William’s boat to gain safety as well. The result was the boat capsized.
She had not been rescued and neither had William. There was only one survivor. He was a butcher from Rouen who had boarded at Benfleur to collect money owed him and he was accidently carried away when the White Ship sailed. He had sprung over the ship’s side and finally clung to the wreckage during the night grateful to be on land in the morning along with the bodies washed in with the tide.
The news was slow to reach England. Another ship, crewed by a sober captain this time, had sailed and reached England unscathed while Henry and his household were preparing for Christmas.
That left two claimants for the throne, each with a good chance: Henry’s only surviving daughter Matilda and his lucky nephew Stephen of Blois, who had watched silently from the harbour as his friends and family drowned.