William Rufus was probably twenty-seven when he ascended the throne of England at Westminster abbey. He was the youngest king since the sons of Cnut. His succession was not resisted in England, where he was already well-known as a successful and established warrior-prince. He found Archbishop Lanfranc at Canterbury, apparently already aware that the Conqueror was dead. Lanfranc made no resistance to his former pupil’s request that he crown him king, charmed to find William as amenable as any parliamentary candidate to helpful suggestions about his future conduct once he was in power (but unfortunately just as sincere). The coronation took place at Westminster on Sunday 26 September 1087, about a fortnight after his interview with the archbishop. It may have been Lanfranc’s influence that caused Rufus to pay promptly from the royal treasury the lavish gifts to the churches of
Map 2. Normandy in King Stephen’s reign, 1135.
England made by his father for his soul; in fact his elder brother did exactly the same in Normandy, and Rufus would not wished to have seemed meaner to his father’s memory than his estranged brother. He did not, however, allow those of his father’s prisoners he had brought to England with him to go free, as his father had wished. Earls Morcar and Wulfnoth Godwinson continued to be held under supervision: Wulfnoth lived on for several years in Hampshire and Wiltshire, loosely supervised. He probably died around 1094 in Winchester cathedral priory. 1
The new king assembled a governing clique around him. Bishops were surprisingly prominent among them, considering their master has a reputation today as something of an eleventh-century freethinker. Archbishop Lanfranc is credited by all commentators as having been very influential with Rufus until his death in May 1089, but the bishops of Durham and Lincoln were also important immediately after the coronation. A few noblemen were taken into immediate favour: William de Warenne and Henry de Beaumont (both of whom acquired earldoms within a year of the king’s accession), and Robert and Hamo, sons of Hamo Dentatus, viscount of the Cotentin, were also to be found close to the king. It seems that in each case these men had been intimates of Rufus before he came to the throne and in his first weeks as king he depended heavily on their support. Few other magnates responded, other than Earl Hugh of Chester, who may have resented that his Norman lands had been subordinated by Duke Robert to Count Henry soon after the Conqueror’s death, without his agreement.
The first problem for William Rufus was how to expand his support beyond his cronies, only two of whom, William de Warenne and Hugh of Chester, were magnates of any power. It may be because of this that he was even happy to welcome back to court at Westminster at Christmas 1087 his uncle. Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and to restore him to his lands in Kent. Unfortunately for him, Odo was already planning a future for the Anglo-Norman realm that did not include William Rufus. The new Duke Robert II of Normandy had made it known that he did not accept the division of his father’s lands. Robert of Mortain and Odo of Bayeux, his uncles, must already have decided by Christmas 1087 to further the interests of Duke Robert against Rufus. Odo was in England principally to create a rebel party. Throughout March and early April He and the count of Mortain secretly and successfully mobilised a formidable body of rebels against the new king. They included the greatest among the Anglo-Norman magnates: Bishop Geoffrey of Cout-ances and his nephew the earl of Northumbria; Earl Roger of Shrewsbury and his warrior sons; Count Eustace of Boulogne; and the castellans of Leicester and Norwich. Worst of all for Rufus, his intimate friend, Bishop William de St-Carilef of Durham, came to the conclusion that the strength of the dissidents meant that the new king’s reign would be short. The bishop listened favourably to the promises of Duke Robert’s supporters and joined the conspiracy.
The rebellion against William Rufus was apparently already under way by mid March, when we are told that the king ordered the seizure of the bishop of Durham’s lands. It may be that Northumbria had risen in revolt before the rest of the country. The main movement against the king was centred in Kent and Sussex, where the count of Mortain and Bishop Odo took the field, but not until after Easter (16 April 1088). The brothers were intending to act as vanguard in England for the duke their nephew. He was supposed to join them with a great fleet and army to take possession of England. Odo based himself in the north of Kent at Rochester, while Count Robert made his base at his castle of Pevensey in the east of Sussex. This was their fatal mistake, and the salvation of William Rufus’s fortunes. Counting on the imminent arrival of Duke Robert, the king’s uncles made the error of sitting still in garrison. Perhaps they thought that William Rufus would be unable to rally enough support to attack them, perhaps also they thought their mission was only to organise the rebels already in the field, without moving forward towards London. However, Rufus was not short of counterstrategies. He appealed to the still-powerful constituency of free English landowners, who had little sympathy with the great Anglo-Norman magnates. The English thought naturally of England as their concern and for them Normandy was a matter of indifference. The Anglo-Norman magnates had a selfish desire for a united Anglo-Norman realm; it made the overlordship of their cross-channel possessions less of a problem. Rufus promised the English to lift all sorts of restrictions and financial constraints on them; and, though they had little faith in his promises (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says), still they rallied to him.
With the support of a few magnates and many English soldiers.
William Rufus moved into Kent, ignoring the fact that the north and midlands were in arms behind him. Rufus took his enemies by surprise in first striking hard at the castle of Tonbridge, which lay on the route from Rochester to Pevensey. The castle surrendered swiftly, much to Bishop Odo’s alarm, for it now opened for Rufus a route to Canterbury and Dover, where Archbishop Lanfranc was defying the rebels. Odo shows no sign of having any of the military capacity of the rest of his family, and his conduct shows how it was that he had ended up as a bishop. Disconcerted and in a panic, he took to the byways with a small escort and made his way to his brother at Pevensey, leaving behind him at Rochester the count of Boulogne and other French reinforcements whom Duke Robert had finally sent across the Channel (athough he did not himself follow them). Hard on his heels came the king who closely besieged his uncles, now he had them trapped together in one castle. After six weeks, supplies at Pevensey ran short and the bishop was forced to negotiate a surrender. He agreed to leave England and to ride first with some royal knights to Rochester and command his men there also to disperse. But the frustrated garrison there, which had in the meantime been raiding fiercely as far away as Canterbury and London, would have none of it. The troops in Rochester took Odo and the king’s knights prisoner and obliged Rufus to reduce the city and castle by siege, presumably so that their honour as soldiers was satisfied. Eventually disease broke out in the blockaded city and it surrendered some time early in July. The garrison slouched out resentfully as the trumpets of Rufus’s armies blared the king’s triumph over their heads. Rufus seems to have decided early on that Rochester’s surrender was inevitable, and had been relaxed enough to let its bishop have free passage in and out of the city through his lines.
Once he had mastered the rebel centres in Kent and Sussex, and harried his uncles back to Normandy, William Rufus moved north to subdue what was left of the rest of the outbreaks. But he found little left to do. His father’s loyal sheriffs and their English allies had contained the rebels. The earl of Shrewsbury, his principal adversary outside the south east, had withdrawn his support for Odo of Bayeux early on, perhaps intimidated by the loyalism of his neighbour, the earl of Chester, and perhaps worried by the way the Welsh kings had become aggressive as England fell into disorder. The worst trouble had been in the Severn Valley where the bishop of Coutances at Bristol and William of Eu at Chepstow had indulged in aimless plundering of royal estates. Leadership here had been lacking, and the saintly bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan II, was able to contain the troubles with the aid only of the local sheriffs and English levies.
The most persistent rebel - presumably because he had the least to hope for - was the king’s former intimate. Bishop William de St-Carilef of Durham. He held out stubbornly at Durham, attempting first to maintain that he had always been loyal to the king. Then, when the king’s army moved north, he refused to surrender himself unless he was tried according to the law of the Church by ecclesiastical judges. When he finally appeared before the king’s court in November 1088 under safe conduct, he found an even more infuriating way of evading judgement — by appealing to Rome. The outrage amongst the barons and bishops of the court at this sort of stonewalling by such a man finally caused Bishop William to lose his nerve. The king was insistent and we hear his raucous voice in a memorial of the trial drawn up by one of the bishop’s clerks: ‘Believe me, bishop,’ he shouted, ‘you’re not going back to Durham, and your men men aren’t going to stay at Durham, and you’re not going free, until you release the castle.’2 In the end, the bishop was confined at Wilton abbey until the castle surrendered, and he eventually took ship into exile in Normandy once Durham was safely in the king’s hands. He stayed in exile until 1091, when he was restored to Durham through Duke Robert’s intercession. The bishop’s treatment, it has to be said, shows some humanity and forbearance on the king’s part. His betrayal of William Rufus was blatant, shameless and opportunistic. The king’s willingness to treat him firmly but still mercifully seems to reveal a man who had low expectations of his courtiers; he may have come as a young man to disillusionment with human nature.