• Kloe Gentry

What happened to Sir Walter Tyrrell, King William's II killer?

A bit of background:

William ‘Rufus’ II of England was a notoriously capricious figure and one of the more colorful characters in English monarchial history. Of complex temperament, reportedly capable of both bellicosity and flamboyance, he assumed the throne of England in 1087 as the third son of the Norman Conquer William I, while his brother Robert inherited Normandy. The second eldest, Richard, died in an ominous hunting accident himself in New Forest during 1070, and the youngest brother, Henry, got nothing, but would later end up inheriting both of their lands following his brother’s deaths, thus becoming Henry I.

There are many curious features about William. He was probably hetrochromic- meaning he had two different colored eyes. He was red-headed growing up but eventually turned out blonde. He was a lifelong bachelor and never had any mistresses, leading many to believe that he was either gay or asexual.

Upon inheriting the throne he was challenged by a rebellion spearheaded by his brother Robert, who sought to take his throne. William acted promptly, defeating his brothers forces and launching a counter-attack, eventually forcing his brother to give up much of his lands. The two later joined forces to wage war against the kingdom of France.

William attracted much controversy with his debacles with the clergy. He greatly regretted appointing the Norman-Italian monk Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury, famously declaring that, “Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.” Anslem, who was considered the greatest theologian of his generation, eventually went on a self imposed exile in Rome, where he protested before the Pope. William however, was able to secure an alliance with the Pope in return for being able to continue collecting the revenues made for the archbishop.

On the 2nd of August 1100, William II was hunting in New Forest near Brockenhurst when he was famously killed by an arrow shot through his lung. His killer was an obscure Norman lord by the name of Walter Tyrell.

The most detailed narrative was written by the historian William of Malmesbury 28 years after Williams death, and is considered the most reliable account. As most medieval narratives of unliked English kings go, it begins with apocryphal omens foreshadowing the kings demise-

The day before the king died, he dreamed that he was let blood by a surgeon; and that the stream, reaching to heaven, clouded the light, and intercepted the day. Calling on St. Mary for protection, he suddenly awoke, commanded a light to be brought, and forbade his attendants to leave him. They then watched with him several hours until daylight. Shortly after, just as the day began to dawn, a certain foreign monk told Robert Fitz Hamon, one of the principal nobility, that he had that night dreamed a strange and fearful dream about the king: “That he had come into a certain church, with menacing and insolent gesture, as was his custom, looking contemptuously on the standers by; then violently seizing the crucifix, he gnawed the arms, and almost tore away the legs: that the image endured this for a long time, but at length struck the king with its foot in such a manner that he fell backwards: from his mouth, as he lay prostrate, issued so copious a flame that the volumes of smoke touched the very stars.” Robert, thinking that this dream ought not to be neglected, as he was intimate with him, immediately related it to the king. William, repeatedly laughing, exclaimed, “He is a monk, and dreams for money like a monk: give him a hundred shillings.” Nevertheless, being greatly moved, he hesitated a long while whether he should go out to hunt, as he had designed: his friends persuading him not to suffer the truth of the dreams to be tried at his personal risk. In consequence, he abstained from the chase before dinner, dispelling the uneasiness of his unregulated mind by serious business. They relate, that, having plentifully regaled that day, he soothed his cares with a more than usual quantity of wine. After dinner he went into the forest, attended by few persons; of whom the most intimate with him was Walter, surnamed Tirel, who had been induced to come from France by the liberality of the king. This man alone had remained with him, while the others, employed in the chase, were dispersed as chance directed.
The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him; and, keenly gazing, followed it, still running, a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun’s rays. At this instant Walter, conceiving a noble exploit, which was while the king’s attention was otherwise occupied to transfix another stag which by chance came near him, unknowingly, and without power to prevent it, Oh, gracious God! pierced his breast with a fatal arrow.
On receiving the wound, the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the weapon where it projected from his body, fell upon the wound, by which he accelerated his death. Walter immediately ran up, but as he found him senseless and speechless, he leaped swiftly upon his horse, and escaped by spurring him to his utmost speed. Indeed there was none to pursue him: some connived at his flight; others pitied him; and all were intent on other matters. Some began to fortify their dwellings; others to plunder; and the rest to look out for a new king…

Death of King William II and the flight of Sir Walter Tyrell
Death of William II. Lithograph, 1895

What happened to Sir Walter Tirel?

So what happened to Sir Walter Tirel? (also spelled Tyrell, depending on the source). For starters, only a few definitive facts about him are known. We know that he was a minor Norman lord that enjoyed favor in King William’s court and was described by the historian monk Orderic as the kings constant companion. As an exemplification of their good relationship, just prior to the hunt, while they were getting ready, a fletcher presented the king with six newly made arrows and William generously gave two of those to Tirel, saying “Bon archer, bonnes flèches”- “Good arrows for a good shot.”

We know that after Williams death he fled to France and never returned to England again. Supposedly he stopped at a blacksmith to fit his horse with backwards facing horseshoes in order to confuse any pursuers, although apparently nobody had actually even bothered to go after him. Records show that his modest estates in Langham were left alone by King Henry and passed upon his death to his son, who later sold it. The last mention of him is in the writings of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis who would report that he would often hear Walter swear by oaths that he had not even been that day in the vicinity of where William was hunting. Some historians have even gone on to bolster Walters claim, pointing to the lack of retaliation by Williams kin and the fact the only later chronicles name him as the killer, while the most contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Eadmer omit the killers name entirely, merely referring to a ‘bowman’.

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