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William Rufus: Britain's First Gay King who Built Carlisle Castle

Part of the series: ‘Cumbria’s Hidden LGBTQ+ History’.

Cumbria is a county rich with heritage and history but more often than not queer figures and histories aren’t celebrated or are erased.

So join us this LGBTQ+ history month as we celebrate Cumbria's queer history.

“It is a history of kings and queens - and some kings who were queens,” Ralph Spencer, Westminster tour guide speaking to Reuters for LGBTQ+ history month in 2020.

King William II holding a sceptre on the right and kingdom on the left. Portrait credit: Matthew Paris

William II, or more commonly known as William Rufus was born around 1056 and his reign as King of England lasted between 1087 until 1100. He succeeded the famous William the Conqueror, his father. In the biography of William Rufus’s father’s life, released by author David Douglas in 1964, it is said that he was born into a large household and he had three brothers: Robert, Richard and Henry as well as four sisters: Adela, Agatha, Cecily and Constance.

A portrait of William II's father William the Conqueror baring a sword and highly decorated outfit

Rufus had a hostile relationship towards Malcolm III, the King of Scotland because of his constant invasions of England. In May 1092, Rufus travelled to Carlisle to expel a Scottish ruler Dolfin who worked with Malcom III from the area of Cumberland.

He entered the city through what is now known as Botchergate road and in Norman tradition he ordered the building of Carlisle castle on the previously Roman built fort.

The previously Scottish ruled areas of Westmorland and Cumberland were then brought under English rule.

The front of Carlisle castle. Image credit: About Britain

The long running dispute between the Scottish and English led Carlisle Castle to become the most besieged castle in England, with Edinburgh Castle holding the title for the most besieged castle in Scotland.

It is said that Rufus had a difficult relationship between himself and the Church of England.

He didn’t hire Bishops and he banished the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm from England whilst pocketing the money that was supposed to be used by the Archbishop.

A 19th-century stained-glass window depicting Anselm as archbishop, with his pallium and crozier

Rufus probably banished Anselm because it was reported that he was spreading rumours about the King's private life.

According to historians of the time, Eadmer called him a sodomite adding that he was disapproving of the King’s lavish dress sense for people within his court and council.

Many historians contend that Anslem did this because of the futile connection to the Church to bring down Rufus.

This isn’t the only indicator of the speculation surrounding the King’s sexuality and it is widely known that he never married or produced any heirs and it was said that he wasn’t impotent which led to many at the time questioning his sexuality.

It is said that, despite the relations between Rufus and the Church, one of his chief advisors and good friends Ranulf Flambard, the Bishop of Durham was regarded as his sexual partner.

Reuters claims that during Rufuses rule the majority of Westminster hall was unlit allowing many people to come and go from the Kings quarters and was regularly attended to by an effeminate flock of male harlors according to Ralph Spencer a UK parliament tour guide.

Ranulf Flambard the Archbishop of Durham helped construct the new Westminster Hall for William Rufus.

Image credit: Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson 1808

In 1983, writer Frank Barlow produced a biography on William Rufus which revealed more about the men Rufus kept in his court suggesting that:

“almost all the young men at court grew their hair like girls and freshly combed, with roving eyes and irreligious gestures, they minced around with girlish steps”.

Adding: “Clothes were luxurious and shoes had pointed and curled toes. Young men rivalled women in the softness of their bodies, walked with mincing steps and as they moved revealed their thighs…

“A band of effeminates and a flock of harlots followed the court, so that the court of the king of England was more a brothel of young men than a house of majesty.”

This suggested that the men were decorated outside of the traditional conformity of heteronormative gender roles that were expected of straight men at the time.

On the 2nd of August 1100 Rufus' life would come to an end when he was shot by an arrow whilst hunting with some speculating that it was an assassination order by William’s younger brother Henry who promptly seized the throne as Henry I.

The death of William Rufus immortalised in a historical painting by Alexander Davis Cooper.

Image credit: Alexander Davis Cooper 1866

Many Monarchs in UK history have had their sexuality brought into question. One being King Edward II who was nicknamed the playboy prince.

Another being Queen Anne whose sexuality story was adapted into a blockbuster movie by Yorgos Lanthimos where Olivia Coleman played the Queen and received multiple awards for her performance as Queen Anne.

William Rufus however was before these other Kings and Queens. He was the first British monarch to have been acknowledged by many historians as being homosexual or at least bisexual.

William Rufus’s legacy still stands in Cumbria today with a Whetherspoons on Botchergate road being named after him. It seemed fitting that Carlisle pride 2021 took place in the Castle that Rufus ordered to be built.

The William Rufus pub on Botchergate in Carlisle named after the King

We hope you enjoyed our stories this LGBTQ+ history month and look forward to sharing more of Cumbria’s Hidden LGBTQ+ History.

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