"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Burial of William the Conqueror: A Comedy of Errors

William the Conqueror is one of those historical figures who need no introduction.  Thanks to his famous victory at Hastings in 1066, he dramatically changed England’s future.  (Whether he changed it for good or ill is a topic for another time.)

However, what this post is about is not William’s life, but his death.  William likely expected to have a dignified end, surrounded by grieving family and respectful courtiers.  This would be followed by the solemn, but impressive funeral due a king of his fame and achievements.

Things didn't quite go according to plan.  In fact, this grim man left this earth in true Strange Company style, as the center of a grisly comedy skit.

In his later years, William had become quite obese, which bothered him.  He was particularly self-conscious about his round, protruding belly.   In 1087, in an effort to lose a few pounds, the fifty-nine year old king resorted to secluding himself in his castle at Rouen, where he took to his bed--a sort of medieval fat farm.  When the French king Philip I heard of this, he laughed, “The king of England is lying-in at Rouen, and keeps his bed, like a woman after her delivery!"

When this mockery reached William’s ears, he was infuriated.  He leaped from his bed, yelled for a horse, and set out to teach Philip a lesson in manners by invading the French town of Mantes.

While he watched Mantes burn, disaster struck him.  His horse, perhaps frightened by the flames, suddenly leaped in the air, throwing the king against his pommel.  The blow was violent enough to rupture William’s internal organs.

William was carried from Mantes back to Rouen, but the medical science of the day could do nothing for him.  As his condition deteriorated, William, looking back on the many acts of wholesale cruelty he had perpetrated, naturally grew increasingly fearful of what awaited him in the afterlife.  He confessed his sins, asked for forgiveness, and begged everyone to pray for him.  He had gifts sent to the local churches and to the poor, “so that what I amassed through evil deeds may be assigned to the holy uses of good men."  Some of his wealth also went to the clergymen of Mantes, so the churches he had destroyed could be rebuilt.  According to the historian Orderic Vitalis, William moaned on his deathbed, "I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire....In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people."  William did not have an easy death, either physically or mentally.

Two prominent members of William’s family were missing from the scene: his eldest son Robert had allied himself with Philip I, and the king’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux was in prison for treason.  When William was asked to forgive them, the suffering king, probably feeling that he was past caring about such earthly matters, agreed.  Odo was released from custody, and Robert was given the duchy of Normandy.  William’s second son, William Rufus, was given control of England, and immediately left Rouen to take on his new responsibilities across the Channel.  (William’s youngest son, Henry, was given only five thousand pounds in silver, but he had small reason to complain.  When William Rufus died soon after becoming England’s king--in one of history’s most suspicious “hunting accidents”--Henry succeeded him.)

William’s death on September 9, 1087 was the cue for a mad rush to the exits.  The aristocracy in attendance, naturally anxious to protect their properties, fled before the dead king was even cold.  Orderic wrote that the remaining household servants “seized the arms, vessels, clothing, linen, and all the royal furnishings, and hurried away leaving the king's body almost naked on the floor of the house."

It had been decided that William would be buried in Caen, in the church of St. Stephen in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes.  (William had founded this church in penance for marrying his cousin Matilda of Flanders, in defiance of the Pope’s objections.)  However, with all his nearest and dearest having done a bunk, there was no one around to make the necessary arrangements.  Finally, an ordinary knight--out of his own pocket--had the body transported to Caen.  Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the town just as the abbots and monks were coming to meet the bier.  Everyone rushed away to deal with the blaze, leaving the monks to conduct the funeral service on their own.

Afterward, in the middle of William’s eulogy, it was interrupted by a heckler.  A man stepped forward angrily declaring that the church was built on land that William, as duke, had seized from his father.  He added, "Therefore I lay claim to this land, and openly demand it, forbidding in God's name that the body of this robber be covered by earth that is mine or buried in my inheritance."  In order for the rest of the funeral to take place in peace, the man was given sixty shillings on the spot.  (Henry later gave him a hundred pounds.)

The funeral festivities were just beginning.  The disconcerted mourners realized that the stone sarcophagus made for William’s burial was way too small.  As by then his corpse was, shall we say, well past its sell-by date, it was decided that there was nothing to be done but cram the body in and hope for the best.

Unfortunately for everyone in attendance, the result was that (in Orderic’s words) "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd."  The burial rites were cut very short.

After this debacle, William’s remains were left alone until 1522, when a French cardinal, apparently out of mere idle curiosity, had his tomb opened.  The spectators got their eyeful, and the coffin was reinterred.  Forty years later, a Calvinist mob ransacked the tomb, in the belief that it contained treasures.  When the ghouls realized their mistake, in a fit of pique they scattered the bones and left.  Whatever jumbled parts of William that could be found were put in a new monument, but that was destroyed during the French Revolution, and his remains thrown in the River Orne.

All that is left of William is a thigh bone, which now lies under a marble slab in front of the altar in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes.  Hopefully this last bit of him will forever rest in peace.  However, considering William’s track record, I wouldn’t count on it.

The site of William's sort-of burial, via Wikipedia


  1. Well told and entertaining story!

  2. Considering Norman ruling families, their behaviour at this time was typical. Still, you'd think the process of embalming would have had some progress even by the eleventh century. That would have given William a last bit of dignity. Maybe none of his family would pay for it...


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