william the conqueror's body burst at his funeral -- 11/16/16

Today's selection -- from William I by Marc Morris. William the Conqueror, perhaps England's most famous king, died abandoned and half naked on the floor:

"Not long after his return to Normandy William fell ill, to the reported delight of his principal adversary. 'The king of England lies in Rouen,' laughed Philip I of France, 'like a woman who's just had a baby.' Such at least is the story told by William of Malmesbury, who explains that the Conqueror was laid up on account of his swollen stomach. Philip seized the opportunity to gain the military advan­tage, and sent his troops across the border to ravage the region around the Norman city of Evreux. By July 1087 William was sufficiently recovered to take his revenge and invaded the French king's lands, paying particular attention to the town of Mantes, which was mercilessly reduced to ashes. But in the course of this campaign Wil­liam again fell sick, apparently from heat exhaustion, though some people, noted Malmesbury, said he was injured when his horse leaped over a ditch, driving the pommel of its saddle into his protruding abdomen.

"By the time William returned to Rouen it was clear that he was dying, and a little while later, at his own request, he was moved away from the noise of the city to the church of St. Gervase, a short distance beyond the walls. For the remainder of the summer he lingered there, in great pain, preparing for the end. Orderic Vitalis provides a lengthy account of these days, including the king's last words, most of which has to be rejected as invention forty years after the fact. William, we are told, spent much of his time confessing his sins, seeking to atone for a lifetime of blood­shed. He ordered that his treasure be divided among various churches after his death, and commanded that all prisoners still in his custody should be released. He also addressed the vexed issue of his succession, accepting that his rebellious eldest son, Robert Curthose, should follow him as Duke of Normandy, but apparently leaving the question open when it came to England. According to Orderic he refused to name an heir for the kingdom he had won with so much blood and entrusted the matter to God, a statement that draws support from the king's bequest of his regalia to the monks of St Etienne in Caen. William did, however, express a personal hope that the English crown would pass to his second surviving son, William Rufus.

"The Conqueror died early in the morning of 9 Septem­ber 1087, reportedly commending his soul to Saint Mary as the great bell of Rouen Cathedral tolled the hour of prime (6 a.m.), His departure triggered immediate panic across Normandy, for Robert Curthose was still in exile, and the king's other sons had already rushed off to claim their own inheritances. With no one present to take up the reins of power, the great men who had been at William's bedside rode off to protect their own property, leaving the lesser members of his household to loot the royal lodgings. When the monks and clergy of Rouen eventually arrived at St Gervase to prepare for the funeral, they found the king's body lying abandoned and half naked on the floor.

William's grave at Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen

"From Rouen William's corpse was shipped to Caen for burial, where it suffered further indignities. In a scene reminiscent of the king's coronation, the crowd of mourn­ers who came to meet the boat dispersed when a fire broke out and destroyed much of the town, leaving only the monks to escort the bier to St Etienne. During the service itself the congregation was asked to forgive their dead duke if he had done them any wrong, at which a local man interrupted to complain that the abbey had been built on the site of his father's house. Finally, the king's body turned out to be too big for the stone sarcophagus that had been prepared for it, and the monks' attempt to force the issue caused his swollen bowels to burst, filling the church with such a stench that once again all except the officiating clergy fled.

"It was, as Orderic Vitalis observed, an ignominious end to the Conqueror's story."


Marc Morris


William I: England's Conqueror (Penguin Monarchs)


Allen Lane Penguin UK


Copyright Marc Morris 2016


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment