Macabre End of William the Conqueror
The 9th of September 1087 AD
Other Kings of England have had more bizarre deaths – Edmund Ironside assassinated in his privy (and his privy parts), Edward II even more painfully assailed – but William the Conqueror ’s protracted end, and the more than macabre events at his funeral, can still make us wince in empathy if not in sympathy for the brutal monarch.
His death echoed much of his life: engaged in attacking the town of Mantes on the edge of Normandy in the summer of 1087 he was astride his warhorse when it is said a burning ember startled the beast. The charger reared and threw the King, first catching him a heavy blow in his abdomen with the iron pommel of his saddle. It would seem that his intestines were ruptured, and inevitably peritonitis set in. Though at 59 he was for his epoch in old age, and had grown corpulent, William was strong in body and stronger in mind. Returned to his Norman capital of Rouen it took six weeks for him to die, the infection apparently turning to abscess.
These were troubled and far from civilised times, as his death-bed confession made clear – he is said to have expressed remorse about the Harrying of the North, making particular reference to Yorkshire . When he died on September 9 1087 the wealthy returned to their lands to make sure the succession did not adversely affect them. Others grabbed his possessions, even his clothes, leaving the almost naked corpse for a knight called Herluin to prepare and despatch to Caen for burial – William had founded the Abbey there. That he was buried in Normandy rather than for example in Westminster Abbey is surely indicative of how the first Norman King and his sons viewed England, as a possession rather than, as yet, a homeland.
William’s post-mortem indignities were far from over. The weather had been extremely warm, with predictable results on his corpse. And at the Abbey it was discovered that the stone sarcophagus prepared for him was too small – he was a tall man, and in his later years had become fat. When the monks and bishops attending tried to force his earthly remains into the restricted space his abdomen burst: pus covered his ceremonial robes; the stench was so foul that many immediately fled the church, and the rest rushed through the obsequies with more haste than was seemly.
As a footnote, fate had two more unpleasant surprises in store for what was left of William: in 1582 Protestant rebels desecrated his sarcophagus, strewing his bones around the town of Caen; as in the 18th century did the French revolutionaries.
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