funeral of William the Conqueror was hardly befitting of a king. Even accomplished historians overlook the formative years of William's life. As difficult as it seems, less is written of the death and burial of Europe’s greatest king. And yet, it is in these beginnings that we see the final act of a compelling odyssey, played out to a horrified audience.
Normally the account of a funeral, even for a king, would not be a particularly noteworthy event. Yet, we have a contemporary writer who tells us a fascinating story. Ordericus Vitalis, (1075-1142) is considered a reliable source because of his introspective nature. Keep in mind, everyone had their patrons. People of this era weren’t journalists, but rather ‘personal’ biographers. Thus, despite being English born, Ordericus is very rational in portraying William.
A MONK IN TRAINING
With so few avenues to success in the Middle Ages, it was agreed that the young boy would be entrusted as an oblate to the Church. This is an important oath at the time, and as you can imagine, a difficult commitment for a boy to make.
By all accounts, his father, Odelerius of Shrewsbury, was a well liked and popular man who was your typical Medieval father. He was also a clergyman in an era where chastity was still a choice. Still, raising children in feudal society had limited freedoms. Even for the well-to-do, a son was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps or at least be apprenticed out to a family friend.
For a man devoted to the Church, Ordericus seemed destined for the same. Using his many connections, he sent the young lad to the monastery best known to him, the Abbey of Saint-Evroul in the Duchy of Normandy.
He gradually caught on, struggling in mathematics but mastering in Latin and Theological Studies. Moreover, it was a good time to be a monk in this region of Europe, as King William went on a wild spending spree of building Abbots, Monasteries, Churches and even Cathedrals.
His writings therefore show an obvious favoritism to William, and yet retains the ability to see the opposite point of view. And yet, the abandonment he felt at the age of ten haunted him - even in his old age.
He later wrote, ‘’My father was weeping when he handed me, also weeping, into the care of monk Reginald, and sent me away into exile for the love of God, and never saw me again.’’ ²
Inspired by the work of Bede, Ordericus Vitalis used original documents, interviews and literary sources to write his history books. In his work he criticized the violence and greed of the Norman conquerors. He also attacked the English for being a degenerate peoples who benefited from Norman rule.
Ordericus was shocked by the behavior of William’s own sons. In a strange and ironic twist of history, the king’s own sons once conspired to kill their father. Robert was helping the French king collect taxes from the Norman barons and generally causing mayhem wherever he went. It was so bad that William essentially raised a small army just to away with the uprisings. He could have easily killed his own sons and quelled these revolts, but he took the higher road, choosing instead to torture and dismember the thousands of men who took up arms against him - while letting his sons run free.
BATTLE OF MANTES, A SON’S REBELLION
But in 1087, one of these petty revolts became downright revolting. His oldest son, Robert Curthose, (meaning ‘’short-boots’’) had made a key alliance with King Philip of France. By this time, William had begun to have an expanded waistline which did not escape the quick wit of King Philip. William was told that King Philip I of France had described him as looking like a ''pregnant woman.'' William did not take an insult lightly and became so furious that he mounted an attack on the Philip’s territory, which was defended by Robert Curthose - the firstborn son of King William himself!
The area north of Paris and south of Normandy is known as the Vexin and it is site of the town of Mantes. For William, this was yet another annoyance by a petulant son, backed by the dubious insult of the French King. William’s well trained military won decisively and with rapid brutality. So it came as no surprise when the battle lasted less than twenty minutes. Mantes was burned to the ground.
The Price of Disrespect
It wasn’t simply an isolated case of hyper-sensitive behavior. William was the son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy. But his mother was a mistress, the daughter of a tanner. And this earned William a sobering nickname, ‘William the Bastard.’ When the people of Alencon in 1048 hung out animal skins in an effort to agitate the young ruler of Normandy.
He captured 34 prisoners and paraded them in front of the town walls. As the people of Alencon watched - he had their hands and feet cut off and lobbed over the wall.
Over time, William seemed to gain as much weight as stature. Despite gaining nearly a hundred pounds since his early thirties, William’s armor had been scarcely adjusted accordingly, and the metal frequently cut through to his skin. Even though he was heavy and aging, he could usually be seen in the middle of battle, bravely showing his own fighting finesse mixed with brute strength. This kind of leadership would be crucial during the height of the Battle of Hastings.
The soldiers who fought for William, especially in his later years, thought they were invincible and that God had clearly anointed them. The pope had endorsed William and anyone willing to fight for him was promised a special anointing. William simply created and retained an aura of power that was unchallenged, even by his advancing age and expanding body.
After so much hand-to-hand combat, after so much destruction, and after inflicting so much death upon the enemies, it would be a freak accident that would end the life of Europe’s greatest warrior king.
WILLIAM SUSTAINS MORTAL, YET SOMEWHAT UNINTENDED SELF-INFLICTED INJURY
At some point during the battle, William’s horse lost balance and while the king attempted to regain himself, he was injured. It seems that William suffered a tragic accident when the pommel handle punctured his bloated stomach. He seemed uncomfortable at first and continued the fight. But shortly thereafter - William began to feel as if things weren’t right. He vomited several times.
He maintained his mount on the horse long enough to make it safely off the battlefield where he slowly felt worse and worse. ‘’The heavens trembled as news of William’s condition.’’ Outwardly there didn’t seem to be an issue. But on the inside, he was bleeding profusely.
A DIET UNFIT FOR A KING
William the Conqueror was rumored to be a large man. A recently recovered thigh bone seems to refute this to some degree. Even at six-feet he would have been tall for his day. When you add a few inches for footwear, it is easy to see why people thought of him as a huge man. Based on the writings of William de Poitiers and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, he ranged from 6'1'' - 6'7.''
Lamprey - Somehow Appetizing for a King
He had a love for food and especially lamprey. These can be deadly if consumed too often, as his son Henry discovered. His appetite seemed to only grow with age. As king, he was carrying with him a certain sense of entitlement, enjoying the early Medieval French cuisines and
rich sauces. At times, he traveled with three to four chefs and he decreed that his favorite dishes be recorded in some of the early cookbooks of the day.
He had become so obese that his horses tired easily. One of them died from exhaustion. Another drowned while William attempted to ride him across a shallow creek. A later examination of evidence and eyewitness accounts paint a terrible picture of pain and suffering.
In the final analysis, the horse he had been riding reared unexpectedly. Being as large as he was, his weight was unevenly distributed, causing the saddle to be pushed into William’s large abdomen. His intestines were punctured causing the gasses in William’s stomach to collect. Gradually, the pain that eventually befell William was unbearable. No longer able to eat, he quickly declined in health.
William Lies in Agony in the Priory of St. Ouen (Rouen)
Disorder followed as William began to fade. Some of his attendants raced back to their homes to ensure they were safely protected. After all, a new king could strip lands away and redistribute almost at-will. People came and went, many for the curious happenings and others because they had never even seen the king before.
One can imagine Ordericus standing in the background, watching the scene unfolding. We know that the site was shocking, even for the average man of the Middle Ages. Ordericus writes that although the King was ‘’in great thirst’’ he insisted on wine over water.
Ordericus couldn’t have yet known what was really happening inside the
body of William, and to some degree we are left with innocent ruminations combined with what he is hearing from the rudimentary doctors of the day.
‘’William is very corpulent. The monks have burned all the incense they had and have sent for more.’’ He then adds, "It appears to all that King William fell sick from the excessive heat and his great fatigues.’’ ¹¹
Various types of medieval doctors came in and each seemed intimidated by the king’s large but quite vulnerable presence. ‘’Should we move him?’’ Asked one. ‘’No, we cannot lay hands on the King.’’ Answered one. ‘’We can perhaps save the king, but we would face the horrible sin of defiling him.’’ added another.
One of them finally turned the king onto his side, ordered the others to block the view of the growing crowd, and began to take his clothing off. It was a practice in the Middle Ages to help someone with constipation or gas. The peasants seldom ate meat, and consequently had rye, barley and wheat in their bellies. These are slow to digest and often release their own gasses, when combined with the various beans and wines helped to create a myriad of digestive issues. ³
The poorly situated monks, poised at the rear-end of William, and yet sworn to protect his dignity by blocking everyone’s view must have been quite the sight. As soon as two of monks lifted William’s leg, the release of noxious and ‘’foul odors’’ made many ill.
COMPARING THE FAMILY STRUCTURE WITH TODAY’S - WILLIAM’S OFFSPRING
It is important to consider how we look at family now against the backdrop of how family was looked upon in the 9th and 10th centuries.
William fathered four boys and three girls. Two other children died in childbirth. The fours boys were Robert Curthose, Richard, William Rufus II, and the young Henry. Robert was known during his lifetime as a belligerent and entitled prince. Yet he was quite charismatic and a good diplomat. He allied himself with key figures and generally moved about Europe with considerable ease.
Richard was the second son and perhaps the most articulate and popular at the time, and shortly after his father reached the height of his power in a rather random hunting accident in 1075.
HENRY, THE KING’S YOUNGEST
His youngest son Henry was of relatively good character. We may never be too sure, but father left almost nothing to his youngest son Henry. On William's death in 1087, Henry's elder brothers Robert Curthose and William Rufus inherited Normandy and England, respectively, but Henry was left landless. He had accumulated enough wealth during his life to purchase a sizeable piece of land in Cotenin, about as far away from both of his meddling brothers as possible, Located in western Normandy - even that was greedily taken away by both William and Robert.
THE LIFE OF WILLIAM RUFUS
William Rufus II earned his name Rufus because of his ruddy complexion. "William Rufus had a red face, yellow hair, different coloured eyes... astonishing strength, though not very tall and his belly rather projecting... he had a stutter, especially when angry.’’⁴ In total, was seen in quite poor light by historians of the day. He became the first ruler to realize he could ‘invest’ bishops based on how much they contributed to his court.
For four years, he didn’t appoint an Archbishop of Canterbury ‘’His court is a matter of vice most loathesome to God and men alike.’’ 3 This is of course, homophobic speak for the idea that William Rufus was gay. His rule was relatively complex and deserving of a more honest view of his success.
As is evident, William’s sons may have been cute companions for him while he was on campaign. They saw their father’s courage in battle, his unyielding faith in God, the reverence others had for him, the command and respect that comes with leadership - all were the boyhood memories of their father’s GOOD side.
They also saw a side of William that could be bloodthirsty and brutally violent. He orders and observes torture that would be befitting of a horror film today. He’d order that certain traitors have their genitals cut off. And his sense of justice went far beyond the battlefield.
Not unlike most Medieval Monarchs, he gave thanks to God for his victory in England and then ordered his troops to do penance for the Englishmen they had killed that day. (!) The Bishops of Normandy ordered them to donate food and money to the poor or to construct new churches. William himself did penance by paying for the building of Battle Abbey on the battlefield site.
William passed laws that made it punishable to take another man’s goats, cattle, pigs, hens, even pigeons. For this offense, two broiling pokers to each eye. He even ordered the paws of dogs be mutilated to keep them from chasing game. At times, he’d order the killing suspects without a trial and would ask for forgiveness from God afterwards.
The example set by William the Conqueror for his own sons is not unlike many other rulers in history.
FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY OF WILLIAM
It was at this time we get a look inside the mind of William. No one seems to agree on the virtue of his life. He was an unusual combination of power, restless ambition, piety, and totally unforgiving. What remains in terms of evidence is scant and written sixty-five years after the king’s death. But one eyewitness is considered reliable. He was a monk named Orderic and he gives account of the dying William’s confession:
" 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."
Per Vatum, William the Conqueror’s Confession
‘’Historia Ecclesiastica’’ Orderic
SCAVENGERS OF THE MEDIEVAL KIND
The ceremony around the funeral became a chaotic and criminal series of events. The people that stood by the king for decades simply stepped aside while others barged into the king’s room and stripped his body of his clothes and took whatever valuables they could carry away.
For nearly six weeks, the king lay in terrible pain while doctors debated what to do next. People came from everywhere as word spread. Then, on the morning of September 9, 1087, William mercifully passed away. It was a lousy way to die, but alas, we seldom get to choose in such matters.
THE Abbey at St. Gervaise de Hommes - Burial place of William the Norman
People came from everywhere. Some came to mourn. Others came for far more nefarious reasons. Some realized the historical importance of the death of William and began to tear away small pieces of the church and requillary. At the time, funerals and burial services were usually planned by those who had attended to the deceased. The fear of what France would do to anyone perceived loyal to the enemy king caused many to consider their next moves.
In this case, almost all of William’s closest advisors, friends, and attendants had fled as soon as he died, leaving him alone. Thieves, looters and angry nobles could not be held in check. They stole even the clothes off of the body of William. The morbid desecration left the mighty king stripped of his clothes.
WILLIAM’S BODY IS SENT TO FROM ROUEN TO CAEN
Who knew a 70 mile trip would be so long?
Many felt that King Philip would seize the lands of the Normans and they went to secure them. Eventually, the clergy of Rouen arranged to have the body sent to Caen, where William had desired to be buried in his foundation of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes. The funeral, attended by the bishops and abbots of Normandy as well as his son Henry, was disturbed by the assertion of a citizen of Caen who alleged that his family had been illegally despoiled of the land on which the church was built.
By the time the envoy arrived at Caen, the bacteria that had grown in William’s injured intestines began to seep into his body cavity, filling it with putrid gas. To make matters worse, upon the king’s arrival, a fire broke out in the city. Exposed to increasing heat, the stench only made matters worse. As if the never-ending nightmare of lost causes were still indicative of the curse yet to come, a man suddenly appeared who contested the burial, claiming the church had been unlawfully built on his land. Another delay.
AN EXPLOSIVE BURIAL
When the burial could actually take place, six weeks had passed since William’s death. The residual heat from the fire combined with the delay it caused had resulted in William’s bowels inflating to even larger proportions than they had been while he was alive.
As the grave-diggers were lowering William into the hole in the ground, they realized they had not accounted for his inflated size — the hole was too small for William to fit, and when they attempted to squeeze him in, he burst. The crowd in the Abbey was immediately covered in the former Duke’s putrefied innards and overwhelmed by the scent of decomposing flesh.
WHY SO LITTLE IS WRITTEN ABOUT THE DEATH OF WILLIAM?
Of William’s life, much is written. But precious little remains of his death. We know several things - ‘The funeral was hastily finished while a cold and steady rain created mud-trails which mixed with the blood and fluids of the king as if to only add to the grotesque misery of the day. At once, the business of appointing a new king made this funeral a quickly forgotten event. Most writers thought it so disgusting that they wrote very little about it. After all, who would enjoy that kind of saga? Inks and vellums weren’t cheap and there was a premium on Church matters.
Such was the anger of many Norman subjects of William, many decided that the disgusting service and horrible mistreatment of the body was ultimately a worthy one. William had been particularly unliked and unusually vicious during his reign, and it was fitting that the gluttonous king finally got what he deserved. They certainly couldn’t see the impact the life of William would have a thousand years later, leaving historians left to make sense of it all.
One thing seems certain - Whether the indignity of his funeral was something he deserved or not depends entirely on whether you were friend or foe. With William, it was virtually impossible to see this otherwise. ###
² Oxford Dictionary of Biographical History, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/20812; Prestwich, J. (2006, September 28). Orderic Vitalis (1075–c. 1142), Benedictine monk and historian. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Retrieved 25 Aug. 2018, from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20812.