The Lingering Death and Botched Burial of William the Conqueror
Twenty one years after crowning himself King of England at a lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey on Christmas day, William the Conqueror lay dying in agony back in his native France.
During the summer of 1087, following an insult by the King of France, William unwisely roused himself from his sick bed to lead an attack on the city of Mantes declaring that “he would set all France in a blaze at his uprising”. He ordered the city to be fired and had destroyed several churches. Riding through the blazing city admiring his handiwork, William’s horse set a foot on a piece of burning timber and his steed reared up with such force that it threw him violently against the pommel and ruptured his intestines. Unable to remount, William was carried in a litter to his house at Hermentrude outside Rouen where his condition worsened.
For two months he suffered excruciating pain as blood poisoning and infection overcame the 59 year old monarch. In early September William realised death was near, and as an act of atonement for the atrocities he had perpetrated during his life, he bequeathed large sums of money for the poor and funded the rebuilding the churches he had burnt at Mantes. He even expressed regret at his treatment of the English "... having so misused that fair and beautiful land”.
But it was too little too late, many privately whispered that William the Bastard’s imminent agonising death was divine retribution for the many barbarities he had carried out during his violent life and on 9th September the great King died.
The Neglected Corpse
Almost immediately after William had taken his last breath, his corpse was subjected to dishonourable and undignified treatment by his former nobles and followers. His eldest son, Robert, was absent in Germany at the time of his death and William was on his voyage to England; Henry, his youngest son took charge of the funeral but suddenly departed on some self-interested business. According to the contemporary chronicler Oderick Vitalis, in the absence of the great officers of state, the King’s house was looted of all money, plate, wearing apparel, hangings, and precious furniture. Even the royal cadaver was stripped of clothing and jewellery by the servants of the royal household and left naked on the floor.
With the clamour now for the officers of state to curry favour with the new regime, the body of the Conqueror was quickly forgotten and his remains lay neglected on the stone floor for several days until Herlewin, a poor country knight,—took responsibility at his own expense to convey the royal corpse to Caen for interment to the magnificent Abbaye de St. Etienne (St. Stephen’s Church) a convent which had been founded by the dead King, three years before his historic victory at Hastings.
Fire and Brimstone
William’s body arrived unceremoniously on the back of a cart where it was taken into the cloisters by the monks. No sooner had it arrived that a fire broke out and swept through the monastery. His funeral was forgotten for days and his body left on the back of the hearse as the monks and villagers battled to save the church and their own property from the conflagration. Once the flames had finally been quenched his body was placed in the church awaiting burial. As no arrangements had been made, the monks set to work digging a grave in the chancel to accept the King’s rapidly deteriorating body.
The Funeral Interrupted
Finally the Bishops and Nobles of Normandy assembled for the funeral which was conducted by Guislebert Bishop of Eureux who in a long sermon extolled the virtues of the honourable King but acknowledged that in the interests of the greater good William may have caused offence to some. He implored anyone present who had been so wronged to forgive him.
As he finished his eulogy, one nobleman stood up and from the back of the church and announced that he would not be forgiving the Norman King. Anselm Fitz-Arthur claimed that the floor on which they were standing was formerly the site of his father’s ancestral home and had been forcibly robbed from the family by the dead King. To the shock of the assembled throng he announced; “In the name of God I forbid that the body of the despoiler be covered with the earth of my inheritance”. This stunned the bishops and nobles present, many of whom knew full well that his claims were quite true. In a state of confusion the funeral ceremony was suspended whilst hurried negotiations took place. Fitz-Arthur was immediately paid sixty shillings in compensation for the ground which had been broken for the burial and later his palm was greased with a promise of a further one hundred pounds in silver by Prince Henry, the only one of the King’s sons present at his funeral.
"Whether his bowels burst or whether some excrements were forced out at their natural passage, such an intolerable stinck proceeded from him..."
Indignity in Death
The ceremonial interment continued but the stone-lined tomb, which had been hastily prepared in the chancel, proved to be too small to accommodate the corpse. In an degrading spectacle which involved the monks trying to squeeze the bloated body into the tomb, they burst his stomach and the putrid contents spilled across the floor, filling the church with a smell of which was so overpowering that all present were force to flee the church.
An observer commented: “Whether his bowels burst or whether some excrements were forced out at their natural passage, such an intolerable stinck proceeded from him, as neither the perfumes that smoaked in great abundance, nor any other means were able to qualifie”.
Two monks were sent back into the church to finish the gut-wrenching task of pressing the corpse into the tomb which they did as rapidly as possible before retiring to recover in their cells.
The throng briefly reassembled to pay their respects as the shambolic ceremony was brought to a close and ...“afterwards the people departed in sad silence: discoursing diversly afterward of all these extraordinarie accidents”
Requiescat in Pace?
Thus the great King was finally laid to rest but he was destined not to rest in peace.
In 1542 the Bishop of Bayeux sought permission to open his tomb to satisfy a morbid desire to behold the remains of this great sovereign. The body was reported as being ‘entire and royally cloathed’ and exceeding in stature the tallest man then known. The Bishop, who was greatly surprised at finding the body in such perfect preservation, caused a painting on board to be made of the royal remains by the best artist in Caen
The painting hung on the abbey wall opposite William’s monument until it was sacked by marauding French soldiers twenty years later. A richly adorned monument which had been built over the royal tomb by his son William Rufus was ransacked and the precious metal and jewels which adorned it were plundered by the invading mercenary army of Admiral Chastilion who occupied Caen in 1562 during the French religious wars.
They had earlier raided the tomb of his wife Matilda at the Abbaye aux Dames she founded at in Caen. Her body was discovered in fine robes of state and bearing a gold ring with a large sapphire which was snatched from one of her fingers by one of the raiders and then perhaps as an afterthought and somewhat ghoulishly, presented to the abbess, Madame Anna de Montmorency, who later gave it to her father, the constable of France.
Expecting to find the King’s tomb full of treasure the soldiers dug up and broke open William’s sarcophagus and finding it devoid of booty, dragged out the remains wrapped in red taffeta and scattered it around the church. Many English soldiers in the town at the time heard of the desecration and went to witness it for themselves gathering his bones as grisly souvenirs to bring back to England.
The gruesome painting fell into the hands of one of the rioters Peter Hode, the gaoler of Caen, who converted one part into a table and used the other part as a cupboard door. These were last seen in 1566 in the possession of Monsieur de Bras, an officer of the town but disappeared after his death.
Williams tomb remained empty for almost a century until 1642 when a solitary thighbone was located and returned to the Abbaye de St. Etienne by the Viscount Falaise and deposited back in the royal grave by the monks. However a hundred and fifty years later even this meagre relic and the elaborate monument erected to mark it, were desecrated by the French revolutionaries in 1789.
Monsieur le Bras, who saw this bone, testified that it was longer by the breadth of his four fingers than that of the tallest man he had ever seen. For a while this gave rise to fanciful stories that William had been an eight foot giant. William had indeed been a large physically impressive man with remarkable personal strength and athleticism. Contemporary chroniclers said of him that no-one but himself could bend his bow and even when riding at full speed could discharge his long-bow with unerring aim. He was however “of a good stature, yet not exceeding the ordinary proportion of men”
Finally At Rest?
His current tombstone made from white marble is an early 19th replacement century and to date has remained intact. Perhaps after almost a thousand years after his death, William the Conqueror’s remains can finally rest in peace.