William the Conqueror: Going Out With a Bang

#WilliamtheConqueror #funerals #history

Mourners at the funeral of William the Conqueror intended to send the great king off with a bang. They got more than they asked for.

William the Conqueror’s tomb, Church of Saint-Étienne, Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The king died in 1087 from injuries sustained when his horse reared up during a battle. He was thrown against his saddle pommel so forcefully that his intestines ruptured. An infection set in that killed the victor of the Battle of Hastings several weeks later.

If the circumstances of his death were horrible, the events leading up to his internment were no better. To begin with, the room in which his body lay was almost immediately looted. William’s naked body was left ingloriously on the floor, while looters grabbed up anything of value they could find.

Eventually a passing knight appears to have taken pity on the king and arranged for the body to be embalmed – sort of – followed by its removal to Caen for burial. By this time the body was probably already a little worse for wear in terms of appearance and aroma.

As monks came to meet the corpse, a fire broke out in the town, distracting everyone from the solemnity of the event. Once the blaze was under control, the mourners returned to the church for eulogies in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes.

Alas, there was yet another interruption. Just at the point where the assembled mourners were asked to forgive any wrongs that William had done, Asselin FitzArthur spoke up and invoked the legal injunction of Clameur de Haro (read more about this practice here), alleging that the deceased monarch had robbed his father of the land on which the abbey stood. That put the ceremony on hold until adequate compensation could be negotiated.

The worst was yet to come. William’s corpse, bloated by this point, wouldn’t fit into the short stone sarcophagus that had been created for it. As it was forced into place, “the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd,” according to one account. No amount of incense would cover up the smell. Mourners went running for the door to escape the putrid stench while the clergy hurried through the remainder of the ceremony as quickly as possible.

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