William the Conqueror… a name that trips off the tongues of even primary school children. He turned Britain on its head, shaped the history of England for ever more, and has since been a household name for centuries. But bearing in mind the fact that he invaded England back in 1066 and took over, the English don’t appear to harbour any great animosity towards him. It’s an interesting retrospective, eh? For things were a little different back in the good old medieval days…
Conquering, corpulence… and karma
When William died, he was 59 years of age, very corpulent, and not the most popular man. Dealing with that last description first, he’d been a tough cookie whilst he’d ruled. He may have brought a new type of order to things, but he’d done it through cruel oppression, starvation and ravaging. He’d also disinherited some of the more influential characters of the time, which was never a long-term vote winning strategy. But having said that, he’d done pretty well for himself and had stayed alive long into his fifties.
However secondly, when we say corpulent, we mean belly sticks over the forward part of a saddle type corpulent… Which is pretty overweight by anyone’s standards.
Six weeks before his death, William had fixed his beady eyes on Mantes, a French town. He’d wanted to capture it for his own reasons, but the campaign was to be his downfall. As he’d approached the battle line at pace, his horse had reared and he’d been thrown against the pommel of his saddle. The impact turned out to be so severe it had ruptured his internal organs. So later, stretched out in agony, he’d retreated to Rouen, his capital, and been forced to consider his fate.
Confessions, corpulence… and karma
A man in such a state, and in such a position, was apt to beg for pardon. He confessed his sins – many many sins – and distributed his wealth to the poor, whilst also sending gifts as penitence to the clergy he’d barraged with brutality so they could restore the churches he’d burned down.
On his death bed, both bishops and physicians were in attendance. However, his son, Robert – who’d rebelled against him years previously and then hooked up with one of his enemies – wasn’t. And neither was his half-brother, Odo – the Bishop of Bayeux, who was still in prison for treason. In his last days, William clearly felt the fear of divine retribution and relented, when urged, to forgive them both. As a result of his change of heart, Odo was released and Robert was rewarded with the duchy of Normandy. The next younger son, William Rufus, was given responsibility for England. And Henry, the youngest, got some dosh… which he counted carefully, just to make sure he’d not been short changed.
Clocks ticking, corpulence… and karma
When he actually died on 9th September, 1087, the exodus from the room was pretty rapid, which indicates just how little love anyone had for the man. The wealthier attendees scarpered to start making arrangements to protect their property. The less wealthy pilfered the royal belongings and dashed away. In fact, it reached the point where William’s corpse was pretty much left naked on the floor.
The decision was made for him to be buried in Caen at Abbaye-aux-Hommes – which William had founded as an apology to the Pope for marrying Matilda of Flanders many years before. Who made the decision is unclear, but what was clear was that there was no one hanging around to actually make any preparations. Responsibility ended up falling on the shoulders of a common knight, who arranged for the body to be embalmed (although this occurred rather late, and so the flesh was already beginning to decompose) and then oversaw the transportation of the body along the Seine and then overland. Note… This was a lengthy journey of 70 miles to be covered, and one what would give bacteria plenty of time to breed.
Once in Caen, the abbot and his monks did head out to meet the new arrivals. But ironically, a fire suddenly broke out and many in the town rushed to extinguish it, which mainly left only the monks to move things forward. In addition to this distraction, a lowly and disillusioned soul proclaimed that the church had actually been built on his father’s land, which in turn had been forcibly acquired by William. “… I lay claim to this land,” this pauper said, “and openly demand it, forbidding in God’s name that the body of this robber be covered by earth that is mine or buried in my inheritance.” And so burial arrangements were delayed even further. Time continued to tick by, and the heat did its worst as the seconds, minutes, hours, days and weeks passed. Though as an aside, the man was compensated 60 shillings!
Coffins, corpulence… and karma
By the time the Eulogy did take place, a collection of bishops and abbots had managed to arrive, but then the next extraordinary event happened.
Most probably because of the lack of interest in the funeral arrangements, it transpired that the sarcophagus in which William was to be interred was actually too short. He had been a giant of a man in life, and his indulgent lifestyle had added significantly to his already weighty frame. As attempts were made to squeeze his body in, the pushing and pummelling of his torso prompted his bowels to burst. According to some, many attendees were splattered with decomposing flesh and a horrific stench suddenly permeated the room. What was already a farce of a funeral, had exploded to an undignified finish. The proceedings were speedily completed.
Commemorations, corpulence… and karma
As we said at the beginning, it’s hard to believe this turn of events, bearing in mind the ubiquitous nature of William’s name across history. His son, William Rufus, however, must have worried about the legacy this debacle would leave, for chronicles state that he commissioned a memorial to William with an inscription set in gold. Now, though, as a result of Calvinist mobs raiding his grave, and the French Revolution, only a simple stone slab survives to mark the place of his burial. Instead, therefore, this unpopular giant of a man in life, whose ugly end was deemed appropriate even at the time of his death, has indelibly left his giant footprint on England’s path to today.