By the summer of 1087, William the Conqueror, like so many gentlemen of a certain age, was trying desperately to come to terms with the onset of the dreaded middle age spread.
He therefore retreated to his power base at Rouen for a sort of weight loss boot camp aimed at reducing the size of his embarrassingly prominent paunch.
WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR’S LAST CAMPAIGN
However, no sooner had he completed his first bench press, than he was trolled by Philip the 1st of France who berated him with the taunt:-
“The King of England is lying-in at Rouen, and keeps to his bed, like a woman after her delivery.”
Of course, the best way to deal with trolls is to completely ignore them; but William hadn’t got where he was by turning the other cheek, no matter how chubby that cheek now happened to be, and he made what would turn out to be be the fatal error of rising to the bait, and, easing his stomach, along the rest of himself, into his chain mail, he swore a terrible oath, and set off post haste to “revenge this injurious taunt at the expense of multitudes.”
He vowed that he would burn the whole of France, and made a start by ordering his army to set fire to the town of Mantes – half way between his seat of power at Rouen and that of the King of France in Paris.
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WILLIAM MORTALLY WOUNDED
There are several versions as to what happened next. The more mundane one holds that William, who wasn’t as lithe and fit as he had once been, was overcome by the heat and exertion of fighting, and he collapsed – after all, it is most unwise for a 59 year-old, morbidly obese man to embark upon a regimen of looting, pillage and massacre without first seeking the advice of his doctor.
A second, more dramatic account holds that his horse stepped on a burning ember, and reared up, throwing William forward in the saddle, and driving his prominent belly so hard against the pommel that the impact ruptured his internal organs.
Yet another version has it that he was thrown into the pommel as his horse jumped over a ditch. Whatever the cause, William was mortally injured, and he was taken back to Rouen, where his condition continued to worsen.
HIS DEATH BED PENANCE
Realizing that the end was drawing nigh, it dawned on William that he might not have led what could, by any stretch of the imagination, be termed an exactly exemplary life, and, according to the chroniclers, he “gave way to repeated sighs and groans,” and, begging those present to pray for his soul, he confessed his sins and sought pardon.
He ordered that his vast ill-gotten wealth be distributed to the churches and the poor, “so that what I amassed through evil deeds may be assigned to the holy uses of good men.” Compensation was also sent as penitence to the clergy at Mantes so that they might rebuild the churches William’s army had burned.
THE DEATH OF WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR
William endured six weeks of agony before, on the morning September the 9th 1087, he commended his soul to the Virgin Mary and drew his last breath.
With William lying dead on his bed, the assembled nobles, knights and Bishops, burst into tears of genuine, inconsolable, heartfelt grief. They stayed loyally at his bedside, determined that in death the proud and noble Conqueror should be treated with the respect and love, befitting such a wise, caring, penitent and… oh wait, sorry wrong script.
No sooner had William breathed his last than all the wealthy nobles and knights made a dash for the door, and headed back to their castles, anxious to secure their property and lands now that the King was dead.
HIS POSSESSIONS LOOTED
The household servants, left to their own devices, followed William’s lifetime example to a tee, and they set to work looting everything that wasn’t nailed down, whilst prising loose anything that was nailed down.
They seized his armour and weapons, grabbed hold of all his silver, stripped the clothing and jewellery from his corpse, took down the tapestries, bundled up the linen along with all the Royal furnishings, and hurried away, leaving William’s body almost stark naked on the cold stone floor of his apartments.
HIS BODY TAKEN TO CAEN
The body remained there for several days before a passing knight took pity, and, at his own expense, had the royal cadaver conveyed by boat down the Seine, placed on the back of a cart and trundled to Caen for burial at the Abbaye de St Etienne, which had been founded by William three years before his historic victory at the Battle of Hastings.
Unfortunately, William’s posthumous litany of misfortune continued when a fire broke out in the town, and his body was again put aside for a few days whilst the monks and residents fought to bring the conflagration under control.
With the flames extinguished, attention turned once more to William’s rapidly ripening remains, which were finally carried into the church in readiness for his interment.
A KNIGHTLY CHALLENGE
Since no preparations had actually been made to receive such an honoured carcass, a grave had to be dug for him, and this the monks did with impressive haste.
At last, all was ready for the final chapter in the saga of William The Conqueror, and the funeral service got underway.
The congregation was asked to forgive William’s transgressions, whereupon a poor knight by the name of Anselm Fitz Arthur piped up that William had stolen the land on which the Abbey stood from his father, and that the king’s dead body would lie at rest on land that was rightfully his over his dead body. Actually his exact words were:-
“In the name of God I forbid that the body of the despoiler be covered with the earth of my inheritance.”
A GENUINE CLAIM
There was another undignified delay, in order that his claim could be investigated.
It was found to be genuine, and this necessitated a spot of haggling to agree suitable compensation in order that the King’s mortal remains could finally be put in the ground he had usurped from the Fitz Arthur family.
The haggling over, the compensation was paid, and the service could continue.
Phew, all those present thought to themselves, closure at last.
Goodness gracious, thought the bacteria, building up inside William’s corpse, it’s getting a bit gassy in here.
THE FUNERAL BEGINS
Finally, setbacks and obstacles could be put behind them, and the solemn moment for William’s interment in his hastily prepared tomb arrived.
The monks duly carried the King’s remains to the grave and began lowering him into his sarcophagus. At which point, they learnt another valuable lesson.
Preparing a grave for a morbidly obese dead monarch whose bloated corpse has been left lying around for a considerable amount of time, is best not done in haste.
WILLIAM’S BODY EXPLODES
The sarcophagus, it transpired, was too small for William’s body; but the monks were, to say the least, growing a little impatient at how long all this was taking, and so they attempted to force William into the sarcophagus by pressing down on his stomach.
It wasn’t a good idea.
According to the Chronicler Orderic Vitalis, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, written seventy five years later, but considered pretty reliable:-
“the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd.”
A Victorian account imbued the story with a little extra element of grossness, claiming that:-
“The putrid contents spilled across the floor, filling the church with a smell that was so overpowering that all present were forced to flee the church.”
One source that was supposedly present at the event observed how:-
“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.”
WILLIAM’S BODY FINALLY BURIED
As the mourners milled around outside, retching and gulping down as much sweet fresh air as they could, two monks were ordered back into the church, and, having completed the stomach-churning task of forcing William into his tomb, they retreated to their cells to recover from the ordeal.
The mourners then trooped back into the church, the service was completed at great speed, and, according to a chronicler:-
“afterwards the people departed in sad silence: discoursing diversly of all these extraordinarie accidents>”
As funerals go, William’s had certainly been one to remember.