Skip to main content

The Lingering Death and Botched Burial of William the Conqueror

Brian Langston is a retired Assistant Chief Constable now living in Southern France where he writes on crime, mysteries and the paranormal.

William the Conqueror would face many indignities after his death.

William the Conqueror would face many indignities after his death.

On Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror crowned himself King of England. He had a lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Twenty-one years later, he would die in agony in his native France.

Mortally Wounded

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. 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 (Roscoe 1846, 286). 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 and agonising death was divine retribution for the many barbarities he had carried out during his violent life. On 9th September, the great king died.

Abbaye de St. Etienne, Caen   - Founded by William the Conqueror.

Abbaye de St. Etienne, Caen - Founded by William the Conqueror.

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 he suddenly departed to attend some personal business. According to the contemporary chronicler Oderick Vitalis, in the absence of the great officers of state, the William’s house was looted of all its money, plate, wearing apparel, hangings, and precious furniture (Roscoe 1846, 294). Even the royal cadaver was stripped of clothing and jewellery by the servants of the royal household. He was 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. His remains laid 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 (Roscoe 1846, 295). This was done at 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 (Roscoe 1846, 295). His funeral was forgotten for days, and his body was 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 William’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. In a long sermon, he extolled the virtues of the honourable king, but he 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 from the back of the church. He 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 he had been forcibly robbed from the family by the dead king (Roscoe 1846, 295). 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 60 shillings in compensation for the ground which had been broken for the burial. His palm was later greased with a promise of a further 100 pounds in silver by Prince Henry, the only one of William’s sons present at his funeral.

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 a degrading spectacle, which involved the monks trying to squeeze the bloated body into the tomb, they burst his stomach. 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 (Roscoe 1846, 295).

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”.

Abbaye aux Dames in Caen, which was built by Queen Matilda.

Abbaye aux Dames in Caen, which was built by Queen Matilda.

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 (Roscoe 1846, 296). The body was reported as being ‘entire and royally cloathed’ and exceeding the stature of 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 20 years later (Roscoe 1846, 296). A richly adorned monument which had been built over the royal tomb by his son William Rufus was ransacked. 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 Wars of Religion.

They had earlier raided the tomb of his wife Matilda at the Abbaye aux Dames, which she had founded in Caen. Her body was discovered in fine robes of state and bearing a gold ring with a large sapphire. This was snatched from one of her fingers by one of the raiders. Perhaps as an afterthought, and somewhat ghoulishly, it was 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. Finding it devoid of booty, they 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. They gathered William's bones as grisly souvenirs to bring back to England (Roscoe 1846, 296).

The gruesome painting fell into the hands of one of the rioters, Peter Hode, the gaoler of Caen. He 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. The items disappeared after his death.

It has been speculated that William the Conqueror was relatively tall for his time period.

It has been speculated that William the Conqueror was relatively tall for his time period.

Tall Tales

William's tomb remained empty for almost a century. In 1642, a solitary thighbone was located and returned to the Abbaye de St. Etienne by the viscount of Falaise. It was deposited back in the royal grave by the monks. However, 150 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 (Roscoe 1846, 297). 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 have said that only he himself could bend his bow. Even when he rode at full speed, he could discharge his long bow with unerring aim. He was however “of a good stature, yet not exceeding the ordinary proportion of men”.

The C19th marble monument to William the Conqueror.

The C19th marble monument to William the Conqueror.

Finally At Rest?

His current tombstone made from white marble is an early 19th century replacement. To date, it has remained intact. Perhaps after almost 1000 years after his death, William the Conqueror’s remains can finally rest in peace. If you want to learn more about William's reign as king, be sure to read this article.

Source

Thomas Roscoe, The Life of William the Conqueror, 1846

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on April 24, 2020:

Thanks Victor...Keep safe!

victorsrealtimes from Nairobi on April 24, 2020:

Nice, very nice i enjoyed it

Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on November 12, 2015:

Many thanks for your kind comments C1W. Glad you enjoyed them. Having read some of your excellent Hubs I can return the compliment!

CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on November 12, 2015:

I suppose this is what happens when you are a rampaging tyrant- no one loves you. An excellent hub and looking at some of your other hubs they all seem to be very interesting and well written

Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on September 24, 2015:

Sure did Maria! Thanks for taking the time to read it. Brian

Marla Watson on September 24, 2015:

Shew....karma had his number didn't he!? lol

Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on September 19, 2015:

Thanks Polly- Not a great ending for Guillaume was it?

Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on September 19, 2015:

I had been told about his riding accident, and his corpse being left so long that it exploded, but I had not read that things were this bad! A fascinating read.

Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on September 18, 2015:

Many thanks for your kind comments Promisem and Enelle- I'm so pleased you enjoyed it.

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on September 18, 2015:

I second promisem. Great hub, very informative and interesting read :) Well done. Thoroughly enjoyed it!

promisem on September 18, 2015:

Brian, this is an outstanding Hub -- thorough, informative, graphical and well-written. Excellent work.