You probably have some recollection of William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, from your high school history classes. But have you ever heard the grisly tale of how he came to die? William the Conqueror was a large man by anyone’s standards. He was lanky and big-boned as a youth, and by middle age he had become obese. It doesn’t appear to have been because of his eating habits, which his contemporaries described as abstemious. And he certainly had an active lifestyle, filled with hunting, warfare, and horses. Still, William was fat and getting fatter. He knew that his subjects laughed at him behind his back, and the French king mocked him to his face. So William decided to do something about it.
In the summer of 1087, when William was 59 years old, he decided to travel to Rouen for a program of diet, herbs, and medication. It wasn’t uncommon at the time for the nobility to do this. Think of it as sort of a medieval spa vacation.
On the way to Rouen, however, William made a slight detour. He stopped at Mantes, a French border town that had invaded his territories. In retaliation, William sacked the city and burned much of it to the ground. While William was surveying the damage, his horse accidentally stepped on a burning cinder and jostled William in the saddle. He was thrown against his saddle pommel, which was massive and made of steel. Serious internal injuries were the result.
In great pain, William was taken to a priory outside of Rouen. There, he was attended by his doctors, his bishops, and various nobles, including his half-brother Robert (who would later become King of Normandy and Maine) and his two younger sons, Henry and William Rufus. William Rufus would soon succeed William as King of England.
William the Conqueror lingered in extreme pain for five weeks. He developed peritonitis, slipped into a coma, and finally died on September 9, 1087.
The English nobles now found themselves in somewhat of a dilemma. They were expected to remain with the king’s body, but they feared that William’s death would throw England into chaos. Ultimately, they made the prudent choice. William was dead, and their lands were at risk. Quickly sending for clergy to bury William, the left the body in the hands of local attendants, and returned to England to protect their estates. By the time the clergy arrived to bury William, his rooms – and his person – had been stripped of all valuables and the locals had fled. .
William, as you may recall, was a very corpulent man, and a sarcophagus had to be specially made for him that would accommodate his girth. What had not been taken into account, however, was William’s abscessed abdomen and the bloating of the corpse. When it came time to place William in the casket, he simply wouldn’t fit.
The bishops tried valiantly to force William into his casket. They pushed, and they pushed, and then finally – William exploded. The stench in the chapel was incredible, and, to make matters worse, Rouen was experiencing one of the hottest summers in remembered history. Everyone who could manage fled the chapel, and the rest suffered through a very hasty funeral with a partially closed coffin.
William was buried in St. Stephens Church at Caen, which he had built. Even then, he was not to rest in peace eternally: in 1562 the Huguenots dug him up and scattered his remains.
Sources: Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, Charles Panati, www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/normans. www.historyhouse.com/in_history/william/