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The Death of William the Conqueror

"Also, in the same year, before the Assumption of St Mary [August 15], King William went from Normandy into France with an army, and raided against his own lord, Philip the king, and killed a great part of his men, and burned down the town of Mantes and all the holy minsters which were inside the town....This thus done, the king William turned back to Normandy. He did a pitiful thing, and more pitiful happened to him. How more pitiful? He became ill and that afflicted him severely."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough MS)

William died early on the morning of September 9, 1087 at the age of fifty-nine, having ruled England for twenty-one years and Normandy for thirty-one more. There are two accounts of his death: the nearly contemporary De Obitu Willelmi by an anonymous monk of Caen, where the king was buried, and the Historia Ecclesiastica of Orderic Vitalis, which, even though it was written some sixty-five years later, is the more reliable. In Book VII, Orderic recounts William's death and burial.

Six weeks before, William had attempted to capture the French town of Mantes, where the king, "who was very corpulent, fell ill from exhaustion and heat." (William of Malmesbury, a contemporary of Orderic, adds in his Gesta Regum Anglorum that William, his stomach protruding over the forward part of his saddle, was injured when he was thrown against the pommel and his internal organs ruptured.) William retreated and returned to his capital at Rouen. His condition continued to worsen and, mindful of the afterlife to come, he "gave way to repeated sighs and groans." Begging those to pray for him, William confessed his sins and sought pardon. His treasure was 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." Gifts also were sent as penitence to the clergy at Mantes so that they might restore the churches William's army had burned.

Bishops, abbots, monks, and physicians all were in attendance. William's eldest son Robert was not there but four years earlier had joined his father's enemy, the king of France, in rebellion. Nor was Odo, the bishop of Bayeux, the king's half-brother, who still was in prison for treason. Entreated to forgive them both, William wearily relented. Odo was released and Robert, in spite of his disloyalty, was invested with the duchy of Normandy. William Rufus, the younger son, was given custody of England and immediately left to claim his throne, while Henry received five thousand pounds in silver, which he hastened to secure, having it carefully weighed out to make certain that none of his appanage was denied him.

Having grown up in England as a boy, Orderic was aware of William's cruelty against the English, and may well have heard a first-hand account of his death. He has the dying man confess.

"I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire....In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people."

When William died, commending himself to the Virgin, the wealthier nobles and knights in attendance immediately left, anxious to protect their property now that the king was dead. Those household servants who stayed behind, says Orderic, "seized the arms, vessels, clothing, linen, and all the royal furnishings, and hurried away leaving the king's body almost naked on the floor of the house."

It was determined that the body would be taken to Caen and buried in the church of St. Stephen (Étienne) in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes (the monastery which William had founded as penance for having married Matilda of Flanders, a distant cousin, against the wishes of the Pope). But all the royal dependents having left, there was no one to make preparations. It fell to a common knight to make the funeral arrangements and have the body conveyed down the Seine and then overland to Caen. There, as the abbot and his monks came to meet the bier, a fire broke out, destroying the greater part of the town. All rushed to extinguish it, leaving only the monks to complete the service.

William was eulogized before the assembled bishops and abbots of Normandy, and a request made that, if ever he had done wrong, he was to be forgiven. Incredibly, someone loudly proclaimed that the church had been built on land forcibly acquired from his father when William was duke. "Therefore I lay claim to this land, 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." The man was compensated sixty shillings for the place of burial, with Henry paying the rest later (one-hundred pounds, according to William of Malmesbury).

Then something even more macabre happened. The monk of Caen writes that William was "great in body and strong, tall in stature but not ungainly." When it came time to bury the heavy body, it was discovered that the stone sarcophagus had been made too short. There was an attempt to force the bloated corpse and, says Orderic, "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." Even the frankincense and spices of the censers was not enough to mask the smell, and the rites were hurriedly concluded.

William Rufus commissioned a memorial for his father, "a noble tomb, which to this day shines with gold and silver and precious stones in handsome style" with an inscription in gold. It remained undisturbed until 1522, when the tomb was opened on instructions from Rome. (Some nineteenth-century English accounts attribute the exhumation to the curiosity of a French cardinal, thereby combining in one personage two national antipathies.) William's embalmed body was viewed, the stature of the king remarked upon, and then reinterred. Forty years later, his sarcophagus was despoiled by a Calvinist mob who suspected that it contained treasure and the remains scattered when it was discovered that it did not. Presumably, what could be gathered up was preserved and reburied under a new monument in 1642, but this was destroyed during the French Revolution and the bones thrown into the River Orne that runs through Caen.

A single thigh bone does survive, however, which now is covered by a marble slab in front of the altar in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, placed there in 1987 to mark the nine-hundredth anniversary of William's death. Its Latin inscription, which dates from the early nineteenth century, records simply that "Here lies the invincible William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England, founder of the house, who died in the year 1087." The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a more poignant epitaph.

"He who was earlier a powerful king, and lord of many a land, he had nothing of any land but a seven-foot measure; and he who was at times clothed with gold and with jewels, he lay then covered over with earth."


References: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1996) translated and edited by Michael Swanton; The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis (1969) edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford Medieval Texts); William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings (1998) edited and translated by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom (Oxford Medieval Texts); English Historical Documents 1042-1189 (1953) edited by David C. Douglas and George W. Greenaway; William the Conqueror (1964) by David C. Douglas.

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