Sunday, 9 October 2016

Duke William: a Bastard in life and death.

It must have been the event of the year, the one place to be seen in 1087 if you were anyone: the funeral of William, King of England and Duke of Normandy.

William was 59 when he died by when - much like one of his more famous descendants, Henry VIII - he was no longer the fine figure of a man he had been in his youth. Rather, he had become something of a fat bastard, or - as William of Malmesbury (a 12th century English chronicler) rather more eloquently puts it in his Gesta Regum Anglorum - he had become "very corpulent". All that dining on fine French cuisine and good old-fashioned English fare had taken its toll. 

Despite this, before his death he was still putting it about quite a bit, as it were. A key aspect of early medieval kingship was the need to see and be seen. A lot of your authority came from showing yourself to your people and leading them in all manner of military exploits. It was during one such exploit that he met his end. Not shot by an arrow, run through by a spear or hacked down by a sword, but rather he hurt himself while riding his horse in the battle of Mantes in July 1087. 

Well, to be fair, it seems as though the horse must have bolted or been startled - probably protesting at the immense weight it was having to carry - with the result that William was projected violently forward, rupturing his "internal organs" on the protruding pommel of his saddle. He returned to his capital, Rouen, but failed to recover and passed away five weeks later on 9th September.

Arrangements were made for the funeral to take place at the Abbaye-aux-Hommes (which William himself had founded in Caen) and it was there that William left his final mark on the world, though one which he would probably rather have avoided. 

During the service, it was discovered that his vast, bloated body was too big to fit into the stone sarcophagus. You can imagine the panic among the assembled monks. What on earth are we going to do? Everyone's watching! This is so embarrassing! 

Then one bright spark no doubt pointed to the most junior novice and ordered him to 'encourage' the body into the sarcophagus. After some pushing and shoving, the inevitable happened; the bloated stomach burst open. There must have been guts and gunk all over the place. I have a horrible feeling, also, that the poor fellow who had picked the short straw must have ended up almost elbow deep in royal, rotting intestines. It can't have been pleasant. 

Another chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, tells us that the stench was so great that even the frankincense and various other holy spices in the abbey could not take the edge off it. It was so bad that the officiating monks had to rush through the remainder of the proceedings as quick as they could so they could get the hell out of there. A rumour that the last monk to leave the abbey was heard to remark "I'd leave that for five minutes if I were you" cannot, unfortunately, be verified.

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