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.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1087
For William, Duke of Normandy, conqueror of England, generally known as 'the Bastard', the year 1087 was to prove to be the last that he would spend on this earth. Not that of course, he was aware of it at the time.
He spent most of the year in England but before the feast of the Assumption of St Mary (which would be the 15th August) William was in Normandy for the specific purpose of launching an assault on the town of Mantes in pursuance of his dispute with king Philip I of France.
From William's point of view the attack was a success; most of the French army was killed and the town of Mantes itself taken and burnt. Unfortunately, William himself was injured.
According to William of Malmesbury, his namesake William was injured when his horse was startled by a sudden burst of flames from the burning ruins of the town, and William was thrown forward in the saddle. On the face of it, this would not seem that serious, except that William was impaled on the pommel of his saddle and suffered some kind of damage to his internal organs. (William was, according to all accounts, rather overweight by this time in his life, which may well have been a contributory factor.)
William returned to his capital at Rouen where his condition deteriorated and left him in a great deal of pain. It quickly became apparent both to William and his attendants that he was dying. Naturally the imminent prospect of death concentrated the mind wonderfully and William's thoughts naturally turned to the contemplation of the next world.
Orderic Vitalis attributes to him a long speech of repentance regarding his treatment of the English which appears a trifle too articulate given that the man must have been in extreme pain and discomfort. But in any event he gave instructions for his wealth to be distributed amongst the churches and the poor and also to the clergy of Mantes in compensation for the churches which he had only just recently burnt to the ground.
Most of the clergy and nobility of Normandy were by now in attendance, anxious to pay their last respects. There were however, two notable absences, his eldest son Robert, who he had quarrelled with and fought against four years previously and his half brother Odo of Bayeux earlier imprisoned for suspected treason. According to Orderic Vitalis, after some pressure, William agreed to forgive them both and ordered Odo's release. (Other sources however suggest differently.)
As soon as William was dead the nobility and clergy promptly left, apparently concerned to secure their own property now that William was not around to enforce law and order.1 This left the servants unsupervised and according to Orderic Vitalis they then proceeded to strip the royal apartments bare, as they;
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
Only a single knight named Herluin remained to put in hand the arrangements to transport William's body to Caen, where it had been decided that his body would be laid to rest at the Abbaye Saint-Etienne. 2However, just as the body arrived at Caen a fire broke out in the town. This rather limited the potential audience for the funeral service as the mourners were rather more concerned about putting out the fire.
The assembled clergy however continued with the service and made a standard request that William be forgiven for any wrongs that he had committed during his life. It was at this point that one rather audacious individual piped up and complained that the Abbaye Saint-Etienne had in fact been built on land that William had earlier stolen from his father and that the property was rightfully his. After a quick whip round the gentleman was satisfied by the payment of sixty shillings.
Worse was to follow.
When the monks came to place William within the stone sarcophagus that had been prepared to hold his body they discovered to their consternation that an error in measurements had been made and that it was too small to fit the coffin. They had no choice other than to force the coffin somehow into the sarcophagus. Unfortunately these contortions had rather an unwelcome result as Orderic Vitalis was to explain;
the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd.
The remainder of the service was rather hurriedly concluded as even the incense could not mask the smell, and the clergy were naturally anxious to get the lid on the sarcophagus and get back home.
William's son William Rufus who succeeded to the throne of England commissioned "a noble tomb, which to this day shines with gold and silver and precious stones in handsome style" according to Orderic (writing some sixty years later) as a lasting tribute to his father.
It lasted for almost five centuries until 1562 when a mob of Huguenots venting their anger against their Catholic persecutors destroyed the tomb and scattered the remains. Only a single thigh bone was recovered. This was reburied in 1642 under a new and equally magnificent tomb as the previous one.
The 1642 monument lasted until 1793 when a mob of revolutionaries venting their anger against the ancien régime destroyed the tomb and scattered the remains.
Finally in 1802 a rather plain stone slab was commissioned to mark the conqueror's last resting place which, due to a sudden scarcity of angry mobs in northern France of late, remains to this day at the abbey.
Local tradition still insists that the thigh bone is there.
One has to feel sorry for poor William in some ways. He died a painful death and the long series of indignities suffered by his remains makes one think that somebody up there did not like him.
1 Since the obvious heir Robert Curthose was off hob-nobbing with the French king, it was no immediate prospect of anyone taking charge of affairs in Normandy.
2 The Abbaye Saint-Etienne or the Abbaye aux Hommes, Saint Etienne and the Abbaye aux Dames, La Trinité were a pair of monastic foundations established by William and his wife Matilda of Flanders as their 'penance' for marrying without the Pope's specific consent. They were very distantly related and therefore in the Pope's opinion required a specific dispensation in order to marry. This he was naturally happy to provide in return for a suitable donation. In this case a pair of abbeys.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)
The Death of William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror's Death
There are a number of 'original' sources of William's death; one is the exactly contemporary but distrusted, De Obitu Willelmi written by 'an anonymous monk of Caen', the best known is contained in Book VII of the Historia Ecclesiastica by Orderic Vitalis which is considered more reliable but not entirely so, and another account is contained in some versions of the Gesta Normannurun Ducum by William of Jumieges.