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Royal Moments: When the King Exploded

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William the Conqueror was not a well-loved King. In fact, he was more commonly known as William the Bastard during his lifetime, in reference to having being born out of wedlock to Duke Robert I of Normandy and a comparatively low-born woman named Herleva.

At the age of around 38, William I became the first Norman King of England when he defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – where the latter is famously said to have been killed with an arrow to the eye, as depicted in the Bayeux tapestry.

Detail from Bayeyx Tapestry with Harold and arrow in his eye.

William died in 1087 – of causes considerably more embarrassing than an arrow to the eye – and the subsequent ignominy of his funeral was, in many ways, a direct result of his lack of popularity as a monarch. After a brutal reign as both King of England and Duke of Normandy – splitting his time between the two – William had alienated many of his subjects by the time he expired.

Once a fierce warrior, William had become somewhat corpulent by his late 50s. Having returned from England to Rouen, Normandy – where he was working to outmaneuver his son Robert in a struggle for power – William was riding his horse when it reared unexpectedly, jamming the pommel of his saddle into his generous stomach. The result was a punctured abdomen, resulting in six weeks of rapidly deteriorating health which ultimately proved to be fatal.

“The gravediggers attempted to force their ex-monarch’s body into his tomb.”

William’s first posthumous humiliation was the immediate abandonment of his corpse by those who had been attending to him, meaning that there was no one left to make the necessary arrangements for his death. By the time anyone got round to embalming the body, William the Conqueror had already started decomposing.

According to the dead King’s wishes, his body was to be buried at the Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen, which William himself had built. The problem was that Caen was 70 miles away from Rouen, and the only conceivable way of transporting William’s body there was by boat – on a relatively slow-moving trip down the Seine. During the course of this journey, the bacteria inside the cadaver continued the work of putrefaction, and the former King began slowly expanding as he filled with gas.

A good while later, William’s body arrived at the abbey in Caen. With the bishops of Normandy assembled, and William’s son Henry in attendance, the burial was ready to go ahead – were it not for the interruption of a furious local, ranting that William had built the church on his land illegally. His name was recorded as Asceline Fitz-Arthur, and he’s said to have shouted: “He whom you have praised was a robber. The very land on which you stand is mine. By violence he took it from my father; and in the name of God, I forbid you to bury him in it.”


The gathered bishops consulted one another and determined that Fitz-Arthur was telling the truth, which raised the difficult question of how to proceed. After another delay, it was decided that the man would be paid sixty shillings for the grave in which William was about to be buried, and they promised that he would later be reimbursed in full for the land on which the church had been built. With these unexpected real estate negotiations out of the way, the mourners were once again ready to bury their former King.

Unfortunately, the former King was not quite ready to be buried. As gravediggers lowered William the Conqueror’s body into the ground, they quickly realised that he wasn’t going to fit in the hole; over the weeks since his death, William’s body had inflated as it filled up with the putrid gases of his decomposition. He had quite literally ballooned in size.

“What happened next has been reported with various degrees of sensationalism.”

Desperate to get the much-postponed ceremony over with, the gravediggers attempted to force their ex-monarch’s body into his tomb – squeezing, pushing and folding in the hope that he could be persuaded to occupy his final resting place. What happened next has been reported with various degrees of sensationalism, but what is clear is that William the Conqueror’s body was punctured, causing the rapid expulsion of a foul-smelling gas that filled the church and – according to some accounts – the explosion of William’s entrails all over the congregation.

Whether the gory details were retroactively exaggerated by his detractors or not, there’s no doubt that William the Conqueror proved as overpowering in death as he was in life.

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