Another View of History


December 2013
Ivan Obolensky

  1. William the Conqueror was born in France in 1027.
  2. In 1066, he invaded England and defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings.
  3. William died at Rouen on September 9th, 1087.

Life is often reduced to a series of facts. This is what passes for history in most schools. Is it any wonder that many children find history boring and later as adults think of it as useless?

What is missing is the story.

Without the story there is only information which is tragic because beneath many dried out facts are stories, and some of them are truly extraordinary and worth the telling.

Let us flesh out some of the stale items above:

William, the Conqueror, was born in Normandy in 1027. He was a bastard. Indeed, he really was. He was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and Herleva of Falaise. Rather than marry her, the Duke persuaded Herleva to marry his friend, Herluin of Conteville instead.

William, it turned out, would be his only heir.

In 1035 prior to his departure on a pilgrimage, the Duke forced his lords to swear an oath of fealty to William in the event anything should happen to him while he was away.

True to his prescient feelings, the Duke died later that year, and the dukedom went to William; but because of his age, it passed for all intents and purposes to his guardians. William became a pawn in the ensuing power struggle.

This came to a head in 1040 when several of the barons (William’s feudal lords) did not think it right that they should be ruled by a bastard and rebelled. William’s two guardians were killed in the fighting, but the revolt was put down nonetheless, and a new guardian took power.

William was not able to take full control of the Duchy of Normandy until 1045 at the age of 18.

By this time William was understandably paranoid and distrustful. He had learned the military arts because without them it was obvious he could not hold what he had been given. He was a good student.

Additionally, his paranoia was not unfounded. Two years later several of his western lords rebelled, but using his military skills he defeated them.

In 1051 William visited the King of England, Edward the Confessor, who, according to William, promised that he would be Edward’s heir.

Harold of Wessex, the same Harold that William would later defeat at the battle of Hastings, first met William in 1064 after he was wrecked off the coast of Normandy and imprisoned by Count Guy of Ponthieu. William arranged his release and later knighted him after Harold helped in a campaign. Further, William made Harold take an oath to help William become King of England after Edward the Confessor died. And if this was not enough, William got Harold’s agreement to marry William’s daughter* in exchange for half the kingdom once William was in power.

Perhaps, William felt that Harold might not live up to his promises. If so, William was right again.

In 1066, that fateful year, Edward died, and when William heard the news, he sent a message to Harold reminding him of his oath and his agreements.

Harold sent a message back to William that Edward had reneged on his promise and instead passed the throne to him. Harold further justified his claim by pointing out that the Witanagemot, the assembly of lords who had a say in determining the next King, had voted for Harold and it was his duty to uphold the their decision and become King Harold.

As is often the case, what is decided by council has to then be upheld with force. It became necessary for Harold to wage war against his other rivals while William, betrayed again, put together an army to invade England.

This William did with gusto. Not a man to do things by halves, William went so far as to enlist the aid of the Pope besides promising those who joined him a share of the spoils.

The two armies met at Hastings where Harold had the superior tactical position.

It was not an easy fight. It went on all day from early in the morning to past four in the afternoon.  Eventually Harold was slain, the invaders victorious, and William became King of England and Normandy.

For the next twenty years William’s life was one of constantly putting down insurrections and organizing his widespread kingdom. The Doomsday Book** was one of the organizational tools William ordered to estimate tax revenues owed to him.

In addition to making enemies right and left, and very few friends, William ate well and grew exceedingly fat. This was a touchy point for William because when the King of France, his feudal superior, described him as looking like a pregnant woman, William responded by attacking France in 1087.

In that year and six weeks prior to his death, he attempted to capture the French city of Mantes and set it on fire.

From this point on the story takes several turns, some of them apocryphal depending on which source is used. There are basically two accounts: one written by an anonymous monk at the time and another written 60 years later by Oderic Vitalis.1

While riding just outside the city William’s horse stepped on a hot coal and either fell or shied violently. William’s huge belly protruded over the pommel of the saddle and the violent motion ruptured several internal organs.

William retreated to his capital Rouen to recuperate, but his condition continued to worsen. Aware that his afterlife was approaching, he gave liberally to the poor and to the church. He even gave to the churches of Mantes that he had burnt down so they could be restored.

Treatment for his internal hemorrhage was not an area of knowledge that was known about at the time. The physicians in attendance decided that it should be treated by William consuming large quantities of mead, a fermented honey drink. It did nothing but give him a tremendous case of gas.

With no remedy available, it took William several weeks to die. When he finally did so, the wealthy in attendance left to secure their property fearing there might be civil unrest. Those that remained lay claim to arms, royal furnishings, in fact anything not tied down. They left William’s body almost naked on the floor having fled with everything else.

It was left to a single knight to make arrangements to move the body to Caen and have it buried in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes which William had founded as penance for having married Matilda of Flanders against the Pope’s wishes.

The body was then transported down the Seine and over land to the city, but just when the Abbots and church officials came out to meet the funeral procession, a fire broke out that eventually consumed half the town. Most of those in attendance went to fight the fire except a number of church officials to whom it was left to complete the service.

William was eulogized by the remaining Bishops and Abbots who, after all, had benefited greatly from the weeks of agony William endured. During the proceedings a request was made that if William had wronged anyone, he should be forgiven as William had made amends before he died.

Incredibly someone jumped up and laid claim to the land upon which the church where the funeral was taking place was built saying that it was illegally taken from him by William and went so far as to forbid the “robber’s” body from laying anywhere on or near the property.2

The man, whose claim appeared to have been valid, had to be paid off before the service could continue so a quick whip-around was undertaken to raise the necessary funds.

From this point forward, events take on even stranger hue.

That particular September was one of the warmest on record and the mass was very long. Whether due to swelling as a result of the heat, the fact that all William had consumed for several weeks was fermented honey, or due to an oversight as to the size of the sarcophagus, the container and the lid were no longer able to contain the bloated corpse. It was just too big.

In keeping with much of what William accomplished while alive: what could not be done with finesse was then completed using force.

First those immediately surrounding the sarcophagus tried to shut the lid by leaning on it. This proved insufficient so more church officials were persuaded to lend their weight. Finally the choir was added such that almost all in attendance piled onto the sarcophagus to close it.

As to how many eventually formed the squirming mound to close the lid is unknown. What is known is that the body popped like a balloon.

With great understatement a chronicler of the time said that an intolerable stench assaulted the nostrils of the bystanders due to William’s bursting bowels.

There followed an immediate and uncontrolled exodus from the church as those attending attempted to gain fresh air.

From here recollections diverge, and I have read several versions.

Some say that the service was rapidly concluded.

Other accounts note that the smell was so horrific that no one dared enter the church to complete the burial. Those who owned the church became extremely concerned because the body was still in there, and the heat had not abated. They cast around and eventually bribed some lowlifes with great sums of money to go in and close the lid as best they could and bury him anywhere but in the abbey.

It is said that they eventually managed to drag the sarcophagus out of the church, dig a hole, and dispose of the remains. They then covered the site with earth and that nothing grew there for a very long time.

Other narratives say that his body was quickly buried but disinterred in 1522. In that year, it was examined and reinterred once again under a memorial, but forty years later the memorial was destroyed by a Calvinist mob, and William’s remains were scattered about.

Only a single thigh bone was left which was reburied under a new monument in 1642. Alas for William, some years later during the French Revolution this too was destroyed.3

Is there a lesson to be learned from all this? Probably several, but one thing for sure: you will probably not think of William the Conqueror in quite the same way.

Secondly, it is probably not a good idea to become overly stout and ride your horse when hot coals are strewn about while gloating over your latest triumph.


*William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053. She bore him nine children.

**The Doomsday book is the oldest public record in England. It is remarkable because it was the first of its kind. Specifically, it delineated how much land and livestock was owned and what taxes had been liable under Edward, the Confessor. William died before it could be completed. It was called the Doomsday book because the information in it was irreversible which led people to compare it to the last judgment or Doomsday, hence the name. 4


1. Simkin, J. (2013) William the Conqueror. Retrieved on December 12, 2013 from

2. Plumtree, J. (2012) Stories of the Death of Kings: Retelling the Demise and Burial of William I, William II and Henry I, S. A. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 21 (2012 for 2011): 1-30. Retrieved on December 12, 2013 from

3. Stilo, A. (N.D.) Retrieved on December 12, 2013 from

4. The Doomsday Book Online (2013). Retrieved on December 12, 2013 from

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  1. Georgette Blanchard
    Georgette Blanchard12-21-2013

    Excellent as usual – history can be fascinating or boring… depending on how it is presented. And those who forget… though the new Prince William (future king William) is unlikely to repeat this history.

  2. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin12-21-2013

    Fun article, Ivan. And so true. Teaching and learning are the two sides of storytelling. Always have been.

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