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Why Was William the Conqueror’s Funeral Such a Disaster?

William the Conqueror's funeral was a calamity of errors, from a body that barely fit the sarcophagus to a fire that broke out during the ceremony. This series of unfortunate events reflected the tumultuous era he lived in. Discover how these mishaps symbolize the end of an era and what they tell us about the fragility of power. What do you think this reveals about the time period?

During the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror fought hard to gain control of England, but who would have thought that his last attack would have been on the mourners at his funeral?

According to one account, William was a large man with a big belly, and in 1087, he was mortally wounded when he was thrown onto the pommel of his horse's saddle while fighting in northern France. The throw ruptured his internal organs so badly that there was no hope of saving him.

According to chroniclers, William the Conqueror's body was too bloated for its coffin and burst during the funeral.
According to chroniclers, William the Conqueror's body was too bloated for its coffin and burst during the funeral.

After his death, William's body lay in a room in Rouen. By the time it was to be placed into a stone sarcophagus, his corpse had become so bloated that it had to be forced. That was a mistake. According to the Benedictine monk Orderic Vitalis, "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." Needless to say, the rest of the funeral went quickly, and the mourners escaped as soon as they could.

The life of a conqueror:

  • William, the illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy and a woman known only as Herleva, was called "William the Bastard" for much of his life.

  • William had to fight for his life from a young age, including fleeing assassination attempts after the death of his father.

  • Despite ruling England for 20 years, William the Conqueror never learned English and spent much of his reign in France; French also became the language of the English court.

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    • According to chroniclers, William the Conqueror's body was too bloated for its coffin and burst during the funeral.
      According to chroniclers, William the Conqueror's body was too bloated for its coffin and burst during the funeral.