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William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror, the Norman hero of 1066 was so fat at his death that his body burst at his funeral!

He is most well known, of course, for conquering England in 1066. A notable achievement, no doubt, and a catchy nickname to boot! Here's what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say about his death:

William died at daybreak on September 9, in his 60th year, and was buried in rather unseemly fashion in St. Stephen's Church, which he had built at Caen.

OK. What's unseemly? Is there something they're not telling us? Don't your ears perk up when you hear this? Now listen to what The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain has to say about it:

On 9 September 1087, William I died. His body was carried to his great church of St. Stephen at Caen. Towards the end of his life he had grown very fat, and when the attendants tried to force the body into the stone sarcophagus, it burst, filling the church with a foul smell. It was an unfortunate ending to the career of an unusually fortunate and competent king.

Alright, now we're talking! In fact, after reading this account, one of our visitors, George O. Huber, in a remarkable display of one-upsmanship, found an even more detailed description of the unusual funeral. From Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody by C. Panati:

From postmortem decay the abscess had turgidly putrefied, bloating the corpse and expanding its girth. A group of bishops applied pressure on the king's abdomen to force the body downward (in the coffin) but it moved only inches; the lid still would not shut. Again they pushed, and the abdominal wall, already under intense internal pressure, burst. Pus and putrefaction drenched the king's death garb and seeped throughout the coffin. The stench so overpowered chapel mourners that, hands to noses, many raced for the doors ...

Perhaps a little more than we needed to know, but, there it is. While still on the topic of William, we should note that his coronation was in the still brand spankin' new (in 1066!) Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. According, again, to the Oxford Illustrated History of Britain:

The shouts of acclamation -- in English as well as in French -- alarmed the Norman guards stationed outside the abbey. Believing that inside the church something had gone horribly wrong, they set fire to the neighbouring houses. Half a century later, a Norman monk recalled the chaos of that day. 'As the fire spread rapidly, the people in the church were thrown into confusion and crowds of them rushed outside, some to fight the flames, others to take the chance to go looting.

Why's it called the Dark Ages? Sounds like there was lots of excitement to me. I just wouldn't want to be the king. Those are some poor quality guards; and hardly the show of pomp and power you want at a coronation.

Further Reading

Read from a fascinating 19th century source about William and his conquering companions.


  1. Kenneth O. Morgan(ed.). The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. Charles Panati. The Browser's Book of Endings : The End of Practically Everything and Everybody. Penguin USA, 1999.

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