The British King Whose Corpse Exploded During His Funeral

Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

by Alex Carter

William the Conquerer was an unlikely king who reigned brutally and met an equally brutal end.

Born out of wedlock circa 1028 to Robert I, the Duke of Normandy, and Herleva, who is traditionally described as a tanner’s daughter, he was commonly referred to as William the Bastard in his youth. When he was 8, William's father died, and William inherited his titles. His father's death threw Normandy into a civil war, and William's childhood was marked by brutality—which he seemed to embrace as he got older and ruled over the duchy. According to the BBC, he defeated a rebellion led by his cousin and punished the rebels by lobbing off their hands and feet. In 1066, when England's King Edward named another man his successor after supposedly promising the throne to William, the man who would be conquerer traveled from France to forcibly take the throne. Winning a victory at the bloody battle of Hastings, William was crowned king on Christmas.

Though William instituted constitutional and social reforms, forged close ties with France, and ended Viking influence in England during his reign, he was also a tyrant. In 1069, he began what would become known as The Harrying of the North—a campaign of putting down rebellions by burning villages and crops and slaughtering herd animals and even villagers. Those who survived were desperate (they reportedly resorted to cannibalism) and many starved to death.

William, however, ate like the king he was, growing fatter as he got older. In 1087, his girth would ultimately prove to be his downfall: While campaigning against his son Robert in France, William was injured when his horse unexpectedly reared up, thrusting the saddle into his abdomen with such force that it punctured his intestines.

The mortally wounded king journeyed to Rouen, where he spent six agonizing weeks dying with knights, noblemen, and clergy by his side. According to Orderic Vitalis's Historia Ecclesiastica, the king eventually confessed that what he had done during his reign was terrible:

"I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire. ... In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people."

He instructed that his wealth be given to churches and the poor, "so that what I amassed through evil deeds may be assigned to the holy uses of good men."

(Modern historians, however, doubt this speech ever passed William's lips. As David Bates writes in his book William the Conquerer, "[Orderic] has William express regret for the terrible bloodshed (multa effusione humani cruoris) as a part of his deathbed confession. Although the speech is, as far as we know, entirely Orderic’s invention and an idealized version of what he thought ought to have happened, what he was certainly saying is that he believed William made a good end, as also did Eadmer and William of Malmesbury.")

On September 9, William finally died, and the noblemen and knights who had surrounded him during his last days fled. "The lesser attendants, seeing that their superiors had absconded, 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," Orderic wrote. They left him, Oderic wrote, "as if he had been a barbarian."

This was a problem—no one who had attended the king in his life was there to make sure he was actually buried. Enter Herluin, a knight, who "was induced by his natural goodness to undertake the charge of the funeral, for the love of God and the honor of his country," Oderic wrote. "He therefore procured at his own expense persons to embalm and carry the body; and hiring a hearse, he caused it to be carried to the port on the Seine; and embarking it on board a vessel, conducted it by water and land to Caen.”

This trip, around 70 miles, likely took quite some time. As the corpse slowly made its way to Caen, the bacteria in the late King's gut leaked out into the rest of his body, decomposing the tissue at a frightening rate and filling the late king with putrid gas.

After the body arrived in Caen, the funeral was delayed by a fire that broke out in the city; many of the mourners ran to extinguish the flames. Then, during his funeral, the mourning party (including future King of England Henry) was accosted by a man claiming that the land the king wished to be buried in was actually his and that his family had been robbed of it so that the church could be built. The funeral turned into a lengthy legal meeting, and the heckler was ultimately compensated.

The delay had disastrous consequences: It caused the late king to inflate to enormous proportions in the heat. While trying to lower William into his final resting tomb, the king's corpse would not fit, and eventually, according to Orderic, his "swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." Nothing could cover the stench, and the funeral was hurriedly finished.

After that indignity, William didn't exactly rest in peace: His grave was disturbed three times, once on the orders of Rome (when he was reinterred), once at the hands of Calvinists, and then during the French Revolution. His bones were scattered, with the exception of a thigh bone; today, the final resting place of that bone is marked with a slab of stone.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.