Death of the Conqueror


In about 1080 Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy traveled to Dumferline for the christening of Princess Edith. The infant was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife, Margaret, who would later be canonized by the Catholic church. Standing as godmother, Matilda held the child during the ceremony and the infant reportedly amused herself by tugging on the veil of the Queen’s headdress until it gave way. Onlookers took this as a omen that the Princess would also one day be a queen, and they were correct: Two decades later Edith would marry Matilda’s son, Henry, and be crowned queen of England.

Within three years, Matilda was on her deathbed. She spent her last months at a priory in Caen, the illness from which she had suffered since the summer was apparently exacerbated by the death of one of her daughters. Her husband, William the Conqueror, heard her last confession before she died on November 2, 1083.

Matilda of Flanders

William was never quite the same; reportedly their marriage turned into a genuine love match and it’s believed that William never produced a bastard during the whole of their relationship. Without his wife’s moderating influence, however, the last years of his reign were marked by the distinct tinge of tyranny and he grew increasingly disheartened by his three sons – Robert, William and Henry – who were constantly fighting either themselves or their father for greater influence and autonomy.

Robert Curthose

At Christmas 1085 William commissioned what became known as the Domesday Book, a compilation of all his subjects and their holdings. Completed by the summer of 1086, it was likely meant to help levy taxes and ensure feudal organization. Within a few months of its completion, he left England to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Constance, to the duke of Brittany. While on the continent, upset that his eldest son, Robert, was aligned with his enemy, Philip I of France, he led a military campaign in Vexin, followed up with an expedition in Mantes during which he injured himself.

Philip I of France

William traveled to a priory in Rouen to convalesce, but soon realized that he was going to die. Still alienated from Robert, he called his second son, William, to his bedside and left England in his care – though, quite likely he never meant to unite England and Normandy into one empire. The younger William left Rouen for London on September 7/8, 1087, while on the 9th, the elder William died.

The succession was hard-won, but eventually settled as the Conqueror intended. William succeeded his father on the English throne, while Robert succeeded as duke of Normandy. Unsurprisingly, both brothers coveted what the other had, spurred by personal enmity and ambition, they spent the next decade or so attempting to invade the other. The younger brother, Henry, who had only been left money by his father, floated between them as it suited him. As for whether he had William assassinated in 1100 to take the English throne is anyone’s guess, but he succeeded his brother as king and quickly married the Scottish Princess Edith that autumn.


As for the Conqueror, his end was less than dignified. In his old age, William was overweight – so much so that he was once described as looking like a pregnant woman. Upset by his weight gain, he reportedly tried a diet where he only drank wine and spirits for half the week – unsurprisingly this did little to help. The result was that when monks went to bury him, they found they couldn’t get him to fit; attempting to force the issue, the King’s corpse literally burst. Eventually buried correctly, the body was left undisturbed until 1522 when the Pope ordered it open and then again in 1562 when it was tampered with during the French wars of religion. During the latter event, the bones were scattered and only one thigh bone was recovered. That was re-buried and given an elaborate monument until that was damaged during the French Revolution in 1790s.

A new memorial has been built where the last bone lays in the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen.

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