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.

The Other Gettysburg Address You Probably Haven't Heard Of

Image Composite: Edward Everett (Wikimedia Commons), Background (Wikimedia Commons)
Image Composite: Edward Everett (Wikimedia Commons), Background (Wikimedia Commons)

The greatest speech in American history had a tough act to follow.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at the dedication of a new National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the president offered some brief remarks before a war-weary crowd of around 15,000 people, he modestly said, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Lincoln was only half right about that. Despite his humble prediction, the president's Gettysburg Address has shown remarkable staying power over the past 155 years. The unifying oration has been engraved onto monuments, memorized by countless schoolchildren, and painstakingly dissected by every Civil War historian under the sun. It has even achieved international fame: Across the Atlantic, language from the speech was woven into the current constitution of France.

But at that gathering in Gettysburg, President Lincoln wasn’t the primary speaker. His immortal words were merely the follow-up to another speech—one that was meticulously researched and, at least by some accounts, brilliantly delivered. It was a professional triumph for a scholar and statesman named Edward Everett who had been hailed as the finest orator in America. Yet history has all but forgotten it.

DISTINGUISHED IN ACADEMIA—AND POLITICS

Everett was born in Massachusetts on April 11, 1794, and he was exceptional even as a young man. The son of a minister, Everett was admitted to Harvard University at 13 and graduated at 17. After studying to be a minister himself, and briefly serving as one, Everett's alma mater offered him a spot on its faculty. The position allowed time abroad in Europe, and Everett spent some of those years studying at the University of Göttingen in modern Germany, where he became the first American to earn a Ph.D. (U.S. schools didn’t offer that type of degree at the time). When he returned from Europe, Everett took up his post at Harvard.

For many people, landing a spot on Harvard’s payroll would be the achievement of a lifetime. But after Everett started teaching in 1819, he quickly found himself longing for a career change. In 1825, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected as a conservative Whig, he served for a full decade before setting his sights on state politics. In 1835, Everett won the first of four one-year terms as the governor of Massachusetts. As governor, he revolutionized New England schools by spearheading the establishment of his state’s first board of education.

Like most politicians, Everett suffered his fair share of defeats. Due largely to his support of a controversial measure that limited alcohol sales, he was voted out of the governor’s mansion in 1839 (he lost by just one vote). But he soon got another shot at public service: In 1841, the John Tyler administration appointed Everett as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, a job that enabled him to play a major role in settling a Maine-New Brunswick border dispute that had created a great deal of tension between the two countries.

Academia beckoned once again in 1846, when Everett—after some coaxing—agreed to become the president of Harvard. Following his resignation in 1849, President Millard Fillmore appointed him Secretary of State. Everett subsequently bolstered his political resume with a one-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, resigning in 1854 after failing health caused him to miss a vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In the election of 1860, Everett found himself pitted against future president Abraham Lincoln. Without Everett's consent, the Constitutional Union Party—which favored ignoring the slavery issue to prevent a civil war—nominated him as its vice presidential candidate. The ex-Governor reluctantly accepted the nomination, believing that doing otherwise would cause too much damage to the ticket—but he flatly refused to campaign. Privately, he believed that the party had no chance, writing to a friend that June that his nomination was “of no great consequence; a mere ripple on the great wave of affairs.”

“A VOICE OF SUCH RICH TONES, SUCH PRECISE AND PERFECT UTTERANCE”

Something that was of great consequence, however, was Everett’s growing reputation as a first-rate public speaker. He'd taught Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard; in the budding philosopher’s words, Everett had “a voice of such rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance, that, although slightly nasal, it was the most mellow and beautiful, and correct of all the instruments of the time.” Everett's other celebrity fans included Thomas Jefferson, who praised a speech that Everett gave at Harvard on behalf of the visiting Marquis de Lafayette.

The American people grew well-acquainted with Everett’s oratory skills after he left the Senate. Once the war broke out, he started touring the northern states, making pro-Union speeches wherever he went. So when a Pennsylvania-led commission finished assembling a burial ground for the soldiers who’d fallen at Gettysburg, they naturally asked Edward Everett if he’d speak at the cemetery’s formal dedication in October 1863.

Everett received their official invite on September 23. His response was an enthusiastic yes, although he did request that the consecration date be pushed back to November 19 so he’d have time to research and gather his thoughts. The request was granted, and Everett got to work.

He began by going over every available account of the battle. From Union general George G. Meade’s staff, Everett received an official report on what had transpired. And when Robert E. Lee submitted his own account to the Richmond Inquirer, Everett went through it with a fine-toothed comb.

By November 11, Everett’s speech had begun to take shape. As a courtesy, he submitted an advance copy to another man who’d been asked to say a few words at Gettysburg: President Lincoln. The plan all along was for Everett to deliver a lengthy oration which would be followed by what one pamphlet described as “a few dedicatory remarks by the President of the United States.” Nobody expected the Commander-in-Chief to turn many heads with his brief comments. It was to be Everett’s show; Lincoln was an afterthought.

Everett traveled to Gettysburg on November 16, still constantly revising his notes. Since a large chunk of his speech would be dedicated to recounting the historic battle, he decided to familiarize himself with the terrain on which it was fought. Professor Michael Jacobs of Gettysburg College, an eyewitness to the battle, guided Everett through the hills and fields that surround the Pennsylvania town. Dead horses and soldiers still lay rotting where they’d fallen that summer. The whole town was polluted with their stench.

Lincoln arrived one night before he was to deliver his speech; both the president and Mr. Everett were given lodging at the home of event organizer David Wills. The next morning, the honored guests made their way towards the cemetery.

THE OTHER GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

The dedication began with some music, followed by a prayer that Reverend Thomas H. Stockton, a prominent anti-slavery cleric, delivered with trademark zeal. And then, Everett—his speech memorized in full—took the stage. Because the New Englander had weak kidneys, a tent had been placed behind the podium so that he might take a break and relieve himself during the speech if necessary.

“Standing beneath this serene sky,” he began, “overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and nature.”

From there, Everett drew parallels between the cemetery’s consecration at Gettysburg and the reverence with which the ancient Athenians buried their fallen soldiers. His speech was loaded with historical references: As the address unfolded, Everett mentioned everything from the War of Roses to the fall of ancient Rome. He also quoted such great thinkers as Pericles and David Hume. He provided a detailed, point-by-point retelling of the battle at Gettysburg, denouncing the Confederacy, condemning the continued practice of slavery, and urging the north to strengthen its resolve. Still, Everett held firm to the belief that reconciliation between the two sides might still be possible. “There is no bitterness on the part of the masses,” he proclaimed. “The bonds that unite us as one people … are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient. The heart of the people, north and south, is for the Union.”

When Everett’s address came to a close, he had spoken more than 13,000 words over the course of two hours. B.B. French, a musician who’d penned a hymn for the occasion, later wrote, “Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort.” The Philadelphia Age offered a more lukewarm review, stating “He gave us plenty of words, but no heart.” President Lincoln, however, loved the speech. In Everett’s diary, the orator remarks that when he stepped down, the president shook his hand “with great fervor and said, ‘I am more than gratified, I am grateful to you.’”

Those who remained in the audience were then treated to French’s hymn, as performed by the Baltimore Glee Club. And then, the president rose. Within three minutes, his speech of around 270 words (there’s some debate over its exact phrasing) was over and done with. According to one witness, “The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed. Had not Lincoln turned and moved towards his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally, there came applause.”

Everett knew a good speech when he heard one. One day after the consecration, he wrote to the president and asked for a copy of the little address. “I should be glad,” Everett wrote, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” James Speed, Attorney General from 1864 to 1866, would later recall that Lincoln treasured Everett’s kind words and said “he had never received a compliment he prized more highly.”

Lincoln was more than happy to offer up a copy of the speech—and to return the kind sentiments. “In our respective parts … you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one,” Lincoln told Everett. “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.

“Of course,” he added, “I knew Mr. Everett would not fail.”

Guess the Famous Person Who Was Afraid of Being Buried Alive

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