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

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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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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