Monday, August 27, 2012

What Conquers a Conqueror?

The White Tower (Tower of London)
Advance warning & disclaimer time! Fundamentally, I'm a historian of medicine. Its what I studied at university, and its something that runs deeper than even military history, so what I'm about to write is going to be gross, or downright lose-your-lunch disgusting. So if you're put off by gruesome stuff, or perhaps your sitting down for lunch or something while catching up on the blog-o-sphere, you may want to have a look at Dux's excellent Saga blog and come back once your meal has settled firmly.

Right, you've been warned!

I'm writing from sunny Kent, England. It's a lovely place and provides an excellent jumping point into London where I visited the Tower of London a few days back. While I was there I got to see the famous White Tower and feed my macabre historical interests, such as plague, torture, and the death of William the Conqueror.
The tower has three square turrets and one round. Centuries later,
the round one was used as England's first observatory. 
This tower was built under the order of William the Conqueror in 1066 shortly after he completed his conquest. He chose to build it on top of an old Roman site in London against the Thames. It has classic Norman architecture; its big, square, and has four turrets-one on each corner. The nobility lived on the top floor, the knights on the second, and the retainers on the third. The basement was used for storage, but of course it was later retasked as a torture chamber. Work on the tower started in 1078 and was completed around 1100, though William would not live to see its completion. So what conquered the conqueror?

William is something of a legendary character, and one that we all know well for his achievements at Hastings in 1066. Saga rightly sees this conquest as a seminal event, representing the game's historic tuning point. However, William's achievements span his lifetime and are really interesting stories unto themselves. But what I was interested in was how was this great man finally brought down?

Not of Norman origin, but still scary looking!
The story goes that William grew obese after the conquest, but it didn't slow down his blood-thirsty side, as he carried on the subjugation of his kingdom, fought with his estranged son (Robert), and battled with the French king with his allies from Brittany.

The king always fought personally in his battles as he was a sort of hands-on warrior-king. In fact, in 1087 William was on campaign against his son, Robert, and the French king in France when he captured and sacked the town of Mantes. During the pillage William's horse was spooked by a sudden raging fire and reared up. William came down hard on the iron of his saddle and was severely injured. His army paused its advance as the king was rushed to Rouen to seek help, both spiritual and medial, from the local church there. The friars found that he was pissing blood, and forecast the king's imminent death. William got his affairs in order and then died 10 days later on 9 September 1087.

William I
So what happened? Eye witnesses and historians have agreed for centuries that William's obesity contributed to his death. When he hit the iron of his saddle, it burst his gut and inflicted a mortal wound. However, recent research into the symptoms and a study done by medical professionals, including the notable Clifford Brewer, a surgeon, say this was unlikely the case as he simply took too long to die.

The fact that he was a fully mobile and active king on the battlefield (propaganda notwithstanding) and the fact that he took 10 days to 'pop his clogs' (as my Kiwi friends put it), suggest a much more painful end (if that's possible). The iron most likely smashed in his urethra, which infected the region, and soon became necrotic and gangrenous. Left untreated properly, death was guaranteed within 10-20 days.

So there you have it: one of the greatest conquerors of all time, brought down by a kick to the privates. Think of William the next time you play a good ol' game of Roshambo.

William's grave. After an angry peasant rebellion
centuries later, the king's bones were scattered.
All that remains that can be positively identified
is one of his thighbones, which lies in the grave above.
But wait, that's not all...

Brewer believes that William's obesity wasn't that at all, but rather an intestinal obstruction. Such afflictions have the tendency to make a person look quite fat, but the swelling is entirely due to that and is not actual body fat.

The swelling carried on after William's death to such a point that they couldn't fit the body into the coffin during his funeral. As they forced him into the small box, the body exploded inside the church. Fleshy bits of the conqueror were strewn about and the vile stench of the intestinal obstruction filled the room. The service was quickly conducted and then some poor bastards had the job of scooping up the conqueror and putting all of his bits into the coffin, which he now fit into with no problems.

Cool, eh? Told you not to eat 'n read...

We're off to see the battlefield of Hastings in a couple of days, so I'll take some pictures and bang out another article sometime soon (time permitting!). In the meantime, try not to kick anyone in the nuts. It might actually be the death of them!

Regards from Kent,

PS: Brewer's book is quite interesting. Here's more information if you are interested in reading more:
The Death of Kings: A Medical History of the Kings and Queens of England

Top Posts Within 30 Days

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...