Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Dead King Watch: William the Bastard

William I (1027-1087) was a bastard and also known as William the Conqueror, after the Norman Conquests. He died on 9th September 1087, which I reckon made yesterday the 918th anniversary of his death. He took ten days to die, after he fell off his horse while pillaging Mantes and suffered a ruptured urethra. Clifford Brewer in The Death of Kings notes that 'taking so long to die, William had adequate time to think about what should be done for the Anglo-Norman state which he had created with so much trouble. The writer Ordericus Vitalis gave a plausible account of the dying King, concerned with two matters: his own salvation and the future of his two domains. Of himself he confessed that he had been too fond of war and his life was "stained with rivers of blood". He attempted to excuse his actions as self defence, but admitted: "I am prey to cruel fears and anxieties when I reflect with what barbarities they were accompanied."'

Perhaps it was then fitting that after he actually died, his body was left naked on the floor by his followers who fled taking all his belongings fearing all hell would now be unleashed. By the time he came to be put in a coffin, his body was so bloated and fat that they could not get him in. 'Those who tried to force him in did so with the greatest difficulty, but to add to the horror, the body burst open and filled the church with such a stench of fearful corruption that the service was concluded with great haste.'

His reign did have one unforeseen consequence, as described in a wonderful essay by Christopher Hill. William's bloody reign meant that, among the poor and powerless of England, a myth of the 'Norman Yoke' arose, whereby all Kings of England after William the Conqueror (who was actually the Duke of Normandy before invading England) were illegitimate as their power came from this French warmongering 'bastard'. This folk tale portrayed England before William as a lost paradise, that could be regained if only the rightful 'English' King was restored to power. The myth of the Norman Yoke therefore - among other things - helped ideologically strengthen peasant revolts after William's time.



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