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The Bigger They Are …

“I’ve got gas.”

Fifteen short years from now will be the 1000thbirthday of William the Conqueror. Most of us know him as the Norman invader of England in 1066, a masterful figure of history.

Can you imagine the funeral of a man so compelling that, a millennium after his birth, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world history has heard of him?

No, I don’t believe you can.

Before we get to that, let me explain that William was a product of an affair between the Duke of Normandy and a woman named Herleva. He was initially called William the Bastard for that reason, but as time went on, I’m sure it took on a more modern meaning.

He was a cruel S.O.B. In one town, people hung up pelts as a way of ridiculing his maternal grandfather, a tanner. William had their hands and feet cut off. Needless to say, William maintained his rule by fear rather than any deep-rooted respect.

Also, he struggled with his weight, another motive for ridicule (behind his back, if you treasured your extremities). King Philip of France said he looked like a woman about to give birth.

His stomach hung over his saddle which, ironically, led to his death. While riding, he was thrown against the pommel of his saddle and his organs were ruptured. He died some weeks later.

While awaiting death, he tried to make amends for his many sins. Yet, at the end, all his “entourage,” be they relatives or friends, took off to protect their own interests. All his worldly goods were stolen, including his clothes. One lowly knight was left behind to transport his body to Caen where William was to be be interred.

There, after some Benedictines took responsibility for the body, a fire broke out. Most of the mourners left to extinguish it. A few monks were left to put his large corpse into a small casket. And that’s when it happened.

According to Orderic, a chronicler of the time, “the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd.” They don’t make incense strong enough for that.

After a veryfew words quickly spoken by those who’d courageously remained in the chapel, a man called out that William had stolen that very land from him years before and he refused to let the “Bastard” be buried there. The bishop had to shut him up with a payment of sixty shillings.

Over the centuries, William’s bones were stolen and only one thigh bone was returned. That last relic lies in his grave, covered by a stone slab. One epitaph reads, “He who was earlier a powerful king, and lord of many a land, he had nothing of any land but a seven-foot measure; and he who was at times clothed with gold and with jewels, he lay then covered over with earth.”

… the Harder They Fall


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