Stories of the Death of Kings: Retelling the Demise and Burial of William I, William II and Henry I

Stories of the Death of Kings: Retelling the Demise and Burial of William I, William II and Henry I

By James Plumtree

Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol.21 (2011 for 2012)

Abstract: This paper examines the accounts that describe the death and burial of three successive kings: William the Conqueror, William Rufus, and Henry I. The manner in which the monarch died, and the later treatment of his corpse, provided the opportunity for authors to critique the deceased’s reign and present their assessment of his legacy. The conflicting accounts show how authorial biases owing to theological affiliations shaped the expressed view, affecting which details were recorded and which were omitted, and how biblical, historical, and literary allusions were employed to shape historical events into a religious exemplum.

Introduction: In September 2012, an archaeological excavation in a car park in Leicester uncovered a fully articulated skeleton in the location believed to be the burial place of Richard III. Researchers announced that the skeleton ‘on initial examination, appear[ed] to have suffered significant peri-mortem trauma (near death injury) to the skull which appears consistent with (though certainly not caused by) an injury received in battle’, that ‘a bladed implement appear[ed] to have cleaved part of the rear of the skull’, and that a ‘barbed metal arrowhead was found between the vertebrae of the skeleton’s upper back’. If further scientific tests can confirm that the remains are those of the monarch killed at Bosworth, it will be possible to know exactly how Richard III met his end.

The deaths of the three kings in this article cannot be subjected to such research. We can surmise how the monarchs considered their own mortality. Two of the three monarchs were buried, at a distance from their place of death, in religious houses they had founded; ‘hardly’, as Stephen Church noted, ‘the acts of kings who saw their passing out of this world as unimportant’. Writing later than the kings in question, Abbot Suger, in his Vita Ludovici grossi regis, noting the success of his subject’s desire to be buried in Saint-Denis, quoted Lucan:

Happy the man who knows in advance the exact place where he will lie when the whole world totters into ruins.

Click here to read this article from

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email