Monday, October 31, 2011

Medieval and Renaissance vampirism: graves of the past, blood of the present

In 2006, archeologists excavating a mass grave of sixteenth-century plague victims came across a striking skeleton.  Its jaws were pried open, and a brick was inserted into the mouth.  The team insisted they had chanced upon a so-called “deviant burial” – the intentional manipulation of a corpse to punish or to prevent it from engaging in post-mortem haunting.  Intriguingly, this was not the first European skull to have been altered in such a way.  Last week, archaeologists in Ireland revealed their findings: two male skeletons dating to the eighth century who had black stones shoved into their mouths.[1] 

Venetian "vampire" skull, c. 16th century

Both teams extrapolated the obstruction of these skeletons’ mouths as evidence of a form of revenant insurance, preventing these so-called “shroud eaters” or “chewing dead” from causing further death, infection, or destruction to the living and the dead, since it was believed these vampires would initially chew through their own shrouds, then through their digits before moving on to other corpses or the living.[2]  The skeletons are a testament to a pervasive human fear of being consumed by the dead. 

John Collier's Lilith

One of the earliest allusions to human-like creatures who prey upon humans surfaced in Sumerian mythology, in ki-sikil-lil-la-ke, or Lilith, the figure of a female goddess or demon who did not have benign motives when it came to humanity.  Allusions to Lilith in the Old Testament proper surface only once, in Isaiah 34: 13-16, where her name translates to night owl or screech owl:

And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate. Seek ye out of the book of the LORD, and read: no one of these shall fail, none shall want her mate: for my mouth it hath commanded, and his spirit it hath gathered them.”

The Jewish tradition adapted this myth of a female demon in an eighth-century A.D. apocryphal tale of Adam’s first wife, who refused to submit to her husband either domestically and/or sexually and struck out on her own.  Her disobedience cursed her, and when she went on to mate with the angel Samael, she gave birth to demons she could not suckle.  This incarnation of Lilith as succubus, a proto-vampire, developed under what Carl Jung would have called the “collective unconscious,” at the precise moment that the early Irish thrust stones into the mouths of two of their dead. 

Once haunting the medieval mind, the vampire continued to prey on it through the Renaissance.  The Lilith myth expanded, and she was suspected of preying not just upon men and causing nocturnal emissions, but also of causing deaths during pregnancies. 

Max Schreck as Nosferatu, 1922

Though etymology of the word vampire is under some debate, it can at the very least be traced to 1047, appearing as the word “Upir’” in a Russian text.  The hills and mountains of Russia and of Eastern Europe were a breeding ground for tales of medieval and Renaissance vampirism.  The legends of Vlad the Impaler and Erszébet Báthory (1431-76; 1560-1614 – links below) greatly contributed to the vampire mythos, Vlad Dracula inspiring the titular character of Bram Stoker’s novel.[3]

First edition of Dracula, 1897

St. Michan's Church remains

Though printed in the Victorian age, Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel is the culmination of centuries of medieval and Renaissance myths about the vampire – particularly the confusion about the natural processes occurring during decay.  Countless books and articles have been written about Stoker’s process and influences, about cholera outbreaks in Dublin, the influence of Vlad Dracula’s history, and the possibility of his childhood exposure to bones semi-interred at a nearby church crypt. 

These theories are secondary to what Stoker does present readers with in Dracula: the Victorian continuation of medieval and Renaissance vampire mythos and its relationship with what we today understand from forensic science.  In the novel, Stoker describes the Count’s horrifying crypt, as exposed by Jonathan Harker:

“I knew I must reach the body for the key, so I raised the lid, and laid it back against the wall. And then I saw something which filled my very soul with horror. There lay the Count, but looking as if his youth had been half restored. For the white hair and moustache were changed to dark irongrey. The cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath. The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion…” [4]

In a later scene, while Lucy lies on her deathbed after being attacked by Dracula, Stoker writes,

“She was ghastly, chalkily pale. The red seemed to have gone even from her lips and gums, and the bones of her face stood out prominently… There on the bed, seemingly in a swoon, lay poor Lucy, more horribly white and wan-looking than ever. Even the lips were white, and the gums seemed to have shrunken back from the teeth, as we sometimes see in a corpse after a prolonged illness.”[5]

Liver mortis, with coagulated blood pooling

Both scenes are resplendent with descriptions of the natural decomposition process – a process Victorians understood about as well as people living during the Middle Ages.  Stoker’s description of the blood-sated Count as “gorged with blood,” for instance, is a common observation of an exposed “vampire.”  This event, however, is a stage of liver mortis, where coagulating blood tends to settle in areas of the body, making it appear ruddy.  Additionally, the fear that a corpse was feasting on human prey and could appear plump after death is another decomposition process caused by gases excreted by the bacteria aiding in decay. 

The description of “gouts of fresh blood” along Dracula’s lips was also considered evidence of vampirism in a corpse.  If a vampire were staked, medieval and Renaissance witnesses even testified that fresh blood would ooze from the mouth and nose.  Modern science can explain this post-mortem reaction through blood hydraulics.  Even after death, the body continues to remain active, with bacteria aiding the decomposition process.  As the body decomposes, it becomes more liquefied; the runoff from the orifices is called purge fluid.  An example of this process appears in the image below; please be advised that it is for mature readers:

Stoker’s description does appear to have some connection with notorious diseases of the age, including cholera and tuberculosis (consumption), but the connection of Lucy’s appearance to that of “a corpse after a prolonged illness” is also telling.  Specifically, Lucy’s gums and exposed teeth are identical to many medieval and Renaissance testimonies about the vampire’s “fangs.”  Again, modern forensics helps to dispel the superstition.  As a corpse passes through the liquid stage and begins to desiccate, the lips and gums recede, exposing the teeth.  This stage is fairly prominent in many Victorian death photos. 

Another sign of vampirism – the fresh appearance of a corpse – can be explained only by varying rates of decay.  In colder European climes such as the mountains of Romania, a corpse buried in the winter would essentially be frozen for several months.  Disinterred, it would likely appear to be almost uncorrupted.  This explanation obviously would not rule out every vampire case, but it does help to explain how frozen, infertile soil could breed so many vampires.

Modern pathology studies have attempted to explain vampirism as the result of several diseases, including sexual deviancy (as in the Báthory case), rabies, porphyria, tuberculosis, or pellagra. These theories are largely insufficient since they only describe side effects that mimic vampire behavior, including sensitivity to sunlight or strong smells. What all vampire stories have in common – whether “true” testimonies or Stoker’s tale – is post-mortem descriptions or decay. 

Antoine Weirtz, The Premature Burial

Two other vampire signifiers that so troubled denizens of the medieval ages to the Victorian age were live burials and the absence of a corpse that had clearly been buried.  If a patient in these periods were to go into a coma or suffer from an illness that caused a weak or fluctuating pulse, there were no reliable indicators to show signs of life.  There remained a lingering fear that one might be buried alive.  Victorians were obsessed with this idea – indeed, Edgar Allen Poe set it to type in his “Fall of the House of Usher” – and even developed a bell that was tied to a rope within a coffin, so that a revived person would be able to signal for help.

Bell and coffin device

Especially troubling for men and women of these earlier ages was the missing corpse.  During the medieval era and Renaissance, bodies could not always be buried at the depths of modern ages.  The likelihood of animals digging up a corpse and dragging it away was high.  Likewise, the Victorian age had its own fears of corpses disappearing – or indeed, even being turned into a corpse before one’s time – due to body snatching or “burking.”  Named for William Burke, burking was the intentional compression of a victim until he or she died of suffocation.  Burke and his partner, William Hale, were convicted of seventeen murders-for-the purpose of selling corpses for anatomical research; they were executed in 1829.

The Execution of William Burke, 1829

As recently as 1929, occultist Montague Summers insisted that vampires were real.  This insistence stood in the face of two hundred years of papal denial of the existence of the creatures and stood on the cusp of modern forensics and observation of death, something Europe observed all-too-often in the upheaval of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution.  Although modern science can account for much of what earlier ages observed as vampirism, we remain captivated by the idea of this blood-sucking monster of the night.

Medieval-csi values your input. Weigh in on the comments section.

Next time: On the margins: leprosy 

[2] In the interests of following the scientific method, it should be noted that the female skeleton excavated from a Venetian cemetery holding tens of thousands of skeletons from two plague outbreaks, with 40,000 skeletons from the second outbreak covering her remains.  Though this theory of early modern vampirism has been promoted by the National Geographic channel, I question the hasty assumption that one single skeleton out of tens of thousands was accused of vampirism.  Due to the age of the woman at death – around 70, according to the archeological team – there is a possibility that she was marked not for vampirism, but for spreading disease prior to her death or for being a gossip, since women were punished for such offenses with attacks on their mouths or jaws.  In the case of the two eighth-century Irish skeletons, the case is stronger since the two skeletons buried together have been meted out with the same post-mortem “punishment.”
[4] See Stoker’s Dracula, C. 4
[5] Ibid, C.10

Sunday, October 23, 2011

‘I am Master’: Vlad the Impaler and the Medieval Origins of the Dracula Myth

When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, the vampire myth captivated the Victorian age.  Although man was living in a post-Enlightenment, Edison age, the countrysides of Europe were still pitch black when the sun went down.  The glow of a candle only extended about the length of one’s arm – not a comfortable distance if one hoped to keep monsters at bay.  In the dark beyond were all manner of unholy creatures, including the terrifying vampyr of eastern Europe.

Stoker’s titular character hailed from the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, Romania.  To the English reading audience, the Count’s background would make sense.  Eastern Europe was considered both exotic and very backwards, the sort of environment that could be a breeding ground for a blood-sucking ghoul. 

Although Stoker does not delve too deeply into Dracula’s history, works he was reading during the composition of his narrative suggest that he was familiar with and drew from the history of Vlad III, from the house Drăculeşti.  Born in 1431 in Transylvania, Vlad’s legacy for cruelty – particularly impalement of his victims – lead to a rapid shift of his post-mortem legacy, from Christian hero to bloodthirsty demon.  The patronymic Dracula means dragon; the Romanian word drac today has come to mean devil because of Vlad. 

Vlad was born into a noble family during a volatile period of Romanian history.  Internal divisiveness lead to political instability and civil wars. Bordering what was then the Ottoman empire, the areas of Romania and Hungary were also constantly engaged in skirmishes with the Muslim Turks.  When Vlad II, Vlad’s father, ascended the throne, he was supported by the Ottoman empire.  In return, he had to send young Vlad and his brother Radu to the Turkish sultan’s court as hostages.[1] 

Life as a hostage in a rival’s court was a precarious situation indeed.  In May of 1441, while Vlad was at the Sultan’s court in Constantinople, two Serbian princes – also hostages – were blinded with a hot iron poker for engaging in treasonous correspondence with their own father.  And while Vlad’s brother Radu thrived at the sultan’s court, converting to Islam and becoming a courtier of the prince, Vlad was notoriously difficult and was whipped often.  Some historians attribute Vlad’s later cruelty toward his Ottoman captives as a consequence of his time in Constantinople. 

Oldest known portrait of Vlad Dracula

In 1447, internal strife again threatened Vlad II’s reign.  He was killed during a battle along with Vlad’s eldest brother Mircea, the heir to the throne.  Mircea was blinded and buried alive, face down.  Vlad III fled and would not reclaim the throne until 1456.  Upon his ascension, the new ruler had Romanian boyars, or nobles, killed because he did not trust their wavering loyalties.  He also seemed to put most faith in himself alone, saying, “Here I am noble; I am the boyar; the common people know me, and I am master.”[2]

Ducats from Vlad III's reign

Bolstered by Pope Pius II’s 1459 call for a renewed crusade against Islam, Vlad III took advantage of the pope’s edict and instigated war with Mehmet II, the Sultan his brother Radu now served.  According to one story, Vlad had Mehmet’s envoys to his court killed by nailing their turbans to their skulls after they allegedly forgot or refused to remove them in his presence.  When the friction between Vlad and Mehmet escalated, numerous battles broke out.  If Vlad were successful, he dealt with his captives sadistically, often having them impaled on pikes, earning him the name Vlad the Impaler.  The Italian states, the papacy, and Christians saw Vlad’s campaigns as Christian victories and celebrated him as a crusader. 

In 1462, Vlad’s brother Radu lead a successful campaign against his brother and had Vlad imprisoned.  When Radu died in 1475, Vlad reclaimed the throne, but only briefly, assassinated only two months after his coronation.  His head was taken to Constantinople as a trophy, his body remaining behind in Transylvania. 

In less than one hundred years of his death, Vlad’s reputation transformed from crusader to monster.  In fact, his reputation for cruelty – the “Ţepeş” added to his name in 1550 meant Impaler – didn’t trouble the Saxon states until his brother Radu claimed the throne.  Under Radu’s reign, Vlad was denounced for his cruelty, claiming that Vlad had 20,000 impaled corpses surrounding his castle.

Targoviste Chindei tower, from which Vlad watch victims being impaled

Much of the anti-Vlad propaganda originated in Germany.  One German broadsheet aligned Vlad’s cruelty with notorious historical figures, claiming that “he caused many other sufferings and such great pain and tortures as all the bloodthirsty persecutors of Christendom, such as Herod, Nero, Diocletian, and other pagans, had never thought up or made such martyrs as did this bloodthirsty berserker.”[3]

Vlad as a Roman proconsul overseeing the crucifixion of St. Andrew

Vlad as Pontius Pilate

Another German pamphlet reads like a gruesome supermarket tabloid, promising readers, “The shocking story of a MONSTER and BESERKER called Dracula who committed such unchristian deeds as killing men by placing them on stakes, hacking them to pieces like cabbage, boiling mothers and children alive and compelling men to acts of cannibalism.”[4]  These accounts are likely exaggerated, but historians agree that Vlad seemed to enjoy brutality, employing a variety of torments, including strangulation, impalement, boiling, flaying, exposure, hot irons, breaking on the wheel.  Medieval accounts vary wildly, but most historians estimate his victims from the tens of thousands up into the hundreds of thousands.

German woodcut of Vlad tormenting victims

Two allegations about Vlad’s sadistic tendencies have contributed to the metamorphosis of the Transylvanian prince into legendary monster: his treatment of women and accusations of cannibalism.  The German anecdotes have numerous allusions to Vlad cutting off women’s breasts or having hot-iron pokers thrust into their genitals.  In another tale, Dracula had his mistress slit open from her genital organs to her breasts when she teased that she was pregnant with his child.  “Let the world see where I have been,” the murderer was alleged to have said when his lover was cut open.[5]  According to some historians, Vlad’s cruel torments of women, particularly his attacks on their sex are indicative of sexual sadism, and this theory likely contributed to the idea of a monster preying largely on women – as is the case is Stoker’s Dracula.  

German woodcut portait of Vlad in Romanian dress

The charges of forced cannibalism – where Dracula would have a victim boiled or roasted and then fed to other prisoners – also contribute to his legacy as a bloodsucker.  One medieval German source even accused him of engaging in the taboo act himself, writing that the prince dipped his bread into blood, “which technically makes him a living vampire – a reference that may have induced Stoker to make use of the term.”[6]

Vlad’s legacy was greatly exaggerated after his death, with the Germans focusing upon his cruelty, the Russians positioning him as a Machiavellian ruler who was cruel when necessary, and the Romanians embracing him as a national hero, a statue of Vlad today gracing the entrance to the national tourism office in Romania.  

Snagov monastery, site of Vlad's tomb

One final mystery certainly adds to the Dracula mystique.  After his death, Vlad’s headless body was said to have been interred in nearby Snagov monastery, which is only accessible by water.  When the tomb was excavated in 1933, it was empty.

Medieval-csi values your input. Weigh in on the comments section.

Next week: The forensics of medieval vampirism

[1] Child hostages were the norm across medieval Europe and the Ottoman empire.  You can read about English history and the often dangerous use of children as pawns in political strife here at medieval-csi at
[2] See Florescu, Radu and McNally, Raymond T.  Dracula: Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times.  (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1989): 9.   
[3] See McNally, Raymond T and Florescu, Radu.  In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires Completely Revisited.  (New York: Houghton and Mifflin): 1994.
[4] Ibid, 84.  
[5] See Florescu, Radu and McNally, Raymond T.  Dracula, 107.  
[6] McNally, Raymond T and Florescu, Radu.  In Search of Dracula, 85.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Death by lamprey!

In Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (History of the English People), a contemporary account of the court of Henry I, Huntingdon never implicates Henry I in his brother William’s death. As a medieval archdeacon writing under the auspices of Alexander of Lincoln, however, Huntingdon frequently explains traumatic events such as William’s death in the woods as the result of divine providence. According to Huntingdon, William II’s dishonesty with respect to money bequeathed to Henry by their father William the Conqueror was “very displeasing to God,” who only “deferred vengeance for a time.”[1] Huntingdon accuses William’s court of promoting “debauchery” – in this instance, the intimation is homosexuality – and that ultimately, the king “was rightly cut off in the midst of his injustices…he was more evil to his people than any man, and most evil to himself… .”[2] To the medieval priest who saw omens in comets, blood bubbling from the ground, and natural disasters as God’s vengeful hand, the untimely death of King William was the result of the monarch’s sins.

Henry, enthroned

Under Huntingdon’s quill, Henry’s I legacy as king is not much better than that of his brother's. Both the Historia Anglorum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recount several stories about Henry I’s ruthlessness – even with his own family.  In one instance, Henry’s son-in-law Eustace, married to one of the king's illegitimate daughters Juliane, exchanged children with a constable Ralph Harnec. Though the idea seems appalling to the modern reader, medieval families often surrendered children or family members as hostages, ensuring that neither party would break a treaty for fear their children would be slain. When Eustace inexplicably had Harnec’s children blinded, Ralph appealed to the king. Henry commanded that Eustace and Juliane’s girls – his own grandchildren – also be blinded. When Henry showed up at his daughter’s residence, she met her father and threatened to kill him with a crossbow.

Actions such as these meant Henry's subjects feared him as a harsh ruler. In 1125, England was in the midst of a financial crisis; grain prices elevated sharply. Huntingdon recounts Henry’s response to the economic problem almost gleefully: “It is rewarding to hear how severely the king was towards wicked men. For he had almost all the moneyers throughout England castrated and their right hands cut off for secretly debasing the coinage. This year was the most expensive of all in our times, when a horse’s load of corn was sold for 6s.”[3] 

While Huntingdon admires Henry’s political maneuverings – including his wars with France – he accuses the king of three vices, “excessive greed…cruelty…debauchery.” In this instance, however, the chronicler is not implicating the king in sodomy, but rather, adultery, “Since he was at all times subject to the power of women, after the manner of King Solomon.”[4] In sum, Henry had some twenty to twenty one illegitimate children and two legitimate children. The legitimate male heir, also named William, should have been king, but his death in 1120 in the White Ship incident – a drowning at sea, left the country without a legitimate successor. In this matter, Huntingdon again weighs in with divine justice, placing the blame not on the drunken helmsman who hit rocks, but on the passengers: “All of them, or nearly all, were said to be tainted with sodomy and they were snared and caught. Behold the glittering vengeance of God!  They perished and almost all of them had no burial. And so death suddenly drowned those who had deserve it, although the sea was very calm and there was no wind.”[5]

William, son of Henry I, lost at sea (la mer)

Bereft of his son, Henry tried to have his only surviving legitimate child, Matilda, pronounced rightful heir to the throne. As a members of a male-dominated society, the English barons refused a woman on the throne. Inheritance was the financial backbone of medieval economic society; the problem of succession led to even more family problems for the aging king. In 1135, Henry stayed with his daughter Matilda and her second husband, the Count of Anjou, in Normandy. The visit, according to Huntingdon, was less than genial “due to the machinations of none other than the king’s daughter.”[6]

                                              Matilda, daughter of Henry I

At some time during his sojourn in Normandy, Henry dined on one of his favorite meals, a “surfeit of eels,” in Huntingdon’s words.[7]  The “eel” here is a lamprey, a bottom-dwelling parasitic fish. Henry apparently gorged on them and died December 1, 1135. 

                     Lampreys, favorite meal of Henry I and potential cause of his death

Huntingdon has an extraordinarily detailed account of Henry’s corpse, transcribed here in its entirety:

“Meanwhile, the body of King Henry was still unburied in Normandy. He had died on the first day of December [in 1135]. His body was brought to Rouen, and there his entrails, brains, and eyes were buried together. The remainder of the corpse was cut all round with knives, sprinkled with a great deal of salt, and wrapped in oxhides to stop the strong, pervasive stench, which was already causing the death of those who watched over it. It even killed the man who had been hired for a great sum of money to cut off the head with an axe and extract the stinking brain, although he had wrapped himself in linen cloths around the head: so he got no benefit from his fee. He was the last of many whom King Henry put to death…

“They took the royal corpse to Caen, and it lay there for a time in the church in which his father had been buried. Although it had been filled with salt and wrapped in many hides, a fearful black fluid ran down continuously, leaking through the hides, and was collected in vessels beneath the bier and cast away by attendants who grew faint with dread. See, then, whoever you are reading this, how the corpse of a most mighty king, whose crowned head had sparkled with gold and the finest jewels, like the splendor of God, whose hands had shone with sceptres, while the rest of his body had been dressed in gorgeous cloths of gold, and his mouth always fed on the most delicious and choice foods, for whom everyone would rise to their feet, whom everyone feared, with whom everyone rejoiced, and whom everyone admired: see what that body became, how fearfully it melted away, how wretchedly cast down it was! See, I say, the outcome of events, upon which final judgment always depends. And learn to hold in contempt whatever comes to such an end, whatever is reduced to nothing in this way.”[8] 

While Huntingdon again attributes the state of decay to Henry’s sinfulness, even concluding his thoughts on the dead king by saying he was “at all times dedicated to cupidity and avarice,” modern pathology provides insight into this nearly-millennium old text. In fact, the stages Huntingdon describes here closely follow the five stages of decay, known as the fresh stage, putrefaction, black putrefaction, butyric fermentation, and dry decay, although Henry’s body was interred after December 25 of 1135. The cold, wet temperatures of the Norman winter, the oxhide shroud, and the cold stone bier would have prolonged stages two and three, especially the putrefaction, the stage of rot that includes the “fearful black fluid” Huntingdon describes as leaking from the oxhide shroud. 

Animal decay begins in the abdominal cavity, with bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract forming post-mortem growth. The king’s sickness, and the presence of a fever due to the feast of lampreys, would have certainly encouraged bacterial growth. Once this stage began, the resulting darkening of the king’s skin, the liquefaction of his tissues and organs, and the strong stench of death that overpowered the attendants all make scientific sense.  What Huntingdon describes here – but does not understand – is the natural post-mortem condition.

                                      Henry's tomb, Reading Abbey, Berkshire

Unable to comprehend these events, Huntingdon blames the king’s death state as indicative of his sinful life. When the king’s nephew Stephen seized the throne in 1135, thrusting the country into a period of civil war known as “the Anarchy,” the medieval chronicler and archdeacon only grew more despondent about the sins that seemed to follow William the Conqueror’s line, revising the Historia Anglorum with a hexameter titled “On Contempt for the World.” 

Sin or science? Medieval-csi values your input. Weigh in on the comments section.

Next week: Medieval vampires

[1] Henry of Huntingdon.  History of the English People 1000-1154.  Trans. Diane Greenway. London: Penguin, 1996, 2002: 33.
[2] Ibid, 48.
[3] Ibid, 58. 
[4] Ibid, 65. 
[5] Ibid, 56.   It should be noted here that there were female passengers, including William’s wife, about the ship and that sodomy did not just refer to male-male intercourse. 
[6] Ibid, 64.
[7] Huntingdon is the first to make mention of the death by eels, but this is unsurprising since he had firsthand testimony from the court to make such a claim.  Geoffrey of Monmouth, who composed his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) during Henry’s reign, makes no mention of Henry’s death by lamprey, nor does he chide the dead king for his vices.  However, Monmouth also dedicates his work to Robert, one of Henry’s sons, so his motivation for composing his history – as well as its contents – varies greatly from Huntingdon’s. 
[8] Ibid, 66-7.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The mysterious death of the Red King, William II

“And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?” Gen. 4:9

If you were born the fourth son of William the Conqueror, with little-to-no-hope of surpassing your station in the feudal hierarchy, would you change the course of history?  How ruthless could you be?  Would fratricide enter your mind?

On the warm summer afternoon of August 2, 1100, King William II of England went on a hunting expedition in the woods of New Forest.  Contemporary chronicles differ on the other members of the hunting party, but most agree that the king’s younger brother Henry Beauclerk was in attendance.  Hunting expeditions could be extremely dangerous in the medieval era; William’s brother Richard died in a collision while hunting.  One of Richard’s bastard sons died after being shot in New Forest.

The Great Seal  of William Rufus, the Red King

William’s life would be cut down in a similar fashion.  One of the hunting party – in later chronicles identified as Walter Tirel – missed a stag and shot the king, killing him.  No eyewitness testimonies of the death of the Red King survive the ages.  This lacuna in what was obviously a significant moment of British monarchial history could have several meanings.  In one scenario, the loss of the king was indeed a tragic, but accidental, death.  In another scenario, the death of the king, Henry Beauclerk’s hasty, twenty-two mile ride to the Winchester exchequer to seize the royal treasury and Tirel’s flight to France were an indication of murder most foul. 

Rufus' Stone, New Forest

Henry Beauclerk was not even the next in line for the throne; that distinction fell to his older brother Robert Curthose.  Henry’s reputation with his own brothers prior to William’s death was that of a calculating young man.  William and Robert had signed an agreement of accession, in part a response to Henry’s maneuverings upon the death of the princes’ father William the Conqueror.  By either a premeditated move of Henry’s or by the convenience of fate, Robert, the legal heir to the throne, was returning from a stint as a crusader and had not yet reached English soil. 

Although Robert Curthose stood to gain much of Normandy – a financial boon – he still challenged his younger brother’s crown and led a force to England in 1101 and again in 1106.  Henry defeated his brother in 1106, but the five years of repeated challenges to Henry’s authority as king do not suggest a weak “conspiracy theory” of William II’s death or his shrewd younger brother’s hand in the matter.

Henry I, enthroned

Later chronicles begin to suggest a relationship with members of the dead king’s hunting party – members who had heretofore remained unnamed – Gilbert and Robert de Clare.  Walter Tirel was their brother-in-law.  The Clares supported Henry’s bid for the throne after William’s death in the woods, but as historian C. Warren Hollister has found, their rewards did not exceed that of any other feudal lords who also supported the new king. 

Significantly, one of the chroniclers of the age, Henry of Huntingdon, does not suggest a treacherous murder of King William II, though he is himself quite critical of King Henry.  Legend, superstition, and lack of evidence contributed to the suspicion of Henry as murderer.  William II’s own anticlerical stance did not endear him to chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury (c.1095-1143), a monk who wrote of several omens of William’s death, such as a crucifix kicking the king, or the Red King’s vision of his own blood spurting from his body toward the heavens. 

William of Malmesbury

So what happened in the woods that August afternoon? These conflicting and enhanced accounts make it difficult to suss out a satisfying answer. 

Was William’s death murder? Medieval-csi values your input. Weigh in on the comments section.

Next time: Henry I’s gruesome death