Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings

          All hail, Thane of Cawdor

 Macbeth’s first step toward self-destruction is to be named as Thane of Cawdor, a position that becomes available at just the right moment when the current incumbent is executed for treason.  It is in this context that Malcolm, in describing to Duncan the death scene of the outgoing Cawdor, utters a couple of lines endlessly plundered by later British historians to characterize the final exits of a thousand hapless historical characters:

                                    …nothing in his life
                        became him like the leaving of it…

            This might be said to apply to Macbeth himself (Shakespeare’s stage direction reads “Re-enter MACDUFF, with MACBETH's head”) and indeed is generally relevant to numerous exemplars of Brittanic majesty since times immemorial.  It would be easy to begin the Royal Death Trip in Anglo-Saxon times, but as the Norman dynasty seems more interestingly accident prone, let’s pick it up with William of Normandy, the Conquerer.  About twenty years after the Conquest William, now back on the Continent, when riding about being evil one day, had the misfortune to be thrown by his stumbling horse not upon the ground but upon the pommel of his saddle.  If you have ever seen one of these things, you might imagine that it would smart should it penetrate your groin or abdomen.  Few things are more unpleasant than being stabbed by a sharp object, but one of them is being stabbed by a blunt object.  Such was the end of William the Conqueror.

            William II, son of the Conqueror, was a real chip off the old block.  He was known as William Rufus (“Red” William), a sobriquet that, needless to say, derived from the color of his beard rather than the tenor of his politics.  He shed this mortal coil in 1100 in the following somewhat undignified circumstances.  Accompanied by some friends and relations, including a younger brother, he had gone hunting, or rather chasing deer in the New Forest. (Remember none of these English kings could actually speak English, so it was all about la chasse.)  Unfortunately one of his fellow chasseurs sent an arrow through his upper body.  It is not clear that this was entirely accidental, since the presumed shooter immediately took off for France while the younger brother (destined to be Henry I) rushed off to grab the throne before yet another brother, the rightful successor, could get back home to claim it.  William Rufus was left to die in misery on the forest floor.  Some rustics eventually hauled the bleeding royal remains back to Winchester “in a rude farm cart”, as one of the sources put it.  What a comedown for a king!  Sick transit, indeed.

            Friendly fire was something of a specialty among the Norman aristocracy, who were even more accomplished at shooting their companions of the chase than Vice-President Cheney.  Of course the friendliness of the fire that ended the career of Richard the Lionheart may be doubted.  He was shot through the shoulder by a surly teen-ager, thus allowing the witticism that “The Lion was killed by an Ant”.  Actually it wasn’t the arrow that killed him, but the gangrene.  It’s never so much the original scandal as the coverup, in this instance a filthy bandage.

            In a family blog such as this one it would be indelicate to mention, except somewhat obscurely, the painful end of Edward II in 1327.  It involved a red-hot poker and—well, anyone familiar with Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” will grasp the Begriff.  The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker puts it thus: “cum ferro plumbarii incense ignito trans  tubam ductilem ad egestionis partes secretas applicatam membra spiritalia post intestinas combusserunt.”  Ouch.

            But it is worth noting that aberrant gastronomy played a not insignificant role in the morbidity of the Anglo-Norman royalty.  Indeed the demise of Henry I himself was itself notable, for it is he who famously died of a surfeit of lampreys.  That is the canonical historical expression.  It wasn’t an excess of lampreys, or a superabundance of lampreys, or even simply too many lampreys; it was a surfeit of lampreys.

 Lampreys (a hemi-demi-surfeit thereof)

            Now as you undoubtedly know a lamprey is sort of a combination of a mollusk and a water moccasin, to wit, “any of an order (Hyperoartia) of aquatic vertebrates that are widely distributed in subarctic regions in both fresh and salt water and resemble eels but have a large suctorial mouth.”  I have to tell you that lampreys really suck, and if you study the iconographic evidence you might well conclude that a single lamprey could constitute a surfeit, indeed rather more than a surfeit.  We have reasons to suspect, however, that Henry I’s fatal surfeit consisted in no less than two dozen of them.  This would seem to be a world record unsurpassed even in Erasmus’s immortal colloquy called “On Fish-Eating” (Ιχθυοφαγια), to which I refer the interested reader.
           lampreys really suck

 Under the unifying rubric of suicidal gluttony we should probably include the demise of John Lackland (Jean sans Terre) in 1216, brought on by binging on unripe peaches and sweet wine.  As his name will forever be associated with Runnymede (where he reluctantly signed the Great Charter) it is seems entirely condign that he should expire of a vinous flux.  Death by alcohol was of course not always voluntary, as is illustrated by the celebrated circumstances of George, Duke of Clarence (1449-1478).  Although the brother of two kings (Edward IV and Richard III), the duke never quite made it to the throne.  It was not for lack of trying, as he was a sordid conniver of the lowest order (“false, fleeting, perjured Clarence” is what we find in Shakespeare’s Richard III.)  Attaindered on a charge of treason, he was allowed to choose his own mode of execution.  He is believed to have been drowned in a butt of Malmsey in the Tower of London.  Way to go, Clarence!