Sunday, 24 November 2013

A SURFEIT OF LAMPREYS AND OTHER MISFORTUNES: The Death of Henry I

King Henry I is not that often touched upon in fiction and one of the lesser studied kings of England in schools today. He has also been the subject of a couple of excellent academic biographies by the late Warren Hollister and historian Judith Green. Occasionally he turns up a secondary source character in novels, mine among them. I enjoyed his portrayal in Valerie Anand's novel King of the Wood which was about his brother William Rufus. Juliet Dymoke used him as her protagonist in her excellent novel Henry of the High Rock, but he still receives rather limited exposure.

 What many people of a certain age know of Henry I from their school days is that this youngest son of William the Conqueror, died of 'a surfeit of lampreys' - I suspect that this was a phrase known, but not understood by many students.  Actually, even when it is understood, there is more to this than meets the eye.

Henry I was born either in 1068 or 1069 and died in December 1135, which puts him at about 66  at his demise - a good age for the 12th century and not bad at all for a king with all the stresses and strains that being an active and domineering head of state entailed. His father was 59; his celebrated grandson Henry II only made it to 56.  Of his great grandsons by Henry who became kings, Henry the Young king died of dysentry at 28, Richard the Lionheart from gangrene at 38, and King John from (depending who you listen to) 'a surfeit of peaches and cider' a couple of months shy of his 50th birthday.

Henry I, described by contemporary chronicler  Henry of Huntingdon as 'great in wisdom, profound in counsel, famous for his far-sightedness, outstanding in arms, distinguished for his deeds, remarkable for his wealth', was still to all intents and purposes hale and hearty when he arrived at the forest of Lyons in Normandy in late November to undertake a spot of hunting with the court. He had been hoping to cross to England, but political difficulties on the Norman side of the border meant that he was staying longer than intended.  During the course of his hunting sojourn, one of the courses on which he dined at table were the dreaded lampreys.


Lampreys are an eel-like fish lacking a jaw. There are about thirty species in the world, some parasitic, some not.  The mouth has a circular suction pad with teeth in the adults. As a food in the medieval period they were seen as edible - but dangerous and this is where we come to more than meets the eye.  The Medieval way of thinking about diet was to afford each item a humour and a temperature and people were advised to eat foods that balanced their own humours. The four humours were sanguine, which was warm and moist, yellow bile - warm and dry,  phlegm - cold and moist, and melancholic - cold and dry.
If everything was in balance, you should have an equal mix of all these and your diet should reflect this.  All foods had their own  value in the humour table too.  Elderly people were seen as having cold humours and as such needed to eat foods with warming properties.  Red wine was a good one since it was warm and dry (I know wine is wet, but trust me on this one!). Lampreys, on a scale of 1-10 scored a 10 for being cold and moist and one of the most chilling foodstuffs in existence, guaranteed to put out anyone's fire.  To an elderly person, already cold to begin with, they could be deadly.  The best way to render them less of a threat was to kill them in red wine and then cook them in the same liquor in the hopes that it would neutralise their properties.  Everyone knew this.  A chronicler wouldn't have had to spell out the details.
Once you know this, reading Henry I's death scene from the chronicler Roger of Wendover takes on a whole new light.

Henry...stopped at St. Denys in the wood of Lions to eat some lampreys, a fish he was very fond of, though they always disagreed with him, and the physicians had often cautioned him against eating them, (presumably because the state of his own dominant humour and that of the lamprey would tilt the balance dangerously) but he would not listen to their advice.  This food mortally chilled the old man's blood and caused a sudden and violent illness against which nature struggled and brought on an acute fever (trying to warm the body up)  in an effort to resist the worst effects of the disease.'  

So, did he really die of a surfeit of lampreys, or did the fish get the blame because it was off the scale on the  table of humours and viewed as unsuitable for the elderly to consume?  Who knows?  Of course it might just be a case of bad fish causing food poisoning, but the first port of call in the eyes of medieval physicians would be to look at its properties and what it might to an elderly man.
Peaches and cider were also viewed as dodgy items to eat in terms of the humours. King John was dicing with death the moment he sat down to dinner. One has to wonder where the peaches came from in October though...

Henry, having breathed his last and having left the inheritance situation in such a perilous state that there followed more than 15 years of civil war, had a more immediate post mortem nasty to visit on those close to him. This is interesting with reference to Medieval burial customs - something I hope to cover in another blog at some point.  In the days before refrigeration and even in winter  chronicler Roger of Wendover goes on to relate that:
'The corpse of the King lay a long time above ground at Rouen, where his entrails, brains and eyes are buried; the rest of his body cut with knives and seasoned with salt to destroy the offensive smell, which was great, and annoyed all who came near it, was wrapped in a bull's skin; and the physician who was engaged for a large sum of money to open his head with a hatchet, and extract the brain after it was already too much corrupted, notwithstanding that the head was wrapped up in several napkins, was poisoned by the noisesome smell, and thus the money which he received was fatal to him; he was the last of King Henry's victims, for he had killed many before.  The royal body was conveyed from thence to Caen, where it was placed in the church before the tomb of his father, who also reposes there.  Immediately a bloody and frightful liquor began to ooze through the bull's skin , which the attendants caught in basins, to the great horror of the beholders.  At length the king's corpse was brought to England, and buried with royal pomp on his birthday, at Reading in the church which he himself had founded.  The archbishops, bishops, and nobles  of the Kingdom were present at the ceremony.'

So eventually, following an unpleasant demise and some fraught and dangerous times for those left to prepare his mortal remains for burial, Henry I, received a fitting funeral and was laid to rest with all due ceremony.  I wonder if they served lampreys at the funeral feast!

Elizabeth Chadwick



17 comments:

The Greenockian said...

Argh ... that description of the decaying body is disgusting! Yes, I am of an age to have learned about the surfeit of lampreys, but never really knew what it was about. Thanks for explaining it.
Liz

Joan Lennon said...

I love the logic. Everything fits, based on the initial premise. Thanks for posting - interesting stuff!

ista said...

My understanding of the issues with eating lampreys is that they accumulate toxins instead of excreting them - hence a risk in eating too many of them. So it could have been the lampreys!

Marjorie said...

That's fascinating. I knew he was said to have died of a Surfeit of Lampreys but I didn't know why that would have been considered a bad thing to be eating.

Leslie Wilson said...

Me neither! I am glad to hear. I have often seen the plaque marking his burial place, but I think it is only approximate since the great Abbey church was knocked down and only ruins - though impressive ruins - remain.

Leslie Wilson said...

Actually, I didn't remember it was him with the surfeit of lampreys, btw, though I do remember the play '1066 and All That' made with it, so that every king had to die of a surfeit of something.. and they made it palfreys, I believe. The thing I knew about him is that his son died in the White Ship and he never smiled again - which '1066 and A;; That' made into 'his son died in the White City and never smiled again.'

Marjorie said...

When I was at school, the only history I was actually taught was all about Hitler and the rise of the Nazis (plus some out-of-context bits about Roman Britain, and Chartists)

Nearly all the history I now about I got from reading 1066 and All That and various Historical novels, then reading up on the bits that sound interesting to see how much they made up, and to put things in context.

Petrea Burchard said...

This makes me wonder what we're missing now, in modern food and medicine!

Kara said...

Re: John I wonder if the peaches were preserved in cider. The possibility of bad preserving (botulism) may have brought on his demise.

Rebekah Dorris said...

What an excellent post! Thanks for your treatment of the humours; this totally makes sense. Yes; it would be so interesting to learn more of this unspoken, universally understood ancient reasoning that are lost on us modern folk. So that is why I've heard you should eat chicken in the summer, as it is a cooling food, and beef in the winter. Huh.

Blair Hodgkinson said...

I believe Richard I actually died in his 41st year, not at 38, unless his birth year is assumed other than the 1157 date I follow. ;-)

Blair Hodgkinson said...

I believe Richard I actually died in his 41st year, not at 38, unless his birth year is assumed other than the 1157 date I follow. ;-)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Whoops yes, sorry Blair. I shall amend next time I access the database. I think I was writing about him being 38 for another project and ended up with that on the default track!

Regan Walker said...

Interesting post. I must say that I've never seen the appeal of lampreys though I know the medieval folks liked them. Personally, I thought Ista's comment made sense, that and possibly a food allergy. But no matter. Henry was a cruel man and an unfaithful husband (like most of England's monarchs?) and the world was better for him being out of it.

Mike Robinson said...
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Mike Robinson said...
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Mike Robinson said...

Henry I may have killed his elder brother William II, or had him killed. William was hunting in the New Forest when he was felled by an assassin's arrow. Henry, who was in the vicinity when William was murdered, rode to Winchester where the treasury was situated and demanded the keys.

Henry I was the only English monarch whose reign began at the start of a century (1100-1135). It would be another 589 years before William III was crowned.