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.
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!