Fish Dish Finishes Off a King

Burial of Henry I at Reading Abbey painted by Harry Morley. Photo: Reading Museum
Burial of Henry I at Reading Abbey painted by Harry Morley. Photo: Reading Museum

by Ray Setterfield

December 1, 1135 — England’s King Henry I died aged 66 on this day after eating what was described at the time as “a surfeit of lampreys”. His death must have been unpleasant, but nothing like as disgusting as the process that his corpse went through.

Lampreys are an eel-like fish whose mouth has a circular suction pad. They don’t have a jaw but the adults have teeth and they sound like they belong in a horror movie.

Henry enjoyed them as a meal, even though his physicians warned against eating the things. In 1135, while on a hunting trip in France, Henry gobbled down a plateful of lampreys, soon became ill, developed a fever and died seven days later.

His passing had been foretold, apparently, on August 2 of that year when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “The day darkened over all the lands, and the sun became as it were a three-night-old moon, and the stars about it, at mid-day.

“Men were greatly wonder-stricken and affrighted, and said that a great thing should come thereafter. So it did, for that year the King died.”

After the royal passing, chronicler Roger of Wendover recorded: “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.”

“Roger” related that the King’s head had been opened with a hatchet to extract the brain, producing a “noisome smell”.

After that, the body was taken to Caen, “where it was placed in the church before the tomb of his father. 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.”

Another chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, had earlier described the King as “great in wisdom, profound in counsel, famous for his far-sightedness, outstanding in arms, distinguished for his deeds, remarkable for his wealth”.

A pity, then, that he didn’t have the wisdom and foresight to steer clear of lampreys.

Published: October 24, 2016

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