The fish dish that killed a King…
England’s King Henry I died aged 66 on this day, December 1, 1135 after eating what was described at the time as “a surfeit of lampreys”. Of course, his death must have been unpleasant, but nothing like as terrific as the process that his body 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 seem they are horror movies creatures.
Henry enjoyed them as a meal, even though his physicians warned against eating the things. In 1135, while on a hunting trip in France, he 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 death, chronicler Roger of Wendover stated 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.
Roger also related that the King’s head had been opened with a hatchet to extract the brain, producing literally 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.
Eventually, the king’s corpse was brought to England, and buried with royal pomp on his birthday, at Reading.
Ironically, 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.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have the wisdom and foresight to steer clear of lampreys….