A Clamor for a Conqueror (Dennis Aubrey)


One of the great benefits that we derive from our photographic journeys is the opportunity to talk to various people that we meet. On our last trip to Conques in October, we stayed with a kind and hospitable English couple, Sally Whelton and Chris Law at their gîte, the Lou Peyrou. Chris is a composer who had spent some years living on the tiny island of Sark in the Channel Islands. In the course of our discussions, he brought up a medieval legal custom that still is in effect. According to Wikipedia, the Clameur de Haro “is an ancient legal injunction of restraint employed by a person who believes they are being wronged by another at that moment.”

When invoking the Clameur de Haro, the petitioner says “Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort” (Hear me! Hear me! Hear me! Come to my aid, my Prince, for someone does me wrong) and then recites the Lord’s Prayer in French. Upon hearing the Clameur, the alleged wrongdoer must cease the activity until the matter has been decided in court. The cry acts as a kind of interim injunction and there is no way the accused can resist it. As the name suggests, the practice has French antecedents. In actuality, the origin is Norman and there is a very famous example of this injunction being successfully invoked.

In 1049, the twenty-one year old bastard son of Robert, the Duke of Normandy, became enamored of his first cousin, Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, the Count of Flanders. Matilda thought herself too highborn to marry the illegitimate William and told him so. By all accounts, William made his point by dragging her to the ground by her long braids and she subsequently accepted his proposals of marriage. William and Matilda defied a papal ban against the marriage by Leon IX on grounds of consanguinity and were married in 1051.

The union with the House of Flanders solidified William’s claim as the Duke of Normandy, and this increased political power led to a reconciliation with the Holy See. In consideration of the pardon granted by Pope Nicolas II, the wedded couple founded at Caen in 1059 two Benedictine abbeys: William built the Abbaye aux Hommes dedicated to Saint Stephen, and Matilda built the Abbaye aux Dames dedicated to the Trinity.

Église Sainte-Trinité, Caen (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I find it interesting that the two churches are as far apart from each other as it was possible to be in medieval Caen. This map from 1718 shows the Abbaye aux Hommes to the extreme southwest of the city while the Abbaye aux Dames was to the extreme northeast. Perhaps this separation reflected awareness of the consanguineous relationship that William and Matilda shared in real life.

Map of Caen 1718 showing placement of the Abbaye aux Hommes (lower left) and Abbaye aux Dames (upper right)

In 1066, William went on to subjugate Britain in the same way that he subjugated Matilda – by use of force. He became famous as The Conqueror and was much honored during his lifetime. Injured during the siege of Mantes, William died on September 9, 1087 in Rouen.

The honors that were William’s in life were lost at the moment he took his last breath. All of his family and retainers deserted him. His servants stole his clothes and personal effects. His corpse was left abandoned in the Priory church of Saint Gervais for several days before anyone thought to bury him. William had asked to be buried in Caen at his expiatory Abbaye aux Hommes, but nobody volunteered to pay the costs of moving the body, which was 75 miles away in Rouen. Finally a peasant named Herluin, possibly related to William’s mother, moved the body. All of the clergy and citizens of Caen went to the gates to meet the funeral procession, but even these honors were denied when a fire broke out inside the city. The lowly Herluin and a couple of monks were all the procession accorded to the Duke of Normandy.

The funeral itself was attended by William’s son Henry, the abbots and bishops of Normandy, and many of those citizens of Caen. After a panegyric funeral oration by Giselbert, the bishop of Evreux, was completed and the body was about to be laid to its rest, something extraordinary occurred. A minor noble of the region, Asselin FitzArthur, stopped the proceedings, invoked the Clameur of Haro and declared that William had stolen his land. “The ground upon which you are standing was the site of my father’s dwelling. This man, for whom you ask our prayers, took it by force from my parent; by violence he seized, by violence he retained it; and, contrary to all law and justice, he built upon it this church, where we are assembled. Publicly, therefore, in the sight of God and man, do I claim my inheritance, and protest against the body of the plunderer being covered with my turf.”

Église Saint-Etienne, Caen (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This statement caused great consternation and the bishops inquired of the assembled company whether there was truth to the claim. When it was discovered to be true, and in fear for leaving any sin of William’s unatoned, a settlement was made on the spot. Sixty sous were paid immediately for the burial plot and a later settlement was made for the entire estate.

As if this interruption was not enough of a humiliation for the departed, another followed moments later. As the attendants were preparing the coffin to be lowered into the tomb, they discovered that the casket was too small. William had become quite corpulent in his older age and the casket could not contain his corpse. The workmen pushed and shoved to try to make it fit, but the body burst open and filled the church with an overpowering nauseous stench. Incense was of no use covering the putrefaction – the service was rapidly concluded and the church was deserted by everyone.

Some time later, a proper tomb was later erected and the matter seemed to be ended. But still the trials of William were not over and his rest did not remain undisturbed. During the religious wars, the Calvinists scattered his bones. They were collected by the good monks and hidden away. A few months later Coligny captured the city and the bones were scattered again. Only a thigh bone was preserved and hurriedly re-interred in 1642. A century later an elaborate tomb was erected in William’s honor, only be be destroyed in the Revolution.

Chancel, Église Saint-Etienne, Caen (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey. Tomb of William the Conqueror in the foreground of the chancel.

It is only a miracle that both the church and the tomb survived the Second World War. Caen was the scene of a violent months-long battle during the Normandy invasion. The bombing and fighting virtually destroyed the town. The Église Saint-Etienne survived, as can be seen in this 1944 view of the church through the ruins of Caen.

Église Saint-Etienne amid the ruins (1944). Photo: Archives Canada

It seems that William in death was as tumultuous as William in life. We can only hope that his turbulent spirit is so bone-weary that the Conqueror is finally at his eternal rest.

Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.

13 responses to “A Clamor for a Conqueror (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. and so taken was i by the words, i neglected to mention the photos! But then, that’s become a given…the breathtaking nature of what you both capture.

    • Thanks for this, Rose. It is such a kick to go these places knowing the stories. This is where research really pays off. But despite all the research that I do, so many times we miss something right under our noses. We shot twice at the Cathedral of Cahors and never realized that the most astonishing thing of all – the tympanum – was on the back side of the church in an alley! I didn’t miss it the next time, that’s for sure.

  2. Wonderful post. As a ‘local’ I should have known all that, but a great deal was new to me, so I thank you for filling in the details. Did you know that Norman law still applies in the Channel Islands and lawyers there must have studied it at Caen? (or so we were told by our local notaire)

  3. Love the stories about William the Bastard (conquering England certainly improved his title!) Did you know that the archive where I studied the Zodiaque papers is outside Caen? It is in a former abbey that was destroyed during WWII also. There is a special little graveyard to the Canadians who were killed there: http://www.imec-archives.com/abbaye_historique03.php
    My FB cover photo is of the church–now library–and garden. It’s a lovely place to work!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s