Ever loved something you knew was bad for you? Whether your poison be burgers, booze, or cigarettes, you might have some sympathy for one medieval monarch who defied doctors’ orders to dine himself to death on lamprey flesh. In a tale that reads like a fable for taking heed of medical advice, King Henry I made the unfortunate decision to keep eating the unusual gooey fish despite the fact that he got sick every time he did. Eventually, the fleshy, fishy hill he chose to die on took his life.
The details of the monarch’s unconventional demise are explained in a blog post from author and Medieval historian Marc Morris, who marked the anniversary of King Henry I’s death (December 1, 1135) in a timely Tweet.
“Doctor: I wouldn't eat any more lampreys if I were you,” tweeted Morris. “King Henry I: I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
Despite being the youngest of William the Conqueror’s sons, and apparently having little in the way of survival instinct, Henry lived to take the crown in 1100. However, exactly how he came to succeed his brother William Rufus seems to be a little suspect.
The story goes that William Rufus was out hunting when a terrible accident saw him skewered by the arrow of one Walter Tirel who’s said to have fled upon realizing what he’d done. Some suspect that Tirel may actually have been working on the orders of Henry in a successful assassination attempt that would see him take the crown.
Whether by duty or misdeed, King Henry I began his reign. According to English historian Henry of Huntingdon, Henry was partial to lampreys. An unusual fish still alive today, it might not look like the most appetizing food in the world with a spherical mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth which it uses to attach to and suck the blood of marine animals.
However, what they lack in aesthetics they make up for in being boneless, making them an easy fish to eat. According to a diner at archeologist and founder of the Sea Lamprey Society Henri Roquas’s lamprey feast in 2015, lamprey flesh doesn’t “taste like fish at all, but the texture resembles the slow-cooked beefsteak.”
During King Henry’s time, meat was expensive so if you were going to gorge on something, lamprey was an economical option. Unfortunately, the King’s stomach didn’t find the fish so agreeable.
“He ate the flesh of lampreys, which always made him ill, though he always loved them,” Morris reports Henry of Huntingdon wrote. “When a doctor forbade him to eat the dish, the king did not take this salutary advice.
“As it is said, ‘We always strive for what is forbidden and long for what is refused.’ So this meal brought on a most destructive humour, and violently stimulated similar symptoms, producing a deadly chill in his aged body, and a sudden and extreme convulsion. Against this, nature reacted by stirring up an acute fever to dissolve the inflammation with very heavy sweating. But when all power of resistance failed, the great king departed on the first day of December , when he had reigned for thirty-five years and three months.”
In case that harrowing account hasn’t quite vanquished your lamprey curiosity, their consumption in high quantities is still a questionable lifestyle choice owing to the way they accumulate mercury.
As they say, everything in moderation.