On to William the Conqueror!

William of Normandy with his brothers Odo and Robert. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

With William the Conqueror, my reading project reaches a milestone, as I transition from the Anglo-Saxon era of kings to those of the Norman dynasty. This is more than just a symbolic point, as from this point onward the source of external influence on England shifts away from Scandinavia and towards western Europe, a change of enduring significance for not just English history, but for that of Europe and indeed the world as well.

While this broadens the scope of the subjects that I will be reading about, it has other implications for my project as well. Until now the limited number of modern biographies of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs meant that it was possible for me to read all of them for the purposes of my assessment. This is going to become more difficult the further I go, as the number of biographies of any given monarch start to proliferate. This creates a dilemma: while I could try to read all of them it would make my project extremely tedious and a lot less enjoyable for me, yet reading multiple biographies of a monarch is the very point of this site.

As a result, while I will continue to read as many royal biographies as possible, I will start to do so more selectively. When faced with a greater number of biographies than I can reasonably manage, I will choose the ones I read based on three factors. The first is availability, as I will make it a point to read the most popularly known ones which are often the ones readers are most likely to encounter. The second is importance, as determined by the degree to which those biographies have been relied upon in shaping our understanding of that monarch. And finally, I will favor the ones that have been more recently published and thus are likely to incorporate new discoveries and interpretations of their reigns.

In selecting the ones for William, I came up with a list of a dozen biographies. The first one from this pool of titles is Maurice Ashley’s volume on William for Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. I chose it as my first foray into William’s life based on Richard Humble’s volume, which impressed me for the clarity of its account. I look forward to seeing if Ashley measures up to the bar Humble set in that respect.

Next I plan on reading David Charles Douglas’s William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact on England. It’s a notable book in several respects, as it was the inaugural volume of the English Monarchs series and a book that served as foundation for understanding William’s life for over a generation afterward. It will be interesting to see how well it holds up today.

After that I will turn to three more recent works. The first of these is David Bates’s 1989 biography of William, which has been republished in several editions since then. Though evidently geared towards the novice, I’m anticipating it for reasons that will soon be clear. Then it’s on to Peter Rex’s William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, which, if his other books are anything to go by, should be a good summary of his life and reign. I will follow that up with Marc Morris’s biography of William for the Penguin Monarchs series. This is the first of several of Morris’s books that I anticipate reading for this site, and I’m looking forward to this first sampling of his analysis and writing style.

Once I finish these more recent biographies I plan on turning my attention to some of the older works on William. The first of these is Frank Stenton’s 1908 book William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans. Stenton was a legendary Anglo-Saxon historian, and it will be interesting to see how well his century-old take on William has aged. After that I’m going to take on Hillaire Belloc 1933 biography of William, which I’m looking forward to primarily because of the reputation of its author. The it’s on to three biographies by Thomas B. Costain, George Slocombe, and Elizabeth Lucock that were all written just before Douglas came out with his subject-defining work. Costain’s is also notable for being a work specifically aimed at younger readers, and I’m curious to read how William’s life was pitched for them.

Finally, I plan on wrapping up my exploration of biographies of William of Normandy with two recently published books about him. The first is by Mark Hagger, and seems to be geared towards a broader audience. The other is by David Bates, who wrote a successor to David Charles Douglas’s book on William for the (now Yale) English Monarchs series. The combination of Bates’s longtime familiarity with William and the high editorial standards set by the series makes this one an especially intriguing volume for me, and a fitting capstone to my extended exploration of the Conqueror’s life.

Just one book on . . . Harold II

I mentioned in my Just One Book post on Edward the Confessor that I thought it was surprising that there are so few modern biographies available about him. While I was surprised as well about the number of modern biographies available about Harold, it was for the opposite reason. Considering that he reigned for less than ten months and was then subjected to a decades-long campaign by his successors to disparage him and his achievements, I wasn’t expecting to find three works dedicated to his life and reign. No less fascinating to me is the range of interpretations contained in just these three works, giving anyone interested in learning about Harold their choice of an interpretive lens.

The oldest of these options is Piers Compton’s 1961 book Harold the King. It has much to recommend it in terms of readability, as to provides a straightforward description of its subject’s life within a narrative that is oftentimes dramatic. Yet Compton’s skill at storytelling does Harold a service, as it relies too uncritically on the sources from William’s reign, which were written with more of an eye towards shoring up a victor’s legitimacy than in fairly assessing a defeated king’s achievements. Because of this anyone seeking an introduction to Harold should steer well clear of it.

A similar warning is required for Ian W. Walker’s Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King. Unlike Compton, Walker employs his sources with the skepticism they deserve. Yet instead of seeking balance Walker instead errs too far in the other direction, interpreting Harold’s life in a way better suited for a defense counsel’s brief than a balanced historical analysis. While it’s very useful as a corrective for Compton’s work, ideally it shouldn’t be anyone’s starting point for learning about Harold.

By comparison to both Compton’s and Walker’s books Peter Rex’s biography of Harold offers the best of both worlds. Though not quite as entertaining as Compton’s narrative, it’s still provides a nicely readable account of Harold’s life that is sympathetic to its subject without being uncritical. These merits alone help to explain why it’s dominated the field since it was first published a decade and a half ago, and suggest that it will likely remain the go-to account for anyone seeking to learn about Harold for years to come. For anyone looking to read just one book about Harold, it’s really no contest – Peter Rex’s is the one to get.