Review of “William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England” by David C. Douglas

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that David Charles Douglas is the godfather of modern studies of William the Conqueror. A longtime scholar of Norman history who taught at the University of Bristol, Douglas authored and edited a number of books on the era, all of which reflect his vast knowledge of the subject and his command of the available documents on it. His biography of William was written near the end of his long career, and embodies his many years of study in the field.

Douglas divides his examination of William’s life into four parts. The first two concentrate on William’s rule over Normandy, addressing the political history of his duchy until 1060 before turning to detail the constitutional and ecclesiastical structures within it. These are very Norman- and Franco-centric, with only occasional reference to their subsequent legacy for England. This aspect is more fully developed in the third and fourth parts of the book, with the third part describing the establishment of the Anglo-Norman kingdom while the final one describes the constitutional arrangements and ecclesiastical history of the joint realm.

This structure points to Douglas’s main focus, which is on William’s activities and his achievements. It isn’t until the end of the book that he gives the reader an assessment of William’s personality by describing his character based on the few sources available to do so. Instead Douglas spends the bulk of the book concentrating on what William did, understanding why he did it, and explaining its impact on subsequent developments. Not only does this approach help explain how William rose from such relatively unpromising circumstances to become the ruler of England, but it provides the basis for his assessment of William’s larger significance to medieval English history.

Douglas makes it clear that while William’s fame is based on the Conquest, as duke of Normandy he had established his greatness as a ruler long before then. The first part of the book is focused on William’s struggle to survive, detailing the circumstances that shaped William’s approach to governance. Douglas shows how it was through these trials that William proved himself as a ruler while developing Normandy into a duchy powerful enough to stage the sort of expedition necessary to successfully conquer England. He stresses as well the interconnections between the two realms, showing why a regional French ruler would view the conquest of England as not only desirable but necessary.

The Conquest that Douglas describes is as much a triumph of politics and diplomacy as it is of military strategy. Noting the difficulties of subduing such a large kingdom he emphasizes the underlying insecurity of William’s rule during his two decades on the throne and the ongoing project of securing Norman rule within England. While detailing the Normanization of English institutions and the installation of Normans in English offices, he also argues for a surprising degree of continuity which aided this process and helped to stabilize William’s achievement. That this achievement was seen as his was best illustrated by the trepidation with which his death was met, as William’s subjects looked uncertainly into a future without his strong presence as both king and duke.

After reading Douglas’s book, it’s easy to see why it’s enjoyed the status it’s enjoyed since its initial publication over half a century ago. Erudite and well-reasoned, it provides its readers with a thorough understanding of William’s path to power and his considerable legacy to English history. Whether it can still be regarded today as the single best book on William the Conqueror remains to be seen, but judging by its endurance it remains a standard by which others are to be judged.

Review of “The Life and Times of William I” by Maurice Ashley

Up to this point, the majority of the biographies of English monarchs that I have read for my project were written specifically for a series produced by a publisher. The more of these I read, the more I wonder about the selection process that the editors employ in choosing authors for the various volumes. Oftentimes the choice seems an obvious one, as was probably the case of Frank Barlow with Edward the Confessor, or Richard Abels for one about Æthelred. With others, though, the author’s qualifications make their selection a little more puzzling. Were they the best choice, or simply the best one available?

I suspect that the latter might have been the case when Maurice Ashley was commissioned to write a volume on William the Conqueror for Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. Ashley’s background is a fascinating one: a graduate of Oxford, he worked as a literary assistant for Winston Churchill when the future prime minister wrote his biography of the Duke of Marlborough. This led to a distinguished career as a journalist and editor, during which he wrote a number of histories and biographies. While his credentials as a historian are impeccable, though, his training and focus for most of his career was as a historian of the 17th century. This would make him a natural choice to author a book on Charles I or James II, yet instead he was asked to write a biography of a monarch who reigned seven centuries earlier. It certainly makes for an odd fit between his specialty and the subject.

In some ways, however, it may have been an asset, as free from the lifetime immersion in his subject may have aided Ashley in writing a highly accessible introduction to his subject. Doing so involved familiarizing himself not just with 11th century England but contemporary Normandy as well, and after months spent focused on the Anglo-Saxon world I found it to be a refreshing change of pace. I took a lot from Ashley’s chapter on William’s dukedom, and it certainly sharpened my desire to learn more about it.

Yet Ashley’s focus is understandably on the kingdom Duke William conquered. This he covers in four chapters, providing both a description of his realm and how William asserted his control over it. The most interesting of these chapters was his one on feudalism, as Ashley provides a clear explanation that nonetheless offers a nuanced description of it. Like his chapter on Normandy, it points to another topic that I expect will get more detailed coverage in the other biographies of William awaiting me, and one that I look forward to reading with much anticipation.

Though it may seem as though I found Ashley’s book dissatisfying, it was anything but. His well-illustrated volume does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide a comprehensible introduction to William and his era. Whether the foundation he provides is a firm one remains to be seen (though his reliance on Douglas’s book, which is the next stop on my tour through the literature, suggests that it is), but it certainly sets the standard for judging the other books that seek to make William’s world intelligible to the modern reader. I look forward to discovering if any of its counterparts can match it.