When David Charles Douglas published his biography of William the Conqueror in 1964, its impact was such that effectively it cleared the field for over a generation. Apart from Maurice Ashley’s biography for the “Kings and Queens of England” series, which was aimed at a broader audience and which drew heavily upon Douglas’s work, nobody would attempt a new biography of William for a quarter of a century. In that time, however, historians of the era continued their work, steadily and gradually expanding our knowledge in ways that warranted revisiting the subject of William’s life.
Among the new generation of scholars who built upon Douglas’s work was David Bates. Over the course of a peripatetic career Bates taught at the University of Wales, the University of Glasgow, and the University of London, before ending his academic career at the University of East Anglia. During that time he wrote nearly a half-dozen books on the Normans, which were grounded in his extensive archival labors across France. This background made him a logical choice to write a biography of William, which he was first asked to do in the 1980s. Like Ashley’s book, it’s a work intended for the lay reader rather than the specialist, yet in writing it Bates also incorporated the new learning on William, providing the first true update of William’s life since Douglas’s masterpiece.
The result is a book that managed the impressive feat of building on Douglas’s work while making it accessible to the broader public. Bates begins with a chapter designed to give readers a quick introduction to the Anglo-Norman medieval world, one that explains the differences the modern world and that of a millennia ago. It’s one of the best contextual chapters that I have yet read for this project, and Bates follows it with three more describing William’s early years as duke of Normandy and the duchy he ruled. While lacking the detail of Douglas’s coverage on this period of William’s life it provides a far more comprehensible narrative of it, one that is mindful of the limits of the sources and does not speculate too far past them.
The bulk of the book, however, is focused on the Conquest and William’s time on the English throne. This was similar to the focus of Ashley’s book, and like that other work it’s to be expected for a book published in a series on the lives of English monarchs. Yet Bates makes it clear that once England was pacified William spent more time in Normandy dealing with matters there than he did in his new acquisitions. Again, the level of detail is nowhere close to that of Douglas’s work, yet Bates compensates with an incredibly economical approach that conveys exactly what the reader needs to know, with little elaboration or extraneous detail. It suggests a confidence born of his expertise, and it makes for a highly efficient narrative.
Nowhere are Bates’s strengths better displayed than in his chapter describing William and his family. Character sketches are extraordinarily difficult in a medieval biography, as the lack of information forces modern writers to parse what details survived to infer what their subject was like. Bates manages to do this in a way that defined William as a person for me. Given his adherence to his sources it’s an especially remarkable feat, one that further boosted my regard for his book.
Bates’s book has been reprinted several times since its’ original publication in 1989, and after reading it it’s easy to see why. Though it lacks the depth of Douglas’s longer work it’s a fine biography of the Conqueror, one that surpasses Ashley’s earlier book and even manages to better Douglas in a few key respects. While it remains to be seen how Bates improves on it with his more recent study of William’s life for the Yale English Monarchs series, I’m looking forward to it with considerable anticipation. If this book is any indication of the quality of Bates’s subsequent scholarship it will be a truly impressive achievement.