Review of “William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy” by Peter Rex

Throughout this project I’ve made an effort to approach every book I read without expectations. This is a challenge for me when it comes to certain series, as their editors usually establish certain standards in terms of their selection of authors and the quality of what they’re willing to approve for publication. This is also difficult when it comes to authors whose works I have read before, as exposure to their works helps to define what I will encounter when I pick up their next volume.

This is especially true for Peter Rex. His biography of William the Conqueror is the fourth book of his that I have read for this project, and when I started reading it I couldn’t help but do so with a set of assumptions that were shaped by my experience with his previous books on Edgar, Edward the Confessor, and Harold. Most of these assumptions proved correct, as Rex again delivered an accessible and engaging account of William’s life. Yet his book was also different from his previous works in a number of important respects.

The first of these was because of his subject. Thanks to the greater amount of information available about William’s life Rex had more information to work with than he did with William’s Anglo-Saxon predecessors. This gives him an opportunity to write an account of William’s life that is much richer in detail than his earlier works. His book reflects this, as his account provides far more of a narrative of William’s life than he did in his previous biographies. Through it we follow the major events of William’s life, from his Norman background through his assertion of control through to his conquest of England and his final years, all recounted in Rex’s clear and informative style.

As interesting as Rex’s account is, though, it comes at the cost of any explanation of the institutions of the era, as well as any detailed analysis of William’s life and reign. His view that historians have read an “Anglo-Norman realm” onto a governing structure that evolved out of unrelated decisions rather than a conscious design on William’s part is an interesting one, but it is not developed beyond a couple of scattered paragraphs. Rex’s assessment of William’s personality is left to the final chapter, where it is done only cursorily and in combination with a summation of the king-duke’s legacy. Still this is more than the people around William receive, as they are usually distinguished in the text by little more than their names and position.

The overall effect is to make it a book that describes what William did and summarizes why he did it, but does not provide as good of a sense of William actions within the broader context of 11th century western Europe. This stands out especially when compared to the approach taken in the biographies of William that I have already read, which were much richer in background than Rex’s book. What he provides is a fine overview of the Conqueror’s life that can be read profitably by anyone a seeking an account of it that explains what he did and when he did it, but one that suffers somewhat when compared to the efforts of some of William’s other biographers.

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