Review of “William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans” by Frank Merry Stenton

In the twentieth century, there was no greater historian of Anglo-Saxon England than Sir Frank Stenton. A former president of the Royal Historical Society, he literally wrote the book on the era, as his volume on it for the “Oxford History of England” series endures today as a standard text on the subject. Published in 1943, it reflected his decades of study about the era, and was updated twice to reflect subsequent discoveries and judgments.

By contrast, his biography of William the Conqueror for Putnam’s “Heroes of the Nations” series was written early in his career, well before he established his reputation in the field. Reading it today, what stands out most is the degree to which it is very much a product of its time. Compared to the more recently published biographies of William that I have up to this point Stenton parades his prejudices proudly, making it clear where his sympathies lie. This comes across from the start, with an introduction that provides a snobbish overview of Scandinavian history, citing its failure to hold onto England as the reason for the decline in its importance. Whether possessing England alone would have extended the Viking era in European history is an arguable point at best, but it one that advertises Stenton’s patriotism well enough.

More surprising is his assessment of Anglo-Saxon England. Basing it on the kingdom’s government and its feudal structures, he regards it as weak and unstable, arguing that “the England of the tenth and eleventh centuries will be found utterly lacking in all qualities which make a state strong and keep it efficient.”  It’s another debatable point that doesn’t consider the broader socio-economic context and seems belied by much of the research reflected in the other books that I have read for this project. While those authors had decades of subsequent scholarship upon which to draw, it’s a conclusion that fits a little too neatly with Stenton’s leanings to dismiss entirely as a reflection of a lack of evidence to the contrary.

Having set up the context for the Conquest, Stenton moves on to recount William’s career as a duke in an account that is heavy on politics and military campaigns. He gives considerable attention to Normandy’s feudal institutions, which Stenton sees as the key to Normandy’s success as a state. Again, the contrast is with England under the Scandinavians, though Stenton undercuts his own argument with a grudging acknowledgement that “Cnut ruled England with such strictness and justice that on the eve of the Norman Conquest his reign was still regarded as a model of good government,” and adds that William went on to adopt Cnut’s law code “with only minor adjustments.”

When it comes to the Conquest another of Stenton’s idiosyncrasies emerges. While he accepts the Norman stories of Harold’s oath to William at face value (never taking into consideration the circumstances behind that oath or the lengths William subsequently went to in order to ensure that his interpretation of the events was the dominant one), Stenton seems particularly agitated by the witan’s awarding of the throne to Harold, concluding that even though the Conquest proved a catastrophe for the English,  “at least it saved England from the perils of an elective monarchy.”

Stenton is similarly derisive of Harold’s prospects as king, regarding him as doomed to preside over a disintegrating kingdom. This has the effect of reading the post-Conquest uprisings William faced as inevitable rather than particular to his rule. It’s an unprovable contention, of course, and one that again underscores Stenton’s pro-William leanings by serving as an excuse – along with damage to the Anglo-Saxon state by the “shock” of the Conquest – for the regime he imposed on England during his two decades on the throne. His description of the feudal state is detailed, but very top-down and with only passing acknowledgement of the costs of this for his English subjects.

As I read Stenton’s book I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of it in his later years. Given that his subsequent work adopted a more measured assessment of the merits of the Anglo-Saxon state I suspect that he may have regretted some of his early judgments of William and his rule. Perhaps he hoped that the age of his work would help it pass into obscurity, little anticipating how the combination of e-texts and the reversion of his book to the public domain makes it today the most widely available biography of William. This is unfortunate, because for all of the clarity of Stenton’s description of Norman feudalism and English administration it’s a book that is far too dated to serve as a study of William that people today should rely upon exclusively – as I’m sure Stenton himself would agree.