Review of “William the Conqueror” by George Slocombe

One of the more interesting differences between the biographies of William the Conqueror and those of his predecessors is the greater percentage of them that have been written by non-historians. This is probably due to a combination of factors, namely the greater amount of material available about William and his epochal role in English history. One of the consequences of this is not just a greater number of books about William’s life but a greater diversity of approaches as well in terms of recounting it.

Among the writers who brings a different approach to understanding William’s life is George Slocombe. A journalist rather than an academically-trained historian, Slocome spent several years as a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Herald before leaving to focus on writing books. Though most of what he wrote was nonfiction, he also penned a couple of novels, including one built around a thinly-fictionalized account of Benito Mussolini.

In his introduction, Slocome states that his goal in the book was to recount William’s life in as clear and straightforward a manner as possible. In this respect his book is an unqualified success, as it offers one of the most comprehensible overviews of William’s life that I have yet encountered. It’s a narrative that focuses heavily on the political and military dimensions of William’s life, charting his various campaigns and personal relationships with the key rulers of his era. Slocombe’s chapter titles underscore this approach, as many of them feature the name of an important individual in that point in William’s reign (such as Emma of Normandy or Hereward the Wake) in a way that points to his focus in them.

Yet for all of the clarity of Slocombe’s writing and the soundness of his judgments, his approach hobbled his presentation of William’s life in some important respects. His book is very imbalanced in its coverage of William’s life, with over a third of his book’s 263 pages covering the context of the succession dispute and the events of 1066. Such a focus compresses his coverage of William’s rule as duke and his governance as king. Exacerbating this issue is the minimal coverage of the context behind his activities and decisions: Slocombe’s book lacks any of the details of the institutions of Norman life, and while he does provide some background for the political developments it comes up short when compared to some of the other biographies of William that I’ve read to this point.

I’m sure that none of these criticisms would have bothered Slocombe, as they reflected the choices he made to write the book he wanted. And in terms of his goals he succeeded in producing a fine overview of his subject. Yet while it can still serve today as someone’s introduction to William’s life it should be no means be the only book they read about it, as there is far too much missing to serve as the last word on the king.

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