Review of “William the Conqueror” by Elizabeth Luckock

While most of the writers of the books I have reviewed for this site have prominent profiles as authors and scholars, there are a few whose backgrounds are somewhat obscure. Elizabeth Luckock is in the latter category. Though she wrote three books, several articles, and a number of scripts for British radio programs, details about her background are virtually nonexistent. Even her author bio in this book is cryptically vague, explaining that she was the daughter of “a distinguished British army general” (I suppose that rules out Arthur Percival) who was “privately educated in England and Switzerland” and who traveled widely before marrying an army officer just prior to the Second World War. After the war she joined him in his various postings before they settled in “an old Tudor mill house in a peaceful English village,” which is certainly not the worst place to spend one’s later years.

It was during this period of her life that Luckock turned to writing historical biographies for younger readers, of which her slim account of William the Conqueror’s early life and conquest of England was the first. In eighteen short chapters she covers the key events of these years, from Rollo’s arrival in Normandy to William’s coronation as king of England. These she covers in a narrative account that is supplemented by pictures from the relevant portions of the Bayeux Tapestry, which she describes for her readers in an afterword to the book.

Luckock’s extensive use of the Bayeux Tapestry points to the focus of her narrative. While she addresses William’s ancestry, his assumption of the dukedom of Normandy, and his marriage to Matilda, she spends the majority of the book recounting William’s claim to the throne and the invasions of 1066. Geared towards a reader unfamiliar with William’s life or medieval history generally, it’s a very clear account that leans into the dramatic elements and doesn’t spend too much space on analysis.

Nevertheless, Luckock makes her views on William clear from the start. In the first chapter she declares him to be a “a strong and unique genius,” one who in invading England was able to accomplish what not even Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler were able to pull off. She emphasizes William’s indignation at being denied a throne promised to him by both Edward and Harold, making the Conquest into a morally straightforward matter of claiming what was rightfully his. Yet she concludes the book by noting the uneasiness with which the people of his newly-won realm greeted him, hinting at the troubles that would follow.

Luckock’s emphasis on the political drama and the course of the various battles underscores the focus of her book as one designed to hook her readers on history and entertain them while giving them the basic details about William’s life. As I read her book, however, I couldn’t help comparing it to Thomas Costain’s earlier work on William. Though Costain’s study was more problematic in several respects it provided a much more balanced account of William’s early life. While Luckock undersells the importance of these years by glossing over them in just a few paragraphs, Costain takes the space to explain how they helped shape William as a person and as a ruler.

The difference underscores the limits of Luckock’s approach. As a book that presents itself as an account of William’s early years and his first decades as duke of Normandy it falls well short of the level of coverage that the period of his life deserves. Because of this it’s more appropriate to regard Luckock’s book as a narrative of the events of 1066 that covers aspects of William’s life than as a true biography, as it’s those chapters that provide the real value of Luckock’s book for her audience.

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