One of the more curious aspects of the publication of nonfiction books on a given subject is their timing. Rarely do they come out at a regulated pace like the steady drip-drip-drip of water from a faucet. Instead, their appearance is often entirely random, shaped by circumstances like a writer’s decision to write a book or a publisher’s decision to commission it, the time it takes for them to produce it, and the publisher’s timetable for turning the manuscript into a finished product. Sometimes this is influenced by such outside factors as the discovery or release of new materials, the anniversaries of historical events, and an upsurge in popular interest. When some of these factors coincide, the books can flow like water from a burst dam.
In terms of William, some interesting patterns emerge. For nearly a half century Frank Stenton’s 1908 biography enjoyed a supremacy that was largely uncontested, with works such as Hillaire Belloc’s study offering a particular interpretation or geared towards a specific audience. The approaching nonacentennial of the Norman Conquest produced a wave of biographies of William, capped by David Douglas’s defining study. Then the flow of biographies slowed to a trickle, with both Maurice Ashley’s David Bates’s biographies published as part of a series rather than by any external developments.
When it comes to a subject as popular as the live of the Conqueror, however, publishers are like nature in abhorring a vacuum. In what proved a bountiful half-decade for works on the Conqueror four new biographies of William were published between 2011 and 2016. Such was the rush that when Mark Hagger’s book came out in 2012 one of the contributors to the jacket copy declared his book “the first new biography of William the Conqueror for more than two decades” – a claim that was no doubt also made for Peter Rex’s biography when it was released the year before. It certainly would have been prudent for Hagger’s publisher to ignore Rex’s book, as in providing “an accessible introduction to the life and career of William the Conqueror” both authors work towards the same goal.
What sets Hagger’s book apart from most of the biographies of William is his laser-like focus on his subject. Unlike those of his counterparts who begin with chapters providing summaries of Norman politics and William’s family background, Hagger starts with William’s birth and early years in Normandy. It’s an early indication of the economy with which Hagger recounts William’s life, as he demonstrates a fine ability to convey the essentials in a businesslike manner that never leaves anything relevant unaddressed. When he discusses the institutions of Norman role later in the book, he does so in chapters that combine his examination with that of their Anglo-Saxon analogues, which proves an efficient way of highlighting the commonalities in William’s approach and how he adjusted them to the different circumstances of 11th century Normandy and post-Conquest England.
All of this Hagger recounts in a narrative that is full of effective explanation that is accessibly written. Yet while his William is one that largely reflects the scholarly consensus embodied in the other William biographies that I’ve read to this point, he does at times offer interpretations of minor points that aren’t supported by the evidence. To say, for example, that William’s mother was “the daughter of an undertaker” is to commit with confidence to what is hardly a settled point. Hagger also doesn’t let the questionable validity of a story get in the way of their use, which enlivens his narrative but at the cost of its accuracy.
Because of this Hagger’s book should be treated with caution. While he does a nice job of using the material that was published since Bates’s book was originally released to round out our understanding of the king, at various points his efforts can lead the reader astray. Because of this, Bates’s older study serves as a more reliable introduction to William’s life, though one that Hagger’s book usefully supplements for understanding it.