Just one book on . . . William I

Reading about William the Conqueror has proven to be a different experience from that for any other of the monarchs I have covered up to this point. As I noted in my first post nearly a year ago, whereas the kings I have read about to this point have been the subject of just a handful of modern biographies, William has been the beneficiary of the attention of dozens of authors, resulting in a wealth of books about him. While I have focused on just the biographies written about him, even there I limited myself to a dozen ranging from short books aimed towards younger readers to hefty tomes of academic distinction.

This variety has made what was a relatively straightforward much more difficult. Until now one book has usually stood out as the “go-to” recommendation that I would make for someone seeking the best single biography about a king. The sheer number of books about William I and the variety of approaches they offer, however, make such a recommendation difficult. Which to choose?

To make this task easier, I grouped the twelve biographies of William that I read into one of three categories. The first of these, consisting of Thomas Costain’s 1959 book Elizabeth Luckock’s 1966 study, are works that were aimed specifically at the juvenile market. While this in itself doesn’t disqualify them from consideration, their age and their favoring of (likely apocryphal) story over substance compares poorly with the other options available to the interested reader.

The second category consist of books about William aimed toward the general reader. In this (admittedly more arbitrary defined) category I have grouped the majority of the books I have read, including Hillaire Belloc’s short study, George Slocombe’s 1961 book, Ashley’s glossy 1973 work, David Bates’s short 1989 biography, and the books by Peter Rex, Mark Hagger, and Marc Morris that have been published over the past decade. With the exception of Belloc’s extended essay, all of these books provide effective introductions to William’s life, with Bates’s book in particular being of noteworthy quality. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but even the best of these only scratches the surface of their subject.

Finally, there’s the three works by scholars of Anglo-Norman history that stand out for their pedigree: Frank Stenton’s William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans and the two contributions to the ongoing (now Yale) English Monarchs series by David Douglas and David Bates. Stenton’s book served as the gold standard for English-language biographies of William for over half a century, yet its age and the wealth of scholarship in the century since its publication recommend against it. Douglas’s book is harder to dismiss; while it’s also getting long in the tooth, it’s still a rewarding reading. Yet in just about every respect Bates’s 2016 book is a worth successor, and has supplanted it in every respect.

What qualifies any recommendation of Bates’s newer biography, however, is the demands it places on its reader. While I found it an enjoyable read, I came to it after reading nearly a dozen books about William, not to mention works on Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. Given how Bates expects a degree of familiarity with William’s life, I found myself wondering at times how accessible it would be to a reader new to the subject. In that respect, his shorter 1989 book, which is geared towards an audience new to the subject, is the better choice.

In the end, however, I found Bates’s longer book simply too compelling not to choose. For all of its assumptions of the reader’s knowledge of its subject – and perhaps in part because of them – it delivers the best, most comprehensive, and up-to-date account of William and his reign. It’s simply too good of a book not to recommend if someone is only going to read just one biography about the Conqueror: if anything, the choice to read only a single work on William makes it even more important that his is that book.

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