Just one book on . . . William II

To be honest this was a post that I have not looked forward to writing. This wasn’t because I haven’t enjoyed reading about William Rufus – quite the contrary. The three books I read each provided interesting examinations of his life and times, all of which made an excellent case for him as a successful and under-appreciated monarch. And therein lay the problem I’ve been avoiding, which was deciding which was the one book I’d recommend reading about him if forced to choose.

Granted, this is very much of a self-imposed problem, but it gets to one of my goals with thus project. Not everyone has the luxury of reading every available biography of a given monarch, and deciding which single book to recommend requires me to assess them a little differently than if I were to ask which one should be the “first” book one should read, or the “best” book one should read. And until now, the challenge hasn’t been especially onerous. But all three of the biographies I read about William were excellent works, yet each was distinctive enough from the others to make it less a question of comparing qualities and more of deciding which strengths merited making it the one book to read about him.

For John Gillingham’s book, the strength was a brevity that didn’t sacrifice on analysis. This made his book not just an excellent introduction to William, but one of the best books I have read so far in the Penguin Monarchs series. And given the quality of the series overall, that is really saying something for his book, as up to this point there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch. It was why, when I finished it, I was sure it was the one book I’d recommend.

Then I read Frank Barlow’s volume in the (now Yale) English Monarchs series. Barlow has been one of the great discoveries for me with this project, as his biography of Edward the Confessor was easily the best of the ones that I read about him. His follow-up study of William demonstrated a similarly high level of scholarship and discernment about his subject, and had the added luxury of being able to do so in greater detail than was possible for Gillingham. By the time I read the last page, I was sure that it would be a choice between the two books.

It wasn’t far along into Emma Mason’s book, however that I discovered how I was in my assumption. While her book edges towards sensationalism by leaning into the idea that William’s death was an assassination rather than an accident, this can overshadow what is in most respects a worthwhile study of William that pushes back against both the negative judgments of many writers and the neglect that he has more recently received. In the process, her work sits halfway between Gillingham’s and Barlow’s books, as she offers the depth that Gillingham can’t while at the same time doing providing a more concise overview than does Barlow.

Hence my dilemma. In the end any assessment of which of these books is the one to read is less a determination of quality than it is of what should someone’s “one” book on a monarch provide for them. Should it offer a concision that makes for easy digestibility or a thoroughness that eliminates the need to read any other book on the subject? Or is it about the quality of the scholarship and the perceptiveness of analysis? Usually the books I’ve chosen offer strengths that more than offset what’s lacking in other respects, but with these three the balance makes it hard for any one of them to stand out. In that respect, if you’re looking for a biography of William you really can’t go wrong with any of these books.

In the end, though, the one I keep returning to in my mind as the best single book to recommend is Gillingham’s. In some respects he has an advantage in that he’s the beneficiary of the work both Barlow and Mason have done on their mutual subject, to which he adds his own formidable knowledge of medieval English history. And while it may lack the detail the others brought to their books, the picture Gillingham provides of both William and his reign is no less informative in terms of analysis or judgment. Hopefully someone interested in reading about William’s life won’t make Gillingham’s biography the only book they read about him, but if they do so they won’t have chosen poorly in terms of reading a work that does justice to its subject.

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