Review of “William II: Rufus, the Red King” by Emma Mason

It’s no exaggeration to say that Emma Mason’s 2005 biography of William Rufus is the product of a career spent studying the king. For nearly thirty years Mason, who taught medieval history at Birkbeck College and wrote several well-regrade books on the era, has written a series of articles about William and his historical reputation. The latter undoubtedly made her a natural choice when the editors of Tempus’s “English Monarchs” series were looking for someone to contribute a volume on William’s life and reign.

Mason hearkens back to her work in her first chapter, which examines the evolution of William’s historical reputation and the importance of his reign. It’s an approach that allows her to address the sources of the negative judgments of William (Orderic Vitalis being the primary culprit) and how this has led modern historians to underrate the importance of William’s reign. It’s written with the patient determination of someone who has spent decades making the case for greater study of William’s achievements, and it certainly makes the case for the book that follows.

From there Mason delves into her subject’s life. Her approach is mainly chronological, as in seven chapters she walks her readers through the events of William’ life, from his birth through his untimely death. While it lacks the chapter-length coverage of the institutions of Norman England that Frank Barlow provides, she does supply context within the chapters themselves. This lack’s Barlow’s depth, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off in terms of the pacing of her book and it ensures that her focus remains unwaveringly on the king himself.

Most of Mason’s book is devoted to the political and military history of William’s reign. It’s one in which assesses events in light of her critical assessment of the sources, occasionally challenging the traditional story (such as with Anselm’s selection as Archbishop of Canterbury) with a combination of details and logic. For the most part this is well done, but there are two areas where her examination differs from that of William’s other biographers. The first of these is with regards to William’s sexuality, where she adopts a more circumspect approach than Barlow and ultimately dismisses the question as unanswerable. This contrasts dramatically with her coverage of William’s death. While she doesn’t state outright that she believes that William was assassinated, the pages she spends detailing the events of his death and her consideration about the possible culprits suggests that she is far more open to the possibility that his death was intended rather than accidental.

Mason’s indulgence in such speculation adds a melodramatic air to an otherwise thoughtful study of William’s life and times. It certainly explains why her publisher went the more sensational subtitle “The Life and Murder of William II of England” for the paperback edition. This shouldn’t obscure, however, the quality of Mason’s perceptive and thoughtful book. As a study of William Rufus it offers a nice balance of detail and concision for the reader seeking to learn something about him, as well as a strong case for why his achievements deserve greater acknowledgement than they have received over the centuries.

Review of “William II: The Red King” by John Gillingham

One of the things I’m learning from my ongoing effort to read biographies of all of the British monarchs is the importance of scale. When I started this project my preference when it came to histories and biographies was for big books on the subjects in which I was interested. While I did understand the value of the quick overview, usually what I enjoy more is reading a work that provides an all-encompassing account of its subject, one that leaves my interest in it fully sated. As I read multiple works in succession on the same subject, however, I began to appreciate the virtues of a shorter account that trades comprehensiveness for a focus that allows important points to stand out better. Less can indeed be more in that respect.

No book better demonstrates this lesson for me than John Gillingham’s biography of William Rufus. Having recently finished Frank Barlow’s substantive study, I felt as though I had a good understanding of the man and his reign. Gillingham disabused me of this notion with his very first chapter. Entitled “The Personality of the King,” it’s a masterful examination of the development of William’s historical reputation. In it he challenges the negative image William has been saddled with for centuries by tracing its origins to Eadmer’s hagiographies of Anselm of Canterbury, in which William was often portrayed as a moral foil. Once such biases are taken into consideration, the William who emerges from the surviving sources is an easy-going man with a sense of humor, whose opposition to the efforts to impose celibacy on clerics may have been more popular than religious reformers would have liked to admit.

From there Gillingham launches into a brisk overview of William’s life and times. This he does in a series of thematic chapters, starting with William’s early years and his assumption to the throne, then focusing on various aspects of his reign: relations with the Church, William’s military campaigns and relations with other kingdoms, sex life at the court, and contemporary society. These he addresses with the efficient assuredness of someone with a masterful understanding of the era and a command of the literature about it, yet he avoids the sort of assumptions of his readers’ knowledge that this usually engenders. Though his final chapter is dramatically entitled “Assassination,” he spends the book’s last few pages critically dismissing such claims, ending with the comment that “[w]e cannot say whether or not Rufus was assassinated; we can be more confident that he was the target of an attempted character assassination.”

Such pithy observations are typical of Gillingham’s fine book. In it he offers a great balance of detail, context, and analysis that brings William Rufus alive in a way that Barlow’s more detailed study doesn’t. It’s a superbly revisionist work that convincingly rehabilitates his subject against the disparagements of William’s earliest chroniclers. Other monarchs should be so fortunate as to enjoy such treatment, especially in a work that is written in a way that is so accessible to a general audience.

Review of “William Rufus” by Frank Barlow

Frank Barlow’s biography of William Rufus is the second book of his that I have read for this project. Originally published in 1983, it was his second (and final) contribution to the “English Monarchs” series, following on his biography of William’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor. Given how excellent I found his study of Edward’s life, I approached this one with high expectations, which Barlow met in every respect.

Barlow divides his examination of William into three parts. The first and third of these offer a chronological account of William’s life from his childhood in Normandy up to his death in 1100. While the focus of these chapters is on William’s political and military activities, they bracket three chapters that describe William’s court, his household, and the workings of the Anglo-Norman state. They serve as an excellent introduction to early Norman England, and provide an excellent explanation of the various offices that existed, the roles they served, and the parts they played in the king’s government and his everyday activities. Even if it sometimes felt like a distraction from Barlow’s main subject, it proves key to his argument about his subject’s historical significance and a fine compliment to his coverage of William’s actions.

The middle section bears reading even for people already familiar with the era, as it’s where Barlow fleshes out important aspects of William’s personality. This he often does in contrast with his brothers Robert and Henry, noting that while William may not have been as clever as either of them, he made up for it in terms of his martial abilities. This mattered more during that era, both in dealing with the numerous conflicts that broke out (starting with a rebellion the year after William took the throne) and in winning the respect of the ruling elite. Barlow also makes the point that William was smart enough to manage his kingdom effectively enough that he ensured the preservation of the Norman regime that was his father’s most important achievement.

Barlow also addresses at length two controversies surrounding William’s reputation. The first of these is the question of William’s sexuality. This I found particularly interesting, as he uses it to discuss more generally the concepts of sexuality that existed in the 11th century West. His description of the single-sex social worlds that existed for the elites back then (military life, monastic communities, etc.) make it clear that homosexuality was far from unknown, even if it was opposed by the church. As for William himself Barlow concludes that he was most likely bisexual, with his delay in marrying proving problematic only because of his premature death. That his death came a hunting accident has long made it fodder for conspiracy theorists who suggested that it was a staged assassination.  Barlow treats such arguments with skepticism, charting the evolution of such claims to show how they were less the product of contemporary observation than the much later theorizing of writers with no firsthand knowledge of events.

The combination of careful reasoning and deft employment of sources Barlow employs to make this point reflects his approach throughout the book, and one of the reasons why it’s such an impressive biography of his subject. His main thesis – that through continuity with his father’s reign, William Rufus ensured the endurance of the centralized Norman regime – is a convincing one, and underscores how undeserved his historical neglect has been. Fortunately, Barlow’s biography goes a long way towards addressing this problem.

Review of “William the Conqueror” (Yale English Monarchs) by David Bates

How does one improve upon a classic? This is perhaps the foremost question that David Bates faced when he agreed to write a new volume on William the Conqueror’s life for the Yale English Monarchs series. As one of the foremost scholars of his generation on Normandy and having previously written a short biography of William, Bates was well suited for the task. Yet undertaking the project must have been a daunting one, as doing so involved nothing less than an effort to supersede David Douglas’s superb biography of William published a half century before for the English Monarchs series.

That Douglas’s book casts a long shadow is evident from the prologue, which is more about Douglas and Bates’s engagement with his book than it is about William himself. It’s an approach that not only acknowledges the enormous impact of Douglas’s work in shaping our understanding today of William, but it also heralds his approach in the rest of the book, which is to dig down to the truth of William’s life and reign by evaluating what was written about William and the possible motivations behind the often-contradictory materials available.

This becomes clear when Bates shifts his attention in the chapters that follow to William’s life. Here he addresses openly the basic problem facing all historians writing about their subjects, which is how to weigh the fragmentary sources in order to determine which ones provide the most accurate understanding of their subjects. While many authors writing about the era undertake this task privately and simply present their conclusions, such an exercise can create a false sense of certainty that fails to explain the contradictions. What Bates does instead is show his process by presenting the conflicts in the source material and explaining the reasons for his conclusions. It’s a superb example of historical argumentation, made with the assuredness borne of a lifetime of study.

What emerges is a careful examination of William’s life that is supported by the latest research into the period. Unlike so many of William’s other biographers, Bates does not devote separate chapters to examining aspects of his subject’s life, such as his governance of Normandy or his relationship with the Church. Instead, these are addressed within the chapters themselves, as he moves seamlessly from topic to topic. It makes for a far more cohesive study of William’s life, and one that is a further reflection of Bates’s understanding of it. I can’t recall the last time that I read a biography in which the author’s command of his subject was so obvious.

One consequence of his approach is that Bates’s steers clear of many of the more dramatic stories about William’s life favored by some of the king’s other biographers. Nowhere in here, for example, does he mention the more romantic accounts of his courtship of Matilda, while the tale of the assassination attempt on William as a young duke is treated with a degree of skepticism. This is of a piece with Bates’s demonstration of how much of William’s life was chronicled for effect, to present a curated image for subsequent generations. It’s a more detailed deconstruction of William’s image in the records than many other biographers have engaged in, and it’s all the more welcome because of it.

Yet Bates never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a book about a person. In place of dramatic anecdotes that were likely posthumous inventions, Bates builds from his assessments a sense of what William was like as a person and a monarch. It’s a fascinating exercise that is of a piece with his critical evaluation of the surviving accounts, and it is one that reflects his many years studying William and his times. By assessing the sources by making observations drawn from the factual record, he constructs gradually a portrait of William as a canny ruler and skillful general who demonstrated throughout his reign a considerable respect for the Church. Bates’s approach also leads him to push back against the sugarcoating of his brutal rule over England in the accounts from the era of his reign, showing how the surviving records paint a much harsher picture of the effects of the Conquest than the ones supplied by many of his chroniclers.

Bates ends his book with a call for a refocused approach to the era, one that does not see the events of 1066 as a dividing line but instead as one development in a period stretching from Alfred the Great to the mid-13th century. This approach, he argues, would provide a better perspective from which to assess William’s impact on not just English history, but that of western Europe during that era. This reflects the penetrating and at times provocative way in which he engages with William’s life within his book. Though the facts are consistent with the accounts in all of the other biographies of the Conqueror that I have read, Bates’s analysis offers a deeper appreciation of them than in any of them. In every respect it’s an exceptional biography of William, one that easily supplants Douglas’s work as the new standard for understanding his life and achievements.

Review of “William: King and Conqueror” by Mark Hagger

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.

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.

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.

Review of “William the Conqueror” by Thomas B. Costain

The Landmark Books series was a staple of public libraries throughout the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Geared towards elementary and middle-school students, they provided accessible and entertaining accounts of a range of historical topics. While the books initially focused on American subjects, a spinoff series, “World Landmark Books,” took on everything from the pharaohs to the Korean War. For a generation of readers, they served as their introduction to the subject – and quite possibly the only book they might ever read about it.

Among the subjects of the World Landmark series was William the Conqueror. To tell the story of his life the editors turned to Thomas Costain, a Canadian journalist who became a prolific author of books. While the author of over a half-dozen works of English history, he enjoyed his greatest success as a historical novelist, with Black Rose, his tale of an Oxford student in the time of Edward I who falls in love with an escaped harem girl while on his way to China, becoming a runaway success when it was published in 1945.

Given Costain’s background, it’s easy to see why he would be commissioned to write a biography of William for a series geared towards young readers. His literary skills are on full display in its pages, as he turns the story of William’s life into an extended account of derring-do. The dramatic is emphasized throughout the book, from the opening chapter when his father Robert (whom Costain insists on identifying as “Robert the Devil” without explaining the legend associated with it) introduces young William as his successor before his fateful trip to the Holy Lands. From there William survives a series of narrow escapes from death (which are played up in a way that might have given George R. R. Martin pause) as he matures into a strapping young warrior renowned for his strength and wisdom.

While Costain describes the Norman background and William’s fight to control Normandy, his focus is very much on the William’s quest for the English throne. His description of 11th century England leans into facile depictions that were outdated even when he wrote them: Æthelred is dismissed as “a weak and slack ruler,” while medieval hagiographers would have little reason to quibble with his description of Edward the Confessor. Though Harold’s oath-breaking receives a disproportionate amount of attention, he is otherwise portrayed surprisingly sympathetically.

Nevertheless, Costain’s emphasis is on the validity of William’s claim to rule England. This he portrays as a lifelong ambition, with many longing gazes across the English Channel. The story of the Conquest takes up roughly half of the book, with the focus after the battle of Hastings on William’s pacification campaigns and Hereward’s resistance in particular. By contrast Normandy disappears from Costain’s narrative, despite the fact that it remained the focus of his activities for the remainder of his life. Whether this was Costain’s choice or an editorial one made with the book’s audience in mind, it leaves the reader with a distorted sense of William’s life as he lived it.

This is not the only questionable choice in the book, however. Far more problematic is Costain’s indulgence throughout it in artistic license. The book is seeded with dialogue of doubtful validity, as well as descriptions of inner thoughts and feelings that are pure invention on the author’s part. While this contributes to the elements of the narrative that make it an engaging read – undoubtedly a key goal of Costain’s work – they create a “William the Conqueror” in his book that is more the product of his imagination than of the available accounts.

As admirable as Costain’s effort is to create a biography of William that appeals to children, it results in a figure that is in many ways more of a caricature than an accurate portrayal of the man. His reliance on the cringeworthy tale of William’s forceful courtship of Matilda is perhaps the best example of this: a likely apocryphal event that is presented as fact and even as acceptable behavior because of its result. For Costain, it seems, the truth should never get in the way of a good story, no matter how distorting it may prove. While this approach may have made for a book that entertained many young readers, it certainly doesn’t result in one that deserves to be read today.

Review of “William the Conqueror” by Hilaire Belloc

Today the title of “man of letters” is an informal label usually applied to writers, scholars, or people with broad knowledge. In the Victorian era, however, the phrase had a more specific meaning. In those days it referred to the public intellectual who wrote works that usually addressed issues of contemporary interest or concern. These authors often ranged across a variety of subjects and genres, sometimes gaining renown as authors of both fictional and nonfictional works, which was a testament both to their literary skill and the reading public’s broad-minded views towards their authority.

Hilaire Belloc can be counted among their number. Over the course of half a century he wrote dozens of books, an output that ranged from children’s verses and novels to travelogues and works of history. Many of those latter works (particularly the ones about the Reformation) were heavily influenced by Belloc’s Catholic faith, which has led him to be pigeonholed as a “Catholic historian.” Whether this is fair or not, given how prominently he wore his faith I doubt it bothered him all that much.

One consequence of this identification is that Catholic presses have ensured that most of Belloc’s works remain in print. Among them is his short 1933 biography of William the Conqueror, and when I started it I quickly came to appreciate Belloc’s skills as a writer. It’s an incredibly fluid narrative, which it needs to be as Belloc wrote it not as a chapter-by-chapter account but as a single unbroken work – more of an extended essay than a subdivided biographical study. It’s difficult to see where such chapter divisions could have been inserted, as the text transitions smoothly from topic to topic with nary the need for a break.

Belloc’s book also stands out as the most biographically-focused study of William of any that I have read so far. While not neglecting the context (especially when it comes to Church-related matters), Belloc concentrates his narrative on the details of William’s life. The contrast with the other William biographies that I have read is striking: there is little explanation of Norman feudalism or the French politics that were the preeminent concerns of William’s early years, as Belloc concentrates primarily on relating the basic facts of William’s early life.

Whereas William’s French background is largely unexplored, the English context receives more substantial attention. Here he focuses on the validity of William’s claims to the English throne, arguing for its superiority over that of Harold. A lot of his analysis is dated, as is his depiction of Edward the Confessor, which comes close to the “holy fool” depictions of medieval hagiography. Had I not read Stenton’s book I wouldn’t have known how dated Belloc’s take was even then. He is equally credulous in accepting the greatly exaggerated figures for both the size of William’s invasion force and the contingents at the battle of Hastings, which had been contested by historians long before Belloc put pen to paper.

Belloc concludes his book with a potted description of William’s two decades on the throne that leaves out much detail. In this it’s reflective of the book as a whole: a smooth description of William’s life, but ultimately a lacking one in providing a sense of his policies as England’s ruler or the context in which events took place. While one of the most readable books that I have yet encountered for this project, this only goes so far towards mitigating the deficiencies in Belloc’s work. Other William biographers may not come up to his standards in terms of providing a readable narrative, but the accuracy and utility of their accounts far surpass those of Belloc’s shallow and ultimately unsatisfying text.

Review of “William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans” by Frank Merry Stenton

In the twentieth century, there was no greater historian of Anglo-Saxon England than Sir Frank Stenton. A former president of the Royal Historical Society, he literally wrote the book on the era, as his volume on it for the “Oxford History of England” series endures today as a standard text on the subject. Published in 1943, it reflected his decades of study about the era, and was updated twice to reflect subsequent discoveries and judgments.

By contrast, his biography of William the Conqueror for Putnam’s “Heroes of the Nations” series was written early in his career, well before he established his reputation in the field. Reading it today, what stands out most is the degree to which it is very much a product of its time. Compared to the more recently published biographies of William that I have up to this point Stenton parades his prejudices proudly, making it clear where his sympathies lie. This comes across from the start, with an introduction that provides a snobbish overview of Scandinavian history, citing its failure to hold onto England as the reason for the decline in its importance. Whether possessing England alone would have extended the Viking era in European history is an arguable point at best, but it one that advertises Stenton’s patriotism well enough.

More surprising is his assessment of Anglo-Saxon England. Basing it on the kingdom’s government and its feudal structures, he regards it as weak and unstable, arguing that “the England of the tenth and eleventh centuries will be found utterly lacking in all qualities which make a state strong and keep it efficient.”  It’s another debatable point that doesn’t consider the broader socio-economic context and seems belied by much of the research reflected in the other books that I have read for this project. While those authors had decades of subsequent scholarship upon which to draw, it’s a conclusion that fits a little too neatly with Stenton’s leanings to dismiss entirely as a reflection of a lack of evidence to the contrary.

Having set up the context for the Conquest, Stenton moves on to recount William’s career as a duke in an account that is heavy on politics and military campaigns. He gives considerable attention to Normandy’s feudal institutions, which Stenton sees as the key to Normandy’s success as a state. Again, the contrast is with England under the Scandinavians, though Stenton undercuts his own argument with a grudging acknowledgement that “Cnut ruled England with such strictness and justice that on the eve of the Norman Conquest his reign was still regarded as a model of good government,” and adds that William went on to adopt Cnut’s law code “with only minor adjustments.”

When it comes to the Conquest another of Stenton’s idiosyncrasies emerges. While he accepts the Norman stories of Harold’s oath to William at face value (never taking into consideration the circumstances behind that oath or the lengths William subsequently went to in order to ensure that his interpretation of the events was the dominant one), Stenton seems particularly agitated by the witan’s awarding of the throne to Harold, concluding that even though the Conquest proved a catastrophe for the English,  “at least it saved England from the perils of an elective monarchy.”

Stenton is similarly derisive of Harold’s prospects as king, regarding him as doomed to preside over a disintegrating kingdom. This has the effect of reading the post-Conquest uprisings William faced as inevitable rather than particular to his rule. It’s an unprovable contention, of course, and one that again underscores Stenton’s pro-William leanings by serving as an excuse – along with damage to the Anglo-Saxon state by the “shock” of the Conquest – for the regime he imposed on England during his two decades on the throne. His description of the feudal state is detailed, but very top-down and with only passing acknowledgement of the costs of this for his English subjects.

As I read Stenton’s book I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of it in his later years. Given that his subsequent work adopted a more measured assessment of the merits of the Anglo-Saxon state I suspect that he may have regretted some of his early judgments of William and his rule. Perhaps he hoped that the age of his work would help it pass into obscurity, little anticipating how the combination of e-texts and the reversion of his book to the public domain makes it today the most widely available biography of William. This is unfortunate, because for all of the clarity of Stenton’s description of Norman feudalism and English administration it’s a book that is far too dated to serve as a study of William that people today should rely upon exclusively – as I’m sure Stenton himself would agree.