Review of “The Life and Times of William I” by Maurice Ashley

Up to this point, the majority of the biographies of English monarchs that I have read for my project were written specifically for a series produced by a publisher. The more of these I read, the more I wonder about the selection process that the editors employ in choosing authors for the various volumes. Oftentimes the choice seems an obvious one, as was probably the case of Frank Barlow with Edward the Confessor, or Richard Abels for one about Æthelred. With others, though, the author’s qualifications make their selection a little more puzzling. Were they the best choice, or simply the best one available?

I suspect that the latter might have been the case when Maurice Ashley was commissioned to write a volume on William the Conqueror for Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. Ashley’s background is a fascinating one: a graduate of Oxford, he worked as a literary assistant for Winston Churchill when the future prime minister wrote his biography of the Duke of Marlborough. This led to a distinguished career as a journalist and editor, during which he wrote a number of histories and biographies. While his credentials as a historian are impeccable, though, his training and focus for most of his career was as a historian of the 17th century. This would make him a natural choice to author a book on Charles I or James II, yet instead he was asked to write a biography of a monarch who reigned seven centuries earlier. It certainly makes for an odd fit between his specialty and the subject.

In some ways, however, it may have been an asset, as free from the lifetime immersion in his subject may have aided Ashley in writing a highly accessible introduction to his subject. Doing so involved familiarizing himself not just with 11th century England but contemporary Normandy as well, and after months spent focused on the Anglo-Saxon world I found it to be a refreshing change of pace. I took a lot from Ashley’s chapter on William’s dukedom, and it certainly sharpened my desire to learn more about it.

Yet Ashley’s focus is understandably on the kingdom Duke William conquered. This he covers in four chapters, providing both a description of his realm and how William asserted his control over it. The most interesting of these chapters was his one on feudalism, as Ashley provides a clear explanation that nonetheless offers a nuanced description of it. Like his chapter on Normandy, it points to another topic that I expect will get more detailed coverage in the other biographies of William awaiting me, and one that I look forward to reading with much anticipation.

Though it may seem as though I found Ashley’s book dissatisfying, it was anything but. His well-illustrated volume does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide a comprehensible introduction to William and his era. Whether the foundation he provides is a firm one remains to be seen (though his reliance on Douglas’s book, which is the next stop on my tour through the literature, suggests that it is), but it certainly sets the standard for judging the other books that seek to make William’s world intelligible to the modern reader. I look forward to discovering if any of its counterparts can match it.

On to William the Conqueror!

William of Normandy with his brothers Odo and Robert. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

With William the Conqueror, my reading project reaches a milestone, as I transition from the Anglo-Saxon era of kings to those of the Norman dynasty. This is more than just a symbolic point, as from this point onward the source of external influence on England shifts away from Scandinavia and towards western Europe, a change of enduring significance for not just English history, but for that of Europe and indeed the world as well.

While this broadens the scope of the subjects that I will be reading about, it has other implications for my project as well. Until now the limited number of modern biographies of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs meant that it was possible for me to read all of them for the purposes of my assessment. This is going to become more difficult the further I go, as the number of biographies of any given monarch start to proliferate. This creates a dilemma: while I could try to read all of them it would make my project extremely tedious and a lot less enjoyable for me, yet reading multiple biographies of a monarch is the very point of this site.

As a result, while I will continue to read as many royal biographies as possible, I will start to do so more selectively. When faced with a greater number of biographies than I can reasonably manage, I will choose the ones I read based on three factors. The first is availability, as I will make it a point to read the most popularly known ones which are often the ones readers are most likely to encounter. The second is importance, as determined by the degree to which those biographies have been relied upon in shaping our understanding of that monarch. And finally, I will favor the ones that have been more recently published and thus are likely to incorporate new discoveries and interpretations of their reigns.

In selecting the ones for William, I came up with a list of a dozen biographies. The first one from this pool of titles is Maurice Ashley’s volume on William for Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. I chose it as my first foray into William’s life based on Richard Humble’s volume, which impressed me for the clarity of its account. I look forward to seeing if Ashley measures up to the bar Humble set in that respect.

Next I plan on reading David Charles Douglas’s William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact on England. It’s a notable book in several respects, as it was the inaugural volume of the English Monarchs series and a book that served as foundation for understanding William’s life for over a generation afterward. It will be interesting to see how well it holds up today.

After that I will turn to three more recent works. The first of these is David Bates’s 1989 biography of William, which has been republished in several editions since then. Though evidently geared towards the novice, I’m anticipating it for reasons that will soon be clear. Then it’s on to Peter Rex’s William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, which, if his other books are anything to go by, should be a good summary of his life and reign. I will follow that up with Marc Morris’s biography of William for the Penguin Monarchs series. This is the first of several of Morris’s books that I anticipate reading for this site, and I’m looking forward to this first sampling of his analysis and writing style.

Once I finish these more recent biographies I plan on turning my attention to some of the older works on William. The first of these is Frank Stenton’s 1908 book William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans. Stenton was a legendary Anglo-Saxon historian, and it will be interesting to see how well his century-old take on William has aged. After that I’m going to take on Hillaire Belloc 1933 biography of William, which I’m looking forward to primarily because of the reputation of its author. Then it’s on to three biographies by Thomas B. Costain, George Slocombe, and Elizabeth Luckock that were all written just before Douglas came out with his subject-defining work. Costain’s is also notable for being a work specifically aimed at younger readers, and I’m curious to read how William’s life was pitched for them.

Finally, I plan on wrapping up my exploration of biographies of William of Normandy with two recently published books about him. The first is by Mark Hagger, and seems to be geared towards a broader audience. The other is by David Bates, who wrote a successor to David Charles Douglas’s book on William for the (now Yale) English Monarchs series. The combination of Bates’s longtime familiarity with William and the high editorial standards set by the series makes this one an especially intriguing volume for me, and a fitting capstone to my extended exploration of the Conqueror’s life.

Review of “The Saxon and Norman Kings” by Christopher Brooke

As I noted in one of my previous posts, biographies of Saxon monarchs are thin on the ground. The same is true of surveys of them as a group; other than Humble’s book, the only modern study is Christopher Brooke’s overview of the subject. First published in 1963, it was the first book in a six-volume “British Monarchy” series originally published by Batsford, which was subsequently issued in paperback by Fontana and reprinted frequently enough that copies can still be found today on the shelves of many secondhand bookshops.

Brooke begins his book by acknowledging the problems every biographer of Saxon monarchs faces, which is the paucity of sources available for a monarch-centric study. Because of this, instead of simply trying to detail the lives of the monarchs under his purview he focuses instead on describing the evolution of the English monarchy itself. While he faces similar constraints in doing so, this allows him to draw upon a wider range of resources (such as the epic poem Beowulf) to make inferences and develop conclusions as to how the institution of the monarchy emerged and developed into the form it held by the 11th century.

Brooke’s approach is most evident in the first three chapters of his book. In these he defines what constituted English kingship, how kings were chosen, and the duties of the early medieval English monarch. What emerges from these pages is a tale of an institution that developed from a blend of Germanic and Christian influences shaped by the demands of politics and government in early medieval England. He makes it clear that this is a monarchy very different from the “classical” conception of it in later medieval times, with hereditary claims often weighing less than political circumstances and raw military power. Brooke also notes the limitations of the sources when it came to understanding the duties of a king – from them it is easy to get the impression that all kings did was hunt, wage war, and drink afterward – but he explains as well how they inform our understanding of the qualities of a king that mattered to contemporaries.

From here Brooke turns his attention to the emergence of the English monarchy in the Anglo-Saxon period. At this point his narrative becomes more conventionally biographical, but especially in his chapters on the early Saxon kings his emphasis is on what they did to build a single realm and the monarchy which would rule it. It is with Alfred that Brooke’s book settles into providing a focused assessment of a particular king based on his achievements, which he does for most of the later monarchs in the period he is covering as well. His judgments are more qualified from those of Humble and the two differ in their assessments of the Saxon kings in some interesting respects, as Brooke’s criticisms of Æthelred are restrained and his depiction of Edward the Confessor fits more with the “out-of-touch mystic” impression I had before starting this project than did Humble’s reevaluation of him.

Another key difference, of course, is that Brooke continues his coverage through William the Conqueror to address his dynastic successors as well. These chapters allowed Brooke to extend his analysis of the evolution of the English monarchy through the Normans, though with more material to draw upon the biographical approach predominates in these chapters. Not only did they add to the value of his assessments of the development of the English kingship, they also offered a tantalizing glimpse of the monarchs I will be covering immediately after the Anglo-Saxon era, with judgements that I look forward to revisiting when I delve more deeply into their reigns.

Though nearly six decades old, Brooke’s book continues to serve as a stimulating overview of the English monarchy in the Anglo-Saxon and Norman eras. Beyond an assumption by the author that the reader might possess a greater familiarity with the era than might be the case, its flaws are generally the result of its age, as it no longer reflects the subsequent work done on the subject. For those seeking a basic overview of the early medieval English monarchy and the role many of its kings played in developing it, though, this is a good book to read.