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.

On to William Rufus!

William Rufus, who contrary to the artwork proved unable to catch arrows with his hands

After spending a year (!) reading about the life of William the Conqueror, it’s time to move on to his son and successor, William II. Known by the cognomen William Rufus (for unclear reasons), he was William’s third son and the inheritor of the English half of the Conqueror’s divided kingdom, thanks to the death of his elder brother Richard a dozen years before. Though regarded as a man of dubious moral character by his contemporaries, he was nonetheless a strong ruler and successful military commander before his reign was cut short just thirteen years after taking the throne by a hunting accident in New Forest.

Perhaps because of the gravitational mass of attention exerted by his father’s reign, there are only three modern biographies available about William Rufus. Fortunately, all three are the product of experienced authors, and promise an interesting range of perspectives on his life and times. The first one that I’m going to read is Frank Barlow’s 1983 biography of William for the English Monarchs series. Given how excellent his earlier book on Edward the Confessor for the series was, I’m looking forward to reading this one.

After that I’m moving on to John Gillingham’s 2015 book William II: The Red King. Gillingham is an extremely prolific scholar of medieval history, and his book is just the first of several biographies of English monarchs that he’s written that I expect to read for this project. Like Barlow’s it’s also a part of a series (in his case, Penguin Monarchs) that I’ve come to appreciate for the editorial standards they apply.

The final book of the three that I’m reading about William Rufus is Emma Mason 2005 book William II: Rufus, the Red King. Like the others this is part of a series about English monarchs, which seems the only way that some of England’s less-famous kings receive the attention of biographers. Later editions of her book are subtitled “The Life and Murder of William II of England,” which if it’s indicative of the content suggests a conspiratorial take on William’s death. Will she end up proving to be the Oliver Stone of medieval English royal biography? I will find out soon enough.