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.