Review of “William I: England’s Conqueror” by Marc Morris

Marc Morris is among the select group of historians who have established a successful career as both a writer and a broadcaster. Originally known for his work as a presenter for a BBC series on British castles, he went on to write over a half-dozen books on various aspects of English medieval history, including biographies of John and Edward I that I plan to read as part of this project and a book on the Norman Conquest that made his selection to write the biography of William the Conqueror for the Penguin Monarchs series understandable.

Another factor that undoubtedly helped is his skill as an author. His style is clear and direct, cutting through the usual qualifications in academic prose to provide a sharply-realized interpretation of the Conqueror. Unlike the previous biographies of William that I’ve read up to this point he begins not with William’s birth or the background to the era but with an account of his Christmas Day coronation that features the fires set by his guards outside of Westminster Abbey. Morris uses the incident as a way to highlight the unease and tension that the Normans felt in the aftermath of their victory at Hastings. It’s an inspired decision, and a testament to his skill as a historical writer.

From there Morris goes back to recount William’s early life. It’s a comparatively sparse account that focuses on William’s claim to the English throne – an understandable decision on Morris’s part given his remit to provide an account of William’s life in less than a hundred pages. What stands out most, though, is the pro-William case Morris makes in these pages, as he presents the details in such a way as to underscore the validity of William’s claim. Doing so helped to make William’s sense of outrage at Harold’s coronation understandable, but I couldn’t help but feel as though this was more a refection of Morris interpretation of the sources rather than the cut-and-dried case that he presents.

The chapters on the succession battles of 1066 form the heart of the book, and draw heavily upon Morris’s previous work on the subject. Though brief, Morris recounts these developments skillfully, again demonstrating his assuredness in promoting his interpretation of the available accounts. This highlights William’s boldness and the underlying effectiveness of his strategy. Yet by spending an additional chapter detailing the resistance to his conquest, Morris makes it clear that boldness and victory alone were not enough for him to establish himself as king, with persistence and ruthlessness required as well.

After recounting William’s success in consolidating his hold on the English throne, Morris spends the next two chapters describing his reign. It is here that the strength of Morris’s book leads to its main weakness: by spending so much of his limited space recounting how William became king, he has precious little left to describe William’s time as king. It’s of a piece with his earlier chapters on William’s life before his invasion of England, in which the descriptions of the Norman institutions that were included in Douglas’s, Ashley’s, and Bates’s biographies are absent.

Here’s no doubt that Morris faced tough choices when deciding how to best use the limited space available to him. By choosing to emphasize his strengths as a William biographer, however he defined the limitations of his book. While it provides a good overview of William’s life as a ruler and a fantastic concise account of the Conquest, it lacks the depth and nuance of similar introductory accounts of William’s life by other authors. It’s a good book, but one that needs to be supplemented for anyone desiring a more complete overview of his life and achievements.

Review of “William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy” by Peter Rex

Throughout this project I’ve made an effort to approach every book I read without expectations. This is a challenge for me when it comes to certain series, as their editors usually establish certain standards in terms of their selection of authors and the quality of what they’re willing to approve for publication. This is also difficult when it comes to authors whose works I have read before, as exposure to their works helps to define what I will encounter when I pick up their next volume.

This is especially true for Peter Rex. His biography of William the Conqueror is the fourth book of his that I have read for this project, and when I started reading it I couldn’t help but do so with a set of assumptions that were shaped by my experience with his previous books on Edgar, Edward the Confessor, and Harold. Most of these assumptions proved correct, as Rex again delivered an accessible and engaging account of William’s life. Yet his book was also different from his previous works in a number of important respects.

The first of these was because of his subject. Thanks to the greater amount of information available about William’s life Rex had more information to work with than he did with William’s Anglo-Saxon predecessors. This gives him an opportunity to write an account of William’s life that is much richer in detail than his earlier works. His book reflects this, as his account provides far more of a narrative of William’s life than he did in his previous biographies. Through it we follow the major events of William’s life, from his Norman background through his assertion of control through to his conquest of England and his final years, all recounted in Rex’s clear and informative style.

As interesting as Rex’s account is, though, it comes at the cost of any explanation of the institutions of the era, as well as any detailed analysis of William’s life and reign. His view that historians have read an “Anglo-Norman realm” onto a governing structure that evolved out of unrelated decisions rather than a conscious design on William’s part is an interesting one, but it is not developed beyond a couple of scattered paragraphs. Rex’s assessment of William’s personality is left to the final chapter, where it is done only cursorily and in combination with a summation of the king-duke’s legacy. Still this is more than the people around William receive, as they are usually distinguished in the text by little more than their names and position.

The overall effect is to make it a book that describes what William did and summarizes why he did it, but does not provide as good of a sense of William actions within the broader context of 11th century western Europe. This stands out especially when compared to the approach taken in the biographies of William that I have already read, which were much richer in background than Rex’s book. What he provides is a fine overview of the Conqueror’s life that can be read profitably by anyone a seeking an account of it that explains what he did and when he did it, but one that suffers somewhat when compared to the efforts of some of William’s other biographers.

Review of “William the Conqueror” by David Bates

When David Charles Douglas published his biography of William the Conqueror in 1964, its impact was such that effectively it cleared the field for over a generation. Apart from Maurice Ashley’s biography for the “Kings and Queens of England” series, which was aimed at a broader audience and which drew heavily upon Douglas’s work, nobody would attempt a new biography of William for a quarter of a century. In that time, however, historians of the era continued their work, steadily and gradually expanding our knowledge in ways that warranted revisiting the subject of William’s life.

Among the new generation of scholars who built upon Douglas’s work was David Bates. Over the course of a peripatetic career Bates taught at the University of Wales, the University of Glasgow, and the University of London, before ending his academic career at the University of East Anglia. During that time he wrote nearly a half-dozen books on the Normans, which were grounded in his extensive archival labors across France. This background made him a logical choice to write a biography of William, which he was first asked to do in the 1980s. Like Ashley’s book, it’s a work intended for the lay reader rather than the specialist, yet in writing it Bates also incorporated the new learning on William, providing the first true update of William’s life since Douglas’s masterpiece.

The result is a book that managed the impressive feat of building on Douglas’s work while making it accessible to the broader public. Bates begins with a chapter designed to give readers a quick introduction to the Anglo-Norman medieval world, one that explains the differences the modern world and that of a millennia ago. It’s one of the best contextual chapters that I have yet read for this project, and Bates follows it with three more describing William’s early years as duke of Normandy and the duchy he ruled. While lacking the detail of Douglas’s coverage on this period of William’s life it provides a far more comprehensible narrative of it, one that is mindful of the limits of the sources and does not speculate too far past them.

The bulk of the book, however, is focused on the Conquest and William’s time on the English throne. This was similar to the focus of Ashley’s book, and like that other work it’s to be expected for a book published in a series on the lives of English monarchs. Yet Bates makes it clear that once England was pacified William spent more time in Normandy dealing with matters there than he did in his new acquisitions. Again, the level of detail is nowhere close to that of Douglas’s work, yet Bates compensates with an incredibly economical approach that conveys exactly what the reader needs to know, with little elaboration or extraneous detail. It suggests a confidence born of his expertise, and it makes for a highly efficient narrative.

Nowhere are Bates’s strengths better displayed than in his chapter describing William and his family. Character sketches are extraordinarily difficult in a medieval biography, as the lack of information forces modern writers to parse what details survived to infer what their subject was like. Bates manages to do this in a way that defined William as a person for me. Given his adherence to his sources it’s an especially remarkable feat, one that further boosted my regard for his book.

Bates’s book has been reprinted several times since its’ original publication in 1989, and after reading it it’s easy to see why. Though it lacks the depth of Douglas’s longer work it’s a fine biography of the Conqueror, one that surpasses Ashley’s earlier book and even manages to better Douglas in a few key respects. While it remains to be seen how Bates improves on it with his more recent study of William’s life for the Yale English Monarchs series, I’m looking forward to it with considerable anticipation. If this book is any indication of the quality of Bates’s subsequent scholarship it will be a truly impressive achievement.

Review of “William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England” by David C. Douglas

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that David Charles Douglas is the godfather of modern studies of William the Conqueror. A longtime scholar of Norman history who taught at the University of Bristol, Douglas authored and edited a number of books on the era, all of which reflect his vast knowledge of the subject and his command of the available documents on it. His biography of William was written near the end of his long career, and embodies his many years of study in the field.

Douglas divides his examination of William’s life into four parts. The first two concentrate on William’s rule over Normandy, addressing the political history of his duchy until 1060 before turning to detail the constitutional and ecclesiastical structures within it. These are very Norman- and Franco-centric, with only occasional reference to their subsequent legacy for England. This aspect is more fully developed in the third and fourth parts of the book, with the third part describing the establishment of the Anglo-Norman kingdom while the final one describes the constitutional arrangements and ecclesiastical history of the joint realm.

This structure points to Douglas’s main focus, which is on William’s activities and his achievements. It isn’t until the end of the book that he gives the reader an assessment of William’s personality by describing his character based on the few sources available to do so. Instead Douglas spends the bulk of the book concentrating on what William did, understanding why he did it, and explaining its impact on subsequent developments. Not only does this approach help explain how William rose from such relatively unpromising circumstances to become the ruler of England, but it provides the basis for his assessment of William’s larger significance to medieval English history.

Douglas makes it clear that while William’s fame is based on the Conquest, as duke of Normandy he had established his greatness as a ruler long before then. The first part of the book is focused on William’s struggle to survive, detailing the circumstances that shaped William’s approach to governance. Douglas shows how it was through these trials that William proved himself as a ruler while developing Normandy into a duchy powerful enough to stage the sort of expedition necessary to successfully conquer England. He stresses as well the interconnections between the two realms, showing why a regional French ruler would view the conquest of England as not only desirable but necessary.

The Conquest that Douglas describes is as much a triumph of politics and diplomacy as it is of military strategy. Noting the difficulties of subduing such a large kingdom he emphasizes the underlying insecurity of William’s rule during his two decades on the throne and the ongoing project of securing Norman rule within England. While detailing the Normanization of English institutions and the installation of Normans in English offices, he also argues for a surprising degree of continuity which aided this process and helped to stabilize William’s achievement. That this achievement was seen as his was best illustrated by the trepidation with which his death was met, as William’s subjects looked uncertainly into a future without his strong presence as both king and duke.

After reading Douglas’s book, it’s easy to see why it’s enjoyed the status it’s enjoyed since its initial publication over half a century ago. Erudite and well-reasoned, it provides its readers with a thorough understanding of William’s path to power and his considerable legacy to English history. Whether it can still be regarded today as the single best book on William the Conqueror remains to be seen, but judging by its endurance it remains a standard by which others are to be judged.

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.