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.