Just one book on . . . Henry I

Having read the biographies of nearly a dozen monarchs for this project, I find myself at an unexpected milestone. With Henry I, I find myself wishing for the first time that there were more studies of his life and achievements than there are available to read. This isn’t a knock on the three biographies I read about his life, all of which are fine works of scholarship. Rather, it’s that from them I gained an appreciation of the importance of Henry’s reign for English history, particularly in terms of the development of the English state. That a range of differing opinions exist within these books as to the nature of these achievements only underscores how much is left to be said about Henry’s time on the throne and his legacy. Clearly there is much room for new scholarship about his kingship.

The three biographies about Henry offer a surprisingly diverse range of entry points about his life, and given Henry’s significance and the limited number of studies about it all are worth reading. Yet while I found Edmund King’s short book on Henry a valuable study, it is one that is best read by readers who have a prior knowledge of Anglo-Norman history. As such it works better as a compliment to other works on the period than as an entry point to Henry’s life in its own right.

Far better suited in that respect is C. Warren Hollister’s biography of Henry for the Yale English Monarchs series. Thorough and insightful, it provides extensive coverage of Henry’s reign and makes an excellent case for its significance to English history. Its value is only marginally limited by the fact that Hollister died before he could complete work on his manuscript, as the editing would have helped to sharpen the case Hollister makes in it of the transformative nature of Henry’s governing reforms. Such revising also could have made it an incontestable starting point for anyone wanting to read a book about Henry, rather than just a strong contender for the title.

One of the remarkable aspects of Judith Green’s biography is that she challenged Hollister’s interpretation of Henry so closely on the heels of the release of his book in 2001. Yet this is just one of the many things that distinguishes her excellent study, which not only offers a different perspective on Henry’s reputation as a reformer, but which provides a coverage of Henry’s rule over Normandy that is lacking in King’s and Hollister’s more Anglo-centric studies. It’s because of this that, while all three studies deserve reading, Green’s is the one that people should seek out as the best single biography of this important monarch.

Review of “Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy” by Judith A. Green

In my review of C. Warren Hollister’s biography of Henry I noted that during his career he was regarded as the foremost expert on the life and reign of the king. A close second to that title, and the successor to it upon his death is Judith Green. An emerita professor of medieval history at the University of Edinburgh, she made a name for herself with a groundbreaking study on the personnel and operations of his government, which she then followed up with other works on the Norman era. As she notes in her introduction, she was already in progress on her own biography of Henry when Hollister’s was published posthumously in 2001. While such an event may have discouraged others, she continued her work on it and saw it through to its publication five years later.

At first glance there may seem little difference between the two books. Green adopts an approach to presenting Henry’s life that appears standard for biographers of English kings, as she opens with a chapter on the sources for it before spending the bulk of her text covering her subject’s life chronologically. In each of these she emphasizes a key theme during the years she covers, spotlighting an aspect of Henry’s life that focuses her analysis on a major issue or concern. She then follows her chronological presentation with three chapters that provide a more extended examination of three key areas of his reign – Henry as ruler, his relations with the Church, and the composition and culture of his court – before providing a succinct conclusion summing up her argument.

It’s when the reader gets into the text that the key differences emerge. Green makes clear from the start that she offers a perspective of Henry’s reign that is different from Hollister’s in some important respects. As her subtitle suggests she gives more attention to Henry’s rule over Normandy than either Hollister or Edmund King do in their biographies. This likely influenced to her interpretation of how he exercised power as king, which she argues was more traditional in its approach. Unlike Hollister, who emphasized Henry’s innovative use of government in ruling England, Green sees him using a more conventional employment of force to intimidate his barons into obedience. She underscores this by noting the collapse of his arrangements for his daughter Mathilda to succeed him, which is a powerful argument for the personal rather than institutional nature of Henry’s power.

Arguments such as this point to the value of Green’s book as a counterpoint to Hollister’s work. Yet it more than stands on its own as a biography of Henry thanks to the crispness of her analysis and her ability to incorporate within her assessment of his reign a sense of Henry as a person. I finished the book with a clear sense of who Green’s Henry was not just as a monarch but as a man, which is further testament to her skills as both a historian and as an author. Thanks to them, hers is a biography that it as least the equal of Hollister’s, and arguably surpasses it in its ability to provide a comprehensive and cohesive interpretation of Henry as a ruler.

Review of “Henry I” by C. Warren Hollister

One of the distinguishing features of the Yale English Monarchs series has been the editors’ commitment to getting the most renowned experts on the respective kings and queens of England to write biographies about them. The result has been works of high scholarly distinction which reflect some of the latest thinking about not just their subjects but the times in which they lived. The books themselves may not necessarily be the “best” biographies available about that particular monarch, but they all reflect the highest possible standard of scholarship and set a formidable bar for students going forward.

This is why that when the editors commissioned their volume on Henry I they turned to Charles Warren Hollister. Regarded today as one of the great pioneers of Anglo-Norman studies in general and on Henry’s reign in particular, he was a natural choice to write a biography about the king, one that would have been a capstone to his decades of work. Hollister’s labors, though, suffered a tragic setback in 1990 when both his draft manuscript and his extensive research notes were destroyed by wildfires in his home town of Santa Barbara. As dispiriting as this must have been for him, he restarted his work and had written eight of his projected eleven chapters prior to his death in 1997.

These chapters form the bulk of Hollister’s biography. In them he addresses the sources for Henry’s life, his early years and his claiming of the throne, and his military campaigns and foreign policies as king. The remaining three chapters were completed by Amanda Clark Frost, one of his former doctoral students, which she did using his notes and other writings on the subject. These provide an analysis of Henry’s administration and his relations with the Church before describing his final years and his legacy for his realm. It’s a contribution that is acknowledged in the book but not on the cover, which unfairly slights Clark’s considerable role in writing it.

The portrait of Henry that emerges in this book is of a shrewd king who governed his realm authoritatively and innovatively. While acknowledging that Henry’s rule was still very much in the nature of a personal monarchy, the two authors give him considerable credit for building the foundations of the medieval bureaucratic state that would provide such effective governance in the centuries that followed. Yet they qualify this praise with the glaring failure of his reign: that of not providing for a stable transfer of power after his death. It’s a judgment that I expect will loom larger once I delve into the civil war that followed his reign.

This is just one of the many appreciations I gained from a work that was full of interesting insights about its subject. Yet the book also bore signs of its troubled development. There is a disappointing amount of repetition throughout the book, which suggests some of the challenges Frost must have faced in turning Hollister’s draft chapters into a publishable work. Given the circumstances, I can understand why it would be easier to leave as much of the original manuscript untouched as possible, and with everything else that was needed to complete Hollister’s labor it was probably the smartest and safest choice. This is why I was grateful for Frost’s efforts. Thanks to her and everybody else who pitched in to fill the for Hollister we have today a work that embodies much of the learning and wit for which its original author was known. Yet I still finished it with a twinge of regret that Hollister never had the opportunity to complete his work himself. Additional editing and polishing would have made for a truly spectacular book on Henry that would have been the definitive work on his life and reign. That we never saw the book is our loss, but the one we do have does a great job of filling that hole as much as seems possible.

Review of “Henry I: The Father of His People” by Edmund King

One of the qualities of the “Penguin Monarchs” series that I have come to appreciate is the caliber of the authors the editors employed to produce their short works. The names read like a catalog of some of the leading historians in their fields: John Gillingham, Anne Curry, John Guy, Mark Kishlansky, and David Cannadine, who are just some of the renowned names adorning the volumes that have been produced. Seeing their names attached to brief biographies aimed at a general audience can at times seem like overkill, but with them comes the depth of study that can bring real insight to even a cursory overview.

Among those for whom this is true is Edmund King. As a longtime historian of the medieval era, King has written several well-regarded books about Anglo-Norman England, including a biography of Stephen for the Yale English Monarchs series. His erudition is fully on display in his short biography of Henry I, which begins with a brief consideration of Henry’s historical reputation and his conscious role in shaping it. King also stakes out within it his own approach to his subject, which involves assessing Henry on the monarch’s own self-professed values.

King then follows this up with five chapters covering Henry’s life. While arranged in a chronological manner, he adopts for each of them an interpretive theme that is based on Henry’s priorities. As a result, the reader gets chapters that focus on such issues as loyalty, his family, and his governing style as king. It’s an interesting way of looking at Henry, but at times it’s an approach that seems affected. Fortunately, King doesn’t press it too far, as he allows himself the flexibility in each chapter to cover aspects of Henry’s life that don’t necessarily fit with a rigidly thematic approach.

In covering Henry, however, King makes an assumption of his reader’s familiarity with the Anglo-Norman background that works to the detriment of the book’s goal. It’s a flaw that is ironically the result of one of the greatest merits of the Penguin series, which is the expertise the authors bring to their subjects. While this is reflected in King’s perceptive and assured judgments of Henry, it also results in a book that reads more as an extended essay meant for an audience of students rather than the introduction to Henry’s life and times aimed towards the general reader.

In this respect King’s book can be a little frustrating. For all of his knowledgeable assessments of Henry, his book falls short in terms of its goal. This doesn’t make for a bad biography – indeed, King’s may prove to be the best one available – but in terms of making the life of such a popularly underappreciated monarch more accessible King falls short of the goal.

On to Henry I!

13th c. miniature of Henry I, from the illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris

There are few better examples of the gap between fame and importance among English monarchs than Henry I. The youngest son of William the Conqueror, he was the odd son out when William’s kingdom was divided after his death. When Henry’s brother William was struck down by the fatal arrow, however, Henry seized his chance, rushing off to claim the throne before his brother Robert had a chance. Henry’s boldness resulted a reign that lasted over a third of a century, and was one which is widely credited today with forging the effective royal administration that characterized English government throughout the Middle Ages.

Yet despite the substantial records available for Henry’s reign, accounts of his life are surprisingly few, with only three modern biographies available. Fortunately, this seems another case where the lack of quantity is offset by the quality of the authors. The first of these that I’m going to read is Edmund King’s 2018 biography Henry I: The Father of His People. A longtime medieval historian who has published an extensive number of books about medieval England, King seems a natural choice for a contribution to the Penguin Monarchs set, and I’m looking forward to the sort of brief overview provided by the series before delving into the larger volumes.

After King’s book I plan on reading C. Warren Hollister’s 2001 biography of Henry for the Yale English Monarchs series. Hollister was regarded as a landmark scholar on Henry I’s reign, and his biography was meant to serve as a capstone to his distinguished career. Hollister did before he could finish the book, however, which was completed by Amanda Clark Frost, one of his former students. This look to be the most substantial of the three books, and as a volume in the Yale series I expect it will be a good one, though as a work completed and published posthumously I’m curious to discover how coherent and complete an analysis of its subject that it provides.

The final biography that I’ll read is Judith Green’s 2006 book Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy. Like Hollister, Green is a historian who has written important works on Henry prior to turning her pen to a biography of the king. Like Emma Mason’s book on William Rufus it looks as though it sits halfway between the volumes produced for the Penguin and Yale series, so it could provide an interesting mix of concision and depth.

Just one book on . . . William II

To be honest this was a post that I have not looked forward to writing. This wasn’t because I haven’t enjoyed reading about William Rufus – quite the contrary. The three books I read each provided interesting examinations of his life and times, all of which made an excellent case for him as a successful and under-appreciated monarch. And therein lay the problem I’ve been avoiding, which was deciding which was the one book I’d recommend reading about him if forced to choose.

Granted, this is very much of a self-imposed problem, but it gets to one of my goals with thus project. Not everyone has the luxury of reading every available biography of a given monarch, and deciding which single book to recommend requires me to assess them a little differently than if I were to ask which one should be the “first” book one should read, or the “best” book one should read. And until now, the challenge hasn’t been especially onerous. But all three of the biographies I read about William were excellent works, yet each was distinctive enough from the others to make it less a question of comparing qualities and more of deciding which strengths merited making it the one book to read about him.

For John Gillingham’s book, the strength was a brevity that didn’t sacrifice on analysis. This made his book not just an excellent introduction to William, but one of the best books I have read so far in the Penguin Monarchs series. And given the quality of the series overall, that is really saying something for his book, as up to this point there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch. It was why, when I finished it, I was sure it was the one book I’d recommend.

Then I read Frank Barlow’s volume in the (now Yale) English Monarchs series. Barlow has been one of the great discoveries for me with this project, as his biography of Edward the Confessor was easily the best of the ones that I read about him. His follow-up study of William demonstrated a similarly high level of scholarship and discernment about his subject, and had the added luxury of being able to do so in greater detail than was possible for Gillingham. By the time I read the last page, I was sure that it would be a choice between the two books.

It wasn’t far along into Emma Mason’s book, however that I discovered how I was in my assumption. While her book edges towards sensationalism by leaning into the idea that William’s death was an assassination rather than an accident, this can overshadow what is in most respects a worthwhile study of William that pushes back against both the negative judgments of many writers and the neglect that he has more recently received. In the process, her work sits halfway between Gillingham’s and Barlow’s books, as she offers the depth that Gillingham can’t while at the same time doing providing a more concise overview than does Barlow.

Hence my dilemma. In the end any assessment of which of these books is the one to read is less a determination of quality than it is of what should someone’s “one” book on a monarch provide for them. Should it offer a concision that makes for easy digestibility or a thoroughness that eliminates the need to read any other book on the subject? Or is it about the quality of the scholarship and the perceptiveness of analysis? Usually the books I’ve chosen offer strengths that more than offset what’s lacking in other respects, but with these three the balance makes it hard for any one of them to stand out. In that respect, if you’re looking for a biography of William you really can’t go wrong with any of these books.

In the end, though, the one I keep returning to in my mind as the best single book to recommend is Gillingham’s. In some respects he has an advantage in that he’s the beneficiary of the work both Barlow and Mason have done on their mutual subject, to which he adds his own formidable knowledge of medieval English history. And while it may lack the detail the others brought to their books, the picture Gillingham provides of both William and his reign is no less informative in terms of analysis or judgment. Hopefully someone interested in reading about William’s life won’t make Gillingham’s biography the only book they read about him, but if they do so they won’t have chosen poorly in terms of reading a work that does justice to its subject.

Review of “William II: Rufus, the Red King” by Emma Mason

It’s no exaggeration to say that Emma Mason’s 2005 biography of William Rufus is the product of a career spent studying the king. For nearly thirty years Mason, who taught medieval history at Birkbeck College and wrote several well-regrade books on the era, has written a series of articles about William and his historical reputation. The latter undoubtedly made her a natural choice when the editors of Tempus’s “English Monarchs” series were looking for someone to contribute a volume on William’s life and reign.

Mason hearkens back to her work in her first chapter, which examines the evolution of William’s historical reputation and the importance of his reign. It’s an approach that allows her to address the sources of the negative judgments of William (Orderic Vitalis being the primary culprit) and how this has led modern historians to underrate the importance of William’s reign. It’s written with the patient determination of someone who has spent decades making the case for greater study of William’s achievements, and it certainly makes the case for the book that follows.

From there Mason delves into her subject’s life. Her approach is mainly chronological, as in seven chapters she walks her readers through the events of William’s life, from his birth through his untimely death. While it lacks the chapter-length coverage of the institutions of Norman England that Frank Barlow provides, she does supply context within the chapters themselves. This lack’s Barlow’s depth, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off in terms of the pacing of her book and it ensures that her focus remains unwaveringly on the king himself.

Most of Mason’s book is devoted to the political and military history of William’s reign. It’s one in which assesses events in light of her critical assessment of the sources, occasionally challenging the traditional story (such as with Anselm’s selection as Archbishop of Canterbury) with a combination of details and logic. For the most part this is well done, but there are two areas where her examination differs from that of William’s other biographers. The first of these is with regards to William’s sexuality, where she adopts a more circumspect approach than Barlow and ultimately dismisses the question as unanswerable. This contrasts dramatically with her coverage of William’s death. While she doesn’t state outright that she believes that William was assassinated, the pages she spends detailing the events of his death and her consideration about the possible culprits suggests that she is far more open to the possibility that his death was intended rather than accidental.

Mason’s indulgence in such speculation adds a melodramatic air to an otherwise thoughtful study of William’s life and times. It certainly explains why her publisher went the more sensational subtitle “The Life and Murder of William II of England” for the paperback edition. This shouldn’t obscure, however, the quality of Mason’s perceptive book. As a study of William Rufus it offers a nice balance of detail and concision for the reader seeking to learn something about him, as well as a strong case for why his achievements deserve greater acknowledgement than they have received over the centuries.

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.

Review of “William the Conqueror” (Yale English Monarchs) by David Bates

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.