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 II: The Red King” by John Gillingham

One of the things I’m learning from my ongoing effort to read biographies of all of the British monarchs is the importance of scale. When I started this project my preference when it came to histories and biographies was for big books on the subjects in which I was interested. While I did understand the value of the quick overview, usually what I enjoy more is reading a work that provides an all-encompassing account of its subject, one that leaves my interest in it fully sated. As I read multiple works in succession on the same subject, however, I began to appreciate the virtues of a shorter account that trades comprehensiveness for a focus that allows important points to stand out better. Less can indeed be more in that respect.

No book better demonstrates this lesson for me than John Gillingham’s biography of William Rufus. Having recently finished Frank Barlow’s substantive study, I felt as though I had a good understanding of the man and his reign. Gillingham disabused me of this notion with his very first chapter. Entitled “The Personality of the King,” it’s a masterful examination of the development of William’s historical reputation. In it he challenges the negative image William has been saddled with for centuries by tracing its origins to Eadmer’s hagiographies of Anselm of Canterbury, in which William was often portrayed as a moral foil. Once such biases are taken into consideration, the William who emerges from the surviving sources is an easy-going man with a sense of humor, whose opposition to the efforts to impose celibacy on clerics may have been more popular than religious reformers would have liked to admit.

From there Gillingham launches into a brisk overview of William’s life and times. This he does in a series of thematic chapters, starting with William’s early years and his assumption to the throne, then focusing on various aspects of his reign: relations with the Church, William’s military campaigns and relations with other kingdoms, sex life at the court, and contemporary society. These he addresses with the efficient assuredness of someone with a masterful understanding of the era and a command of the literature about it, yet he avoids the sort of assumptions of his readers’ knowledge that this usually engenders. Though his final chapter is dramatically entitled “Assassination,” he spends the book’s last few pages critically dismissing such claims, ending with the comment that “[w]e cannot say whether or not Rufus was assassinated; we can be more confident that he was the target of an attempted character assassination.”

Such pithy observations are typical of Gillingham’s fine book. In it he offers a great balance of detail, context, and analysis that brings William Rufus alive in a way that Barlow’s more detailed study doesn’t. It’s a superbly revisionist work that convincingly rehabilitates his subject against the disparagements of William’s earliest chroniclers. Other monarchs should be so fortunate as to enjoy such treatment, especially in a work that is written in a way that is so accessible to a general audience.

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.