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.

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.