This is the first academically heavyweight biography of William the Conqueror published in English since 1964. It is built on a meticulous re-examination of the primary sources, and in particular the narratives that tell us about William’s career and the events of his reign. The story proceeds chronologically throughout, albeit with analytical and contextual asides where relevant to the better understanding of the events in hand. That chronology is by now quite well established, and although David Bates would re-date some key events by a year or so, the general outline remains more or less unaltered. However, although the reader is going to travel along a familiar narrative line, and will pass through familiar stations on the way (Val-ès-Dunes, Domfront and Alençon, Arques, Mortemer, Varaville, Hastings Junction, Exeter, York and the North, Dol, Gerberoy, Salisbury Oath and Mantes, terminating at Rouen with an onward connection for Caen), the way they will get to that famous terminus makes this journey particularly worthwhile. For Bates takes almost nothing for granted. At every stage, William’s career is broken down into discrete sections, with the sources for each episode unpacked, analysed and interpreted in detail as if for the first time. Earlier treatments have not been allowed to colour Bates’s interpretation or the portrait that he paints. Indeed, he clearly states that his approach has been to eschew engagement with the existing historiography on William and his times. And while this has perhaps extended the analysis, and has even led to some reinvention of the wheel, it is worthwhile because the result is a coherent, consistent and complete portrait by a single master, rather than a collage formed of dislocated ideas, paraphrases and quotations plucked from the enormous bibliography on these subjects. Every reader will have their own highlights. For this reviewer, these included the treatment of William’s marriage to Matilda of Flanders, which is put into a broad context, with the discussion considering factors including the Normans’ view of the reform papacy and the Norman response to the heretical views of Berengar of Tours. England and English affairs are introduced early and continue to be observed so as to provide a solid foundation for an understanding of the events of 1066, and there are useful and detailed considerations of whether or not Edward the Confessor promised the throne to William in 1051 and how the king’s view on his succession developed after that promise had been made. For the period after 1066, the discussion of the Harrying of the North stands out. Bates once again goes through the evidence in depth, but avoids taking a moral view of events that would have been entirely alien to William and his contemporaries (although a more ethical/moral approach is taken in the Epilogue). His conclusion is that: ‘Once more, so it seems, we are dealing with conduct that both conformed to contemporary norms in a general way, but went beyond them in its specific modus operandi’ (p. 317). Finally, the making of Domesday Book is the subject of an extended discussion, reflecting the vast amount of work on the subject, and what the inquiry says about the nature of William’s rule. Here Bates explicitly breaks his own ordinance and allows some of the historiography on the subject to speak for itself. Now, while there is a clear benefit to keeping the existing work on William and his times in the background, nonetheless, Bates’s failure openly to engage with some of the views that contrast with, or contest, his own is sometimes cause for regret. Two examples will have to suffice here. First, Gérard Louise advanced a convincing argument (at least to this reviewer) that saw the lordship of Bellême as having encompassed an area that included Alençon, Domfront and Lonlay l’Abbaye. This history helps to explain why Angevin sympathies, and Angevin involvement, remained common in that region. But there is no acknowledgement of, or engagement with, this hypothesis. Secondly, Bates would re-date Robert Curthose’s second rebellion to after Christmas 1085, basing his argument on an act for Gloucester Abbey that is dated to that feast and witnessed by Curthose. However, in 1998, Bates had argued that this attestation was either not authentic or had been added later, as the act had been produced at a time when Robert was ‘undoubtedly in exile’. He does not explain his change of mind, and the earlier reservations appear to remain entirely valid. A second reservation is that the chronological structure of the book tends to obscure some important themes and issues. William’s relationships with the contemporary French kings and popes, for example, are discussed at intervals throughout, but the overarching picture proves difficult to assemble. The production of ducal and royal acta, William’s itinerary, his use of agents and deputies during his absences from both Normandy and England, and his coinage and taxation are also mentioned in passing more than once, but these mentions are separated by the description and analysis of intervening events, and it is again difficult to gain a sense of the broader situation as a result (and note, too, that the pictures of William’s coins (plates 11, a, b and c) are out of order with the accompanying text). Indeed, as these digressions are also quite short, they tend to emphasise the fact that this is a book that focuses principally on the events of William’s career and the extent to which they were influenced by William’s own interventions as opposed to external factors and context. Readers will certainly see the king as a result of this approach, but the ruler and the mechanisms that were available to him to make his claims to rule a reality are more distant; certainly more so than they were in David Douglas’s 1964 biography. These reservations notwithstanding, this book is a monument to Bates’s knowledge of William, his career and his times. It has significantly advanced our understanding of this imposing figure, and it will, and should, be the point of departure for future discussions of the reign. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 28, 2018
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