On Writing “William the Conqueror”

David Bates—

Since William the Conqueror was published, I have often been asked how long it took me to write the book. Although the actual answer is fifteen years, I often reply that it has taken both fifty and three years. For all that this is an inaccurate answer—some might even think a flippant one—it does contain two essential truths. Around fifty years ago, as a postgraduate student, I realized that in writing his William the Conqueror, David Douglas had not directly consulted manuscripts in France. This led me to make several lengthy archival visits and to a profound engagement with the work of Lucien Musset and other French scholars, many of them based at the university in Caen. Musset’s work had a life-changing influence on me because it showed that there was a lot of unknown, or scarcely known, material to be discovered and evaluated. The three years refers to Robert Baldock’s advice that I compose a prologue to my William. This enabled me to confront the ethical issues involved in writing about a man whose achievements were ultimately based on deliberate and often extreme violence. It also helped me to grasp that everyone writing about William in the eleventh and twelfth centuries faced the same problem, and to remember that this subject provided an avenue to knowing some of William’s private thoughts. 

While writing my book, I have always kept in mind Douglas’s aspiration “to bring French and English scholarship into closer relation; and throughout to base my study upon the original testimony.” Doing this and also reading much more widely than publications devoted specifically to Normandy and England has produced a very different picture of William than that of many other scholars. A major general consequence is that it is now impossible to accept Douglas’s statement that Normandy was “a province which some forty years before the Norman Conquest of England showed few signs of its future achievement.” Instead we must think in terms of a robust political organism that evolved steadily from the early and mid-tenth century onward, the foundation on which William’s personal qualities enabled him to exploit the situation that occurred in 1066. In the same way, the publications of many distinguished scholars have shown that England can no longer be characterized as a backward and isolated kingdom, resuscitated and modernized by the Normans after 1066.

In writing William I have tried to create cultural and social contexts for his life that harmonize with modern interpretations of medieval culture and society. A reassessment of the primary sources has led to the recasting of events and episodes that were once thought well-established—narrative such as William’s “illegitimate” birth, his childhood and adolescence, his and Matilda’s supposed marriage in defiance of a papal ban, and the levels of violence he employed.

The events surrounding William’s “illegitimate” birth and his childhood were much more formative and indicatory of his future than we often think. Although his father Duke Robert and his mother Herleva were not technically married, theirs was a long-term relationship. William had a secure upbringing within a household where the religious responsibilities of a ruler were emphasized, and he was always intended to have an aristocratic lifestyle. However, the turbulence of his adolescence has been overestimated. Understanding a personality at such a great distance is difficult, but it seems to me that the central characteristics that made William so successful were a sense of entitlement coupled with the physical and political prowess to lead in a world in which violence was culturally structured. The result was a capacity to persuade others of the legitimacy of his causes and to command confidence, awe, and fear. As for his and Matilda’s marriage, it took place in 1053 (not in 1050-1) with at least the acquiescence of the papacy. The subject of their foundation of the two abbeys at Caen as a penance must therefore be reinterpreted. One aspect of this analysis is that a charter accepted as crucial is a thirteenth-century forgery!

Arguably the most controversial of William’s acts, the “Harrying of the North” in 1069-70, must be analyzed in a new way that takes environmental factors into account. How long does devastated land take to recover? What was done has terrible long-term effects, the deliberate destruction of livelihoods. Yet there was a context—namely, the alliance between English rebels and invasions from Denmark and Scotland and the overthrow of William’s rule in Maine, which he had taken over in 1063.

In terms of understanding England’s history after 1066, Maine can be seen as the Achilles’ heel that handicapped William throughout these years. His cross-channel itinerary indicates that after 1072, he spent a good deal of his time in Normandy and France, his attention occupied by conflict and tension around Normandy’s borders. This itinerary also indicates how important Matilda was, in all probability emotionally as well as politically. It shows a previously unknown period of delegated rule by her in England in 1081-82 at a time when personal relationships within the ruling family were especially fraught.

In conclusion, William’s life and historical can only be understood within a perspective of a historical period from approximately the year 900 to approximately the year 1250, taking into account the cultural factors surrounding his invasions as well as the documented events themselves.

David Bates is professorial fellow, University of East Anglia, and has held positions at several universities in Britain and France. His books include Normandy Before 1066 and The Normans and Empire. He lives in Cambridge, UK.

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