18.09.25, Bates, William the Conqueror

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James Doherty

The Medieval Review 18.09.25

Bates, David. William the Conqueror. The English Monarchs Series. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. xx, 596. ISBN: 978-0-300-11875-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
James Doherty
University of Bristol

In this new addition to the Yale English Monarchs Series, David Bates re-examines the life of William the Conqueror (d. 1087), one of the best-known figures of eleventh-century Europe. Over 528 pages, Bates draws on decades of research to consider his subject in unrivalled detail. He makes use of a vast array of contemporary materials, and the result is a monograph that will be an indispensable tool for those studying and researching William, his domains, and eleventh-century society.

Writing the life history of a figure as prominent and contentious as the Conqueror brings with it a variety of significant challenges. Few medieval rulers, for instance, have been accused of genocide as William has for his treatment of the north of England. This opinion may be far from widespread, but it is indicative of some of the difficult terrain that must be traversed when dealing with this divisive figure. Moreover, since David Douglas's 1964 biography, which Bates's book replaces in this series, William and the conquest have been vibrant fields of enquiry. Biographies and numerous articles, several of them justly considered seminal, have made significant contributions to our understanding of William and his world. Indeed, Bates's own contributions have been substantial, including a previous biography of William, further related monographs, a multitude of articles, and the important edition of William's acta, the Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum. [1] Nevertheless, it is clear that the author remains concerned about the gravity of the task facing him in writing this book. In the opening line to his preface, Bates comments that he has "lived with the responsibility of writing a full, scholarly biography of William the Conqueror for many years" (x).

There are similarities in the approaches adopted by both Bates and Douglas, and these are acknowledged early in the work (1-3). This is, though, a markedly different book from Douglas's 1964 study. Bates has been heavily influenced by debate surrounding the nature of power in medieval Europe--a prominent facet of academic discourse in recent years. Drawing on several conceptual tools developed in a range of academic fields, all of which have been applied profitably to the study of medieval power and society, he offers fresh perspectives on many aspects of William's life and rule. Ritual, constructed violence and social memory, among several others, all feature in this work. In an anecdote that engages all three, for example, we read of seven- or eight-year old William being beaten in a ritualised performance in front of an audience to ensure that those present would recall the occasion when his father made donations to the abbey of Saint-Pierre de Préaux (42-43). For Bates, it is "trust--sociologically defined" that binds these various elements and the world of William the Conqueror (12).

The integration of such anthropological and sociological concepts provides Bates with opportunities to offer much that is innovative in this work, but the framework of his study is traditional and biographical. The book is chronological in structure, with William's life and rule divided into thirteen chapters that correspond to thirteen periods of his existence and legacy. These could perhaps be subdivided into four sections. Chapters 1 through 4 explore William's early life and the forces that shaped him. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 deal with the years c.1060-1068, ending with the coronation of Queen Matilda after the conquest of England two years earlier. While the focus of the book is undeniably William himself, the conquest of England--including the build-up and immediate aftermath--forms the mid-point and a significant aspect of the work. In chapters Eight to Eleven Bates then examines the consolidation and defence of William's power in a cross-Channel world, while chapters Twelve and Thirteen focus on his final years and legacy.

Bates is meticulous in his analysis of the evidence. Chroniclers such as Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, both of whom are featured throughout this monograph, will be familiar to all who have studied this era, but the author also brings a considerable range of evidence into the study. His vast knowledge of relevant charter materials is put to use, and he draws on numismatics, architecture, and other forms of material culture to explore his topic. The 22 plates, which sometimes include more than one image, provide useful reference points for the reader, as does the single map and genealogical chart.

With close scrutiny of surviving materials and an expert knowledge of the European-wide political and cultural context, Bates is able to offer numerous significant reinterpretations of the accepted narrative. Early on in the work, William's debated legitimacy is used to reveal broader issues relating to birth outside of marriage in the period. Bates is convincing in his argument that it was not unusual for even high-ranking aristocrats such as William's father, Duke Robert, to produce offspring out of wedlock who were considered legitimate successors (16-24). Then, when William's marriage to Matilda of Flanders is re-examined by reference to medieval commentary, and contextualised by the tumultuous political situation of the early 1050s, Bates argues that the union took place in late 1052 or 1053, rather than 1050, a year that Bates refers to as "deeply embedded in modern historiography" (104-122). The difficult topic of the "Harrying of the North" is also put under the spotlight. Its many sources are compared and contrasted, and figures relating to deaths provided by chroniclers are analysed by reference to numerous other contemporary materials, such as the Domesday survey (313-321). Characteristic of this work, Bates is keen to move the argument away from a discussion of strictly military affairs in order to understand William's actions in the north of England in light of recent literature on the performance of royal anger, which would have been expected of him in the face of resistance. In essence, he was required to perform punishment in a way similar to that of other rulers, such as Charlemagne. Also characteristic of this book, and a fair comment in this instance, Bates is keen to stress that William went far beyond contemporary expectations of violence on this occasion (317).

Throughout, it is evident that Bates has wrestled with his opinion on William the Conqueror. We are reminded time and again that he was someone capable of engaging in brutality far in excess of the customs of an aggressive, martial society. In fact, Bates comments that his own attitude towards violence has led him to sympathise with those who have voiced negative opinions of William (10), and on the very last page of the book's epilogue, he expresses a hope that future studies will explore the "voices of the thousands of lives William the Conqueror ruined" (528). Yet, in spite of his clear distaste for many of William's own actions, Bates is keen to understand his subject within the framework of his own world and society. He devotes considerable space to William's early years and formative experiences, and while rejecting the dogmatic use of any form of psychological analysis in this study (520), Bates has found value in exploring the impact of events and issues such as the death of William's father and his place as the only male child in a ducal family. The William that emerges from this monograph is a decisive man with considerable drive and political intelligence ("supreme political intelligence," to uses Bates's words (518)), albeit one who was very much the product of a violent age.

This thorough study is a remarkable resource for those interested in the life of William the Conqueror. The considerable bibliography is 38-pages long, and much widely-accepted historiography has been reconsidered. The depth of analysis also makes it invaluable for students of William's society. By putting every aspect of the Conqueror's life under the microscope, Bates draws attention to recent trends in scholarship and cutting-edge analysis of the relevant source materials. It will undoubtedly inform all future studies of William the Conqueror and his era for decades.



1. David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode LTD, 1964).

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