Book Review: William the Conqueror
by David Bates
Yale University Press, 2017
David Bates’ big new book William the Conqueror, the newest entry in the Yale English Monarchs series, has a considerably better provenance than its subject. Its author, a distinguished historian of long standing, was a student of the great medievalist Frank Barlow, and his PhD thesis was examined and well-regarded by none other than David Douglas, whose 1964 biography of William the Conqueror was, appropriately enough, the first book to appear in the Yale series. Bates himself published an earlier biography of William in 1989 and has been studying the man and his time ever since. This new William the Conqueror is the fruit of all that research, although Bates is clear up front that the book is aligned along the same kinds of questions that have always guided lives of this pivotal figure:
In the end, the central problems that we must try to unravel are to understand what it was that made William so uncompromisingly convinced that he had a right to succeed Edward the Confessor; what it was that convinced so many people to share this conviction and join him in 1066 and afterwards in a very risky enterprise; why so many people feared, respected, and even liked him, and were prepared to follow him loyally; and why many others disliked him so intensely that they were prepared to fight him when the odds against such resistance succeeding were extremely long. … What was it about William the Conqueror that caused events to turn out as they did?
Bates follows William from his bastard birth to the Duke of Normandy to his compulsive rise to power that eventually turned his greedy gaze across the Channel to England, where he came into conflict with the powerful sons of Earl Godwin over his contention that old King Edward had promised him the throne. When the Godwins had other ideas, William famously invaded in 1066 and changed the course of English and European history radically.
It’s a tremendously complex subject, enveloping the simple military expedition of one bastard count with dozens of multi-layered factors working their way deep into English and Norman society and encompassing a wider array of sources than any earlier English-language life of William. Bates is as appealingly flexible in his questions as he is in his answers:
To attempt to make sense of William’s life and give it the requisite broad context, we need to find allies in places where earlier historians of William’s life have not much ventured, namely in, for example, the histories of power, ritual, feud, socially constructed violence, and trust. It is here that the socio-cultural history of the last four decades must come to the fore, with trust – sociologically defined – being in many ways the cement that binds.
William the Bastard himself remains out of reach, in this and every other biography; his personality, his nature, is only now a couple of stray lines in unreliable chronicles. But even so, Bates gradually creates a very rich atmosphere of human passion and motivation, and he does it in just the way he expressed: by seeking shades and colors and echoes from as many different kinds of sources as he can. He interrogates those sources with bracing tenacity (and prose that’s, perhaps surprisingly given the abstruse subject matter, quite readable). In fact, one of his first investigations bores into one of the hallmark details William’s biography: that whole “the Bastard” part. Bates doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence for it, and on this heading as on virtually every other one, he’s mighty convincing.
And that kind of fundamental re-sifting of evidence is a neat counterpart to the fact that this big new volume is supplanting the earlier one by David Douglas – and will be supplanted in its own time by some 2034 magnum opus. In just such ways is historical scholarship forever reshaping and renewing itself. The king is dead – long live the king.