Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
William the Conqueror$

David Bates

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780300118759

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300118759.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM YALE SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.yale.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Yale University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in YSO for personal use (for details see http://www.yale.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 15 August 2018



(p.513) Epilogue
William the Conqueror

David Bates

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter reflects on the life and character of William the Conqueror from a modern perspective, examining the lessons and implications which can be derived from his role in history. It also discusses the challenges faced by those attempting to interpret and put together William's biography from extant historical sources. Furthermore, William's life, the chapter argues, is ultimately a parable on the eternal moral conundrum of the legitimacy of violence used to achieve what its perpetrators believe to be a justifiable end. His contemporaries knew this — and as this chapter shows — the issues that lingered in his lifetime still remain with us to this day.

Keywords:   violence, legitimacy of violence, William the Conqueror, William's life, history of violence, human history

Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solicitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.1

William the Conqueror imposed his personal and political domination on the duchy of Normandy and after 1066 he and those associated with him transformed a violent conquest into peace. The cross-Channel empire they created endured for more than a century. The quotation from Tacitus encapsulates all the contradictions and controversies inherent in these processes. William’s life is ultimately a parable on the eternal moral conundrum of the legitimacy of violence used to achieve what its perpetrators believe to be a justifiable end. His contemporaries knew this. And so did those who wrote about him afterwards; Orderic and William of Malmesbury above all wrote aptly and poignantly on the subject. At the time that this book has been written, the issues are every bit as much with us as they have always been.

A response to François-Théodore Licquet’s unhappiness as quoted in the Prologue (‘cold seizes us. William frightens us, and, we are, in sum, almost reduced to lamenting the good that he did’) is that, in the face of William’s life, we cannot afford to freeze.2 Nor can we go along with Douglas’s paradox (‘There was in fact an element of paradox in his character’) or posit the issues, as he did, in terms of the extremes of ‘a crude ruffian, or a sanguinary brute’ and ‘he won the respect of many of his most illustrious contemporaries’.3 Cultural history and biography working in tandem can provide an escape route from all this and a road to clarity. In the end William’s life and his actions have a specific place within the (p.514) infinitely long history of violence’s place in human life and human history.4 The rejection of Douglas’s sub-title and of any sub-title at all as justified in the Prologue is a part of this. This book’s basis was always the proposition that, by locating its subject within cultures and context, it was possible to proceed from the individual to an understanding of his or her life and its historical significance.

Two certainties about William the Conqueror are that he was physically a large man and that he possessed a commanding presence in war, at the hunt, and at court. William of Malmesbury, as we have seen many times, a writer more interested in biography than any of the others we rely on, paints a portrait of a powerful man with exceptional skills on horseback, who could draw a bow while controlling the horse only with his legs, who dressed magnificently, entertained lavishly, and at court terrified all around him with oaths and a loud voice.5 In the section of the De Obitu Willelmi that describes his personal qualities that is plagiarized almost word for word from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, the word describing Charlemagne’s voice as high-pitched was changed to say that William’s was harsh and rough.6 This physicality is confirmed by the left thigh-bone examined when the tomb in the abbey of Saint-Etienne of Caen was opened in 1983. It belonged to a large, strong, man, approximately 173–4 cm in height (5ft 10 in).7

One aspect of Malmesbury’s portrait that is at first reading perhaps surprising is the statement that William lived as religious a life as was possible for a layman. Another, one possible story to the contrary notwithstanding, is that he thought him to have been devoted to his wife. It was probably characteristics such as these that were at the heart of Douglas’s paradox. Yet Malmesbury, who knew the snares and the temptations of worldly life and that kings could never measure up to the standards that were ideally required, even if some performed better than others, was, as we have seen, at times ambivalent about him.8 This ambivalence resides within the complexities of the interplay between personal interpretations of legitimacy and rule and the means employed to put them into action, along with the historian’s own ethical standards and the religious and secular cultures of the later eleventh and earlier twelfth centuries.

(p.515) From a modern perspective, the expression of apparently sincere religious belief, the performance of extensive charitable works, and the marital fidelity are just the more obviously laudable parts – at least for most – of a spectrum of norms and values that is recognizable to us, and yet is in many aspects of their performance different from the expectations of the second decade of the twenty-first century. In terms of eleventh-century values, they are certainly compatible with the violence that characterizes William’s exercise of power, even if this violence was at times taken beyond the norms that many who wrote about him thought acceptable. William in fact embodies many of the complexities of his era. He lived at a time when the moral reform of lay and clerical lives that often resulted in the disruption of well-established relationships and aggressive violence in the service of Christianity were being driven forward by some at the highest levels in the Church. And also in times when the papacy claimed the right to sanction the removal of rulers it thought inadequate. And in times when honour-based violence and the culture of feud were widely prevalent as values in the secular world. But he also lived in a period when the role of the state as the preserver of peace and justice was fully and persuasively articulated and when the more extreme pronouncements of the pre-Gregorian and Gregorian papacy were being forcefully contested. While William fits well into this turbulent cultural world, it is ultimately only through biography that we can truly understand his place within it.

Frank Barlow’s observation noted in the Prologue that, because of the relative absence of colourful anecdotes, William’s life is less accessible to a biographer than those of his sons Robert and William, must to an extent be true.9 But in many respects, it is not. The differences of emphasis in the sources can be explained and other ways of understanding the man have to be found. While the preponderance in them of stories of dispute settlement, confirmations of land grants, and ecclesiastical matters in general is significant, alongside – of course – the central narrative of the conquest of England, it is also a major distortion. As also is the tendency of medieval writers to attribute currently fashionable qualities to subjects who personified success. For authors schooled in the classical authors, the issues of human agency and good fortune, alongside divine providence, were all part of the essential discourse. Thus – to cite one example – Hugh of Fleury, in all likelihood writing between 1114 and 1125 in a work addressed to William’s granddaughter the Empress Matilda, described William as a king who exceeded all others in good fortune and wisdom and whose generosity of spirit and magnificence were truly remarkable, an assessment that focuses on norms that might be described in the emerging cultural (p.516) language of the twelfth century as both chivalric and courteous.10 It is arguably better to put such material to one side in the same way as the remarkable stories that developed around William’s birth. They were ultimately products of later generations’ awareness of his remarkable life.

Care is also essential in interpreting the many anecdotes mentioned throughout this book. The danger within them is that they are mainly showing that performance feeds performance and that reputation demands that expectations be fulfilled. The story of William jokingly threatening to drive a knife through an abbot’s hand when confirming a grant at Winchester in 1069 may be nothing more than the type of theatre that was required of him.11 It shows that William knew how to dominate his court and that his way of doing so must demonstrate a type of political intelligence, but it may not say much about his personality. The significance of the debates that have followed on after Gerd Althoff’s formulation of the concept of Spielregeln and discussions of ‘anger’ have among other things shown that, even if there were ‘rules of the game’, not everyone necessarily understood them and that clever people knew how to manipulate them. William and others were playing roles that their social positions assigned to them. It is what we can see beneath the surface that is crucial.12

So what can we confidently say that we know about William? In writing as he did, Frank Barlow perhaps had in mind that we know so little about the homosocial camaraderie of William’s military household and the life of the hunt in William’s time, even though both of them were central to his life. This is obviously regrettable when we reflect on the sobering thought that it is a reasonable estimate that he must have spent over 50 per cent of his adult life either at war or preparing for war. Most of this time would also have been spent almost exclusively in the company of men. It is even more sobering to reflect that the same statistic would have applied to many of his aristocratic contemporaries and to the many less socially eminent members of William’s military household.

That we know much less about William’s military household than we do about those of his sons is partly because Rufus’s household was portrayed as scandalous by some of the ecclesiastics who wrote about him in order to present him as an immoral oppressor of the Church, and partly because, (p.517) through Orderic, we know so much more about Henry I’s reign.13 It is, however, hard to believe that the mores of this male-dominated community were in any way significantly different in William’s reign. That two of his sons, Robert and Henry, fathered illegitimate children and that the sexual proclivities of William Rufus have been endlessly discussed, suggests that William’s apparent sexual puritanism had a limited influence on those around him; if indeed it had any influence at all. What would have mattered in an environment in which physical prowess and a domineering presence would have been centrally influential were his military record, the multiple opportunities to distribute rewards available to him, and the physicality to which William of Malmesbury drew attention. It all indicates a mastery of the culture of military masculinity and great skill as a soldier and leader of men. His willingness to authorize looting shows that William recognized current norms in relation to reward and morale. Although we have to wish that we knew more of this aspect of his life, much can reasonably be surmised. While some of his personal values may have made him distinctive, this was an environment in which he was very much at home and whose boisterousness he tolerated and participated in.

The characteristic strikingly present almost from the beginning of William’s life is his sense of entitlement. The conquest of England would not have taken place without it. It was the ultimate demonstration of his ability to convince others that he could obtain what he wanted; and often, therefore, what they wanted, or at least hoped for. This capacity to project onto others a sense of confidence and capability must have been present from an early time. Arguably it was operating before Val-ès-Dunes. It is certainly notable how isolated Count William of Arques was within Normandy in 1053–4. Aside from the possible support of Count William’s brother Archbishop Malger, no Norman of any political significance allied with him. The social importance of the allies Count William recruited from outside Normandy shows that William was already frightening people by his mid-twenties. The invasion of Normandy in 1053–4 was surely an attempt to rein him in.

Whatever form the offer made by Edward the Confessor took, it played into this sense of entitlement and would have had consequences for the way William behaved. The pursuit of a succession to which one believed oneself entitled was a matter of honour and a facet of the culture of feud. It was an essential aspect of rule and the ethos and practice expected of an (p.518) eleventh-century ruler, and therefore something that William would have unreservedly believed himself obliged to pursue and which others would have expected of him. Since his aspirations would have been publicly known and his potential capacity to pursue and achieve them widely recognized, the chemical mixture of the personal and the cultural must have been central to the politics of northern Europe throughout the 1050s and early 1060s. It is reasonable to think that William knew how to comport himself in a way that kept the associated possibilities in the forefront of people’s minds.

When it comes to the specific, William consistently displays the ability to assess situations and to decide when it was necessary to act quickly, or, at other times, not to act at all. This is especially evident in his conduct of warfare. But it is surely certain to have been the case in other situations as well; William of Malmesbury did, after all, write of him as being quick-witted and a good judge of character.14 At Mayenne in 1063 and Exeter in 1068 he had his forces storm well-fortified sites despite the difficulties that this presented. Both the campaign to Exeter and the subsequent ones to the north of England in 1068 and 1069 were very rapidly organized and caught William’s opponents off balance. He decided that the north of England needed to be destroyed in 1069–70 because enemies beyond his reach, namely, the Danes and the Scots, had to be shown the consequences of trying to use it as a base, and its inhabitants the price of welcoming them. On the other hand, after Val-ès-Dunes, Guy of Brionne could be left at Brionne to submit at his leisure because he was completely isolated. In 1057 William held off from confronting Henry I and Geoffrey Martel until the opportunity to massacre a part of their army at Varaville gave him a decisive advantage. In the 1080s the vicomte Hubert could be left at Sainte-Suzanne, albeit, like Guy, under surveillance. Throughout William’s life, he acted quickly in ways that disrupted opponents while at the same time consistently marshalling the necessary resources in advance. Numerous episodes illustrate that he allowed no one who showed signs of defying him to be left in peace for long.

We can, I think, take William’s political intelligence for granted. Indeed, there is much that testifies to supreme political intelligence. He certainly possessed the ability to extricate himself from difficult situations, albeit, as, for example, in the cases of the contretemps with Archbishop Ealdred over the plundering of his goods and the arrival of the killers of Earl Edwin, we might think he did so in ways that passed responsibility on to others when he should have shouldered at least some of it himself. He was undoubtedly fortunate in his marriage, with what we know suggesting a considerable (p.519) degree of compatibility between the partners. Matilda must also have possessed considerable political know-how. While the details are mostly hidden from us, she must have been a strong personality. Her frequent association in charters as a partner in decision-making with William goes far beyond the formulaic. It surely shows that she was often centrally involved in the practice of rule in areas beyond the exclusively military.

As a ruler William was hugely successful in harnessing the secular and the religious to his advantage. A succession of popes supported him, Alexander II seemingly unreservedly and Gregory VII consistently, despite the frequently expressed qualifications about William’s conduct by those who were both the pope’s friends and enemies. William’s qualities were also of a kind that retained the loyalty of some very able people, some of whose longevity was a great bonus for him. Of the individuals who emerged during his adolescence and early adulthood in Normandy, among the clergy, Lanfranc and Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, and, among the laity, Count Robert of Mortain, Roger de Montgommery, Roger de Beaumont, Richard fitz Gilbert, and William de Warenne all outlived him. Their dramatic falling out notwithstanding, his brother Bishop Odo must be added to the list; they do, after all, seem to have worked well together for over thirty years, with the period of Odo’s greatest responsibility coming just before their quarrel. William’s court and his chapel also nurtured the early careers of many individuals who were to be at the heart of events in the next generation. All this takes us out of the world of the court and the hunt into the wider western European world.

There is evidence that William was good at listening and that he could change his mind when faced with strong arguments, as in the extensive narratives of the first stages of the Primacy Dispute or in the less weighty matter of the dispute between Bishop Giso of Wells and Abbot Thurstan of Glastonbury. He was capable of apparent acts of kindness, as when he insisted that the abbey of Abingdon make provision for a soldier mutilated by pirates on a Channel crossing, albeit that it was the abbey on William’s orders that made the provision rather than the king himself.15 The many narratives we have of him doing justice describe verdicts reached logically, usually in consultation with others, and with a concern for equity. He showed a liking for clear-cut decisions and was sometimes ready to impose a verdict on those who were vacillating. He could be witty, as when joking about concepts of Norman identity to the discomfiture of the monks of Saint-Florent of Saumur. He respected authority and used it to his advantage. Archbishop Lanfranc’s letters, to cite from many examples, show William involved in determining the religious status of English women (p.520) who had taken refuge in nunneries on the basis of canon law.16 The decision on Canterbury’s Primacy over York was an issue on which a decision was reached within existing scripts and rules with regard to English custom as it was believed to have existed before 1066 and in relation to canon law.

To fit William’s life and early development into any simple framework of child and adolescent psychology is impossible. We can – and should – speculate and try to assess what might have been the prime factors, but we should not be dogmatic. William was an only male child who must have showed promise early. His parents’ relationship seems to have been a stable one; they may even have been devoted to each other. He was brought up in an environment in which overt religious practice was important. He lost his father on a pilgrimage while he was young and he seems to have revered his memory; according to William of Malmesbury, he tried in later life to have Duke Robert’s remains brought back to Normandy.17 He showed exceptional favour to the children of his mother’s marriage to Herluin de Conteville and he looked after the couple’s foundation of the abbey of Grestain. It was, after all, Herleva and Herluin who went with him to welcome his bride to Normandy. The act of savagery at Alençon may have been motivated by filial devotion and affection, rather than a reference to the circumstances of William’s birth. The stories that he would have been told about the insecurities of his father’s early years would surely have influenced him towards ways of operating that would protect him against such troubles. Equally, Robert’s successes as a ruler must have been influential, notably the pacification and extension of Normandy’s frontiers and his extensive grants to the Church, both of which William continued. We underestimate Duke Robert’s importance in the development of the Norman duchy and on his son at our peril.

When the general nature of periods of medieval underage rulership are taken into account, it is reasonable to think that William was well looked after by his guardians and tutors. But he was favouring his own friends to the exclusion even of those who had treated him well some time before his eighteenth birthday. The turbulence of his adolescence may well have been of great importance in shaping his later behaviour, but not as a passive victim of it.18 The breakdown of the alliance with the kings of (p.521) France around 1052 was probably an event of great importance. It ended a mutually supportive alliance that had lasted for well over half a century, which was central to William of Jumièges’s Gesta Normannorum Ducum, and, with it, the role of the rulers of Normandy as the upholders of legitimate authority as they had been in the days of William’s highly regarded grandfather Duke Richard II. It left William isolated in northern France and facing formidable enemies. It is surely no accident that William of Poitiers chose Count Geoffrey Martel as the man to praise the young William.19 Martel, too, had been a political pariah before William came on the scene, a man whose acts attracted and terrified, the winner of battles and the conqueror of territories. What William would have learnt in his twenties and thirties is that northern France mattered hugely, that political control was indispensable to rule in such a world, and therefore that England had to be secured quickly and decisively.

It is possible that William’s early years ultimately influenced him into doing things with an almost obsessive correctness and care. His approach to all the big life-shaping situations was built on meticulous preparation and then on thorough application. This applies to the politics and legitimacy of his marriage, to the invasion and conquest of England, and to the projects like the one that produced the Domesday survey. William possibly had an over-developed sense of responsibility, with his very thoroughness being transformed into ruthlessness in certain circumstances, and into terrible violence in some of them. He must be seen as a religious man who took the round of church services seriously, who showed respect for saints, who listened to monks and priests, and who built magnificently at Caen, at Winchester, and elsewhere. He conversed attentively with religious men, St Anselm being one of the most frequent visitors; according to Eadmer, William became a changed man in Anselm’s company. The subjects on which he listened to Anselm may well have been on the need to keep the peace for the good of humanity and to protect the Church, and the importance of prayer and charity.20 If Orderic’s story of the monk Guitmund lecturing William on the conquest of England as an act of robbery is true, then William did listen to painful truths about his conduct.21 And, likewise, if he absorbed the moral messages of the Bayeux Tapestry fables and zthe passage of Augustine’s City of God to the effect that ‘with justice left out, what are kingdoms (regna) except great robber bands (p.522) (magna latrocinia)’, then he may also have been given pause for thought by them.22

His level of theological understanding may, however, have been a limited one. It was precisely in relation to this subject that the author of the De Obitu Willelmi chose to omit the passages from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne that refer to Charlemagne listening to readings from works of theology. Deployed comparatively, Henry Mayr-Harting’s essay on Charlemagne’s religion suggests that we should probably see William’s as propitiatory and ethical and characterized by extensive works of charity which, so he and others hoped, would mitigate the many sins which he did commit, and on occasion must have believed he had to commit.23 It is notable that while he espoused reforming causes such as the abolition of clerical marriage and the selling of people into slavery, he did not push them, drawing back from taking action when both threatened to create difficulties for him. The almost consistent rejection by Norman churchmen of the ideas of Berengar of Tours on the Trinity from c.1050 onwards points to a conservatism that runs through William’s whole life. And, in relation to England after 1066, as we have seen, Eadmer’s famous passage about William controlling contact with the papacy does not demonstrate that he was opposed to visits by legates to the lands he ruled or of senior churchmen from Normandy and England to Rome. It does show a kingly paternalism in which most of the clergy shared and which was starting to become somewhat outdated during his life.

It is ultimately unfortunate that we know so little about William’s private world and inner thoughts in comparison, for example, with Charlemagne’s.24 As is often asserted, the commissioning of William of Poitiers must indicate a concern to defend himself against criticisms that were being made. Whether this was out of conscience or for propaganda are both further subjects that are open for debate. The absence of reflective writings from William’s ecclesiastical intimates of the kind produced by Alcuin leaves us less well informed than we would like to be on all of these subjects. If Charlemagne had indeed repented of his destruction of the Saxons, then it is possible that William was influenced in the direction of doing the same and those around him wrestled with the moral problem of his excessive (p.523) violence.25 In the end, William arguably belongs in a pre-twelfth-century world that had not fully rediscovered Augustine’s distinction between actions and intentions. His and Matilda’s extraordinarily western European-wide religious patronage after 1066 and the sponsorship of the redevelopment of York towards the end of his life do suggest that William did take positive steps to atone for his most terrible sins. His son William Rufus’s visit to York in the first months of his reign must indicate that those close to his father believed that this is what William would have wanted to happen.

The anecdote in the Vita Lanfranci of Lanfranc sitting at the king’s side at a great banquet and witnessing a court jester lauding the king’s magnificence with the words ‘Lo! I see God’ opens up several perspectives on all this. Lanfranc telling the king firmly that this was blasphemy, and, by implication, that the terrible fate of Herod Agrippa awaited William unless the jester was punished (as he subsequently was), shows William as responsive to religious advice, yet needing to have both the wrong he had committed and what was required of him spelt out.26 Since the jester was providing a performance that he thought would please William, it must demonstrate that William viewed himself as a special king and expected to be treated publicly as one; it may well indeed indicate that the maintenance of this image was uppermost in William’s mind, as well as the limited theological understanding already referred to. It could suggest that William’s predominant tendency was to follow his own instincts and, if necessary, fall into line later. This incident, or others like it, could lie behind the lengthy passage that William of Malmesbury excised from his later version of the Gesta Pontificum. Lanfranc, so he said, had no choice but to tolerate William’s extraordinary arrogance. But he had the skill to chip away and sometimes to make him change his mind, with good results since monasticism flourished and the king would listen to those whom he regarded as especially devout.27

If Lanfranc, on whose counsel William was manifestly very reliant, struggled to get his way, then how difficult must it have been for others to make headway against William, for example, for the laity, over whom, as (p.524) Malmesbury believed, William had established a total dominance.28 If a similar intransigence as displayed towards Lanfranc determined his relations with his eldest son Robert, as it surely did, then their estrangement at the end of William’s life is readily explicable; as also is the messy situation that unravelled as soon as his sons decided to fight each other. Matilda, it must be thought, probably had the same capacity to chip away at her husband’s stubbornness that Lanfranc possessed. It may well be that her death left William somewhat rudderless in his last years, particularly in the maintenance of personal relationships. Similar characteristics may well have shaped Gregory VII’s treatment of William. Although his attitude to him has something of the faute de mieux about it, it is possible that even this zealous man was overawed by William’s reputation and achievements and drew back from confrontations because of this. Like others, he certainly found William’s mixture of qualities baffling and feared very greatly the consequences of William transferring his support to his enemies.

Although William of Malmesbury wrote that William was spurred on by the achievements of Robert Guiscard, a member of the same gens, regarded by William as his social inferior and therefore as someone whose deeds he had to exceed, William manifestly did not see himself as a fully signed-up participant in the European-wide diaspora of the Normans. He was conscious of the remarkable events that were taking place in southern Europe, but his priorities lay elsewhere.29 His personal identity and his conceptual ethnicity were ultimately defined politically, with his prime responsibilities being those of a ruler. William was dux or comes – to mention his most used titles – Normannorum. In other words, while he belonged to the people who lived in the multi-ethnic society of Normandy, most of whose inhabitants would define themselves as Normans, but many of whom would not, he positioned himself in relation to centuries-old ideals and practices of rulership that encompassed and transcended the ethnic. William’s adoption of the title patronus Normannorum after 1066 redefined a role that continued to have elements of the ethnic, but positioned his responsibilities in the context of empire.

Stories such as those involving the likes of Arnold d’Echauffour, Abbot Robert of Saint-Evroult, Count William Werlenc of Mortain, the monk Guitmund, and Edgar the Ætheling, show that all of them made their way to southern Italy because they got on the wrong side of William. After the fund-raising missions of Bishops Geoffrey of Coutances and Ivo of Sées (p.525) and the papal legation of Abbot John of Fécamp in c.1050, there is no evidence that he positively encouraged anyone to go to southern Italy. These journeys and the dramatic case of Bishop Odo show that the prime influence on William as a ruler was the demand for loyalty. To try to desert one’s allocated post, as Odo was doing, was a terrible crime. All this is the obverse side of William’s reluctance to forgive. More generally, all this shows that William’s life and achievements belong conceptually more within the analytical framework of the evolution of the medieval state and the cultures of rule that animated it rather than within the diaspora of the Normans.

In terms of the relationship between William’s sense of his personal role and identity, the conquest of England, and the broader processes of the making of Europe, it is crucial to think primarily in terms of ‘regnal solidarity’, a phrase coined by Susan Reynolds.30 While what might constitute such ‘regnal solidarity’ is almost endlessly variable, in modern parlance what happened after 1066 was effectively the takeover of one state by another one on terms that emphasized plurality and legitimacy. It is this that makes the link between William’s personality and the implications of those two phrases that appeared in the Prologue – ‘an event unparalleled in European history’ and ‘small-scale elite transfer’ – and their overt reference to the remarkable comprehensiveness of the takeover of England after 1066.31 It also means that the phrase ‘the Norman Conquest’ works as a political definition; but that, as a cultural one, it does not.

In terms of ‘the image of the conqueror’ as influentially explored by Robert Bartlett within the framework of the making of Europe, William’s life sits within the history of state-building rather than of adventure. His personal non-participation in the diaspora of the Normans means that it must be thus. Although Anna Comnena’s famous portrait of Robert Guiscard’s son Bohemond – one of the great opportunists of the southern European world and of the First Crusade, which is at the heart of ‘the image of the conqueror’ – shows that not dissimilar characteristics were required for both roles, there were major differences.32 For all that multiple literary devices are at work in this portrait of Bohemond, whom Anna was seeking to present as the very antithesis of the civilized values that her father represented, the same physicality and capacity to manipulate (p.526) situations were required of William.33 Both are representative of the cultural phenomenon of medieval warrior kingship/leadership. But the context was different, as are the thought-worlds and the norms, scripts, and rules that govern them.

Something resembling the ‘War Makes the State, and the State Makes Peace’ slogan mentioned at the end of the previous chapter was deployed during William’s lifetime by Fulcoius of Beauvais, a poet who wanted to flatter him: ‘That man is David, “strong in hand”, as the English bear witness, the same a Solomon, “peacemaker” as the same bear witness. He beats back, he withdraws, he heals where he wounds; both war and peace obey him sympathetically.’34 But for others, as we have seen many times during this book, William was the destroyer of lives, the bringer of a disaster of unnecessary proportions to the English. As Augustine would have surely recognized, justice had been brought to the world of the robber bands. But what sort of justice? And how much justice? The chilling passage in the Liber Eliensis that ‘with ferocious resolve, he unrelentingly kept laying waste to the country everywhere, kept slaughtering people and doing many wrongs, prompted merely, as we have said, by suspicion of his new kingdom’ has to be set alongside the lines of the poet. It underlines the undeniable violence of the first years of William’s rule in England.35 The scale of human tragedy is beyond our knowing.

For all his wobbles between worldliness and censoriousness and apparent changes of mind, across the span of his writings, William of Malmesbury probably thought that William had gone to Hell. In the Gesta Regum, he expressed the opinion that William’s only fault was his greed. He was ready to suggest that even this might be excused on the grounds that William had many enemies. However, in the draft that he later removed from the Gesta Pontificum referred to earlier, he wrote that he now doubted whether God would be able to forgive William. In a lengthy passage greatly influenced by Eadmer, he dwelt on William’s excessive interference in the affairs of the Church and on his arrogance. He even went as far as saying that he regretted what he had written in the Gesta Regum. In the final version of the Gesta Pontificum, he replaced this with a simple statement that William treated Lanfranc with respect, and added nothing more.36 When he took a longer-term perspective, he could certainly say that William’s achievements (p.527) had brought ruin to the English. He was the inferior of Alfred, Æthelstan, and Edgar, kings in a late ninth- and tenth-century Golden Age. Towards the end of the 1130s and for all that he was of mixed ethnic birth, William of Malmesbury gave vent to an anger that seethed above and below the surface in all of his works, writing that the Normans as a people were boorish and violent, and inferior to the English.37 As we have already seen, in his interpretation of the prodigy of the conjoined twins, he could describe the union of Normandy and England as an offence against Nature.38

Orderic’s treatment of William’s funeral and burial is arguably a metaphor that says the same. There was a centuries-old hagiographical tradition that tombs expanded to accommodate saints. When this did not happen, it was presumably an allegorical statement that the deceased had been exceptionally sinful.39 In the coda to his symphonic treatment of William’s life and death in the deathbed speech he composed for him, Orderic inserted the word ‘false’ into the famous passage from the Psalms, ‘Put not your trust in princes’. Whether the passage should be read as a commentary on all princes whose conduct did not conform to Orderic’s religious ideals or on William personally is in fact not entirely clear. But it must be significant that the specific faults he tells his readers to avoid are putting faith in iniquity and becoming rich through robbery, and then aiming to become even richer, the same sentiments as had been expressed by the writer of the ‘E’ Chronicle.40 These words also straddle the two worlds of monastic morality and the exercise of power in the secular world. We know that Orderic thought carefully about power.41 For all that he might have believed monastic ideals and secular power irreconcilable, he was also saying that they might not be and that they must interact. He must surely be telling us that others had ruled with much more respect for humane principles than William had done.

(p.528) Of course, we ultimately do not know where William’s soul resides. However, both of the two authors who had reflected so much on his life and its consequences had no doubt that the outcome of his conquest of England was a human catastrophe. They wrestled with their own and others’ ambivalence about what William had done and what he motivated others to do. Too many innocent people had suffered. Yet William lived in times when biblical exegesis led popes, especially Gregory VII, to fill their writings with calls to violence, sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally, in what they believed to be legitimate causes that locate them within a continuous long history.42 The new approach to William’s life in this book means that more must be done to locate him within this framework. Another history that needs to be written is one of medieval state-sponsored violence. Like the debate on English exceptionalism and its potential consequences for world history, this would also globalize a subject that is too often thought of as being of national interest at most and, often, as insignificant. But, in the end, the greatest priority must surely be to try to find a way to listen to the silent voices of the thousands whose lives William the Conqueror ruined. Only thus can the cause of humanity truly be served.


(1) Tacitus, Agricola, ed. A. J. Woodman, with contributions from C. S. Kraus (Cambridge, 2014), 55, ch. 3 0, with commentaries on this famous passage at pp. 15–25, 243–4 (‘To plunder, slaughter, and theft, they falsely give the name rule; they make a desolation and they call it peace’). I am grateful to Tom Licence for a discussion of the translation of this passage.

(4) Thought-provokingly relevant is Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (London, 2011).

(7) Jean Dastugue, ‘Le femur de Guillaume le Conquérant’, AN, xxxvii (1987), 5–10.

(8) For an informative essay on this theme, Björn Weiler, ‘William of Malmesbury on Kingship’, History, xc (2005), 3–22, and, for William, see esp. pp. 13–14.

(9) Thus, in the Preface to the 1999 Yale edition of Douglas’s WC, p. x.

(13) Fundamental for the military households is J. O. Prestwich, ‘The Military Household of the Norman Kings’, EHR, xcvi (1981), 1–37 (reprinted in Strickland [ed.], Anglo-Norman Warfare, 93–127). Several astute points about these male-dominated worlds are made in Gillingham, William II, 49–58.

(18) Although I am largely forsaking references to earlier historians of William’s life, I cannot resist inserting that Barlow, William I and the Norman Conquest, 12, has a similar emphasis to the one here on this aspect of William’s early years (‘Probably even more influential on William’s character than his illegitimate birth were the perils and treacheries of his boyhood … At the age of fifteen he was ready to fight for his inheritance, to recover the rights lost since his father’s death.’).

(20) The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury by Eadmer, ed. R. W. Southern, OMT (Oxford, 1962), 56; Walter Fröhlich, ‘St Anselm’s Special Relationship with William the Conqueror’, ANS, x (1988), 101–10, at 105–9.

(22) City of God against the Pagans, vol. ii, Books 4–7, trans. William M. Green (London, 1963), ii, 16–17. The potential importance of this passage alongside the Tapestry fables is emphasized in Pastan and White, The Bayeux Tapestry and its Contents, 182.

(23) Henry Mayr-Harting, ‘Charlemagne’s Religion’, in Peter Godman, Jörg Jarnut, and Peter Jonanek (eds.), Am Vorabend der Kaiser Krönung (Berlin, 2002), 113–24.

(24) Janet L. Nelson, ‘Did Charlemagne have a Private Life?’, in Bates, Crick, and Hamilton (eds.), Writing Medieval Biography,15–28, at 18–25.

(25) Henry Mayr-Harting, ‘Alcuin, Charlemagne and the Problem of Sanctions’, in Baxter, Karkov, Nelson, and Pelteret (eds.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, 207–18, at 215–18.

(26) Vita Lanfranci, 708–9. On the incident, Margaret Gibson, ‘The Image of Lanfranc’, in Lanfranco di Pavia, 21–8, at 25–6; Cowdrey, Lanfranc, 187.

(27) For the whole passage, GP, i, 90–7. Note especially sunt modo predicanda magnanimitatis exempla quae quondam dicebantur presumptionis facinora (p. 96). For commentary, Michael Winterbottom, ‘A New Passage of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum’, Journal of Medieval Latin, xi (2001), 50–9, with Malmesbury’s text at pp. 52–5.

(29) GR, i, 482–3. On the use of the term ‘diaspora’ in relation to the Normans, Bates, The Normans and Empire, 29, 42–4. It is crucial to my arguments here that the term be used with its technical meaning, rather than as a general description of a migration. I hope to return to this subject in a separate publication.

(30) Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1997), 256–66 with the actual phrase at p. 262.

(32) On Bohemond, Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950–1350 (London, 1993), 90.

(33) For Anna’s treatment of Bohemond, ‘doppelgänger to Alexius’, Penelope Buckley, The ‘Alexiad’ of Anna Komnene (Cambridge, 2014), 208–14, with the quotation at p. 211.

(34) ‘Fulcoii Belvacensis epistolae’, ed. Colker, 245 (trans. van Houts, The Normans in Europe, 132).

(35) Liber Eliensis, 172 (trans. Fairbrother, 204). I have followed Janet Fairweather’s translation.

(37) Willelmi Meldunensis monachi liber super explanationum Lamentationum Ieremiae prophetae, ed. Michael Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson, CCCM (Turnhout, 2011), 84, lines 2,194–212. For the development of Malmesbury’s opinions, Michael Winterbottom, ‘William of Malmesbury and the Normans’, Journal of Medieval Latin, xx (2010), 70–7; R. M. Thomson, ‘William of Malmesbury’s Diatribe against the Normans’, in Brett and Woodman (eds.), The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, 113–21.

(39) For references, David Bates, ‘William the Conqueror’s Earliest Historians and the Writing of His Biography’, in Bates, Crick, and Hamilton (eds.), Writing Medieval Biography, 129–41, at 139.

(40) OV, iv, 108–09 (Nolite ergo confidere in principibus falsis O filii hominum … Nolite sperare in iniquitate, et rapinas nolite concupiscere. Diuitiae si affluent, nolite cor apponere); Matthew Kempshall, Rhetoric and the Writing of History, 400–1500 (Manchester and New York, 2011), 404.

(41) Richard E. Barton, ‘Emotions and Power in Orderic Vitalis’, ANS, xxxiii (2011), 41–59, at 46–51.

(42) Buc, Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror, is an essay on this theme, with full reference to the eleventh century in this context.