Tuesday, October 18, 2011


A review of David Douglas' William the Conqueror (1964)

(Rating 5 of 5)

William the Conqueror tells the story of the most unlikely of individuals who became one of the most powerful rulers in the eleventh century A.D. William of Normandy was born in 1028, because his father Robert, the Duke of Normandy, had seduced a young woman named Herleve, the daughter of a local tanner. As an illegitimate child, William had no legal claim to any inheritance. Nevertheless, William would be made heir to one of the most powerful duchies in France. Not only would he inherit Normandy but he would hold on to it despite attacks on every front imaginable. He would go on not only to rule Normandy but he would cross the English Channel and conqueror that island kingdom, and his descendants have ruled their ever since*.

(King Henry I of France, William's patron, rival, and wife's uncle)

David Douglas covers William’s, in royal terms, lowly birth as the illegitimate child of tanner's daughter, whose father nevertheless recognizes him as his heir. His father was able to get the King of France to back his son's rights because, as duke, Robert stood by King Henry I when he was danger of losing his kingdom**. William goes on to rule the duchy with strength. He even gains the ability to stand against his earlier supporter, the King of France, to maintain his independence. When a succession crisis breaks out in England, William manages to do what King Phillip II of Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler have since all failed to do: conqueror England by force. The Norman Conquest would move England from the Scandinavian cultural sphere back to the sphere of Latin Europe as it had been during the time of the Roman Empire.

(Edward the Confessor, childless king whose death leads to a showdown)

(King Harold, he loses England to William)

“In any case, the attackers had been given an opportunity to recover. Duke William doffed his helmet, and having displayed himself to his men as still alive he succeeded in restoring order among them. The issue was, none the less, still in doubt. Harold's position had been weakened, but it was still strong, and both sides were becoming exhausted. It was at this juncture, apparently, that William introduced a new element into his conduct of the battle, Hitherto the attacks of his horsemen and his footmen had been uncoordinated: now they were to be combined. William, it is said, ordered his archers to shoot from a distance high into the air so that their arrows might fall on the heads of the defenders, and at the same time he sent his weary horsemen once again up the hill for yet another attack. This time they were successful. It was perhaps now that Harold himself was killed, and now the defenders were overwhelmed, and the hill position taken. A group of housecarls managed to rally for a while at a spot unsuitable for cavalry in the rear of the main position, and to inflict damage on their pursuers. But there could no longer be any doubt of the outcome. The flight became general and soon turned into slaughter, until at last, as darkness was beginning to fall, the duke called off the pursuit and brought his force back to the hill itself. He encamped for the night amid the carnage.”(p.201)

(The Bayeux Tapestry)

Reading this book I came to the conclusion that King William I of England had much in common with Emperor Augustus. As the first Emperor of Rome, Augustus tried to maintain the allusion of continuity with the classical Republic, while in reality he was completely dismantling it and establishing the Principate. As the King of England, William tried to maintain the allusion of continuity with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, while in reality he was in the process of restructuring his new kingdom to the same manner in which he governed Normandy.

(William I of England (top) had much in common with Emperor Augustus(below))

This book is very well organized but it does tend to move up and down the time line a great deal in order to cover various aspects of the reign of William I both as a duke and a king. I do want to point to an error in the table of contents: two chapters, ten and eleven, are missing from the list. Fortunately the 'lost chapters' are still in the text. I would still strongly recommend this book to anyone. Professor Douglas is very good at examining one of the most well-known but least understood historical figures in William the Conqueror.

*Although 'rule' may not be the appropriate word for his modern descendants over the last few hundred years. There was also the brief interlude between 1649-1660 known as the Commonwealth.

**The King of France during this time period only directly ruled a small portion of his kingdom with the great vassals, such as the Duke of Normandy, ruling the other areas.

{The first video was produced and posted on YouTube by the BBC and the second video produced and posted by historyteachers}

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to leave a comment on any article at anytime, regardless how long ago I posted it. I will most likely respond.