William the Conqueror
by David C. Douglas
University of California, 476 pp., $9.50
The one historical date that is firmly fixed in English consciousness is 1066. It is the first date that we learn; for according to the old tradition of our schools English history begins with the Norman Conquest. What went before is shadowy and vague. We may know that Julius Caesar landed in Britain; but to most of us his landing remains an isolated phenomenon. In the long-lasting mists of the Anglo-Saxon period a few figures stand out arbitrarily, such as Alfred and Canute, but only because of stories about cakes and the rising tide. It is with the Battle of Hastings that the mists begin to recede and an intelligible sequence of events emerges. That is the starting-point. It is from that moment that we give our monarchs numbers instead of odd nicknames, as though to symbolize that henceforward the story of our national institutions can be traced. Our great families usually claim, often with greater pride than accuracy, to descend from an ancestor who “came over with the Conqueror.” There was, it is true, a period in the nineteenth century when everything Germanic was in fashion and English historians delved back into the Anglo-Saxon age to find the origins of all that is praiseworthy in English constitutional practice and words such as witanegemot were dug out of obscurity. But the fashion never caught on widely. England remains unique among the nations in her readiness to boast of having once been conquered by an alien race.
Is this attitude justified? Was the Norman Conquest the turning point in English medieval history? Professor Douglas’s book gives us as authoritative an answer as we are likely to receive for many years to come. His knowledge of the period is unsurpassed. Unlike many contemporary historians, he is not afraid to use a biographical approach and to admit the part that an individual personality can play in shaping events; nor is he afraid of narrative. He tells the story straightforwardly; but he shows, too, how the story affected the social, economic, and institutional life of the time and what its consequences were.
It is an extraordinary story that he has to tell. William the Conqueror was born a bastard at a time when noble birth, dynastic alliances, and hereditary succession were becoming of vital importance in the disposal of property and power. He was seven years old when his father, Duke Robert I of Normandy, died far away from home, in Anatolia, when returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He succeeded to the Ducal throne because there was no one else at hand; but his one loyal guardian, his great-uncle Archbishop Robert of Rouen, died, and for the next few years there was utter chaos throughout Normandy. The local magnates ravaged each others’ lands, causing misery to the peasantry and paying no attention to the Ducal court, which was itself a nest of intrigue and murder. If the young Duke survived, it was partly because his rivals were too many, partly because he …