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William the King

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 was considered too insignificant to be worth murdering, and partly because the King of France had at last to intervene to restore some order in what was the most important of his fiefs. In 1046 William took over the government of the Duchy. But for the next fourteen years he was struggling for survival against insubordinate vassals, jealous and greedy neighbors, and the growing hostility of his royal overlord. The story of those years is complicated and involved, and Professor Douglas tells it in bewildering detail. But the detail is necessary if we are to understand the problems that the young Duke had to face, and the skill and courage with which he dealt with them. He emerged triumphant, the master of his Duchy, supported by a new aristocracy that he had built up in place of the lawless lords of earlier times.

Then followed the years in which William planned his great project of the conquest of England. They reveal his genius as a diplomat. Not only did he make use of every sign of weakness in his neighbors, the Capetian royal dynasty, and the potentially dangerous Counts of Anjou, but he extended his influence over Brittany and Ponthieu, while his marriage with Matilda of Flanders gave him support in her father’s county. At the same time his ecclesiastical policy won him the good will of the Papacy at a moment when the English Church was in disgrace, and he managed to secure approval for his project from the Western Emperor. The accident, if it was an accident, which brought Harold Godwineson to his Court in 1064 and enabled him to extract the oath promising to support his succession to the English throne gave him further moral strength and justified his indignation at Harold’s usurpation, especially as it seems clear that as early as 1051 King Edward the Confessor named William as his heir. William had no royal Anglo-Saxon blood in his veins; yet when the time came, European public opinion believed that he had a perfect right to the English throne.

The story of the invasion itself is fascinating and dramatic. It was immediately preceded by the invasion of Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway; thus when William landed at Pevensey he did not know whether he would meet Harold Godwineson’s army or the triumphant Norwegians. It is possible that the English victory at Stamford Bridge was to William’s advantage, for Hardrada might have proved a more dangerous rival. But William was the ablest participant in the three-cornered contest. His tactics at Hastings and his strategy during the following days are proofs of his genius as a soldier. Less than three months after his landing in England he was crowned King at Westminster. Nevertheless, the pacification of England was not an easy task. The threat of Scandinavian intervention was very real; it was largely by chance that King Sweyn of Denmark’s attempted invasion came to nothing. Northern England was brought to heel only by the ruthless and horrible devastation of Yorkshire. To keep the Scots in order, William’s army had to march as far north as Abernethy, on the edge of the Highlands. Moreover, from the later 1070s onwards, William’s position in France deteriorated; and his enemies were well aware of his difficulties. Professor Douglas shows us that every move against William’s French possessions was timed to coincide with revolts in England and attacks from Scotland or Scandinavia.

Yet the Anglo-Norman kingdom survived and was given an administration by the Conqueror which enabled it to endure. The new Norman aristocracy was rewarded with rich estates in England, but was subjected to closer control by the Crown than was possible in Normandy. The English Church was similarly made to serve the State, rather more effectively than Pope Gregory VII, with his high ideals of ecclesiastical independence, quite liked. Professor Douglas is particularly valuable in emphasizing the importance of being an anointed king. As anointed king, William enjoyed an enormously enhanced prestige even in Normandy, where he was only a duke and the vassal to another king. In England the assemblies where he “wore his crown” had an almost sacred authority. The mystique of the Holy Emperor prevalent at Byzantium, with which the Normans were in contact through their Italian settlements, penetrated to England. Professor Douglas cites a document in which William calls himself by the Greek imperial title of basileus; and it is of more than artistic significance that he employed Greek artisans to make him his crown.

William’s achievements, administrative and constitutional as well as military and diplomatic, are ably recorded by Professor Douglas. Out of it all William emerges as a very great man. His personality was not perhaps attractive. He was capable of hideous cruelty, though also of generosity. He was arrogant and not over-scrupulous. But he was brave, patient, and intelligent. Fortune often favored him, but he made use of fortune. If, for instance, he was able to keep his forces together while waiting for the wind to take him across the Channel while Harold was forced to move his at some loss round to the Thames, it was because William’s organization of his commissariat and his discipline were far superior. We are given details of his appearance. He was a tall, portly man; whereas his Queen, a lady of ability and spirit, was almost a dwarf, little over four feet in height. The book contains useful appendices; one provides a fascinating discussion of the Norman use of poison as a political weapon, while others clear chronological and dynastic obscurities.

It must however be confessed that the book is not easy to read. Professor Douglas, from his own great knowledge, is apt to bring characters into the narrative without introducing them to us properly; and we are not helped by the index, which is curiously selective, nor by the genealogical tables, which are sometimes inaccurate. For example, the tables show Queen Matilda’s father, Baldwin V of Flanders, to be the son of Eleanor of Normandy, whereas the appendix that discusses Matilda’s kinship with William emphasizes that Eleanor was Baldwin’s step-mother. On one page we read that vast estates were given to Richard III of Normandy by his wife Adela; on another that their marriage never took place. Professor Douglas’s style is often so curiously involved as to dim the sense; and he has odd idiosyncrasies, such as a liking to begin paragraphs with the word “Nor.” He is also far too fond of the phrase “there can be no doubt that…,” which at once raises a doubt in the reader’s mind. This is particularly unfortunate, as many of his deductions are made on rather slender evidence. Considering his knowledge and his understanding of the period, we may take his deductions as correct, and it is a pity that he involuntarily casts doubt on them.

All the same, though an effort is required from the reader, the effort is well worth while. The book is a first-class contribution to historical knowledge; and the picture that emerges from its pages is extraordinarily interesting and revealing. It is the first of a series of studies of English monarchs. Let us hope that Professor Douglas’s collaborators maintain his own standard and provide us with works of similar erudition and interest.

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