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Review of William the Conqueror by David C. Douglas

William the Conqueror by David C. DouglasWilliam the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England
By David C. Douglas

Paperback: 488 pages
Publisher: University of California Press (May 1, 1967)
ISBN-10: 0520003500

In this scholarly work, David C. Douglas takes an exhaustive look at the life of Duke William II of Normandy.  The book is broken out into four parts: The Young Duke, The Duke in His Duchy, The Establishment of the Anglo-Norman Kingdom, and The King in His Kingdom.

The first part tells of William’s birth and inheritance, his accession to his position as duke, and his war for survival in his duchy. From 1047-1060, William was in a constant state of warfare against those in and surrounding his duchy, including the King of France.

Part II underscores the rule of Duke William after he solidified his position as duke. While the duchy of Normandy was never entirely safe from outside threats–or inside threats for that matter, as can be seen in William’s own son’s rebellion later–there was a brief period where the state of his administration was more firmly established along with a strong group of noble supporters surrounding him. Most of these nobles would continue to support him for his entire reign as duke of Normandy and king of England.

Part III moves into the conquest of England and the defense of this kingdom after it had been conquered. Defending the kingdom was not an easy task for William, as he faced a series of rebellions within England, along with outside threats from Scandinavia and the continent.

The last part of the book deals with William’s royal administration and the end of his reign.

When I say this book is exhaustive, I’m not exaggerating. In fact, I felt Douglas spent too much time in certain areas, such as the Ecclesiastical Revival in Part II, which could have been told in a more concise fashion. The main takeaway from that chapter was that William was a supporter of the Church, and he helped establish a strong ecclesiastical presence within Normandy, which in turn helped him throughout his lifetime. For example, a common thread in many historical accounts of the invasion of England was the Pope’s support for William in this endeavor. While it is important to know the foundations of William’s relationship with the Church, the chapter is around 30 pages long, when Douglas probably could have related this information in half the space.

I don’t want to turn people off from reading this book, though, just because of its length. If you’re interested in the subject of the Norman invasion of England, Douglas’s account is essential in understanding the background to the person of Duke William II. It’s certainly a must-read; it will just take a while to read through it.

Also, one other point in which I felt Douglas could have made a stronger argument. Most historians I’ve read take the side of William the Conqueror in his invasion of England. The brief story is that King Edward the Confessor appointed William to be his successor long before his death. Harold Godwineson, the actual direct successor to Edward, supposedly swore fealty to William after a trip he made to the continent years earlier, but he claimed that on Edward’s deathbed, the dying king appointed him, not William, to succeed to the throne.

Historians, such as Ian Walker, author of the Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King, claim Harold likely swore fealty to William under duress, and that Edward never intended for William to be his successor. Both historians make good arguments, even though after reading both biographies, I felt Walker made a stronger case for Harold as the legitimate successor than Douglas did for William. Douglas, in my opinion, could have made a stronger case, though I have always found it peculiar that William would have risked so much to invade England had a promise of succession not been made to him earlier. On this point, I give credit to the historians who favor William as the legitimate successor. My recommendation would be to read both Douglas’s book and Walker’s book, and form your own opinion.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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