Reviewed by: Steve Marritt
Author: Peter Rex
Price (RRP): £20
Peter Rex does not like William. He is brutal, cruel, avaricious and only a competent rather than inspired general. His claim to the throne is dubious and his commitment after 1066 to rule as Edward the Confessor’s successor, according to English law, and in co-operation with the English elite, a sham.
This continues themes from Rex’s 1066: A New History of the Norman Conquest, but balance is essential. William was brutal, but so too were his contemporaries. Indeed, it could be argued that this was necessary for effective rule.
William did not fight many battles but his real military talent lay in raiding, harrying, and strategic castle building. Norman rule was harsh, but there is evidence for commitment to working with the English, at least at first.
Rex is best on Normandy pre-1066. His is the first non-specialist work on William to give this fundamental aspect of the story the space it needs.
The child William succeeded not to a ‘state’, but instead inherited the right to act as overlord over a complex patchwork of great families. His survival and developing control of the duchy up to 1066 in co-operation with the church and a group of close friends among the aristocracy is a great story of poisonings, exiles, and Machiavellian politics, and Rex tells it well.
He is also very thoughtful on the extent to which ‘feudalism’ and ‘knights’ service’, crucial to our understanding of contemporary political and social structures and central to scholarly debate, existed in Normandy before 1066.
It is a pity that this is not carried through because Rex has a real ability to communicate difficult issues to a wide audience. However, the pages covering William’s claim to England, 1066, and the English rebellions are often derived from Rex’s 1066, sometimes assume prior knowledge and can be difficult to read and repetitious.
Some photos and maps are reused, and some could do with explanation. The years 1070–87 receive only 45 pages, but, like Normandy before 1066, they are crucial.
So while this may be the first biography of the Conqueror for 30 years, it cannot replace its predecessors.
Dr Steve Marritt, University of Glasgow