Cutting edge: David Bates

June 15, 2001

Evidence from charters in Norman archives dispels the myth of William the Conqueror as an all-powerful vanquisher.

Should England's first Norman king be thought of as an all-powerful conqueror? As I start work writing William the Conqueror in the prestigious Yale University Press English Monarchs series, I am convinced that many conceptions about this great figure in British history may not be correct.

My whole career as a historian has been defined by the research I carried out in northern France in the late 1970s. Until that time, I believed, apparently like everyone else, that the documentation for Norman history and everything associated with 1066 "and all that" was well known. However, a visit stimulated by curiosity turned into a well-nigh shattering experience when I discovered that there were hundreds of 11th and 12th-century charters in Norman archives that had apparently never been noticed by English-speaking scholars. These discoveries included unpublished and, in some cases, completely unknown charters of William the Conqueror.

Much of my research since then has concentrated on the duchy of Normandy, on the expansion of Norman and French people and ideas throughout the British Isles, and on the interpretation of charters, a term that I use to describe a variety of documents. My 1982 book, Normandy before 1066 , drew on my discoveries to argue that the history of Normandy, whose rulers were the descendants of Vikings, shared many of the social, cultural and political values of the duchy's French neighbours and that, contrary to a stereotype that still appears, the Normans did not possess a unique and superior capacity for warfare. These ideas have remained important as I have developed a wider perspective on this crucial phase in the history of Western Europe.

Writing authoritatively about one of the most studied reigns in English and British history is a daunting task. To grasp the kind of issue that will need to be addressed, we need only note that it has recently been argued that the Domesday Book was written not on William the Conqueror's orders, but on his son's. I see it as crucial to define the social values within which William's life should be interpreted. It will be necessary to set his attitudes and career into a context of northern French aristocratic life in which he grew to maturity. I also feel that the still-prevalent idea of him as an all-powerful conqueror must be rejected. His choices were restricted by, among other things, the logistical problems of ruling territories on both sides of the Channel whose borders were frequently under threat, by his (to modern minds) confused attitudes to the succession after his death, and by the absence of any blueprint for rule, such as "feudalism" was once thought to be.

My recent edition of his charters will supply an important foundation for the book because we can gain from them a clearer perspective on his itinerary, the way in which an image of legitimacy and authority was constructed, and his entourage. Normandy will feature as much as England in the narrative and in a contribution to debates about Englishness and Britishness because the charters help to show that, although distinctive, the duchy was structurally and culturally not too dissimilar to England. Much in William's background prepared him for rule in England. Overall, however, he conveys the impression of someone at the mercy of events, rather than controlling them.

Meanwhile, my work on the charters continues, analysing English, Norman and French documentary forms and their language between AD1000 and the middle of the 12th century. This involves collecting more than 5,000 documents and the first systematic theoretical analysis of texts that are fundamental to understanding of, among other things, ideas of law, kinship, power and gender and the interaction of French, Norman and English cultural forms in the century after 1066. It is a truly exciting prospect. I hope that I can make available to others through a website (not yet in existence) the results of years of research.

David Bates is professor of medieval history at Glasgow University. His work is funded by a Marc Fitch Research Readership awarded by the British Academy.

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