Not so jovial after all: how historians misunderstood William the Conqueror
The history books refer to William the Conqueror as jovial and generous, among other surprising qualities recorded in an 11th-century Latin text written after the king’s funeral.
In fact, historians have got him wrong. A new translation of the rambling chronicle reveals that such praiseworthy adjectives were directed at someone else completely – a recently deceased abbot rather than the late king.
The discovery was made by a British historian, Marc Morris, while researching his forthcoming book on William of Normandy, whose conquest of England in 1066 altered the course of the nation’s history.
He told the Observer: “It’s very difficult assessing people’s personalities at a distance of a millennium, but academics for the past 50 or 60 years have written that … he was quite jovial, cheerful, eloquent, good-natured – not the brute you might suppose.”
Morris decided to go back to the original text, which was written by a Burgundian monk called Hugh of Flavigny after William’s burial in St Stephen’s Church at Caen in Normandy. “Every biography of William on my shelf mentions Hugh’s description of William the Conqueror in the context of the king’s funeral in 1087.”
The chronicle has been in print since the 19th century, in a multi-volume collection titled the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, but only in the original Latin – “flowery Latin at that, not the normal administrative Latin that most medieval historians – like me – can cope with,” Morris said. “I looked at this passage and thought it doesn’t look right to me.”
He asked a Latin expert, Professor David D’Avray of University College London, to translate it. The new version revealed that the adjectives do indeed appear in the text, but in relation to a little-known abbot. The praise was not about William but “this admirable man”, Abbot Richard of Verdun.
Morris said: “So this house of cards came crashing down. There’s no good evidence for a genial, jolly, jovial William the Conqueror. It’s clear from looking at academic biographies written in the past 50 years that it has always been mistranslated.”
I was actually unaware that William had a jovial reputation. I always thought that his pre-“Conqueror” nickname, the title of this post, was descriptive of him in both senses of the word, i.e. not only was he illegitimate, he also indulged in the “harrying of the North,” and this sort of thing:
During William’s siege of Alençon, a disputed town on the border of Normandy, in the late 1040s or early 1050s, residents are said to have hung animal hides on their walls. They mocked him for being the grandson of a tanner, referring to the occupation of his mother’s father. To avenge her honor, he had their hands and feet cut off.