Identify and evaluate three of the major chronicle sources for the reign of William I (the Conqueror).

This essay achieved a high 2:1 in the third year of my undergraduate.

Identify and evaluate three of the major chronicle sources for the reign of William I

The events of 1066 has been at the forefront of English history for closing on a millennium, and the man at the centre of it William, variously known as ‘the Bastard’ or ‘the Conqueror’ has understandably been the subject of much study. Modern scholarship has been forced to rely on a whole spectrum of primary sources, of which chronicle sources are but one small part. Nevertheless, the range of significant chronicle sources which document William’s reign is extensive, and includes the likes of Eadmer’s Historia novorum in Anglia, William of Poitiers’ Gesta Guillelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum, as well as the works of William of Jumièges and John of Worcester.[1] The chronicle sources under consideration in this essay however, are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), The Ecclesiastical History (EH) of Orderic Vitalis, and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (GRA). The significance of these three sources above the others listed is a contentious topic, and justification for the choice must inevitably precede any attempt at evaluating either the sources themselves, or the chroniclers who wrote them.

ASC, as the most important and widely studied, is one of the best known primary sources for the period, alongside the iconic Bayeux Tapestry.[2] When combined with the fact that it was one of the main contemporary sources for the aftermath of the Conquest, its value to modern historians when assessing the reign of William I would seem to be obvious – even William of Malmesbury regarded it as ‘authoritative’, it having provided a fundamental contribution to his own work.[3] Even those who contest its value as an historical source describe its contents as ‘invaluable but scanty’, which would seem to put its significance beyond doubt.[4]

While ASC is the most contemporary of the selected sources, it does not diminish the significance of both Orderic’s The Ecclesiastical History, and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum. Written by Orderic Vitalis, EH is the product of Anglo-Norman heritage, which would imply impartiality, and therefore value as an objective historian – at least with regards to the relative fair treatment of the English and the Normans.[5] As well as this, Orderic’s upbringing in the vicinity of Roger of Montgomery’s household meant that he was close to a very powerful family, with all the resources, privileges and wider scope that might have come along with it.[6] As a primary source then, EH would seem to be incredibly important for the modern historian in the appraisal of William I’s reign.[7] Similarly William of Malmesbury, as the author of GRA, has received wide praise, with the likes of Williams and Thomson in particular both admiring the breadth of his reading, as well as his critical acumen and historical judgement.[8] This has led to the perception that he is by far the best historian of his day, and certainly ahead of his time, something which undoubtedly points to the importance of his GRA, not just when considering William I’s reign, but rather through the full period recorded.[9]

Although differing factors affect the evaluation of each individual chronicle source, some recurring themes are prevalent, courtesy of contemporary influences. For example, both Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury are of mixed, Anglo-Norman heritage which, as noted above, arguably leads to a degree of impartiality when considering protagonists of differing origins.[10] This objectivity is contested by Williams, who argues that condemnation of the episode known as the ‘Harrying of the North’ was universal across all sources.[11] Such a statement makes a sweeping generalisation by its nature, and it has been heavily opposed by Hagger, who argues that it was not especially brutal by the standards of the time, and that only Orderic Vitalis presented any vehement condemnation.[12]

All three chroniclers were Benedictine historians, and as such followed similar practices in their approaches to history.[13] While it is argued that William of Malmesbury alone is representative of both the benefits and confines of this style, one might point out that all three chroniclers write in a similar manner, thus making a comparison between them far more legitimate.[14] On this basis, perhaps the most obvious point of similarity is that all three authors had similar monastic backgrounds, something which has both advantages and disadvantages.[15] Writing in a monastery meant that each author had access to privileges and resources which were rare in the period; namely education, and books. It also however meant, as noted above, that they were confined to a certain style, which inevitably led to hagiographical embellishments.[16] In itself a manifestation of the distinct emphasis on the religious rather than the secular, this was most obvious in EH, with its prevalent religious imagery.[17] As record of events, the embellishment and exaggeration typical of such works would therefore seem to hinder modern historians, thus challenging their reliability if not usefulness.

ASC, written in the late 11th century, provides the most contemporary account of William I’s reign, something which means that events are far more likely to be reported without too much being read into them, thanks to hindsight.[18] On the other hand, it also makes it possible that the record of events was incomplete, inaccurate, or both. In general however, the ASC is praised for its accuracy, if not its completeness.[19] The majority of the chronicle for William I’s reign was written in Peterborough, the manuscript often being referred to as the ‘Peterborough Manuscript’ or simply the ‘E Manuscript’. The limitation of this is clear at various points in the text, where there is perhaps too narrow a focus on local events.[20] Aside from when and where it was written, other criticisms of the text exist including the aforementioned primacy of religion, and the fact that some debate exists over when the start of the year was considered to be.[21] While this may seem to be arguing against its value as a contemporary source, it does offer some crucial advantages. Firstly, and most importantly, the author’s attitude is rarely entered into the records, which displays a vital objectivity sometimes found lacking in other contemporary sources; those which might have an ulterior agenda.[22] As well as this, Swanton’s translation of ASC is a very good one, something which is sometimes taken for granted by modern historians, but which makes conjecture far more valuable.[23]

In terms of the content of the ASC, there are several things to note concerning William I’s reign. Only to be expected are the numerous comparisons and references between Saxon and Norman rule, something which perhaps shows a certain amount of what might be called ‘awareness of context’, and also suggests a little of the fairness with which both Saxon and Norman rulers were treated.[24] The fair treatment of William in particular is exemplified by the restraint shown by the author in the description of the ‘Harrying of the North’. Even Williams, who argues for universal condemnation of the episode, admits that the account given in ASC is reserved, while Hagger even relegates the version given to a mere note.[25]

Throughout the years of his reign, there is only really one complete description of William I; most portrayals are restricted to a few words here and there. Before assessing the accounts of William I, one must first consider the fact that definitions of certain words will have changed over time. As such, some qualities which might have negative connotations in a modern context might have been entirely praiseworthy at the time they were recorded in the ASC. Of course this only applies to a few of the qualities described, and is perhaps best exemplified by his sternness. William I was described as ‘stern beyond all measure to those men who opposed his will’, to such an extent that ‘that no one dared do anything against his will.’[26] While the word ‘stern’ might not be appreciated as a virtue in a modern context, William is seemingly described with admiration for just how inflexible he was. Certainly when one takes into account the combination of this intransigence and the fact that he was considered very just, the image of William is one of consistency, and fairness – concerned with public order above all else.[27] It is important to note however, that throughout the description of William’s reign, he is named the King of England, rather than the King of the English, and one could interpret the subtle difference as an indicator that while he controlled the land, he did not have the ‘hearts and minds’ of the English.[28]

EH, one of the chronicles written after William I’s death in 1087, was written by Orderic Vitalis, one of the better-known Anglo-Norman historians. Born in Shropshire in 1075, he spent the first ten years of his life there, in close contact with the household of Roger of Montgomery, one of William’s chief military commanders.[29] His upbringing certainly coloured his accounts of the history of William’s reign as it related to Shropshire, for which he maintained a certain fondness through his adult life.[30] Given the fact that Orderic allowed this bias the creep in, it would not be much of a supposition to make that his contact with Roger of Montgomery’s household made Orderic inherently pro-William. His Anglo-Norman heritage, and his torn attitude to the Conquest in general serve to quash this conjecture however, as he does condemn certain of William’s actions, as well as those of other Normans.[31] The best example of Orderic’s mixed approach to the Conquest are the contrast of his writing about peaceful English-French cohabitation and his very negative appraisal of Hugh of Avranches.[32] Orderic’s negativity does not rest solely on the Normans however, as he considered the Conquest the fair judgement of the sins of the English in general and of Harold in particular.[33] It would be easy for one to mistake this indecisiveness for impartiality, but what it displays more is a worrying degree of uncertainty.

Writing in the early 12th century, it is estimated that Orderic began to write EH around thirty years before its completion in 1141.[34] As such, it is obvious that Orderic relied on the accounts of others for his descriptions of the events before his birth. His main source was William of Poitiers’ work Gesta Guillelmi, though he was also likely influenced by Bede, William of Jumièges, John of Worcester, as well as possibly Eadmer and Lanfranc of Canterbury.[35] His wide range of influences suggests that the contents of EH had been considered at length before being finalised, and supports Orderic’s own claim that he was concerned with truth and justice, and was not interested in taking sides.[36] His work has however been the subject of a lot of criticism for a variety of reasons. It is argued in particular by Barlow that some of Orderic’s writing is very obviously unrealistic, with mentions of dragon-slaying and the like.[37] Part of this is due to the same constraints of monastic writing noted with regards to ASC, whereby religion is given a position of primacy.[38] While this is more forgivable in Orderic’s work, given the title, it still restricts the credulity of his account. Alongside this, his disregard for chronology and structure, and the incorporation of folk legends and stories which sprung up in the years since William’s death also give modern readers cause to doubt the validity of EH as a useful record of William’s reign.[39] Perhaps the most obvious criticism however, is the fact that Orderic was only a small child for the part of William’s reign that he was alive for. As such, some of his accounts, most notably the arrest of Bishop Odo, are coloured by later events and controversies, such as the struggle between the King and the Church over the appointment of Bishops. In short, Orderic was prone to reading too much into past events, something which historians struggle to avoid to this day. [40]

As part of Orderic’s recurring religious theme, he does praise William’s piety at almost every opportunity. Such a description might lack imagination, but given how highly piety was regarded by contemporaries, one could interpret it as general praise for the Conqueror’s character.[41] Despite this broad and consistent praise, Orderic does condemn the ‘Harrying of the North’ in the strongest terms of any of the chronicle sources, describing the devastation in near-apocalyptic terms. It has been suggested, and seems likely, that this is due to his Shropshire origins, where it was probable that memories of the event were still fresh.[42] This contrast potentially shows what could be argued to be Orderic’s impartiality, but the vehemence with which he first praises and then condemns William strikes one more as instability of opinion than impartiality. Such a contrast is shown perhaps more starkly in the instance of the rebellion at Exeter early in William’s rule, where Orderic describes the rebels fighting for liberty against ‘valiant’ attackers.[43] While EH has many issues with it, the fact remains that it is one of the most complete accounts of William I’s reign.

William of Malmesbury’s GRA, written in an attempt ‘to mend the broken chain of our history,’ was designed to cover from Bede’s authoritative work up until the date of the work’s completion, in 1125.[44] Similar to Orderic, William was born with mixed heritage, which is considered the source of his genuine impartiality, as shown in his treatment of Harold, and the middle course he steers when considering the Conquest in general.[45] Born in 1095 near Worcester, he maintained close connections to his birthplace for the duration of his life, but still travelled extensively.[46] William’s travelling is a part of the explanation for the astounding breadth of his reading, which included 400 titles, of 200 authors, and meant that he came into contact with other chroniclers, such as Eadmer of Canterbury, and possibly John of Worcester.[47] His travels are also certain to have contributed to his experience of the world, and therefore might well have aided the development of his widely-praised acumen and judgement.[48]

On the other hand, GRA has been criticised on grounds of William’s questionable credulity, as well as his carelessness, wilful mishandling of evidence, and meandering irrelevance. Indeed, it has been questioned whether or not William perceived himself as an historian, or merely a Christian man of letters. The primacy of religion in contemporary works has always been an issue, simply because most of them were written by monks, and William allowed some of his bias into the text by implying that the corruption of the English Church in 1066 had been corrected by the Normans.[49] As a counter to this however, William’s religious rhetoric is almost non-existent when compared to that of Orderic, meaning there are far fewer embellishments and exaggerations to sift through when reading the chronicle.[50]

While all three of the sources considered are crucial to the modern historian’s understanding of William I’s reign, GRA is probably the most significant due in large part to the fact that he gives the most complete and in-depth description of the man himself, both in terms of his person and his personality.[51] Such a description is invaluable when one turns to an interpretation of certain of his actions. All three sources have their own positive and negative qualities, and one must consider what the purpose of each was. In keeping with such, it is not unfair to say that GRA is the only chronicle which makes any pretension to be a secular account of events, while Orderic’s work does the opposite. While this is not the fault of the author, it does weigh the relative usefulness and reliability of their works heavily in favour of William of Malmesbury.

Word count: 3,013

 [1] A. Williams, The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge, 1995), p.165.

[2] Williams, English, p.165.

[3] R. Thomson, William of Malmesbury (Woodbridge, 1987), pp.13, 18.

[4] C. Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London & New York, 2004), p.159.

[5] F. Barlow, William I and the Norman Conquest (London, 1965), p.104.

[6] Barlow, William, p.108.

[7] Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, Vol.II: Books III and IV, trans. & ed. M. Chibnall (Oxford, 1990), pp.xiii, xxix.

[8] Williams, English, p.171, Thomson, William, p.11.

[9] Thomson, William, p.11.

[10] Barlow, William, p.104, Williams, English, p.165, 172.

[11] Williams, English, p.40.

[12] M. Hagger, William: King and Conqueror (New York, 2012), p.100.

[13] Williams, English, p.165.

[14] Thomson, William, p.5.

[15] D.J.A. Matthew, The Norman Conquest (London, 1966), p.215.

[16] Williams, English, pp.64-5.

[17] Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, pp.xiv, 173, 185, Williams, English, p.165.

[18] Williams, English, p.41.

[19] Given-Wilson, Chronicles, p.159.

[20] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. & ed. M. Swanton (London, 2000), pp.207-9.

[21] For primacy of religion, see: Williams, English, pp.64-5, for debate on when the year began, see: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p.xv.

[22] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pp.xvii, 202-4.

[23] J.M. Pope, Review: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (trans. & ed.) M.J. Swanton, Speculum, 76:3 (2001), p.804.

[24] Williams, English, p.59.

[25] Williams, English, p.41, Hagger, William, p.99.

[26] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pp.219-20, Hagger, William, pp.100, 141.

[27] Hagger, William, p.76, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pp.219-21.

[28] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p.xxxii.

[29] Barlow, William, pp.108, 114.

[30] Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, p.xiii, Williams, English, pp.42, 53, 174-6.

[31] Barlow, William, p.104.

[32] Barlow, William, p.113.

[33] Williams, English, p.175.

[34] Barlow, William, p.164.

[35] Hagger, William, p.127, Williams, English, p.175, Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, pp.xvii-xviii, xxi.

[36] Hagger, William, pp.127, 141.

[37] Hagger, William, p.164.

[38] Williams, English, pp.64-5.

[39] Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, p.xv, Hagger, William, p. 127.

[40] Barlow, William, p.164, Williams, English, p.25.

[41] Hagger, William, pp. 117, 125, Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, pp.173, 185, 221, 239.

[42] D.C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (London, 1966), p.221, Williams, English, p.42, Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, p.233.

[43] Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, p.211.

[44] Given-Wilson, Chronicles, p.158, Thomson, William, p.3.

[45] Williams, English, pp.172-3, William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings, Vol.1, trans. & ed. R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1998), pp.425, 457.

[46] Williams, English, pp.171, 174, Given-Wilson, Chronicles, p.128, Thomson, William, pp.2, 15.

[47] William of Malmesbury, Gesta, p.425, Thomson, William, pp.7, 12, Williams, English, p.171.

[48] Thomson, William, p.11.

[49] Matthew, Norman, p.215, Thomson, William, p.11.

[50] Hagger, William, p.139.

[51] Given-Wilson, Chronicles, p.164, Hagger, William, p.133, William of Malmesbury, Gesta, pp.477, 509.


Primary Sources

Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, Vol.II: Books III and IV, trans. & ed. M. Chibnall (Oxford, 1990)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. & ed. M. Swanton (London, 2000)

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings, Vol.1, trans. & ed. R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1998)

Secondary Sources

Barlow, F., William I and the Norman Conquest (London, 1965)

Brooks, N.P., Review: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition, by Simon Taylor, D. Dumville, and S. Keynes, The English Historical Review, 101:399 (1986), p.472

Davis, H.W.C., England under the Normans and Angevins: 1066-1272 (London, 1924)

Douglas, D.C., ‘The Norman Conquest and English Feudalism,’ The Economic History Review, 9:2 (1939), pp.128-43

Douglas, D.C., William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (London, 1966)

Given-Wilson, C., Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London & New York, 2004)

Hagger, M, William: King and Conqueror (New York, 2012)

Howorth, H.H., ‘Notes on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ The English Historical Review, 15:60 (1900), pp.748-54

Matthew, D.J.A., The Norman Conquest (London, 1966)

O’Brien O’Keeffe, K., Review: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by M.J. Swanton, Speculum, 73:3 (1998), pp.905-7

Pfaff, R.W., Review: William of Malmesbury, by Rodney Thomson, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 20:1 (1988), pp.79-80

Pope, J.M., Review: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by M.J. Swanton, Speculum, 76:3 (2001), pp.804-5

Stenton, F.M., William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans (London & New York, 1925)

Thomson, R., William of Malmesbury (Woodbridge, 1987)

Van Houts, E., ‘The Norman Conquest through European Eyes,’ The English Historical Review, 110:438 (1995), pp.832-53

Whitelock, D., D.C. Douglas, C.H. Lemmon, F. Barlow (eds.), The Norman Conquest: Its Setting and Impact (London, 1966)

Williams, A., The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge, 1995)



All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Excellent-Good

Critical approach to historiography: Excellent-Good

Focus on question: Excellent-Good

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Excellent

Use of examples: Excellent-Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good-Competent

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Good

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Good

Sources cited correctly: Good

General Comments and Advice: Very good indeed. This essay demonstrates a good understanding of the nature of medieval sources in general and the sources for the reign specifically. The conclusions are sound and well-supported by examples and with reference to the secondary literature.

But think about your introductions and conclusions more. The first couple of sentences in the introduction don’t really say much, or I’m not sure what they are saying. The conclusion is rather limited by the decision to rate the chronicles in relation to each other, which wasn’t really necessary.

Also, think about structure a little more. This jumps around a bit and the sections are a little open-ended. On Orderic, is it really a ‘criticism’ that you are making of Orderic that he was not a contemporary? It’s a limitation, certainly, but you need to be more subtle perhaps when discussing his account of the harrying of the North.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s