Top positive review
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A different slant but an excellent book
on 1 August 2012
Interestingly, Amazon reviews of David Bates' biography of William the Conqueror have been contrasted, with the book, first published in 1989, being compared to the much older biography of David Douglas (first published in 1964). US reviewers have tended to prefer the more recent version whereas UK reviewers have been lukewarm in their comments and ratings for this book. I found that both are excellent in rather different ways and I would therefore recommend both to the extent that they complement each other.
I will not pretend to have read ALL of the biographies on William the Conqueror (there are a host of them) but these two are the best that I have come across to date. There are several reasons for preferring David Bates' version. It is more recent. It is targeted at the general reader, as opposed to being mainly a piece of scholarship as David Douglas' version and it is therefore shorter (275 pages versus 375 pages, not counting the annexes). On the other hand, UK reviewers complained that it is "not as meaty and detailed as the David Douglas biography". I guess you cannot have it both ways: scholarly, very detailed and comprehensive and entertaining.
There are also similarities and differences regarding the contents because the each book has a different slant. David Douglas, as the subtitle of his book makes clear, concentrated on the "Norman Impact on England". David Bates, however, is more "a book about a man" who became Duke of Normandy, Count of Maine and then King of England. The contrast should not be pushed too far: both books address what happened before, during and after the Conquest. In addition, David Bates portray of William's personality owes a lot to David Douglas, a debt that he willingly acknowledges.
Despite this, David Bates' biography does differ in substance in at least two respects. First, he focuses more on Normandy before 1066, which happens to be the title of one of his previous books that I can only recommend. This corresponds to the author's own research on Norman records and archives which had largely been neglected by prior historians of Anglo-Norman England. He also has a different slant when considering the latter years of William, once he had become King, and his last years in particular. Here, he tends to see the ageing King grimly battling and struggling on to hold together his Duchy and his Kingdom but losing his grip little by little. Regardless of whether you agree with this interpretation, it is a rather original and plausible one.
Finally, as a reviewer on Amazon.com mentioned, David Bates version has the merit of bringing "a major moment of history to life" together with its main protagonist - William - simply because of the way the book is structured and presented to entertain the general reader while also being a historical biography (no notes and a limited bibliography). This can only make it more attractive for those that want to learn more about an outstanding historical character and his times without necessarily having to go through a PhD dissertation. Note that it does not imply that Douglas' biography is not as good, but only that it is less entertaining than this one which is certainly worth five stars.