I can thoroughly commend Emma Mason’s biography of William Rufus. Basing her narrative on careful interrogation of the original chronicles and other literary sources, whose distinctive outlooks and prejudices she examines in an opening chapter, he writes a clear and sympathetic account of William’s reign which focuses on his considerable military successes in Scotland and the North as well as Normandy and France, and the innovations in government and law which began in his reign though they are more usually associated with that of Henry I.
She does not give much credence to the idea that William was ‘irreligious’, as Anselm’s biographer Eadmer alleges, but sees his policy towards the Church as based on the traditional model of royal patronage and control, which clashed with the ideals of the reformers of the late eleventh century who demanded greater independence for the Church and a real rather than merely notional acceptance of papal authority.
She agrees that William violated his treaty with Robert of Normandy and intended to retain control of the Duchy after Robert returned from Crusading, and that this powerful position gave a number of French nobles and possibly the French King reason to want to see him dead; the early chroniclers’ assertion that he was assassinated by Walter Tirel may, Mason cautiously suggests, be true, since Tirel appears to have been readily accepted back into favour in France after William’s death. (He had defected to William during William’s campaign in Normandy in 1098). However, there can be little certainty about either the circumstances of William’s murder or the responsibility for it.
I enjoyed this book a lot—more than Mason’s biography of the Godwine family, The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty (London and New York: Hambledon, 2004). Mason has a lively style and a facility for integrating general historical observations and circumstantial details into a colourful political narrative.