TOP 100 REVIEWERon 28 March 2012
If I remember correctly, this high quality piece of scholarship was firt published by Frank Barlow in the early 1980s (1983, I think). It is a thoroughly and painstakingly researched book that further established Barlow's reputation, after his other excellent book on Edward the Confessor.
This book covers the reign and times of William II "Rufus", the third son (and second living son) of William the Conqueror, who became the second king of Normandy. Although this book was NOT written and targeted at the "general reader", it is nevertheless a fascinating read for anyone interested in Norman England because it is not simply and not exactly a biography. Rather, it tells the story of Rufus' reign and shows to what extent the second Norman king's reputation has been much maligned and his achievements belittled. Rufus has been the subject of what we would call today "character assassination" from the medieval sources, almost all of which were monks, because of his heavy handed taxation of the Kingdom of England and because he targeted the (very rich) Church from whom he extracted money by (quite deliberatly) failing to appoint bishops and abbeys to some of the sees, sometimes for several consecutive years. In doing so, he was following the precedent set by the Conqueror himself and his younger brother and successor, Henry I, the alleged "Lion of Justice" (and master of propaganda!) would do the same everytime he could get away with it. It is because of his grab on Church revenues that the Church hated him so much and also because he did not have either the same aura and authority as his father (which of the bishops would have dared go beyond some carefully worded complaint about the Conqueror's actions?) or the same cunning as his younger brother
To understand why this issue - control over appointments to senior ecclesiastical positions by the King - was so important, Barlow discusses it at length. This should be seen not only in the light of the quarrel between popes and emperors on investitures but also (and mainly) from a financial angle. As Barlow makes very clear, through the wealth of financial evidence that he provides, withholding the financial revenues of Church property could seriously increase the King's revenues. The example of the see of Cantorbury, with annual income of 3000 pounds, when compared to the King's annual "normal" income of some 14000 pounds, is particularly enlightening: the Kingdom's annual revenue could be increased by over 20% by keeping this see vacant for a year. It should also be realized that what allowed the Conqueror and his two sons to hold on to the crown of England was this financial wealth and this ability to stretch it, when needed, to pay for mercenaries (including knights) all year round and therefore reduce their reliance on fickle feudal levies with at least some of the Norman barons tempted to take advantage of any perceived weakness. No wonder all of the first three Norman Kings used this ploy when they needed to fund yet another campaign or put down yet another rebellion.
It was this financial wealth that allowed them to stay in power, regardless of their legitimacy, and expand the Kingdom. This is probably the book's most valuable insight: the Norman Kings' might was largely derived from and dependent upon their wealth, even if, to obtain it, they had to use extorsion. Given that the Conqueror, Rufus, and Beauclerc were all ruthless, tough and unscrupulous, this is what they did and this is what happened.
There are, however, three areas of the book which may be a bit controversial and where Barlow, despite his remarkable learning and talent, is not entirely convincing. However, because Barlow was a first class scholar with high integrity, he discusses each issue at length before taking sides.
The first is about Rufus' accession as Kind of England. I deliberatly did NOT mention that he "inherited" the crown because there is no real evidence to back this claim (for a detailed analysis, see Robert Coutheuse: the Twarted King). Rufus was not the eldest son and was not explicitly mentioned as the heir to the throne of England. In fact, as soon as his father was in his dying bed (but not yet dead!), Rufus rushed of to England to get himself crowned as quickly as possible, abandoning his father. He managed to rally Lanfranc's support and this is how he managed to get himself crowned. In other words, and since the Conqueror had NOT explicitly named his successor and had NOT disinherited, even in part, his elder son, Rufus' legitimacy was, at best, VERY questionable. AS the rebellion of 1088 showed rather quickly, it WAS questioned, and quite widely by a large number of barons, including the Conqueror's two half brothers.
Henry I Beauclerc would repeat the trick in 1100, getting himself crowned right after the death of Rufus and shortly before Robert had set foot back in Normandy, following the First Crusade. Here Barlow discusses at length the death of Rufus, and whether this was a genuine hunting accident (as the death of Richard, the Conqueror's second son in 1070 had been) or whether it was a disguised murder. He believes it was an accident. Maybe, but it was an extremely convenient one for Henry and other historians have made the case for an assassination directed by Henry, if not conducted by Henry (who was present at the hunt) himself. Henry had the motive (he became King thanks to his brother's very timely death), the means and certainly the personality (he was ruthless enough) to do it.
The third point is the characterization of Robert Courtheuse. Ironically, while Barlow rehabilitates Rufus rather brillantly, he choses to believe the traditional (and very biaised view) that Courtheuse was unfit to rule and that he wasn't even capable of holding Normandy together. This was one of the excuses used by both of the usurpers - Rufus and then Beauclerc to justify their right to the throne of England. It was also used, even more hypocritically, as an excuse to try to deprive him also of Normandy, although they were the ones stirrin up trouble for their elder brother both before he went on Crusade and after he had returned from it.
The last point is about Barlow's assessment of Rufus' reign, which is also excellent. The summary version would be "not bad at all", if only because he continued his father's policies and was certainly ruthless enough to become king, make himself respected and remain on the throne despite everything. Would Courtheuse have done any better had he become King of England? We will never know for sure and Barlow's comparison between Courtheuse and King Stephen (another one which has been very much maligned) is a bit exagerated. Barlow's answer (a resounding NO) is probably on the mark. Courtheuse had many qualities, and have been, for instance, a better leader and commander than either Rufus or Beauclerc, but he had one major defect: he was not as ruthless, unscrupulous and power-hungry as his brothers and had not "inherited" these elements from his father. It is in this sense that he may have been "unfit to rule", "weak" and influencable.
Finally, assessing Rufus' personality against that of Beauclerc shows both why the latter has come down to us as a "great king" whether the former has been maligned. Rufus' homosexuality and behaviors at his court may have shocked or appaled, but they are also largely excuses. Remember King Richard I, the Lion Heart, was also a homosexual. He even did public penance for sodomy in Italy during his Crusade, but never had his name blaknened in the same way as Rufus. The difference is probably that Rufus simply didn't CARE about churchmen. Whether he was an atheist (rather unlikely) or not may not even be the point. The issue was rather that he believed and wanted his will to be law. He did not even bother with disguising this, and had no qualms whatsoever in using violence or torture to get it. His brother Henry, by contrast, was probably more subtle, more of a diplomate perhaps (some would say a hypocrit) so that despite holding essentially similar views - the King's will is paramount in his kingdom - he could get away with similar levels of extorsion without antagonizing the Church so much.
Anyway, this is an excellent piece of scholarship which is well worth four stars.