Tag Archives: Eadmer

Seminar CCXXIV: being more careful about William Rufus

The seminar backlog now moves forward to 21st January 2015, when none other than John Gillingham was speaking to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research with the title, “Eadmer of Canterbury and William Longsword”, which was fun. The William Longsword in question, you see, was none other than King William II, otherwise known as William Rufus, but that is not what Eadmer, otherwise better known as biographer of Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, calls him. John was, for this reason and several others, out to argue that Eadmer was an under-appreciated, if very difficult, early source for William’s reign.1

Portrait of William Rufus from London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, fo. 8v

I think, the earliest depiction of William II that’s not one of his coins (not very helpful in conveying the ‘inner man’ alas), from British Library MS Royal 14 C VII, fo. 8v, though here grabbed via Wikimedia Commons, “William II of England” by Matthew Parishttp://molcat1.bl.uk/IllImages/BLCD%5Cbig/c131/c13122-35.jpg, licensed under Public Domain via Commons. Click through for the MS, however. Note his portrayal as a supporter of the Church…

This is not to say that Eadmer liked William II at all; he has many terrible things to say about the king who supposedly forced his patron archbishop into morally-justified exile. Another way to see that, of course, is that Anselm’s hardline adherence to a private principle left England without the benefit of its chief clergyman’s guidance and help for years on end, whereas the responsible thing to do might have been what Anselm’s predecessor Lanfranc did and stay in the system, working with the king for change. This was, John argued, precisely the charge that Eadmer was protecting Anselm against, which meant making the other side of the argument, the king’s, correspondingly less reasonable. This is the axe which John sees Eadmer a-grinding.

Scribal portrait from Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XI 6, fol. 44v

Our culprit, Eadmer, probably at least, since it is a scribal portrait in a manuscript of Eadmer’s On the Life and Conversation of Anselm of Canterbury, now Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XI 6, fol. 44v, again here from Wikimedia Commons, by Unknown (illuminator, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons but again linked through to the source

With this identified, the interesting thing is how Eadmer doesn’t identify the same failings of the king as later writers do, most notably William of Malmesbury. For example, it is often suggested that William Rufus was gay, an idea which largely stems from accusations levelled by Church writers of sodomy at his court. Leaving aside the very broad way in which medieval writers could use that word, this turns out to come from Eadmer, although in reporting these evil stories he does say that they were untrue.2 William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis subsequently both say that Rufus’s courtiers were effeminate but call the king an adulterer and fornicator, and the Brut says that he spent his energies on concubines. And the earlier writer Hugh of Flavigny instead condemns clerical sex, of the most heterosexual kind, at William’s court, in which obviously William was not a participant. But somehow it is the stories which Eadmer denies, though still reporting, which have stuck even among modern historians.3

A silver penny of William II struck at Rochester by Guthrothr between 1089 and 1092

You see what I mean… A silver penny of William II struck at Rochester by Guthrothr between 1089 and 1092, York Coins H4095, now in a private collection

The other side of this coin—ah-ha-ha—is that when one starts looking for other, more positive, appraisals of William’s reign, they’re not hard to find. Vernacular literature is usually positive and he seems to have enjoyed especial popularity in Normandy, perhaps just by not being his grim Crusader brother Robert Curthose but still: Orderic Vitalis, despite his other attacks, has a story about William landing in Normandy and spontaneous parades of people forming to run alongside his horse, cheering. Richard Sharpe, who was present, did put forward some other early and hostile sources like, not least, the law collection known as the Quadripartitus, but it does seem that, while it’s indubitable that William Rufus annoyed a lot of people, so many of them were apparently later churchmen that we probably can use a reappraisal of the reign, which it is therefore to be hoped John will give us!


1. Eadmer’s two works of relevance are his Historia Novorum in Anglia, transl. Geoffrey Bosanquet as Eadmer’s History of recent events in England: Historia novorum in Anglia (London 1964) and his De Vita et Conservatione Anselmi Cantuariensis, ed./transl. Richard Southern as Eadmer, The life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (London 1962). On William Rufus, until John gets his new work published, the standard works are Frank Barlow, William Rufus (New Haven 2000) and Emma Mason, King Rufus: the life & murder of William II of England (Stroud 2008).

2. I need a go-to cite on the medieval definition of sodomy, but for now Ruth Mazo Karras, “The Latin vocabulary of illicit sex in English ecclesiastical court records” in Journal of Medieval Latin Vol. 2 (Turnhout 1991), pp. 1-17, looks pretty relevant.

3. Named culprits here were Richard Southern, Saint Anselm and his Biographer: a study of monastic life and thought 1059-c. 1130 (Cambridge 1963) and Barlow, William Rufus.