Tag Archives: John Gillingham

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.

Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…


1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!

Seminary XXXIX: how many times did William the Conqueror survey England?

Seminars at the Institute of Historical Research have resumed as heralded here earlier, and the Earlier Middle Ages one started a week late on Wednesday 21 January for reasons I haven’t gleaned, with Sally Harvey speaking to the title, “Domesday Book: an inquest of sheriffs?”

Great Domesday, at the National Archives

Great Domesday, at the National Archives

There is such a wealth and weight of scholarship on Domesday Book that several of the audience confessed themselves unable to keep up with it, in fact John Gillingham said that one of the luxuries he’d permitted himself on retirement was to stop trying. That said, we still don’t fully understand what the thing was actually for, and whether it could have fulfilled that purpose or not. Its partial coverage (however massive the successful coverage was), its inconsistent recording standards and its wealth of information seem to fit no single purpose, and any combination of purposes badly. There is more information there than one would want for a tax register, or a land register, or a simple inventory of England even, and yet many dues not recorded, much land omitted, and so on. At the moment, therefore, I think the consensus is that it didn’t really work, so intuiting its purpose from the actual result is probably impossible. Work is however getting somewhere by working on the process of its manufacture and compilation, and this is where Professor Harvey came in.

I don’t want to try and explain the whole process of compilation, because I’m not up with that research either and anything I say will probably be outdated and wrong (David Roffe’s pages linked in the sidebar will give you a far better grounding than I can). So I will give you first the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle version of events, and then explain how Professor Harvey was differing from it and what it might imply if she be right. The Chronicle, first. Only the E manuscript, also known as the Peterborough Chronicle, covers this (the only other late-runner, D, coughing out in 1079 except for one misplaced entry), and it says:

… the king had great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land, how it was occupied, or with which men. Then he sent his men all over England into every shire and had them ascertain how many hundreds of hides there were in the shire, or what land and livestock the king himself had in the land, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. Also he had it recorded how much land his archbishops had, and the diocesan bishops, and his abbots and earls, and – though I tell it at too great length – what or how much each man had who was occupying land here n England, in land or in livestock, and how much money it was worth. He had it investigated so narrowly that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, not even (it is shameful to tell – but it seemed no shame to him to do it) one ox, not one cow, not one pig was left out, that was not set down to the record, And all the records were brought to him afterwards.

The Chronicler pretty clearly remembered the commissioners’ visit, or knew someone who did, and from that we can tell that they felt that Peterborough abbey (or Medeshamstede, as it then was) had been pretty thoroughly hung out to dry, and they seem to have heard similar complaints from elsewhere. But that only tells what they knew, of course, and we know that in fact large areas were not covered, most obviously London (which would have been impossible, given how much of it must have been small plots belonging to someone whose principal holdings were in other places). Professor Harvey was emphasising, albeit with considerable pauses to check her place in her notes and so on that made this paper something of an endurance test for the audience, that the towns generally were quite poorly covered, however, and that quite a lot of their returns are less inventories than records of exemptions that would be covered elsewhere because of belonging to various important tenants-in-chief. In these exemptions, she argued, it becomes clear that the sheriffs were reporting to the king or to the commissioners. Once, once only, a sheriff’s report is copied up in such a way that his first-person record is preserved, but Professor Harvey thought that mostly such things were beyond recovery (I did ask, because that sounded marvellous). She also found many lesser cases where sheriffs clearly had difficulties accounting for the dues that had once been paid and now weren’t, and generally reading these records closely reveals land-grabbing and corruption on a huge scale, although as many people pointed out, it had after all been a Conquest…

Anyway, the sheriffs seem to have been deeply involved in the recording, and Professor Harvey suggested (to general agreement) that in fact a preliminary return was probably made by the sheriffs, at least for the royal lands—who else could do it, after all?—and maybe for others too, and then checked by the commissioners, all of whom were operating outside their home areas like early Carolingian missi (if Wendy Hoofnagle is reading, her ears may now be pricking up…).

Everyone's favourite corrupt Anglo-Norman sheriff

Everyone's favourite corrupt Anglo-Norman sheriff

Why do we think they were checked? Because Dr Harvey also however found protests against sheriffs, complaints and stories of abuse and theft, that were allowed to remain in the finished Domesday, or we wouldn’t know. And of course we know that commissioners were appointed and sent out, and we can identify some of them, even if the Peterborough experience may not have been typical. And sometimes the sheriffs were able to put their side, and sometimes their victims got to put theirs, and whether anything was done about it is hard to say: there is some evidence of sheriffs being removed or pursued for compensation for misdeeds before Domesday, but after it gets very confused because of William I’s death and an almost immediate coup against William II that confuses motives for removal from office. All the same, what I can’t help but call ‘tormented voices‘ singing out through Domesday Book really struck me as an idea.

One thing that came out in questions was that coup, in fact. The resentment that Peterborough felt about the survey is pretty clear. Also pretty clear is that most of England was covered by it in varying degrees, with people apparently being encouraged to check on each other, rat on their officials, and generally mess things up for sheriffs all of whom would presumably have had their friends among the big aristocracy, who would be watching their own backs even as William made them check on other peoples’ favoured sheriffs… It was observed that the 1088 coup is very hard to get hold of because there seem to be so many sides; perhaps it was less Rufus and more Domesday that set them all against the power and each other. How close did William the Conqueror get to destroying the kingdom of England with a survey, at that rate? Worth pondering…


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is quoted here from Michael Swanton’s translation, M. Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1997), s. a. 1085 E.