William The Conqueror, by Edward Freeman
This book is an example of an all-too-rare phenomenon when it comes to the writing of biographies. It is a well-researched and well-argued book (although, in the convention of the late 19th century, it is not filled with textual notes in the fashion of contemporary books) but a book that does not either have in mind hero worship of its subject or a great deal of personal hatred. Rather, it is a book that takes seriously its task of writing about a very important historical figure in a way that is nuanced and fair-minded. Perhaps such books were once more common–they do not appear that common these days, as most people today seem to write mainly because of personal reasons and not because of larger personal axes to grind. This book appears to be a companion volume to an earlier book the author wrote (which I have not read) about the Norman conquest of England, that apparently inspired him to write about its leading character, William, the Duke of Normandy.
This particular book is organized in a mostly chronological fashion, with a bit of thematic organization as well mixed in. The book discusses the brutal childhood of William (which in many ways is similar to that of James I/VI of England and Scotland ), with similar results, in that William became extremely subtle, legalistic, focused on his authority of office, and with a well-deserved reputation for having a twisty mind as a result of a violent childhood and doubtful legitimacy. The book continues through William’s early ducal career, marriage drama involving a papal dispensation, making a claim to the County of Maine in France as well as England as a result of fortuitous circumstances, and his conquest of England and his rule in both the continent and England. The author is a patriotic Englishman, but he is a broad-minded enough one to appreciate the fact that as a conqueror William was restrained in his conduct and respectful of legal norms in such a way that it allowed the native constitutional strength of the realm of England to reassert itself, with the changes that resulted from William’s rule.
Although this book is about a remote historical figure, it has some clear relevance for right now. William the Conqueror is portrayed as a lawful neutral/evil sort of ruler who is restrained but despotic in his ways, refusing to act in ways that would provoke open rebellion but acting in ways that lead to massive oppression and changes, albeit gradually. William is cautious but relentless, full of guile and trickery but not desiring in any way to behave in directly evil or dishonest ways. Above all, William is portrayed (perhaps ironically) as a legalist, seeking to overwhelm others with lawyer-like arguments, seeking justification for that which he does, rather than seeking to behave in a proper way, his ambition colored by a desire to preserve legal forms while changing the reality behind them. Even if William was a man of almost a millennium ago, he is close enough to our contemporary political leaders to be a fit model to study. Also of interest is the way in which William’s search for power ended up increasing the power of the papacy by giving them a legal argument to set up kings similar to that of their support of Pippen the Short in France.