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4 - The Ironies of History: William of Malmesbury's Views of William II and Henry I

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

‘If our Christian faith admitted such a thing’, wrote William of Malmesbury, ‘it might be said that just as the soul of Euphorbus is supposed to have passed into Pythagoras of Samos, so also did the soul of Julius Caesar pass into King William’. This, the concluding sentence of chapter 320 of the Gesta Regum, combining a reference to Julius Caesar with an allusion to Ovid's Metamorphoses, is a spectacular demonstration of Rod Thomson's comment on William of Malmesbury's pen portrait of Rufus: ‘It is a sign of William's particular engagement with his subject that more classical reminiscences are deployed by him in characterising Rufus in the Gesta Regum than any other [person].’ In other ways too William took a great deal of trouble over his characterisation of Rufus. For Heinz Richter, a German student of twelfth-century English historical writing deeply impressed by William's skill in understanding and delineating personality, the portrait of Rufus was his masterpiece. William would surely have been pleased that his characterisation of the king has been identified as ‘the most complete and balanced’ of those composed by the next generation of chroniclers and, in consequence, as the one ‘upon which subsequent historians have primarily relied’. In this essay, however, I shall begin by arguing that nearly all subsequent historians – though not Richter – have overemphasised the darker colours in that portrait, in one case even suggesting that ‘when William talked of Rufus's resemblance to a Roman emperor, Nero might have been a better comparison’.

Without question, William's opinion of the king was far more balanced than Eadmer of Canterbury's. He saw some redeeming features where Eadmer, singlemindedly making his case that Anselm was in no way to blame for the difficulties faced by churches in England, was determined to see none. Although William admired and was influenced by Eadmer's vivid prose, his own values were much more open to the secular world. He not only added much that was in Rufus's favour, but at several key points, he silently disassociated himself from his predecessor's version of events. It has been suggested that the historian was ‘captivated by the king's dry wit.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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