William of Malmesbury

views updated Jun 08 2018

William of Malmesbury

Excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum

Published in Readings in European History, 1904

"This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords."

I n 793, a terrifying force swept out of northern Europe: a group of invaders known as Vikings, Northmen, or Norsemen. Whatever their name, they spread death and destruction throughout the continent for the next two centuries. By the late 900s, however, Vikings had settled in various areas, including a region in the north of France. This area, settled in 911, came to be known as Normandy. Like their forefathers the Vikings, the Normans—their name was a version of "Northmen"—were a restless people, eager for conquest. Early in the eleventh century, a new opportunity appeared for them when Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, married Ethelred the Unready (ruled 978–1016), king of England.

Ethelred was a descendant of invaders from Germany who in the 400s had taken Britain from the Celts, who had controlled the island for a thousand years. Unable to defend themselves after soldiers from the declining Roman Empire departed in 410, the Britons (as the British Celts were called) had actually invited the German tribes—known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—to help them defend their island. But the Germans conquered it instead, and as a result the land took their name. The main part of Britain came to be known as England after the Angles, and to this day people of English descent are known as Anglo-Saxons.

By 1042, when Ethelred's and Emma's son Edward the Confessor became king, the stage was being set for another takeover, this time by the Normans. Edward, who died in 1066, placed a great deal of trust in Norman advisors; meanwhile, more and more settlers came from Normandy to England. After 1053, the most influential figure in Edward's court was his son Harold (c. 1022–1066), who assumed the throne after his father's death. Harold reigned for less than a year: on October 14, 1066, he died in a battle against an invading Norman force, led by a duke named William (c. 1028–1087)—better known as William the Conqueror. The two armies met on a beach near the town of Hastings, and the victory of the Normans would become one of the most important events in the history of the English-speaking world.

William of Malmesbury

Like many scholars of medieval Europe, William of Malmesbury was a monk in the Catholic Church. His name is taken from the town in southern England where he lived most of his life.

Malmesbury's first notable work of history was Gesta regum Anglorum (c.1125), an account of England's kings modeled on the writings of the noted English historian Bede (BEED; c. 672–735). He followed this with Gesta pontificum Anglorum (c. 1126), and Historia novella, which covered events in England up to 1142.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum

  • The following account comes from the historian William of Malmesbury (MAWMS-bur-ee; c. 1090–c. 1143). His Gesta regum Anglorum—like most educated Western Europeans of the Middle Ages, Malmesbury wrote in Latin—is a chronicle of the kings of England, written in about 1125. By that time, Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, ruled England, and the authority of the Normans had been firmly established.
  • Malmesbury portrayed both William and Harold as great and brave leaders; however, he was also clear that the English were not prepared for the invasion. In Malmesbury's view, they had grown soft while the Normans kept their minds on their objective: victory. Describing the two armies' preparations for battle, Malmesbury noted that the Normans took communion, a Christian celebration commemorating Jesus' Last Supper before his crucifixion. He used this fact to point out that the Normans were preparing for the upcoming battle, while the English wasted their energies partying. Some medieval historians might have claimed that the Normans won because God was on their side; Malmesbury, by contrast, suggested that the Normans won because of their serious attitude. His discussion of the cause-and-effect relations governing the outcome of the battle reveals the mind of a serious historian.
  • The Song of Roland (roh-LAHND) is a great tale, not so different from the stories of King Arthur, that concerns a battle in Spain that took place in 778. Roland was a fabled knight serving under Charlemagne (SHAHR-luh-main; ruled 768–814), emperor of what is now France and Germany, in his campaign to repel Muslim invaders. The actual conflict with the Muslims was uneventful; but as with the story of King Arthur, based on real events during the time of the German invasion of the 400s, later poets created an inspiring romantic tale out of these occurrences.

By the juncture of their shields

By the juncture of their shields: In other words, by putting their square shields together to form a solid wall—a practice learned from the Romans.

Feigned flight

Feigned flight: A pretended retreat or escape.


Induced: Encouraged.

To open their ranks

To open their ranks: That is, to go from a tight to a loose military formation, making it easier to attack them.


Standard: A banner soldiers carried into war, which was highly important for its symbolic power.

Excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum

The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy. All on foot, armed with battle-axes, and covering themselves in frontby the juncture of their shields, they formed an impenetrable body which would assuredly have secured their safety that day had not the Normans, by afeigned flight, induced themto open their ranks, which till that time, according to their custom, had been closely compacted. King Harold himself, on foot, stood with his brothers near thestandard in order that, so long as all shared equal danger, none could think of retreating. This same standard William sent, after hisvictory, to the pope; it was sumptuously embroidered with gold and precious stones, and represented the figure of a man fighting.

On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lord's body in the morning. Theirinfantry, with bows and arrows, formed thevanguard, while theircavalry, divided into wings, was placed in the rear. The duke [William], withserene countenance, declaring aloud that God would favor his as being the righteous side, called for hisarms; and when, through the haste of his attendants, he had put on hishauberk the hind part before, he corrected the mistake with a laugh, saying "The power of my dukedom shall be turned into a kingdom." Then starting the Song of Roland, in order that the warlike example of that hero might stimulate the soldiers, and calling on God for assistance, the battle commenced on both sides, and was fought with greatardor, neither side giving ground during the greater part of the day.

Observing this, William gave a signal to his troops, that, feigning flight, they should withdraw from the field. By means of this device the solidphalanx of the English opened for the purpose of cutting down the fleeing enemy and thus brought upon itself swift destruction; for the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled them tofly. In this manner,deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in avenging their enemy; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, for, by frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps. Getting possession of aneminence, they drove back the Normans, who in the heat of pursuit were struggling up the slope, into the valley beneath, where, by hurling their javelins and rolling down stones on them as they stood below, the English easily destroyed themto a man. Besides, bya short passage with which they were acquainted, they avoided a deep ditch andtrod underfoot such a multitude of their enemies in that place that the heaps of bodies made thehollow level with the plain. This alternating victory, first of one side and then of the other, continued so long as Harold lived to check the retreat; but when he fell, his brain pierced by an arrow, the flight of the English ceased not until night.


Infantry: Foot soldiers.


Vanguard: Front or leading edge.


Cavalry: Soldiers on horseback.

Serene countenance

Serene countenance: Brave appearance.


Arms: Weapons.


Hauberk: A covering of chain mail, a type of armor.

The hind part before

The hind part before: In other words, backwards.


Ardor: Enthusiasm.


Phalanx: A column of soldiers.


Fly: Flee.

Deceived by a stratagem

Deceived by a stratagem: Tricked by a clever plan.


Eminence: A hill or high point.

To a man

To a man: In other words, they killed them all.

A short passage

A short passage: A shortcut.


Trod: Trampled.


Hollow: A sunken area.

Melancholy havoc was wrought

Melancholy havoc was wrought: In other words, terrible trouble was caused.


Usages: Practices.


Heathens: Godless people.


Rights: Laws.

By degrees

By degrees: Gradually.

Relegated arms to a secondary place

Relegated arms to a secondary place: In other words, made military matters less important.


Clergy: Priests.

… This was a fatal day to England, andmelancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords. For it had long adopted the manners of the Angles, which had indeed altered with the times; for in the first years of their arrival they were barbarians in their look and manner, warlike in theirusages, heathens in theirrights. After embracing the faith of Christ,by degrees and, in process of time, in consequence of the peace which they enjoyed, theyrelegated arms to a secondary place and gave their whole attention to religion.

… Nevertheless, the attention to literature and religion had gradually decreased for several years before the arrival of the Normans. Theclergy, contented with a little confused learning, could scarcely stammer out the words of thesacraments; and a person who understood grammar was an object of wonder and astonishment. The monks mocked the rule of theirorder by finevestments and the use of every kind of food. The nobility, given up toluxury and wantonness, went not to church in the morning after the manner of Christians, but merely, in a careless manner, heardmatins andmasses from a hurrying priest in theirchambers, amid theblandishments of their wives. Thecommonalty, left unprotected, became a prey to the most powerful, who amassed fortunes, either by seizing on their property or by selling their persons into foreign countries; although it is characteristic of this people to be more inclined toreveling than to the accumulation of wealth….

Drinking in parties was a universal practice, in which occupation they passed entire nights as well as days. They consumed their whole substance inmean and despicable houses, unlike the Normans and French, who live frugally in noble and splendid mansions.The vices attendant on drunkenness, whichenervate the human mind, followed; hence it came about that when theyengaged William, with morerashness andprecipitate fury than military skill, they doomed themselves and their country to slavery by a single, and [at] that an easy, victory. For nothing is less effective than rashness; and what begins with violence quickly ceases or is repelled.


Sacraments: Special religious ceremonies, such as taking Communion or exchanging wedding vows.


Order: A group of monks.


Vestments: Clothing.

Luxury and wantonness

Luxury and wantonness: A life filled with excessive eating, drinking, and other worldly pleasures.


Matins: Morning prayer.


Masses: Catholic church services.


Chambers: Living quarters.


Blandishments: Things that distract a person by their attractiveness.


Commonalty: Common people.


Reveling: Partying.

Mean and despicable houses

Mean and despicable houses: In other words, taverns or bars known for drunkenness and the loose practices of the people who went there.

The vices attendant on

The vices attendant on: In other words, the bad things that went with.


Enervate: Reduce the moral and mental health.


Engaged: Started a conflict with.


Rashness: Hastiness.


Precipitate: Quick or hasty.

What happened next …

The Norman Conquest proved to be an event of enormous significance, with a vast impact on the law, culture, and especially the language of England. The Normans spoke French, and this added a Latin-based influence to the Germanic language of England. Thus today English has at its disposal a huge array of words, many rooted in Latin and others in German.

In the short run, the invasion led to the crowning of William the Conqueror as William I, king of England. Kings of England after William also held the title "duke of Normandy"; and after 1154, an English king was also count or ruler of Anjou (ahn-ZHOO), a French province. Thus the English kings had their eye on France, just as the Normans had once had their eye on England, and this would lead to a series of conflicts between the English and the French. These tensions would explode in the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), and ill-will between Britain and France would continue into the modern era, until British forces defeated the French armies under Napoleon in 1815.

The Norman Conquest and the English Language

English is the world's most widely spoken language, with 800 million speakers at the end of the twentieth century. Yet only 310 million of those people are native English-speakers, a fact that testifies to the broad reach of the language: people all over the world, even in places where English is not the native language, use English to communicate.

There are at least two reasons for this, one of which is the fact that Great Britain established a huge colonial empire during the 1700s and 1800s. This ensured that there would be native English-speakers in lands as far away from England as Australia and New Zealand, India and Pakistan, South Africa—and, of course, the United States.

The other reason behind the wide acceptance of English is its large vocabulary: the language includes more than 600,000 words, along with some 400,000 technical terms. Though the average English-speaker only uses about 60,000 words, it is clear that English offers a wide variety of ways to say things. And if a word does not exist in English, one can simply be borrowed from another language and included in the English vocabulary.

This tradition of borrowing words goes back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. Prior to that time, the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Britain spoke what is now known as Old English, a language closely related to German. But the invading Normans brought the French language with them, and this gave English a whole new range of words. Historians date the development of Middle English, with its much richer vocabulary, from the Norman Conquest. Some 400 years later, the invention of the printing press brought about another great expansion in the language, as books and ideas were much more easily distributed; this in turn led to the development of English as it is spoken today.

Did you know …

  • During World War II (1939–45), Normandy itself was the site of an invasion by a much larger force than the one the Normans had sent to England nine centuries before. On "D-Day," June 6, 1944, American, British, and other Allied armies landed on the beaches of Normandy. This invasion of the European continent marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
  • A 231-foot-long scroll called the Bayeux (bah-YOH) Tapestry, created during the Middle Ages, provides a visual record of the Norman Conquest.
  • The present royal family of England can trace their ancestry back to William the Conqueror.

For More Information


May, Robin. William the Conqueror and the Normans. Illustrations by Gerry Wood. New York: Bookwright Press, 1985.

Robinson, James Harvey, editor. Readings in European History, Volume I: From the Breakup of the Roman Empire to the Protestant Revolt. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1904.

Severy, Merle, editor. The Age of Chivalry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1969.

Web Sites

"HWC, William the Conqueror." [Online] Available http://history.idbsu.edu/westciv/willconq/ (last accessed July 28, 2000).

"Medieval Sourcebook: William of Malmesbury: The Battle of Hastings." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1066malmesbury.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).

William of Malmesbury

views updated May 29 2018

William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury (ca. 1090-ca. 1142) was the foremost English historian of his day and a leading representative of 12th-century clerical humanism.

Of mixed Norman and English descent, William of Malmesbury was born in England between 1090 and 1095. At an early age he was admitted to Malmesbury (Benedictine) Abbey, where he became a monk and, later, librarian of the monastery. His earliest major work was Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) a compendium of English history in five books, first published in 1125 and later revised. Gesta regum is the finest historical work of 12th-century England, although it is less the product of original research than a skillful combination of sources featuring colorful anecdotes and placing special emphasis on the reigns and characters of the Anglo-Norman kings.

William wrote history for moral and didactic purposes, both pious and patriotic (the latter imitative of classical Roman historiography). He reveals his hybrid attitude in this passage from the Historia novella: "What gives more aid to virtue, what is more conducive to justice, than to learn of God's indulgence toward good men and vengeance on traitors? What, moreover, is more pleasant than to record in literary writings the deeds of brave men, by whose example others may abandon cowardice and be armed to defend the fatherland?" In William's description of the Norman conquest, both these assumptions are at work. The victory belongs to the godly Normans, the defeat results from English sinfulness; yet there are also laments, couched in classical rhetoric, for England's loss of liberty under the Norman yoke.

The year after he finished the Gesta regum, William completed the Gesta pontificum (1126; Deeds of the Bishops), a compilation of the lives and deeds of English bishops. During the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan) and De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (1129-1135; Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury), a history of that ancient and celebrated abbey. William's last work, and the most valuable to modern historians, is the Historia novella (New History) a continuation to 1142 of the Gesta regum in three books, which includes eyewitness, though not impartial, testimony to the progress of the civil war in England between King Stephen and the house of Anjou. The comparative roughness of the style and the absence of a promised fourth book indicate that the Historia novella was unfinished, William apparently having died soon after he finished book 3 in 1142. He owes his considerable reputation today to his feeling for the sweep of history, the complexities of human character, and the rhetorical possibilities of Latin narration.

Further Reading

Biographical and critical material on William of Malmesbury appears in Reginald R. Darlington, Anglo-Norman Historians (1947), and in the introduction to K. R. Potter, ed. and trans., The Historia Novella (1955). See also the chapter on historical writing in Charles H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927; repr. 1952).

Additional Sources

Thomson, Rodney M., William of Malmesbury, Woodbridge, Suffolk; Wolfeboro, N.H., USA: Boydell Press, 1987. □

William of Malmesbury

views updated May 23 2018


Benedictine monk, scholar, and writer; b. southwest England, c. 1090; d. 1143. William was of mixed Norman and Anglo-Saxon parentage and was educated and professed at malmesbury, where aldhelm had been abbot and dunstan had reestablished monastic life. Because of the fine library there, and his own unremitting diligence and travel, William, though largely self-taught, achieved his ambition to become the most notable English historian since bede. His chief work, the Gesta regum, begun in 1118, was a history of England from the anglo-saxon period till his own times. Its scale, perspective, and proportion raised it above most writings of the time; its vivid, but biting portraiture and elegant style make it enjoyable reading today. Its companion volume, the Gesta pontificum, about the English bishops, sees, and monasteries of the same period, was completed in 1125.

The Historia novella, describing the civil war of the reign of King Stephen of England, was unfinished at William's death. His devotional works included a commentary on Lamentations, lives of St. Dunstan and St. wulfstan, excerpts from St. Gregory, an abbreviation of amalarius's De divinis officiis, and collections of St. anselm's works and of Miracles of the Virgin. William knew Cicero, Seneca's letters, and the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. He made a collection of works on Roman history and civil law and another on ancient Canon Law. He was precentor and librarian of his abbey, and claimed that he could have been elected abbot in 1140. Several of his autograph MSS survive. His wide achievements make him the most notable monastic example of the 12thcentury renaissance in England.

Bibliography: Gesta regum, ed. with fine introduction by w. stubbs, 2 v. (Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores 90); Gesta pontificum anglorum, ed. n. e. s. a. hamilton (Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores 52); The Historia Novella, tr. k.r. potter (New York 1955); The Vita Wulfstani, ed. r. r. darling-ton (London 1928). m. r. james, Two Ancient English Scholars: St. Aldhelm and William of Malmesbury (Glasgow 1931). h. farmer, "William of Malmesbury's Life and Works," The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 13 (1962) 3954; "William of Malmesbury's Commentary on Lamentations," Studia Monastica 4 (1962) 283311.

[h. farmer]

William of Malmesbury

views updated Jun 11 2018

William of Malmesbury (1095–c.1143) was a monk, born of Anglo-Norman parentage, who set out to write the history of the English in two books, the Gesta Regum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the Kings of the English’) and the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the Bishops of the English’). Both were completed before 1125 and are important commentaries not just on the English past, but on the Anglo-Norman present and the traumas of the Norman Conquest. Malmesbury was exceptionally learned and widely read. He produced many other works and at the end of his life was writing a contemporary history, the Historia Novella, dedicated to Robert, earl of Gloucester. He is admired as a historian because he travelled to undertake research, because he criticized and evaluated his sources, and because he wrote in a good, classically based, Latin style.

David Richard Bates

William of Malmesbury

views updated May 23 2018

William of Malmesbury

c. 1090-c. 1143

English historian whose writings are a major source of information regarding the Anglo-Saxon period and the subsequent Norman invasion. His first notable work was Gesta regum Anglorum (c. 1125), an account of England's kings modeled on the writings of the noted English historian Bede (c. 672-735). He followed this with Gesta pontificum Anglorum (c. 1126), and Historia novella, which covered events in England up to 1142. Among the other items of historical or geographical significance mentioned in William's work were tales of a British king who served as the model for the legendary Arthur, as well as a reference to a shrine to St. Thomas in India.

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