This life story of William the Conqueror, telling of his boyhood in Normandy, beset by dangers, is written with great flourish in a manner that is especially appealing to young boys. From his earliest years, his life was one of adventure and conquest. As a youth he was knighted by the King of France, who later became his worst enemy. Afterward he proved himself the greatest warrior in all of Europe and completed his victorious career with his daring conquest of England.
Four Fascinating English Monarchs
Comprehensive histories are a good way to get acquainted with our fascinating British heritage, but the real riches of England history require a closer look. In order to appreciate the true depth of what can be learned from our British forefathers, one needs to study biography.
One of our favorite biographical series is Eva March Tappan’s Makers of England series. This series introduces middle school aged students to the lives of four fascinating kings and queens and each book is entertaining and fast moving.
In all four books, the author emphasizes the childhood and education of the monarch, rather than dwelling on the political events of their reign. In this way the author introduces the reader to the world in which each of her heroes grows to manhood or womanhood. The heroes’ relationships with their parents and tutors, the customs of their society, and the ideas which guided the education of well-brought up children of their age are all explored.
Tappan’s technique of focusing on the character development of each monarch is appealing to young people because they can identify with her subjects. The intrigues of court life and national politics which are always present in the life of a monarch are simplified for novice readers. Instead of burying readers in the details of battles, treaties, and alliances—all of which require a broader view of history to understand—Tappan explains the fundamental conflicts between rival nobles or warring nations in a manner that is easily understood.
It is interesting to note how much the culture of England changes through time. The four monarchs portrayed in this series have very different personalities—the first two, of course are warrior monarchs, living in a world where brute force was always the final arbiter of disputes. Yet the difference in upbringing, environment, and governing style, even between these two is very striking.
There is an even greater difference between the character and situations of the two female monarchs treated in this series: Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. By the Tudor period, England was a prosperous and peaceful nation state, but was dominated by court politics. Gaining or losing the favor of the sovereign was of paramount importance to the political careers of the men of the time, and it is evident in the flattery and intrigue of the court. By the Victorian era, parliament had succeed in wrestling almost all real power from the English throne and Queen Victoria served primarily as a figure head. Yet she worked hard to fulfill her social obligations as queen, while maintaining a semblance of normal family life.
This series shows the great changes in English society between “Saxon England” of the 9th century, and “Victorian England” of the 19th, and provides great insights into the eras in between. Our only regret is that the author stopped at four. . .
The first three books from Tappan’s Makers of England series are available on our British Middle Ages Classical Curriculum CD. In the Days of Queen Victoria is included in the British Empire collection.
From the first chapter, Tappan’s history of Alfred the Great is full of drama, for he grew up during the age of Viking raids on the Saxon Kingdoms of 9th century England. During his youth there were many grievous attacks on his father’s kingdom, and throughout Ancient England. The threat of Danish attacks was constant during Alfred’s youth and instead of learning to read or write, he was taught riding and fighting kills since his foremost duty as a king would be martial leadership.
Alfred’s father was the leader of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, the most important and populous of the Saxon kingdoms of England. It included most of the southern shore of England and so was prey to many pirate attacks. Pirates had always been a threat to coastal towns, but about 60 years before Alfred was born great fleets of pirates, whose home base was in Denmark, began making large scale and destructive raids on the coast of England, and even made settlements in the interior of the country.
The Saxons themselves were descended from sea-pirates who had invaded England after the Romans withdrew, 500 years earlier. The ancestors of the Saxons, however, had married native women, settled into farming, and become Christianized. The Danes who now threatened their coasts were of a similar ethnic background, but were vicious pagans, and sought out Christian churches and monasteries especially for their spoil.
It was into these desperate times that Alfred was born. As the fifth son of king Ethelwulf Alfred was not thought to be in line for the throne, and was fortunate to be instructed by some learned priests as well as rugged men-of-arms. For Alfred, from the beginning, had a great love of learning that his older brothers didn’t share. As a youth, he was caught up in court intrigues involving his older brothers, but managed to maintain good relations with all sides. The diplomacy he showed at an early age in regard to family disputes was critical at a later time when he sought a long-term resolution to the Saxon-Danish wars which plagued his kingdom.
In Tappan’s account, Alfred does not ascend to the throne of Wessex until the last few chapters of the book. Therefore, the most famous incidents of his reign, including are his exile at Athelney, his spying on the Danish camp, the great battle of Edgington, and the treaty of Wedmore are dealt with in short order. This is not necessarily a criticism however, since by the time Alfred attains the throne, a reader already has a very clear grasp of the situation he inherits and of his basic character. Few words, therefore, are needed to explain how his most famous feats of courage and diplomacy, under exceedingly difficult circumstances, occurred. As a result of his successful negotiations with Gudrun, leader of the Danes, he brought a generation of much needed peace to his ravaged country.
The final chapter of the book is given to the last twenty years of Alfred’s reign, during which he ruled with unprecedented wisdom and justice. His greatness in the arts of war and diplomacy had already been shown—his leadership in the years of peace showed his greatness in the art of governing. That all the virtues of courage, strategic thinking, tact, justice, piety and prudence could be found in one man, who assumed the most powerful throne of England at the time of its greatest vulnerability, was never to be expected, or repeated. There were other competent kings of England in the following years—as well as a number of miscreants—but none other shared Alfred’s magnanimity in all things, and he is the only king of England to be worthy of the title “the Great”.
Tappan’s account of the life of William the Conqueror, like that of Alfred the great, places great emphasis on the early years of the hero, which occurred in the northern provinces of France. One similarity between the characters—since they lived only 200 years apart—was the necessity of military training from an early age. The “education” of both Alfred and William involved more fighting and riding lessons than they did academics. Another similarity between the two is that both lost their father while still young and were raised in courts amongst much political intrigue.
There were important differences in character and situation from an early age, however. As a the fifth son of the Saxon king , Alfred was not considered a likely heir and so was not directly involved in rivalries for the throne—he therefore got along well with all sides. William, on the other hand, was the only son of the powerful Duke of Normandy, but his “legitimacy” was questionable. He was therefore at the center of tremendous intrigue and conflict, since many nobles used his commoner heritage as an excuse to revolt. William’s fate was entirely in the hands of kings and regents of dubious loyalty, so the story of his youth, as told by Tappan, is one of continuous drama and danger.
William survived several assassination attempts during his childhood, as well as numerous betrayals of nobles who had sworn fealty to him as Duke of Normandy. These incidents, combined with his commoner heritage imbued him at an early age with an indomitable fighting spirit and he soon showed himself as a brilliant and ferocious warrior—the greatest general of his age. By his early adulthood, he had soundly defeated his rebellious barons as well as the treacherous King of France, and was the uncontested ruler of Normandy. Any doubts about his legitimacy harbored by the Barons was thoroughly put to rest by the ferocity of his sword.
Soon after William secured the Dukedom of Normandy, his cousin Edward Confessor, who had spent his youth as an exile in Normandy, was recalled to assume the throne of England. Edward had no children of his own and so invited William to visit England, where they discussed the possibility of William inheriting the English throne. The mere suggestion was enough to convince William he was the right man for the job, and the second half of Tappan’s book recounts Williams ambitious plans to invade England and declare himself king.
Long before William claimed the throne of England, he had established himself as the dominant power in Northern Europe and ambitious nobles from all the region swarmed to his Standard. The preparations were very difficult, and the invasion was delayed by bad weather, but on October 14, 1066, the Norman army defeated the Saxons at the battle of Hastings and claimed the throne of England.
As with Tappan’s version of the Life of Alfred the Great, the events of actual reign of William, as king of England, are compressed into a few chapters. But again, the author does such an excellent job of setting the stage and developing the character of William the Conqueror, that even young people, not well informed about the politics of the situation, can easily understand the manner in which he reigned.
The last chapter of Tappan’s life of William the Conqueror recounts the final days and death of the great Norman king, and provides an important moral lesson. In spite of his great vigor and successes in life, William’s heavy handed methods were too much, even for his family, and in his final years his eldest son rebelled against him. After years of domestic and civil strife, William was thrown from his horse during one of his wars in France. As soon as it was determined that the wound was fatal, all his supporters and courtesans deserted him to rush to the court of his rebellious son, leaving him to die alone in agony. While he wielded power he was feared and respected, but in disability and death he was merely hated.
In death the differences between Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror, were most clearly seen. Alfred won his glory, not only on the battlefield, but through tactful, humble, and tireless service to his subjects. William demonstrated remarkable bravery, sought the approval of the church, and ruled justly as a Christian king, but his pride, willfulness, and tyranny won him obedience, but not affection or loyalty.