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Rex Bonus: Conceptions of Kingship in William of Malmesbury's account of Henry I in De Gesta Regum

by sabradan

I apologise ahead of time for any formatting errors. I usually let the word processor do that for me.

Also, as I said in the description, I just want to get some extra eyes on this, as I missed the mark I wanted by .5. And to get back in the habit of posting on here. Cheers, guys and gals.


There has not, as yet, been any significant study on William of Malmesbury's treatment of Henry I in the text of De Gesta Regum. Given William of Malmesbury's unique position as the foremost English historian of his age, this seems to be an unfortunate lack of scholarship; This is especially so given William's mixed parentage and scholarly rigour. This paper will attempt to trace William of Malmesbury's treatment of Henry I in the text of the Gesta Regum; such a study is a useful tool in understanding what the conceptions of kingship were during Henry I's reign. By utilising such a tool, this paper will attempt to illustrate that Henry I embodied all of the important qualities of kingship of the early twelfth century, and that his reign would be the benchmark by which William of Malmesbury, and successive later historians, would measure the ideals of good kingship.

In the text of Gesta Regum, there are six categories of qualities which are seen by William as necessary in order to be a good king, which Henry I has in varying degrees. These categories are: Ruling justly via the rule of law, military prowess, diplomacy, being learned and wise, legitimacy, and finally, proper Christian behaviour. These are the qualities that William of Malmesbury says are necessary of a good king.

There are only three places in the text of Gesta Regum when William of Malmesbury explicitly uses the phrase 'good king' in reference to King Henry's actions. The most important of these is in section 411:

'But that my narrative may return to Henry; he was active in providing what would be beneficial to his empire; firm in defending it; abstinent from war, as far as he could with honour; but, when he had determined no longer to forbear, a most severe requiter of injuries, dissipating every opposing danger by the energy of his courage; constant in enmity, or in affection towards all, giving too much indulgence to the tied of anger in the one, gratifying his royal magnanimity in the other; for he depressed his enemies even to ruin, and exalted his friends and dependents to an enviable condition: for philosophy propounds this to be the first or greatest concern of a good king, “to spare the suppliant, but depress the proud”.'1

This passage explains what is the most important features in the conception of a good king in the early twelfth century. William of Malmesbury references justice, military prowess, and diplomacy as qualities of good kingship. The second place where William of Malmesbury explicitly uses the phrase 'a good king' explicitly and almost entirely with justice and the rule of law. He writes: 'King Henry, however, felt deeply for his brother's infamy, carried to the highest pitch by the sufferings of the country: aware, that it was the extreme of cruelty, and far from a good king's duty, to suffer abandoned men to riot on the property of the poor.'2

Finally, the last explicit use of the phrase 'a good king' by William of Malmesbury references Henry's skill at diplomacy. William recounts it thus:

'Moreover, he kindly soothed his soldiers by addressing them to the following effect; that they ought not to wonder if he avoided lavishing the blood of those whom he had proved to be faithful by repeated trials: that it would be impious in achieving power to himself, to glory in the deaths of those persons who had devoted their lives to voluntary conflicts for his safety; that they were the adopted of his kingdom, the foster-children of his affection, wherefore he was anxious to follow the example of a good king and by his own moderation to check the impetuosity of those whom he saw so ready to die for him'3

From these three passages, it is clear what the most valued qualities of kingship during Henry I's reign were.

Two of the qualities mentioned above that seem most important was Henry I's ability to use justice and the rule of law, and his military prowess. This can be evidenced that of all the qualities mentioned in Gesta Regum, these two qualities are some of the most commonly mentioned, with 24 and 11 cases being highlighted respectively. The only quality of the king that similarly consistently mentioned, is that of his skills at diplomacy, which are mentioned 13 times in Gesta Regum. The dual importance of justice and military prowess is highlighted by Barbara McDonald Walker, who claims that in the universal Christendom of the twelfth century, the universal imperatives were crusades to the Holy Land and peace at home.4 Taken to a broader context, it could be said that crusading to the Holy Land meant not only literally crusading, but an over-arching requirement of military prowess; by the same token, peace at home could be understood in the broader context of ruling wisely and justly, with the rule of law being the paramount cornerstone.

Justice, and its related value, the rule of law, seem to play an integral part of William's conception of Henry I's reign, and more broadly, of good kingship in general. Modern scholars agree about this idea of justice relating to kingship in the twelfth century. According to Judith A. Green in her book The Government of England Under Henry I, 'The maintenance of good laws was one of the fundamental attributes of medieval kingship, and one of the promises which Henry had made at his coronation.'5 Given this understanding of the importance of justice in the conception of mediaeval kingship, it is no wonder why William of Malmesbury places great emphasis on the justice of King Henry. The first reference to Henry's justice comes when William recounts the events surrounding Henry's coronation.

'He immediately promulgated an edict throughout England, annulling the illegal ordinances of his brother and of Ralph; he remitted taxes, released prisoners, drove the flagitious from court, restored the nightly use of lights within the palace, which had been omitted in his brother's time, and renewed the operation of the ancient laws, confirming them with his own oath, and that of the nobility, that they might not be eluded.'6

Another reference to the King's justice in Gesta Regum is in William's explanation of some of the actions, laws and edicts Henry passes when he returns to England triumphant from defeating a rebellion in Normandy. William writes:

'Rivalling his father also, in other respects, he restrained, by edict, the exactions of the courtiers, thefts, and the violation of women; commanding the delinquents to be deprived of sight, and castrated.'7

He continues immediately thereafter discussing yet another instance of Henry's acts of justice in England, explaining,

'He also displayed singular diligence against the mintmasters, commonly called moneyers; suffering no counterfeiter, who had been convicted of deluding the ignorant by the practice of his roguery, to escape, without losing his hand.'8

Another example of the king's justice is shown when William of Malmesbury writes, 'Inflexible in the administration of justice, he ruled the people with moderation, the nobility with condescension.'9 Whilst William very rarely uses the word 'justice' outright, many of the words he does use in the text to infer the concept of justice, in a broad sense. For William, and possibly Henry, as well, justice included the rule of law, which infers a certain broadness in terminology. The rule of law infers not only governing via the rule of law, but also legislating of new laws, as well as the establishment of courts of justice, and meting out the King's Justice in said courts. All of these ways in which justice was applied were hallmarks of Henry I's reign. As Judith Green says,

'P. Wormald...thinks that written law had a great deal to do with views about the image of kingship, fusing Roman and Christian concepts of law, and adding to them more immediate motives of welding together their people into a political whole, … but there is no reason to remove these wholly from the practical world of administration of Royal justice.'10

In other words, the law, and using the law to a practical end, such as ruling the kingdom justly, was of critical importance in conceptualising kingship. This appears to be so much so, in fact, that according to Green, Henry I's reign was remembered long after his death for the peace and justice of his reign. Another important aspect to consider in regard to Henry's justice was his hesitance to sentence offenders to death; Henry's preference for mutilation over death is another clear illustration of his embodiment of the kingly quality of justice. William of Malmesbury sums it up best when he writes, 'he so restrained the rebellious by the terror of his name, that peace remained undisturbed in England; so that even foreigners willingly resorted thither, as to the only haven of secure tranquility.'11

Another of the most important values related to the conception of kingship in Gesta Regum is that of military prowess. The early twelfth century was a time in which kings were still expected to be military leaders, and to lead their armies in combat from the front. As McDonald-Walker says, 'a generation earlier, Gregory VII had pronounced that “the king who did not fight for the regnum was useless and should be deposed in favour of a prince would would defend the common peace”.'12 Understandably, then, in William of Malmesbury's conception of good kingship, defence featured heavily. The first account of Henry's military leadership comes as part of the account of Henry's defence against his brother's rebellion. First, he describes the fact that Henry raised an army to defend against Robert. 'The king was not indolent, but collected an innumerable army over against him, with which, if necessary, to assert his dignity.'13 But military victory does not come from the size of an army alone; it comes from training and skills-at-arms, as well, and according to William, Henry knew that fact quite well. He continues, to describe the training Henry gave his troops:

'In consequence, grateful to the inhabitants for their fidelity, and anxious for their safety, he frequently went through the ranks, instructing them how to elude the ferocity of the cavalry by opposing their shields, and how to return their strokes: by this he made them perfectly fearless of the Normans, and ask to be led out to battle.'14

This clearly shows Henry not just as a king who raises an army to defend his kingdom, but further, he trains said army. Training up the citizenry into soldiers, ensuring that they not only have a numerical advantage, but also that of skills-at-arms. This is clear textual evidence for the military qualities that were important in the conception of kingship in Gesta Regum. William of Malmesbury continues, throughout the text, to elaborate on Henry's military prowess; He speaks of Henry's defence of the kingdom through his frequent campaigns against the Welsh, as well as his putting down of multiple rebellions in Normandy.15

In addition to his military prowess, Henry exhibited, according to Gesta Regum, other qualities that fall under the umbrella of defence. Restraint, as they say, is the greater part of valour, and William of Malmesbury clearly felt this was the case. In many places in the text, when describing Henry I's military activities, he takes pains to actively point out Henry's hesitance to fight. William goes to great length to explain that this is not in any way due to cowardice, but rather, his desire to avoid needless bloodshed. This is a hallmark of an able military commander. As the text relates, '...he preferred contending by counsel rather than by the sword: if he could, he conquered without bloodshed; if it was unavoidable, with as little as possible.'16

This serves as an ideal illustration of not only the kingly quality of military prowess, but also another, and arguably the most important quality of a good king described by William of Malmesbury: diplomatic skill. Henry had mostly good diplomatic relations with many outside powers. These include Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, France, Norway and others. His relations with the Scots were particularly strong. In the first instance, his wife, Matilda, was Scottish.17 On Henry's relationship with the Scots, William writes: 'Adopting the custom of his brother, he soothed the Scottish kings by affability: for William made Duncan, the illegitimate son of Malcolm, a knight; and on the death of his father, appointed him King of Scotland.'18 From the many foreign powers with whom he had diplomatic relations, it is clear that Henry I, according to William of Malmesbury, possessed in great measure skills of diplomacy which were integral to the contemporary conception of kingship.

The next most important quality of William of Malmesbury's conception of kingship in Gesta Regum, is that of wisdom and learning, to which William makes 10 explicit references in the text. These qualities are made up of two distinct parts. The first, being the king's ability to keep good counsel. To this end, William recounts two of Henry's closest advisors: Robert of Meulan, and Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. These men where Henry's primary advisers, though Robert of Meulan seems to have been closer to the king, and a more frequent advisor. As William of Malmesbury recounts:

'his advice was regarded as though the oracle of God had bee consulted; indeed he was deservedly esteemed to have obtained it, as he was of ripe age to counsel; the persuader of peace, the dissuader of strife, and capable by his cogent eloquence of very speedily bringing about whatever he desired.'19

The second aspect of Henry I's wisdom that is recounted in De Gesta Regum is that of his learning and education. William says of Henry, '...inferior in wisdom to no king of modern time, and, as I may almost say, clearly surpassing all his predecessors in England...'20 showing clearly William's opinion of the king's learning. Further, he goes into moderate detail about the king's abilities. He says:

'The early years of instruction he passed in liberal arts, and so thoroughly imbibed the sweets of learning that no warlike commotions, no pressure of business, could ever erase them from his noble mind. … his learning, (as far as I can affirm), though obtained in snatches, assisted him much in the science of governing; according to that saying of Plato, “Happy would be the commonwealth, if philosophers were kings, or kings would be philosophers”.'21

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss this as either meaningless praise for his monarch, or else as writing showing his inherent personal bias, it is quite clear that this is not so. Modern scholars agree that King Henry was probably able to read a letter addressed to him himself.22 Furthermore, William of Malmesbury was an historian, first and foremost, and approached his scholarship from a professional perspective; blind praise that was not true would not find a way into his writing.23 It is quite clear from the text, as well as from modern scholarship, that Henry genuinely possessed the education that William of Malmesbury assigns to him. Furthermore, it clear from the text that William of Malmesbury clearly views the king's education as a valuable asset, and a resource to him in ruling well. Clearly, to him, having the education required to attain wisdom was a requisite quality in the conception of a good king. As he writes,

'Thus, not slightly imbued with philosophy, he learnt by degrees, and in process of time, how to restrain the people with lenity, and never to suffer his soldiers to act but where he saw a pressing emergency. In this manner, by learning, he trained his early years to the hope of the kingdom, and often, in his fathers' hearing, made use of the proverb, that “an illiterate king is a crowned ass”.'24

Another quality that relates to the conception of kingship in William of Malmesbury's writing is that of Christian behaviour. The strange thing about the textual evidence for this concept, is that there is comparatively little of it; William of Malmesbury mentions Christian behaviour only 8 times; and many of those times are quite unimportant. The majority of the references to Christian behaviour on behalf of the king are simply things such as Henry emerging from a campaign successful because of God's good counsel, or other barely note-worthy statements, such as the desire of the King's men and bishops for him to have a lawful, i.e. Christian, marriage25. The most important mention of Christian behaviour in the text is William's handling of the investiture conflict. He spends four sections detailing the conflict between Henry, Archbishop Anselm, and Pope Calixtus; William also describes that due to Henry's desire to stay within the good graces of the Pope and the Church, and thanks to the good counsel he received from Robert of Meulan a compromise was finally reached.26 William also describes Henry's founding of new monasteries and religious houses, as well as beautifying existing ones.27 William's lack of frequency or detail in recounting Henry's piety or Christian behaviour may be more attributed to William of Malmesbury's scholarly preference for secular political history, than as evidence of any kind of lack of Christian behaviour on Henry's part; which clearly infers that Henry did demonstrate proper Christian behaviour, which was a necessary attribute of good kingship.

The final attribute involved in the conception of kingship in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum is that of legitimacy. It is mentioned a mere three times; however, the importance of this quality of kingship is very important regardless. In the opening section of Book V, William of Malmesbury twice references Henry I's legitimacy. He writes,

'Henry, the youngest son of William the Great, was born in England, the third year after his fathers' arrival; a child, even at that time, fondly cherished by the joint good wishes of all, as being the only one of William's sons born in royalty, and to whom the kingdom seemed to pertain.'28

He continues after a few anecdotes about Henry's education, to relay a story about Henry's destiny to rule. William of Malmesbury relates the story thus: 'once, when he had been ill-used by one of his brothers, and was in tears, he spirited him up by saying, “Weep not, my boy, you too will be a king”.'29

It is not, as some have hypothesised, a way of enforcing legitimacy where there was previously dubious right to succession, as has been suggested by some. Judith Green has said that Henry's right to succession was complete, and legal. Rather than trying to retroactively impose a legitimacy that may have not been truthful, instead, it is more likely that it is emphasising Henry's right to rule as a way to enforce the idea of patrilineal hereditary succession, as opposed to the still common form of succession throughout Europe where all kinsmen had a legitimate claim to rule.30 The language William of Malmesbury uses in the text to refer to his legitimacy echoes both Byzantine and late Roman ideas of legitimacy.31 This is important to note, because the idea of being 'born in the purple' drastically increases the legitimacy of the reign, and grants credence to the idea that Henry was 'born to rule'. This is the ideological solidification of succession that leads to the legitimacy that William of Malmesbury clearly sees as a hallmark quality of the conception of a good king.

As this paper has shown, William of Malmesbury had quite clear views on what qualities were necessary for good kingship. These qualities are useful tools in understanding what was important in 12th century conceptions of kingship. By applying these strict guidelines, in a detailed manner, to his treatment of Henry I in De Gesta Regum, we can see that Henry was, in fact, by the standards of his day, not only a good king, but the yardstick against which other kings were measured.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

1. Malmesbury, William of, A History of the Norman Kings (1066-1125). trans. Joseph Stevenson (London, 1989).

2. Malmesbury, William of, De Gesta Regum Anglorum vol. II trans. R.M. Thomson (Oxford, 1999).

Secondary Sources

1. R. M. Thomson, ‘Malmesbury, William of (b. c.1090, or after 1142), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 22 Nov 2012]

2. MacDonald Walker, Barbara, “King Henry I's 'Old Men'”, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Nov. 1968), pp. 1-21

3. Green, Judith A, The Government of England Under Henry I (London, 1986).

4. Green, Judith A, Henry I (Cambridge, 2006).

1Malmesbury, Gesta Regum: §411, pp 144-145

2Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §398, p. 135

3Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §405, pp. 140-141

4MacDonald-Walker, Barbara, King Henry I's 'Old Men', pp. 1-21

5Green, Judith A. The Government of England Under Henry I, p. 6

6Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §393, p. 132

7Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §399, p. 137

8Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §399, p. 137

9Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §411, p. 145

10Green, England Under Henry I, p. 99

11Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §410, p. 144

12McDonald-Walker, King Henry I's 'Old Men', p. 16

13Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §395, p. 133

14Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §395, p.133

15Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §397, 398,399; § 401 pp.134-138

16Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §412, p. 146

17Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §393, pp.132-133

18Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §400, p. 137

19Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §407, p. 142

20Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §411, p. 146

21Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §390, p. 130

22Green, Judith A. Henry I, pp. 22-23

23ONDB, William of Malmesbury

24Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §390, p. 130

25Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §393, pp. 132-133

26Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §414, 415, 416, 417, pp. 146-150

27Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §413, p. 146

28Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §390, p. 130

29Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, §390, p.130

30Green, Henry I, pp. 20-41

31Green, Henry I, pp. 20-41

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2631 Reviews

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Sun Dec 30, 2012 8:03 pm
Rydia wrote a review...

I'm somewhat removed from my essay writing years, though actually it was only some months ago, but I will try to give some comments on this, even if they end up being only structural observations.


1, Paragraph One;

This paper will attempt to trace William of Malmesbury's treatment of Henry I in the text of the Gesta Regum; such a study is a useful tool in understanding what the conceptions of kingship were during Henry I's reign. By utilising such a tool, this paper will attempt to illustrate that Henry I embodied all of the important qualities of kingship of the early twelfth century, and that his reign would be the benchmark by which William of Malmesbury, and successive later historians, would measure the ideals of good kingship.

I've picked out two sections which spoiled my reading of this simply by being too similar and close together. I would suggest rephrasing the first to be 'the study of which' or something similar. Then the repetition of tool will be easily lost and blended with the rest of your writing.

2. Paragraph Two;
These are the qualities that William of Malmesbury says are necessary of a good king.
This is slightly awkward phrasing, though I'm sure not enough to lose you any marks. I'd suggest: 'These qualities are what William of Malmesbury claims as the necessary values of a good king'.

3. Paragraph Five;
The second place where William of Malmesbury explicitly uses the phrase 'a good king' explicitly and almost entirely with justice and the rule of law.
Try to avoid the repetition of a word like explicitly as it stands out. It's also difficult to follow what you're saying here so you may have to correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you're leading into the second quote? In which case, perhaps this could be rephrased as: 'In a second account where William of Malmesbury explicitly uses the phrase 'a good king', he does so almost entirely with regard to justice and the rule of the law.'

4. Paragraph nine is very well written and easy to follow and really starts to bring some of the knowledge together.

5. You start to get too list-orientated around paragraphs twelve through fifteen. I feel that more on each element of justice is needed before you move on to another quote and another time when it was used. You're giving some excellent examples but I feel the explanation is getting a little bit lost underneath these. For example, not to state the obvious, but you could have explained a little bit how justice in your own opinion helps to show Henry as a good king, how it helps to keep men in line and how it is a doubled edged sword in that there is justice for those who do wrong, but it can also be a reward for those who've done right in that they can see people who do wrong to them punished and they escape these punishments.

6. Very nicely picked back up. The pace is improving and you make good points on Henry's reluctance to sentence people to death. That's very nicely tied in there and explained.

7. You make a smooth transition to the second point and I'm finding this easier to follow, though that might also be me getting into the swing of such an unfamiliar subject matter. Either way, you set up the military element well and give us enough to work off without over-stating anything.

8. I am avoiding pointing out spelling or grammar errors or wrong choice of words, but this does feel in places like it needs to be proof read. I don't know how history papers are graded but from my own experience, that can lose a person a handful of marks. But I was an English student and before that I studied law for a year so it's certainly difficult for me to comment on the different requirements for different subjects. I know my chemistry friend couldn't write for toffee but always got top marks in their reports despite this because no marks were taken off for poor spelling or phrasing so long as it was understandable.

This clearly shows Henry not just as a king who raises an army to defend his kingdom, but further, he trains said army.
More of a nit pick than anything, but the phrase 'said army' feels out of place and awkward. I would suggest using 'this army' or altering it a little more perhaps to: 'Henry I does not stop at raising an army to defend his kingdom, but he also trains and prepares them for the battle ahead, ingratiating his men to him. Taking this extra time ensures that the army place trust in their king and that he is more than a figurehead, but also a man who actually knows how his soldiers will fight and how to put them to their most efficient use.' It doesn't say much more than you've already put, but it adds a little extra analysis and makes for a smoother read.

10. Smooth introduction of the diplomacy trait. I think you could have done a tiny bit more to close off the military prowess by tying these together in that Henry's effort to train his own troops is In itself an act of diplomacy: he knows how to get men on his good side and how to rally morale.

11. You don't spend very long on diplomacy which is a shame. A few follow up comments would help to bulk that out and give it a nicer polish.

12. Good, questioning of the sources is always a good idea and you make a valid and strong support for their authenticity.

13. More discussion of the individual importance of each of these would be helpful as you go through. You're bringing it in more toward the end but I realise you didn't weigh whether Justice was valued more then military prowess etc. Those would be good things to consider and compare.

14. It might have been nice to go outside your source to confirm that Henry was in fact Christian in his values despite the lack of evidence in front of you. Just a brief quote from somewhere relevant would do.

The final attribute involved in the conception of kingship in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum is that of legitimacy. It is mentioned a mere three times; however, the importance of this quality of kingship is very important regardless. In the opening section of Book V, William of Malmesbury twice references Henry I's legitimacy. He writes,
This should be re-phrased to give emphasis to the evidence that it is regarded as important. That this comes up twice so early in the opening section is in very strong support of your sentence and you should focus it that way. Like:

'Although there are just three mentions of legitimacy, its importance with regard to the quality of a king is evident from the early consideration of this value. In the opening section of Book V...' etc.

16. Your conclusion could have gone over earlier points more and reminded what had gone before; as it stands it's somewhat short and doesn't add much sense of finality to the piece.


Sorry I couldn't be more helpful! I've enjoyed reading this and certainly come away with more knowledge and for the most part it was smooth and easy to understand for even someone who doesn't have much of a basis in history.

If you have any questions, do feel free to ask and it's nice to meet one of the older members of YWS and to see a piece of your writing. You won't know me I'm sure, but I saw you occasionally in my early days and its been a pleasure reviewing you.

All the best,

Heather xx

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Sun Dec 30, 2012 7:20 am
Paracosm says...

Hey! I'll try to give this a review tomorrow, you don't see much non-fiction on YWS.

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