The Anglo Norman Territories

William of Poitiers (c. 1073/74)

Gesta Guillelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum

The scant information we have on Guillaume de Poitiers is provided by Orderic Vital. We know that Guillaume was a Norman clerk, from Préaux, near Pont-Audemer. He performed his service as knight for the young William the Bastard whom he left in c. 1045 to go to Poitiers (which is why he is referred to as Pictauensis) in order to follow the teaching given in the celebrated schools of the town. This is where he had his first contact with antique culture and was trained in the liberal arts.

On his return he took up his ecclesiastical career and obtained by virtue of his high birth and culture, the position of chaplain to the Duke. This role enabled him to have a close view of Norman politics. He also became archdeacon of the diocese of Lisieux under the episcopacy of Hugues d'Eu (1050-1077) and Gilbert Maminot (1077-1102). Orderic Vital also tells us that Guillaume "due to contrary circumstances" was unable to pursue his biography of the Conqueror beyond 1071. Perhaps an allusion to some illness or disgrace? We do not know.

The Gesta Guillelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum constitute a exceptional document on the reign of William the Conqueror, of the years 1035 to 1067. Being well informed and an expert in military arts Guillaume de Poitiers wrote a historical work narrating the exploits of the Duke King in their chronological sequence and in a logical progression. In the first book the author shows how Duke William, being challenged in his power, managed to restore order and peace to his Duchy. The second book recounts the conquest of England and the difficulties pacifying it.

But this chronology in fact serves as a framework for a learned justification of the conquest. Beyond the legal debate on the rights of the pretenders to the English throne, Guillaume de Poitiers skilfully suggests that the Duke of Normandy was destined for royalty. On the one hand he eminently had all the qualities required in order to exercise royal power (iustitia, fortitudo, pietas, prudentia). As an exemplary Prince, William the Conqueror is presented as a leader whom God had chosen for this supreme dignity in England in order to restore the order disturbed by unworthy princes. The chronological narrative frequently gives way to panegyric, which the author himself refers to as laus ducis. The Histoire de Guillaume le Conquérant, [History of William the Conqueror] drafted shortly after the battle of Hastings, in c. 1075, thus has the avowed intention of affirming the legitimacy of the Norman pretensions to the English throne.

This demonstration of Norman legitimacy is conducted with all the resources of a rhetoric inspired by classical models. Guillaume de Poitiers is a talented historian who even at this stage presages the great Renaissance of the 12th century. He knew the ancient poets, Virgil, Statius, and Lucan especially. He had read the historical works of Caesar, Suetonius and Sallust. For his demonstrations he takes his inspiration from Cicero and Augustine. Clearly the Gesta Guillelmi is an impassioned work, written by a talented historian at the service of power. But this biography is none the less the best historical source we have on Norman history of the 11th century and the conquest of England: its value lies in the personal testimony, the intimate understanding of the places and people, the care taken over the chronological sequence and the clear aim to provide an explanation for the facts which is confined to secondary causes to the exclusion of marvels and miracles.

There were only two manuscripts of this highly original work. One in Normandy, which was used by Orderic Vital and Robert de Torigni, the other which was known by William of Malmesbury, Ralph of Diceto and the author of the Liber Eliensis. These two manuscripts are now lost. Luckily we have the princeps version published in 1619 by André Duchesne in his Historiae Normannorum scriptores.

Pierre Bouet
ouen - Office universitaire d'études normandes
Université de Caen



- Giles I.A., Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum, dans Scriptores Rerum Gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris, Londres, Caxton Society, 1845 (repr. New-York, Burt Franklin, 1967), p. 77-159.
- Migne J.-P., Willelmi Conquestoris gesta a Willelmo Pictauensi Lexouiorum archidiacono contemporaneo scripta, dans Patrologie Latine, t. 149, Paris, Garnier, 1882, col. 1217-1270.
- Foreville R., Guillaume de Poitiers : Histoire de Guillaume le Conquérant, Les Classiques de l'histoire de France au Moyen Age (23), Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1952 (avec une traduction française)
- Davis R.H.C. et Chibnall M., The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998 (avec traduction anglaise).


- Foreville R., " Aux origines de la légende épique. Les Gesta Guillelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum de Guillaume de Poitiers ", Le Moyen Age, 56, 1950, p. 195-210.
- Dorey T.A., " William of Poitiers : Gesta Guillelmi ", Latin Biography, Londres, 1967, p. 139-155.
- Ray R.-D., " Orderic Vitalis and William of Poitiers : a Monastic Reinterpretation of William the Conqueror ", Revue belge de Philologie et d'Histoire, 50, 1972, p. 1116-1127.
- Davis R.H.C., " William of Poitiers and his History of William the Conqueror ", Essays presented to R.W. Southern : The Writing of History in the Middle Ages, ed. R.H.C. Davis et J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981, p. 71-100.
- Bouet P., " La felicitas de Guillaume le Conquérant dans les Gesta Guillelmi de Guillaume de Poitiers ", Anglo-Norman Studies, 4, 1981, Woodbridge, Boydell Pres, 1983, p. 37-52 et 174-181
- Bouet P., " Orderic Vital, lecteur critique de Guillaume de Poitiers ", Mediaevalia christiana (XIe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à R. Foreville, Tournai, Editions Universitaires, 1989, p. 25-50.


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