A Scribe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

This is the first of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: William of Malmesbury
Lived c. 1095 – 1143
Location: Malmesbury Abbey, England
Notable works:
Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) – political chronicle (449 – 1120)
Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops) – ecclesiastical chronicle (449 – 1120)
Historia Novella (The New History) – history of contemporary events (1126-1142)
Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan) – hagiography
De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (The Early History of Glastonbury)

It is probably a little unfair to reduce William of Malmesbury to the role of ‘scribe’ or even ‘cleric.’ William was a scholar, an historian, an author and hagiographer, a competent linguist, reluctant politician, librarian and manuscript collector, and (to be a little cynical) something of a forger, propagandist, and historical revisionist. There are few historians and theologians from medieval England that have left such a broad corpus of material for us to examine, and none between Bede in the eight-century, and William in the twelfth.

William was born around three decades after the Norman conquest and most of his relatively short life was spent under the reign of Henry I (1100-1135). Henry I’s reign was bracketed by drama. His predecessor and older brother William ‘Rufus’ died in a suspicious hunting accident, while his other brother Robert disputed Henry’s claim to the throne, invading England in 1101, with Henry in turn invading Robert’s lands in Normandy five years later. In 1120, Henry’s only legitimate son died in the infamous White Ship incident and, despite remarrying, Henry never produced a legitimate male heir. As a result, Henry laid plans for his daughter Matilda to take the throne, and the seeds of the Anarchy – the civil war which plagued England from 1135 to 1153, were sown. This means that the later part of William’s life and career took place within the milieu of civil war, and we are lucky to have had such an accomplished chronicler in place to record events, but we should really start at the beginning.

By the time William was a functioning member of the Malmesbury community, Henry would have been well established on the English throne, the third Norman king of England. Henry’s reign has a reputation for stability, no matter the political conflicts at the top end of society, and there is little doubt that it is this stability that enabled William the freedom to pursue his scholarship. We know William exchanged materials with the house chronicler at Worcester Abbey, John (who has his own biography), we even know that William twice travelled to Worcester in person to consult their materials. Add to this William’s own extensive library, and the fact that William is considered to have had direct knowledge of some 215-odd individual items of source material, we must consider that William was operating within a reasonably stable social and political milieu. It seems highly unlikely that clerics would have been travelling widely, exchanging valuable materials, and spending institutional funds on manuscripts if it was considered likely that such pursuits would result in theft or threat to life. Indeed, we are spoiled for scholar-clerics in the twelfth-century (John of Salisbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Gerald of Wales etc.). Things were settling down after the Conquest – new political and ecclesiastical hierarchies had become embedded in the fabric of English society yet without destroying native pre-Conquest culture which, as Anglo-Saxon and Norman acculturated, were beginning to re-emerge.

In his origins, William is rather representative of the cultural synthesis that characterised English social evolution through the eleventh and twelfth-centuries. William tells us he was born of mixed parentage – likely a Norman father and Anglo-Saxon mother. Though he does not tell us which parent was of which heritage, the educational benefits afforded him prior to his acceptance into Malmesbury Abbey as a boy would indicate his father had some means at his disposal. Moreover, William shows throughout his writings a distinct familiarity with Old English which was not necessarily true of all scribes in this era where Anglo-Norman French and Latin dominated political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. If William’s mother were Anglo-Saxon, that would explain his competence with Old English as it is normal for a child’s first language to be that of their mother. This is not to say that William displayed an affection for Old English as a literary language in his writings; nor that his histories demonstrate an unqualified respect for Anglo-Saxon Christianity and culture. Yet it remains true that William had a familiarity with the language, history, and culture of pre-Conquest England, and he brought this to his scholarship.

Malmesbury at the time William entered the abbey had been operating more-or-less continuously since c. 675, though reconstituted under the Norman church post-Conquest. Here William continued his education, and quite possibly travelled to other abbeys to further it. In so doing, William came into contact with the materials that would inspire him; he evidently felt a particular affinity for Bede and he was motivated by the Ecclesiastic Historia to engage in his own work of history. William’s Gesta regum Anglorum seems to have been his earliest major work. Written in his twenties, the Gesta regum traces the history of the kings of England from 449 (drawing heavily on Bede for the earlier entries), and continues up until 1120. William is remarkable for having something of the modern historian’s sense of source analysis, and this is on display in the Gesta regum; for example, writing about the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan, William clearly drew from the ­Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, yet also provided material non-extant in other sources. In so doing, he highlighted that he drew from independent manuscripts, ‘popular songs,’ material history and other alternative sources. This is a matter I have explored in some detail in a separate journal article and blog post, so let’s not get too caught up in the example – the point is that William had the capacity to locate and assess independent sources and provide commentary as to their nature, veracity, and reliability, before reporting their contents. It is this mode of thinking that has garnered him the reputation he holds as one of Europe’s greatest twelfth-century historians.

William completed his Gesta pontificum Anglorum around the same time as the Gesta regum and, though Gesta regum is perhaps the more famous text, the Gesta pontificum should (in my opinion) be considered his magnum opus. Apparently commissioned by Matilda, the queen of Henry I, William opens the volume by confronting the problematic nature of the project before him – in writing Gesta regum he had the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a guide, but here he had no model, no guide to direct his work. The result is a document that draws widely from ecclesiastical documents, regional histories, royal diplomas, hagiography, and a dash of authorial invention. Structurally, it is a triumph, organised by region and providing a comprehensive ecclesiastical history of each historical Anglo-Saxon kingdom, preserving regional traditions and oral histories alongside the reports drawn from documents he located in his extensive research. It is true that history and hagiography blend more than a little here – an oft-cited criticism – yet we would do well to remember that William was not working within modern parameters of historicity. For William it was all history and all worthy of preservation.

At some point William took on the role of precentor – a role that oversaw the liturgy, the library, and the production of manuscripts in the scriptorium. William had also been offered the role of abbot, but he declined the highest office at the abbey – we are not sure whether the role of precentor was granted him as an alternative, or if it was in order to maintain that role that he decline the abbacy. Either way, it speaks volumes to our scholar. Under his precentorship, Malmesbury Abbey grew to be one for the greatest libraries in medieval Europe at that time, in no small part thanks to the efforts of his scriptorium.

The final work of note is William’s Historia novella – a text that is absolutely essential to our understanding of the Anarchy as Matilda and Stephen fought for the throne of England. It concerns the period from 1126 when Henry first declared Matilda would succeed him to the throne, until around William’s death (our presumption being that it would have been revised beyond its end-date in 1142 had William survived long after this date). William provides a contemporary view of the events of the Anarchy, though with a notable pro-Matilda bias (indeed, the work is dedicated to Matilda’s half-brother). Nonetheless, William does bring something of a critical eye and a balanced view to his record of events – after all, this was a man who had dedicated his life to being an historian and developing a talent for historiography. Historia novella is a deft piece of history that is the culmination of William’s evolution as a scholar and political commentator.

Now. Our brief biography ignores the histories of Malmesbury Abbey and Glastonbury William wrote, not to mention a robust collection of hagiographies and biblical commentaries, but just know that William was a busy man with a voracious appetite for learning and education. It is an impressive legacy, so I will let William close things out with this quote from his Gesta regum…

It is many years since I formed the habit of reading, thanks to my parents’ encouragement and my own bent for study. It has been a source of pleasure to me ever since I was a boy, and its charm grew as I grew. Indeed, I had been brought up by my father to regard it as damaging to my soul and my good repute if I turned my attention in any other direction … I studied many kinds of literature, though in different degrees … In particular I studied History, which adds flavour to moral instruction by imparting a pleasurable knowledge of past events, spurring the reader by the accumulation of examples to follow the good and shun the bad. So after I had spent a good deal of my own money on getting together a library of foreign historians, I proceeded in my leisure moments to inquire if anything could be discovered concerning England worth the attention of posterity. Not content with ancient works, I began to get the itch to write myself, not to show off my more or less non-existent erudition but in order to bring forcibly into the light things lost in the rubbish-heap of the past.

It’s rather hard not to like him, isn’t it?

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Spanish Scriptorium (?), Madrid Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de Escorial (with debatable confidence – see Erik Kwakkel’s blog for discussion)
  2. Matthew Firth, “Constructing a King: William of Malmesbury and the Life of Æthelstan,” Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association 13 (2017), 67-90.
  3. Sebastian I. Sobecki, ‘Introduction: Edgar’s Archipeligo,’ in The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Agesedited by Sebastian I. Sobecki, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011, 1-30.
  4. Rodney M. Thomson, Emily Dolmans and Emily A. Winkler, eds, Discovering William of Malmesbury, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2017.
  5. R. M. Thomson, William of Malmesbury, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2003.
  6. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, The History of the English Bishops: Volume I, edited and translated by M Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.
  7. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings: Volume I, edited and translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom. 2 vols. Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

See our bibliographies on Biographical Studies and Chronicle Editions

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