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William of Malmesbury (ca. 1095–1143). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

William of Malmesbury was one of the most important
historians of medieval England. His bestknown
works, the Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds
of the kings of England) and its sequel Historia
novella (Recent history), tell the story of English
history from the Anglo-Saxon invasion of 449 until
his own present (1142). Known for his critical assessment
of primary sources, his concern with the
relationship of physical features like geography and
architecture on historical events, his lively and colorful
style, and his interest in the motivations for
human actions, William in unquestionably the
most valuable and readable historian of his age.
William was born in Wiltshire in approximately
1095, the son of a Norman father and an English
mother. He was apparently educated at the Benedictine
Abbey of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, where
he subsequently became a monk. In his education
William became particularly interested in history,
and was especially impressed by the work of the
Venerable BEDE, whom he emulated. In 1125,
William finished his Gesta regum Anglorum, which
deals with English history until 1127. Some of the
more interesting passages of this text deal with
King ARTHUR, whom William depicts as assisting
Ambrosius Aurelianus in fighting off the Anglo-
Saxon invasions.William repeats as history the legend
of the Battle of Mount Badon in which Arthur,
bearing on his armor the image of the Virgin Mary,
personally slaughtered 900 of the enemy—a story
apparently derived from the Historia Brittonum attributed
to NENNIUS. Further,William discusses the
finding of the tomb of Arthur’s nephew Walwen
(GAWAIN), and dismisses British “fables” about
Arthur, who he says needs to be appreciated for
his authentic historical contributions.Another significant
section of the Gesta regum Anglorum is
William’s account of the Norman invasion.
William finds King Harold praiseworthy, but sees
the invasion as just retribution for the “sins of the
flesh” committed by the English.
William indicates that he had the opportunity
to become abbott of Malmesbury, but preferred
the role of librarian, where he could indulge his
scholarly pursuits.He was a prolific writer, and the
same year he completed the Gesta regum he also
finished the Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of
the pontiffs of England), an ecclesiastical history
owing much to Bede. Over the next 10 to 15 years,
he worked on a history of the saints of Glastonbury,
where some scholars have speculated he may
have been living at the time (1129–39). Among his
other works are a life of St. Dunstan and a collection
of Miracles of the Virgin. He compiled, as
well, a collection of legal and historical documents
now housed at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
About 1140, William began writing his final
work, the Historia novella (Recent history), a sequel
to the Gesta regum Anglorum, dealing with
history from 1125 to 1142.William was apparently
writing under the patronage of Robert, earl of
Gloucester, a major figure in the civil war between
King Stephen and the empress Maude.William’s
account of Stephen’s reign (the years following
1135) is a significant and authoritative contemporary
source for that epoch. The text of the Historia
novella, however, is unpolished, suggesting the
draft of a manuscript William never completed. It
is assumed he died around 1143, before completing
the history.
Bibliography
Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England, c.
550 to C. 1307. London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1974.
Preest, David, trans. The Deeds of the Bishops of England.
Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 2002.
Scott, John, ed. and trans. The Early History of Glastonbury.
Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2001.
Thomson, R. M. William of Malmesbury. Rev. ed.
Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2003.
William of Malmesbury. Gesta regum Anglorum: The
History of the English Kings. Completed by R. M.
Thomson and M. Winterbottom. Edited and
translated by R. A. B.Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1998–1999.
Winterbottom, M., and R. M. Thomson, eds. Saints’
Lives: Lives of SS.Wulfstan, Dunstan, Patrick, Benignus and Indract. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
2002.

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