Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William of Newburgh
WILLIAM of Newburgh (1136–1201?), historian, was born in 1136 at or near Bridlington in Yorkshire. Leland (Collectanea, iv. 19, 37) calls him ‘Gulielmus Parvus,’ and later writers have assumed that this surname is a translation of ‘Petit’ or ‘Little,’ but there is no known authority for it in any language. A thirteenth-century manuscript of William's History (Bodl. MS. Rawlinson, B. 192) has at its beginning a much rubbed rubric which seems to read ‘Liber Sanctæ Mariæ Fratris Willelmi Monachi de Rufforth.’ G. J. Vossius (De Historicis Latinis, l. ii. c. 51) mentions an historical work which he ascribes to ‘William of Rievaux, a Cistercian monk of Rusheforde,’ but which is, in fact, the ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ of William of Newburgh. Putting together this mistake of Vossius and the rubric quoted above, Mr. Howlett suggests that the latter should be amended thus: ‘Liber Sanctæ Mariæ de [?], Chronicon Fratris Willelmi monachi de Rufforth;’ that the historian's family may have come from Rufforth, near York; that he may therefore have been called ‘William of Rufforth,’ and that both the ‘blundering rubricator’ and Vossius may have transformed William of Rufforth, canon of Newburgh, into ‘William, monk of Rufford,’ a Cistercian abbey in Nottinghamshire. There is, however, no evidence as to the origin of Vossius's mistake; Mr. Howlett's emendation of the rubric in Rawlinson MS. B. 192 is merely conjectural; and the rubric as it stands, though obscure, might be interpreted in another way; it might mean 'the book of Brother William, monk of St. Mary of Rufford,' and refer, not to the author of the history, but to an actual or former owner of the volume, or to a brother who had given it to Rufford Abbey.
The author's sole ascertained surname is derived from the place of his almost life-long abode, an Augustinian priory established in 1145 at Newburgh, near Coxwold (Yorkshire). At Newburgh William was brought up from boyhood, and there he spent the rest of his life. David Powel's story that he was once a candidate for the see of St. David's rests on no authority, and is intrinsically almost impossible. Cave (Hist. Litt. a. 1195) says that, 'as some will have it,' William lived till 1208, and this statement has been repeated by later writers without Cave's qualifying words; but it is baseless. All the evidence as to the date of William's death goes to show that he died in, or very soon after, 1198. Some illness or infirmity had incapacitated him for active employment when, at the desire of Ernald, abbot of Rievaulx, he began his 'History of English Affairs.' The fifteenth chapter of the first book contains a mention of Roger, abbot of Byland, as 'still alive, having com- pleted about fifty-seven years of rule.' Roger became abbot in 1142, resigned in 1196, and died in 1199 (Monast. Angl. v. 350, 353, 354; Burton, Monast. Ebor. p. 339). If the passage above quoted was written, as Mr. Howlett thinks, before Roger's resigna- tion, William has made Roger's tenure of office too long by three years; but from the context it seems possible that William may have only meant that about fifty-seven years had elapsed since Roger was made abbot. If this be his meaning, and if his reckoning be correct, the words cannot have been written earlier than 1198, and in that case the whole of William's history would seem to have been put into its present form in a very few months; for it ends abruptly with a record of an event which took place in May 1198, and shows no trace of later re- vision. Probably it was brought to an end by the author's death.
The work apparently put into writing with such astonishing rapidity must have been the fruit of many years of preparation; it bears no signs of hasty composition. Both in substance and in form it is the finest historical work left to us by an Englishman of the twelfth century. Ernald, says William, 'bade me write down, for the instruction and ad- monition of posterity, the memorable things of which our own times have been so full.' The spirit in which the author entered upon his task shows itself in his preface, which contains a vigorous denunciation of the injury done to historic truth by Geoffrey of Monmouth [q. v.] and his followers, and a keen criticism of the fictions which they palmed off on their contemporaries as the early history of Britain. For William that history begins with Gildas and Baeda. After alluding to 'those who have carried on the series of dates and events from Baeda to our own day' by which, though he nowhere names them, he probably means Symeon of Durham and Henry of Huntingdon he states how he proposes to take up the work enjoined upon him, 'briefly running through the times from the coming of the Normans to the death of Henry I, forasmuch as I know that others have brought down the story of England thus far, and beginning a fuller narrative with the accession of Stephen.' Accordingly his first book consists of a short introductory sketch of the history from 1066 to 1135, and a more detailed account of the years 1136- 1154. Book ii. covers the reign of Henry II from his accession to 1174; book iii. continues the story to Henry's death, 1189; book iv. deals with the reign of Richard I down to his second coronation in 1194, and book v. deals with the remaining years to May 1198. For the framework of book i. William seems to have used Henry of Huntingdon; the account of the Scottish war of 1173-4 in book ii. maybe based upon the poem of Jordan Fantosme, but it is more likely that William and Jordan worked from the same materials. It has been suggested (Stubbs, Itinerarium, pref. p. lxix; Howlett, i. pref. p. xxvii) that the chapters in books iv. and v. relating to the affairs of Palestine are summarised either from the 'Itinerarium Regis Ricardi' or from a French poem with which the 'Itinerarium' is closely connected, and which has recently been published in full by M. Gaston Paris, under the title of 'L'Estoire de la Guerre Sainte, par Ambroise.' There are chronological reasons for doubting whether William can ever have seen either of these works in its present form, though he may possibly have had access to an earlier edition of one or both of them. Except in two passages, however, the resemblance between William's account of crusading matters and that given in the poem and the ‘Itinerarium’ is scarcely close enough to warrant the assumption that he borrowed from either of them; in some details it differs from them both. The two passages where alone William and the ‘Itinerarium’ are in close verbal agreement (Howlett, i. pp. xxvii–viii, 249, 329; Stubbs, pp. lxix, 5, 54) have nothing corresponding to them in the French poem; they both occur in the first book of the ‘Itinerarium,’ which appears, from internal evidence, to have been written some years earlier than the rest of the work in its present form. Into this first book of the ‘Itinerarium,’ however, there is worked up at least one document earlier still; the verbal coincidence above mentioned may therefore be due, not to William having copied from the ‘Itinerarium,’ but to their having each independently copied from a common source [cf. art. Richard de Templo]. Some other details in William's fourth and fifth books may have been derived, orally or otherwise, from the king's chaplain, Anselm, whose information was also used by Ralph of Coggeshall and Roger of Hoveden [q. v.] Yet throughout all his five books William is practically an original authority. His narrative of the first twenty years of the reign of Henry II (book ii.)—a period for which our other materials are particularly meagre and unsatisfactory—is entirely independent of all other extant writers, and so are many important passages both in the earlier and the later books.
The value of William's authority in those parts of his work which cannot be traced to any known source may be gauged by his way of using materials the origin of which is ascertained: a way which is something unique among English writers of his age. He alone gives us, not so much the facts, or what passed for facts, as the philosophy of history. His facts indeed are not always exact, and his dates are rarely so. Like William of Malmesbury [q. v.], William of Newburgh purposed to write, not a chronicle but a history. Unlike Malmesbury, he did not ‘deliberately set himself forward as the successor of the venerable Bede.’ That he came, in some respects, much nearer than Malmesbury to achieving that position may be partly due to the greater modesty which seems to have kept him from claiming it. As his work shows no trace of acquaintance with that of Malmesbury, it was probably not from the latter, but direct from Bæda, that he received his inspiration. His genius, indeed, was of a higher order than Malmesbury's. His denunciation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in itself a striking proof of independent thought and critical power, is far from constituting his only claim to the title given him by Freeman, of ‘the father of historical criticism.’ He deals with his materials in the true historical spirit. He has the true historian's instinct for sifting wheat from chaff, for perceiving the relative importance of things, for seizing the salient points and bringing out the significance of a story in a few simple sentences, without straining after picturesqueness or dramatic effect. He never stoops to gossip, or to relate a story merely for entertainment. Nor does he ever indulge in lengthy preaching or moralising; but one or two passages show that his ideas of morality on certain points were extremely strict, rising far above a mere passive acceptance of the ecclesiastical rules current in his day. His politics are equally independent. The judgments which he passes, very briefly and soberly, on men and things are often quite contrary to those of the majority even of the most intelligent and best-informed of his contemporaries; but they are always worthy of consideration; for he looks at characters and events from a standpoint wholly unlike that of the ordinary monastic chronicler or court historiographer; and he sometimes throws upon them, either from his special sources of information or simply from the quality of his own mind, a light which tends to modify considerably the estimate which might be formed from chroniclers and court historians alone. He treats of ‘English affairs’ in no narrow temper; whenever his subject comes into contact with the history of another race or nation, he introduces the new element into his narrative with a careful summary of the best information about it that he can obtain. He pays some attention to the social side of history; and his interest in physical phenomena is remarkably intelligent; to him they are not, as they were to most men of his day, simply wonders or portents, but matters to be investigated, reasoned about, and recorded for instruction, not curiosity. He tells, indeed, some marvellous tales of the supernatural; but on some of these he expressly suspends his judgment; and all of them he relates, not as mere marvels, but as matters for which there has been brought before him such an overwhelming weight or volume of testimony that he feels bound, by his undertaking to put on record all that he can of ‘the memorable things of our time,’ not to exclude them from his pages.
The crowning marvel of William's book is the fact that it was written by a man whose whole life was passed in a remote little Yorkshire monastery. Save for one visit to Godric [q. v.] at Finchale, there is nothing to indicate that William ever, from the day when he entered Newburgh priory as a child, travelled further from it than to the neighbouring monasteries of Byland and Rievaux. With their abbots he was in close communication; and they, again, were in constant intercourse with the whole Cistercian order, which, throughout almost the entire period covered by William's work, played a foremost part in the ecclesiastical, political, and social history of England and of all western Europe. Through them, therefore, as well as through the relations which were doubtless aintained between Newburgh and the other Augustinian houses, William could obtain, as he evidently did, chronicles, letters, and copies of state documents, and also the oral information which in many cases he expressly says he received from men who had travelled in far lands, or who had themselves helped in the making of history. But he could have no more personal experience of the outside world, and, save in this indirect way, hardly more opportunities of contact with that world, than Baeda himself. The man who in such circumstances could compose such a work as the 'Historia Rerum Anglicarum 'must have been indeed, as Mr. Hewlett says, 'a man of unusual moral elevation, mental power, and eloquence,' and he must have been, too, a born historian.
Leland (Collectanea, iv. 19) saw in the library of Queens' College, Cambridge, an ‘Explanation of the Song of Songs,’ to which was appended a note stating that ‘William, who was born at Bridlington and became a canon at Newburgh, wrote and brought it out within one year, at the desire of Roger, abbot of Byland.’ According to Bale and Pits, William wrote also a ‘Book of Commentaries;’ of this nothing is known. Bale's and Pits's attribution to him of a work ‘on the kings of the English’ is erroneous; and so is Ussher's mention (Hearne, p. 810) of ‘William of Newburgh's book, “De Rebus Terræ Sanctæ,”’ the book referred to being really the ‘Itinerarium Regis Ricardi.’
The only complete printed edition of William's extant works, consisting of the ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ and three sermons, is by T. Hearne (3 vols. Oxford, 1719). The history has been edited by Mr. H. C. Hamilton for the English Historical Society (2 vols. 1856), and by Mr. R. Howlett for the Rolls Series (‘Chronicles of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I,’ vols. i. and ii. 1884–5).
[In the preface to his first volume of William's History Mr. Hewlett has collected the available information about William—for which the sole original source is the History itself—discussed the composition of the work, and given an account of the manuscripts.]