All that is known of William of Poitiers comes from the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. According to Orderic, William was a Norman by birth (around 1030), and came from Preaux. He was evidently well born; it is believed that his father may have been a vassal of the Beaumonts. Like many young men of noble and knightly families in the mid eleventh century, William trained as a knight and fought for a time in secular warfare. He turned, however, to the Church, and studied for a time in the schools of Poitiers, and hence, from which he took his name. When William of Normandy became king of England in 1066 he invited William of Poitiers to become his personal chaplain. However, although he was one of the chaplains of William the Conqueror he has proved elusive in ducal and royal charters.
William’s book, The Deeds of William the Conqueror, otherwise known as ‘The Gesta Guillelmi’ was published in about 1073. Although William of Poitiers was in Lisieux during 1066, his book provides the most detailed description that we have of the Battle of Hastings. His life thereafter was spent in Normandy, with an interlude for some years after 1066 in England. The date of his death, not before 1087, is unknown.
In his later years, Orderic wrote, William of Poitiers was forced by unfavourable circumstances (unknown) to abandon his work on the Gesta Guillelmi, which he would have continued until the death of King William. He gave himself up to silence and prayer, and composed sermons and verses. Evidently he lived until after 1087, the date of the king’s death; but whether failing health or a fall from favour forced him into retirement is not known. However, it is worth noting that William of Poitiers connection with Bishop Odo is consistent with his fulsome praise for the bishop, and may help to explain why a panegyric dedicated to the Conqueror was never completed. Consequently, Odo, Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux’s connection with Robert Curthose, whose first rebellion against his father began in 1077, and his later disgrace and imprisonment, must have caused many of those closely associated with him to fall from favour.
His accomplished Latin style and his thorough familiarity with a wide range of classical authors are clear proof that he studied classical sources for several years at Poitiers before returning to Normandy. Something of William of Poitiers character and ability can be deduced from his writing, as he used Sallust as well as Caesar for battles, Marcus Cicero and St Augustine for moral dissertations, and some of his knowledge of legends of the Trojan War may have come from the Ilias Latina. He was certainly familiar with Norman customary law as it was enforced by the dukes, and was aware of some at least of the different English customs. As a Latinist, William of Poitier is superior to the chroniclers of his day. Orderic Vitalis marvelled his Latin prose and abilities. Sources used by William of Poitier consisted mainly of histories of the dukes of Normandy by Dudo of Saint-Quentin and William of Jumieges. 1
Mediaeval historian R. Allen considers the qualities of the Gesta Guillelmi as follows:
Within the panegyric there is a wealth of facts and details… most derived from personal knowledge and personal contacts, compiled and intelligently put together by a man uniquely qualified as both clerk and knight, closely connected with the court…One may add that William of Poitiers must have known his hero from their joint youth up, and stress that as both former knight and former chaplain of the duke he is able to bring us closer to the heart of Normandy in the mid-eleventh century than any other writer of that age or later.2
1. R H C Davis, & M Chibnall, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, (Oxford), 1998.
2. R Allen Brown, Anglo-Norman Studies III: Proceedings of the Battle Conference, (1980).