MS Stowe 62, f. 130v. Image courtesy of the British Library.
Description: William of Newburgh, also known as William Parvus, was an Augustinian canon in the priory of Newburgh, born c. 1136, who is most well known for his History of English Affairs, composed in the last few years of the 12th century. This work, divided into five books, covers the history of England from the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 and cuts off abruptly in 1198. The preface indicates that the Historia was written at the request of Ernald, abbot of Rievaulx, and includes all of the common tropes of 12th century historical writing: the writer not being great enough for the task at hand, but, due to the importance of the current events of the time and the urging of his compatriots, will do his best. The text includes some classical references, but relies heavily upon religious and Biblical allusions, as to be expected with Williams’s religious background. The prologue to Book I then jumps straight into a diatribe against Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Britannica. William spends several pages completely eviscerating Geoffrey’s work, fact-checking dates, battles, and kings to prove that the tales of King Arthur must, naturally, be just tales, and that by claiming Geoffrey’s work as history Geoffrey does a great disservice to those unfortunate enough not to know any better. Once firmly establishing that his own work, by contrast, will be based only in facts, he begins Book I. Book I begins with the Norman invasions and ends with the death of King Stephen. This coincides with the year of William’s own birth, which he provides as explanation for then detailing events more fully. Book II picks up with Henry II’s accession and continues through the Young King’s revolt, ending with the reconciliation after the revolt. Book III then covers a variety of events, including the Third Crusade. Book IV commences with the coronation of Richard and ends with his return from captivity. Book V picks up immediately thereafter, but does not end with a dramatic event as the first four books do, leading some historians, including Walsh & Kennedy, to speculate that William died suddenly while writing, sometime after the events of 1198 with which Book V ends. William also composed a commentary on the Song of Songs and has at least three sermons attributed to him, but little is known about William’s personal life other than the small and rare references to himself he makes throughout his work.
Importance for the Study of Angevin History: William of Newburgh’s work recounts the events of a large portion of Angevin history, but was not created for a patron at court connected to any of the royal figures under discussion. While not a completely unbiased source, William has been called the “father of historical criticism,” for his relatively even and balanced critiques. William was writing for an ecclesiastical audience, so in addition to descriptions of political events, he also covers important movements in the church, such as the election of an English pope. As with other chronicles, the History of English Affairs is helpful for studying not just the narrative history of the time period, but how those events were interpreted by contemporaries. Like a modern historian, William describes events, provides evidence for that description, and explains the long and short-term implications of those events. Willam’s coverage of the Becket affair in particular has been praised by historians. Despite the title, William also covers affairs outside of England that have an impact on the English, leaving his work a source as fodder on either side of the “empire” debate. William’s references to historians such as Gildas, Bede, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, other works completed “in our own time,” and use of sources such as Henry of Huntingdon lends itself to the study of sources for the study of the Angevin empire in a meta-type analysis. Finally, it appears as if William spent his entire life in religious communities in Yorkshire. Perhaps most striking about this work is that, despite his stationary geographic location, he had enough knowledge of outside affairs to compose such a thorough Historia.
William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs: Book I. Edited and translated by P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy. Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 1988.
William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, Book 2. Edited and translated by P.G. Walsh and M.J. Kennedy. Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 2007.
William of Newburgh, Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I. Edited by Richard Howlett. London: Longman & Co, 1884-9.
The Church Historians of England, volume IV, part II. Translated by Joseph Stevenson. London: Seeley's, 1861. (This edition is what Scott McLetchie used in 1999 to publish on Fordham’s own Medieval Sourcebook.)
William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum. Edited by H.C Hamilton. London: English Historical Society, 1856.
William of Newburgh, Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores. Edited by Thomas Hearne. Oxford, 1719.
William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum. Edited by John Picard, Paris, 1610.
William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum. Edited by William Silvius. Antwerp, 1567.