WILLIAM OF POITIERS probably wrote his ‘Gesta Guillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum’ (Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English) c.1073–4 (certainly, between 1071 and 1077). According to Orderic Vitalis, who used the ‘Gesta’ as a source, William of Poitiers was born at Préaux, Normandy, and in his youth was one of Duke William's knights. He gave up soldiering, however, to study at Poitiers – hence the name William of Poitiers. Returning to Normandy, he became Duke William's chaplain, and later archdeacon of Lisieux. (Hugh, bishop of Lisieux from c.1049 until his death in July 1077, was evidently still alive at the time William of Poitiers was writing.)
As far as is known, no copy of the original ‘Gesta’ survives. A printed edition was published in 1619 by French historian André Duchesne, but the manuscript he used, which is now lost, was incomplete – both the beginning and the end of the work were missing. The surviving text, which starts and finishes mid-sentence, covers the period from 1047 to 1068, though it starts with retrospective material concerning affairs in England after Cnut's death (1035). Orderic Vitalis says the work originally finished in 1071, and makes the enigmatic remark that William of Poitiers had intended to continue it up to his subject's death (1087), but was prevented from doing so by “unfavourable circumstances”.*
The ‘Gesta Guillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum’ is, in effect, a panegyric to William the Conqueror, but, despite this, it is an extremely important source of material relating to the Norman Conquest. In ‘The Norman Conquest of England: Sources and Documents’ (1984), R. Allen Brown writes:
“Within the panegyric there is a wealth of facts and details, some judiciously selected from other sources, not least William of Jumièges, but 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 and, indeed, for years part of it. 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.”
Orderic Vitalis ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ (Ecclesiastical History): Book III (ii, 158); Book IV (ii, 217–218).
(Volume, page) of Augustus Le Prevost's five volume edition of the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ (1838–1855).
In the ‘Gesta Normannorum Ducum’ (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans), completed c.1070–71, William of Jumièges adapted an earlier work, by Dudo of St Quentin, for the reigns of the first three dukes (the period 911–996): “The rest is my own, derived partly from the true relation of many men, given credence equally by their years and their experience of affairs, and partly by the certain witness of my own eyes.” (Dedicatory Letter, to William the Conqueror, the seventh duke).