Review of “The Saxon and Norman Kings” by Christopher Brooke

As I noted in one of my previous posts, biographies of Saxon monarchs are thin on the ground. The same is true of surveys of them as a group; other than Humble’s book, the only modern study is Christopher Brooke’s overview of the subject. First published in 1963, it was the first book in a six-volume “British Monarchy” series originally published by Batsford, which was subsequently issued in paperback by Fontana and reprinted frequently enough that copies can still be found today on the shelves of many secondhand bookshops.

Brooke begins his book by acknowledging the problems every biographer of Saxon monarchs faces, which is the paucity of sources available for a monarch-centric study. Because of this, instead of simply trying to detail the lives of the monarchs under his purview he focuses instead on describing the evolution of the English monarchy itself. While he faces similar constraints in doing so, this allows him to draw upon a wider range of resources (such as the epic poem Beowulf) to make inferences and develop conclusions as to how the institution of the monarchy emerged and developed into the form it held by the 11th century.

Brooke’s approach is most evident in the first three chapters of his book. In these he defines what constituted English kingship, how kings were chosen, and the duties of the early medieval English monarch. What emerges from these pages is a tale of an institution that developed from a blend of Germanic and Christian influences shaped by the demands of politics and government in early medieval England. He makes it clear that this is a monarchy very different from the “classical” conception of it in later medieval times, with hereditary claims often weighing less than political circumstances and raw military power. Brooke also notes the limitations of the sources when it came to understanding the duties of a king – from them it is easy to get the impression that all kings did was hunt, wage war, and drink afterward – but he explains as well how they inform our understanding of the qualities of a king that mattered to contemporaries.

From here Brooke turns his attention to the emergence of the English monarchy in the Anglo-Saxon period. At this point his narrative becomes more conventionally biographical, but especially in his chapters on the early Saxon kings his emphasis is on what they did to build a single realm and the monarchy which would rule it. It is with Alfred that Brooke’s book settles into providing a focused assessment of a particular king based on his achievements, which he does for most of the later monarchs in the period he is covering as well. His judgments are more qualified from those of Humble and the two differ in their assessments of the Saxon kings in some interesting respects, as Brooke’s criticisms of Æthelred are restrained and his depiction of Edward the Confessor fits more with the “out-of-touch mystic” impression I had before starting this project than did Humble’s reevaluation of him.

Another key difference, of course, is that Brooke continues his coverage through William the Conqueror to address his dynastic successors as well. These chapters allowed Brooke to extend his analysis of the evolution of the English monarchy through the Normans, though with more material to draw upon the biographical approach predominates in these chapters. Not only did they add to the value of his assessments of the development of the English kingship, they also offered a tantalizing glimpse of the monarchs I will be covering immediately after the Anglo-Saxon era, with judgements that I look forward to revisiting when I delve more deeply into their reigns.

Though nearly six decades old, Brooke’s book continues to serve as a stimulating overview of the English monarchy in the Anglo-Saxon and Norman eras. Beyond an assumption by the author that the reader might possess a greater familiarity with the era than might be the case, its flaws are generally the result of its age, as it no longer reflects the subsequent work done on the subject. For those seeking a basic overview of the early medieval English monarchy and the role many of its kings played in developing it, though, this is a good book to read.

Review of “The Saxon Kings” by Richard Humble

I decided to begin my journey through the lives of the monarchs of England with Richard Humble’s book. This was for a variety of reasons: from the description it looked to be a survey of the kings from an era with which I am not all that familiar with, one that would provide coverage of the pre-“English” kings which I have decided not to address, and it promised coverage of the kings for whom I have been unable to find stand-alone biographies and would thus fill in some of the gaps that would otherwise exist in my project

And Humble’s book delivered as a surprisingly enjoyable introduction to the subject. As part of Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series it was a work geared towards a general audience, and to that end provides a decent amount of helpful context in its presentation of the period. Yet the author himself deserves most of the credit for the accessibility of his material: Humble was a prolific author of several books on a variety of historical subjects, and in his text he asserts his judgments with confidence, making his interpretation of the era clear.

Though Humble begins his book with a chapter on the “seven kingdoms” of the early Anglo-Saxon era, with the exception of a few of the most significant figures he largely glosses over the various monarchs of the period. His coverage sharpens once he reaches the Wessex king Alfred the Great, and he spends the subsequent chapters covering the reigns of his descendants in detail. Only his son Edward “the Elder,” Æthelstan, and Edgar (the last surviving male heir) receive stand-alone chapters; with the rest divided into groups of two or three and their reigns summarized in turn. Humble finds most of these monarchs praiseworthy, with Æthelred, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut coming in for the most criticism for the failings of their time as kings.

In this respect Humble provides a lively overview of the House of Wessex, though his book falls short in a few respects. Foremost among them is that it is less of a succession of biographies than it is a political history of the later Anglo-Saxon kings, with little effort made to describe the other aspects of their reign. Even their personal lives receive minimal coverage outside of the parts that are relevant to this focus. To some degree this is probably a consequence of the limitations of the sources available for the era, but Humble’s reliance upon them is surprisingly narrow. Many paragraphs seem to be little more summaries of, and commentary on, the relevant passages on his subjects in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Better sourcing might have clarified this impression, but the absence of any sort of endnotes makes such an effort impossible.

These limitations define the scope of what Humble provides. While a good overview of the political history of the reign of Alfred and his successors, as a collection of biographies it falls a short. I’m glad to have read it first, though, as it gave me a necessary grounding in the period and certainly whetted my interest in reading more about some of the remarkable kings Humble describes in its pages.

Where to begin?

As I explain in my description of this site, my goal is to read biographies of all of the ruling kings and queens of England and Great Britain, from the beginning right down to the present day.

Which brings up an interesting question, where should such an effort begin?

Part of the problem is that for many of the early monarchs of post-Roman Britain we simply don’t have any biographies of them, in large part because we don’t have the sources to support them. For many of those kings, what we know could barely make for a paragraph-length entry in an encyclopedia, much less a book. As a result, there’s not much to review.

One obvious place to begin a project such as mine is with Alfred the Great. He was one of the outstanding kings of British history, and one that I would like to learn much more about. In the end, though, I decided not to start with him. This was in part because though Alfred was a momentous king, in the end he only ruled over a portion of England, not the complete territory. Plus, it felt a little unfair to his predecessors to begin with him just because he benefited from so much attention during his time and afterward.

Ultimately these two factors defined where I am starting my project. My first two reviews are going to be of books that encompass the entire late Anglo-Saxon monarchy, including the kings not covered in a biography. After that, I will focus on the first king who ruled over all of the territory of England as we know it today: Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan. From him I will cover each of his successors, skipping the six — Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig, Edward the Martyr, Sweyn Forkbeard, and Harold Harefoot — about whom no biography is available. Once I get to Edward the Confessor, though, there will be an unbroken line of kings about whom I will have plenty to read. It will be a long way to the end, with plenty to learn in the process!