Review of “William the Conqueror” by Hilaire Belloc

Today the title of “man of letters” is an informal label usually applied to writers, scholars, or people with broad knowledge. In the Victorian era, however, the phrase had a more specific meaning. In those days it referred to the public intellectual who wrote works that usually addressed issues of contemporary interest or concern. These authors often ranged across a variety of subjects and genres, sometimes gaining renown as authors of both fictional and nonfictional works, which was a testament both to their literary skill and the reading public’s broad-minded views towards their authority.

Hilaire Belloc can be counted among their number. Over the course of half a century he wrote dozens of books, an output that ranged from children’s verses and novels to travelogues and works of history. Many of those latter works (particularly the ones about the Reformation) were heavily influenced by Belloc’s Catholic faith, which has led him to be pigeonholed as a “Catholic historian.” Whether this is fair or not, given how prominently he wore his faith I doubt it bothered him all that much.

One consequence of this identification is that Catholic presses have ensured that most of Belloc’s works remain in print. Among them is his short 1933 biography of William the Conqueror, and when I started it I quickly came to appreciate Belloc’s skills as a writer. It’s an incredibly fluid narrative, which it needs to be as Belloc wrote it not as a chapter-by-chapter account but as a single unbroken work – more of an extended essay than a subdivided biographical study. It’s difficult to see where such chapter divisions could have been inserted, as the text transitions smoothly from topic to topic with nary the need for a break.

Belloc’s book also stands out as the most biographically-focused study of William of any that I have read so far. While not neglecting the context (especially when it comes to Church-related matters), Belloc concentrates his narrative on the details of William’s life. The contrast with the other William biographies that I have read is striking: there is little explanation of Norman feudalism or the French politics that were the preeminent concerns of William’s early years, as Belloc concentrates primarily on relating the basic facts of William’s early life.

Whereas William’s French background is largely unexplored, the English context receives more substantial attention. Here he focuses on the validity of William’s claims to the English throne, arguing for its superiority over that of Harold. A lot of his analysis is dated, as is his depiction of Edward the Confessor, which comes close to the “holy fool” depictions of medieval hagiography. Had I not read Stenton’s book I wouldn’t have known how dated Belloc’s take was even then. He is equally credulous in accepting the greatly exaggerated figures for both the size of William’s invasion force and the contingents at the battle of Hastings, which had been contested by historians long before Belloc put pen to paper.

Belloc concludes his book with a potted description of William’s two decades on the throne that leaves out much detail. In this it’s reflective of the book as a whole: a smooth description of William’s life, but ultimately a lacking one in providing a sense of his policies as England’s ruler or the context in which events took place. While one of the most readable books that I have yet encountered for this project, this only goes so far towards mitigating the deficiencies in Belloc’s work. Other William biographers may not come up to his standards in terms of providing a readable narrative, but the accuracy and utility of their accounts far surpass those of Belloc’s shallow and ultimately unsatisfying text.

Review of “William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans” by Frank Merry Stenton

In the twentieth century, there was no greater historian of Anglo-Saxon England than Sir Frank Stenton. A former president of the Royal Historical Society, he literally wrote the book on the era, as his volume on it for the “Oxford History of England” series endures today as a standard text on the subject. Published in 1943, it reflected his decades of study about the era, and was updated twice to reflect subsequent discoveries and judgments.

By contrast, his biography of William the Conqueror for Putnam’s “Heroes of the Nations” series was written early in his career, well before he established his reputation in the field. Reading it today, what stands out most is the degree to which it is very much a product of its time. Compared to the more recently published biographies of William that I have up to this point Stenton parades his prejudices proudly, making it clear where his sympathies lie. This comes across from the start, with an introduction that provides a snobbish overview of Scandinavian history, citing its failure to hold onto England as the reason for the decline in its importance. Whether possessing England alone would have extended the Viking era in European history is an arguable point at best, but it one that advertises Stenton’s patriotism well enough.

More surprising is his assessment of Anglo-Saxon England. Basing it on the kingdom’s government and its feudal structures, he regards it as weak and unstable, arguing that “the England of the tenth and eleventh centuries will be found utterly lacking in all qualities which make a state strong and keep it efficient.”  It’s another debatable point that doesn’t consider the broader socio-economic context and seems belied by much of the research reflected in the other books that I have read for this project. While those authors had decades of subsequent scholarship upon which to draw, it’s a conclusion that fits a little too neatly with Stenton’s leanings to dismiss entirely as a reflection of a lack of evidence to the contrary.

Having set up the context for the Conquest, Stenton moves on to recount William’s career as a duke in an account that is heavy on politics and military campaigns. He gives considerable attention to Normandy’s feudal institutions, which Stenton sees as the key to Normandy’s success as a state. Again, the contrast is with England under the Scandinavians, though Stenton undercuts his own argument with a grudging acknowledgement that “Cnut ruled England with such strictness and justice that on the eve of the Norman Conquest his reign was still regarded as a model of good government,” and adds that William went on to adopt Cnut’s law code “with only minor adjustments.”

When it comes to the Conquest another of Stenton’s idiosyncrasies emerges. While he accepts the Norman stories of Harold’s oath to William at face value (never taking into consideration the circumstances behind that oath or the lengths William subsequently went to in order to ensure that his interpretation of the events was the dominant one), Stenton seems particularly agitated by the witan’s awarding of the throne to Harold, concluding that even though the Conquest proved a catastrophe for the English,  “at least it saved England from the perils of an elective monarchy.”

Stenton is similarly derisive of Harold’s prospects as king, regarding him as doomed to preside over a disintegrating kingdom. This has the effect of reading the post-Conquest uprisings William faced as inevitable rather than particular to his rule. It’s an unprovable contention, of course, and one that again underscores Stenton’s pro-William leanings by serving as an excuse – along with damage to the Anglo-Saxon state by the “shock” of the Conquest – for the regime he imposed on England during his two decades on the throne. His description of the feudal state is detailed, but very top-down and with only passing acknowledgement of the costs of this for his English subjects.

As I read Stenton’s book I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of it in his later years. Given that his subsequent work adopted a more measured assessment of the merits of the Anglo-Saxon state I suspect that he may have regretted some of his early judgments of William and his rule. Perhaps he hoped that the age of his work would help it pass into obscurity, little anticipating how the combination of e-texts and the reversion of his book to the public domain makes it today the most widely available biography of William. This is unfortunate, because for all of the clarity of Stenton’s description of Norman feudalism and English administration it’s a book that is far too dated to serve as a study of William that people today should rely upon exclusively – as I’m sure Stenton himself would agree.

Review of “William I: England’s Conqueror” by Marc Morris

Marc Morris is among the select group of historians who have established a successful career as both a writer and a broadcaster. Originally known for his work as a presenter for a BBC series on British castles, he went on to write over a half-dozen books on various aspects of English medieval history, including biographies of John and Edward I that I plan to read as part of this project and a book on the Norman Conquest that made his selection to write the biography of William the Conqueror for the Penguin Monarchs series understandable.

Another factor that undoubtedly helped is his skill as an author. His style is clear and direct, cutting through the usual qualifications in academic prose to provide a sharply-realized interpretation of the Conqueror. Unlike the previous biographies of William that I’ve read up to this point he begins not with William’s birth or the background to the era but with an account of his Christmas Day coronation that features the fires set by his guards outside of Westminster Abbey. Morris uses the incident as a way to highlight the unease and tension that the Normans felt in the aftermath of their victory at Hastings. It’s an inspired decision, and a testament to his skill as a historical writer.

From there Morris goes back to recount William’s early life. It’s a comparatively sparse account that focuses on William’s claim to the English throne – an understandable decision on Morris’s part given his remit to provide an account of William’s life in less than a hundred pages. What stands out most, though, is the pro-William case Morris makes in these pages, as he presents the details in such a way as to underscore the validity of William’s claim. Doing so helped to make William’s sense of outrage at Harold’s coronation understandable, but I couldn’t help but feel as though this was more a refection of Morris interpretation of the sources rather than the cut-and-dried case that he presents.

The chapters on the succession battles of 1066 form the heart of the book, and draw heavily upon Morris’s previous work on the subject. Though brief, Morris recounts these developments skillfully, again demonstrating his assuredness in promoting his interpretation of the available accounts. This highlights William’s boldness and the underlying effectiveness of his strategy. Yet by spending an additional chapter detailing the resistance to his conquest, Morris makes it clear that boldness and victory alone were not enough for him to establish himself as king, with persistence and ruthlessness required as well.

After recounting William’s success in consolidating his hold on the English throne, Morris spends the next two chapters describing his reign. It is here that the strength of Morris’s book leads to its main weakness: by spending so much of his limited space recounting how William became king, he has precious little left to describe William’s time as king. It’s of a piece with his earlier chapters on William’s life before his invasion of England, in which the descriptions of the Norman institutions that were included in Douglas’s, Ashley’s, and Bates’s biographies are absent.

Here’s no doubt that Morris faced tough choices when deciding how to best use the limited space available to him. By choosing to emphasize his strengths as a William biographer, however he defined the limitations of his book. While it provides a good overview of William’s life as a ruler and a fantastic concise account of the Conquest, it lacks the depth and nuance of similar introductory accounts of William’s life by other authors. It’s a good book, but one that needs to be supplemented for anyone desiring a more complete overview of his life and achievements.

Review of “William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy” by Peter Rex

Throughout this project I’ve made an effort to approach every book I read without expectations. This is a challenge for me when it comes to certain series, as their editors usually establish certain standards in terms of their selection of authors and the quality of what they’re willing to approve for publication. This is also difficult when it comes to authors whose works I have read before, as exposure to their works helps to define what I will encounter when I pick up their next volume.

This is especially true for Peter Rex. His biography of William the Conqueror is the fourth book of his that I have read for this project, and when I started reading it I couldn’t help but do so with a set of assumptions that were shaped by my experience with his previous books on Edgar, Edward the Confessor, and Harold. Most of these assumptions proved correct, as Rex again delivered an accessible and engaging account of William’s life. Yet his book was also different from his previous works in a number of important respects.

The first of these was because of his subject. Thanks to the greater amount of information available about William’s life Rex had more information to work with than he did with William’s Anglo-Saxon predecessors. This gives him an opportunity to write an account of William’s life that is much richer in detail than his earlier works. His book reflects this, as his account provides far more of a narrative of William’s life than he did in his previous biographies. Through it we follow the major events of William’s life, from his Norman background through his assertion of control through to his conquest of England and his final years, all recounted in Rex’s clear and informative style.

As interesting as Rex’s account is, though, it comes at the cost of any explanation of the institutions of the era, as well as any detailed analysis of William’s life and reign. His view that historians have read an “Anglo-Norman realm” onto a governing structure that evolved out of unrelated decisions rather than a conscious design on William’s part is an interesting one, but it is not developed beyond a couple of scattered paragraphs. Rex’s assessment of William’s personality is left to the final chapter, where it is done only cursorily and in combination with a summation of the king-duke’s legacy. Still this is more than the people around William receive, as they are usually distinguished in the text by little more than their names and position.

The overall effect is to make it a book that describes what William did and summarizes why he did it, but does not provide as good of a sense of William actions within the broader context of 11th century western Europe. This stands out especially when compared to the approach taken in the biographies of William that I have already read, which were much richer in background than Rex’s book. What he provides is a fine overview of the Conqueror’s life that can be read profitably by anyone a seeking an account of it that explains what he did and when he did it, but one that suffers somewhat when compared to the efforts of some of William’s other biographers.

Review of “William the Conqueror” by David Bates

When David Charles Douglas published his biography of William the Conqueror in 1964, its impact was such that effectively it cleared the field for over a generation. Apart from Maurice Ashley’s biography for the “Kings and Queens of England” series, which was aimed at a broader audience and which drew heavily upon Douglas’s work, nobody would attempt a new biography of William for a quarter of a century. In that time, however, historians of the era continued their work, steadily and gradually expanding our knowledge in ways that warranted revisiting the subject of William’s life.

Among the new generation of scholars who built upon Douglas’s work was David Bates. Over the course of a peripatetic career Bates taught at the University of Wales, the University of Glasgow, and the University of London, before ending his academic career at the University of East Anglia. During that time he wrote nearly a half-dozen books on the Normans, which were grounded in his extensive archival labors across France. This background made him a logical choice to write a biography of William, which he was first asked to do in the 1980s. Like Ashley’s book, it’s a work intended for the lay reader rather than the specialist, yet in writing it Bates also incorporated the new learning on William, providing the first true update of William’s life since Douglas’s masterpiece.

The result is a book that managed the impressive feat of building on Douglas’s work while making it accessible to the broader public. Bates begins with a chapter designed to give readers a quick introduction to the Anglo-Norman medieval world, one that explains the differences the modern world and that of a millennia ago. It’s one of the best contextual chapters that I have yet read for this project, and Bates follows it with three more describing William’s early years as duke of Normandy and the duchy he ruled. While lacking the detail of Douglas’s coverage on this period of William’s life it provides a far more comprehensible narrative of it, one that is mindful of the limits of the sources and does not speculate too far past them.

The bulk of the book, however, is focused on the Conquest and William’s time on the English throne. This was similar to the focus of Ashley’s book, and like that other work it’s to be expected for a book published in a series on the lives of English monarchs. Yet Bates makes it clear that once England was pacified William spent more time in Normandy dealing with matters there than he did in his new acquisitions. Again, the level of detail is nowhere close to that of Douglas’s work, yet Bates compensates with an incredibly economical approach that conveys exactly what the reader needs to know, with little elaboration or extraneous detail. It suggests a confidence born of his expertise, and it makes for a highly efficient narrative.

Nowhere are Bates’s strengths better displayed than in his chapter describing William and his family. Character sketches are extraordinarily difficult in a medieval biography, as the lack of information forces modern writers to parse what details survived to infer what their subject was like. Bates manages to do this in a way that defined William as a person for me. Given his adherence to his sources it’s an especially remarkable feat, one that further boosted my regard for his book.

Bates’s book has been reprinted several times since its’ original publication in 1989, and after reading it it’s easy to see why. Though it lacks the depth of Douglas’s longer work it’s a fine biography of the Conqueror, one that surpasses Ashley’s earlier book and even manages to better Douglas in a few key respects. While it remains to be seen how Bates improves on it with his more recent study of William’s life for the Yale English Monarchs series, I’m looking forward to it with considerable anticipation. If this book is any indication of the quality of Bates’s subsequent scholarship it will be a truly impressive achievement.

Review of “William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England” by David C. Douglas

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that David Charles Douglas is the godfather of modern studies of William the Conqueror. A longtime scholar of Norman history who taught at the University of Bristol, Douglas authored and edited a number of books on the era, all of which reflect his vast knowledge of the subject and his command of the available documents on it. His biography of William was written near the end of his long career, and embodies his many years of study in the field.

Douglas divides his examination of William’s life into four parts. The first two concentrate on William’s rule over Normandy, addressing the political history of his duchy until 1060 before turning to detail the constitutional and ecclesiastical structures within it. These are very Norman- and Franco-centric, with only occasional reference to their subsequent legacy for England. This aspect is more fully developed in the third and fourth parts of the book, with the third part describing the establishment of the Anglo-Norman kingdom while the final one describes the constitutional arrangements and ecclesiastical history of the joint realm.

This structure points to Douglas’s main focus, which is on William’s activities and his achievements. It isn’t until the end of the book that he gives the reader an assessment of William’s personality by describing his character based on the few sources available to do so. Instead Douglas spends the bulk of the book concentrating on what William did, understanding why he did it, and explaining its impact on subsequent developments. Not only does this approach help explain how William rose from such relatively unpromising circumstances to become the ruler of England, but it provides the basis for his assessment of William’s larger significance to medieval English history.

Douglas makes it clear that while William’s fame is based on the Conquest, as duke of Normandy he had established his greatness as a ruler long before then. The first part of the book is focused on William’s struggle to survive, detailing the circumstances that shaped William’s approach to governance. Douglas shows how it was through these trials that William proved himself as a ruler while developing Normandy into a duchy powerful enough to stage the sort of expedition necessary to successfully conquer England. He stresses as well the interconnections between the two realms, showing why a regional French ruler would view the conquest of England as not only desirable but necessary.

The Conquest that Douglas describes is as much a triumph of politics and diplomacy as it is of military strategy. Noting the difficulties of subduing such a large kingdom he emphasizes the underlying insecurity of William’s rule during his two decades on the throne and the ongoing project of securing Norman rule within England. While detailing the Normanization of English institutions and the installation of Normans in English offices, he also argues for a surprising degree of continuity which aided this process and helped to stabilize William’s achievement. That this achievement was seen as his was best illustrated by the trepidation with which his death was met, as William’s subjects looked uncertainly into a future without his strong presence as both king and duke.

After reading Douglas’s book, it’s easy to see why it’s enjoyed the status it’s enjoyed since its initial publication over half a century ago. Erudite and well-reasoned, it provides its readers with a thorough understanding of William’s path to power and his considerable legacy to English history. Whether it can still be regarded today as the single best book on William the Conqueror remains to be seen, but judging by its endurance it remains a standard by which others are to be judged.

Review of “The Life and Times of William I” by Maurice Ashley

Up to this point, the majority of the biographies of English monarchs that I have read for my project were written specifically for a series produced by a publisher. The more of these I read, the more I wonder about the selection process that the editors employ in choosing authors for the various volumes. Oftentimes the choice seems an obvious one, as was probably the case of Frank Barlow with Edward the Confessor, or Richard Abels for one about Æthelred. With others, though, the author’s qualifications make their selection a little more puzzling. Were they the best choice, or simply the best one available?

I suspect that the latter might have been the case when Maurice Ashley was commissioned to write a volume on William the Conqueror for Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. Ashley’s background is a fascinating one: a graduate of Oxford, he worked as a literary assistant for Winston Churchill when the future prime minister wrote his biography of the Duke of Marlborough. This led to a distinguished career as a journalist and editor, during which he wrote a number of histories and biographies. While his credentials as a historian are impeccable, though, his training and focus for most of his career was as a historian of the 17th century. This would make him a natural choice to author a book on Charles I or James II, yet instead he was asked to write a biography of a monarch who reigned seven centuries earlier. It certainly makes for an odd fit between his specialty and the subject.

In some ways, however, it may have been an asset, as free from the lifetime immersion in his subject may have aided Ashley in writing a highly accessible introduction to his subject. Doing so involved familiarizing himself not just with 11th century England but contemporary Normandy as well, and after months spent focused on the Anglo-Saxon world I found it to be a refreshing change of pace. I took a lot from Ashley’s chapter on William’s dukedom, and it certainly sharpened my desire to learn more about it.

Yet Ashley’s focus is understandably on the kingdom Duke William conquered. This he covers in four chapters, providing both a description of his realm and how William asserted his control over it. The most interesting of these chapters was his one on feudalism, as Ashley provides a clear explanation that nonetheless offers a nuanced description of it. Like his chapter on Normandy, it points to another topic that I expect will get more detailed coverage in the other biographies of William awaiting me, and one that I look forward to reading with much anticipation.

Though it may seem as though I found Ashley’s book dissatisfying, it was anything but. His well-illustrated volume does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide a comprehensible introduction to William and his era. Whether the foundation he provides is a firm one remains to be seen (though his reliance on Douglas’s book, which is the next stop on my tour through the literature, suggests that it is), but it certainly sets the standard for judging the other books that seek to make William’s world intelligible to the modern reader. I look forward to discovering if any of its counterparts can match it.

On to William the Conqueror!

William of Normandy with his brothers Odo and Robert. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

With William the Conqueror, my reading project reaches a milestone, as I transition from the Anglo-Saxon era of kings to those of the Norman dynasty. This is more than just a symbolic point, as from this point onward the source of external influence on England shifts away from Scandinavia and towards western Europe, a change of enduring significance for not just English history, but for that of Europe and indeed the world as well.

While this broadens the scope of the subjects that I will be reading about, it has other implications for my project as well. Until now the limited number of modern biographies of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs meant that it was possible for me to read all of them for the purposes of my assessment. This is going to become more difficult the further I go, as the number of biographies of any given monarch start to proliferate. This creates a dilemma: while I could try to read all of them it would make my project extremely tedious and a lot less enjoyable for me, yet reading multiple biographies of a monarch is the very point of this site.

As a result, while I will continue to read as many royal biographies as possible, I will start to do so more selectively. When faced with a greater number of biographies than I can reasonably manage, I will choose the ones I read based on three factors. The first is availability, as I will make it a point to read the most popularly known ones which are often the ones readers are most likely to encounter. The second is importance, as determined by the degree to which those biographies have been relied upon in shaping our understanding of that monarch. And finally, I will favor the ones that have been more recently published and thus are likely to incorporate new discoveries and interpretations of their reigns.

In selecting the ones for William, I came up with a list of a dozen biographies. The first one from this pool of titles is Maurice Ashley’s volume on William for Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. I chose it as my first foray into William’s life based on Richard Humble’s volume, which impressed me for the clarity of its account. I look forward to seeing if Ashley measures up to the bar Humble set in that respect.

Next I plan on reading David Charles Douglas’s William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact on England. It’s a notable book in several respects, as it was the inaugural volume of the English Monarchs series and a book that served as foundation for understanding William’s life for over a generation afterward. It will be interesting to see how well it holds up today.

After that I will turn to three more recent works. The first of these is David Bates’s 1989 biography of William, which has been republished in several editions since then. Though evidently geared towards the novice, I’m anticipating it for reasons that will soon be clear. Then it’s on to Peter Rex’s William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, which, if his other books are anything to go by, should be a good summary of his life and reign. I will follow that up with Marc Morris’s biography of William for the Penguin Monarchs series. This is the first of several of Morris’s books that I anticipate reading for this site, and I’m looking forward to this first sampling of his analysis and writing style.

Once I finish these more recent biographies I plan on turning my attention to some of the older works on William. The first of these is Frank Stenton’s 1908 book William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans. Stenton was a legendary Anglo-Saxon historian, and it will be interesting to see how well his century-old take on William has aged. After that I’m going to take on Hillaire Belloc 1933 biography of William, which I’m looking forward to primarily because of the reputation of its author. Then it’s on to three biographies by Thomas B. Costain, George Slocombe, and Elizabeth Luckock that were all written just before Douglas came out with his subject-defining work. Costain’s is also notable for being a work specifically aimed at younger readers, and I’m curious to read how William’s life was pitched for them.

Finally, I plan on wrapping up my exploration of biographies of William of Normandy with two recently published books about him. The first is by Mark Hagger, and seems to be geared towards a broader audience. The other is by David Bates, who wrote a successor to David Charles Douglas’s book on William for the (now Yale) English Monarchs series. The combination of Bates’s longtime familiarity with William and the high editorial standards set by the series makes this one an especially intriguing volume for me, and a fitting capstone to my extended exploration of the Conqueror’s life.

Just one book on . . . Harold II

I mentioned in my Just One Book post on Edward the Confessor that I thought it was surprising that there are so few modern biographies available about him. While I was surprised as well about the number of modern biographies available about Harold, it was for the opposite reason. Considering that he reigned for less than ten months and was then subjected to a decades-long campaign by his successors to disparage him and his achievements, I wasn’t expecting to find three works dedicated to his life and reign. No less fascinating to me is the range of interpretations contained in just these three works, giving anyone interested in learning about Harold their choice of an interpretive lens.

The oldest of these options is Piers Compton’s 1961 book Harold the King. It has much to recommend it in terms of readability, as to provides a straightforward description of its subject’s life within a narrative that is oftentimes dramatic. Yet Compton’s skill at storytelling does Harold a service, as it relies too uncritically on the sources from William’s reign, which were written with more of an eye towards shoring up a victor’s legitimacy than in fairly assessing a defeated king’s achievements. Because of this anyone seeking an introduction to Harold should steer well clear of it.

A similar warning is required for Ian W. Walker’s Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King. Unlike Compton, Walker employs his sources with the skepticism they deserve. Yet instead of seeking balance Walker instead errs too far in the other direction, interpreting Harold’s life in a way better suited for a defense counsel’s brief than a balanced historical analysis. While it’s very useful as a corrective for Compton’s work, ideally it shouldn’t be anyone’s starting point for learning about Harold.

By comparison to both Compton’s and Walker’s books Peter Rex’s biography of Harold offers the best of both worlds. Though not quite as entertaining as Compton’s narrative, it’s still provides a nicely readable account of Harold’s life that is sympathetic to its subject without being uncritical. These merits alone help to explain why it’s dominated the field since it was first published a decade and a half ago, and suggest that it will likely remain the go-to account for anyone seeking to learn about Harold for years to come. For anyone looking to read just one book about Harold, it’s really no contest – Peter Rex’s is the one to get.

Review of “Harold the King” by Piers Compton

Piers Compton has what is quite possibly the most interesting background of any author of a royal biography that I have yet read. A former Catholic priest, he was the literary editor of a Catholic weekly for nearly a decade and a half, and he wrote a number of popular histories and biographies. He is best known, however, for his last book: a gossipy work claiming that the Freemasons had infiltrated the Catholic Church and, through Vatican II, were undermining it from within. Because of all this, I picked up his biography of Harold with a wide range of expectations as to what I would find in it.

And somehow, Compton managed to exceed every one of them. His book provides a readable narrative of Harold’s life that examines it in three parts, describing in succession his life prior to becoming king, his reign up to his victory over Harald Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge, and William’s invasion and Harold’s death at Hastings. Though imbalanced chronologically, it does favor the aspects of Harold’s biography that mattered most, and I especially appreciated that Compton waited until the second part of the book to provide his description of the England that Harold inherited. It’s an approach to the material that helps keep the author’s focus squarely on the monarch, and I’m surprised that more biographers of the kings of the era haven’t adopted it.

Yet as well as Compton tells the story of Harold’s life, from the start I found myself taking issue with much of what he had to say about it. Part of the problem is the authorial license Compton employed to evoke the scenes of Harold’s life, which often provides a degree of detail more likely to come from his imagination than from any of the surviving sources. A more serious issue, though, is his interpretation of the events of the era, which relies on an uncritical reading of the sources and frequently resorts to stereotypes that were going out of fashion even when Compton wrote his book. He gives particular weight to the oath William extracted from Harold in 1064, emphasizing its sacredness and largely glossing over the question as to whether the circumstances invalidated it.

That Compton gives this oath such weight reflects what distinguishes his biography the most from the others on Harold. Throughout his book Compton presents developments from the faith-based perspective of the people of the era, describing matter-of-factly the signs of God’s disfavor with Harold and the divine intervention that made possible the Normans’ passage across the English Channel. While this approach is one that a reader is more likely to find in a work written in the tenth century than one from a millennia later, more importantly it’s another reflection of Compton’s a too-credulous acceptance of the post-Conquest account perpetuated by the Normans, which has long been understood as concerned more with bolstering William’s legitimacy by emphasizing his divine right to the English throne than on proving an accurate account of events. In depicting Harold as the king upon whom God turned His back for violating a sworn oath, Compton unknowingly plays right into this.

Undoubtedly William would have approved of Compton’s unquestioning reliance on the Norman interpretation of events in telling Harold’s tale. For a modern biography of Harold, however, it is a fatal flaw. As entertaining as it might be to read, his book provides a portrait of its subject that was already outdated when it was first published nearly sixty years ago. Because of this, and with two more modern biographies of Harold from which to choose, there is no reason why readers today shouldn’t give Compton’s distorted account of the king a hard pass.