Review of “Edgar, King of the English, 959-75” by Peter Rex

For anyone interested in reading a biography of Edgar – Æthelstan’s grandnephew and king of England for over decade and a half – the pickings are slim, to put it mildly. There is exactly one modern biography of Edgar, which was written by Peter Rex, a former Head of History at Princethorpe College who in his retirement became a prolific author of books on the late Anglo-Saxon era. In one sense this is surprising: Edgar had a relatively long reign for an Anglo-Saxon king, and one that by modern standards was a successful one. In an era famous for Viking raids and extended conflicts with Scandinavian conquerors, Edgar became known as “the Peaceful” or “the “Peaceable” for the lack of conflict during his time on the throne.

The irony, as Rex notes in his book, is that Edgar’s very success results in a lack of information about him and his times. As he fought no wars “they cannot by described by the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, who turned instead to his religious activities,” yet even these passages requiring supplemental sources to fill in the details. For the scribes of the times to find your reign noteworthy, it seems, it helped to shed some blood.

That Edgar’s reign was so peaceful is all the more remarkable for how it started out. By contrast his older brother and predecessor Eadwig does not enjoy such a great reputation. Only fifteen when he assumed the throne in 955, within two years the notables in Mercia and Northumbria rejected Eadwig in favor of Edgar. On the surface this would be classified as a rebellion, yet the sources are unclear on this point and armed conflict was avoided in favor of a settlement that divided the kingdom in two roughly along the line of the Thames River. Because of this, Edgar reigned as king of Mercia and Northumbria for nearly three years before Eadwig’s death in 959 brought the rest of England under his control.

Rex’s account of Edgar’s reign is generally positive, reflecting as it does the sources available for it. And here Rex’s observation about the focus in those sources on the religious activities in his reign points to a bias that helps explain why his reign is viewed so positively. Edgar’s reign was notable for the reintroduction of Benedictine monasticism, which was spearheaded by three outstanding religious leaders: Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald. With Edgar’s support, over three dozen new monasteries and nunneries were established, an expansion that continued for a half-century after Edgar’s death. Given the predominance of religious records (the biographies of the three churchmen are important sources for the period) and the backing Edgar provided, it’s little surprise that his rule would be presented in a highly favorable light.

While Rex devotes a good deal of space to describing the religious reforms that took place during Edgar’s reign, he doesn’t neglect the other aspects of Edgar’s rule. Military institutions receive particular attention, as do the other tools of Edgar’s power, such as ceremony and the ruling classes. Rex examines these in a general fashion by going beyond their operations during Edgar’s time on the throne to discuss their development and functioning in tenth century England more generally. This certainly adds to the value of Rex’s book for those interested in the overall era, yet it also underscores the thinness of the extant sources about Edgar and his reign. In this respect Rex solves the problem caused by the absence of detailed information in the best way possible, but ultimately there is only so far what exists can be stretched.

The result underscores the point Christopher Brooke makes in his study of the Saxon monarchy about the problems facing biographers of Anglo-Saxon monarchs. And in this respect Rex’s solution is hardly unique, just one that is more focused on a few decades than Brooke’s older work. It results in a book that provides all that we know about a frustratingly elusive king within a useful primer for how government worked in 10th century England. Barring the discovery of some new collection or cache of documents it is likely to endure as a biography of Edgar, as well as an example of the limitations of the genre for the people of that era.

Just One Book On . . . Æthelstan

There are many reasons why I embarked on this project and set up this website. The most basic was my desire to learn more about England’s monarchs in a systematic way and one that forced me to stick through reading multiple books, which so far I have found very rewarding.

Another reason, though, is to answer a question that I often ask myself when I’m trying to select a book on a subject – namely, which is the one book to read on it. To me this is related to the question of the “best book,” but not necessarily the same thing: the best book on a subject may not necessarily be the most comprehensive one available or the most accessible work on the subject, but the one that does the best job of explaining its subject within its pages.

With that in mind, I decided that when I completed reading all of the books that I had selected to read I would try to ascertain for myself which is one book someone should read if they want to read a biography of a monarch. I do this with the caveat that my judgment is subjective and shouldn’t be treated as an effort to discourage anyone from reading any of the other books available about a monarch. But, to put it simply, if I’m asked which one biography someone should read about a monarch, which one should it be?

With Æthelstan, the choice is complicated by the fact that the two books I read about him are both fine studies of his life and times.  Of the two, Tom Holland’s biography definitely wins the prize for readability, as he demonstrates in it the talents that have made him such a highly-regarded author. As I mentioned in a previous post, given his background as an ancient historian he seemed a curious choice, but he fully vindicated his selection with an excellent overview of Æthelstan’s reign.

Yet when I consider which of the two is the best book to read on Æthelstan, I have to award the palm to Sarah Foot’s biography. Part of the reason is her creative solution to the problem of the scanty sources available for Æthelstan’s life, which she addresses nicely by expanding her study to consider the institution of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy more generally. Another is her analysis for his actions, which is informed nicely by her background on the period and avoids the trap of reading modern attitudes back on the past. That she does all this, though in a text that while not as narratively dramatic as Holland’s nonetheless explains Æthelstan’s life in clear prose that makes it easily understandable. So if you want to read just one biography of Æthelstan, Foot’s is the one to get.

Review of “Athelstan: The Making of England” by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s name is one that typically I associate with histories of the ancient Greek and Roman world written for a popular audience. Because of this, I was a little surprised when I first saw that he was writing a volume on Æthelstan for the “Penguin Monarchs” series, as it seemed a little outside of his scholarly bailiwick. My curiosity about his contribution grew while reading my earlier selections on the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and Sarah Foot’s biography on the king. Given what they wrote about him, I wondered what insights a scholar of ancient history might offer into Æthelstan’s life and career.

As I was reading his short book, I began to appreciate why the series’ editors selected Holland to write it. His writing contains more than a degree of flair, as instead of simply describing events he uses his prose to bring the past to life. Yet while occasionally it can border on cliché, Holland never strays from his material into imaginative reconstruction. The result is enjoyable in a way that doesn’t strain a reader’s credulity.

Holland’s scholarly faithfulness, though, forces him to address the same problem facing the other authors, which was how to write about Æthelstan with the limited resources available. His solution is similar to Humble’s, as he fits Æthelstan’s life within the history of 9th and 10th century Wessex. While Æthelstan disappears from Holland’s early pages, this decision helps him to explain the world in which Æthelstan grew up, showing what he inherited and clarifying what he built. Though his narrative lacks many of the insights that Foot’s more analytical approach provides, it provides a coherently chronological account of Æthelstan’s life that is not just informative but engaging as well.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that even a historian of Holland’s skills can achieve with his limited sources. While his book helps to situate Æthelstan’s achievement within the context of the realm-building undertaken by the House of Wessex during these decades, Æthelstan remains stubbornly elusive as a person. Here again Holland stops short of overt speculation, but the absence is a little incongruous in such a fluid and evocative text. In this respect, Holland simply underscores the basic problem facing any author attempting to write about the first king of England. While he succeeds in writing about Anglo-Saxon England in a way that brings the era to life, to do so for the person at the center of his book may well be impossible with the materials available to us. What he does offer is a great short introduction to Æthelstan that explains how he came to dominate England, but one that can only offer so much about who the king was, showing how he is a person who can elude even the most creative of historians.

Review of “Æthelstan: The First King of England” by Sarah Foot

Given all of the books that have been published about English monarchs over the years, it might be a little surprising that Sarah Foot’s 2011 biography of Æthelstan is the first modern attempt to provide an account of the life of the king who could first assert sovereignty over all of England. Why it has taken this long becomes clear from her prologue, as Foot explains the challenges posed by the slender amount of information available, one that compares unfavorably even with those available for Æthelstan’s grandfather, Alfred. Because of this, reconstructing Æthelstan’s life and personality for modern readers is effectively impossible.

Faced with this problem, Foot’s solution is to focus instead on Æthelstan’s roles as a 10th century Anglo-Saxon monarch. In a series of thematic chapters, she describes Æthelstan’s family, his court, his faith and relationship to the Catholic Church, his governance of his realm, and his conduct as a military leader. It’s an inspired choice, one that plays to the strengths of the available sources to describe the aspects of Æthelstan’s reign that truly mattered to both his dynasty and to English history. In a way it functions a lot like those clear diagrams of the systems of the human body that can be found in anatomy textbooks: each one stands alone in describing an important aspect of Æthelstan’s life, yet, when layered together, they combine provide an overview of what Æthelstan was like as a king.

The Æthelstan that emerges from Foot’s approach is a monarch who was an effective ruler in the times in which he reigned. Foot is especially good at explaining his behavior and his decisions within the context of his age, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in her examination of Æthelstan’s decision not to marry and have children. His choice invariably leads many modern readers to certain conclusions about Æthelstan’s sexuality, yet while not dismissing the possibility Foot points to the anachronistic flaw of considering the issue in those terms. With the succession of Anglo-Saxon kings less strictly determined by primogeniture than it would be in later centuries, Æthelstan likely faced little pressure to marry and produce an heir, while his considerable devotion to his faith would have made any decision not to marry one understandable to his peers.

Another consequence of this decision was that Æthelstan’s life was one in which men and masculine activities predominated. While Foot is careful in her use of her sources, she draws upon them creatively to offer a sense of with whom he spent his days and what they did with their time. As a result, she provides her readers a useful reconstruction of his activities during his reign, one that gives us the best impression possible of who Æthelstan was, even if the outline remains frustratingly vague. For most other monarchs the incompleteness of Foot’s portrait would be a criticism, but for her to have teased out what she has about Æthelstan from the limited sources available to us is an impressive accomplishment. While readers seeking a dramatic narrative about a warrior king will likely be disappointed by her deconstructive approach to her subject’s life, her biography is a must-read for anyone interested in learning in detail about Æthelstan’s life or how the first monarch of England governed his realm.

Starting with Æthelstan

Æthelstan (l) presenting a book to Saint Cuthbert.

Now that I have finished reading the surveys of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy by Richard Humble and Christopher Brooke I can begin my focus on individual monarchs by starting with the available biographies of Æthelstan. He makes for a natural starting point in a number of respects: not only was he the first king of a united England, but he served as a model for English monarchs for centuries, thanks to his successes on the battlefield and his achievements both as a legal reformer and as a diplomat and statesman. His reputation is probably best reflected by the words of the 12th century writer William of Malmesbury, who declared that Æthelstan “cast all his predecessors into the shade by his piety, as well as the glory of all their triumphs, by the splendor of his own.”

For this reason, it is a little disappointing that there are only two modern Æthelstan biographies available to read. This made my choice of where to begin an easy one, though, as I decided to start with the older of the two books, Sarah Foot’s Aethelstan: The First King of England. As a volume of the Yale English Monarchs series – one that I expect I’ll become quite familiar with in the months to come – I have high expectations for the book in terms of its scholarship and level of analysis.

After that I will move on to Tom Holland’s Athelstan: The Making of England. Like Foot’s biography Holland’s book is part of a series on English monarchs – in his case, one of a collection of short studies recently issued by Penguin Books. As an author known primarily for his works about the classical world Holland seems a curious choice for an author of a biography of an Anglo-Saxon monarch, but given the reputation his books enjoy I expect that his contribution will be nothing less than readable.

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!