Review of “Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King” by Peter Rex

Anyone seeking to assess the life of Harold Godwinson faces a challenge right from the outset. While Harold enjoyed a visible presence in English life in the middle of the 11th century, after his death most of his activities were filtered through the lens of Norman propaganda, propagated to denigrate his character and delegitimize his brief tenure on the throne. Among English monarchs, only Richard III faced such a concerted campaign of historical demolition, though the greater abundance of documentation from the 15th century makes it easier to develop alternate perspectives on his reign.

This is one of the reasons why I looked forward to reading Peter Rex’s biography of Harold. Though written early in his post-retirement burst of publishing, his accounts of the lives of Edgar and Edward the Confessor demonstrated his familiarity with both the era and the source material on it. I trusted that he would appreciate the difficulties in giving Harold his due, and that he would do justice to his subject.

In this I was not disappointed. Rex’s account is as fair-minded an evaluation of Harold as one could hope for. This becomes apparent in his early chapters, in which he provides the 11th century political context and a brief history of the Godwine family. While these serve as more of a general history of the period, they help to explain the complicated and sometimes treacherous world in which Harold was raised. This comes into play in the later chapters when Rex addresses the question of the succession directly. Here he makes a convincing argument that Harold was Edward’s clear choice to succeed him, and that the claims of both Harald Hardrada and William were grounded more in opportunism than anything else.

As valuable as these chapters are, however, the real worth of the book comes in Rex’s assessment of Harold as a ruler. Here he supplements his analysis of Harold’s truncated reign by looking at his more extensive (if less well documented) activities as earl. From them he makes the case for Harold as a shrewd politician and capable leader, who was an effective servant for Edward and who showed promise as a king in his own right. Rex’s description of Harold’s activities as a military commander in Wales were especially interesting, as they point to a clear assessment of what was the most successful long-term strategy for expanding England’s domain. From it Rex implies that had Harold survived his challengers his reign would likely have been a remarkable one.

Instead Harold enjoyed only nine months on the throne before his death in the battle of Hastings. The thinness of his record as king makes any assessment speculative at best, but even setting that aside Rex does a fine job of assessing Harold using what little evidence survives. It’s a work that measures up to the standard he set with his other works on the rulers of the era, giving us a solid account of his path to the throne and his efforts to defend it. While Harold himself may not have lived long enough to demonstrate what kind of king he might have been, Rex has written a biography of him that can stand credibly alongside those of the rulers of his era who had.

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