One of the things that I did not appreciate until I sat down to write up my review of Ian Walker’s biography of Harold is that all three modern biographies of him share one thing in common: all of them were written by non-academic historians. Whereas Peter Rex was a retired day school teacher and Piers Compton a former Catholic priest who worked as an editor for a Catholic weekly newspaper, Ian W. Walker was a civil servant with the Scottish Office who wrote history books in his spare time, most of which were about aspects of English and Scottish history during the High Middle Ages. His life of Harold was his only foray into biography, and when it was originally published in 1997 it was the first book about the king in over three decades.
Yet for all of his unorthodox background as an author of medieval histories, Walker employs a scholarly approach towards his subject. This is evident from the start, as his introduction provides a perceptive analysis of the available sources on Harold’s life and reign, explaining the biases they possess and weighing their utility in understanding Harold’s life. It’s an extraordinarily helpful exercise here, not just as a demonstration of the labor that Walker brings to his book, but by laying bare the judgments he is making about them.
From there Walker launches into a Godwine-centric survey of the course of 11th century English history. His presentation details the Godwins’ rise over three generations from historical obscurity to the throne of one of Europe’s leading monarchies. He bases this both in the documentary record and on the scholarship on the era, which he employs to the fullest extent available. Unfortunately, this does not always get Walker to where he wants to go, leading him to fill in the gaps with supposition and speculation. Though his assessments are reasonable, they do show the thinness of the available record on his subject.
The heart of Walker’s book is a five-chapter examination of Harold’s life prior to becoming king and the question of his claim to the throne. While it’s filled with a good deal of interesting information, it’s also here where his partisanship towards Harold becomes apparent. Though it’s of a piece with his assessment of his father (whose flight into exile Walker regards as an act of statesmanship), it becomes more evident with his direct engagement with Harold’s own life. Nowhere is this better demonstrated in his account of Harold’s assumption of the crown, which Walker argues was a selfless decision motivated to keep William off of the throne. It’s an excessively charitable interpretation in a book peppered with them, and it conveys an impression that Walker’s goal was less to write a biography of Harold than a defense of him.
Such an approach is not without its merits considering the understandable bias against Harold in the Norman-centric sources. And it does not necessarily disqualify many of Walker’s conclusions about Harold, especially with regards to his judgment in response to the military situation he faced during his brief reign on the throne. But in does limit the book’s usefulness as an assessment of its subject. While it’s unlikely that Harold was the sinner that William’s chroniclers sought to portray him as, neither was he the Anglo-Saxon martyr of Walker’s too-favorable portrayal. In that respect his book can serve as a useful counter-balance to that traditional bias, but as a measured assessment of Harold’s character and achievements it falls short.