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. The it’s on to three biographies by Thomas B. Costain, George Slocombe, and Elizabeth Lucock 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.

Review of “Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King” by Ian W. Walker

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.

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.

On to Harold!

Harold being crowned king.
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

The year 1066 was one of those rare years in which England had three kings. It began with Edward the Confessor as their sovereign and ended it with William the Conqueror. Between them was Harold Godwinson, the son of the Earl Godwin and the contested inheritor of the throne when Edward died in January. Forced to defend his throne, he succeeded in repelling an assault by a Norwegian, Harald Hardrada, only to be defeated by the Normans at the battle of Hastings and killed in combat.

In the years following his victory, William engaged in an extensive propaganda campaign designed to discredit Harold and the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. With so few contemporary records of Harold – and with little benefit to be gained by deviating from the royal line – is it unsurprising that there is not much in the way of materials about Harold’s reign on which to base a biography, and much of that is presented to portray him in the worst possible light.

Nevertheless, there are three authors who have used what is available to provide readers with modern biographies of Harold. These I plan to read in reverse chronological order, starting with Peter Rex’s 2005 book Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King. After reading his biographies on Edgar and Edward, I’m excited to read his take on Harold, which if it measures up to his earlier works will be both revealing and well-written.

After that I will turn to Ian Walker’s Harold: The Doomed Anglo-Saxon King. This predates Rex’s book by nearly a decade, and looks to be as much of an extensively researched analysis of Harold’s life and reign as Rex’s. The comparison between the two should prove interesting.

The last biography of Harold I will read is Piers Compton’s Harold the King, which was originally published in 1961. A prolific author, Compton write this book at a time when few historians were interested in studying Harold’s reign Compton undertook a biography that remained the only modern work on him for the next thirty-five years. I’m curious to see the result, as well as learning why Compton was inspired to write about him.

Just one book on . . . Edward the Confessor

Considering his importance, it’s a little surprising that there are so few modern biographies available about Edward the Confessor. While there are a couple coming out soon (which I will review at some point down the road), someone interested in reading something about Edward the Confessor today does not have a lot of options. That being said, the ones available offer the most diverse selection of books available for any monarch of the era.

Two of the options are especially unusual, as they are the closest thing we have or are ever likely to have in terms of contemporary biographies of Edward. Unfortunately, while these make both the Life of King Edward and Aelred of Rievaulx’s The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor indispensable as source material for both his life and his medieval reputation as a saint, both were written for an audience of people already familiar with the world in which Edward lived, and consequently neither works very well as a modern-day biography. For this reason, only someone with a need to study Edward in-depth would have cause to seek them out.

By contrast Peter Rex’s King & Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor offers the exact opposite of these books, being a well-written modern biography of the king that is fantastic as an introduction to both Edward and the kingdom which he ruled. The more biographies of English monarchs I read, the more I appreciate Rex’s ability to explain his subject in an accessible and interesting way. It’s definitely the one I would recommend for anyone unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon history who is seeking a starting point for studying the era.

Yet as good as it is, as a biography of Edward in terms of quality and depth of analysis it cannot measure up to Frank Barlow’s superb book on the king. This is no slight on Rex, as Barlow has set an incredibly high bar thanks to the depth of knowledge about Edward that he brought to his subject and his analytical insights into the Confessor’s reign. When I first listed the books on Edward that I was planning to read, I speculated whether there were so few biographies of him because of the quality of Barlow’s book or because of the lack of material with which to write the biography. After reading it for myself, I’m inclined to think that it’s the former, as it would be an intimidating prospect to surpass Barlow’s achievement. If you’re looking for to read just one book on Edward the Confessor, his is the one to get.

Review of “King and Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor ” by Peter Rex

Peter Rex’s King and Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor is not just the fourth biography of its subject that I have read, it is the second of four biographies by this incredibly prolific historian that I will be reading for this site. As the solitary biographer of Edgar, Edward’s grandfather, Rex pretty much owned the field, so reading this book meant that for the first time I had the ability to evaluate his work compared to that of other scholars.

Given that he wrote this in a field dominated by Barlow’s superb biography the bar for Rex is fairly high. He acknowledges this in the very first paragraph of his book by noting the passage of nearly four decades since its publication in 1970 and the amount of work that had been done on Edward’s reign since then. It’s a fair argument and one that I can appreciate, but that Rex felt the need to make the point speaks volumes about the shadow Barlow’s book casts over the field.

Yet it is difficult to see much evidence that Rex’s book embodies a new or even significantly different account of Edward’s life and times. While his endnotes provide evidence that he uses new material, the picture of Edward’s reign doesn’t differ in significant ways from Barlow’s book. Rex provides much less in the way of detail, preferring instead a summation of events and their context. Much as in his Edgar biography, Rex broadens his focus in several chapters to explain the royal institutions of the era and the resources of the crown. As is often the case in these chapters, Edward recedes to the background, lost in the wide-angle scope of the coverage.

What can be regarded as a weakness compared to Barlow’s book is a strength in another respect, however, as Rex provides a more accessible introduction to his subject. With his survey of Edward’s life and the chapters providing a useful summation of the institutions of his monarchy, it’s a far better starting point than Barlow’s book to anyone new to the subject. I suspect Rex’s background may be a factor in this, as his years as a history teacher at an independent day school probably helped him to understand what a novice to 11th century English history would need to know to understand Edward’s life and his role as an Anglo-Saxon monarch. This makes his book a more approachable account than any of the other biographies of Edward that I have read.

These qualities make Rex’s book especially worthwhile reading for anyone who is seeking an entry point to Edward’s life or the late Anglo-Saxon monarchy. That it does not supplant Barlow’s book is not a mark against it, given the quality of the older book and the lack of any really different take on his life. Instead it works quite well for anyone seeking a first book on Edward, as well as one that incorporates decades of more recent material to flesh out aspects of the Confessor’s life.

Review of “Life of St. Edward the Confessor” by Aelred of Rievaulx

Hagiography is defined simply as the life of a saint. Though today more often used pejoratively to describe overly idealized accounts of people’s lives, it still serves as a label for the genre of books that arose during the early Christian era about pious men and women produced to provide moral and spiritual examples for their audience. Never having read hagiography before, Aelred of Rievaulx’s Life of Saint Edward was my introduction to the form, and I knew it would prove interesting reading for this reason if for no other. But it proved even more fascinating for the contrast it provided with other accounts of his life, both for what it featured and how it portrayed the major figures in his life.

Aelred’s account of Edward’s life rests heavily on the Vita Eadwardi regis, which Aelred rewrote so as to emphasize the Christian elements of Edward’s life. Throughout the book he recounts several visions and cures involving Edward (both during the king’s life and after his death) and makes repeated assertions of Edward’s inherent goodness, to the point where his subject comes across as something of a holy fool. Nowhere is this better demonstrated then in the famous anecdote about Edward’s reaction to the thief who was stealing his treasure, in which the king declared “He has more need of it than we do.” Such a statement may underscore the personality one might expect a saint to possess, but it certainly flies in the face of the Edward that Barlow describes in his book.

Given Edward’s saintliness and his chaste marriage to a dignified woman, the problem arises for Aelred as to who to blame for the less than saintly aspects of his reign. Here the Godwins come to the rescue, serving as the villains of Aelred’s narrative. Earl Godwin is the most prominent of the foils, suffering what Aelred deems a “miserable” death for his sins. While Godwin’s son Harold fares a little better, Aelred follows the Norman portrayal of him as a usurper, with even the credit for his victory over Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge diminished by Edward’s promise of victory to an abbot in a vision prior to the battle. Even after his death, it seems, Edward proved himself to be a better king than his successor.

While it may be unfair to judge Aelred’s book by modern standards, in the end it shouldn’t serve as anyone’s basis for understanding Edward as a person or his policies as king. As Jerome Barton, the book’s translator, acknowledges, its main value today is primarily as a historical source about later medieval devotion. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in learning how people in the later Middle Ages saw Edward it’s an invaluable work, one that as a true hagiography is unique among biographies of British monarchs.

Review of “The Life of King Edward Who Rests at Westminster,” by Anon.

When Frank Barlow published his biography of Edward the Confessor in 1970, it was not his first contribution to studies of the king, Six years earlier, he published a translation of a much older Latin work, Vita Eadwardi regis qui apud Westmonasterium requiescut, or The Life of King Edward, who rests at Westminster. Written in the early 12th century, it is attributed to “an anonymous monk of Saint-Bertin” whose identity is unknown to us today. Though the text was likely revised and portions of it are missing, it offers nonetheless a rare near-contemporaneous account of Edward’s life and reign.

Yet Barlow does more than simply provide a translation of the work. In a substantial introduction taking up nearly half of the book, he summarizes Edward’s life, recounts the history of the Vita Eadwardi, situates it within contemporary literary traditions, and considers the evidence for the two monks, Goscelin and Folcard, whom he regards as the most likely candidates as the anonymous author. It is scholarly work of the highest order, and it does an excellent job of giving the reader a context in which to understand the Vita Eadwardi and the circumstances in which it was written. He supplements this with four appendices which detail the textual relationship between the Vita Eadwardi and two other contemporary historical works, subsequent interpretations of Edward’s Prophecy of the Great Tree, a biography of Goscelin and list of his works, and a history of the cult of Edward that anticipates his later work on it for his biography of the king

Sandwiched between these two sections is the text of the Vita Eadwardi itself, which Barlow divides into two parts, designated as books i and ii. The first book is the more straightforwardly historical account of the two of them, and presents a number of different episodes from Edward’s life. The Godwins feature prominently in them, which Barlow notes reflects the patronage of Queen Edith – to whom the work is dedicated – and suggests some of the original intentions of the book when it was first commissioned. The second book is an account of Edward’s religious life, and includes accounts of the miraculous cures attributed to Edward as king, as well as a pair of visions he had. The text itself is in both Latin and in English, with the Latin on the left-hand page and Barlow’s English translation on the right, which adds to the value of the book and provides Latin-proficient readers with a handy means of checking Barlow’s tradition with the original text.

All of this makes Barlow’s work an indispensable resource for anyone studying Edward’s life, especially for those seeking to understand how he was viewed by his contemporaries. The impressive part is that Barlow even makes the Vita Eadwardi work as a biography for a modern reader who picks it up without any real background knowledge about Edward or his times. It really is a remarkable effort, and while people today may prefer a more up-to-date work in terms of interpretation and accessibility, it can definitely be recommended for someone seeking something a little different from the norm for English royal biography.