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.

Review of “Edward the Confessor” by Frank Barlow

Frank Barlow was one of the most distinguished medievalists of his era. A prolific author, he wrote and translated over a dozen other books, including biographies of William Rufus and Thomas Becket and an anonymous account of Edward the Confessor’s life originally written in the early 12th century. Over the course of his career he was elected to both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and he capped it all off by being appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his work as a historian. Reading his biography of Edward, it’s easy to see how he earned his accolades. Not only is it among the best books that I have read so far for this project, it’s one of the best historical biographies I have ever read, period.

After beginning his book by describing the world into which Edward was born, Barlow takes his readers through Edward’s early years abroad, through the circumstances that led to his ascension to the throne in 1042, to his twenty-four year reign as king. Throughout the book Barlow is careful not to go beyond the evidence, and he is candid about the gaps in what we know about Edward’s life. But he makes the best use of the available sources (which are more extensive than they are for most of Edward’s predecessors) to explain Edward’s achievements as king, particularly in his management of the Godwin family and the challenges they posed during the first decade of his reign.

What makes Barlow’s book stand out from the others that I’ve read, though, is his ability to use his materials to bring his subject to life in his narrative. Barlow gives his reader a real sense of Edward’s personality, one that penetrates through the hagiography and the misconceptions it generated to show him for the ordinary person that he was. While giving Edward due credit for his achievements as king, in the end he concludes that he was a mediocrity lacking in distinction beyond surviving on the throne.

How this mediocrity became a saint is the subject of the penultimate chapter of the book. In it Barlow identifies the intermittent development of Edward’s saintly reputation in the decades after his death and notes the agendas of the people who cultivated that image opportunistically into a figure worthy of canonization. How they achieved it makes for an account of religious politics that benefits enormously from Barlow’s matter-of-fact retelling of how it happened.

The result is a sober, evenhanded account that brushes past the image of the saintly king to show how Edward reclaimed the crown and survived nearly a quarter-century on the throne. In some respects reading it first may be unfair to the other Edward biographies awaiting me, as thanks to its measured analysis and clear judgments this will be a very difficult book to match in terms of quality, much less surpass.

Review of “Harthacnut: the Last Danish King of England” by Ian Howard

Harthacnut is among the more unjustly forgotten kings in English history. The younger son of Cnut the Great, he succeeded his father as king of Denmark upon Cnut’s death in 1035. While also due some portion of the English throne, events in Denmark prevented him from traveling there, allowing his half-brother Harold (known as Harold Harefoot) to take control over England, which he ruled from 1037 until his death in 1040. With Harold’s death Harthacnut asserted his claim over England, arriving with what amounted to an occupation force of Danes. Yet Harthacnut’s reign was brief, as he died just two years later while drinking a toast to a bride at a wedding.

Harthacnut’s brief but eventful reign is the stuff from which novels are written, yet to date only Ian Howard has undertaken a biography of him. Howard brings an unusual background to the project, as he became a scholar of 11th century Anglo-Danish history after retiring from a successful career in business. In this respect he reminded me of Peter Rex, another author of royal biographies who turned to writing books about the late Anglo-Saxon era only after a career spent on other concerns.

The similarity between the two men extends to the challenge they faced in writing their respective biographies, in terms of a relative lack of material from which to construct an account of their subject’s life and reign. Whereas Rex faced this challenge because of the years of peace enjoyed by Edgar, for Howard it’s one born in large part of the brevity of Harthacnut’s reign. For all of its excitement, Harthacnut simply didn’t have the time enjoyed by his father to leave much of a documented imprint.

An additional factor undoubtedly played a role as well, as Harthacnut was more of a Danish king than an English one. Howard makes this point subtly throughout his book, showing how the young prince spent more time in Denmark than in England and detailing how the recurring challenges he faced there as king forced him to postpone his plans to go to England be crowned until the temptation to assume the throne became too much for Harold Harefoot to resist. This he covers mainly through English-language materials, raising the question of whether a more complete account of Harefoot’s life would have been possible had Howard employed Danish sources to the extent that some of Cnut’s biographers did. While it’s doubtful it would be as useful for understanding Harthacnut’s rule over England, it would help in many ways to get a fuller understanding of him as a king.

One of the ways Howard fills this gap in his coverage created by Harthacnut’s absence from England is by detailing the events of the drawn-out succession crisis following Cnut’s death in 1035. Here he gives particular attention to Emma’s activities as queen mother, featuring her in a way that the biographers of her husbands Æthelred and Cnut did not. It was surprising to discover how central she was to the politics of the period given the background role she generally played in the previous works I had read about the monarchs of the period. It definitely piqued my interest in her, and I plan on following up at some point with a biography focused on her rather than on one of her husbands or her sons.

Yet Howard’s coverage of Emma only highlights just how little there is for the biographer to say about Harthacnut’s time as England’s ruler. His efforts in this respect are commendable, as they give us the sort of biographical study all too often lacking for monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon era. Hopefully it is one that can inspire further study, particularly of his rule in Denmark and the broader perspectives that can offer about Harthacnut as a king. Until then, though, Howard’s useful but somewhat limited study stands alone for anyone searching for a book about this understudied monarch.

Review of “Cnut: Emperor of the North” by M. J. Trow

One of the things that distinguishes M. J. Trow’s Cnut: Emperor of the North is that of the five Cnut biographies I have read it’s the only one written by someone who is not an academic. Meirion James Trow is a former secondary school teacher who, in addition to writing several books on various historical subjects, is the author of over two dozen crime novels, including a series centered on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade.

Given Trow’s experience as a writer it wasn’t a surprise to discover that his account of Cnut is not just a readable book about the king but one of the most accessible books I have read for this entire project. This isn’t just in terms of Trow’s style, which is straightforward and clear, but his approach to his subject as well. Rather than simply focus on Cnut, Trow begins by chronicling England’s relations with the Vikings in the decades before Cnut’s arrival, after which he focuses on Cnut’s father Sweyn Forkbeard and his activities in the kingdom. It provides an excellent background to the period for anyone unfamiliar with the subject, and it’s one of the book’s great strengths.

The problem, though, is that Trow’s narrative never fully coheres around Cnut. It takes Trow nearly a third of the book to get to Edmund Ironside’s death and Cnut’s consolidation of control, at which point the author spends a chapter describing his new realm. The second half of Trow’s book is a series of primarily thematic chapters in which he examines Cnut’s religious activities, his lawmaking, activities in Scandinavia, and so on. It’s an approach similar to Lawson’s book, and like Lawson’s book much of the focus is lost on Cnut himself, making it more about the times in which he lived.

This seems in part a consequence of Trow’s sources. While drawing from a range of published works about Cnut and his era, he relies exclusively on English-language histories and English translations of primary source materials. He is especially dependent on Laurence Larson and M. K. Lawson’s previous biographies of Cnut, which he references frequently and quotes from repeatedly. While he makes good use of these materials, they leave a sense that Trow is heavily dependent upon them for his understanding of Cnut and has nothing especially new to say about his subject.

Taken together, these issues shape the limits of what Trow accomplishes with his book. More a Cnut-centric history of 11th century England than a true biography of him, it’s an excellent introduction to the era for anyone new to the subject, but one that should be supplemented by more in-depth works about Cnut’s life and reign that have been written before and since.

Review of “Canute the Great, 995(circ)-1035” by L. M. Larson

One of the things that I’ve learned as a result of my reading project is just how much excellent research has been undertaken about Anglo-Saxon England over the past several decades by historians and archaeologists. Their work to excavate sites, edit historical documents, and publish their results have done a lot to make possible many of the biographies that I have read for this site. Without their labors, there simply wouldn’t be as much to read about the kings of 10th and 11th century England that we have today.

Yet for all of the scarcity of biographies of Anglo-Saxon monarchs before then there were a few published before the recent research that make our relatively rich selection of choices possible. Among this scant handful is a biography of Cnut written by Laurence Marcellus Larson, a Norwegian-American historian who taught at the University of Illinois and who authored a range of books on U.S., British, and early Scandinavian history. His book was published in 1911 as part of a series entitled “Heroes of the Nation” that sought to tell the stories of “representative historical characters about whom have gathered the great traditions of the nations to which they belonged, and who have been accepted, in many instances, as types of the several National ideas.” Based on that description I was expecting that I what I was getting was a heroic celebration of Cnut; what I found instead was a book that provided an impressively well-developed description of his life and reign.

Larson begins his book with a chapter covering Cnut’s background and the Jelling dynasty. This was especially welcome for the information it provided on Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut’s father and a king of England for whom biographical treatments are nonexistent. From there Larson moves on to discuss the two invasions by the Danes and Cnut’s conflict with Edmund Ironside, before settling into a narrative account of Cnut’s reign and the major events associated with it. His book made for a sharp contrast with the more recent biographies I read, as Larson provides a less analytical and more descriptive account than the authors of the other Cnut biographies. Larson’s approach may be a little old-fashioned academically speaking, but it did establish for me a sense of the timeline of Cnut’s reign more easily than did the others.

As I read it, though, I was struck by the sources Larson relied on for his details. As a scholar of early Scandinavia, Larson is well versed in the skaldic sources and other records of the period. What’s missing from his book is the archaeological evidence that might confirm, embellish, or qualify many of the details they contain. Larson is up front about the limits of his sources, and he frequently qualifies his statements about the facts because of them. Yet this judiciousness continually underscored for me how much more we know about Cnut’s times thanks to the scholarly labors undertaken in the century since Larson published his book, the fruits of which were evident throughout the other Cnut biographies I read.

Larson can hardly be faulted for not knowing what was at that time undiscovered, but it does point to the core limitation of his book. While still valuable for its narrative structure, particularly in terms of its coverage of Cnut’s forbearers, it can only give us a partial picture of what we know today about Cnut and the world in which he lived.

Review of “Cnut the Great” by Timothy Bolton

One of the challenges I have with some of the books I am reading for this site is approaching them without expectations. I’m starting to recognize my need to address this, especially as it’s one that I expect will grow over time as I become familiar with certain authors and series and develop assumptions that apply to any related volumes that I read. I expect this to be especially true with the biographies in the Yale English Monarchs series. The successor to the English Monarchs series started by the University of California Press in the 1960s, its volumes are coming to represent the gold standard for me in terms of studies of English monarchs, thanks to the high level of scholarship and editorial quality that they display. This proved as true for Timothy Bolton’s biography of Cnut as it did for Sarah Foot’s study of Æthelstan and Levi Roach’s account of Æthelred’s life and times.

As the author of an earlier study on Cnut’s empire Bolton comes to the task of writing a biography of the king already well-versed in his subject and the context of the period, all of which helps to inform his study of the man. This comes across in his introduction, in which he addresses the challenges of writing a biography of Cnut. This was especially interesting reading for me, given all of the previous books I’ve read on Anglo-Saxon monarchs, as not only does he briefly recount the modern historiography of Cnut and provides a description of the extant documentary, archaeological, and literary materials for any study of his life, but he includes as well a meditation on the art of biography that is one of the best things I have read for my project and defined well his approach to his subject.

From there Bolton turns his attention to Cnut himself. He breaks down the king’s life  into three distinct stages, the first of which, which encompasses Cnut’s life prior to his assumption of the throne, provided the examination of his Danish background that I have sought ever since I started reading about him. Here Bolton spends a considerable amount of space simply detailing the information contained in the available sources and explaining what it reveals, which I appreciated greatly for the understanding it provided into how he assessed the evidence and came to the conclusions he did. While he qualifies many of his judgments, Bolton is refreshingly open about this and never puts more weight on his sources than they can bear.

With the Danish invasions of 1013 and 1016 Cnut embarked on what Bolton views as the second phase of his life, which encompassed his first twelve years on the English throne. Here he details the range of Cnut’s efforts to establish a foundation for his reign. This was an active time during which Cnut worked not just to secure his hold on England but remained active in Scandinavian politics as well. Here as with his Danish background Bolton goes into much more into his role in Scandinavia than Lawson and Lavelle did in either of their books, showing how for Cnut his realm became an empire divided by a sea rather than two separate kingdoms. It’s a perspective that helped me appreciate how distorting an English-only focus on Cnut’s reign can be, even if it is the one best supported by the documentary record.

Cnut’s return to England in 1029 signals for Bolton the final stage of his life. After years spent coping with rebellions and war Cnut enjoyed a period of relative peace and security that lasted for the remainder of his reign. This gave him the time to focus on governing his realm, and Bolton sees in his activities and his choice of courtiers evidence of his development of a new Anglo-Scandinavian identity for his subjects. Bolton’s speculations as to what might have happened had this development continued for longer are especially intriguing, suggesting as they do a very different kingdom that might have developed had not the ties been disrupted by his death in 1035 and that of his sons soon afterward. It’s this combination of careful scholarship and plausible speculation that make Bolton’s biography such an excellent book. While Cnut’s personality rarely comes across in its pages, this reflects more the challenges inherent in writing about the lives of people who lived a millennia ago rather than any failing on the author’s part. What Bolton has accomplished is likely to be the standard by which all future Cnut biographies are judged, one that is a worthy addition to an already accomplished series.

Review of “Cnut: The North Sea King” by Ryan Lavelle

As I noted in my introduction to Cnut, I approached Ryan Lavelle’s contribution to the Penguin Monarchs series with a degree of anticipation shaped by his previous book on Æthelred. In it, Lavelle spent several pages describing his Scandinavian opponents, which I found very helpful in understanding the external threat facing that ill-advised king. Having devoted as much attention to the Scandinavians in a book on Æthelred as Lavelle did, I expected his biography on Æthelred’s Danish successor to provide more on his background than I had received in Lawson’s book.

I quickly discovered that this was not to be the case. After briefly recounting the famous tale of Cnut’s confrontation with the waves Lavelle skips over his subject’s early years to begin his account of Cnut’s life by detailing Cnut’s role in the conquest of England. While a little disappointing, it make sense considering the constraints Lavelle faces: for a series of compact books about the lives of English monarchs, narrative economy is undoubtedly an important concern. And Lavelle provides his readers with a very economical account of Cnut’s reign that draws upon recent archaeological discoveries as well as the more traditional sources to describe Cnut’s activities within the context of his time. Only the most basic background is provided, as Lavelle keeps his focus resolutely upon Cnut’s actions and what they reveal about him.

The result is a good overview of Cnut’s life that fits well with the amount of information available. Like most biographers of Anglo-Saxon monarchs Lavelle has to speculate about motives and intentions for which no records or accounts remain. Lavelle writes with a firmness of tone that suggests an assuredness in his command of the material: though having to engage in guesswork, he is confident about the conclusions he draws from the surviving sources. This gives his book an added degree of readability, as he explains Cnut’s undertakings, offers plausible explanations for his choices, and moves on. And his scope is quite impressive for a book of this size, addressing not just the political developments and military activities of Cnut’s life, but his piety, relations with the religious establishment, and his family life to boot.

By presenting all of this in a chronological account of Cnut’s reign, Lavelle’s book serves as an excellent introduction to his subject. I suspect I would have gotten more out of Lawson’s book (which Lavelle generously praises in his list of “Further Reading”) had I started with this one, but with the grounding I now possess I look forward to reading the remaining books about Cnut with the sense of events that Lavelle provides.

Review of “Cnut: England’s Viking King” by M. K. Lawson

When Michael Kenneth Lawson’s book originally was published in 1993 (as Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century), it was the first new biography of Cnut since L. M. Larson’s Canute the Great came out in 1912. Because of this, Lawson was able to benefit from the considerable amount of scholarly work on Anglo-Saxon England in the intervening decades on the era, which not only allowed for a more informed interpretation of Cnut’s life but a more Anglo-centric account of his reign as well.

The focus is evident throughout Lawson’s short work. Beginning with Cnut’s re-conquest of England in 1016 he concentrates on describing how Cnut governed England during his nearly two decades as king. This he does in three chapters that explain, successively Cnut’s foreign policy, his relationship with the English church, and the practical operations of his government over the course of his reign. From them emerges a picture of a successful and pious ruler whose achievement was limited by his relatively early death and that of his sons as well.

Lawson makes his arguments convincingly through his mastery of the available sources, and works well within their limits. Yet his book disappoints in two respects. The first is that his account is a little too Anglo-centric. As the ruler of a large part of Scandinavia Cnut was more than just the king of England, and any account of his reign needs to reflect this. While Lawson’s focus may reflect the available evidence, by not addressing the Scandinavian aspects with anywhere near the same degree of thoroughness his examination of Cnut’s monarchy provides a somewhat distorted picture of his subject’s issues and priorities. The other problem is with Lawson’s approach to his material, which is more thematic than chronological. By focusing his chapters on specific aspects of Cnut’s rule, he ends up explaining his reign rather than describing it. While there are advantages to this approach, for my first book on Cnut I was hoping for something with more of a chronological structure that would give me a sense of Cnut’s life as he lived it.

As a result, Lawson’s book works better as a study of Cnut’s governance of England than it does as a biography of him. In this respect it fits the pattern that I’ve come to appreciate about biographies of Anglo-Saxon monarchs, as the limitations of the sources really constrain what authors can do with their subject. In Lawson’s case his choices led him to produce a less well-rounded study of Cnut than he really needs, though his final product helps his readers understand how a Scandinavian king successfully ruled his English realm.