Just one book on . . . Henry I

Having read the biographies of nearly a dozen monarchs for this project, I find myself at an unexpected milestone. With Henry I, I find myself wishing for the first time that there were more studies of his life and achievements than there are available to read. This isn’t a knock on the three biographies I read about his life, all of which are fine works of scholarship. Rather, it’s that from them I gained an appreciation of the importance of Henry’s reign for English history, particularly in terms of the development of the English state. That a range of differing opinions exist within these books as to the nature of these achievements only underscores how much is left to be said about Henry’s time on the throne and his legacy. Clearly there is much room for new scholarship about his kingship.

The three biographies about Henry offer a surprisingly diverse range of entry points about his life, and given Henry’s significance and the limited number of studies about it all are worth reading. Yet while I found Edmund King’s short book on Henry a valuable study, it is one that is best read by readers who have a prior knowledge of Anglo-Norman history. As such it works better as a compliment to other works on the period than as an entry point to Henry’s life in its own right.

Far better suited in that respect is C. Warren Hollister’s biography of Henry for the Yale English Monarchs series. Thorough and insightful, it provides extensive coverage of Henry’s reign and makes an excellent case for its significance to English history. Its value is only marginally limited by the fact that Hollister died before he could complete work on his manuscript, as the editing would have helped to sharpen the case Hollister makes in it of the transformative nature of Henry’s governing reforms. Such revising also could have made it an incontestable starting point for anyone wanting to read a book about Henry, rather than just a strong contender for the title.

One of the remarkable aspects of Judith Green’s biography is that she challenged Hollister’s interpretation of Henry so closely on the heels of the release of his book in 2001. Yet this is just one of the many things that distinguishes her excellent study, which not only offers a different perspective on Henry’s reputation as a reformer, but which provides a coverage of Henry’s rule over Normandy that is lacking in King’s and Hollister’s more Anglo-centric studies. It’s because of this that, while all three studies deserve reading, Green’s is the one that people should seek out as the best single biography of this important monarch.

Just one book on . . . William II

To be honest this was a post that I have not looked forward to writing. This wasn’t because I haven’t enjoyed reading about William Rufus – quite the contrary. The three books I read each provided interesting examinations of his life and times, all of which made an excellent case for him as a successful and under-appreciated monarch. And therein lay the problem I’ve been avoiding, which was deciding which was the one book I’d recommend reading about him if forced to choose.

Granted, this is very much of a self-imposed problem, but it gets to one of my goals with thus project. Not everyone has the luxury of reading every available biography of a given monarch, and deciding which single book to recommend requires me to assess them a little differently than if I were to ask which one should be the “first” book one should read, or the “best” book one should read. And until now, the challenge hasn’t been especially onerous. But all three of the biographies I read about William were excellent works, yet each was distinctive enough from the others to make it less a question of comparing qualities and more of deciding which strengths merited making it the one book to read about him.

For John Gillingham’s book, the strength was a brevity that didn’t sacrifice on analysis. This made his book not just an excellent introduction to William, but one of the best books I have read so far in the Penguin Monarchs series. And given the quality of the series overall, that is really saying something for his book, as up to this point there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch. It was why, when I finished it, I was sure it was the one book I’d recommend.

Then I read Frank Barlow’s volume in the (now Yale) English Monarchs series. Barlow has been one of the great discoveries for me with this project, as his biography of Edward the Confessor was easily the best of the ones that I read about him. His follow-up study of William demonstrated a similarly high level of scholarship and discernment about his subject, and had the added luxury of being able to do so in greater detail than was possible for Gillingham. By the time I read the last page, I was sure that it would be a choice between the two books.

It wasn’t far along into Emma Mason’s book, however that I discovered how I was in my assumption. While her book edges towards sensationalism by leaning into the idea that William’s death was an assassination rather than an accident, this can overshadow what is in most respects a worthwhile study of William that pushes back against both the negative judgments of many writers and the neglect that he has more recently received. In the process, her work sits halfway between Gillingham’s and Barlow’s books, as she offers the depth that Gillingham can’t while at the same time doing providing a more concise overview than does Barlow.

Hence my dilemma. In the end any assessment of which of these books is the one to read is less a determination of quality than it is of what should someone’s “one” book on a monarch provide for them. Should it offer a concision that makes for easy digestibility or a thoroughness that eliminates the need to read any other book on the subject? Or is it about the quality of the scholarship and the perceptiveness of analysis? Usually the books I’ve chosen offer strengths that more than offset what’s lacking in other respects, but with these three the balance makes it hard for any one of them to stand out. In that respect, if you’re looking for a biography of William you really can’t go wrong with any of these books.

In the end, though, the one I keep returning to in my mind as the best single book to recommend is Gillingham’s. In some respects he has an advantage in that he’s the beneficiary of the work both Barlow and Mason have done on their mutual subject, to which he adds his own formidable knowledge of medieval English history. And while it may lack the detail the others brought to their books, the picture Gillingham provides of both William and his reign is no less informative in terms of analysis or judgment. Hopefully someone interested in reading about William’s life won’t make Gillingham’s biography the only book they read about him, but if they do so they won’t have chosen poorly in terms of reading a work that does justice to its subject.

Just one book on . . . William I

Reading about William the Conqueror has proven to be a different experience from that for any other of the monarchs I have covered up to this point. As I noted in my first post nearly a year ago, whereas the kings I have read about to this point have been the subject of just a handful of modern biographies, William has been the beneficiary of the attention of dozens of authors, resulting in a wealth of books about him. While I have focused on just the biographies written about him, even there I limited myself to a dozen ranging from short books aimed towards younger readers to hefty tomes of academic distinction.

This variety has made what was a relatively straightforward much more difficult. Until now one book has usually stood out as the “go-to” recommendation that I would make for someone seeking the best single biography about a king. The sheer number of books about William I and the variety of approaches they offer, however, make such a recommendation difficult. Which to choose?

To make this task easier, I grouped the twelve biographies of William that I read into one of three categories. The first of these, consisting of Thomas Costain’s 1959 book Elizabeth Luckock’s 1966 study, are works that were aimed specifically at the juvenile market. While this in itself doesn’t disqualify them from consideration, their age and their favoring of (likely apocryphal) story over substance compares poorly with the other options available to the interested reader.

The second category consist of books about William aimed toward the general reader. In this (admittedly more arbitrary defined) category I have grouped the majority of the books I have read, including Hillaire Belloc’s short study, George Slocombe’s 1961 book, Ashley’s glossy 1973 work, David Bates’s short 1989 biography, and the books by Peter Rex, Mark Hagger, and Marc Morris that have been published over the past decade. With the exception of Belloc’s extended essay, all of these books provide effective introductions to William’s life, with Bates’s book in particular being of noteworthy quality. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but even the best of these only scratches the surface of their subject.

Finally, there’s the three works by scholars of Anglo-Norman history that stand out for their pedigree: Frank Stenton’s William the Conqueror and the Rule of the Normans and the two contributions to the ongoing (now Yale) English Monarchs series by David Douglas and David Bates. Stenton’s book served as the gold standard for English-language biographies of William for over half a century, yet its age and the wealth of scholarship in the century since its publication recommend against it. Douglas’s book is harder to dismiss; while it’s also getting long in the tooth, it’s still a rewarding reading. Yet in just about every respect Bates’s 2016 book is a worth successor, and has supplanted it in every respect.

What qualifies any recommendation of Bates’s newer biography, however, is the demands it places on its reader. While I found it an enjoyable read, I came to it after reading nearly a dozen books about William, not to mention works on Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. Given how Bates expects a degree of familiarity with William’s life, I found myself wondering at times how accessible it would be to a reader new to the subject. In that respect, his shorter 1989 book, which is geared towards an audience new to the subject, is the better choice.

In the end, however, I found Bates’s longer book simply too compelling not to choose. For all of its assumptions of the reader’s knowledge of its subject – and perhaps in part because of them – it delivers the best, most comprehensive, and up-to-date account of William and his reign. It’s simply too good of a book not to recommend if someone is only going to read just one biography about the Conqueror: if anything, the choice to read only a single work on William makes it even more important that his is that book.

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.

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.

Just one book on . . . Cnut

When it comes to biographies of Cnut, the interested reader has the good fortune to have nearly a half-dozen books from which to choose. All of them have their strengths and reward reading – but in terms of selecting the one book is the best value for one’s time, which is the one to choose?

For those new to the era, both Ryan Lavelle’s and M. J. Trow’s contributions recommend themselves. The two biographies offer extremely accessible examinations of their subject, with Trow’s study stronger on Cnut’s Scandinavian background and Lavelle’s account better for those interested primarily in Cnut’s time on the throne. By contrast M. K. Lawson’s 1993 Cnut: England’s Viking King works far better as a book for those who are already familiar with the basics of Cnut’s life and who want to learn more about how he reigned over England, though in the end it really says more about how Cnut governed rather than it does about the man himself.

By contrast L. M. Larson does a great job in explaining both Cnut’s background and his time on the throne in his book Canute the Great. Yet as well as it has held up over the decades, as a book first published over a century it lacks all that we have learned about 11th century England since then. As a result it offers only a partial understanding of Cnut compared to what’s available for readers now, and for the reader seeking just one book on Cnut it should be bypassed in favor of the more up-to-date studies available.

And when it comes to up-to-date studies, it’s hard to top Timothy Bolton’s superb contribution on Cnut for the Yale English Monarchs series. It stands out not just for the depth of knowledge Bolton brings to his subject, but a sense of the biographical art that shines through on nearly every page. It’s not only the best biography of Cnut available, it’s one of the best biographies of any medieval figure that I have ever read, and will definitely enrich anyone who gives the book the time it deserves. If you have time to read only one biography of Cnut, Bolton’s is the one to get.

Just One Book On . . . Æthelred

Æthelred is the first king of England about whom a reader faces a real choice in terms of a range of biographies. Unlike the either/or option anyone faces when learning about Æthelstan, there are four Æthelred biographies from which to choose. Each of them provides a different approach to their shared subject – but if you want to read only one, which one should you read?

For anyone new not just to the subject of Æthelred but to the late Anglo-Saxon era, both Ryan Lavelle’s and Ann Williams’s studies of Æthelred recommend themselves, as their books provide solid backgrounds of the period. The two compliment each other nicely in other respects, as Williams does a good job of describing Æthelred’s court – which was an important tool of government – while Lavelle’s book is particularly strong on the Scandinavian challenge that defined Æthelred’s later reign. But both are better studies of England during Æthelred’s reign than of Æthelred himself, so someone seeking a biography of the king is best served turning to one of the other choices.

This leaves the Æthelred biographies written by Levi Roach and Richard Abels. Both share in common their origins as books written for series devoted to the monarchs of England, and both are good studies of the king and his reign. Roach’s book is especially notable for its thoroughness and his forgiving assessment of his subject, and is certainly worthwhile reading for how well the negative press about Æthelred. Yet Roach’s revisionist approach is a little too imbalanced in the opposite direction, especially as it obscures why Æthelred enjoys the longstanding reputation he possesses in the first place. It’s definitely a book anyone interested in Æthelred should read, but not necessarily the first book they should pick up.

By contrast, while Abels provides a sympathetic description of Æthelred’s reign, it’s one that is balanced with analysis that makes it clear how Æthelred earned his longstanding reputation as a king. Moreover, he does this in a book that in terms of is length seems ideally sized for the amount of material available to him, as it allows Abels to supply the details about his subject without losing sight of the overall arc of Æthelred’s life and the events of his era. All of this makes Abels’s book the one to get if you have the opportunity to read only one biography about England’s famously ill-advised monarch.

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.