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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.