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.

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 labors in this respect are commendable, as they give us the sort of biographical effort all too often lacking for monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon era. Hopefully it is one that can inspire further works, particularly about his rule in Denmark and the broader insights that it 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 underexamined 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.