Review of “William I: England’s Conqueror” by Marc Morris

Marc Morris is among the select group of historians who have established a successful career as both a writer and a broadcaster. Originally known for his work as a presenter for a BBC series on British castles, he went on to write over a half-dozen books on various aspects of English medieval history, including biographies of John and Edward I that I plan to read as part of this project and a book on the Norman Conquest that made his selection to write the biography of William the Conqueror for the Penguin Monarchs series understandable.

Another factor that undoubtedly helped is his skill as an author. His style is clear and direct, cutting through the usual qualifications in academic prose to provide a sharply-realized interpretation of the Conqueror. Unlike the previous biographies of William that I’ve read up to this point he begins not with William’s birth or the background to the era but with an account of his Christmas Day coronation that features the fires set by his guards outside of Westminster Abbey. Morris uses the incident as a way to highlight the unease and tension that the Normans felt in the aftermath of their victory at Hastings. It’s an inspired decision, and a testament to his skill as a historical writer.

From there Morris goes back to recount William’s early life. It’s a comparatively sparse account that focuses on William’s claim to the English throne – an understandable decision on Morris’s part given his remit to provide an account of William’s life in less than a hundred pages. What stands out most, though, is the pro-William case Morris makes in these pages, as he presents the details in such a way as to underscore the validity of William’s claim. Doing so helped to make William’s sense of outrage at Harold’s coronation understandable, but I couldn’t help but feel as though this was more a refection of Morris interpretation of the sources rather than the cut-and-dried case that he presents.

The chapters on the succession battles of 1066 form the heart of the book, and draw heavily upon Morris’s previous work on the subject. Though brief, Morris recounts these developments skillfully, again demonstrating his assuredness in promoting his interpretation of the available accounts. This highlights William’s boldness and the underlying effectiveness of his strategy. Yet by spending an additional chapter detailing the resistance to his conquest, Morris makes it clear that boldness and victory alone were not enough for him to establish himself as king, with persistence and ruthlessness required as well.

After recounting William’s success in consolidating his hold on the English throne, Morris spends the next two chapters describing his reign. It is here that the strength of Morris’s book leads to its main weakness: by spending so much of his limited space recounting how William became king, he has precious little left to describe William’s time as king. It’s of a piece with his earlier chapters on William’s life before his invasion of England, in which the descriptions of the Norman institutions that were included in Douglas’s, Ashley’s, and Bates’s biographies are absent.

Here’s no doubt that Morris faced tough choices when deciding how to best use the limited space available to him. By choosing to emphasize his strengths as a William biographer, however he defined the limitations of his book. While it provides a good overview of William’s life as a ruler and a fantastic concise account of the Conquest, it lacks the depth and nuance of similar introductory accounts of William’s life by other authors. It’s a good book, but one that needs to be supplemented for anyone desiring a more complete overview of his life and achievements.

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 “Athelstan: The Making of England” by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s name is one that typically I associate with histories of the ancient Greek and Roman world written for a popular audience. Because of this, I was a little surprised when I first saw that he was writing a volume on Æthelstan for the “Penguin Monarchs” series, as it seemed a little outside of his scholarly bailiwick. My curiosity about his contribution grew while reading my earlier selections on the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and Sarah Foot’s biography on the king. Given what they wrote about him, I wondered what insights a scholar of ancient history might offer into Æthelstan’s life and career.

As I was reading his short book, I began to appreciate why the series’ editors selected Holland to write it. His writing contains more than a degree of flair, as instead of simply describing events he uses his prose to bring the past to life. Yet while occasionally it can border on cliché, Holland never strays from his material into imaginative reconstruction. The result is enjoyable in a way that doesn’t strain a reader’s credulity.

Holland’s scholarly faithfulness, though, forces him to address the same problem facing the other authors, which was how to write about Æthelstan with the limited resources available. His solution is similar to Humble’s, as he fits Æthelstan’s life within the history of 9th and 10th century Wessex. While Æthelstan disappears from Holland’s early pages, this decision helps him to explain the world in which Æthelstan grew up, showing what he inherited and clarifying what he built. Though his narrative lacks many of the insights that Foot’s more analytical approach provides, it provides a coherently chronological account of Æthelstan’s life that is not just informative but engaging as well.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that even a historian of Holland’s skills can achieve with his limited sources. While his book helps to situate Æthelstan’s achievement within the context of the realm-building undertaken by the House of Wessex during these decades, Æthelstan remains stubbornly elusive as a person. Here again Holland stops short of overt speculation, but the absence is a little incongruous in such a fluid and evocative text. In this respect, Holland simply underscores the basic problem facing any author attempting to write about the first king of England. While he succeeds in writing about Anglo-Saxon England in a way that brings the era to life, to do so for the person at the center of his book may well be impossible with the materials available to us. What he does offer is a great short introduction to Æthelstan that explains how he came to dominate England, but one that can only offer so much about who the king was, showing how he is a person who can elude even the most creative of historians.