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.
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
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.