Harold: The King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex
|Harold: The King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: Little is known for certain about Harold, the King who was defeated and killed in the Norman conquest, and this is inevitably history rather than biography. It is nevertheless a very good and readable life and times telling us what is known of the monarch and setting him against the contemporary historical background.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: April 2017|
Harold is in the unenviable position for being remembered as the monarch who was defeated and killed in the Norman conquest, and almost nothing else. He does not even merit a passing mention in the renowned 1930s spoof English history, '1066 and all That', which no doubt has him in their category of 'Unmemorable Kings'. This book is thus inevitably a history rather than a biography of someone about whom undisputed facts are rather lacking.
Born Harold Godwinson, son of Harold and Gytha, Earl and Countess of Wessex, his date of birth and place in the order among his siblings are uncertain. (In spite of this, there are four very helpful, succinct genealogical tables among the appendices). Of his upbringing and education we know nothing. There is much more to be said about the general Anglo-Scandinavian background, the Earls of Wessex and the inevitable in-fighting between both nations and the nobility in an age when it was very much a case of the survival of the fittest. A chapter which aims 'to permit an appreciation of Harold's character' is heavily ring-fenced by caveats that any portrait which emerges is governed by the conventions observed by eleventh-century writers, and also that Anglo-Norman and continental sources are largely hostile in describing him. History is nearly always written by the victors who have a vested interest in demeaning the vanquished, and there is plenty of evaluation of the sources on which this work is based, from contemporary chroniclers.
It is therefore only with the death of the childless Edward the Confessor in January 1066 that Harold comes into focus as King. His nine-month reign, the story of which takes up much of this book, is a saga of discord and invasions, firstly of Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and Harold's brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, a formidable rival or 'leader of the opposition' in the north. Once they had been defeated and killed came the reckoning with William, Duke of Normandy, at which point Harold's luck ran out. The battle of Hastings is described in detail, and we are reminded that the Bayeux Tapestry was largely responsible for perpetuating the belief if not fiction that he met his death on the battlefield through an arrow in the eye. The aftermath is also given due consideration, as well as the inevitable counter-factual theories. How would England have developed if there had been no invasion, and Harold had lived to found a new dynasty? How would English government, architecture and other culture had developed under his reign? Rex makes the point that the Norman conquest was usually said to have improved art and architecture, 'providing a new impulse, but that impulse had already been given'.
At the risk of nit-picking, the book might have benefited from a slightly different title. It comes as no surprise to the reader that we may know much about Harold's life and times, but very little about the man. Such facts as there are have been marshalled well in this volume, in which the known facts and the contemporary historical background are woven together very skilfully.
If you enjoyed this title, you will also be interested in two others of the era from slightly different standpoints, The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris and The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror's Subjugation of England by Teresa Cole. Peter Rex also wrote on Harold's victorious opponent, William the Conqueror, complemented by a life of his consort in Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, first Queen of England by Tracy Borman.
You can read more book reviews or buy Harold: The King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Harold: The King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex at Amazon.com.
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