Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian Walker
Hardcover: 258 pages
Publisher: Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd.; First English Edition edition (August 1997)
He only ruled England for nine and a half months, but his reign signified an important turning point in the culture and society of the English people. Threatened by enemies from across the channel, Harold II, son of Godwine, represented the last of the English line of kings, following generations of rulers that included Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor. On October 14, 1066, he took his last stand for all of England on a small ridge just outside of Hastings.
Author Ian Walker begins the book by looking at the family origins of Harold. The family of Godwine, though not of the higher nobility, enjoyed a rise to prominence that eventually made them the most powerful family in all of England, rivaling the power of even Edward the Confessor. Their power in Wessex brought them many supporters, making the relationship between Edward and the family somewhat tenuous. At one point, Edward exiled the family, though they eventually returned, and Edward restored the majority of their lands to them.
After Godwine’s death, Harold took control of Wessex and served Edward faithfully until the king’s death. Walker examines the character of Harold, underlying his loyalty to England, his intelligence in military and diplomatic affairs, and his rapport among the English people. Upon Edward the Confessor’s death, Harold was the unanimous choice to ascend to the throne, seeing that Edward died childless.
Harold was crowned king on January 6, 1066. His reign, however, was marked by turmoil as he had to deal with the threat of constant invasions from across the channel in Normandy and from across the sea in Norway. Duke William of Normandy made his claim to the English throne, stating Edward had promised the crown to him upon his death and Harold had in fact supported his claim. The other threat came from Harold’s brother, Tosti, and the king of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson (aka Hardrada). Harold had supported the decision to exile his brother years earlier, and Tosti wanted revenge, so he allied himself with Hardrada.
Even though Harold’s reign was short-lived, he managed to write his legacy in the pages of history by the very nature of his character. To the English people, he would forever represent everything England, a monument linked to the memories of the past and the great rulers who had come before him. Walker does a fantastic job with breathing life into Harold’s character, allowing readers to feel the same affections that the king’s subjects must have felt for him at that time. They remained loyal to him — as he had to them — even to the end when he fell at Hastings and for a time afterwards until William finally succeeded in bringing all of England under his rule.
One matter historians have widely debated has been the decision of Harold to keep his army on the ridge when William’s army appeared to be almost broken. Some argue Harold felt God had turned against him before the battle in favor of William and his fate was already sealed. Walker contends that Harold stayed on the ridge because that’s all he needed to do. If he had held and his army had not broken, William would have been forced to retreat back to his ships and across the channel, likely to never return to England again. So Harold had no reason to press the attack, because all he needed to do was defend his position, and if he had succeeded, the history of England — and the world — might have been very different. I believe both camps make good arguments, though at the moment I tend to lean more toward Walker’s position. The next book I plan to read is William the Conqueror by David Douglas, which should good me a better perspective from the Norman side. My position might flip again after reading Douglas’s account.
My rating: 5 stars