My review of HAROLD II: The Doomed Saxon King by Peter Rex

HaroldIII’m not quite sure where I would put this volume in my own line-up of pre-conquest history books. On the one hand, it covered the issues intelligently and carefully. On the other hand, many of the major books he cites in his bibliography are already on my bookshelf…especially the 20th century sources. So on the one hand, on an information gathering mission I didn’t learn anything majorly new. Nonetheless, I placed a lot of bookmarks which means he touched on little details that fleshed out my understanding.

In many ways, the value of this book is in the explanations of things we just might not be entirely sure about. For instance, we get interesting general details: “The manors of an earl were probably organized like the royal demesne, the ‘home farms’ of the monarchy, into either provisioning or revenue-producing units. Entries in the Domesday Book note the number of nights’ farm that could be obtained from a manor. They were the cost of overnight provisions for the king or lord and his whole household when visiting the manor.” That helps explain some everyday factors that usually slip past us. There are many other explanations of this kind that helped put things into perspective for me.

The author also tried to make sense of conflicting histories, especially concerning the battle of Hastings and its aftermath. Which came first, and who influenced who? And why? “Admittedly, some historians criticize the Carmen, believing it to be a twelfth-century product, but the balance of probability seems to favor an early date for this work, around 1068…” Was the arrow in the eye story an effort to portray Harold as being punished from God for his perjury? Or was there some confusion between his death by an arrow and Harold Hardrada’s arrow in the throat? How much was this story influenced by the nineteenth century restoration of the Bayeux Tapestry? As you might guess, these passages raise more questions than they answer, but these questions are probably unanswerable anyway, so we might as well learn as much background as possible.

I was interested to see that Tostig’s troubles in the north may have had much to do with reforming the out-of-balance low taxation in Northumbria (when compared to the rest of the country). According to the author, “There was a reform of the royal household in the interests of efficiency early in the 1060s…Tostig’s rule was then seen as tightening royal control of the north at a time when the Witan in England was dominated by Harold, which would explain why Tostig blamed Harold for the revolt and accused him of conspiring against him.” To me, this is a big statement. First of all, it implies that Tostig did not arbitrarily raise taxes, which supposedly sparked off the insurrection. And it also gives a reason why he would accuse Harold of fomenting the rebellion, aside from a mere hysterical reaction. There’s a lot of food for thought here, which certainly delves deeper than the usual bland interpretation of Tostig’s allegedly poor government.

So, overall, I would say I have benefitted from reading this book. The writing was a little hard to get through in places, and I feel the author jumped around a little bit, but it gave me some specifics where I needed them in an academic manner. If I didn’t know anything about the period, I would probably have had a hard time getting through the book. It was really more about explaining why certain things happened rather than merely telling us a straightforward history, although there is a certain amount of that, too. But I think the straight history passages served as a vehicle to get us to the good stuff: sorting out the evidence of our many sources.

8 thoughts on “My review of HAROLD II: The Doomed Saxon King by Peter Rex

  • Geoffrey Tobin says:

    Intriguing idea that Harold may have used Tostig as a scapegoat or buffer between himself and the unpopularity of taxes in the North.

    Do you mention the meeting between Tostig and Duke William before Tostig raided the south coast?

    Just viewed your trailer for the “Sons of Godwine”: got me thinking about larger-than-life characters such as Odo of Bayeux who were in no way publicity shy. Some of Odo’s advice to a younger colleague was recorded: it makes him sound quite wise, so he probably approved of writing it down.

    Since many of the behaviours we find despicable (notably “ravaging” a rival’s estates) were common practice on the Continent and in Britain, how are we to judge a person on that basis?

    Even Ranulf Flambard has his cheer squad: Arthur Wright has claimed that the aristocrats and upper clergy hated him only because he required them to pay tax at the same rate as everyone else.

    • Good morning, Geoffrey! I, too, am intrigued by the possibility that Harold pushed for higher taxes and let his brother take the “hit”, so much so that I’m incorporating that subplot into my novel. I think Tostig needs to be rehabilitated, as much as that is possible! In the same novel I do have Tostig visit William; he gets to see Wulfnoth for the last time as well. I think William sent him to England to serve as a diversion, and possibly to force Harold to mobilize prematurely.

  • Geoffrey Tobin says:

    Does Eadgifu the Fair/Rich appear in your latest story?

    Two days ago, while perusing a couple of online sources (one of which is PASE Domesday), I noticed the (Little) Domesday Book entry for Burgh in Suffolk: this is the one place where she is called “Countess Eadgifu”. I hadn’t noticed it before because, for one reason, this property went not to Count Alan, but to Earl Hugh of Chester.

    So in 1065 Eadgifu of Burgh was definitely either a Countess in her own right or the wife of an Earl. Burgh is near Ipswich, around where Eadgifu the Fair had a cluster of vills.

    Alan also had property in Burgh, but his antecessor there was one Anund, an overlord of several vills most of which were north-east of Ipswich.

    The point however is that a “Countess Eadgifu” owned property in Suffolk and she can with high confidence be identified with Eadgifu the Fair/Rich: Open Domesday takes this identification for granted and just calls her “Eadgifu the Fair”, which is another reason why I didn’t notice the title “Countess” before.

    So the question is, why did she carry this title in 1065? Wasn’t Gyrth the Earl of East Anglia then, having taken it over from his brother Harold when the later was promoted to Earl of Wessex?

    Radical Possibility 1: Eadgifu the Fair wasn’t Harold’s widow Ealdgyth “Swannessha”, she was Gyrth’s widow?

    Conservative Possibility 2: She was a Countess by inheritance from one of her parents? But Countess of what, if not East Anglia? Countess of Cambridge?

    Alan received a goodly share (about 28, the same as King William) of Gyrth’s properties, either directly or when Ralph de Gael forfeited. If directly, then maybe this was part of the same package that gave him most of Eadgifu’s lands?

    Distinguishing Eadgifu the Fair from Harold’s wife Ealdgyth certainly helps to explain why they have different names.

    Moreover, the ID of Ealdgyth “Swannesha” as Ealdgyth, the recorded daughter of Wolgyth, close associate of King Edward and Earl Harold, remains strong. (I’d say Bill Flint’s hypothesis that Wolgyth was Edward’s half-sister is looking good.)

    On the downside, who then was Eadgifu? As an Anglo-Saxon Countess, either by birth or marriage, she was surely of high birth, but who were her parents?

    Half-crazed Radical Possibility 3: Emma of Normandy was given the name “Aelfgifu” on marriage to Aethelred II. Could Eadgifu the Fair also have been a renamed immigrant with a high-status family on the Continent? But that guess leads nowhere in particular.

  • Geoffrey Tobin says:

    Let’s suppose Eadgifu the Fair is not Ealdgyth wife of Harold. First problem: so many people with the same name! Even Earl Godwin had a daughter named Eadgifu. According to Marc A. Meyer’s “Culture of Christendom”, page 84, footnote 34, all Godwin’s three daughters (Eadgifu, Aelfgifu and Gunhildr) owned land: 125 hides in 8 Shires between them: that’s about 8 square miles each, distributed among various counties.

    Not knowing anything more at this stage, it’s conceivable that Eadgifu the Fair may have been Godwin’s daughter, just as Princess Gunhild (probably named after her aunt) was Godwin’s grand-daughter.

    The British National Archives state that Eadgifu the Fair is identical to Countess Eadgifu of Burgh in Suffolk, but whatever identifications we make between and among the various ladies named Eadgifu, we’d still have to explain the title of Countess that Eadgifu of Burgh had. Could Edward have bestowed this title on one of Godwin’s daughters, as he had for her brothers Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine? Was she Countess of Suffolk, despite Gyrth being Earl of East Anglia, which includes Suffolk? Or of another county where Eadgifu the Fair held land such as Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire? If I had to guess, of course I’d say Countess of Cambridgeshire where she had scores of properties.

    There is an Eadgifu, wife of the pre-conquest lord Edward son of Swein, who held land in 1086 in Essex, Middlesex, and possibly she’s the same Eadgifu, tenant of King Edward, who held land in Hampshire, and maybe she’s the Eadgifu who held the wealthy estate at Chaddesley Corbett in Worcestershire in 1066 and 1086.

    • Thanks for visiting! Are you looking for straight history? I can certainly recommend these:
      – The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris
      – The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135 by William E. Kapelle
      – Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian W. Walker
      – The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason
      My go-to historian was Edward A Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest of England, but in 5 volumes it is a monstrous read! Frank Barlow is also very important, but I found him a difficult read.

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