Book Review: “The Norman Conquest” by Marc Morris

Norman Conquest Book Cover

I have several books written by Marc Morris on my “to read” shelf and hadn’t managed to read any of them until now. In my quest to read French history this summer I picked up this book. The subject is all the more interesting because it combines French history with English history and what could be better than that? Another reason I was interested is I’ve always wondered how William Duke of Normandy prepared for the conquest. What actually went into the planning of the expedition?

I have to start out by saying Morris’ writing style is really tremendous. His prose is fluid and easily understandable. He has closely studied all the conflicting sources and made comparisons to arrive at this own conclusions. This is historical detective work at its best.

The early chapters cover the period of Anglo-Saxon history before William arrives. Here we meet Aethelred the Unready, Queen of Emma of Normandy, King Cnut, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot, Edward the Confessor, Queen Edith of Wessex and the powerful Earl Godwine and King Harold. These historical characters are so compelling I just can’t read enough about them. Morris sets up the scene here for the big battle.

My search for William’s preparation plans has been fulfilled. Morris goes into great detail on how William persuaded the Pope to back his mission, how he gathered an army of followers with promises of great rewards, his search for a naval flotilla to take the army to England and how he provisioned the troops. Morris also describes how King Harold kept vigil awaiting the invasion, then stood down only being forced to gather his army again to fight against an invasion by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his own brother Tostig Godwineson. Three weeks later William invaded and King Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066.

Based on what little information there is on Hastings, Morris does an excellent job of describing the battle itself. The rest of the book recounts the reign of the Conqueror and how it affected England on a political and social level. Morris tells of the rebellions William had to suppress in England and in Normandy along with the dysfunctional dynamics of his own family. Morris is very fair in describing the good points and the bad points of William’s personality and style of medieval government and how devastating and transformative his conquest was on Anglo-Saxon England.

I really enjoyed the description of how William ordered the Domesday Survey in England, how writing it was accomplished and what the purpose of the survey entailed. This was new information for me and very informative. I cannot recommend this book enough. And now I must read more of Morris’ work!

Book Review: “Edward the Elder 899-924” edited by N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill

Edward the Elder cover

There is a real dearth of primary sources for historians to work with regarding the reign of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Elder, first son of King Alfred the Great. This is a real shame because Edward did much to build the English state during his twenty-four year reign. He led many successful campaigns against the Vikings and had control over much of southern and middle of England. His influence also touched Wales and the north. He had three wives, a large family and prickly relations with the church. This book is an attempt to shed some light on the reign of this important and critical ruler.

This volume was published in 2001 and is a compendium of papers which were presented at a conference at the University of Manchester, organized by the Manchester Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies in 1999 in recognition of the eleventh centenary of Edward the Elders accession to the throne of Wessex upon his father’s death. A variety of scholars have written individual chapters using such diverse sources as coins and textiles, literature and archaeology. If the reader is familiar with Anglo-Saxon studies, some of these names will be very recognizable.

While some of the papers contained in this volume are well written and readable, some of them are not. A number of the subjects are interesting and some are esoteric and pedantic. It would depend on the reader’s preference and purpose in reading the book as to whether the chapters are useful or not. Regardless, the book brings awareness to many aspects of Edward’s reign. Personally, I enjoyed the introduction by Nick Higham on Edward’s reputation and the papers on Edward’s relationship with the church. Barbara Yorke’s chapter on Edward as Atheling was most interesting. She went into how his father worked to make him the candidate to succeed him and to protect Edward’s position. Simon Keynes has a great chapter which serves as a survey of Edward’s reign. There are specialty chapters on the coinage of Edward, how the Irish viewed West Saxon dynastic practices, the Danelaw, the shiring of Mercia, York, and an interesting chapter on the embroideries from the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. It is believed that Edward’s second wife Aelflaed commissioned these embroideries.

There are other interesting chapters here on Edward’s large family, his own marriages and how he married his daughters to men on the continent and a whole chapter on his niece Aelfwynn. Aelfwynn was the daughter of Edward’s elder sister Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia. When Aethelflaed died, Edward exiled Aelfwynn and basically took over the kingdom of Mercia. I found these chapters on the family relations the most interesting and in sync with my own personal research. Whether the reader of this volume is an advanced historian, undergraduate or a general reader, there is something of interest for everyone. This book will serve as the closest to a biography as we can expect until someone writes a definitive work on Edward.