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The English Gotterdammerung
on 8 December 2011
The English Gotterdammerung
`The Godwins' is an excellent study of the most powerful family in England for the generation before 1066 brought about their downfall. It is a short book and thereby I've cut its rating. If you're not a specialist in that period the flurry of names (often merely mentioned in passing) can be confusing. Here's an example of where Barlow is considering the claimants to the English throne in 1050: `.... And there were Edward's own kinsman, descendants of Aethelred the Unready, scattered across Europe, such as Edmund Ironside's descendants in Hungary, Godgifu's children by Drogo count of Mantes, Count Walter III and Ralf earl of Hereford, as well as Godgifu's second husband. Eustace II count of Boulogne'(P.55).That's the sole reference to Godgifu, apparently a daughter of Ethelred, although she doesn't appear on any of four genealogical tables supplied. The internet supplies some scrapings from the archives, usually under the name of Goda. Here's another example; `Edwin and Morcar's sister' suddenly appears on P. 85 but the index doesn't include either of the brothers, let alone their sister, until they appear on P. 94 as `Aelfgar of Mercia left two sons, Edwin and Morcar.' As for the sister, you'll only identify her as Ealdgyth of Mercia by a rather convoluted way. So I'd recommend you back up your reading by easy access to other sources.
Perhaps I'm being too negative. Barlow devotes several pages to a first-rate review of sources, especially the Victorian expert E.A. Freeman whose `general view of English history has in part come into fashion again after the rather illiberal twentieth century.' (P.14). He sets about admirably tackling the confusing ancestry of Godwin, son of Wulfnoth Cild, who was responsible for establishing the family's power
A good example of Barlow's erudition and attention to detail is his examination of Harold Godwinsson's trip to Normandy culminating in the oath made to William, Duke of Normandy (PP. 96-107). He especially concentrates on the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry (PP.99-102). However, his conclusion is quite simple: `It must, however, be accepted that whatever the circumstances may have been, Harold fell into William's grasp and took an oath of some sort.' Is that different to his conclusion in his biography of Edward the Confessor(1970): `The truth about Harold's embassy to Normandy in 1064 or 1065 cannot be established: the evidence is too unreliable'? Compare that to David Douglas (`William the Conqueror') in 1964: `...... Such are the only facts given in the earliest accounts of this famous transaction, though legend was soon to add many embellishments to the story.' It appears that years of scholarly examination has made the pond murkier. Research CAN lead to negative results which is always useful to remember.
The years 1965-6 which saw the collapse of the dynasty are examined in detail, although the attempts by Tosti to reinsert himself into the power structure might have received greater attention. Barlow is certain that Tosti was the brother favoured by his sister, Queen Emma, and perhaps this is part of the consequence. On the other hand, the battle of Hastings is covered in detail, making myself turn again to the Bayeux Tapestry, just to follow his argument. His examination of the fate of Harold's corpse again leads to uncertainty, the best judgement possible. He provides a brief review of what happened to the remnants of the English royal circle, even though most had little connection with the Godwins.
Of course, like most biographers, he displays a `sympathy' for his subject. So he plays down Godwin's role in the murder of Alfred in 1035, of which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Parker version) says, `No more horrid deed was done in this land, after the Danes came.' Even more surprisingly he dismisses Godwin's death in 1053 as a stroke, without referring to the dramatic (if inaccurate!) account of Godwin choking while protesting his innocence regarding Alfred's death. Likewise he is clearly a fan of Harold but then I suspect that, after reading his presentation of the `last English king', I think his readers would agree with him.