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Informative and highly readable - a brilliant introduction to the period
on 7 March 2007
"The Godwins" by Frank Barlow is an excellent account of the turbulent history of England in the half-century leading up to the Norman Conquest, charting the rise and fall in fortunes of the dynasty established by Earl Godwin and which reached its zenith with the succession of his son, Harold, as king in 1066.
Though the book is less than 200 pages long, Barlow nevertheless is able to write in great depth about his period, evoking a sense of the turbulent politics and the rapidly shifting fortunes of his subjects. He describes the rapid rise of Godwin and his family, from relative obscurity in the reign of Aethelred 'the Unready' (978-1016) to power and wealth under Edward the Confessor (1042-66), and then finally to the kingship itself with Harold's succession in 1066. His account of the events leading up to the Norman invasion, as well as of the Battle of Hastings itself, is thorough and detailed in every respect.
The sources available to the historian for the 11th century are fuller than for earlier periods, but nevertheless remain somewhat fragmentary. Barlow, however, does an excellent job of drawing them all together in a scholarly yet readable manner. Indeed these sources are constantly referenced throughout the book, with a list of notes at the end of every chapter. Moreover, where there are uncertainties or discrepancies in the material, he is careful to highlight them. To help the reader keep track of the various players, there are four family trees, depicting both the Anglo-Saxon and the Danish royal lines, as well as Godwin's own family. Also included are 12 pages of black and white plates, reproducing images of the coinage of the age in addition to key scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry.
All in all, "The Godwins" is a truly excellent book; indeed, one of the best on the subject of King Harold and the Norman Conquest. Also highly useful for understanding the social history of eleventh-century England is Richard Fletcher's "Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England", while at the same time a useful counterpart to Barlow is David C. Douglas's "William the Conqueror", which deals with the same period but from the Norman perspective.