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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.
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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.
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on 2 December 2002
This is an authoratative study of the Godwins and their role in the events leading to the Norman Conquest. There is precious little source material for a historian to work with and Prof Barlow analyses the provenance of each item. This is both the strength and the weakness of the book.
It is a careful study, rather than a good read. It does an excellent job at making the limited material formerly available to scholars acccessible to the interested reader. The book avoids the temptation at speculate on the moods and motives of that period but provides an excellent foundation for future speculations.
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on 15 December 2013
The writing style is quite academic, but there is plenty of information. It is hard to find work on the Godwin's so I was pleased to find this compact book. Like I said though, it isn't an easy read due to the serious essay-like writing style, so not great if you just like a relaxed friendly history book. Printed on good quality glossy paper though, which I always appreciate.
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VINE VOICEon 18 October 2012
This is a good, fairly short account of the rise and fall of the Godwins as a family throughout the course of the 11th century. It identifies a likely ancestry for Godwin, seven generations descended from King Ethelred I, one of Alfred's elder brothers. Much of the book deals with events with which I am very familiar with in other works and there is nothing terribly new here, although useful to have it in easily digestible form. The final chapter usefully examines the eventual fate of Harold Godwinsson's offspring - generally unknown, they had all faded into history by the end of the century. 4/5
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on 1 February 2014
This book is an excellent reference with a great deal of factual references which are well considered. What I also really liked was how easy it was to read. Books of this type are often a bit dry, (lots of dates, complex relationships and confusing names), and you have to make yourself keep reading. The Godwins, however, is well written, interesting and I really enjoyed reading it.
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on 20 May 2014
Although this book, after the index, appendices, bibliography, two prefaces and genealogies are subtracted - has a little over 100 pages, even though the source notes are at the end of their individual chapters, accounting for 10 to 15 pages of the 100.
So it is a very short book by any standards but felt like a long one to me.
I disliked the writing style, which never gripped me or made me take an interest in any of the characters. Frank Barlow often uses obscure vocabulary (where more common English usage would serve equally well) and he occasionally includes terms or phrases of French or Latin without giving the English translation.
For these reasons this books fails as a history book aimed at popular consumption such as the books of Marc Morris, Tom Holland or Ian Mortimer. In fact Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest covered a great deal of the same pre-conquest political material in a way that was far more entertaining.
Often it feels as though the author has squeezed every last bit out of the relevant sources but still has more pages he must somehow create. He does this by devoting pages to the fictional accounts of the Godwin's (usually Harold) from Alfred Lord Tennyson, in the 19th Century, to the historical fiction of Julian Rathbone in the 1990's.
I would have been more forgiving about this book on the grounds of there being so few sources, but Marc Morris made a point of explaining how few 11th Century sources were available to the historian (compared to how much material he had when researching Edward I, who lived two centuries later) before going on to write an account of the years preceding the conquest that was highly enlightening without ever being dull or relying on the fictional accounts of writers who lived at least 800 years later.

If, like myself, you are hoping to be educated and entertained by this book, you may be disappointed. Although packaged and marketed to appeal to the amateur historians who enjoy David Starkey, Robert Hutchinson or Adrian Goldworthy, it never comes close to having the entertainment value of these authors. Frank Barlow states the facts with little effort at writing a work that is accessible and enjoyable. In fact he sometimes seems to make an effort to be inaccessible.
Before reading this I had never come across the word 'encomiast' (basically a Eulogist). By the end it had appeared at least 30 times.
'Faute de mieux'. which translates as 'for lack of anything better' was used without translation. Why no translation was given or no English idiom - such as 'Scraping the barrel' or 'Any port in a storm' wasn't used is unknown to me but I do feel an author should always try to inform his readers with the use of plain English where ever possible. To use such inaccessible language does little more than confuse the reader and, in my opinion, is a sign of elitist, intellectual snobbery.
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on 23 June 2016
For anyone interested in Anglo Saxon history of the 11th century in particular the Godwin family, this book is a must, a fascinating piece of research. Edward the Confessor
BELLÊME The Norman Warrior: Life and loves of Robert de Bellême and his struggles against his merciless enemy King Henry 1st. (Book two of the Bellême series)
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on 8 February 2015
Frank Barlow was one of the best biographers of the Anglo-Normans. This book is a fine example of how convincingly he brings to life the situation in England in the crucial first half of the XIth century. His writing is eloquent and his analysis of evidence is both detailed & critical.
Anyone who thinks of Harold Godwinson as the last King of the Saxons brought down by a tragic Norman invasion might care to read this. The Godwin family had blood on their hands.
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on 21 June 2010
Reading this informative volume corrected a number of errors I had imbibed from lesser works. Very scholarly.
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