The Godwins: The Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty
The influence of Frank Barlow upon the present generation of historians of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England and the esteem and affection in which he is held by his students and colleagues was well attested by the “Limits of Medieval Biography” conference held in his honor at the University of Exeter, 10-12 July 2003. The theme of that conference was chosen to underscore Professor Barlow’s status as doyen of biographers of medieval notables. His justly acclaimed biographies of Edward the Confessor, Thomas Becket, and William Rufus are models of scholarship, characterized equally by the author’s mastery of the sources and his willingness to offer personal, often unorthodox assessments of the character and achievements of his subjects.
The same qualities are apparent in Barlow’s contribution to Longmans Medieval World series, The Godwins: The Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty. Unfortunately, the many admirers of Professor Barlow will be disappointed by this brief foray into group biography. Rather than “the authoritative history of a great noble family” promised by the series editor, this volume is more the musings of the author about the treatment accorded Godwin and his sons in contemporary and later medieval sources, in particular, the so-called Vita Ædwardi Regis, a text that Barlow edited and translated. Because these sources are problematic and tendentious, it is not surprising that Barlow’s account of the Godwins is anything but straightforward. What is surprising is the lack of clarity and coherence in his presentation of the various controversies. After stating that there “is in fact no evidence that [Godwin] had any military experience before he accompanied Cnut to Denmark early in his reign,” Barlow cites the author of the Vita Ædwardi’s in praise of the earl’s martial courage “and the many feats of his early manhood” (21, 25 n. 23). Barlow casts doubt upon Harold’s supposed visit to Normandy in 1064-5, observing that “This episode, an integral and vital element in the Norman case for the legality of William’s claim to succeed Edward on the English throne and the illegality of Harold’s usurpation of it, is therefore highly suspect and can be rejected, together with all the other parts of the case, as pure fiction.” (69) This apparent categorical rejection of the historicity of the visit is followed by six pages recounting the visit as presented in the various Norman and later Scandinavian sources, after which Barlow concludes, “It must, however, be accepted that whatever the circumstance may have been, Harold fell into William’s grasp and took an oath of some sort.” (76) But how could Harold have fallen into William’s grasp unless he made the trip to Normandy? Barlow is no clearer in his discussion of the pros and cons for accepting the historicity of Duke William’s supposed visit to England in 1051, which is recorded only in the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Perhaps because the historical record is so spotty, Barlow fleshes out the historical record with numerous anecdotes concerning Godwin and his sons drawn from twelfth- and even thirteenth-century Norman and Scandinavian texts. While these stories are often entertaining, it is not always clear what the reader is supposed to make of them. Barlow relates, for example, a miracle story by the twelfth-century hagiographer, Osbert of Clare, in which the deceased King Edward appears in a dream to Abbot Ælfwine of Ramsey, instructing abbot to inform King Harold, then marching north, that he would be victorious at Stamford Bridge. (98) The reader can only guess why Barlow chose to include this story or what it is supposed to add to his narrative. At times Barlow seems almost uncritical in his use of late sources. To support his contention that Queen Edith became “a woman of importance, even perhaps embittered and unpleasant” (52), Barlow relates an anecdote in Hariulf’s Chronicle of Saint-Riquier about how Abbot Gervin aroused the Edith’s anger by reacting in horror to the Queen’s attempt to greet him with a kiss of peace. Barlow finds the story “suggestive” but fails to explain why one ought to give it credence. Surely there is better evidence than this to support his contention that “Edith was a willful and increasingly powerful woman.” (52) There are numerous other examples of Barlow quoting or citing late sources without explaining why. This tendency to blur the distinction between history and legend is particularly disturbing in a book that is meant for a non-specialist audience.
The Godwins has little to offer the student of military history. Barlow pays scant attention to military matters, and while this may be understandable in the case of Earl Godwin, it detracts considerably from his treatment of Harold. Readers who come to this book hoping to learn about Harold’s and Duke William’s generalship or with the military organization of England and Normandy on the eve of the Conquest will be disappointed. Barlow is impressed with Harold’s achievement in fighting two battles, 250 miles apart, within nineteen days, and says of it, “For the eleventh century it is impossible to cite its equal.” (100). But he is skeptical about the possibility of learning much more about Harold’s generalship. He introduces his discussion of Hastings with a somewhat preemptory dismissal of the efforts of military historians who have sought to reconstruct the battle from the sources: “The paucity of information and occasional conflict of evidence has not however prevented generations of historians from reconstructing the progress of the battle, sometime from hour to hour, if not from minute to minute.” (104) Barlow is far less interested in what actually happened at Hastings than with how Guy of Amiens, William of Poitiers, and the Bayeux Tapestry presented the battle. He walks the reader through these three narratives of the battle, carefully pointing out differences among them, but fails to explain what the reader should make of these differences or how much credence one should place in any particular detail.
Although often entertaining and at times insightful, Frank Barlow’s The
Godwins is a lesser work from a great historian. Those wishing to learn about
the Godwin family will be better served by Ian Walker’s Harold: The
Anglo-Saxon King or Frank Barlow’s own magisterial biography of Edward