Forgotten King Harold,
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This review is from: Harold and William: The Battle for England, A.D. 1064-1066 (Hardcover)
The reason history is so fascinating is because, quite often, momentous, world-altering events occur as the result of smaller, trivial ones. England, one of the greatest world powers in history, would not have evolved as it did without William's successful Norman invasion of the island in 1066. William's invasion may not have been successful but for the fact that his enemy, Harold, the king of England, was required to fight a desperate battle at Stamford Bridge three days earlier against a large invading army from Norway. And Harold would not have had to fight these Norwegians but for the falling out he had with his brother, Tostig, who left the country in a jealous fit one year earlier, and returned with this army to exact revenge.
It is a fascinating story, and recounted expertly in this straightforward but all-too-brief history. Brief, I should add, because there are simply not enough sources from which to draw, but the author does a fine job with what is available.
The reason that there was a conflict in the first place was that the former king of England, Edward, did not leave an heir. For inexplicable reasons--although he was unusually enamoured of the Normans--he decided that the best person to succeed him would be William. He sent Harold, his wife's brother-in-law and his most likely successor, to Normandy to solicit William, and somewhere in there--the author persuasively argues that he was coerced--Harold swore an oath of allegiance to William. But two years later Edward--on his deathbed--requested Harold be his successor, and Harold was subsequently approved by the witan, England's national council. William, enraged, immediately began preparations to invade.
In the meantime, Tostig, Harold's brother and ruler of Northumbria, was having a tough time ruling his subjects. It was so brutal, in fact, that the entire area was on the verge of rebellion. It says something about his rule that the demands of the Northumbrians were in fact met. Tostig was removed, by his brother no less, and became thereafter and until his death, a scourge of England, leading eventually to his alliance with a foreign power, and his accompaniment of this power on their invasion of England.
Perhaps the most fascinating character in the book is Harald Hardraada, the Norwegian leader. After fleeing the country for his life as a young man, he went to Russia where he won the favor of the Novgorodian King. He then enlisted as a mercenary for the Byzantine empire, where for eight years he fought their battles in Sicily, North Africa and the Middle East. He then returned to Novgorod where he married is love, returned to Denmark where he formed an alliance, used this power to forge an alliance with a Norwegian usurper, and eventually became King of Norway himself.
In the summer of 1066 we find him an eager participant in Tostig's plan to invade northern England, but after an initial success, he is surprised by Harold at Stamford Bridge, and both he and Tostig are killed after a long, bloody battle. Three days later--three days--William's forces land in England, and Harold, with his depleted army, makes the long march south. The rest, as they say, is history, and poor Harold has become nothing more than a footnote.
This is really remarkable, fascinating history, and retold here in a methodical, straightforward, and entertaining way.