Book Review: Battle for the Island Kingdom: England's Destiny 1000–1066


by Hollway, Don

Osprey Publishing, Nage. 432. Illus, map, personae, notes, biblio., index.. $25.34. ISBN:147285893X

For the common folk of England, life in the eleventh century was often “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” as armies of Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Vikings, and Normans marched across the land, raping, murdering and pillaging as they went. Occasional failed harvests added famine to the menu. For the nobles, things were not much better as treachery and betrayal were the order of the day. All this makes for a rattling good story, and Don Holloway, who describes himself as “author, illustrator, historian, musician, fencer, and re-enactor,” is just the one to tell it, as demonstrated in his earlier books from Osprey, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada (2021) and At the Gates of Rome: The Fall of the Eternal City, AD 410 (2022).

What we know about this remote period of history is largely based on surviving chronicles kept by monks, who were some of the only people at that time who could read and write. These are supplemented by some Norse sagas, poetic accounts of the adventures of Viking warlords that were preserved in Icelandic (a language close to Old Norse.)

From 978 until his death in 1016, England was cursed with one of the most inept kings who ever sat on a shaky throne, Æthelred II “the Unready.” His Anglo-Saxon epithet, unræd, means “poorly advised.” He was briefly succeeded by his son Edmund “Ironside,” and then the English throne passed to Danish king Cnut (“Canute the Great”) who ruled a North Sea empire that included England, Denmark, and Norway until 1042. After that, things got really complicated.

For twenty four years, the throne was held by Æthelred’s pious and unworldly son, Edward “the Confessor,” (later canonized as a saint.) Edward died without an heir, and the crown passed briefly to Harold Godwinson, England’s last Anglo-Saxon king. Harold won a brilliant victory over a Norse invasion at Stamford Bridge (25 September 1066) only to fall in battle a few weeks later, against the Norman invasion of William “the Conqueror,” at the battle of Hastings (14 October 1066).

The cast of characters in this epic story is vast and potentially confusing for readers who have not studied the history. The listing of “Dramatis Personae” at the front of the book includes 86 names, including three Ediths, four Roberts, and six Williams.

The book is enhanced by a section of 14 glossy color illustrations, but this includes only one rather general map. Readers unfamiliar with the geography of Britain will benefit from keeping a good historical atlas, or at least a map of England’s traditional counties, at hand.

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, Bohemond of Taranto, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Ancient Rome: Infographics, Byzantium and the Crusades, A Short History of the Byzantine Empire, Theoderic the Great, and The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium 
Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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