Battle for the Island Kingdom: England’s Destiny 1000-1066

While history buffs are likely very familiar with the Norman invasion of England in 1066, they might not know as much about the preceding half century and this epic book beautifully fills the gap.

It was a time of violence almost beyond belief, though it might remind readers of early 1900s pogroms in Russia and October 7th in Israel. Raiding Vikings from various countries as far away as what became Poland weren’t satisfied with just burning Anglo-Saxon towns and cities to ash–even if they’d received gold and silver as ransom. They raped women and cut off their breasts, threw victims into fires to burn alive, speared babies to death or smashed their skulls, and hanged men by their privates when they weren’t beaten, clubbed, or hacked to death.  The “lucky” people became slaves.

This was a landscape where danger and death were omnipresent–and so was disease, though the Anglo-Saxons didn’t know that and they had no understanding of hygiene. So they used water riddled with garbage, human waste, and animal corpses. “Random death was so common in England that the Anglo-Saxons had a word for it, aelfscot, ‘elf shot,’ struck down by an invisible, otherworldly arrow.”

And among the various kings, lords, and chieftains there were plots, coups, betrayals, assassinations and enough violence to make the series Vikings look like something from the Disney Channel.

Parallel to all this madness and dislocation was the quiet, steady, painstaking work of monks copying manuscripts in scriptoriums, work that was encouraged by Alfred the Great to save such treasures for posterity. That very human impulse to save learning and wisdom is both touching and fragile, because raiders had no use for books and loved burning them.

There is a veritable cast of thousands here and the names are often too similar, but the author does a splendid job of individualizing people and doing his best to separate legend from fact, as well a immersing you in a period that is at times both familiar and utterly alien. Hollway is especially good at charting the changing names of places from Latin to Danish to Old English and Modern English, helpfully explaining the roots of those names. 

Anything but dry, this is a book that has just two faults: no maps and no genealogies, so it’s hard to picture where certain cities are when they’re mentioned and hard to remember the interconnections among families.  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other news outlets as well as for several NPR radio stations, one of which hosted his interview show with guests like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.