A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements book A Brief History of the Vikings is very old school history, very one event after another.  Lots of successions of rulers and records of who won and who lost various battles.

It was just the thing to pass the time I spent last week riding the ferry boat back and forth between my home and San Francisco where I was taking a class at The Center for the Book on Byzantine Bookbinding.

So I’m not sure it’s worth spending much time on here.  I basically enjoyed it, though I did skim a few of the chapters.  Part of a series of “brief histories” there’s nothing ground shaking in Mr. Cements’ book. If you want a more cultural history, more of a sense of what Viking life was like, then you should look elsewhere.

However, towards the end there were these two very tantalizing bits…

First there was this  sentence about Queen Emma of England  “With Edmund Ironside trying to raise an army in the west, the defence of London fell to his stepmother, Queen Emma, a remarkable woman who saw seven kings rule England in her lifetime, two of whom were her husbands, and two her sons.”

What, I thought.  It there a book about her? I want to know more.  A few pages later, London falls to Canute who becomes the next king of England and marries Emma, who was the widow of the previous king.  The two have several children, the start of a decent dynasty.

The second concerns Zoe, Empress of Byzantium with whom Harald Hardraada, called The Ruthless, had an affair.  Harald Hadraada plays a key role in the Norman Conquest of England, which I’ve been covering in my 7th grade class for nearly two decades.  Every year I bring my students a cake to celebrate William the Conqueror’s victory at The Battle of Hastings on October 10, 1066.

But Empress Zoe…. The wife of three emperors, the adopted mother of a fourth Zoe eventually became the ruler of Byzantium in her own right.  Harald Hardraada arrives in Constantinople to join the Varangian guards which were all Vikings in the service of the Byzantine emperors.  Zoe soon began an affair with Harald, though she was married to the emperor. She gave Harald high ranked positions as part of a political plot against her sister who was trying to increase her own power.  Harald was not as loyal to Zoe as she was to him so he ended up leaving Constantinople in part to save his own life.

Zoe went on to marry another emperor, her third, and to basically become the ruler of Byzantium.  Harald tried to conquer England after the death of Edward the Confessor but died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge which Harold Godwinson won only lose it all to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings a few weeks later.

So this will all work very well with the 7th grade’s new focus on how various cultures influenced each other over time by linking the Vikings and the Byzantine Empire with the rise of feudalism in England.

And some cable network somewhere really should make a series about Empress Zoe.

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7 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements

  1. Those two snippets are tantalising indeed. I’ve only just got over Eleanor of Aquitaine being the wife of two kings and mother of two and a bit (or three and a bit?) more. The Viking guards in Constantinople have always fascinated me, but I’ve not found a good book about them.

    I’ve just got a copy of “Viking Britain” by Thomas Williams, for which I’ve got high hopes.

    1. There’s a book called “Eleanor and the Four Kings” (I think) that is a pretty good read. She is a fascinating person. I’d no idea there were so many women like her who married and/or gave birth to so many queens.

  2. I knew both g about Queen Emma until a few weeks ago when I came across an episode of a BBC Radio 4 programme called In Our Time which featured her. A remarkable story. You might be able to get the programme through the Podcast feed on iTunes.

  3. And of course the Normans were descendants of Vikings who had settled in France for yet another Viking connection. The Vikings must be in the air — I just finished a non-brief but very interesting audiobook, The Vikings by Kenneth Harl from Audible/The Great Courses.

    1. There are several television series featuring Vikings, too. They are a bit far down the dial on your cable service, but they’re not too bad historically speaking.

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