I would say that the title of this book is rather misleading. I was expecting a study of the kings of the Fifth Century onwards, perhaps ending with Charlemagne, and looking at how the new kingdoms replaced the fading authority of Rome. Instead we actually start with Charlemagne, by which time the ‘ashes of the Roman Empire’ in the west had been cold for several centuries. We are given nine biographies of important monarchs, concentrating largely on the Holy Roman Empire (three chapters) and England (four chapters), with one each for France and Scotland.
The choice of kings is fairly standard. The focus is largely on their military exploits, so we don’t get much about other aspects of their rule (other than the political framework for the wars), or much analysis of their reigns. However this does mean that we learn about some of the less familiar conflicts in their careers, such as the Viking invasion of England of 1069-70, and it does give a perhaps more accurate impression of Charlemagne and his near constant wars.
The final chapter suffered from an uneven approach. Robert the Bruce gets a variety of rather odd titles, including ‘the King Robert’ and most often ‘Robert of Bruce’, not a version I’ve seen before. The author can’t quite decide what to call Bruce’s supporters in the war of independence, at one point calling them ‘rebels’ and ‘loyalists’ within a few lines of each other. There is also a tendancy to downplay the civil war element of this conflict, so at one point Bruce is forced to retreat by the arrival of hostile highlanders, who then become ‘English’ as they chase him off the battlefield! The pro-Bruce version of his murder of John Comyn is accepted without comment, despite being based on later, pro-Bruce sources (that isn’t to say that their version wasn’t true, but the doubts do need to be acknowledged).
On the positive side each biography covers the entire career of their subject, not just their time as king. For monarchs such as Richard I this is of great significance, as their earlier lives were extremely active – before becoming King Richard was involved in a seemingly endless series of conflicts with his feudal vassels in Aquitaine, his brothers, and perhaps most often his own father Henry II. The two Fredericks also had significant military careers before becoming Emperor. The same is truce of the account of Robert the Bruce, which gives plenty of details of his battles against rival Scottish factions as well as the more famous struggles against Edward I and Edward II.
1 - Charlemagne: Forefather of the Holy Roman Empire
2 – Alfred of Wessex: Founder of a United England
3 – Cnut: Ruler of the North Sea Empire
4 – William I: Conqueror of England
5 – Frederick I Barbarossa: Unifier of the Holy Roman Empire
6 – Richard I: The Lion Heart Ruler of England and Western France
7 – Frederick II: Lord of the World
8 – Louis IX: Crusader King of France
9 – Robert I the Bruce: Defender of Scottish Independence
Author: Philip J. Potter
Publisher: Pen & Sword History