Review – 1066, What Fates Impose

This book, by G. K. Holloway, tells the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. After a grisly account of the death of King William in 1087, it returns to the beginning, to 1045 and the marriage of King Edward (later called The Confessor). After many years of Danish rule, England has a king from the house of Wessex, but is Edward the right man for the job? His mother is Norman, he has spent most of his life in exile in France. It is on his wedding night that he makes the fateful decision not to provide an heir.

His wife is Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin and his sons are the most powerful family in the country; they are feared and hated by other Earls and the King himself. They try to wield power fairly, for the most part. Years pass and Godwin, together with his sons are unjustly exiled but return, more powerful than before.

The lack of an heir to the throne creates unrest, as various factions jockey for position. Someone suggests to William, Duke of Normandy that he has a claim, however remote. He likes the idea and from that moment England’s fate is sealed.

This is a long book, well over 400 pages, and the author knows his subject. He has obviously done a lot of research, explaining the politics of the day as well as including vivid descriptions of everyday life. The reader soon learn of the differences between life in England and France. The reader is forced to stand by, knowing what is to come, but unable, like the participants themselves, to do anything to prevent it.

Personally, I would have liked slightly less detail. A little judicial editing would have slimmed down the book and given the characters room to breath. For example we don’t really know why King Edward behaves as he does. Does he really believe “God will provide” or does he want to destroy England? Perhaps he is just inept – he was, after all, the son of Æthelred the Unready.

William of Normandy knows exactly what he wants. He tells us towards the end of the book, on the morning of the battle:
it’s a question of will. You simply decide what you want and then you grasp it with all your determination. You do not flinch; you do not allow yourself to be distracted. You disregard criticism, you dispose of enemies and discard those who call themselves your friend but simply get in your way.” And he believes God is on his side.

Other characters  are less sharply drawn. Even Harold Godwinsson is unable to prevent William forcing him to take the vow that causes him such problems.

But perhaps this is intentional. It heightens the sense of the inevitable, that nothing can stop what the fates impose – the downfall of England and the horrors which will follow under Norman rule.

Although long, the book is easy to read and if you are interested in the history of what lead up to the Battle of Hastings, you couldn’t find a better account.

 

Note: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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Axes, Wolves and Underpants

Those of us who write historical fiction must research. We are told we should spend a lot of time in research, then forget most of it, using it as background to take our readers into the everyday life of our characters. It is small details that can do that – the sort of small details that a “real” expert of the period will notice. You must not get them wrong.

I am not a historian, just someone who reads a lot of books. Or is that the definition of a historian? Let us just say that I have no official qualifications. I tend to do my research as it’s needed – on Wikipedia in an emergency. My problem is that I get caught up in the details, thinking to deeply about things.

Some recent examples:

I have been watching the recent television series 1966 – A Year to Conquer England. It is not a bad series although tending towards the habit of most historical programs nowadays of telling you what they are going to say, then saying it – several times and in different ways, finishing up with telling you what they have just said. All interspersed with random battle scenes. It has good presenters, experts and some well-known actors.

What worries me are the axes – big axes. I’m not complaining about the size, or how they are used in battle. My question is: what do you do with them when you are not using them? Contrary to the popular idea, the Anglo-Saxons, or Vikings were not fighting all the time. I suppose if you relaxing at home you might hang your axe on the wall, or prop it in the corner. Harald Hardrada in the 1066 program seems to carry his the whole time, threatening everyone with it, or hanging it over his shoulder. Does he take it to bed with him?

What did the average axe wielder do when, for example, he was travelling. Did he carry it in one hand all the time? I suppose if he was riding a horse, he might hang it from the saddle. The thing that worries me – axes are sharp (they have to be if you need to chop someone’s head off at a moments notice.) Swords are sharp, so are knives and seaxes, they all have their own scabbard. Do axes have a scabbard? What do they look like? I have never seen one. They must have had a way of protecting the blade, from weather, inquisitive fingers of small children, etc.

These are the sort of things that keep me awake at night.

Another thing is underwear, men’s underwear. I understand they might wear a loin cloth of a type of boxer short called braies. I have spent a lot of time wondering about this – and not just imagining my  main character wearing them, wet after a quick swim in a river. But enough of that!

If your average Anglo-Saxon warrior was going on a journey, did he pack an extra pair? Did he change them regularly; perhaps wash them out and hung them in front of the camp fire to dry. It’s never shown in the films or TV programs.

Perhaps I should mention here that a new series of The Last Kingdom, starts this week. I shall probably be commenting here next week, or read what I wrote about the first series here and here. From what I’ve seen on the trailers, it hasn’t improved. If I spot any braies I’ll let you know, but I don’t think Uhtred wears them.

Then there are the wolves. Recently I have been looking up the size of their feet, and did you know how interesting their dropping are? If anyone knows how to rip out a wolf’s throat with your bare hands, please let me know.

Finally, this weeks word count is 6,886. I would have reached 7,000 if I hadn’t had to stop and watch the Rugby.

I’ve got a lot on this week, so I’m not sure how I’ll much I’ll manage – probably more if I stopped worrying about the details.