Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

In Alison Weir’s new non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, she explores the lives of the five queens of England who followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. These five, in the order they appear in the book, are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I), Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen), and the Empress Maud, Henry I’s daughter, who was never actually crowned but called herself Lady of the English. Lots of Matildas, then – Maud is also referred to in many sources as Matilda – but with each queen discussed chronologically (apart from where their stories overlap), things aren’t as confusing as you might imagine!

Apart from Maud, whom I have read about several times in fiction, I knew very little about the other queens whose stories are covered in this book. Considering the general lack of information available to us today – we don’t even have a clear idea of what these women looked like due to the absence of contemporary portraits – I think Weir still does a good job of providing as full and comprehensive an account of each queen’s life as she possibly could. There is inevitably a lot of padding – facts about medieval life, descriptions of castles and long passages quoted from letters – but if you don’t know a lot about the period, most of this should still be of interest.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book as my own knowledge is very limited, but Weir does provide references to back up most of what she says. In fact, the additional material which includes the references, sources, maps etc takes up about a quarter of the book! There are still times, though, when she is forced to speculate and make assumptions about how one of the queens may have felt or behaved, and resorts to using words like ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’. Usually I prefer more certainty when I’m reading non-fiction, but in this case, I do understand that with the primary sources being so sparse, some guesswork was necessary to round out the characters of the queens and to make this into an entertaining read rather than a dry textbook.

15th century depiction of the Empress Matilda/Maud

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section describing the period of civil war known as the Anarchy during which Maud (who was named as her father Henry I’s heir) and Matilda of Boulogne (whose husband, Stephen, was Henry I’s nephew and another claimant to the throne) found themselves on opposite sides. As I’ve read several novels which have this period as a setting, it was good to read a factual account this time instead of a fictional one, while still recognising some of the most interesting episodes, such as Maud’s escape in the snow from the besieged Oxford Castle.

Maud certainly didn’t seem to have made herself very popular, having a reputation for being proud, haughty and arrogant, but I have always assumed that this was probably due to the prejudice of the male chroniclers of the time against a female ruler who didn’t behave the way they expected a woman to behave. Weir points out that Matilda of Boulogne often acted in a similar way but her actions were seen as acceptable because she was taking them on behalf of her husband, King Stephen, rather than for herself, but she also suggests that Maud’s overbearing attitude and poor decision-making may have been due to mood swings caused by early menopause or a long-term illness she suffered following childbirth. This was the one place where I thought there may have been some bias creeping in, as Weir clearly seems to like Matilda of Boulogne much more than the Empress – and I couldn’t help wondering what caused the aggression and lack of judgement of some of the kings mentioned in the book!

18th-century impression of Matilda of Flanders

I was also interested to read the various theories and legends behind Matilda of Flanders’ marriage to William the Conqueror and the controversies surrounding Matilda of Scotland’s marriage to Henry I (she had previously spent some time in a convent so it was debatable whether or not she was free to marry). I felt that I learned very little about Adeliza, though; while she is described as being particularly beautiful and helping to promote the arts, it seemed that she had less power and political significance than the other queens.

Although I sometimes felt that too much time was devoted to the general history of the period when I would have preferred more analysis of the specific lives and characters of the five queens, I did find Queens of the Conquest a fascinating read. Apparently this is just the first of four volumes which will take us through the rest of the medieval queens to the end of the Wars of the Roses. I will be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Advertisements

Fatal Rivalry by Mercedes Rochelle

fatal-rivalry-mercedes-rochelle This is the third and final novel in Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, completing the story begun in Godwine Kingmaker and The Sons of Godwine. Set in 11th century England, just before the Norman Conquest, Godwine Kingmaker told the story of Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, while in The Sons of Godwine the focus switched to the Earl’s children – sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth, and daughter Editha. Fatal Rivalry picks up where that book left off, describing the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

As the novel opens in 1064, Edward the Confessor, Editha’s husband, is still on the throne of England, but the question of his successor is on everybody’s minds. Editha’s brother Harold, who has inherited his father’s earldom of Wessex, has recently returned from Normandy, where he was made to swear an oath to support the claim of Duke William – not an oath Harold intends to keep, because he believes there is a better candidate for the throne: himself. History tells us that Harold will become king in 1066, only to be defeated by William at Hastings later that same year. Fatal Rivalry explores one theory as to why things went so disastrously wrong.

In The Sons of Godwine, we saw how Harold and his younger brother Tostig had been rivals since they were children; in this book the rivalry intensifies. As Earl of Northumbria, Tostig has become very unpopular with his people, particularly after attempting to raise taxes on Harold’s orders. When Tostig’s Northumbrian thegns rebel against him, King Edward sends Harold to negotiate with them. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Harold agrees to their demands and Tostig is sent into exile. Unable to forgive his brother for siding against him, Tostig searches for new alliances overseas, finally joining forces with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and setting in motion a chain of events which contribute to Harold’s downfall.

Like the previous novel, this one is presented as the memoirs of the Godwineson brothers, with each one given a chance to narrate his own parts of the story. Leofwine and Gyrth have smaller roles to play, while Wulfnoth, held hostage at Duke William’s court in Normandy, makes only a few appearances – until the end, when he takes on the very important job of concluding his brothers’ stories. Understandably, it’s Harold and Tostig who get most of the attention. I’ve never read about Tostig in this much detail before and I did have some sympathy for him. I’m sure Harold was doing what he thought was in the best interests of the country, but to Tostig it must have seemed like an unforgivable betrayal, particularly when he learned that Harold had married the sister of Morcar, his replacement as Earl of Northumbria.

Fatal Rivalry is an interesting read and probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Because the novel covers a relatively short period of time, it allows the author to go into a lot of detail in exploring the relationship between Harold and Tostig, the motivation behind their actions and how their rivalry could have been the reason why Harold was fighting a battle in the north of the country when William invaded from the south. I am not really a lover of battle scenes, but although there are two major battles which take place in this book – Stamford Bridge and then Senlac Hill (Hastings) – this is only one aspect of the novel and plenty of time is also spent on the more personal lives of the characters, such as Tostig’s relationship with his wife, Judith, and Harold’s marriages to Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia.

I think the Norman Conquest is fascinating to read about and, like many periods of history, there is so much left open to interpretation and debate. I will continue to look for more fiction set in this period and will also be interested to see what Mercedes Rochelle writes about next.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Sons of Godwine by Mercedes Rochelle

The Sons of Godwine This is the second of Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls novels which tell the story of the Godwinesons in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest. The first book, Godwine Kingmaker, follows Godwine, Earl of Wessex, as he rises to become one of the most powerful men in 11th century England. In this second novel we get to know the Earl’s family as his children take turns to narrate their own stories, each from his or her own unique viewpoint.

We begin with a prologue in which Queen Editha, daughter of Godwine and wife of Edward the Confessor, explains that the book she commissioned on the life of her husband – the famous Vita Ædwardi Regis – was originally intended to be a history of her own family and that she had asked her brothers to write down their memories to be included in the manuscript. The Sons of Godwine is presented as a collection of the brothers’ memoirs (fictional but based closely on historical fact).

Editha’s brother, Harold – the future King Harold II of England – is naturally the most famous member of the family and much of the novel revolves around him, but we also hear from Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth (though not from the eldest brother, Swegn) and through their alternating narratives the story of the sons of Godwine gradually unfolds.

Having read several other novels set during this period over the last year or two I feel that I’m beginning to know and understand it (though not as well as other periods, such as the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses). The Sons of Godwine takes us through all of the famous events and incidents of the time, including Harold’s marriage to Edith Swanneck, Swegn’s abduction of the Abbess of Leominster, and the violence in Godwine’s town of Dover during the visit of Eustace of Boulogne. These are all things that have been written about before, but what makes this book different is that we hear about them or see them happen through the eyes and ears of the Godwinesons themselves. I really liked this approach as it made the story feel more intimate and personal; the only problem was that there didn’t seem to be much difference between the narrative voices of the brothers.

As I’ve mentioned, Harold is given a lot of attention, but the other brothers have interesting stories of their own too, especially Tostig, who is made Earl of Northumbria, and Wulfnoth, held hostage by first King Edward and then by William, Duke of Normandy. They also each offer a different perspective on Harold’s character, viewing him with a mixture of admiration, irritation and envy. There is a particularly intense rivalry between Harold and Tostig, which slowly grows throughout the novel. Their relationship is going to be explored further in the third book in this series – Fatal Rivalry.

Thanks to the author for providing a review copy of this book.

The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson

The Golden Horn Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was an American author of fantasy and science fiction, but he also wrote a trilogy of historical novels, known as The Last Viking, which tells the story of Harald Hardrada, who was King of Norway from 1046 to 1066. I have read about Harald before, but only as a minor character or in relation to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the role he played in trying to claim the throne of England, so I was looking forward to reading The Golden Horn and learning more about his life.

Harald Sigurdharson (the name Hardrada or Hardrede, meaning “hard ruler”, will follow later) is the younger half-brother of Olaf II of Norway. Harald is only fifteen years old when he fights alongside Olaf at the Battle of Stiklastadh (Stiklestad) in an attempt to restore his brother to the Norwegian throne, which has been lost to King Canute of Denmark. Olaf is killed during the battle, his forces are defeated and Harald manages to escape. The Golden Horn, the first book in the trilogy, follows Harald throughout his time in exile as he waits for his chance to come home to Norway and reclaim the throne.

After recovering from being badly wounded at Stiklastadh, Harald flees to Russia with the help of Rognvald Brusason of Orkney. In Kiev, he meets the Grand Prince Yaroslav who makes him a captain in his army. Later, Harald continues south to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, where he becomes commander of the Varangian Guard. The next few years are spent on various military campaigns in and around Constantinople and the Mediterranean. During this time Harald amasses great wealth, makes a name for himself as a warrior, and enters into marriage with Princess Ellisif (Elisaveta) of Kiev.

The Golden Horn was not quite what I was expecting: not being very familiar with Harald’s story, I hadn’t realised so much of the novel would be set in Constantinople rather than Scandinavia (although the title should have been a clue; the golden horn was the name of the horn-shaped harbour of Constantinople). I didn’t mind, though, as I loved this setting and enjoyed following the intrigue surrounding the Byzantine Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita, her husband Michael IV, and her sister Theodora. Harald is back in Norway by the end of the novel, so I imagine the next two books in the trilogy will be the ‘Viking’ stories I had expected.

What I liked less were the battle scenes and the focus on Harald’s military career with the Varangian Guard, which seemed to come at the expense of character development and the emotional connections which are so important to me in fiction. I never felt that I got to dig beneath the surface and really get to know Harald – or any of the other characters in the book – and that was disappointing. Still, it was good to have the chance to learn a little bit about Harald’s life, even if I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of historical facts, which I felt could have been woven more smoothly into the fabric of the story.

The Golden Horn is followed by The Road of the Sea Horse and The Sign of the Raven. All three novels were originally published in 1980. I don’t think I’ll be reading the other two as this book just wasn’t really for me, but I would have no hesitation in recommending the trilogy to readers who are interested in this period and who look for different things in historical fiction than I do.

Thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Gildenford by Valerie Anand

Gildenford In 1036 the exiled Alfred Atheling, son of the late King Ethelred and his wife, Emma of Normandy, is invited to return to England to visit his mother. While lodging with Godwin, Earl of Wessex, in the town of Gildenford (now known as Guildford), Alfred and his men are betrayed and captured on the orders of King Harold Harefoot. The Atheling dies after being brutally tortured and blinded.

Several years later, Alfred’s brother, Edward the Confessor, succeeds to the throne of England but the truth of what happened in Gildenford remains shrouded in mystery. Was Harefoot acting alone or with Godwin’s help? Worse still, was it a plot of Emma’s to have her own son murdered? Edward can’t be sure, but one man thinks he knows. His name is Brand Woodcutter, a servant of Godwin’s who has been part of the Earl’s household for many years and is considered to be a friend of the family. Brand’s battle with his conscience as he tries to decide what to do with his knowledge of Gildenford is at the heart of this novel as we move through some of the key events leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction set in this period recently and more than one person has recommended Valerie Anand’s Norman trilogy to me. I’m glad they did because I really enjoyed it – this is definitely my type of book! It does exactly what a good historical novel should do…brings a bygone age back to life, entertains as well as educating, and reminds us that the people who lived in those distant times were human beings like ourselves, not just names we might have seen in a school textbook.

Most of the characters in Gildenford are real historical figures and they are all so well-drawn and convincing that at first I wasn’t sure it was really necessary to incorporate fictional characters such as Brand into the story as well. I did soon warm to Brand, however, and enjoyed the scenes written from his perspective as he observes the actions of others, struggles with conflicting loyalties and agonises over some very difficult decisions. I was impressed by the way Anand manages to weave his personal storyline together with the historical facts, particularly the abduction of the Abbess of Leominster and the uprising in Dover during the visit of Count Eustace of Bologne.

Gildenford was published in 1977 and like most of Valerie Anand’s books is currently out of print. I managed to obtain an ebook version from Open Library but unfortunately they don’t have the second one, The Norman Pretender. Judging from the prices being asked for used copies they must be quite rare, but I’ll watch out for a reasonably priced one and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can continue with the series.

1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

1066 1066 is one of the most famous dates in English history so you can probably guess what this book is about! I have read a few other books set in this period recently so when the author of 1066: What Fates Impose contacted me to offer me a copy for review, I was pleased to accept.

The novel closely follows the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. After a brief but dramatic prologue in which we see William the Conqueror on his deathbed in 1087, we move back several decades in time to Winchester in the year 1045 where we meet the family of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. It is Godwin’s son, Harold, of course, who will face William on the battlefield in 1066, but before we reach that point of the story there are twenty-one years of history to be covered and almost four hundred pages of novel to be read!

To fully understand what happened at Hastings, we need to understand the background to the conflict. G.K. Holloway takes us through many key moments including the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold’s handfast marriage to Edyth Swan-neck, the threats from the Welsh and the Vikings, and the fates of Harold’s brothers Sweyn and Tostig Godwinson. Along the way, we learn about the complex feuds and alliances between England’s noblemen and are given some insight into the situation in Normandy, where Duke William is preparing for invasion. We see how various characters plot, scheme and work hard to achieve their goals, only to find, in the end, that certain things are out of their control and that even the most careful plans can be thrown into disarray by what fates impose.

This is clearly a book that has been well researched and as far as I could tell (I can’t claim to be an expert on this subject) the story does stick closely to the known historical facts. Obviously there is a limit as to how much information is available on the 11th century so any author writing a fictional account of the period will need to use their imagination to fill in gaps and interpret the motivations and actions of the characters, but I think G.K. Holloway does this very well. Everything in the novel feels plausible and there was nothing that left me shaking my head and thinking “this would never have happened”.

The novel features a large and varied cast of characters, ranging from Godwin and his children to the ruling families of Mercia and Northumbria, Duke William and his fellow Normans, and an assortment of bishops and archbishops (most, though not all, of these people are listed at the beginning of the book, which was very helpful). Some felt more developed than others but sadly I didn’t really manage to form a strong emotional connection with any of them – although I did have a lot of sympathy for Harold as his story headed towards its inevitable end.

Because there is so much historical information packed into this novel, I think 1066: What Fates Impose could be a good introduction to the pre-Conquest years for readers who have little or no previous knowledge. A sequel covering the time between the Battle of Hastings and William’s death would be interesting, but meanwhile, having been left wanting to read more about this period I am now reading Gildenford by Valerie Anand, a book which has been recommended to me by several people recently.

Thanks to G.K. Holloway for providing a copy of this book.

Godwine Kingmaker by Mercedes Rochelle

Godwine Kingmaker Earlier this year I read Mercedes Rochelle’s Heir to a Prophecy, a novel set in the 11th century and inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Her second book, Godwine Kingmaker: Part One of The Last Great Saxon Earls, is also set in Anglo-Saxon England – in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest – and tells the story of Godwine, Earl of Wessex.

Godwine, son of Wulfnoth, is only eighteen when he meets a Danish warrior in the woods and offers his assistance. This chance meeting will change the course of Godwine’s life, because the man he has befriended is Ulf, brother-in-law of Canute, King of Denmark. When Canute takes the throne of England after the death of Edmund Ironside in 1016, Godwine is by his side offering advice and support. During the years that follow he rises to become Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, but Godwine’s good fortune will not last forever…

Godwine Kingmaker provides a fascinating portrayal of one of the last and greatest Saxon Earls. I have come across Godwine once or twice before in other novels set during this time period, but have never read about his life in so much depth. As the father of Harold, the future King of England, his historical significance is obvious, but he was also a very important nobleman in his own right. I thought he was a great character and I enjoyed following his story from his humble beginnings to the height of his power and influence.

One aspect of the story I found particularly interesting – and also quite frustrating – is the relationship between Godwine and Ulf’s sister, Gytha. Gytha very reluctantly becomes Godwine’s wife and for a long time after the marriage she persists in denying her feelings for him, even to herself. Although her behaviour annoyed me at times, I thought it was good that this storyline was not resolved too quickly and continued to have implications for several of the characters later in the book.

Godwine is an ambitious man but he is also a man who cares about his family and throughout the novel we see him working to ensure a safe and secure future for his children, even while his fortunes rise and fall as three more kings follow Canute. Despite Godwine’s best efforts, his eldest son, Swegn, stumbles from one disaster to another, but it is his second son, Harold, who will carry the family’s legacy forward.

Mercedes Rochelle is now working on the sequel to this book, The Sons of Godwine, which will tell the story of Harold Godwineson and his brothers. I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of Godwine Kingmaker for review.