1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway
The Wishing Shelf Book Awards Gold Medal Winner 2014
Mention the year 1066 and most people, even if unaware of actual events, seem instinctively to know that something of great consequence happened. Having learned about it at school, I myself knew the basics but after that did not read much about it until several years ago. Still, seeing the cover of G.K. Holloway’s 1066: What Fates Impose stilled the moment a bit: resolutely straightforward, not unlike a steely glare, it communicates great import with such details as a Saxon shield and somber implications of a decided destiny.
The gist is this: while the new year dawns, King Edward the Confessor’s twilight looms, and being without an heir creates a considerable problem for England’s future. There is no shortage of contenders for the throne, though this decision—according to English custom and law of the time—is in the hands of the Witan, the king’s council. They choose Harold Godwinson, son of the late Earl Godwin of Wessex, and his coronation takes place on January 6, one day after Edward dies.
Across the channel in Normandy, Duke William is enraged. He claims Edward promised him the crown and that Harold pledged an oath to support his ascension. Vowing to take the throne, by force if necessary, William commences preparation for full invasion of England, further supported, though indirectly, by Norwegian King Harald Hardrada’s assertion that a treaty secures the crown, in fact, for him. Though King Harold emerges victorious in late September’s Battle of Stamford Bridge, where the Norwegian is killed, his army, distracted from forces gathering in the south, is spent. Nevertheless, they head toward William’s position, engage, and Harold falls on October 14.
In the clear black summer sky the stars and the golden moon shone brightly. On the breeze, the chords from someone’s lyre floated on the night air; the music mixed with the sound of the gentle breaking of the waves, forming a lullaby to send the warriors to sleep.
It was no easy victory for William the Bastard. The Saxons put up a determined fight and are said to have menacingly chanted “Out! Out! Out!” at William’s forces as they faced the formidable Saxon shield wall. The duke had also had to secure support for the invasion, which came via Pope Alexander II, an endorsement that attracted forces in great number. As the year draws to a close, he ascends to the throne and is styled King William I, history later remembering him as William the Conqueror.
Though he was to face a series of rebellions in following years, 1066 covers these only in reference, albeit a powerful one. Holloway opens his novel at the end, depicting William pronouncing his deathbed confessions, owning up to ruthless slaughter of a magnitude most couldn’t imagine for its horror. Nearby stands the bloodied, battered apparition whom in life he last saw 21 years earlier, and who has haunted him ever since.
The author then brings us back in time to 1045 and the tale moves forward in linear fashion, point of view changes allowing us a clear pathway to characters’ perceptions and motives, with Harold Godwinson as the central figure. Holloway has a sharp and succinct manner with words, couching his phrases within passages that reveal strong observation and experience with human nature and its attendant habits.
Godwin looked thoughtful and a silence descended on the room. Over the years he had learned to be on his guard at the sight of Harold’s huge grin; it was genuine enough most of the time but his son had learned how to use it to disarm any reaction to bad news.
The author also crafts his dialogue in such a way that readers get a fuller sense of what others in various scenes often are missing: a glint in the eye, ever so slightly tilted head, raised eyebrow, knowing glance or sarcastic tone. This technique brings his characters’ words into sharper focus, gasp-inducing realization coming to the reader before it does to characters, creating a suspense hanging on the imminent revelation as well as the observation of a person unaware of the situation’s full extent.
As William and his 700-strong armada make their way across the channel, the duke outpacing his support, it is
… the warm morning sun on his face that woke him; that and the sounds of activity on deck.
’Good morning,’ he called to his comrades, over the sound of the gulls, the sea lapping the ship’s sides and the gentle wind slapping the sail.
‘Good morning,’ echoed the replies.
‘She’s a fine craft, the Mora, isn’t she?’ the Duke said to no one in particular.
“Very fine, my Lord,’ replied Odo, with some obvious discomfort.
‘I see you’re feeling seasick too.’
‘It’s not that, my Lord. It’s just that I feel a little uneasy.’
‘Why do you feel uneasy? It’s not like you.’
‘It’s the fleet.’
‘What about the fleet?’
‘Where is it?’
Holloway engages us in this playing with of various characters, but also teases it out to create another effect, this time with us, and in dual fashion. This particular scene lulls us to a calm rising indicated by the soothing sounds of water against the ship, the sun’s warm rays, admiration of the wonderful vessel the duke’s party sails in. The understanding we gain just before William does jars our perception, chilling the moment.
Additionally, we know the story of the historical Harold, and that William’s approach brings the king closer to his last day on earth. As events unfold, however, Holloway provides us with glimpses such as these that cause doubt to arise—perhaps Harold can make it after all. How, we might wonder, could someone who can’t keep track of his own ships hope to conquer an entire nation? It is a testament to the author’s storytelling expertise that in his hands the entire account is more than merely a series of episodes written out. For brief moments we feel we can believe that somehow he finds a way to alter the outcome; our hearts can remain unbroken.
‘I’ll not, at any price, deliver up my country and its people as a result of an oath obtained by trickery and deceit.’
Throughout the novel, though, this impression duels with the running theme of fate and free choice in opposition, perhaps best illustrated by the circumstances of Harold’s official marriage. He plans his actions deliberately and accordingly, but is still ensnared in a condition that seemed to already have been decided. Will the forces who control his destiny continue to steer him to that awful, fateful day?
As he tells his tale, Holloway relates events in a manner that could be identified as neutral, but which also play into the sense of suspense as we speculate as to who he is gunning for. At the Easter feast in 1053, table conversation perilously turns to yet another accusation from Edward regarding Godwin’s culpability in the death of his brother Alfred. In defiance Godwin cries out that if he is guilty, God would choke him; a moment later he smashes a piece of bread into his mouth, collapses and dies several days after.
It has been asserted that this account of Godwin’s death is Norman propaganda, and its inclusion points to Holloway’s method of relating events from both the English as well as Norman perspective, continuing our journey through the year uncertain as to how we will reach the end. It is a neutrality lending the story greater grip as it manages to keep us on the edge of our seats.
What Pomeroy relished as much as violence itself was the knowledge that inside his victims’ terror lived the faint, foolish hope that complete submission might lead to their lord sparing them. How little they understood his sport. [W]hat delighted him most was the feasting of his eyes on his victims’ faces as they realised they were about to die and the fascinating fading away of the light in their eyes as their life drained from them.
Perhaps the best part of 1066: What Fates Impose is the dialogue. Lively, morose, revealing, engaging, informative and at times waggish, it brings characters to life and links them to others as well as us. The novel covers over two decades within which a rather extensive cast of characters appear. Owing to their numbers and familial links as well as contemporary attitudes dictating responses to events and the actions of others, a great deal of information is presented, and Holloway pulls it off succinctly and in an accessible manner. It is entertaining in its robustness and I would highly recommend it to anyone, naturally, interested in the Anglo-Saxon era or this most important year in English history. I would also, however, enthusiastically name it as a dramatic saga of passion and intrigue, fear and depravity, ego and ambition that just about any reader could get hooked into.
The conclusion of 1066 implies a sequel, and though I have ideas where Holloway might go with it, one really can’t be sure, though that is, as examined above, part of what makes this book so riveting. A brilliant portrait of a fascinating era that ended nearly a thousand years ago, Holloway’s ability to bring us there is all the more wondrous, and I look forward to reading more from this author—and hopefully very soon.
Author Glynn Holloway writes …
I’ve always liked stories ever since I was a kid and not fussy about what format they came in; whether it be stories read out loud on the radio, TV, comics, books or films, I still get great pleasure in listening to people telling me their own stories, whether it be at a bus stop or some heart to heart conversation, whatever. When other people get bored or impatient at the supermarket checkout, I find myself picking out other customers and working out their back stories or develop a character in a novel. I just love stories, so, I suppose, it’s only natural that I tell stories as well as listen to them. The only people I didn’t listen to were teachers – unless they taught history, literature or Bible stories.
Being dyslexic, I never really read much, until, at the age of eight, I ended up in hospital with appendicitis. Lying in a hospital bed is pretty boring and as there was no TV in hospital wards in those days, I read through all the comics I could get my hands on. So my Mum brought me in a couple of books and that’s what got me into reading. In my teens I progressed through every Biggles book ever published to Penguin Modern Classics and most of what they had to offer.
After leaving school I became a compositor on a local newspaper; trained in a job that should have seen me set for life. Along came photo-film-setting and I watched as printing changed overnight and saw a machine doing the job of half a dozen men in a fraction of the time they could. I knew this was just the beginning of the end for me and decided to get myself an education and a different career. Studying O Levels and A Levels part-time at the local technical college, I went on to take a history and politics degree in Coventry.
From Coventry I went to Bristol, studied to be a Careers Officer, worked in Gloucestershire in schools, colleges and Adult Education, before becoming a Student Welfare Officer.
What made me write? My wife, Alice, bought me a book for Christmas, which I just loved. It was called Harold: The Last Anglo Saxon King, by Ian W Walker and it shone a light into the dark recesses of history I knew little about. I found the whole period so fascinating I just read more and more about it. In fact, I found the whole era so exciting I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been covered more in films, TV, books, etc. (think Tudors). ‘Somebody ought to write a novel about this,’ I thought and decided that somebody ought to be me. Fortunately, things worked out in such a way I was able to realise my dream. The rest is historical fiction.
A copy of 1066: What Fates Impose was provided to the blogger to facilitate an honest review.
This post has been updated to accommodate a new image from the Bayeux Tapestry with added caption