Nearly a thousand years ago today—951, to be exact—a battle took place at Stamford Bridge at East Riding of Yorkshire, between the English King Harold Godwinson and Norwegian Harald Hardrada. Though the Norwegian was aided by the English king’s brother Tostig, the victory went to Harold. Icelandic historian, mythologist, poet and politician Snorri Sturluson writes that before the battle a lone man rides up to Harald and Tostig with a message that the latter could re-gain his lost earldom if he turns against Hardrada. Tostig asks what King Harald would gain from this. “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men,” comes the reply. Impressed by the now-departed rider’s fearlessness, Hardrada asks Tostig who the man was. Tostig tells him this was Harold Godwinson himself.
Harald and Tostig are both killed in battle and the Norse lose with such severity that only a couple of dozen ships out of their original fleet of some 300 are needed to transport survivors back home. Today author G.K. Holloway, who writes in 1066: What Fates Impose of King Harold in the time leading up to this fateful year, is off to re-enactment of the famous fight which, despite Harold’s win, influenced how the next battle in his struggle to save his country would turn out.
Glynn Holloway joins us today as we look back in time and discuss motivations of Harold as well as William. Why should we remember this era? What happened before and after Harold’s shipwreck? What drove William despite the law standing against him, and the others affected by all this: soldiers, civilians, families, survivors, those who came after? What did it all portend for them, for us? Holloway’s novel portrays both figures, as well as others, thoughtfully and with great care to the reality of how various events affected each other. He speaks today of Anglo-Saxon achievement and what they set out for us before their end, why they matter and how our remembrance of them gives them some justice. I posed some challenging questions, and Holloway takes them up, as in 1066: What Fates Impose, with both sensitivity and passion, the strength of his convictions shining through as he speaks for a people who can no longer do it for themselves.
Welcome, Glynn Holloway, and thanks so much for spending a bit of time again with us as we approach the end of our year-long observance of the 950th anniversary of 1066. It’s been a time of introspection, hard thought and contemplation, remembering all the people who lost their lives at the Battle of Hastings, and who survived – or didn’t – its aftermath. Your fantastic novel, 1066: What Fates Impose, really brings so much of that home for the modern reader, as well as what led up to it all.
Your bio mentions being gifted Ian W. Walker’s The Last Anglo-Saxon King, which inspired you to research and write about the time yourself. Had you learned about it before and wanted to delve deeper? Or was it a cold call, so to speak, in terms of titles?
When my wife, Alice, bought me Walker’s book I had no more idea than the average person about what was happening in England before the Norman Invasion. Walker’s book opened my eyes and made me want to know more. The more I researched the more I wanted to know. Eventually, I thought the end of the Anglo-Saxon era one of the most interesting and exciting epochs ever. I was amazed no one had made an epic film or book about the period. So, I decided to do it myself. 1066: What Fates Impose is the result.
In writing about historical figures, what cautions did you come up against, from yourself and others? What are the ethics of writing about people who really lived?
My main concern is keeping as close to what is known of the facts as I can. No one knows everything about events that led up to the Battle of Hastings. We know quite a lot, the approximate number of soldiers on each side, whose army was filled with professionals, whose was not, who had archers, who did not, etc. Where the history becomes foggy, and there’s quite a bit of fog in the eleventh century, are places like Harold’s reason for journeying to Normandy, how he became shipwrecked, what were the circumstances of his oath swearing to William. This is where the fiction comes in but even so, I tried to keep the story within the bounds of reality. Keep the story real and balanced. If your subject is genuinely exciting, you shouldn’t need to ‘spice it up’ too much. Portray the characters as accurately as possible, even the villains deserve that, and the story should be better for being more ‘real.’ And finally, on a different note, I feel that writers of historical fiction owe it to their readers to present the history as accurately as they can otherwise we’re in danger of obscuring real events and characters and if that happens, then we won’t know what really happened in the past and it follows from there that we won’t know who we are or how we got here.
Whether writing about them or not, do you feel we owe something to Harold Godwinson and the others he fought with and against?
Do we owe something to Harold Godwinson? Well, he laid down his life for his kingdom and his people. A cynic would perhaps say, well, he owned a massive chunk of the country, so he was only fighting in his self-interest. For the following reasons, I don’t believe that to be true. William offered Harold his daughter’s hand in marriage, she would be Harold’s queen and their descendants would rule after them. This would mean Harold would have to betray/disinherit his family with Edith Swan-neck but he and his descendants with William’s daughter would continue his dynasty. But Harold didn’t take up the offer.
What convinces me of Harold’s sincerity, is his eagerness to get into Sussex in 1066 when William and his army arrived. He took his responsibilities as lord and protector seriously. He left London too early because he felt he’d let down the people on his estates and wanted to defend them. His brother, Gyrth, wanted to implement slash and burn tactics around Hastings to starve out the Normans. Harold would have none of it. He saw it as his duty to protect his tenants, not destroy their livelihoods. Naturally, my respect goes out to Harold’s followers but as to those he fought against, the bulk of them were just out to feather their own nests and this they did with zest.
Is there anything you think Harold could have done or not done that might have changed the outcome of the Battle of Hastings? What helped William the most?
I think Harold’s biggest mistake was not to wait a day or two longer before setting out from London. Having just travelled up to Stamford Bridge, battled against the biggest Viking army to land in England, before returning south, exhausting his forces in the process. If he had waited just that couple of days, Earls Edwin and Morcar would have marched down to Senlac with him, his men would have had a little more rest. That probably would have swung it for him.
What helped William the most? Luck. I don’t say that lightly. William’s first attempt at invading England came sometime around 12th September and ended in disaster. A storm had blown up in the Channel and blown his fleet onto the shores of Ponthieu. It could easily have been worse and his armada might have ended up at the bottom of the sea.
What I will give William credit for is his organizational skills. Putting the army together, building a navy to carry it across the sea is quite a feat, as is supplying his forces for a month while he waited in Dives for a favourable wind to come along. He also had political guile. Gaining the support of the Pope was a master stroke and helped draw additional support for his campaign from many countries north of the Alps.
Knowing Harold and William as you do, what do you think each would have thought of your portrayal of him?
I don’t think William would be too pleased. I portray him as cruel. There are some people who would tell you, this is in the medieval period, things were barbaric but for the harrying of the north alone, and by harrying, I mean genocide, he was more barbaric than any other king of England. I’d point to this for those who say William was no worse than the rest and don’t forget, his contemporaries thought him cruel, so he must have been cruel, even by the standards of the time.
Was he honest or a liar? He had no claim to the English throne. Under English law, the king had to be of royal blood, legitimately born and elected by the Witan. Under Norman law, the title was inherited by primogeniture, i.e. down the male line. William wasn’t eligible under either law, but he claimed the throne anyway. Why?
I think he may have been offered it by someone. If may have been King Edward or perhaps Archbishop Robert de Jumieges. Whoever it was, it wasn’t theirs to offer. But I think William thought he was in the right. He wouldn’t much appreciate me pointing out his error.
I think Harold might well like my depiction of him. He comes across as what he was, handsome, courageous, intelligent, a great leader of men and a good king. He is also not without faults. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he had a tendency to ‘dally and he was too liberal.’ So, not too bad then.
If given the opportunity, would you agree to meet with Harold in life? What about William? What would you say to them, and what do you reckon they might say to you? Would you be interested in an encounter with Harold’s ghost? (I don’t think it would be at all like William’s, as portrayed in 1066: What Fates Impose!)
It would be fascinating to meet with Harold in real life. I’d ask him all those what if questions. Where he thought he went wrong. What would he do differently if he had the opportunity? As for William, I think that would be a bit scary but I’d love to know why he really thought he was entitled to the English crown.
Do you think it would matter to either one that we know their history (even long before 1066), or that we believe in the rightness of what either of them did?
I think they would both want to be seen as doing the right thing and be recognised for doing so. I think Harold would be particularly keen to know what we, 950 years after the event, thought of the oath he swore to William and if anyone thought it binding.
What about the ordinary people, combatants and non-combatants alike? Do you think it would matter to them that we know what happened and how they suffered? What considerations do you feel they are entitled to?
Nobody likes to be forgotten and to suffer and have no one know or care would be hurtful in the extreme. I think it would matter to them we know and care. It’s as close as they’ll get to justice.
Do you believe enough Anglo-Saxon history is taught in schools today? What would you say to people unconvinced that this history is worth learning about? (Or to people overwhelmed at the thought of studying this period?)
No, I don’t think enough Anglo-Saxon history is taught in schools today. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people know about Anglo-Saxon history from reading Bernard Cornwell’s novels, or TV adaptations, than anything taught in a classroom. Anglo-Saxon history, to many, is the Dark Ages. The Romans left, the lights went out, then the Normans came and switched them on again. While the lights were out the Vikings took advantage, and robbed the churches from the feeble Anglo-Saxons who did nothing much to defend themselves.
The Anglo-Saxons laid the foundations for England and established a proto-democracy with a first-rate administration to back it up. Their society was relatively wealthy and cultured. All this is passed by. You can buy wall charts in England with all the Kings of England represented, starting with William in 1066. I can’t tell you how annoying I find it.
Do any of the characters or historical figures speak to you?
No, they don’t. I can visualize them easily enough and imagine them interacting with each other quite clearly. But no, they don’t talk to me. Heaven only knows what they’d say if they did.
Do you think one could be an effective writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I think a writer is most effective when writing about what they know. So, if you don’t feel emotions strongly, it’s going to be difficult to write about them. My book is historical fiction. It’s all very well researching the history but for people to really engage they need to feel the fear, lust, love, hate, sympathy, etc. A lot of people have told me when they were reading 1066, in the final battle at Hastings, they really wanted Harold to win, even though they knew how it would end. I think that’s, in part, because I feel passionate about the era and what went on and that is conveyed in the story telling.
How do you balance being reader and writer friendly? For example, how do you know or decide how much background information to add and how, so that readers are not put off by either a perceived sense of being “spoon fed” or left hanging by lack of information?
You’ve asked me some interesting questions and this is the most difficult. All I can say is I write what I’d like to read. I can be quite certain my readers would like to know some details about the history, clothes, jewellery, weapons, etc. They wouldn’t be reading historical fiction if they felt otherwise. But where to draw the line? I try to weave things together so I’ll try and merge a scene, say, in a mead hall, with the customs, the kind of food and type of dance by presenting a single scene and not a series of mini lectures. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, while the reader learns a little about Anglo-Saxon life they’ll read an interesting scene which moves the story along.
Do you perform all your research before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were)? Or do you periodically dip back in the archives? Do you go on research trips?
I do the bulk of my research before I start typing but then I’ll come across something that I feel needs flushing out or is more interesting than I first imagined, so then I’ll research around the topic. In 1066, it was herbal medicine, horn dances, sword manufacture, falconry, Anglo-Saxon horse breeding and pagan wedding ceremonies, to name a few.
Research trips, for me, are essential. All the places I’ve written about, I’ve visited, except Norway, and that was because my wife became ill the day we were due to leave. I know they’ve changed a bit since the eleventh century but you get a feel for the places and the lie of the land, whether it be Falaise Castle in Normandy, or Bosham in Sussex.
What is one thing you would give up to become a better writer?
What does literary success look like to you?
My experience of literary success, if you can call it that, is some great reviews. Someone telling me my book is brilliant (yes, it has happened and more than once). In a word, recognition.
When not writing what do you like to read? What is your favorite underappreciated novel? Nonfiction?
I switch between novels and history books. My favourite underappreciated novel is The Boy with No Shoes, by William Horwood. It’s a beautiful evocation of a boy’s tough childhood in 1950s/60s England.
A few fun questions:
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Pies! I love them.
Are you a morning person?
These days I am but I never used to be.
What do you find difficult to throw away?
Lots of things but I have noticed I have a boundless collection of socks, most of them are full of holes.
What song would you listen to on a loop?
Van Morrison, “Have I Told You Lately?”
Do you prefer dogs or cats?
I like dogs but prefer cats.
Thanks so much, Glynn, for taking time to chat with us and I hope we will see lots more of you!
Mark your calendar for these events with author Glynn Holloway:
Book signing at The Bookshop in East Grinstead on 30th September
Book signing at the Morley Arts Festival on 7th October (10:00 – 4:00).
Hawksbury Upton Indie Lit Fest, Gloucestershire, 21 April 2018 (10:00 – 5:30).
Llangollen Red Dragon Festival, Wales, 18/20 May 2018.
Per Glynn Holloway, Summer of 2018 should see the publication of the sequel to 1066. You can sign up for the author’s newsletter at his blog, and keep up with new dates added to his calendar, as well as news about his upcoming sequel. Also, follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 1066: What Fates Impose is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK. He is also a contributor to 1066: Turned Upside Down.
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.