My Tottering TBR: Reading Roundup (November 2021)

It’s been a strange year for reading. At the start of 2021, I’d wanted to focus on my neglected bookshelves to accomplish finally reading a batch of books I owned but hadn’t completed. (One would actually be a re-re-re-re-re-read, but I’d been keen to pick it up again so many times.) I tried to balance this with a boatload of other books—either purchased, already owned or borrowed from the library—that I was consulting for multiple projects I have in my head and outlined on paper. Now, as the year begins to draw to a close, I started to assess what I’ve read through the last ten months, though, truthfully, recognition was dawning back in about September, and I found I was rather disappointed. I had chosen twenty-one works and thus far had finished only one.

There is a part of me that laments the numbers: at one time I read an average of about sixty books a year, and last year I read eighteen. While this isn’t a thrilling development, it isn’t really the prime focus of my dissatisfaction. What is also shows up in the results of what I have been doing this year with books: the sense of having learned something valuable about or within life; possessing new takeaways that enrich time here on the planet, for myself and others; that I grew in appreciation for what and who came before, the events that shaped them and how they shaped events. Well, the one book off my 2021 list that I managed to read, Michael Jones’s The Black Prince, did move me, and I will be taking the experience along moving forward. So perhaps I should be focusing on this and not whinging so much about what I didn’t achieve.

I suppose it also isn’t true that I didn’t make any gains within the disorder of this bloc of time, and through the last week or so especially, did advance in a manner that isn’t dependent upon actual reading, though there was lots of that involved. The gist: for over a year I’ve been stymied by trying to move back and forth amongst the aforementioned multiple projects – not because that was my goal, but rather I simply couldn’t focus. Lockdown, etc. has not made me more productive, just life more chaotic, and while I read  a fair amount, I finished few of the works I picked up. At some point, something snapped, or it may be more accurate to frame it as a few pieces finally fitting together better and the dawning realization of how absurd this pathway was coming into sharper relief.

The upshot: I have put away all research type books for any projects except the one I had to consciously decide to focus upon. It’s my first step in getting a handle on this mess, and the next is to try to ignore all the other beckoning works until I’ve finished reading the one I have out. I know I cannot read all my research books cover to cover, but I will do for some, and two of these are included on my current list of reading. It’s an exception to my newly-imposed one-at-a-time rule, but this particular author is a favorite, and these two items also are two I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time. It’s a work in progress, but I did tell myself to look through both briefly and make a decision about which to aim for first, then stick with it.

My 2021 list was not organically developed, and I suspect that was part of the problem, though it’s also true that such compilations don’t always necessarily need to be, nor can they. With this in mind, the list that follows is a genuine mixture of what developed on its own and at least two I picked out with deliberation. The rest may be found here.


The Weaver’s Tale (Kate Sedley) – The first book in this series, Death and the Chapman, came by way of recommendation and I loved it. Roger the Chapman, former monk and itinerant peddler who occasionally speaks of, and meets, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, looks into a disappearance that leads him down a dangerous road amidst the hustle and bustle of medieval London. His self-effacing personality, intelligence, fallibility and humanity combine to create a character I want to follow, especially given his perceptions of the duke and place within history to provide such firsthand accounts, up close as well as at a distance. I am looking forward to continuing Roger’s journey of solving mysteries as we both witness how he grows into the role (there are a number of more installments yet to come) and the world in which he operates.

The Beloved Disciple: Following John to the Heart of Jesus (Beth Moore) – Another book I’ve wanted to read since some time and picked up because of my desire to know more about John the Disciple. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in love with Moore’s writing style and approach to readers, and other books beckoned me away. However, I felt a bit pulled toward it recently because I really do want to read about John, so decided to give it another go. Because I’m not planning to review it, I peeked at a few mentions online and saw that a few others felt the same way, but at least a few powered through and said they were glad they did. One reader spoke of a portion at the end with deep insight. The jury is still out, and we’ll see what a more patient reading might bring.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Annie Whitehead) – This author first came to my attention when I read her debut work, the historical fiction To Be a Queen. The novel tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great and one who was to prove a talented strategist in her own right. She appears in Women of Power as well, along with a number of others I look forward to being educated about. A glance at the table of contents alone informs readers that this is not a garden-variety book about forgotten women, not with chapter titles such as “Pioneers: Abbesses and Peace-weavers in Northumbria”; “Murder in Mercia and Powerful Royal Daughters” and “Serial Monogamy: Wessex Wives and Whores.” Having skimmed the book some I can see it is a bit on the academic side, which isn’t a deal breaker, though it does inform me on how to approach it and the breadth of information it surely must contain. For example, the chapters are arranged in categories rather than chronologically, which for me can be a bit challenging, especially if there are a lot of (unfamiliar) names, interactions and connections to solidify. But I’m game.

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (Edward Frenkel) – I picked this book up a few years ago and never got the chance to read it, but because it was a loaner from the library, it fell off my radar. That is, until I found one of many pieces of paper I know are strewn about my home, paper with titles and authors listed on them, written in a moment of haste as I aimed not to forget about the blurb I’d (then) just read. Upon seeing the title scribbled there I could instantaneously see in my mind the Starry Night cover and felt the love of math course through my veins, a love that grew during a required class about teaching mathematics. It hasn’t really developed a great deal – which may have something to do with a silly insistence of mine to read at least portions of physics books I don’t entirely understand – though the author may perhaps aid in this as he pairs math with his memoir of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union, a nation that discriminated against him but failed to churn out in Frenkel the negative results of oppression. I’ve watched a couple of his videos; his demeanor is cheerful and love of what he does contagious. I have actually begun reading it—I’m up to “The Essence of Symmetry”—and for me it is at least partially an interactive read, as I physically move items while he talks about them. Not unlike reading battle scenes, aloud and effecting the described movements, it nevertheless conveys (so far) affection and joyfulness for the subject so many learn to fear. We’ll see!

The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (Daniel J. Boorstin) – I first read this book at around age sixteen and it has never left my shelf. Opening with a history of how man came to measure time, it moves forward through centuries of investigation and discovery of the earth and the seas, natural science and society. Presented in chronological order, it is written with a deep appreciation for its subject matter, including the individuals who people it, as well as the readers who hold the book copies in their hands. Aptly named, I found through the years that I learn something new each time I read it, having absorbed other knowledge that links back to Boorstin’s work, gifting me the pleasure of recognition as I pour through the pages. As a sixteen year old, I naturally didn’t remember everything Boorstin talks about in The Discoverers, but it did open a new world for me, one every bit as fascinating and frightening as that the investigators found as they pushed boundaries in their quest to know more.


Lisl is currently working on a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, and can be found at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She loves rain, the sea, ghost stories, poetry and Casablanca

Talk of Ghostly Tales on Halloween and Throughout the Year

Anticipating an anthology of ghostly tales currently on its way to my neck of the woods, I’ve been thumbing through other collections and excitedly thinking about what the new set will bring

It’s been a crazy last few weeks and Halloween, sorry to say, fell off my radar. Well, to be completely honest, I don’t really whoop it up as a general rule, but it can be fun to engage in some of the playful traditions, such as making scary (fun scary) treats or reading ghost stories.

Wait, who am I kidding? I read ghost stories at all parts of the year! While I don’t really care for some tales that people qualify as ghost stories – yarns that tend to fall, for me, more into the camp of horror, such as werewolves and zombies – I do love a haunting. However, I’m pretty much a coward when it comes to such things, and I don’t think I’d ever go into a dwelling with a scary reputation, for example, in real life. So to follow Algernon Blackwood’s Jim Shorthouse and Aunt Julia into number thirteen, an abandoned house that has experienced a series of hastily departing tenants, provides a thrill not unlike the one Jim himself feels, even after my having read the story dozens of times. There is also a fabulously funny haunting within Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” one whose poignant ending provides something of a map toward the reason why we are so drawn to them, even with their unknown qualities. They scare us at times, yes, but we also feel a sympathetic curiosity, not just to their current predicaments, but also the lives they once lived, and how they came to be within the same flux as ourselves.

Hauntings is on its way to my mail box!

There are, of course, so many varieties of ghost stories as well as how they are told, it would be impossible to pin down an exhaustive catalogue in a mere blog entry—surely a reflection of all the unique characters that live and have lived in our world. I’m very fortunate in that my exploration of this genre is enabled by my son, who likes to buy me books, recently having gifted me Chilling Ghost Stories, companion to another I own (and that he also brought home for me), Great Ghost Stories. They are indeed both chilling and great, some by masters such as M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce, as well as other, lesser-known authors. Also included and to be marvelously re-discovered are novelists and short story writers whose influence has waned in this century: Charlotte Riddell, Amelia Edwards, W.W. Jacobs.

It is a truism, within the discussion of ghost stories and tales of hauntings, that as long as humans carry on, the tales will be told. Modern stories may or may not reference or allude to histories that have settled within the collective or individual consciousness, but they do continue to link us to the world alongside ours, introducing thrilling perspectives and raising hairs. One such I had the opportunity to preview, within a setting I don’t often enter in the reading world—that of a mental institution—was Samantha Wilcoxson’s “Among the Lost,” from the newly published Hauntings. Wilcoxson and nine other authors “take you through a labyrinth of historical horror,” encountering such characters as a young psych nurse who encounters a mystery at her new place of employment; a tormented Roman general; and a Norse woman confronting a terrifying destiny. I am delighted to add that I will be reviewing this collection in the next few weeks (it is currently en route), so do stay tuned!

For those ghost story aficionados and others who simply cannot wait to get their ghastly tales on, Hauntings is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. I should add that Paula Lofting, the collection’s editor and the only contributor whose work I am familiar with, is on familiar ground, historically speaking. She writes about pre-1066 in Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner, both of which I have read and reviewed. So it will be intriguing to see where she takes her storytelling skills within the ghostly plane, and what her co-authors also bring to the genre.

Happy Halloween, and see you back here soon!

Stepping Back into Saxon England: Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

I am so pleased to have been asked to host a stop within the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour from authors Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick. Anglo-Saxon England is a fascinating place to explore, and there is never a shortage of amazing figures, events – even understandings –  to discover and wonder about.

Today Annie Whitehead focuses on Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, a mysterious individual who seemingly comes from nowhere to occupy a powerful position and secure his place in history.

Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
by Annie Whitehead

My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, whose life was extraordinary. Only one other woman in Anglo-Saxon times ruled a kingdom, and she was ousted after a year at best. So to have led a country in times of war for nearly twenty years, Æthelflæd must have been an incredible woman.

Statue of Æthelflæd, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth. She is shown with her nephew, Æthelstan.

Her husband, though, was equally interesting. And the fascinating thing is that although he was a crucial ally for Alfred the Great, no one knows for sure where he came from or how he came to be in a position of such great power. Between them this couple fired my imagination.

So who was Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians? Certainly he was someone very different from the man portrayed in The Last Kingdom. For a start, he wasn’t a king. So where did he come from, and how did he get to be ruler of a kingdom?

Tracking down pre-Conquest people isn’t easy, and we rely heavily on the charter witness lists. If an authentic record exists of a certain land grant, then we can look at the witness lists to see who was there at that particular meeting. And since the names go in strict pecking order, it’s possible to see folks – men, usually – rising up through the ranks over the years until they reach the top slot. So it should be easy enough to check Æthelred of Mercia’s progress up to the point where he became Lord of all Mercia, right? Actually, no. He simply cannot be identified on any charters.

It’s thought that he might have been associated with the Hwicce, a people whose territory sat mainly in modern-day Gloucestershire. We first hear about them from an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the record for 628, when the king of Mercia fought the West Saxons and it’s assumed that at this point the area around Cirencester, that of the Hwicce, came under Mercian control. Whether it had hitherto been independent, or whether it just swapped one overlord for another, is hard to tell. But the Hwicce had their own kings and we know that the royal line continued into the 780s. 

It’s not certain where the name itself came from, although there might be links to the landscape around the valley between the Cotswold and Malvern Hills, and a ninth-century charter refers to woodland in the west of the region called Wychwood Forest (Huiccedwudu). They were described by one chronicler as ‘the people who live beyond the River Severn towards the west.’

So we know where they were, but can we ascertain who they were? Bede tells us that they had their own bishopric, so even if they were subordinate to, or dependent on the support of, the Mercians, they clearly had their own territory, their own diocese and their own royal house.  

We know the names of several of their kings and one, Osric, ruled in the 670s but, while in a charter relating to him he is called rex, he is acting with the consent of the king of Mercia, so already there is a sign of subjugation. Osric is associated with the founding of Gloucester Cathedral, although in those days the foundation would have been an abbey. In the eighth century, a leader of the Hwicce attested a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia only as a subregulus. Although Æthelbald referred to the ‘not ignoble royal stock of the Hwiccian people’ it is clear that by his reign (716–757) the rulers of the Hwicce were no longer kings, but subkings of Mercia. 

Their status further diminished to that of nobleman, and in the very beginning of the ninth century we hear of an ealdorman of the Hwicce, Æthelmund, who was killed attacking the people of Wiltshire at Kempsford in 802. Æthelmund was described by King Ecgfrith of Mercia merely as a faithful princeps.

The name did not die out though. 

A charter of King Edgar’s dated 969 demonstrates an awareness of the distinction between Mercia proper and the territory of the Hwicce, and between 994 and 998 King Æthelred the ‘Unready’ had only five ealdormen witnessing his charters, and one was Leofwine of the Hwicce, although it’s likely that given the small number of ealdormen at this time, Leofwine was responsible for the whole of Mercia.

Let us go back, though, to the incident in 802 when Æthelmund ‘rode from the province of the Hwiccians across the border at Kempsford.’ He was met by an ealdorman of Wiltshire and a ‘great battle’ ensued. Why were two ealdormen fighting? Well, it coincided with the death of the king of Wessex, and may offer a glimpse of the kind of turmoil which could occur around a succession, with loyal armed men ready to defend the status quo, or perhaps even to take advantage of the uncertainty.

In Wessex, ealdormen were appointed by the king, and not necessarily given titles over their local area. In Mercia, which grew up out of a federation of various tribes such as the Hwicce, the political set up was different and it seems that the ealdormen were the chiefs, or members of the erstwhile royal families of these smaller subkingdoms. Looking over the Mercian regnal lists, we can see that sons hardly ever succeeded fathers, and if they did, they often didn’t survive for very long.

And by the height of the Viking raids, when Wessex badly needed allies, Mercia had pretty much run out of kings. Alfred’s sister was married to a Mercian king, but he had fled when the Vikings overran part of Mercia and his rival and successor had a short reign. So, seemingly out of nowhere, a man named Æthelred, with no previous record of government and no royal links, is suddenly the man to go to for an alliance and, oh, he’s deemed worthy of marrying Alfred’s firstborn daughter, too. 

Historian Barbara Yorke has suggested that he was, in fact, descended from that ealdorman who rode out at Kempsford in 802. If so, it’s likely that he was therefore one of those ‘tribal’ leaders who formed part of the witan as ealdormen. It doesn’t explain his absence from the records up to this point though, nor how he came to be leader of a kingdom. But he must have been a man of exceptional qualities to have been elected. He’s mentioned by name in the records as part of the campaign against the Vikings, fighting alongside Alfred and Alfred’s son Edward. 

Æthelred is a figure not soon forgotten.

For these reasons, I suspect that he was a lot older than his wife. He had proven himself militarily and must have had a track record for the Mercians to have elected him as leader. Some think he was Alfred’s puppet, but I think not.

In my novel, I gave him boundless energy, with a mantra of ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, but also moments of self-doubt. He was a clever strategist, giving (if we believe the Irish annals) his wife clear and detailed instructions about how to oust the Vikings from Chester, and happy to work in concert with her at a time when women, though they perhaps had more freedoms than their later medieval counterparts, still were not considered strong enough to rule. 

Deerhurst is a tiny place in the heart of the Hwicce homelands, and there is a church, St Mary’s, which retains much of its Anglo-Saxon architecture. It’s still in use, so has seen well over a thousand years of continuous worship. I set a couple of scenes there, knowing that it would have been a spiritual centre for Æthelred and when I visited, I got a real sense of the past, sitting quietly on my own knowing that there was every likelihood that my characters had actually been in the same building. If Æthelred really was associated with the Hwicce then he’d have rightly been fond of this lovely church. Whoever he was, wherever he came from, I think he was a canny military leader, and a good husband. A perfect partner for the Lady of the Mercians.

About Annie Whitehead

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.

Connect with Annie at ~
Amazon
Casting Light Upon the Shadow
Twitter
Annie Whitehead 
Facebook 

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

“Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past. Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands…”  …but there is now!
Available in paperback from 15th October or pre-order now!

Follow the tour:
joint venture with 
Annie Whitehead
and
Helen Hollick

1st October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Helen Hollick
Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?
Let Us Talk Of Many Things

2nd October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Nicola Cornick
Why Do We Do It?
Word Wenches

3rd October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Lisl Zlitni
Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
Before the Second Sleep

4th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Tony Riches
Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?
The Writing Desk

5th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Pam Lecky
Murder in Saxon England
Pam Lecky

6th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Derek Birks
King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England
Dodging Arrows

7th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson
Æthelflæd’s Daughter 
Samantha Wilcoxson

8th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Cryssa Bazos
An Anthology Of Authors
Cryssa Bazos

9th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Elizabeth St John 
Anglo-Saxon Family Connections
Elizabeth St. John

10th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Judith Arnopp
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.
Judith Arnopp

11th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Brook Allen
Roman Remains – Did the Saxons Use Them?
Brook’s Scroll

12th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Amy Maroney
Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice
Amy Maroney

13th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Simon Turney
Penda: Fictional and Historical ‘Hero’ 
Books & More

14th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Annie Whitehead
The Battle Begins…
Reads Writes Reviews

15th October: A joint post hosted by both of us
Annie – Casting Light Upon The Shadow
and 
Helen – Let Us Talk Of Many Things

We hope you will enjoy
Stepping Back Into Saxon England’ with us!

All images courtesy Annie Whitehead

Book Review: Cometh the Hour

Cometh the Hour (Tales of the Iclingas, Book I)
by Annie Whitehead

Cometh the Hour is the proud recipient of an indieBRAG Medallion, Chill with a Book Readers’ Award, Discovering Diamonds Award and was selected as a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month 

As is the case with many others, it has arisen in my reading universe that certain writers command my attention, and their names on any book guarantee I will read it. This is the case with multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead who, with her previous work including novels To Be a Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, has established herself as a solid voice for Anglo-Saxon England.

As the first entry in a new series, Tales of the Iclingas, this third novel by necessity includes a somewhat extensive cast of characters with wide array of perspectives and motives. The author includes a dramatic personae and does an amazing job describing who from which of four kingdoms battles whom and for what, opening with a brutal attack and abduction that spreads the sway of tribal loyalties, setting off generations of internecine warfare and quest for freedom as defined by their respective leaders.

Having twice now read Cometh the Hour, it is next to impossible not to put to writing some musings on the historical and fictional characters Whitehead brings to life while transporting us to seventh-century Mercia and surrounding lands. Here we bear witness to the tangled lives and loyalties of the four kingdoms—Bernicia, Deira, Mercia and East Anglia—its rulers related in blood and marriage, as we follow them through the years of history leading to links within our own time, one in particular a very tangible tie creating sheer excitement upon recognition. The author doesn’t only tell us a fantastic tale we want to hear, but also includes us as part of it.

It perhaps would be more accurate to state that the characters describe all this via their own observations, passions positive and negative, and dialogue so masterfully composed one might believe these are historically documented utterances. While the novel is actually written in third person, its omnipotent narrator transcends mere recitation to unite reader and character in such a way that each almost has a stake in how the other fares, which in a sense, really is so, for Whitehead’s prose fully lives up to the standard she has crafted it to be. Poetic, it draws readers in as they witness characters making their own observations; we are with them as events unfold and hearts thunder at the tension that builds, compelling continued reading and signaling the care we have for what happens to the people in this world, in the immediate as well as long-term future.

At various moments we see Carinna take in scenes including Ænna the rejected younger child, assessments of wealth or reactions to perilous change, oftentimes wondering, as we move through this powerfully written account, what else any parts of them may additionally signal.

Following an instance in which young Ænna, attempting to emulate the warriors by striking a blow to Edwin’s leg with his wooden sword –

Edwin was clearly angry and although he stayed his sword, he lifted up his leg and gave Ænna the full force of his boot, felling the child who lay in the dust and snivelled.

 Carinna spoke quietly. “He was only trying to be like you.”

 “No wonder the youngling is so inept. His sot of a father will never teach him anything and I doubt he’ll ever make much of a man with all these strapping kinsmen around him. Best show him how to weave, since he’ll be more use in the sheds with the women.”

 [Carinna decided s]he would broach the matter later when he had calmed down and in the meantime she was sure that Ænna would forget all about it and would be back playing with the others again tomorrow as if it had never happened.”

 Not long after, Carinna witnesses the wrath of Queen Bertana as it develops:

“[Her] features had constricted into something more fearsome than an ordinary frown and her expression brought to Carinna’s mind the moment when liquid in a cauldron began to seethe with activity before erupting into a boil.”

 Character verbiage is as complex and intricate as that of any involved with the ins and outs of various factions’ plotting, yet the author’s management skills—as always—are so adept that we follow along easily; Whitehead has no need of dense language for the sake of elevation alone.

Subtly woven within the narrative and dialogue are absolute gems readers often detect that characters don’t, and the spark of recognition is great reward indeed. Whether by physical attribute or behavioral trait, for example, we on occasion are one step ahead of certain figures because we were previously acquainted with someone they just met, observed or heard bits and pieces about. Whitehead knows well how to use this and other techniques to generate tension and the aforementioned reluctance to put a book down as she tenders possibilities and creates the perfect riddle of circumstance. This in turn facilitates an electrifying suspense whereby we have at hand clues that inform as well as tease us, as we re-trace our reading pathways and link together previous knowledge with the question of what the future may or may not bring and events continue to usher in a thrilling sense of anticipation.

Like any others, these people also laugh and wonder and exhibit their own personal habits, and the author weaves this within and without narrated passages and dialogue alike, revealing a self-awareness the extent to which we are not always privy, but which awakens within us an understanding of how we are so like them, and that our habit of utilizing humor to blanket serious subjects is yet one in a long line of collective coping instincts.

While discussing an upcoming marriage with Penda, Derwena’s quip about relations—“I wondered if you and he are now kin? Your sister’s husband’s sister is his wife”—mirrors readers’ perceptions of how the family’s history contributes to their ties to friend and foe alike, from where the pathways begin and to where they lead. Penda later addresses this in part in his acerbic response to Derwena’s wearied statement, “I wonder where it will all end,” a return that has its roots in his family’s knotty relationships.

Cometh the Hour and two other novels by Annie Whitehead – highly recommended all. Click titles earlier in this entry for my review of each. Click image to learn more about the author and her works

In making our way through and to at least some of those answers, Whitehead stays true to her history, creating, for example, strong women without falling into the trap of engaging them in anachronistic behavior, as if they could only be “ahead of their time,” that strength, savvy and great intelligence could only come from later eras, and not their own. While a number of historical blanks have been filled in, the novel’s women characters are woven in as tightly as the men, their roles and actions so perfectly aligned with historical realities and fragmentary evidence that, again, one would be forgiven for initially believing that how the book reads is exactly how these figures’ lives played out—although it should be noted that, as Whitehead states in her notes, “There is documentary evidence for almost everything that happens in Cometh the Hour.”

Another skillful way the author has with words is within her presentation of the characters. As mentioned, there are quite a lot—given events in the series’ first, it seems likely there won’t be quite so many in subsequent installments—and Whitehead manages them so skillfully that from one appearance to the next, any given storyline to another, the transitions are nearly seamless. Part of this results from some characters appearing in multiple strands, which benefits the underlying episodes, lending them continuity rather than overcomplicating it all. Moreover, she maintains Penda’s position as the primary character while moving amongst people and perceptions, giving each a chance, so to speak, to present their case to readers. This method does require a more deft hand, to avoid the risk of an over convoluted tale, and Whitehead possesses this gift in spades. Her absolute brilliance in presentation and form keeps it even and simultaneously stunning: we tend to sympathize with Penda, but the remaining kings are not reduced to otherness, and we see clearly how events inform each other with a mixture of fate and free choice. The author wraps all this within a history we don’t realize we are being given, of the lands and their people and how geography plays a role in decisions and results.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Whitehead has released yet another novel of quality, imagination and readability, entwined with a gripping glimpse into our deep past, having patched it together from fragmentary pieces of history. And yet we marvel, perhaps because the events portrayed are so achingly long ago, its players seemingly so lost to us that to be gifted such an extended view to their lives seems as if an impossibility has been achieved. It will then please us to know the author is already hard at work on the sequel.

Cometh the Hour isn’t only for admirers of historical fiction, for within it also is told a tale or two of love—of several different sorts—the fortunes of societies and the motivations of man to demand the rights of work, family and freedom. Thought provoking in its humanity, this is a teller’s tale within which, we can hope, we see ourselves.

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A copy of Cometh the Hour was provided to the
blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

 

A Nod to Blōtmōnað

I’m a big fan of ancestors, language and author Annie Whitehead. Today, in my first ever re-blog, all three come together for a really fabulous piece in which this esteemed author talks about Blōtmōnað  – Blood Month, better known to us moderns as November – and a spot of how to read an Anglo-Saxon calendar.

(Click link at bottom for the rest of the article.)

It’s November, or Blōtmōnað as the Anglo-Saxons called it. (the Old English letters ð and þ are represented in modern English by the combination th)So, what’s Blood-Month all about? Unlike the days of the week, where the words are recognisable, the Anglo-Saxon calendar is not so obvious.Days of the WeekSunday: Sunnenday (Middle English translation of Greek Hemera heliou): the sun’s day,Monday: Monan…

via Blōtmōnað – Blood Month — Casting Light upon the Shadow

950: 1066 Remembered, Secrets Through a Tapestry of Time

And so another year has passed. In October 2016, we began our commemorative observation marking the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It has been a year of sifting through details, lamenting in poetry and song, pondering memories, tossing about the what ifs, beholding the heartache of knowledge, of this ending in 1066 certainly, but also the converging roads that led to this day, and the days and years after. Picking up the pieces and then looking back upon those shards of memory … surely even ordinary people, non-combatants, recalled this day soon and years later as life continued to move forward. Could an average person have predicted that their land and people would so rapidly and overwhelmingly be stolen by foreign invaders, so thoroughly transformed?

 

October 14, 1066: At the Battle of Hastings, Normans charge toward the Saxons’ shield wall as the defenders chant, “Out! Out!” By Dan Koehl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
That their language, for starters, be unrecognizable to someone who lived nearly a thousand years in the future? That to later people—us—common names, the markers of individual identity, would come across as foreign and unpronounceable? Or worse, we might catch glimpses of people through the tapestry of time and perceive only that they come from some generic, long-ago past too distant to be embraced?

And it all would have started with their own children, especially those extremely young or not yet born when the battle occurred. They never had the memories, and those of their parents died with them. Their own lives were to play out in a markedly different fashion to those their parents had known, not only owing to generational differences, but also because an entirely new framework was forcibly re-defining who they were.

I wonder if William the Bastard contemplated this result as he set out to supplant an entire class of elites with new ones from his own land. His victory lap in the form of castle building began straight away and signaled without a doubt his conquest, the subjugation of England’s people and cruelly sought to end, once and for all, the stubborn pockets of resistance that kept popping up. Did he aim to be the boss of everybody, or more, to completely re-make them? As a non-historian still within the beginning phases of serious study of the Anglo-Saxon era and its end, some of my questions may already have definitive answers, or be ones scholars still debate. One thing I do know for sure is that as long as people keep making these queries, even if the inquiries re-produce themselves into scores more, this invader hasn’t completely won.

Here William gives arms to Harold, by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons

Now that would have been even less than cold comfort for the people who suffered under his rule, and I’m not sure it even satisfies me. Nevertheless, I believe we owe it to the people who lived in this time and after to continually seek answers and ensure they aren’t forgotten.

Someone else felt something along those lines, and for centuries it was believed he came at the ideal from a Norman perspective. No one knows for sure who designed, commissioned or created the Bayeux Tapestry, a pictorial version of events stitched out on a nearly seventy-meter long strip of linen measuring less than half a meter wide. It appears to tell the story of the Norman Conquest as a way to glorify the achievement. A magnificent piece of work, its story of survival is in itself breathtaking, as Andrew Bridgeford briefly discusses at the start of his 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Hidden history, you say? Well, yes, very possibly. Bridgeford sets out to examine the tapestry and comes across some previously undetected threads, so to speak, in the story. He begins by re-iterating the now-discarded legend surrounding the tapestry’s French name—la Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde—and elaborates on that frankly astounding history of the piece’s survival, including its narrow avoidance of serving during the French Revolutionary Wars as protective covering for an equipment wagon.

Given these hints at secrets within the tapestry, and the mystery surrounding from whence it originated, it perhaps is fitting that its identity as tapestry is not exactly spot on, either. Created from wool yarn sewn into the cloth, it nevertheless remains the tapestry. Searching keenly into what it holds, as Bridgeford does, what reveals itself is the really important part, and his stunning account gives us a glimpse of someone else who may have contemplated what William was thinking, and sought to set the record straight, albeit in a “dangerously many-layered masterpiece.” The Normans had their castles and fought from horseback, but even in French country and beyond, Anglo-Saxon needlework was prized in its time, and it makes sense that the artist who designed the images was not, in fact, a Norman paying homage to his land and people’s supremacy—or to the man who was now his king.

That alone sends us whispers through the winds to our time, that Anglo-Saxons were not the products of a dark age many today still see them as, but rather a society with an art, a textile, people who could tell a story that, as it turns out, has enchanted us for many lifetimes. Even if the story is secretly told, it is done on Saxon terms, on their framework, held in a sort of trust until we could once again speak safely about these events.

Here Harold sailed by sea. Note the singing crow on bottom border, near middle, as he sings, thus tricked into dropping his cheese. Norman apologists liked to believe Harold was the wily fox, unfaithful to the oath he swore to William, portrayed here, so they believed, as the crow. By image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of them often originates in the written word, Bridgeford writes, “[y]et when you close these books and pass to the Bayeux Tapestry your imagination still feels as if it has emerged out of the darkness of a cave into a world of sunlit colours.” Perhaps, if our artist could hear these words on a wind that passes him by, he might smile that his age is characterized thus.

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“Seemingly irrelevant.” A small illustration of a fox, a crow and a piece of cheese is depicted in a lower corner on the tapestry in reference to a fable that dates to Aesop. Three times it appears to warn of the consequences of treacherous flattery, once in close proximity to the scene in which Harold, having journeyed across the sea to the duke, finds himself first a prisoner of Count Guy, and then William, who presents himself as having rescued the English earl. Then we are shown HIC WILLELM DEDIT HAROLDO ARMA. Here William gives arms to Harold. William’s weighty gesture at the Breton war precedes the moments in which William demands Harold swear a sacred oath to support his bid for the throne. Here the duke sits, pointing at Harold in front of him, significantly standing, his eyes “narrowed to the width of a stitch … [t]he very atmosphere seems to have been pulled taut.” Harold understands that William had planned this all out, agonizing over the gravity of a sacred oath and that if he breaks it, he will have to answer to God. If he doesn’t, the brother and nephew he seeks to release from the duke’s imprisonment, will surely not be leaving with him. Wulfnoth and Hakon may die in captivity.

Harold swears the oath.

Straight away the Englishmen are shown on a boat and Bridgeford examines the scene, remarking that the artist’s reversal of the order in which these events actually took place “accentuate[s] the impression of duress,” that secreted within the images is the statement that Harold is permitted to return to England only because he swore the oath.

Here sits King Harold II, by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons

Upon his homecoming, Eadmer tells us, the Confessor reacts angrily: “Did I not tell you that I knew William well and that your going there might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?” This and Bridgeford’s observation of a repentant Earl Harold are in stark contrast to the Norman claim that Edward sent the earl to Normandy to seal the deal regarding William as successor to the king. Why would Harold appear to be begging forgiveness of Edward, arms outstretched, if he had returned from doing as instructed?

Bridgeford believes this to be a covert English version of events, though so often passed over because Norman propaganda tells us of a perfidious Harold Godwinson, and those of the land who conquered his were unlikely to see anything else. After all, did he not break a sacred oath? Did he not later steal a throne that rightfully belonged to William? However, as we see, William flatters Harold with a sort of knighthood; it is he who surreptitiously effects the Englishman’s presence in his household and places him in an impossible position.

Perusing the tapestry once more, we see the fox and the crow again, accompanying Harold and his men back to England, and remember the ancient fable. Harold has imprudently traveled to Normandy and been tricked into a terrible dilemma, one in which his tormenter could easily wriggle away from by pointing out that Harold had a choice. Woven within all this is the disaster of which Edward speaks, that the nation must suffer owing to Harold’s improvidence, increasing the spoils of William’s duplicity. “Can there be any doubt that William is the greedy fox and that Harold is the naïve and foolish crow?”

There is, of course, more to the chapter (“The Fox and the Crow”) than presented here, and it is but one example Bridgeford presents. In some spots the detail can be intense, but it is never dense and the narrative nature of the book makes it read at times like a novel. The author also includes extensive notes to support this fascinating and impressive medieval detective work.

Part of me winces when wondering if, apart from the partial exile of the tapestry, our technological “superiority,” relieving us of so much brainwork, has played a role in why nearly one thousand years have passed before someone recognized what our artist set out so long ago? As I think more on it, I don’t believe so, for he must have been confident that even those in his own time wouldn’t recognize his coded messages so easily; with his production he might even have been betting his life on it. If he is who Bridgeford believes him to be, then he certainly had a lot to lose. He needed to shield his statements; they were for us to decipher correctly, not his contemporaries.

Wasting no time creating his strongholds. He [William] ordered that a motte should be built at Hastings, the camp, by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons
Whoever created this tapestry: did he even dare to hope it would last as long as it has? Did he believe the Normanization of England would falter, and that would be the time to speak openly of what his treasure spoke? Or did he know well William’s terrible determination? Was he even an Anglo-Saxon? Or was he a non-Norman French who selected this medium, perhaps as a nod to the famous Saxon skill, to weave his report?

One thing is certain: he reaches through time, gifting us who yearn to know of our past a legacy, a concrete marker of where we came from, to spare us the more complete loss of our collective memory. Something that once actually breathed in some of the same dust that today blows about in the wind, nearly one thousand years later. As physical representation of their time it may be small, but given the risk he likely took in setting out to perform the task, it is much larger than any of us.

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I’ve written before of the Russian ideal that no one ever really dies if there is someone to remember them. It’s a tenet I hold very close to my heart, because to be forgotten, for any memory of someone to be so scattered, unseen, amongst the winds, is a horrible fate. It renders them as not having mattered, one reason why names are so significant. Many people know this. William knew this.

Fortunately, we do have at least some names, even if their sounds don’t quite conform to our ears (or vice versa), and we have some identities. We also know of an unidentified someone willing to take a huge risk with his life, understanding that it mattered whether we who came next knew about events in his era. Perhaps he even understood it might take us quite some time to pick apart the threads, satisfied that once we began to sort through, there was much more to uncover, even than what initially was discovered, that William might be denied his absolute victory, even this far out. While understandably unsatisfying to many, it is at least some small justice, perhaps, as one 1066 writer recently commented, perhaps the only justice those who suffered will get. Even if so, we know much more about events leading up to and of this day, and many of the interwoven threads depicting lives, each with so much relevance.

And so today, one year after 950, and for many more to come, we see the people laid into flax, their whispers on the winds of time as we strain to hear what they say.

These busy little figures are not just eleventh-century cartoon characters stitched onto linen. They stand for real people, real people whose lives were changed, and in some cases ended, by the greatest of all events in English history. More than that, recorded in these threads are forgotten stories yet to be retold.

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With love and gratitude to those who suffered and were lost, and others through the ages,

descendants of Saxon, Viking and Norman alike, who toil to tell their stories.

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Thank you for joining us for this final installment of our year-long commemoration

of the Battle of Hastings. For a complete list of entry hyperlinks, please click here

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950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Glynn Holloway

1066: What Fates Impose is a recipient of The Wishing Shelf Book Awards Gold Medal 2014 (click image for more about the author)

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?

Memorial stone & plaque commemorating the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 1066. The memorial overlooks the site of the Stamford Bridge battlefield, at the end of Whiterose Drive, a modern residential street, by Æthelred [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (click image)
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.

A king and his Witan – from the eleventh-century Old English Hexateuch [British Library] (click image) An entire system of succession and society existed long before the Normans.
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.

Why did Harold go to Normandy? Had Edward promised William the throne? Was he now rescinding the offer? Was this an attempt to rescue Wolfnoth and Hakon? Scene 1 of the Bayeux Tapestry. King Edward the Confessor sends Harold Godwinson to Normandy. By Myrabella CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (click image)

What is one thing you would give up to become a better writer?

Twitter.

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!

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Mark your calendar for these events with author Glynn Holloway:

Remainder 2017

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).

2018

Hawksbury Upton Indie Lit Fest, Gloucestershire, 21 April 2018 (10:00 – 5:30).

Llangollen Red Dragon Festival, Wales, 18/20 May 2018.

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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 …

gk-hollowayI’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.

air-detectiveFrom 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.

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Click here for my review of 1066: What Fates Impose, and here for links to previous entries in our “950: 1066 Remembered” series. Stay tuned for our closing entry coming in October.

 

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Paula Lofting (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

Today we are joined by author Paula Lofting, whose debut work, Sons of the Wolf, recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, is a fantastic introduction to 1066 for those unfamiliar with the year or its significance. Those more schooled in this era will see in the novel as well a story that brings to life the people and proceedings of the time in a manner that revitalizes one’s appreciation for what led to these events, and the individual experiences of those who lived them.

Award-winning debut work Sons of the Wolf (Click image for review)

Starting in September of 2016 we began a journey through memories via reviews, poetry, interviews, excerpts, even visiting with a real historical character and more. As the year drew to a close our focus pulled back and we began, much like those whose lives and changes we remember, to carry on, as it were, take in other elements of life and move forward. But they never leave our awareness, these people and events, and for many something akin to a scar in the soul remains.

Very much like our forebears, we need to make sense of the pain and what has happened, often without much of the necessary information, so we gather what we have and tell. We fill in gaps to the best of our abilities, with imagination and understanding of evidence as well as realities of the world, and pass it all on to the next generation. This is as our ancestors themselves would have done; what is different now is that it typically is transferred to media in the form of books, plays, movies, art and song–and by the many rather than the few commissioned individuals.

Paula Lofting continues this tradition, today sharing with us details about what led her to this path, educated guesses regarding missing details, and her role in carrying on the tradition of telling.

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Hello, Paula Lofting, and good day!

Hi, Lisl, thanks for having me on your fabulous blog.

Oh, it’s fantastic to see you here! So far you have published the award-winning Sons of the Wolf and then The Wolf Banner, with a third in the works. Could you tell our readers a bit about your first two novels?

Click image for my review of Lofting’s exciting sequel to Sons of the Wolf, The Wolf Banner

Ok, so Sons of the Wolf is a series, which starts with the book of its name. I got the inspiration for Sons after reading a book by David Howarth called 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Mr. Howarth told us a story through the eyes of his own village, as it occurred 1,000 years ago. It follows the fortunes of a thegn, Wulfhere, who Howarth mentions in his book as having been the landowner back then. He owned this little village called Horstede (now called Little Horsted) and surrounding land, and owed service to the king for it.

Through Howarth’s descriptions of daily life in an 11th century homestead, I conjured up a story in my head, and just had to get it onto paper! Book I of Sons of the Wolf starts when the thegn is returning home from a battle in Scotland with his fyrdsman, and the reader is introduced to his family, of which there are plenty. We also see historical characters: Harold Godwinson and his brothers, King Edward the Confessor and Harold’s sister Edith, the queen, plus the very lovely Edith Swanneck. The premise of the book is to show the events that eventually lead to the Battle of Hastings, so there is conflict, as well as love, betrayal and a bloodfeud involved.

In the second book, The Wolf Banner, we have three threads emerging. The main one follows Wulfhere and his brood as their lives are very much changed by the bloodfeud that impinges it. We have Earl Harold, who is basically running the country for the king by now, and we see the torment he suffers in not being able to help his younger sibling and nephew, both of whom are held hostage by the duke of Normandy. The reasons being, that if Harold was to demand their release, it would open a whole jar of worms that would spell danger for England.

The third thread belongs to a character called Burghred, who was supposed to be only a minor character from the first book, but refused to be held back and stole a storyline for himself.

Sons of the Wolf starts in 1054 and by the end of The Wolf Banner, we are in 1059. The next book, Wolf’s Bane, will cover the years from 1059-63 or 64, I’m not sure yet.

Did publishing your first book tweak your process of writing? Did you make any changes to how you set about doing things?

I can’t really answer this [laughs]. I don’t have a clue.

You’ve spoken of wanting to write a book since you were a small girl. What was an early experience in which you learned that language had power?

I think perhaps in primary school. I always felt like I was not one of the in-crowd, was never chosen for anything. I wasn’t a poor student, but I wasn’t an exceptional student. I felt like a nonentity until I really got into composition lessons. Here I found my forte and the teacher would read them out, give me top marks and always complemented my writing.

Secondly, I realised in my own childish way, the power of language when I found myself spending hours at the library looking at the books and spending the whole weekend wrapped in a book—and when I say ‘in a book,’ I mean I was there, inside it. Nothing had ever excited or drawn me in like a book. Language has the power to provide an escape route, somewhere to go to when the world is all too much. Now, as I write, that power has taken it to another level.

Your bio includes mention of a few authors who influenced your imagination. Did any of their works lead you to pre-1066 as the era you wanted to write about? Had you already chosen before you came across the real Wulfhere?

Not entirely sure, possibly Rosemary Sutcliffe; however, her books are mostly post Roman, early Romano Celt. But probably there is some influence there. I remember reading the fabulous Hope Muntz story of The Golden Warrior and being immersed in that as a teenager. I’m sure that I was very much taken by Michael Wood in the early 80s; his TV programme In Search of the Dark Ages was very influential.

I also remember my father teaching me about kings and queens and going through the Anglo-Saxon ones, too. But a lot of this became consigned to the corners of my memories as my life progressed and this era wasn’t reawakened in me until my early forties, when I found myself at a Hastings reenactment and suddenly the switch went on again. Ever since, I’ve immersed myself in Harold’s story and the events of that time. I’ve found it’s almost as if I was there, or one of my ancestors was and that it could be in my DNA, as someone suggested.

How did/do you research your main character and his era?

Fortunately, there was not much to know about Wulfhere; what is recorded is just his property and land holding, and his name. I would have loved to have known more about him, but at least the not knowing means I can have free reign with him.

Now what I do have to research (it’s an ongoing task) are the events of the time, so that means I need books, as many as I can get my hands on, primary and secondary sources. It’s very important to try and get as many primary sources as possible, because there is not a lot of written work available for this period, and so one must gather what one can.

Thirdly, I have always had a strong belief that to write good historical fiction, one needs to be able to create the world as close as possible. I didn’t want to make anachronistic mistakes in regards to housing, diet and clothing, or place chimneys in stone houses when they had hearths in the middle of the floor in halls made from timber or wattle and daub. And so I joined a living history group and I think that I have a good handle on how people lived in the 11th century, and even know what it’s like to be faced with a screaming enemy running towards you as you stand in a shieldwall, shoulder to shoulder. I’ve fought with a spear and tried my hand at a sword, so I have some idea of what it was like. The best thing is being killed, sliced to death with a sword or an axe, and being able to live to tell the tale.

Do you feel you owe anything to the real people upon whom you base your characters? If so, what? If you were—whether through time travel or some other method—to meet Wulfhere of Horstede, what would you say to him? What do you think he might say to or ask of you?

In answer to your first question, I believe it’s important to get the facts as right as is possible. I wouldn’t take liberties like others have done with real characters’ lives. For example, I read a book about Hereward, where Harold’s character (a nasty black-guard) kills Edward the Confessor by smothering him on his deathbed. There was no author’s note to explain, and there is no evidence to say that he did this. It’s one thing to believe something has happened, but to defame someone’s character by accusing them of a murder there is no evidence for, is not on, in my honest opinion.

So, in looking at the sources regarding the characters in my book, I hope to have come up with a fair account of their characters. To do this I look at what were their deeds, what do the sources say about them as people and so on. In this period there isn’t a lot, but what has been written about Harold does not equate to a murdering evil git. That’s not to say he was perfect. No one is. So you have to try and get a balance when writing about a factual person. Most good people are known to do bad things once in a while and most bad people are known to have done good things once in a while.

With Wulfhere and his arch enemy, Helghi of Gorde, they are just names in the sources, so I have little to go on, but for the sake of the story I feel I can take liberties because they are only footnotes in history. And if I were to go back in time and speak with my Wulfhere, I would probably give him no end of a hard time for all the silly stupid scrapes he gets himself into. He would probably tell me it was my fault anyway, for writing the script.

What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Was there any scene in particular that was most difficult to write?

I don’t think I have too much of a problem writing about men. I haven’t come across anything yet where I might have had to consult a guy to find out how a man might react in a certain situation. Maybe I’m just in tune with my masculine side.

Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 4: Here Harold sails on the sea (by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons). Click image and scroll to see something amazing!
As a fan of your Sons of the Wolf series, I’ve grown attached to Wulfhere and his family, and your narrative has taken us readers through their loves, losses, victories and so on. As we get closer to 1066, can you tell us anything that might be upcoming?

Cripes, how do I answer this without giving out spoilers? Hmm. Ok, let’s summarise what I have in my head:

  • Someone will fall in love with someone whose station is too far above them
  • Someone else will fall in love with the wife of someone else
  • There will be more conflict between the two families of Horstede and Gorde
  • There’s bound to be a death or two
  • Harold gets a new companion in his houseguard
  • There is a rocky road ahead for one young couple
  • And someone has a nervous breakdown

Do you have an idea how many installments you might end up with in the Sons of the Wolf series? Or is that already mapped out?

I have no idea but I can say that there could be seven altogether. I just hope that I can think of more titles with Wolf in them.

Will Harold feature more prominently in the novels as we move toward that fateful year?

Yes, he definitely will. His story must be told and he basically is 1066 personified.

What do you believe were Harold Godwinson’s strongest character traits and weakest flaws? Were these the result of individual MO or more aligned to standards of the time?

Until post-Conquest, you will not find much in the way of anything bad written about Harold. This could be because his family had so much influence in the country. I think probably his strongest trait was his skill in diplomacy. He handled two incursions by the Welsh king and his English ally, Alfgar, without causing a war and would rather use diplomacy than get heavy and call for battle. However, his reluctance to invoke a civil war on behalf of his brother, Tostig, was for the wider good of the kingdom. Paradoxically, it was to play a part in his downfall. Alienating his own brother was not good for Harold.

Probably the worst thing Harold ever did was lay waste to Wales in 1063. But Harold could not have been expected to do anything else, really. The Welsh king had been a pain in the butt for too long and now with his ally, Alfgar, dead, Harold waived his diplomatic side and stormed into Wales to devastate it. Thus, Gruffudd lost his head, and Harold gained a new wife. And this laying lands to waste was not uncommon in medieval times, but given the fact that Harold had restrained his hand on a number of occasions, I think he was less of a war monger than some other kings of the period.

If you had the power to change any historical events, such as who won at Hastings, would you? Why or why not?

I would love to be able to change this, but actually, I’m glad that I can’t. Mainly because I think that it ended how it was supposed to end. If that day had ended any differently, all of history would be changed. I’m not sure that would be a good thing. Things might have turned out worse for the world, not that it could get much worse….

As it is, Harold has left his mark in history as the ‘good guy’ and William left his mainly as the bad guy who committed atrocities against the English. If he were alive today he would have been a war criminal.

That’s important to point out. What did you feel or think when you first began to learn about 1066, and how might you have grown to feel about it, or perceive it over time?

I didn’t realise that I would be so obsessed by it. There is something about this era that really gets to me. It started out as an interest and now I live, eat, and breathe it. I was talking to Helen Hollick last year at the Historical Novel Society conference and she mentioned that she believes it could be in her DNA, that perhaps the emotion she feels around what happened on that day is embedded in her blood, passed down to her by an ancestor who was there. It kind of makes sense. Perhaps that is the only way to explain the deep, intense passion I feel every time I read about it, or learn more about it.

I must say, it’s really hard not to dislike William of Normandy, even though I have tried to be objective about the events of that year. But when I looked into the Harrowing of the North, which he caused, and in which tens of thousands were said to have perished as a direct consequence and following the devastation, I decided to let go and accept that actually, I cannot be objective about something so heinous, and it was thought of as such by his contemporaries. I’m not saying that Harold was the perfect king and a saint, but William seems to have been so authoritarian and devoid of all conscience. It was not a good time to be English and one of the lower classes.

What would you say to people who either express no interest in who won the Battle of Hastings, or those who side with William?

Read Marc Morris’ brilliant and objective account, The Norman Conquest. It gives factual evidence of his brutality without taking sides. He also points out that the English nobility could be just as brutal towards each other (bloodfeuds were rife in England at that time, especially in the north), and that the Normans rarely killed another noble. However, William didn’t mind maiming and destroying the lives of lesser men.

The other thing I would say is, the Witan chose Harold, ok there was no doubt some manipulation going on there, but if I had been around at the time, there’s no way I would want the untried boy, Edgar, inexperienced as he was, on the throne. Nor would I want William of Normandy ruling my country, giving land to his friends, and disinheriting my fellow countrymen. I would want a tough Englishman to fight for me and my rights, and at that time, Harold was the man.

William had no blood link to the throne. Nor apparently, did Harold; however, having no blood link and being English was better than having no blood link and no ties to England. Harold had spent four months with the guy in Normandy and only escaped with his life when he was forced to promise on oath to serve William as his vassal. He knew the damage William could inflict. And that’s one reason he wanted to be king, I believe. The evidence is there. William was not good for England or Englishmen.

Do you think there could have been any way William might have been less cruel to the English people? Was it his upbringing that played a role in his treatment of the conquered?

William did have a terrible childhood. He suffered many traumas, his father died, his life was in danger, his guardian was killed whilst he was asleep in the same room. He was forced to hide amongst peasants when his life was in danger. And then later, there were those who would force him out of his duchy if they could. So yes, it must have affected him. I think the experiences that William had in his youth played a profound part in his psyche and his behavior towards those who would oppose him. He had to be tough. And tough, he was. These are the reasons why he was like he was, but they are not excuses for the terrible treatment he doled out.

What would you say, if able to communicate with them, to the people who suffered under William? Do you believe it matters to them whether or not we remember the details of their experiences?

I think if I were in that situation, I would want the world to know, to remember what happened to me and my people, just the way that the people of Rwanda, for example, wanted their story to be told. The only difference is that in the 11th century the only media were the chronicles and half of these would not have realised that they existed, but I suspect they would want their story told by word of mouth, just the same. I’d like to think that they appreciate that all this time after, someone is feeling their pain.

Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 26: Here the body of King Edward is carried to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle (by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons). The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of 1066 in images from the Norman point of view. Click image and scroll to see tapestry in its entirety.
Now for some fun questions!

What are two things you cannot do without?

My ipad and computer.

What website do you visit daily?

[Laughs] Has to be FACEBOOK!

What do you do when you have to queue up?

Huff and puff and mutter obscenities under my breath.

What is your favorite store?

Cripes, I dunno. Anything with books in it. I’d love it if we had a huge Barnes & Noble like you have.

Which season do you resemble the most?

Autumn, nice and matured and full of flavor [laughs].

Paula Lofting, thank you so very much for joining us today as we look back 950 years in our remembrance of 1066 and its enormous impact on English and world history.

Thank you, Lisl, it’s been a pleasure!

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About the author …

Paula has always wanted to write. Since she was a little girl, coming home from school to sit at the table with her notebook and write stories that buzzed around in her head. A prolific reader, she loved nothing better than to spend weekends with a book in her hand. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, C.S.Lewis, inspired an interest in history. It became her lifelong wish to one day write and publish a book, but not being able to type, and having no funds for a typewriter to learn on, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold.

With the advent of PCs and a need to retrain and use a computer, this old ambition was stirred and she decided to rekindle her love of books and writing at the grand old age of 42. At this point, she had reached a turning point in her life and studied nursing, and also decided to write the book she had promised herself one day she would write.

Her debut novel, Sons of the Wolf, was first published with the assistance of SilverWood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company, Longship Books, in Kindle. A new paperback version will be published by June. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series, about this amazing time in English history.

She has always admired the works of Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell, Edith Pargetter and Mary Stewart, amongst many others. History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing. Paula says: “Write for enjoyment, write for yourself, regardless of what others say you should; for if you don’t write what you love, then how can you expect others to love what you write.”

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Follow author Paula Lofting and keep up with her news, including her magnificent new blog and impressively researched and written entries about 1066, as well as the upcoming Wolf’s Bane, third in the Sons of the Wolf series. You can find her at her blog, Twitter and Facebook.

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Coin of King Harold Godwinson By PHGCOM [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: This post has been updated to replace the previous cover of Sons of the Wolf with its updated design. 

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950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss)

Now 1066 has passed, as has its 950th anniversary, and we look back upon the year, in some ways not unlike how its inhabitants might have. The Christmas coronation of William, who they later called the Conquerer, has occurred, and the old year passed into a new … January becomes February, and time marches forward. 

Before, we marked our memories in a structured sort of fashion, when the new order was still getting its grips, with remarks such as, ” A week ago today …” or “One month ago.” Now the memories and longing wrap themselves around us as they strike our inner minds randomly, as the required daily tasks remind us that life plunges forward; some events remain as ordinary as before, and yet we aren’t completely sure what to expect. Promises have been made, but the outcomes are troubling. Transitional, perhaps, difficult only in this phase. Or is the foreign conquerer as fearsome as our imaginations lead us to believe? Our anxieties and uncertainties seek consolation in familiarity and affection, and it is difficult not to remember our old king, how awful it is to refer to Harold Godwinson as belonging to the past. Were his deeds all we thought they were? How all these others now talk of him with distrust, admiration, of betrayal and foolhardy leaps into the unknown? Did we really know him? What did we know? He is gone now, and we struggle to make sense of exactly who he was, this king of ours ….

“A Dynasty Denied” by Rob Bayliss

Harold Godwinsson is somewhat of an enigma. He is a hero to some and a usurper to others. He marks the last page of the Anglo-Saxon period in English history, when England truly ceased to be a nation in the Scandinavian world and was drawn deeper into the power play of continental politics. But who was this grandson of a minor thegn who rose to be King Harold II? To find out we must fully explore the world he lived in and the roots from which he grew.

Harold was born in 1022, the second child of Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdottir. It is thought that Godwin himself was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a thegn with large estates in Sussex. During the ill-starred reign of Aethelred the Unraed (ill-counsel) Wulfnoth was outlawed and his lands confiscated. The reasons for this banishment are unclear, but it occurred during a muster of 300 ships in 1008AD to counter the Viking threat. Unknown charges were brought against Wulfnoth by Brihtric, brother of the infamous Eadric Steona.

harold_godwinson_02
Coronation of King Harold Godwinson By Anonymus (The Life of King Edward the Confessor) (http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Ee.3.59/zoomer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wulfnoth fled with his twenty ships; obviously he had been a man of power and influence to command such a number. Brihtric gave chase with 80 vessels but he was obviously not the sailor that Wulfnoth was. A storm drove Brihtric’s fleet ashore whereupon Wulfnoth fell upon his hunters and burnt the 80 ships. With a third of his fleet lost the king was unable to stop the Viking invasion of Kent; Aethelred the Unread indeed.

What subsequently happened to Wulfnoth is unknown, but he died in 1014. His son Godwin served under Aethelred’s son, Aethelstan and was bequeathed a Sussex estate on the prince’s death, also in 1014.

This was time of chaos. The Dane, Sweyn Forkbeard, had invaded England after years of raiding, and driven Aethelred into exile, to be declared king. However, a mere two months into his reign, Sweyn died and Aethelred and his family returned to England. The Danes still in England declared for Cnut, Sweyn’s youngest son and a bitter time of conflict, unseen since when Alfred had fought the Great Army, fell across England. Aethelred’s eldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund Ironside fought Cnut to a near standstill. Eventually the two made a form of peace; Cnut became king of the old Danelaw and Mercia, while Edmund retained Wessex and London.

Within weeks of the peace treaty Edmund died in November 1016, ushering in the reign of Cnut the Great, now ruler of a vast North Sea empire. Cnut married Emma of Normandy (Aethelred’s second wife and widow) and cemented his position. He had Edmund’s family sent into exile to Sweden – presumably intending them to be killed there; instead, however, they found their way to Hungary and safety.

Among Cnut’s new English followers was a certain Godwin. It seems that Godwin had followed the Ironside after Aethelstan’s demise. One thing Cnut prized above all others was loyalty and, keen to have a smooth transition of power, accepted the Sussex thegn’s oaths given to him.

Godwin’s rise under King Cnut’s patronage was rapid. By 1018 he was Earl of East Wessex but by 1020 he was Earl of all of Wessex. He accompanied Cnut on an expedition to Denmark and obviously gained Cnut’s trust and affection.

Godwin married Gytha, Cnut’s sister in law; they would go on to have 11 children, including Harold, Swegn and Tostig. Godwin also took under his wing Cnut’s nephew, Beorn Estrithson, who grew up alongside his cousins Swegn and Harold.

Cnut the Great died in 1036 and the Witan – the council of earls, bishops and chief thegns – was duly held in Oxford to decide upon the succession. There were two sons from the union of Cnut and Emma: Harold Harefoot, the eldest son and locally based in England, and Hardecnut, based in Denmark. Harefoot had his base in the Midlands and his claim was supported by Earl Leofic of Mercia and Cnut’s Danish fleet. Harefoot certainly appeared as the easier option and yet Emma and Godwin, and through him Wessex, backed Hardecnut. It would appear that the realm would be split between the two but Magnus of Norway was threatening Hardecnut in Denmark and so the promised king never came. Godwin increasingly felt threatened as Harefoot stamped his authority on the north. He had too much to lose to react to Harefoot seizing the treasury at Winchester, within Wessex itself. Real politics of the time forced Godwin towards Harefoot’s claim.

Queen Emma, now isolated, sent for her sons by Aethelred in exile in Normandy. So it was that the exiled aethlings Edward and Alfred landed in England attempting to rally support. Edward landed at Southampton, attempted to move inland to Winchester and his mother, but was driven off back to his ships. It would appear that the population, now resigned to accepting Harold Harefoot as king, had no wish to have the issue of the succession muddied further. Alfred landed at Dover with the intention of moving towards London but at Guildford Godwin apprehended Alfred and his followers.

What happened next would blight the reputation of Godwin and his family, especially in Edward’s eyes. Perhaps wishing to prove his loyalty and trustworthiness to Harold, Godwin yielded Alfred and his followers to Harefoot’s men. Alfred’s men were disposed of and the unfortunate aethling was taken to Ely where he was blinded and died of his wounds soon after. Godwin was therefore implicated in the murder and when Harefoot died and Hardecnut eventually claimed the throne in 1040, Godwin was forced to assist in the desecration of the dead king’s grave. As punishment for the support that Harefoot received, all England was subjected to a harsh taxation from Hardecnut. Godwin had to answer the charges ranged against him and swore an oath that Alfred’s cruel fate was by orders of the Harefoot alone. He gave the new king a magnificent ship, built at great expense and tried to keep his head down.

Continue reading “950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss)”

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Between Two Worlds (Annie Whitehead)

“Between Two Worlds” by Annie Whitehead

My name is Annie; a few years ago, on my travels as a writer, I discovered an Anglo-Saxon lady. This lady really existed, but survived only as a footnote in history, and now I’m going to visit her.

Every morning after my kids had gone off to school on the bus, I would walk along a green lane, which took me between fields. At the end of the lane there is a cluster of dwellings, and, just out of sight, an old farm. Midway along the path, the way is darkened by trees and it was at this point on my walks that I sensed a little of what some folk describe as a ‘thin place’ where the old and new worlds collide. This bucolic and slightly ethereal location became the basis for my fictional village of Ashleigh, the home of Káta, wife of Helmstan, and secretly loved by Alvar the Kingmaker, earldorman of Mercia.

upper-slaughter
Upper Slaughter, where Alvar lived, as it appears today. Do you suppose Káta might recognize it? By Charlesdrakew (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today I am stepping through, metaphorically, into that other world, back to the year of AD963. I want to talk to Káta, and I have a message for her.

I know a little about her daily chores and I think I know where to find her. She will be in the bake-house, supervising the kneading of dough for the daily loaves, or she might be in the weaving-shed, working one side of the big loom. Ashleigh means ‘the clearing in the ash grove,’ and the village is surrounded on most sides by trees. Most people live in, or near, the enclosure but some live out in the woods. The houses are all made of timber, with thatched roofs, but inside I am surprised to see that the main hall has lime-washed walls, and is insulated with embroidered hangings.

Káta, wiping her hands free from flour, comes in from the bake-house, and gestures for drinks to be brought. She obviously doesn’t stand on ceremony, having come straight from working, but she thinks I don’t hear her add, “And bring the best cups.”

She glances round, and I can see from the way her gaze sweeps from corner to corner that she is assessing whether her house is ‘presentable.’ This lady is very house-proud.

She bids me sit down, and she stares at my feet. More precisely, at my boots. I always wear thick-soled walking boots when I come down the lane. She puts out a hand as if to touch them, and I am sorry that they are so muddy. She withdraws her hand. I look down at her leather, soft-soled shoes and I realise why she is so taken with mine.

“How often do you need new shoes?” she asks. “Mine do not last long, especially not at this time of year.”

I smile. How we take these things for granted in our modern world; my shoes will last me for years, whereas hers will wear through incredibly quickly. Being a shoemaker must be a lucrative job in the tenth-century!

When we have finished our drinks (she has given me wine; it’s too sweet, and I don’t drink in the middle of the day, but I don’t wish to offend) she will take me on a tour. November was blood-month, the time when the animals grown for food are slaughtered, and much of their summer produce has been preserved for the winter. Traditionally, they hang cheeses from the rafters – a hazard for tall people! She will need to keep a check on her personal store of dried herbs and plants, which are used for medicine.

“My duties are many. As lady, I must look after the folk who dwell on our land. I must nurse them when they are ill, bring food to those who are too elderly to fetch their own…”

“Like meals on wheels,” I say.

She shakes her head. Not in rebuttal, but in confusion.

In winter, they do not do much sewing, for daylight hours are short, but she assures me that they do mend their linens. She is proud of her beeswax candles – no smelly tallow for this lady!

Other things are purchased, such as crockery, and combs carved from antler.

“I would dearly love to ride to Chester to buy some new cups,” she says. I was right when I thought that she was house-proud.

She twirls her cup in her hands, but I notice she keeps her right hand hidden from view.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I won’t tell anyone about that.” (Although readers of the book are sure to find out its significance.)

brooch
An enamelled Anglo-Saxon brooch of the period – Káta was given one similar to this by her husband, Helmstan. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum. (AN1909.453 Jewelled cross pendant, gold and garnet, AD 600 – 700, Ixworth, Suffolk. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.) (Click image for further detail.)

She fiddles with a brooch. It is a present, she says, from her husband. It is enamelled, and she treasures it because it was a present from London, a place where she has never been.

“I have a message for you,” I tell her. Her forehead wrinkles and I add, “It is from Alaska.”

“Who is Alaska?” She holds out her hand, as if for a letter.

“Not a who. A where. Alaska is a place, across the sea. Lisl lives there. It’s a long way from here. Even the boat journey would take months.”

She shrinks down in her chair. “The longest journey I ever took was from my father’s house to this one. Have you been to this … Alaska?”

I shake my head. “No, but I would love to go one day.”

“Then you have met someone who has been there?”

I smile again. How to explain? In her world, only the written page, or word of mouth, can convey information.

Instead, I tell her, “Lisl says that in Alaska many of the folk there grow their own little patches of garden, and the homesteaders sell lots of their produce. Some of the villages there are small and really isolated and some don’t have proper roads into them.”

Káta barely raises an eyebrow. “So things are not so different in Alaska.”

“The weather is a little different. Lisl says there’s a chance you might run into a stray bear.”

Now she is horrified. “I’ve seen pictures of such things. Thank goodness we do not have bears here.”

I am rather glad that we no longer have wolves in this country, but I keep silent.

We walk past the wooden gate-house, no more than a viewing platform, really, and out onto a lane that is considerably busier in these times than it is in mine. Folk all know each other by name, and occupation, and there is much more of a sense of community than in the rural England in which I now live.

Káta says, “Is it like that in Alaska?”

I shrug and say, “I don’t know. I’ll ask…”

picea_glauca_taiga
White Spruce Taiga with the Alaska Range in the background. While we might be intimidated by traveling along some of the roads Káta would have been familiar with, she might find uneasiness in the vastness of this landscape. By L.B. Brubaker (NOAA photo [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Click here to see my review for the multiple award-winning Alvar the Kingmaker.

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, Discovering Diamonds Special Ward and Chill with a Book Readers’ Award.

whitehead-author-picShe has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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