Book Review: 1066 What Fates Impose

From the author:

“The events of mid eleventh century may seem a long way away but the Battle of Hastings set England on a new course. In the early part of that distant century, England had been just one of the kingdoms in Knut’s Empire, which included Denmark and Norway. England was as much a part of the north as the other two. The language and culture were similar. England did not look south for ideas and remained aloof from Southern European affairs. After Hastings all this changed.”

“In 1066, England had a population of about two million people. Adults stood as tall as the English do today. By 1166 the population had halved and the average adult was three inches shorter. There had been neither famine nor plague. What happened was that half the Saxon population died at the hands of the Normans, and those who survived worked longer, paid more taxes and ate less. The English, under an apartheid-like regime, were denied access to positions of power and ownership of substantial amounts of land.

William had conquered; Norman civilisation had arrived.”

1066 What Fates Impose, by GK Holloway, is a work of historical fiction woven around well known facts. The main story opens in 1045 with the marriage of King Edward, son of the late King Ethlelred, to Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. It was to be the culmination of the Earl’s plans to establish his family at the heart of the English ruling elite. As well as his daughter he had six sons, all of whom would benefit from familial ties to the King. The marriage should have resolved the troublesome issue of succession. This was not to be.

In Saxon times the King ruled but required ratification from the Witan. This was a type of law court where the aristocracy, senior churchmen and landowners came together several times a year, in different parts of the country, to determine policy and to try criminals. Life was harsh and punishments severe but the rules were understood. The Witan also agreed who should be King.

The church, although influenced by decisions made by the pope in Rome, was still concerned with local affairs. Priests could marry and services were carried out in English. This too was soon to change. Key cardinalsĀ abroad were pushing for more power and autonomy, offering eternal life to their supporters in a world where death came easily.

“He shifted his gaze to the English clerics, looking at them with utter disdain. What a rabble they were, like shepherds, overly concerned with their flocks; too busy looking the wrong way, paying attention to the bleating of their woolly-minded parishioners to concentrate on what truly mattered: papal reform and the rule of Rome.”

King Edward was politically astute but felt closer to his French speaking Norman friends – he had lived in exile in Normandy for twenty-five years – than to the English with whom he now had to forge allegiances. Godwin and his sons were well liked in the south but further north and west trouble brewed. Although recognising their English King, the Saxon regions of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex had not long before ruled themselves. Their Earls remained powerful men, and fought for the rights of their families and allies to retain their positions.

The story follows the trajectory of the Godwins whilst taking certain liberties in order to create a compelling tale. As most fiction I have read from this era concentrates on the Normans, I found the details of Saxon history fascinating.

There are nuggets of information: how to forge a strong sword; the trade in slaves between Wales and Ireland via Bristol; the differing battle techniques of Saxons and Normans; manners and customs of the time; the continuing acceptance of certain pagan customs in a supposedly Christian land.

It is unfortunate that I found certain dialogue scenes at times almost facile. Story telling requires personalisation of historical figures but the conversation style felt simplified and often grated. Other than as objects for sex, especially to rape, the women barely get a mention.

The final quarter of the book deals with the summer of 1066. As may be expected, the tension mounts and, despite knowing what the outcome must be, this section remained engaging. The gruesome scenes brought home the realities and aftermath of a life where battles were a regular occurrence.

The author presents the Saxon way of life as violent but ordered. The Welsh, Scots, Norsemen and Normans bring devastation to the populace and this is reciprocated to protect the assets of their rulers. As with much of history, it is easy to draw parallels with other eras. Invaders have long regarded themselves as worthy, somehow better, and felt little remorse at slaughtering those who threaten what they believe is rightfully theirs. The graphic scenes in this book of the burning and pillage bring home what suffering war creates. That it may today be done remotely makes it no less terrible.

This was an interesting book to read. Whilst lacking the complexity and nuance of historical fictions such as Wolf Hall, it offers a snapshot of another time commonly written of, and from a fresh perspective.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.