29 September, 2006

The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans, by Peter Rex. Book review

Tempus Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-7524-2827-6

As attested by 1066 And All That, the date of 1066 is the most memorable in English history (and one of the book’s only Two Genuine Dates). But William of Normandy’s conquest of England did not happen overnight after the Battle of Hastings. It took William several years to establish his grip on his new kingdom, years in which various English and Anglo-Danish notables rebelled against him, sometimes with foreign help from Denmark and Scotland, and in which William put down the opposition with ever-increasing brutality. Yet this period of revolt and reprisal is rarely covered in accounts of the Norman Conquest. This study by Peter Rex covers the five years immediately following Hastings, from 1066 to 1071, and provides a valuable account of this neglected historical episode.

The English Resistance begins with a survey of the three battles of 1066. Gate Fulford was fought just south of York on 20 September, when Tostig Godwinsson and Harald Hardrada defeated Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. Stamford Bridge was fought east of York five days later, when Harold Godwinsson defeated and killed Tostig and Haradrada after a forced march from the south of England. Hastings was fought on 14 October on the south coast, when William of Normandy defeated and killed Harold Godwinsson (after Harold and his army had marched all the way back from Stamford Bridge). Casualties in all three battles were heavy, and Hastings in particular saw the death of many of the English leaders and thanes. After Hastings only three English earls survived, Earls Edwin and Morcar (who had not joined in the campaign, presumably having taken heavy losses to both manpower and military reputation after Gate Fulford), and Waltheof* Earl of Huntingdon, who was the son of Earl Siward of Northumbria and had good reason to dislike Harold Godwinsson after having been twice passed over for his father’s earldom (first for Harold’s brother Tostig, then for Earl Morcar).

The book then moves on to consider William’s policy for consolidating his new kingdom. At first his administration included the surviving English earls, churchmen and officials of King Harold’s government. Over the period of the study, the authority of the English earls grdually declined and administration of both church and state became progressively more Norman. The author draws an interesting comparison with the actions of the Danish king Cnut, after his successful invasion some 50 years previously, who co-operated with the surviving English nobility to create a combined Anglo-Danish state. William comes out of this comparison unfavourably, though the author states fairly that there is no way of knowing whether William intended to replicate Cnut’s policy and was forestalled by English rebellion, or whether William deliberately deprived the surviving earls of land and authority to provoke a rebellion and so destroy them.

An account of the various rebellions against William’s rule then follows, including the rebellions of Eadric the Wild on the Welsh borders in 1067-1069, raids made from Ireland by the sons of Harold Godwinsson, the revolt of the city of Exeter in 1067, and the rising in Northumbria in conjuction with a Danish army in 1069, which was followed by the brutal reprisals known as the Harrying of the North. The rebels used tactics that would now be called guerilla warfare, hiding in inaccessible areas of hills, marshes and forests, emerging briefly to attack Norman targets where they could do so with little risk, and disappearing back into their hideouts at any retaliation in force. The author suggests that some folktales of woodsmen and ‘The Green Man’ may be derived from these times, and that some of the tales may have contributed to the development of the legend of that most famous of outlaws, Robin Hood. The Harrying of the North was an effective counter to such tactics, depriving the rebels and the civilian population alike of the means of susbsistence.

Finally, the book gives a detailed account of the career of Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile (his more famous name Hereward the Wake does not appear until several centuries later), covering his part in the attack on Peterborough and the siege of Ely in 1071 and then dealing with his likely origins, parentage and earlier career.

The narrative is lively, with a reasonable balance between fact and speculation. The author does not use footnotes or endnotes, but for the most part he says in the text which source(s) he is working from and why. Occasionally the line between evidence and opinion gets blurred, e.g. when the author says “....Orderic Vitalis is well-informed as ever....” - as I am not an expert on this period, it isn’t clear to me whether that is the author’s opinion, or whether there is evidence that Orderic is really better-informed than the other sources. Similarly, when he says that support in Northumbria “would have tended to go to Tostig not Harold” (explaining the lack of Northumbrian contigents at Hastings), I would have liked more explanation of that remark given that the Northumbrian thanes had thrown Tostig out in decisive fashion only two years before and had shown no sign of wanting him back since.

Although the material is arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with 1066 and working forward to the siege of Ely in 1071, the author does not hesitate to skip back and forth between events that happened before and after whatever he is currently describing. Usually this is to illustrate a point by means of reference to an individual’s earlier or later actions, or to follow through a theme. But it does mean the reader has to pay attention. If your concentration slips for a couple of lines you’re quite likely to find yourself three years and five counties away, and will have to go back and re-read to pick up the thread.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Norman Conquest period may also find the large number of names and places daunting, and should find the maps and genealogies in the appendix helpful

There are lots of little-known (to me, anyway) facts in the book, which make it a delight for anyone interested in the period. For example, there is an excellent discussion on the process by which lands shifted progressively from English to Norman landholders, illustrated by the records of Hereward’s (probable) family, which I found the clearest explanation I have so far come across. The author also discusses variations in English and Norman custom - for example, he argues that Norman sheriffs had wider powers than English shire-reeves, and that the English and Norman view of oath-taking was quite different. He suggests that these might have contributed to the accusations of treachery and oath-breaking levelled at both sides, if each had a different idea of what the agreements meant. And apparently William introduced the offence of ‘murdrum’, which meant that any hundred in which a Norman was found dead had to either hand over the killer within five days or pay a fine of 40 marks to the king and 6 to the deceased’s relatives. From this, according to the author, arises the distinction between murder and manslaughter in English law.

The author draws a parallel between the situation in England after Hastings and the Nazi Occupation of France in the Second World War, and makes this something of a theme throughout the book. This parallel has occurred to me, and it is certainly a powerful image. I personally would be wary of carrying the analogy too far, and in particular I would question the use of terms such as “collaborator” and “Resistance”. I have my doubts as to whether the sides appeared as clear-cut at the time as they do to us now, looking back with nearly a thousand years of hindsight. Viewing Hastings as a conflict between ‘English’ and ‘Norman’ seems to me to be a modern view, treating it as a war between nation-states like the European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1066, though, England as a political unit was only about a century old, having been established by Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, in the 930s. The Anglo-Danish kingdom of York did not always sit easily under a southern monarch, the Danish population in England had suffered the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, and the wars prior to Cnut’s succession and after his death would have been within living memory in 1066. Loyalties of region, lordship, landholding and kinship, and obligations of blood-feud and vengeance, were probably at least as important to most of the protagonists as the relatively recent concept of ‘England’. Some of those labelled as “collaborators” may have considered Harold Godwinsson a usurper. Some may have suffered real or imagined insult or injury during the rise of the Godwin family to power and may have seen Harold as their primary enemy. Some may have remembered the faction fighting before and after Cnut’s reign and believed that William had a better chance of preventing a recurrence. Some may have seen William and his Normans as no more ‘foreign’ than Harold, who was Danish on his mother’s side. Some may have seen it as a private squabble between rival claimants to the throne and been happy to keep out of it until the outcome had been decided on the battlefield, after which they accepted the new status quo. Some may have regarded victory in battle as a sign of divine approval and taken that as proof that William’s claim had been just. So I rather think the author’s division of the English players in the drama into “Resistance” and “collaborators” may be something of an oversimplification.

The English Resistance is a fascinating survey of a neglected period in English history, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the Norman Conquest in particular or in conquest and its aftermath in general.

Has anyone else read it? Or have an opinion on any of the events and issues?

*Readers who read my review of The Winter Mantle may like to know that this is the same Waltheof.

28 September, 2006

Historical fiction and romance

For some reason, the terms ‘romance’ and ‘romantic fiction’ frequently have derogatory tones. This was commented on in the first episode of the BBC4 series on romantic fiction Reader, I Married Him [link], and is a regular source of comment and debate around the net.

Why does the term ‘romance’ have such a bad image? Snobbery, sexual stereotyping and prejudice are frequently cited. These have been cogently argued against elsewhere (e.g. Alyssa Goodnight, Grumpy Old Bookman, Romancing the Blog, to name but a few), and I have no more to add.

I wonder if part of the problem is one of definition. ‘Romance’ means different things to different people. In the workshop televised on Reader, I Married Him, I thought it was notable that each of the participants had their own idea of what constituted romance. My edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary offers the following two definitions that could apply to modern fiction:

A) prose or rarely verse tale with scene and incidents remote from everyday life, class of literature consisting of such tales;
B) love affair viewed as resembling tale of romance; love-story.

Now, these two definitions give me quite a different impression of the likely contents of a book. Sense A is romance in the sense that the film El Cid is a romance, in the sense that H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan and Sir Walter Scott wrote romance, and in the sense that Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, CS Forester’s Hornblower series and the James Bond franchise are romances. One might also use terms like ‘swashbuckler’, ‘derring-do’ or ‘adventure’ to describe them, or variants on ‘cracking yarn’. There may or may not be a love story in the plot, but if one is present there will certainly be a great many other things going on in the book as well, and the characters will be concerned with other activities and desires besides their relationship. This sense of ‘romance’ was in common use in the 1960s, when Hodder & Stoughton described John Buchan’s novels as romances in the jacket copy of Greenmantle, but is less common now.

Sense B is the more usual current sense. There seem to be numerous subtle gradations within it, e.g. the recent discussion here about historical romance versus romantic historical. I make the distinction on the basis of the relative importance of the love story relative to the setting and the rest of the plot. So:

  • historical fiction - may or may not have a romantic relationship as part of the plot, but if present the love story is a part of the plot and not the dominant element. Setting and historical events are vital to the plot, and character, motivation and incident feel as though they belong to that particular time and place.

  • romantic historical - a romantic relationship is a key part of the plot, but other elements of the plot are also important. Setting is important and character, motivation and incident are credible for the period.

  • category romance - a romantic relationship is the dominant feature in the plot, with any other plot elements and other characters being absent or secondary. Their relationship is the most important thing in the lives of the hero and heroine, and there will be a ‘happy-ever-after’ ending when they are happily mated. Credibility of setting, motivation, character, incident and plot are optional.

I don’t put these forward as hard and fast definitions. For one thing, they are nothing like specific enough to be useful except at the most generalised level. I do think they illustrate the pitfalls of discussing ‘romance’ without defining the term. Looseness of definition can easily slip into a circular argument: romances are all trash; Book X is good; therefore Book X is not a romance. Or, from the other side: Book X is good; Book X has a love story in it and that makes it a romance; therefore romances are not trash. Just alter the definition until it fits the argument. Other ‘genres’, such as historical fiction, crime fiction, science fiction, etc can be treated the same way. Books that the commentator likes (and are therefore ‘good’) do not belong to the genre being condemned, whereas books that the commentator doesn’t like (and are therefore trash), do.

What do you think?

23 September, 2006

Warriors of the Dragon Gold, by Ray Bryant. Book review

First published 1987. Edition reviewed: Caxton, 2001, ISBN 1-84067-384-2.

The novel is set in England, with excursions to Normandy, Brittany and Denmark, and spans the period from 1013 to 1066, ending on the morning of the Battle of Hastings. Most of the characters are real historical figures, including Aethelraed Unread (Ethelred the ‘Unready’*), King Canute, Queen Emma, Sweyn Forkbeard, Earl Godwin of Wessex, Hardicanute, Harold Harefoot, Queen Edith (daughter of Godwin and wife of Edward the Confessor), Harold Godwinsson (later Harold II), Edward the Confessor and Aelfgifu daughter of Aethelraed Unraed. In the last two-thirds of the book there is also a major fictional character, Cedric Cedricsson or Cedric Shieldless, friend to Harold Godwinsson and leader of his bodyguard.

Warriors of the Dragon Gold is a novel on a vast canvas, no less than the political history of England over a fifty-year span, from the last days of Ethelred to the eve of the Norman Conquest. It begins with the invasion of England by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, and ends with the twin invasions of England by Harald Hardrada of Norway and, days later, by William of Normandy. The novel explores the turbulent politics of this half-century of war, intrigue and murder, and the many threads that led up to William’s invasion. In his preface, the author states that he set out to explain a puzzling scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, where an unidentified lady Aelfgifu and ‘a certain priest’ appear once and are never mentioned again. The author identifies this lady as Aelfgifu ('Gifta'), daughter of Aethelred Unraed and half-sister of Edward the Confessor, and builds his tale on the premise that she holds the key to William’s conquest of England.

The vast scope of the novel and its enormous cast of characters makes for a rather sprawling narrative. The family trees provided at the beginning of the book are most helpful in keeping track of who is who. There is no one central character throughout the novel, and different people dominate as the narrative progresses. The first third of the story centres on Gifta (the back cover blurb implies that she is the central figure throughout, but this is misleading), and follows her flight into exile, the loss of her husband and most of her family, and the comfort she finds with a young priest. Then she disappears for well over 200 pages, and the story shifts to English court politics and centres on Canute, Earl Godwin, Earl Godwin’s son Harold and Harold’s friend Cedric. This makes for a complex and episodic structure. Readers who like a story structured as a three-act play centred on one key protagonist will probably find this novel hard going. On the other hand, it means there’s a range of characters for readers to identify with, which was just as well for me, because for some reason I didn’t warm to Gifta and was much more interested in Harold and Cedric.

The large cast means that only some of the characters are fully developed. Earl Godwin is a vital and powerful figure, dominating the middle third of the novel as he dominated the politics of the time. Harold Godwinsson is likeable and engaging. Cedric progresses from a shy teenager to hardened battle commander, and is the character who changes and develops most during the story. Similarly, some of the story threads disappear for long periods, or play only a small part in the overall narrative. Gifta’s espionage activities, which are supposed to be crucial to Harold’s defeat at Hastings, are never shown in the narrative. There is a mention that Godwin ‘had not handled the thread of Tostig’s life as carefully as he should’ - which is a great line - but the relationship between Tostig and his father and brothers is not explored in any detail. Yet Tostig’s decision to get Harald Hardrada to join him in invading England is surely one of the most far-reaching events in English history - if Harold Godwinsson had not had to fight both Hardrada and then William, at opposite ends of the country, within weeks of each other, the outcome at Hastings might have been very different. Overall, the book gave me the feeling of a trilogy or possibly even a series shoehorned into a single book by means of ruthless pruning.

There are some splendid set-piece scenes, such as Cedric’s duel with Olaf, the murder of Ethelred’s son Alfred, Harold Godwinsson’s successful invasion of Wales, and the poignant scene between the English warriors on the eve of Hastings. The cultural contrasts between Anglo-Danish society and Norman ways are well drawn, with a vivid description of a Norse earl’s hall and a Norse feast. Readers who like to play Hunt the Anachronism should be warned that there is a reference to Godwin’s tenants paying rent in pigs and potatoes, and the name Cedric is first recorded in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Since the name Cedd was certainly in use in the seventh century (Bede mentions an English priest of that name), it seems to me entirely possible that it might have been compounded with the common name element -ric to make Cedric and the compound happened not to be recorded, but it seems an odd choice of name for a major character.

A sprawling saga in a complex and fascinating period of history.

Has anyone else read it?

*The popular modern form of the nickname. Unraed means ‘Ill Counsel’ or ‘No Counsel’, a pun on Aethelraed which means ‘Noble Counsel’.

19 September, 2006

Romantic fiction series on BBC4

Thanks to everyone who commented while I was away. The recipe proved more popular than I was expecting, so I might make it a regular feature.

Following on from the e-zine The Romance of History, readers in the UK with digital TV may like to note that BBC4 is running a three-part series on romantic fiction, Reader, I Married Him, over the next three weeks. In the comments on the previous post here, Elizabeth Chadwick drew an interesting distinction between 'historical romance' and 'romantic historical', worth repeating here so that it doesn't get lost in the comments:

".....the romantic historical as opposed to the historical romance. I'd definitely count the latter as the category Harlequin stuff which is of variable quality. Not all of it is written by authors people who have got out the dressing up box in their front rooms for the
afternoon, but it does focus mainly on the hero/heroine relationship. Some of it is hilarious crud, some of it not bad at all. The romantic historical has wider themes and scope but will probably have a romance in it somewhere. Anya Seton, Dorothy Dunnett are two proponents of the genre. It's also where I feel I belong."

I'm rather hoping the BBC4 series might explore the subtle distinctions between various sub-types of 'romance'.

02 September, 2006

Pause in posts, a new e-zine, short story vote, and a seasonal recipe

Next blog post will be on or around Sunday 17 September.

In the meantime, here's a promising new e-zine on historical romance and historical fiction in general, The Romance of History. (Thanks to Susan Higginbotham for the link). The current issue has some pertinent observations on the Regency romance as represented by Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland, and an article on James Clavell's classic novel Shogun.

Skint Writer's short story competition has closed and votes are invited for the Readers' Choice prize. Why not wander over, take a look and cast your vote? There are some good stories among the 22 entries.

And this is the season for plums and blackberries in the UK, so here is one of my favourite recipes for anyone else out there who likes to make use of this seasonal bounty. This is a very forgiving recipe, so if you don't like or can't get blackberries you can just use 2 lb of plums instead, or conversely it works well with 1 lb each of blackberries and plums if you have a wild blackberry hedge begging to be picked.

Plum and blackberry compote

1.5 lb (approx 750 g) ripe plums
8 oz (approx 250 g) blackberries
3 oz (approx 75 g) sugar
a piece of root ginger approx 1" (approx 2 cm) cube

Stone and halve the plums.
Wash the blackberries.
Peel the root ginger and cut into fine shreds. (Stem ginger can be used instead and doesn't need peeling. I suppose you could use 1 tsp of ground ginger instead, but I haven't tried this).
Put everything in a large saucepan, stir, cover, and bring slowly to the boil over a low heat. Simmer 15 minutes. Or put everything in an ovenproof dish, cover, and bake for about 30 minutes in a moderate oven (anything from 150-180 Centigrade; you'll have to work out the Gas Mark and Fahrenheit equivalent yourselves, but this is a very forgiving recipe and is unlikely to mind).
Serve with ice cream, whipped cream or yoghurt as preferred.
Can be made in large quantities and frozen.