13 March, 2011

I Am the Chosen King, by Helen Hollick. Book review

First published under the title Harold the King, 2000.
Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-4066-9. 672 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Set in England and Normandy in 1043-1066, I Am the Chosen King tells the story of Harold Godwinesson and his handfast wife Edyth Swan-neck, and the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. All the main characters are historical figures.

Newly appointed as Earl of East Anglia, Harold, second son of the powerful Earl Godwine of Wessex, has a bright future ahead. When he falls in love with the sweet and beautiful Edyth Swannhaels (Edith Swan-neck) and takes her as his handfast wife, it seems he can look forward to personal happiness as well as power and wealth. But the weak king Edward dislikes Godwine, and Harold’s selfish and ill-disciplined siblings soon give Edward the opportunity to threaten the Godwine family with ruin. And across the Channel in Normandy, Edward’s adolescent kinsman William the Bastard is fast growing into a ruthless and battle-hardened warlord with a ruthless eye on England….

I have long had an interest in Harold Godwinesson, King Harold II, so was very pleased to see him as the central character in this densely detailed novel. Told in third person, I Am the Chosen King switches between England and Normandy, charting the build-up to the Battle of Hastings from both sides. Both Harold and William are fully developed characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Harold is the more likeable of the two, depicted here as kind, loving, considerate and competent, prepared to co-operate with others for the common good. William, emotionally scarred by a violent childhood, is harsh, ambitious, ruthless and not infrequently cruel, as he has had to be to survive and to win control of his duchy. William is used to making his own luck and achieving the impossible, and he has set his sights on a crown. Harold, by contrast, has greatness thrust upon him; he has no especial desire for a crown, but he is determined to do his best for the people of England. So the two men are set on a collision course that will culminate in a hard-fought battle on Senlac Ridge near Hastings in 1066 that will become the most memorable date in English history.

I Am the Chosen King is very long, and the political manoeuvring among the English nobility requires some concentration to follow. The first half of the book is rather slow, and is dominated by Harold’s older siblings and King Edward, all of whom make distinctly unappealing company. Edward takes after his incompetent father Aethelraed Unraed in all the wrong ways. Harold’s sister Edith is selfish and spiteful, his younger brother Tostig is self-righteous and grasping, and his eldest brother Swegn is an overgrown toddler who throws murderous temper tantrums. After a couple of hundred pages I was starting to feel that they all deserved each other, and possibly even deserved William. Harold and his sweet wife Edyth seem to be almost the only two pleasant, well-adjusted people in England, and their blossoming love story and happy family life stand in stark contrast to the rest of the family.

A strength of I Am the Chosen King is that it shows the Norman side of the story as well as the English side. Indeed, in the first half of the book William’s determined struggle to gain control of Normandy and then expand its power and gain independence from France makes a more compelling narrative than the bickering in England. One may not like William very much – as portrayed here, he would be a hard man to like, though his wife Mathilda manages it – but it would be difficult not to admire him.

The pace steps up a gear about halfway through the novel as we reach 1064 and events start to rush towards a confrontation. Harold’s ill-fated trip to Normandy in 1064 brings him into direct contact with William, and the two are already weighing each other up as potential rivals. Helen Hollick’s explanation for the mysterious event of Harold swearing an oath on holy relics is plausible, and explains William’s subsequent fury. From here, events crowd thick and fast. The Battle of Stamford Bridge is over in a few pages, possibly so as not to detract from the grand climax of the Battle of Hastings. The novel manages the remarkable feat of making the outcome seem genuinely in doubt right until the last moment – as of course it was to the people at the time, however well known to the reader.

The author helpfully uses variant spellings to distinguish between people with the same name, e.g. the three Ediths are Edith (Harold’s sister), Edyth (Swan-neck) and Alditha (daughter of Aelfgar of Mercia and Harold’s official wife). Family trees for the Norman and English aristocracies at the start of the book also help to keep track of characters, and the two maps will be useful to readers unfamiliar with the geography. A helpful Author’s Note at the end outlines the underlying history, explains how the author filled in gaps – more of them than you might think; 1066 may be a famous date but that doesn’t mean it was fully documented – and explains what happened to the major characters after the end of the novel.

Detailed recreation of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, with Harold Godwinesson and his handfast wife Edyth Swan-neck as the central characters.


Daphne said...

I like your assessment that they most of the family deserved each other - it's so true! I read the original Harold the King a few years ago and really loved Hollick's characterization of Harold. I"ve been a big fam of his ever since.

Misfit said...

Thanks for the excellent review Carla and I couldn't agree more. I am so glad to see this book become readily available again to US readers without paying an arm and a leg.

Carla said...

Daphne - thanks! I read the original and enjoyed it too. Poor Harold, how differently things might have worked out if (some of) his family had behaved differently.

Misfit - thanks, I'm glad you liked the review! It's good to see this back in print.

Kathryn Warner said...

Great novel, and great to see it back in print too.

Carla said...

Kathryn - yes, it's good to see it back in print.

Constance Brewer said...

Not my time period but you make it sound interesting enough that I might actually give it a try. :)

Rick said...

Wasn't Harold's own claim to the English throne a bit shaky? Or is that just some Norman propaganda I picked up along the way?

On a related note, secular eras have certainly given Edward the Confessor's reputation a drubbing.

Verification word: ousterr (!)

Carla said...

Constance - you may well be able to get the new US edition from a library. If you read it, I'll be interested in your thoughts.

Rick - Harold had a tenuous claim through his Danish mother, who was connected with Cnut's family. I haven't looked up the details, but it certainly wasn't strong. Harold was elected by the Witan, though, which had the right to choose the English king. William's claim, which came via his great-aunt Queen Emma, wife of Aethelrad and then Cnut, was also very tenuous. The strongest claimant by blood was without doubt Edgar Aetheling, son of Edward the Exile, son of King Edmund Ironside, son of Aethelraed Unraed, but Edgar had been born and brought up in exile in Hungary and was only about 15 in 1066. This would be a bit young to succeed Edward the Confessor as king, although England had had kings of that age before and it might have been manageable if Edward the Confessor had made a serious effort to promote Edgar as his heir-apparent. As it was, Edward expressed no clear decision (perhaps he was of the view that what happened after he died was not his problem to solve). He had invited Edward the Exile and Edgar Atheling back to England in 1057 so presumably regarded them as heirs or potential heirs, but didn't subsequently do anything about it; he may have promised the crown to William many years before (William claimed he did); he may have indicated on his deathbed that he wanted Harold to succeed him (Harold claimed he did). Maybe Edward changed his mind, or avoided making a decision because choosing any of the candidates would have annoyed somebody important and caused him trouble, or maybe he couldn't make his mind up at all - it may have been a problem with no right answer. In any event he left a confused situation. It must be at least possible that Edward could have done something more effective on the succession score. I wonder if Edgar Atheling could have been declared official heir and then become a figurehead king with Harold Godwinson continuing his existing role as a a sort of commander-in-chief. William would still have wanted the job, one imagines, and might still have come looking for it, but it would have been much harder to claim that Edgar was a usurper since he was Edward's closest male relative and directly descended from the House of Wessex. Who's to say?

Rick said...

Belatedly ... sounds like a general mess! And given that both William and Harald Hardrada were willing and ready to try good old fashioned conquest, it doesn't seem like any 'constitutional' arrangement would have changed things very much

Carla said...

Always hard to judge the what-ifs :-) Hastings was a near-run thing, as was (almost) said by another commander about another battle, and the outcome wasn't a foregone conclusion. If the English king couldn't be claimed to be a usurper and an oath-breaker - neither of which could be applied to Edgar Atheling - William may have found it harder to gain support, may have had fewer men, and fewer men may have made all the difference.... Conversely, of course, if one is going to play what-ifs, one should also recognise the possibility that the earls of England would have fallen out over who was going to dominate a young king, resulting in civil war, shambles, and William and/or Hardrada invading anyway. History happened as it happened, and you can't run the control experiment. I still think Edward doesn't score highly for decisive succession planning, though.

Rick said...

Nope - to the modern mind he is 'saintly' only in a distinctly negative sense. At the least an uncertain succession did not help things.