Rating: 5 Stars
I will be the first to admit that I am incredibly to hard to please when it comes to historical fiction. I love history so much, and consider myself pretty well-read on the subjects I love the most, that historical fiction kind of irritates me because it is authors making up conversations and shoving them in the mouths of people I admire. So, you imagine my trepidation over not just historical fiction, but ALTERNATIVE history. Under normal circumstances I could not imagine anyone messing with my Anglo-Saxons, Plantagenets, or Tudors, but to make their lives something completely different?!
I am fascinated by the Anglo-Saxons. From King Alfred, to Aethelstan, to Edward the Confessor, and all those in between. So too, does this fascination extend to the short-lived rule of the last two Anglo-Saxon kings: Harold Godwinson and Edgar (grandson of Edmund Ironside). While kingship was generally heredity, ultimately it was the Witan who chose the next king. What accounts we have indicate the Witan chose Harold, though he was only Earl of Wessex and not of royal blood. Edgar was still a teenager at the time, but the son of Edward the Exile, who was Ironside's younger son. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings and from there the Witan elected Edgar as king even though he was considered too young to rule (which is why they'd chosen Harold in the first place).
I have a love-hate relationship with the Normans, because I despise the fact that William the Bastard invaded the island I love so dearly and wrecked havoc on the people, towns, and countryside. On the other hand, without William coronation, would the Plantagenet dynasty ever have come to rule? Would we even know Eleanor of Aquitaine's name? Therein lies the dilemma.
I do not believe Harold a saint. It is entirely possible he had Edgar's father Edward the Exile - not to be confused with Edward the Confessor - murdered shortly after The Exile and his young family arrived in England on a summons from The Confessor. The Exile and his family had been living in Hungary for many years, he having settled there after the also-mysterious death of his father, Edmund Ironside - after which The Exile and his older brother, also named Edmund, were spirited out of the country and Cnut's grasp. But by the meager accounts we do have he was a just king who ruled well in his nine month reign and likely could have been good, maybe great. William, on the other hand, insisted he had claim to the throne and was determined to fight for it, reminding everyone that Harold swore an oath to him a few years earlier to support William's claim to the throne. It is very likely that could have happened, but that it was sworn under duress and Harold did so only to ensure that he and his men would live and make it back home. A promise can hardly be considered valid if the person swearing the oath is threatened with death. Unfortunately, while William was pressing his claim from Normandy, Harold's good-for-nothing (and some say insane) brother Tostig was tagging along with the mighty Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, also making his claim to the throne. Harold and his men claimed a huge victory at Stanford Bridge (along with the lives of Tostig and Harald, the last of the mighty Viking warriors), but after that is where things fall apart. Hearing of William's arrival, Harold marches his men straight for him at Hastings, without waiting for back-up or to give his men some rest before the next bloody engagement.
You might wonder what all this has to do with the book, and I will say, well, everything - because the events as I have described above are how history actually went, as far as we can ever really know. The premise of this wonderful little gem is that a series of authors provide their own takes on the year 1066 and COMPLETELY REWRITE HISTORY, sometimes in the most glorious of ways. Ways that made my heart so happy, that for a moment seemed so real. 1066 is one of the most important events in the history of Europe, if not the world. So may paths might have been altered if any number of events had a different outcome. The possibilities are almost endless and in this book we see several of those play out.
So, if I have thoroughly convinced you of how crazy I am about the Anglo-Saxons, then you can believe that this is a must-read. The book is broken up month by month accounts of how events might have occurred instead in 1066. A couple authors contributed more than once, so it was also interesting to compare one of their versions to another. One of the things I really appreciated was a brief summary of the actual history of that month that occurred before each new story. I feel like this is especially important for those who do not know a lot about 1066, so they are able to differentiate between what really occurred and what is a product of that particular author's imagination. It is also nice for people like me who do have that knowledge base but might need a quick refresher of a specific event. In addition, after each story there are two discussion questions to make you ponder further repercussions of the event you just read about. I feel like this was a nice touch, because as you start thinking about changing one outcome, it makes you realize how many other things afterward might be altered as well.
While the entire collection of stories is strong, there are a few that really stood out to me for various reasons and those are the stories I will highlight.
January 1066 begins with the story 'To Crown a King' by Helen Hollick. I appreciated this one right off the bat because it addressed Edgar directly. So often when I am reading books purporting to be the 'history of England', Ironside's death is glossed over and his sons and grandsons are often not mentioned at all. Ironside had been king of England, co-ruling with Cnut, sort of, when he died suddenly. He also happened to be the older half-brother of Edward the Confessor, the one who could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if he would have managed to have a couple children with his wife (not coincidentally, Harold Godwinson's sister) before he died. So, being that Edgar was Ironside's grandson, he was the true heir. But as I mentioned above in my not-so-brief history lesson, the Witan ultimately chose the king and Harold was their pick. Not so in this story though. Edgar voiced his strong argument and was ultimately chosen as England's next king, bypassing Harold altogether.
Another story of particular interest to me was "Emperor of the North" by Joanna Courtney. because it is an option I had never really considered before. My focus in all of my reading about 1066 had always revolved around Harold defeating William at Hastings. I had never before considered what might happen had Harald defeated Harold at Stanford, weeks BEFORE Hastings. But this is exactly what we see happen in this one. As a result of that victory for Harald (and unfortunately, Tostig), the Norwegians eventually succeed in taking the whole of France by 1070. Harald was no longer King, but Emperor. Still not an outcome I would have wanted, but intriguing nonetheless.
The biggest surprise (in two ways) came for me during the May/June 1066 story by Richard Dee. It is called "If You Changed One Thing" and dealt with time-travel. That was the first surprise. The second surprise was that I enjoyed it. I would have to say this might be my favorite story of the whole collection, which is kind of a big deal because they're all great and all have many strengths. This story is told from the perspective of a teacher talking with his students. They are discussing 1066 and the idea of going back in time to change the outcome, but then how that might impact their lives, if they would exist - basically the Butterfly Effect. A boy in the class says that his father's work involves a time machine and he would be able to go back to that fateful battle. His teacher does not believe him...and I will not spoil the rest. Just know that it has the perfect outcome, which also makes it a most-favorite.
Another unusual story is to be found in July 1066, "A Roman Intervenes" by Alison Morton. This was another completely unexpected idea that I think turned out well for the most part. In this author's re-imagining, there is a small country called Roma Nova, entirely independent - basically, Rome survives in this tiny little country where the people still worship Roman gods and they play secret and not-so-secret roles in keeping the peace so to speak. Again, I do not want to give too much away because it is a really wonderful little story, but the ending is quite pleasing for the pro-Anglo-Saxon sect.
There is so much history here and I really want to touch on every single story because they all paint very realistic portraits of so many outcomes, so many what-ifs, and I want to talk about ALL OF THEM. But this review is rapidly approaching one of my longest yet and I think that anyone who only has a passing interest in 1066 has given up long ago. So, I'll touch discuss one more. If you are really interested in absolutely EVERY thought I had while reading, you can check out the notes I made in my progress updates on Goodreads. There are 45 altogether. Just a warning.
In the chapter dedicated to the actual month, October 1066, "Hold England Firm" by Joanna Courtney, I will just say it was everything my Anglo-Saxon-lovin' heart could have hoped for in the real battle. If only Harold had rested his men. If only they had waited for reinforcements. If only, if only, if only.
Okay I lied. Sorry. One more story because it again highlighted Edgar as king and in all honesty that is how the succession should have gone anyway (forgive me, Harold, but at least you'd have been alive had they chosen him to begin with). Unfortunately in this story, Harold had still been killed at Hastings and Edgar chosen by the Witan. In November 1066, "The Battle of London Bridge" by GK Holloway, we see Edgar now as king and this makes all the earls around him uneasy, because he is young and untested in battle. They've been through Stanford and Hastings. They do not know if he really has what it takes. I touched on Edgar's back story previously, so I won't repeat it here, but I think some of their fears were legit. Yet Edgar and his father deserve to have their place in history acknowledged, and it is sometimes overlooked in the chaos and drama of the year. When I was first reading this, I thought of the other difficulties his rule might have presented. Off the top of my head I could not recall how old Edgar had been when his family were summoned by Edward the Confessor and thought it had been when he was in his teens. Language certainly would have been a huge barrier. But I went back and did a little research (yes, I research while reading. I am THAT big of a nerd) and found that it is generally accepted that Edgar was in England around 10 years or so. Thus, he would have been able to learn the language and the customs in that time. I like the issues that arise in this story, the idea that William defeated Harold and was still denied the crown, so he had to save-face with his men so to speak and continue pursuing it anyway - especially after they were promised plenty of plunder. After Edgar and his men are successful in driving back the Normans and defending London, there is a bit of an open-end to the story. At one point it was mentioned that Harold's widow gave birth to a baby boy, so that is something in the back of Edgar's mind. Here he is crowned, rightfully so, yet the dead king's wife has just given birth to her husband's heir - and her brothers happen to be powerful northern earls. That is how the story ends and you are left to imagine what might happen in the ensuing years. Edgar has fended off the Normans, and he might have to do so to his own subjects in the future.
Okay, so I know I have gushed and gushed about how much I adored this book and I do. It is very worthy of those five stars. It is not, however, without its flaws. There were certain phrases used throughout stories that struck me as out of place. Now, I may very well be wrong and these things are totally accurate - just more for me to research! In one story the phrase 'God save the King' was used and I was not sure that was 'a thing' in 1066? I was trying to find out the earliest known use of the phrase but could not find anything that was conclusive. The same thing occurred with the phrase 'step-mother'. I don't know for sure when this became common use and again found nothing conclusive.
Another issue I had was the spelling of names. It was mentioned in the introduction that each auther used the spellings they preferred - and the intro even includes the example of Edith being spelled in various way (Edith, Edyth, Aldytha, Svana, Richenda; 4%). It is confusing enough for newcomers to the subject to sort out all the people who have the same name, but to then have ONE person referred to in so many different ways? I think that could invite confusion. I do understand and respect why the decision was made. On the other hand, I think each story had its own distinct voice, while still meshing well with the others, that a little uniformity could have been a good thing.
So...I guess there is not much else to say except this is a must-read. This is one of THE defining moment in England's history. These tales are superbly imagined and told. And even if you are pro-Norman, you will still find stories of interest to you. Wonderful read, highly recommended.