Harold the King, Helen Hollick
This is the second of Helen Hollick's books I have read. The first, The Hollow Crown, is set in the years preceding this story and tells of the life of Queen Emma, wife to two English kings. In this novel, Hollick continues the story of an England just prior to the Norman Conquest, focusing on Harold Godwineson, son of the Earl of Wessex and Earl of East Anglia in his own right. I found this novel absolutely fantastic and completely enthralling; I had a hard time putting it down. Everything that I have read about the Norman Conquest to this point had been only from the Norman point of view and it was eye-opening to see things from the English side.
Hollick begins the tale not long after the coronation of Edward (the Confessor). Harold has been made Earl of East Anglia and his family is in high favor with the King. The novel then follows Harold's life as he struggles with various family members and the moodiness of an unprepared King, spanning the years from the beginning of Edward's reign all the way through the Battle of Hastings in 1066. We see Harold rise, through his intelligence and honor, from Earl of East Anglia to Earl of Wessex (after the death of his father) and ultimately to King of England. The story is mainly told from Harold's view point but there are some chapters, especially later in the novel, that give us a look at events from different characters' perspectives. As the story moves towards it conclusion we see more chapters from William of Normandy's point of view, giving the reader a look at both sides of the conflict.
This was an amazing novel. Most people are familiar with the Norman Conquest but there is little that brings to life the politics and people leading up to that infamous battle in 1066, especially from the English perspective. This novel does that. The writing was superb, making these distant times and people come alive and almost leap off the pages. Hollick's descriptions of everyday life and duties, the Court, and people make it easy to picture in my mind. I feel the real strength in this novel, even more so than the wonderful descriptions and fantastic story, are the characters themselves. All the characters are wonderfully developed and each possess a very different personality - you can't help but hate or love them. Harold himself is a character like Sharon Kay Penman's Llewelyn or Richard III - he is quite aware of his human frailties, is ambitious but not overly so, is a man of honor, and is touching in his devotion to his hand-fast wife, Edyth Swannhaels, and his desire to simply be a husband and father. You can't help but love the man and constantly pull for his victory (though you know what happens in the end). It was hard for me to read the closer I got to the Battle of Hastings as I know my history and it broke my heart to see the path that would lead Harold to his destiny. As easy as it is to love Harold it is equally as easy to dislike his sister, Edith, his brothers Swegn and Tostig, and William of Normandy. His siblings are ambitious and greedy and will do whatever it takes to achieve wealth and power and Harold is constantly wondering how in the world he ended up with siblings such as these . I thoroughly despised his sister for her arrogance and selfishness throughout the story. Equally unlikeable is William of Normandy. He comes across as extremely ambitious, vicious and determined, and quite stubborn; I did not like him at all. Once he sets his mind on having the throne of England he won't let anything or anyone stand in his way. Edward is a wonderfully drawn character with many layers to his personality, making it easy to hate him for his weakness one moment, pity him for the fact that he is completely unsuited to be King the next, and then like him for a moment of kindness. Hollick's depiction of this king (who acquired the title "the Confessor" long after his death) is dead on - a man who should have been a monk or priest and is completely out of his element on the throne of England. I could write pages on all the wonderful characters that populate this story - Queen Emma, Edyth Swannhaels, Harold's younger brothers, Harold's parents, etc - but I just don't have that much time! Each one has their own special story and they all fit together so beautifully in the overall narrative. One character that I must mention is Waltheof, son of Siward. Fans of Elizabeth Chadwick will recognize this young man from her novel The Winter Mantle and I found it interesting to get a glimpse of him as a boy.
This novel that is a must read! I highly recommend it to any lover of historical fiction and especially to those interested in stories dealing with pre-Conquest England. It is a very large book but once you loose yourself in Hollick's exceptional writing you will wish the story was longer. If you enjoy Harold's story you will probably enjoy Hollick's "prequel" The Hollow Crown which is the story of Edward's mother, Queen Emma.