Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Guest Author, Helen Hollick on the History Behind Her Book -- I AM THE CHOSEN KING

I would to welcome guest author, Helen Hollick to History Undressed! Today, she has written a fascinating post for us on the history behind her book, I Am The Chosen King. I asked Helen three different questions, which she's graciously answered below...

Eliza Knight: Could you tell us a little about the research behind the book, particularly any unique, or intriguing findings?

Helen Hollick: I spent a year researching I Am The Chosen King (Harold the King is its UK title) I was undecided about what to write after completing my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, but the story of the Battle of Hastings and 1066 was stirring some interest – not least because Harold Godwineson is a local hero: as Earl of Essex he founded Waltham Abbey which is about fifteen minutes’ drive from where I live. His first wife came from a few more miles away. So I was rather attracted to writing about a man who could have walked where I could walk. (Unlike King Arthur who possibly never even existed!)

My mother, at that time, was the outings’ organiser for a local women’s group and she had arranged a visit to Hastings, a Sussex town on the south coast of England (for any of you who enjoy UK TV drama, Foyle’s War is set in Hastings) Part of the trip was a stop at Battle Abbey and the site of the Battle on the way. There was a spare seat, so I went along.

In 1066 there was nothing at the place except a steep hill, thick forest and marshland, now there is the remains of the Abbey Duke William built in penance for the number of deaths he caused. The old buildings are partially turned into a girl’s school now. The town that grew up around the abbey while it was being constructed is actually called Battle.

When we got there it was starting to drizzle with rain so all the ladies hurried into various tea shops and cafes. I went to the battlefield, determined to walk the site. As it turned out doing so in the rain was the best possible strategy because I had the place all to myself!

I won’t go into details of the history of the battle – the most famous in all English history - suffice to say the English, Harold and his men, had formed a solid “shield wall” of men along the top of the ridge, and Duke William’s Norman army was at the bottom of the hill. The battle itself lasted all day. (For more detail read the book! :-)

I started trudging down the right hand side, hands in pockets, head bent against the rain. Suddenly, the hairs on the nape of my neck prickled. I stopped and I had an overwhelming feeling that if I turned round I would see the English army arrayed along the ridge….. I missed the moment. When I did turn round there was nothing. All the same I have never forgotten the experience.

Soon after I had a vivid dream. I saw four men, Saxon noblemen by the style of their dress, riding alongside the river Lea. Three of them were arguing, the eldest, obviously the father, was reprimanding them. The dogs sent up a pair of ducks, but one of the men was looking across the river at something – someone – hiding beneath the trees. A moment later I saw a girl dart out and run up the slope of the meadow, her kingfisher blue cloak and fair hair streaming behind her.

I knew, without a doubt, that I had just seen Earl Harold, his father, Godwine of Wessex and his two brothers, Swegn and Tostig… and the young Edyth Swanneck who was to become Harold’s wife.

You’ll read the scene in the book. Chapter two.

Eliza Knight: Tell us about the history behind the setting of I Am The Chosen King.

Helen Hollick: The series of events that led to 1066 is rather a long and complicated story – hence the thickness of the novel! Perhaps all I shall say here is that Duke William of Normandy had no right to the English throne, that Harold was our last, legitimate, legally crowned English King, and he is the only King to die fighting to save his Kingdom and people from foreign invasion.

That makes him a hero in my mind.

I wanted to write Harold’s story; the story of the events that led to that fateful battle in October 1066, because I wanted to set the history – from the English point of view – straight. I was so tired of reading in history books that English history started with the Norman Conquest, that William was a great King, that the Normans had conquered a “dark age” backward, uncivilised, country. I wanted to unravel the Norman propaganda and write a novel that told a little more of what is probably nearer the truth.

Eliza Knight: I can't think of a better reason to write a book, and I do believe you nailed it! Is there any topic historical in nature, related somehow to the book, but that readers would find fascinating? Of particular interest to my readers are era-related food, fashion, mannerisms, scandals, lifestyles.

Helen Hollick: Scandals? Oh there was a huge one! Harold’s elder brother, Swegn, kidnapped an abbess and held her prisoner for over a year. It was Anglo Saxon Headline news for months!

Of course, we don’t know the actual details, and I personally don’t think Swegn, for all his reckless faults, was that stupid. I’m pretty certain he knew the woman, and it is quite possible that she never really wanted to be incarcerated in an abbey in the first place! Younger daughters were often “given” to an abbey as a nun basically as a way of buying God’s favour for the family. Widows, especially if they were rich, sometimes sought sanctuary in an abbey as a way of avoiding being pestered to remarry. For many it was a welcome escape, for others it must have been like being imprisoned.

I think it is very probable that Swegn and the abbess knew each other and he was attempting to rescue the poor soul. I use the episode in I Am The Chosen King though, so I’d better not give away any spoilers had I?

One thing to remember at this time, it was not considered wrong, or illegal for a man (especially a nobleman) to take what we would now call a “Common Law” wife. Their union would be a simple handfasting, not a wedding blessed in church, but the marriage would have been legally binding and any children would have been fully legitimate.

Harold’s first love, Edyth Swanneck was his Common Law wife for more than twenty years. They had at least six children. I thought it so sad when he had to set Edyth aside once he was crowned King… oh spoilers again! Sorry!

Ms. Hollick, thank you ever so much for posting with us today! I enjoyed your answers, and find that time period to be fascinating. Truly, I AM THE CHOSEN KING was a riveting and intriguing tale! I highly recommend reading it! And guess what? One lucky commenter today will win a print copy of I AM THE CHOSEN KING, so comment away!

Visit Helen Hollick at http://www.helenhollick.net/


Stephanie Dray said...

Having recently read that Helen Hollick allegedly invented a new genre of historical fantasy, I'm very intrigued ;)

Loni Lynne said...

Ms. Hollick,
I am fascinated by the idea of setting history on it's ear and making it a bit more real from a different view point. So many times I've asked myself--is this how it really happened? Who's ideals made history the way it is, as we read it? And the ever popular . . . "What if?" we us as fiction writers enjoy to play with in our stories. It sounds like a fascinating tale.

All the best,

Miriam Newman said...

I got this book from England and loved it! It was one of many I read in preparation for writing my own version of 1066, The Comet. Helen's version is absolutely fascinating. If you love the time period, you owe it to yourself to buy this book.

Helen said...

Stephanie, the new genre refers to my Sea Witch series, historical adventure fantasy with a touch of sailor's yarn *laugh*

Chosen King is straight Historical fiction.

Thanks for the invitation onto such a wonderful blog - all these fantastic books!