I think it was an idea that evolved over time. I studied this period at university and had always wanted to write about it. As I began to develop the storyline and the characters, along with refreshing my knowledge of the period, I realised that one book that focussed solely on the events of the last quarter of 1066 would not do it sufficient justice. 1066 is relatively well known and provides a good hook for readers; what is less well known is what came after. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Normans. The trilogy gives me the chance to explore some of those themes and events.
What sort of (young) man is your main character, Thurkill?
He is a man that is the product of his father, Scalpi (one of the few non-royal Saxons that is recorded as being at Hastings). He has been brought up as a warrior, tied to the ancient traditions of honour and loyalty to his lord. This is evidenced by the shame he feels at failing to prevent King Harold’s death (spoiler!) and – even more so – that he survived the battle.
What was a huscarl?
Huscarl is a term that came into being following the influx of Danes in the early 11th century. It literally means household man (perhaps a more recognisable term would be a lord’s retinue). They served a number of administrative functions, especially as land holders, but most particularly as well-trained and (most likely) salaried warriors. They would form the core of the army, the rest of which was made up of the fyrd (the levy of farmers and townsfolk that each region was required to provide).
What is it about this period that so interests you?
Apart from always having been fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon period in general, I think it is particularly the seismic change that the conquest brought about (much more than the earlier conquest of 1016 under Knut). By the time of the Domesday book in 1086, something under ten percent of land in England was still held by Saxons. The ruling elite was effectively either killed or pushed to one side. I also find it fascinating that there has been no major Hollywood blockbuster on this period; while you can’t move for films about crusades, King Arthur or Robin Hood.
When Edward the Confessor died did he have a settled realm with only the succession in doubt?
Great question. The whole issue of whether Edward had offered the throne to William or not. I think England at the time was relatively settled (aside from power struggles between the Godwines and Edward in the early 1050s). Its wealth was part of what made it so attractive to William (and Harold Hardrada of Norway and Swein Estrithson of Denmark for that matter). And wealth only comes from stability.
I’m not sure the truth of the succession will ever be known for certain, but we should not forget that Edward had spent more than twenty years in exile in Normandy, that he never fathered a child with his wife (Harold’s sister) and that Harold showed indecent haste between burying Edward and being crowned – all in 24 hours.
Do you have sympathy for Harold Godwinson – he had the throne on Edward’s death, but he had Harold Hardrada and William of Normandy to the north and south?
Yes and no. To be fair to Harold, a double invasion at opposite ends of the country in the space of a month would have tested anyone but I think that he could have beaten William but for his (understandable) impetuosity. His daring and hurried charge north to take Hardrada by surprise at Stamford Bridge should have been enough to seal his reputation as a great general and king were it not for his defeat and death a few weeks later. It was a complete and devastating victory (having arrived in c.300 ships, the Norsemen needed only 24 to go home).
What about Hastings, though? By all accounts it was a close-run affair between two evenly matched sides, that turned on a couple of key events (the feigned retreat that led to the breakup of the Saxon shieldwall on Senlac Ridge). I believe that if Harold had waited another week in London (as his brothers advised), then he would have had time to gather an overwhelming force with which he could have beaten William. Perhaps he hoped to repeat the surprise of Stamford Bridge, perhaps he was incensed that the Normans were ravaging his own lands in Sussex, we will never know. But the more days that passed, William could only get weaker while Harold grew stronger.
You feature two great battles in the novel – Stamford Bridge and Hastings. How did you describe them both – did you stick to known historical fact?
Largely. I certainly use the key facts to set the basic framework, but then I like to weave in a few lesser-known facts. For Stamford Bridge, the story of the Viking holding the Saxons at bay on the bridge was only recorded some two centuries later in an Icelandic saga; so, who knows if it’s true? But it was fun to give Thurkill a role in his downfall.
At Hastings, the bit I had most fun with was Harold’s death. Everyone knows the arrow in the eye story, but I think that’s actually the least likely outcome. I chose to follow the most contemporary written account found in the Carmen De Hastingae Proelio. Much darker and way more gruesome.
Harold was clearly a talented commander and after his victory at SB and remarkable march south, came within a whisker of defeating William. What if the Normans had lost?
We would not have words like beef, pork and mutton in our language? I guess it’s one of the age-old counter-factuals of history. I guess it depends is the boring answer. If William had been killed, that might have put an end to Norman designs on England, though William had four sons who might have fancied a pop at the title. And then there were the Danes; they were never far away when the English throne was up for grabs.
That said, Harold was a capable leader and a proven general. He also had three grown up sons to follow him. There’s every chance our royal family might still be called the Godwinesons (OK – I’m stretching it a bit there).
What are you working on next?
I’ve taken a break from Thurkill to indulge my passion for the early Anglo-Saxon age. It’s a story set around Bamburgh dealing with the origin of the Anglian Kingdom of Bernicia. After that, I want to return to Thurkill and his next adventure; the withdrawal symptoms will be kicking in and I need to see what he does next.