What do most of us know about the year 1066? Generally, that Duke William of Normandy invaded England and defeated the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. And we know that it was the last successful invasion of Britain, even though both Napoleon and Hitler considered it.
Marc Morris published a bestselling and well-received history in 2013, The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. Peter Ackroyd included a large discussion of it in Foundation, the first volume of the history of England (I reviewed it here). But never have I been so captivated by the story of the invasion than I have by reading the gripping historical novel 1066: What Fates Impose by British author G.K. Holloway.
1066 is everything a really good historical novel should be.
First, it’s meticulously researched. At times I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a novel or an extraordinary first-hand account of the invasion and the 20 years leading up to it.
Second, virtually all of the characters are historical, with personalities derived from the research. At the center is Harold Godwinson, who becomes King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon monarch of England. Holloway’s Harold is essentially a good and decent man who’s sometimes naïve enough to be taken advantage of. His nemesis is William, painted as a duplicitous, conniving villain eagerly embracing any lie (and transmitting those lies to the pope) to accomplish his designs.
Holloway includes a large host of supporting characters – earls, queens, thanes, family members (the Godwins had sons and ambitions aplenty), and more. King Edward, the childless monarch who preceded Harold, may have been known as the saintly Confessor and built Westminster Abbey, but he left his kingdom in the most dangerous position of all in medieval times – without designated heir.
Third, by beginning 20 years before the invasion, 1066 gives us the full context of events. We come to understand how Anglo-Saxon politics worked, and it was all about family and title and bloodlines. We see the intrigues and jugglings for power. We realize that the Norman invasion of 1066 was only the second one that year, with the last great Viking invasion arriving in the north of England shortly before William sailed his army across the channel. We scowl at the role venial churchmen played, working their own power games.
And fourth, 1066 tells a rollicking good story. There’s romance and betrayal, heroism and foolishness, kindness and brutality. Holloway excels with the battle scenes; they are riveting in all their gory excitement and splendor.
Holloway received a degree in history and politics at Coventry University. He worked in career counseling, student welfare offices, and adult education, before turning to research and writing. He was a contributor to . His research for 1066: What Fates Impose took him to York, Stamford Bridge, Winchester, Bosham and Stowe Anglo-Saxon Village in England and Falaise, Mont St. Michel, and Bayeux in Normandy.
1066 is a big historical novel and a big historical event. It tells an enthralling story.
Top illustration: A painting of Harold Godwinson, King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England who died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.