In 1066, one of the most famous years in English history, three men were fighting for the throne of England: Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex; Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway; and William, Duke of Normandy. All three men had wives and in this new historical fiction trilogy, Joanna Courtney explores the lives of these three Queens of the Conquest.
The Chosen Queen is the first book to be published in the trilogy and follows the story of Edyth Alfgarsdottir, daughter of Alfgar, Earl of Mercia, and granddaughter of Lady Godiva. When Alfgar falls out of favour with the current King of England, Edward the Confessor, in the year 1055, the family are exiled to Wales. It is here that the fourteen-year-old Edyth meets and falls in love with the man who becomes her first husband – Griffin, King of all Wales. With unrest in the south of Wales, the chance of Viking invasions and the constant threat from the English side of the border, Griffin’s life is dangerous and uncertain – as he says to Edyth, he could be king for another twenty years or for just a few more hours.
When Edyth’s time as Queen of Wales eventually comes to an end, she finds herself back in England where she becomes caught up in the battle for the English crown. The childless King Edward has died, leaving Harold Godwinson as his successor, but neither Harald Hardrada of Norway nor Duke William of Normandy is willing to accept this. The new king needs a strong queen by his side, and Edyth, with her experience of the Welsh court and her family ties to both Mercia and Northumbria, is the ideal choice. The only problem is, Harold already has a wife…Edyth’s beloved friend, Svana.
The Chosen Queen is a fairly light historical novel and some readers may feel that there’s too much focus on Edyth’s romantic relationships, but I still found it quite an emotional and gripping read. It probably helped that I know very little about the Norman Conquest so most of Edyth’s story was new to me. With the story being told from a feminine perspective, I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Edyth’s relationship with Svana, Harold’s handfast wife who befriends her as a child. Svana’s marriage to Harold took place outside the Catholic Church, which meant there was nothing to prevent Edyth from also marrying him, and the novel explores how both women may have felt about this.
Whenever I read historical fiction, I like to know how much of the book is based on fact and how much has been invented, so an author’s note is always appreciated. At the end of The Chosen Queen there’s not only an author’s note, but also a section giving further details on some of the historical figures, events and terms mentioned in the book (this is in addition to a map and two family trees at the front of the novel). It seems that some artistic licence has been taken (there is no evidence of a friendship between Edyth and Svana for example), but this is understandable when writing about a time period so far into the past; only a limited amount of factual information is available, so some imagination is obviously needed to fill in the gaps.
What I don’t understand was why it was necessary to change so many of the characters’ names. The original names are listed in an appendix together with the modernised forms found in the book and while I can maybe see the sense in referring to Harold’s first wife as Svana rather than Eadyth Swanneck (to avoid confusion with the story’s other Edyth), changing Gunnhild, Siward and Burgheard to Hannah, Ward and Brodie felt unnecessary and pulled me out of the 11th century. I like to feel fully immersed in the time period I’m reading about and that never really happened while I was reading this book. Accuracy is important to me, but it’s not the only thing I look for in a novel – I also look for a good story, and I do think Joanna Courtney has a lot of talent as a storyteller. She made me care about Edyth and she kept me turning the pages until I reached the end.
After finishing this book, I checked Joanna Courtney’s website for details of the other two novels in the trilogy. The second will be about Harald Hardrada’s wife Elizaveta of Kiev and the third will be about Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror – two more women I know nothing about!
Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.